From the Archives // And That Was New York

As a lover of cities—of the pavement and the steel, of the bustling shops, the rushing people—I have been wanting for sometime now to put down in words my experience of that ultimate metropolis, Manhattan.

The simplicity of that phrase—New York, New York—belies the sheer enormity of what it signifies. New York can never be just a dot on a map, a confluence of islands and waterways at the point where New Jersey, Connecticut and New York State converge. It is more than the streets that, unlike the spidery web of a medieval city like London or Paris, assert themselves on the landscape in a stark, mappable grid.

I have hesitated because I feel that my knowledge of the city, after just five visits of no more than a week each, can only be very scant. I have never left the comfort zone of Manhattan to explore any of the unique boroughs, never in fact taken myself further uptown than 104th St and the Museum of the City of New York, or to any part of the West Side above the High Line elevated park. With that disclaimer, I can only present my vision of the city as it has presented itself to me, as a place that, impudently for someone who grew up more than ten thousands miles away, I would call a kind of home.

This sense of familiarity may be experienced perhaps by anyone who has ever watched a Woody Allen film, seen the images of John Lennon’s New York years, or listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street. My sense of the city was shaped by these, and by the artists and poets who comforted me through the aches and buoyed me through the highs of young adulthood. There are Catcher in the Rye and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing, with its depiction of the crushing heat of New York summer. There is the broken longing of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2, and the self-assured thumb biting of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’. There is the image of a young Dylan arm in arm with Suze Rotolo in Greenwich Village, warning off the cold with that iconic tan jacket and the comfort of spontaneous affection. Most of all perhaps, there is Bruce Springsteen, who revealed to me the aching, tainted beauty of an abandoned railroad track, a rusted fire escape, of rumpled sheets damp with sweat. These have been the conduits for my senses of belonging, fulfilment and voracious hunger, tying them inextricably to the idea of New York.

You cannot find New York in the hollow glare of neon lights in Times Square, nor will rising above the grid to one of the tourist-thronged observation decks reveal to you the tangible core of the city. Rather, the metropolis will gradually divulge itself through small and scattered experiences, fleeting moments and encounters. It is in the catcall of a construction worker on Park Avenue, in the warm glitter of a lighting shop window in winter, it is in the eyes of children skipping through the fountain in Washington Square.

It is a city of contradictions, made possible by the endless variety of inhabitants and the rapid and complete change in tone from area to area, street to street. It is at once harsh and warm-hearted, a place where a haughty-seeming Madison Avenue woman in fur will kindly offer directions to the bewildered tourist unasked, but a moment’s fumbling of change will earn you the terse rebuff of the convenience store clerk. Bustling and overwhelmingly frantic at any hour of the day, the city is also punctuated by serene oases and public spaces, like Bryant Park, the High Line, the main reading room of the New York Public Library, the rooftop at the Met and the courtyard at MoMA.

I have been fortunate enough to see New York under many of its guises – I have seen the city under a blanket of snow and felt the biting chill of the wind rushing down the avenues, I have seen it fine and clear and warm, cloudy, rainy, experienced the sweltering heat and humidity of July, felt the suffocating build-up of a thunderstorm and watched the clouds break, hailing a cool change. I have seen the Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and seen it bedecked with red, white and blue flags for the 4th of July. I have seen the doormen of the Upper East Side clad in heavy winter coats, and the children of the Village in flip-flops and swimsuits.

I have had my fill of the city’s tourist sights, museums and stores, and relished in these encounters. But my most powerful experiences of the city have been those few fleeting moments when I have stepped into the real life of the metropolis – I have plunged into the subway system in summer, where the hot air hits you with literally breathtaking force, and jostled with commuters at rush hour for a hold on the sweaty rail. I have drunk vodka on the rooftop of a block of apartments on the East Side below Midtown, with an uninterrupted view of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, steadily glowing green on a warm, clear evening. I have sat in a bar in the Lower East Side on a Sunday night and joined in conversation with the local residents who dropped in for a solitary beer and the company of the bartender, aware of their cliché.

