Expect a revamp of this site in the coming weeks; meanwhile I’m posting to http://the-unreal-city.tumblr.com/.


Kips Bay Towers, I.M. Pei 1961-1963; photo: the unreal city


Busytown is Indeed Busy

A brilliant deconstruction of Richard Scarry’s Busytown, the setting of many of Scarry’s most popular children’s books featuring anthropomorphic animals and food-shaped cars, from transportation engineer David Levinson sheds some light on the socio-economics and infrastructure behind a place that is, on reflection, indeed quite busy.

Above, the colorful but questionable mechanics and politics of energy production in Busytown, as seen in the 1968 What Do People Do All Day? Below, some alternative vehicles from Cars and Trucks and Things that Go (1974).

Eat Cake and Share it, Too


An article in the Times today reminded me of the photo above of a public service announcement posted in Hamburg, Germany. It reads something like:

The City of Hamburg asks you to please always have a few coins at the ready for panhandlers and buskers.

You are helping to promote their social acceptance and are therefore making a positive contribution to solidarity in social coexistence.

Interesting to even try to translate that one. What an alternative to the question at the core of the lawsuits being filed by the homeless in cities in the United States that have begun enforcing bans on panhandling. Says the article: “In many cases, the dispute over panhandling centers on whether a city’s efforts to criminalize aggressive begging to protect pedestrians and businesses ends up overreaching.” There is certainly a longer discussion here of the role of the city in regulating the activities, economic and otherwise, that are happening on its streets.  But instead, only a question: Whose interests are most important to protect?



 Sharing is caring. Spotted on Kenmare St., NYC.

Hamburg photo via Facebook .


The View from the Road

“Ugly roads are often taken to be one price of civilization, like sewers or police. The boring, chaotic, disoriented roadscape seems to be the natural habitat of that useful but awkward monster, the American automobile. From this point of view we spend too much of our lives in the car. It would be better to arrange cities so that everyone could walk to work, or to let automobile devices take the wheel, so that we could pull the shades and watch TV.

The authors take a different position: road-watching is a delight, and the highway is–or at least might be–a work of art. The view from the road can be a dramatic play of space and motion, of light and texture, all on a new scale. These long sequences could make our vast metropolitan areas comprehensible: the driver would see how the city is organized, what it symbolizes, how people use it, how it relates to him. To our way of thinking, the highway is the great neglected opportunity in city design.”

-Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, John R. Myer, View From the Road, 1963



Industrial Scale Garbage


Eight thousand pounds of food is about twenty feet long and seven feet high. It is the leftovers from Brooklyn neighborhoods piled “like lasagna,” I was told, here on the Gowanus Canal. Much of it even looks almost good enough to eat. The food that arrives still intact needs to be chopped up, because most of what we no longer want to eat still takes quite some time to get eaten by nature. Whole watermelons are the most satisfying to chop with a shovel; whole limes are the least. Tiny, rolling targets with an explosive, citrusy denouement. Every bin of food scraps opened revealed something about where it came from–ten avocado skins must mean a big batch of guacamole somewhere in Park Slope, an entire bag of produce a missed CSA pickup in Williamsburg, the still-fresh cut flowers maybe from an unsuccessful dinner party in Fort Greene.


Gowanus does garbage at an industrial scale. Scrap metal, crushed glass, plastic bag tumbleweeds, buried oil slicks, thousands of gallons human waste. The land around the canal itself is confusingly, sometimes dangerously, made of trash filled in over decades–and sometimes overnight. One of the many ways the Gowanus Canal has served Brooklyn’s nearby neighborhoods has been as their dump. Now, loaded onto a truck by city workers and volunteers the day before at four farmers markets in nearby neighborhoods, one Sunday a month four tons or so of organic waste gets dumped here, too. But with a little push by even more volunteers who love to see the carefully-monitored lasagna-like layering of greens and browns transform decay into something not just nitrogen-rich but productive in a different way, the promise of regrowth along the canal does seem like something you can almost taste.


Reposted from the Gowanus Almanac, a project of Thread Collective.

Industrial Typology: Gowanus


One of the things that attracts my attention in cities all over are the leftover spaces where things were once made. The faded grit and glory of a city’s formerly industrial buildings and districts have an aesthetic appeal in their decay—a theme that has attracted many an artistic and entrepreneurial eye. Perhaps because of this appeal (along with their general undesirability and low rents), the buildings that once housed large-scale manufacturing, warehousing, markets, and other functions of a city’s industrial past have over time frequently become homes for new types of creative and productive activity. Spaces and places that appear to be neglected and disused are often teeming with new life. With little or no renovation, generations of artists, workers, small businesses–producers of all kinds of things–have moved into cities’ industrial lofts, warehouses and factories, either alongside or replacing more traditional industries. In this way, the industrial infrastructure of so many cities has provided ongoing support for growth and innovation, even while larger interests and policies assume these spaces and activities are dead.

Love Letter to Brooklyn


Artist ESPO penned a “Love Letter to Brooklyn” on the walls and ramps of a garage in downtown Brooklyn. The garage belongs to Macy’s; the department store commissioned the work. ESPO is Steve Powers, a graffiti writer who is known for making poetry larger than life, in a graphic, block-letter style that plays with language and imagery that offer a kind of nostalgic take on the advertising and signage that once adorned the urban landscape that now forms his canvas. It’s good stuff.

In a strange series of events, I spotted this work for the first time while on my way to a public tour of the Brooklyn Detention Center, newly re-opened just down the block. An entirely different way to see eternity.


All’s Fair in Love and Brooklyn, photo by Luna Park via thestreetspot.com


Always a good companion for sleuthing, the internet led me from ESPO’s exteriors to his interiors:


ESPO in his studio, photo by Todd Selby via theselby.com


Public Transit Rules

How incredible is the Stockholm Subway? Why have I never seen images of it before? The Coolist has a little post about great metro stations around the world, and while I’m pleased of course to see the dramatic shots of the Washington, DC system, MAN. I would like to pay Stockholm a visit just for the exposed bedrock experience of the blue line.

On Gowanus


From Superfund to sludge parks, I’ve missed many opportunities to chronicle my life in Gowanus these last few months. Why start now? Here are pictures instead of words, and a link to an article on the Whole Foods site and another to the future home of the Pratt studio’s framework plan.


Photos from this time last year on the Gowanus Canal.

Every Building

Every building footprint in New York City. Data source: New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunicatons.

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