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 // Paste-ups: from street to gallery

For anyone interested in the shifting, ephemeral face of city surfaces — as I am — the paste-up has particular resonance. Paste-ups are the epitome of ephemerality. Between pastings and as existing posters perish, paste-up sites come to resemble modern collages or a paper form of the archaeologist’s stratum; the suggestions of text and image become visible in part as the layers are torn away. To me, the stratum represents a temporally condensed equivalent of the overlays of paint and wallpaper in a period home which, if peeled back, reveal the evolving decorative tastes and economic standing of subsequent generations of the building’s occupants. Like layered advertising posters, the sanctioned cousin of the illegal paste-up, their content discloses the concerns of the urban inhabitants, concerns often as ephemeral as the posters themselves: commodities, events, political agendas, values, aesthetics.

Also like advertising, the images are infinitely reproducible: constructed in a studio and able to be rapidly wheat-pasted to any wall, paste-ups (like spray-painted stencils) enable the artist to bombard the city with a repeatable message or to transport a particular look to different urban centres. Yet the impact of different sites, different natural patterns, and of different public interactions and responses will imbue each image with a unique lifespan and patina of ageing.

The human process of layering the new upon the old and the natural processes of deterioration are a conscious interest for many street artists, who embrace the impermanency of their art form. In an exhibition in June 2011, titled L’inconnue de la rue (the unknown girl of the street), Rone created a series of works using torn billposters as canvases. The images on the posters themselves were created through a screen-printing process of layered paint colours. Multiple of these posters were pasted together, one to the other, as they would naturally be covered over in layers in the street. The artist then drew his fingers through the damp layers of thin paper, tearing and ripping into the surface, creating an instant, manufactured version of the weathering and disintegration that the posters would undergo while pasted on a public, outdoor wall. Continue reading

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

Longform // Inscribing memory: graffiti and the urban memoryscape

THE FIELD OF URBAN MEMORY, as Mark Crinson suggests, ‘indicates the city as a physical landscape and collection of objects and practices that enable recollections of the past and that embody the past through traces of the city’s sequential building and rebuilding.’[1] Architecture and objects in city space are the physical repositories of the lived experiences of past inhabitants and visitors.

The city as palimpsest proves a particularly useful metaphor for the role of graffiti or street art in the formation of urban memory: in decorating (or defacing) the street, the city’s occupants inscribe — quite literally — their mark on the city walls. As they fade, these marks form a residue upon the city surface, becoming tangible evidence of a non-tangible experience of the city. For architect Aldo Rossi, the city itself is the ‘collective memory of its people’ — its identity or soul is formed by the accumulation of these traces of history.[2]

Textured graffiti wall

palimpsest — n. 1. a manuscript or piece of writing on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. 2. something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Origin: mid 17th century, via Latin from Greek palimpsēstos, from palin ‘again’ + psēstos ‘rubbed smooth’. —palimpsestic adj.

Layers of graffiti and old advertising on brick wall

Whether in terms of a palimpsest of graffiti on a single wall, or the relationship formed between different pieces of art as a person moves through interlinked urban spaces, the residue of street art upon the city is indicative of bodily engagements with the material world for both ‘writer’ and ‘reader.’ For archaeologists, the physical forms of historic or ancient graffiti enable the reconstruction of human interactions with the material surfaces on which they are found, but also the interactions of people within communities. The graffiti of the ancient city of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, for example, has been used to examine the presence of a military community in the town and its interactions with the non-military citizens.[3]

Layers of graffiti on a wall

In the contemporary city, the very presence of so much graffiti boldly placed in ostensibly inaccessible or forbidden sites serves as the sole attestation to dangerous acts performed and to somatic movements through vacant or dehumanised places  — the sides of tall buildings, the undersides of bridges, off-limits drainage systems and much-policed train lines.

Modern graffiti and the now-everywhere tag first rose to prominence in New York City in the 1980s, where young graffiti writers began to leave their names on the walls of the city’s subway stations and its trains.[4] The trains circulated their signatures along local transport lines and out into the city, doing the legwork for the tagger by ever-shifting the spectacle of their work. As tags became more prevalent, artists sought to distinguish their marks and ‘light up the line’ by brandishing larger and more elaborate ‘pieces’ (short for ‘masterpieces’) on the sides of the trains.[5]

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These traces can take part in the unconscious layering of urban memory, but writing on an object, surface or landscape can also be a deliberate and self-consciously commemorative act, a means of laying claim to a sense of place. A ‘tag’ may function as an ‘I was here.’ This notion can be intensely self-aware: a particular tag that has been showing its face around Melbourne recently (the crudely-sprayed image of a cat) has begun appearing with captions such as ‘New shit’ and ‘I’m out here too!’ Not only does it mockingly break the ‘fourth wall’ for its audience (competing taggers, graffiti-spotters and, even, disapproving members of the commuting community), but this kind of self-reflexive commentary also reveals a fundamental and strategic effort to extend the tagger’s sphere of spatial ‘ownership’.