To return each night to a nondescript hotel room after these moments of urban participation, passing glimpses of an alternate life through the open blinds of lit apartments or the rolled-down windows of yellow taxis, fills you with an unutterable sense of longing. It is a love affair for which the end is already mapped out. It is as if you had borrowed, for a brief time, a friend’s diamond necklace or expensive car, and felt the thrill of admiration and the inner-glow that it affords you, and that now must be returned. You can only hope that one day, you will be able to cast off the pall of pretence, and call those pavements, those bits of brick and tufts of grass, and that skyline, just a little bit, your own.

Longform // Mnemonic: Street Art and the Invocation of Remembrance

Miso street art Melbourne paste up

Street art’s power to invoke urban remembrance operates on dual levels: at the collective, artworks prompt the revelation of the city as accumulated,memory-laden residue; at the individual, many pieces have the potential to trigger recollection of personal city experiences and of personal pasts more broadly.

First, to examine street art’s role in collective memory. As popular awareness of the presence of street art increases, neglected city space comes under revision in the eyes of city dwellers. Graffiti and street art are almost always associated with neglected or forgotten space — abandoned structures, inaccessible or off-limits zones, secluded places, or interstitial spaces like train lines, fences, and walls.

In Melbourne, this enlivening of urban space has been most evident in the central city’s laneways, where much of Melbourne’s most sophisticated and most viewed street art is created. Originally rarely even noted on maps, these narrow alleys and lanes were built to service the greater streets of Melbourne’s 1830s grid; their concealed presence and public neglect (until tourists discovered them) has made them ideal places for artists to put up unsanctioned stickers, posters, stencils and pieces in privacy.1 Now, where once dwelled only rats and garbage cans, Melburnians sit at hole-in-the-wall bars, cafés and restaurants. It is no coincidence that changes to the licensing laws in the nineties were concurrent with the rise of stencil art in Melbourne.2 Along with unsanctioned street art, official public art programs — such as the Laneway Commissions — facilitate the development of the laneways.3 Under these influences, the once lost spaces of forgetfulness are reinvigorated and reaffirmed as lived spaces in which colourful graffiti art has become, for a segment of the population at least, a prized aesthetic; the laneways are now populated well into the night.

Alongside the rediscovery of forgotten urban spaces, it is also in the nature of all street art to reveal anew the very textures of the those spaces: walls, the basic but often unseen building block of the urban environment, become newly visible when painted or pasted upon, revealing the peculiarities etched into their façades by time. Urban dwellers cognisant of the city’s embellishment begin to walk the city in a different manner: their gaze becomes conditioned to seek textural detail, increasingly receptive to these physical landscapes of the past and of the past’s reworking. Continue reading

Urban Art at Adelaide Central Market

Adelaide’s Central Market has long been a centre for the bustle of life in the city. Five days a week, the Market is flooded with people darting from stall to stall to stock their trolleys and baskets with South Australia’s beautiful fruits and vegetables, cheeses, nuts, breads, pastries, dips, olives, sweets, meat and fish. Traders call out their specials, their voices booming over the bubble of chatter and bargaining of customers. On weekdays, the city’s workers descend upon the Market’s cafés, enlivening a day at the office with the fragrances, sounds and tumbling fresh colours of the place that has earned its spot at the heart of South Australia’s famous world of gastronomy.

It is appropriate then that the market, as an epicentre for urban activity, has recently become a focus for Adelaide’s burgeoning urban art scene. The market’s internal brick walls have turned canvas, providing a platform for street artists to add a vibrant layer of contemporary colour to the building, which has been home to the markets since 1900.

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Another’s Urban Noise

IN THE ABSENCE OF TIME AND THOUGHTS to spare, Simon and Garfunkel’s A Poem on the Underground Wall.

The last train is nearly due,
The underground is closing soon,
And in the dark deserted station,
Restless in anticipation,
A man waits in the shadows.

His restless eyes leap and scratch,
At all that they can touch or catch,
And hidden deep within his pocket,
Safe within its silent socket,
He holds a colored crayon.

Now from the tunnel’s stony womb,
The carriage rides to meet the groom,
And opens wide and welcome doors,
But he hesitates, then withdraws
Deeper in the shadows.

And the train is gone suddenly
On wheels clicking silently
Like a gently tapping litany,
And he holds his crayon rosary
Tighter in his hand.

Now from his pocket quick he flashes,
The crayon on the wall he slashes,
Deep upon the advertising,
A single worded poem comprised
Of four letters.

And his heart is laughing, screaming, pounding
The poem across the tracks rebounding
Shadowed by the exit light
His legs take their ascending flight
To seek the breast of darkness and be suckled by the night.

Essay // Winter City, Warm City: Melbourne

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O WINTER…I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded though thou art!…
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, homeborn happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long interrupted evening, know.

These lines are from British poet William Cowper’s ‘Winter Evening’ of 1785, which Adam Gopnik quotes in his 2011 Massey Lectures series Winter: Five Windows on the Season. I cannot but borrow the reference by redacting the poem to a few lines, for it is more than apt for my current subject, winter, and for the subject of this blog, which can be no better described than by the phrases ‘intimate delights’ and ‘homeborn happiness’.

This post will be—hopefully—the first of my own essays on winter (short, hurried, and incomparable to Gopnik’s though they will be!) centred on the moods of the cities I have had the pleasure to visit during the ‘off season’. Although those of you in the springing Northern Hemisphere will feel seasonally off-kilter, you may also sense more keenly the idea of winter, which expresses itself so intensely in your climate.

— ♦ —

HERE IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, winter is rapidly approaching. In Melbourne, commuters have brought out their black overcoats, students have brought out their black tights and black skinny jeans, and we’re all getting ready to have our black umbrellas and black boots on permanent, stoic stand-by in dampening, darkening hallways. That’s not to say that the mood is black. Melbourne—I think, at least—thrives on winter, just as Sydney seems to do on summer.

For me, Melbourne winter means sharp emphasis on the bleakest aspects of student life: in share-houses, showers must be short if you want them hot; heaters are most usually placed off-limits by the most frugally-minded in the house and their non-use rigidly enforced; big batches of soup suddenly appear in the fridge and must be eaten at a succession of monotonous meals; and in dryer-less homes, clothes are eternally, fatalistically, drearily damp. In their humble way, these domestic winter concerns epitomise the first of two paradoxes of the season, for while they are grim, they are also certainly romantic (in written idea, if not reality) for a section of the city’s 20-somethings who naively search for quintessential experience.

The idea of winter as bringer of romance seems age-old. It has, at least, been with us since the innovation of various givers of comfort (window glazing, effective heating, electric lights, downy jackets and the like), which is to say that it is rather a modern notion after all. The comfort of within is not possible without its opposition, and both must be embraced for each to have full meaning: what is the consolation of a roaring fire and a hot beverage unless, baby, it’s cold outside?

Of course, much of the memory-rich romance of winter comes from the cultural dominance of the north, and images of a mid-century northern childhood (in which it is perpetually Christmas) most of all: snow, frosted windows from which to peer at the snow, toboggans upon which to hurtle through it, snowmen in tartan scarves, fathers in knitted jumpers, lights on trees. (Personally, all of this is inextricably tied to my formerly intense fondness for Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which newcomers Dick and Dorothea join the rest of the gang, bundling themselves into woolens and spending the season joyfully building an igloo. For a while there, being a British child of the 1930s seemed to me the most acute and impossible of aspirations!)

In the Southern Hemisphere, we have no such wintry traditions to fall upon, no cultural memories or customs that can universally and instantly conjure winter warmth for the soul. There must be something, then, far more intrinsically pleasurable and quixotic about winter than these snow-glutted images suggest, for Melbourne still hums in the glum above-zero-Celsius rain. The city neither retreats grumpily indoors nor remains too-optimistically in the streets, for there are public events and personal endeavours to be found in and out. This is the season for traipsing cosily through the National Gallery’s much-loved yearly Winter Masterpieces exhibition, as well as for sitting under a poncho at the football with a cup of tea in shivering hands. This is the season for catching up with neglected books, and for taking spritely walks with turned-up collars through the city’s gardens.

Perhaps part of the pleasure of winter is the achievability of its goal: where summer is about becoming less uncomfortable—escaping the heat, healing sunburn, and resting hot heads—winter is simply about becoming comfortable. Melbourne is not a pleasant place to be in the height of summer; on an airless tram in January, there must be more than a few minds longing for the southern signifiers of the winter months: a solid spate of rainy days, fires in pubs and the resurgence of dark ales and warmed ciders, blooming camellias in the Botanic Gardens, and the leaves of plane trees making carpets of the streets.