Show footnotes

Idea // Interstitial space: neither here nor there

Interstitial spaces are those that fall ‘in-between’.

Such spaces are often claimed by the in-betweens of society. In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Australian cities, for example, young ‘larrikins’ (the Australian folk identity of the irreverent young male with no regard for authority and a quick mocking tongue) claimed intersections, vacant lots and building sites as their territory. What were for most ‘non-spaces’ became for these urban youths sites of meeting, conversation and entertainment — the larrikin’s equivalent of the gentleman’s club. An 1873 article in the Australasian Sketcher describes how Melbourne’s larrikins were ‘to be found in every street’, ‘in the way of people at the corners,’ and even ‘knocking respectable women off the pavement.’

The point of the article was to paint a picture of the ‘halting members’ of the ‘living stream of humanity’ — the social outsiders who stopped where others passed through. We might trace the same impulse to occupy between-spaces to Philadelphia street corners or to Melbourne’s State Library steps, where students lounge, neither in nor out. And, of course, we might apply it to street artists and taggers as they decorate the divisional spaces of walls, fences, alleys and lanes. These are spaces that the rest of us see as borders and byways — zones to cross, pass through or move along in order to reach a destination. They are not destinations in themselves, unless we choose to redefine them.

intersticen. 1. an intervening space. 2. a small or narrow space between things or parts; small chink, crevice, or opening. Latin: space between. —interstitial adj.

The notion of interstitial space comes primarily from biology and medicine, where it describes the space and fluid surrounding the cells of a tissue. In the 1990s the art world appropriated the term to refer to artists whose work fell between the margins of traditional or familiar genres and media. In communications, the term is used for interstitial television programming (a brief segment between shows) and interstitial web pages (a transitional page like a welcome screen or age confirmation).

In architecture, interstitial spaces are those that neither fall inside any room, nor are outside the building — the gaps between floors and inside walls. Though we do not inhabit them, they can be integral to a building’s function. Entire accessible interstitial levels can be built in to accommodate the plumbing, electricity and mechanical systems of a building, particularly in hospitals, where flexible floor plans and accessible services minimise disruption. The first building to really take advantage of an interstitial space design was Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (19591965), where large intermediate levels between the main floors provide access to the ducts, tubes and wiring that service the institute’s laboratories. Such a design allows building services to be continuously upgraded as technology advances — foresight critical to a research institute.

Sectional view of Salk Institute

This section shows the Salk Institute’s three laboratory floors with an interstitial service space (with the striated ceiling) above each floor.
Image: University of Pennsylvania via Oxford Art Online

More recently, architects have used the term to describe spaces at the margins of built environments. This might mean a sharp delineation between building and natural landscape, or a blurred ground where inside meets outside, a transitional space that can profoundly affect our experience of the site. A covered porch provides a place to sit that is sheltered yet outside; a retractable wall of glass confuses the division between in and out. Architects also refer to the interstitial spaces between existing buildings, where new structures like New York’s Goldman Alley cause city space to converge and overlap. Melbourne’s famous laneway culture inhabits these gaps, blurring the boundaries of the intermediate and the experienced, or the journey and the destination.

Essay // Where lies the romance of our time?

Nostalgia is a peculiar thing.

It is a pleasure coupled with sadness, for it is, in essence, a fondness for something that is ineluctably unattainable, being both indefinite and lost. It is a wistful pleasure, laden with regret for we-know-not-what. A pleasure stunted by the non-existence of the very thing it treasures.

For some, nostalgia is personal, defining us, or who we once were. Perhaps it is the inevitable product of a generation coming of age—as the last sprigs of nonage seem sparse, we look inwards and backwards to our own childhoods, to a time when our needs were (surely?) simple, our pleasures intense, and the illusion of freedom held never-ending promise. We romanticise and censor memory.

Then there is the cultural nostaligian, who is convinced of the creative power of the past. We immerse ourselves in the literature of the dead and let out a silent plaintive cry, ‘Oh! to be there, to be then!’ In deference to the means of writers whom time has judged as great, we trade our laptops for stiff typewriters, as though it were the machine that generated elegance and wisdom, and not our selves at all.

For others, nostalgic yearnings are less precise, perhaps centred on a notion that ways of living were once, simply, better. They think, not of themselves, but of indistinct collective goodness. Didn’t we have more when we had less? Weren’t we healthier when our peaches and lemons came from trees in neighbours’ yards, our eggs from hens we fed with scattered grain, and our children’s milk from a bottle on the doorstep? Weren’t we happier when our toys were few but lasting, when television and magazines demanded respect, and when missives from friends came, not in bites of text stored in bytes of data, but in paragraphs of informative leisure imprinted on creamy pages? When our expectations could still be exceeded by the feats of humanity, when wonder could still be roused?

Although many of us long to shift our lives into the past, few of us can point when pressed to an epoch that satisfies our generally vague and varying desires. One day it is the 1920s and Paris, where we live in an apartment above a baker’s shop with a fledgling Picasso on the wall and take morning excursions to Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. The next day, we crave wartime London—we breeze through the Blitz, blaring swing from an already-retro gramophone, dressing in hats and coats and polka dots. Or perhaps it is the seventies and New York, where we have dinner at Max’s Kansas City, attend poetry readings, and drift in and out of the Chelsea Hotel. Or the 1890s and nightclubs, the sixties and music, the 1930s and Hollywood. Everything is ideal, conceptual, and unchallengeable in its impossibility.

But say it were possible; say we could go back—here whispering doubt raises its sly voice. We wonder if, having somehow effected our journey to the bygone, we might find ourselves yet muddling through those great mises en scènes of the imagination, blind to our extraordinary condition. For if we are muddlers now, are we not simply the muddling sort, ever destined to life at the periphery? Or is it that we all feel dissatisfaction with the known, and only see the spectacle of our lives, the momentousness of our time, once it has passed?

Thus we yearn for that unspecified ‘simpler time,’ or that better, more romantic time, as though our interior worlds would somehow match the imagined simplicity and romance of the exterior, as though the equanimity we now lack would then reign, and the cruel provocations of life would be dampened and soothed by the hands of some agent that has since jilted us.

But no age is any simpler than another, for the clamour and commotion of the mind endures. Now is as good a moment as those before, for romance lies not in time at all.

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.

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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.

A little amatuer vagrancy

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CHARLES DICKENS ON WALKING the streets of London, quoted in Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City:

Whenever we have an hour or two to spare, there is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy – walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house…the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.

Although undoubtedly a man of great imagination, Dickens was also a reporter – a mirror for London. He described the city as he saw it (and he saw a lot of it, always on foot). He absorbed its quirks, its pockets of pleasure and its pockets of darkness, its characters and its many moods, and reflected them back at the city itself, just as a traveler would describe a foreign city to those in his homeland.

What do we see – how do we see – when we shed the eyes of an intimate and view our own city as ‘an unknown region’?

Essay // Boston: The town that was my home

IT SEEMS LIKE AN APT TIME to be thinking and writing about Boston. I spent a year living in that city as part of a university exchange to Boston College in 2010. It was perhaps the year that—when memory flashes—causes in me the most chest-wrenchingly mixed sense of nostalgia, regret, and fondness. I am, as clichéd as it sounds right now, grieving for Boston.

I am grieving for Boston on two fronts. One is obvious—attacks of terrorism on lands familiar cannot but spawn in us a sharp pang of pain, a jolt of fear, and a strangely sad gladness at the stoicism, sense, and quick-witted kindness of strangers under fire. I am horrified to think of nail-ridden bombs exploding steps from where I used to spend much of my spare time, maiming people like me, killing eight-year-olds, denying so many the ability to walk, to dance, to just be as they were.

The second way in which I grieve for the city is more personal, and perhaps not of significance to others reading my words. Yet it must be said, for I cannot believe that it means nothing if it means so much to me. Boston will always hold a ‘place in my heart’—if I may be permitted so maudlin a phrase. I flew out of Logan Airport on a cold, snowy day, and have never since been able to quite put down in words my feeling of the city. New York, on the other hand, I cannot keep quiet about; I have had no trouble writing about my love for that metropolis and I am apt—when asked about my time in America—to speak of Manhattan more than of the town that was my home.

I suspect this is because I cannot say my experience of Boston was entirely positive. 2010 was the year in which I learned the nature of fickle female friendships. I learned it hard. Alongside intimacy, fun, and a new level of low-key being (it’s all about jeans and yoga pants in Boston, literally and metaphorically), I learned loss, embarrassment, anger, and the sheer confusion that accompanies social calamity.

I flew into Logan on as cold and snowy a day as I left, yet from winter to winter seemed no time at all. I loved that city, as I swayed from prim middle-class Catholic households to bad pubs populated with those who liked to call themselves Irish, to pristine Cape Cod beaches, to pizza shops, Tex-Mex, and ATMs that accept cheques. When I think of Boston, I think of classes taught by inspiring ex-Harvard professors. I think of the shops on Newbury Street, the beautiful public library, the gardens in spring, the uneven brick paths of Beacon Hill and the houses whose windows I tried so hard to peer into and place myself within. I think of small things—my first ice hockey game, the convenience store opposite the college campus, the walk from share-house to classroom in the morning winter snow and in the afternoon summer sun, holding hands with boys I could never see again, and smoking my first cigarette in the garage of a friend.

I remember sitting on the curb of Commonwealth Avenue watching the runners on Marathon Monday. College kids sipped from sour lemonade bottles laced with vodka and egged on their competing friends. Marathon Monday—it was an occasion spoken of for weeks in advance, a day of great joyfulness and planned intoxication.

America, to me, is a strange and confusing place. Powerful, familiar, mine, but alien. It is hard right now not to think of this as a decade of disaster for the country—from the Batman shootings to Newtown to the Boston Marathon, awful, unimaginable things happen all too often. Yet I do think that if any city can cope with tragedy, it is probably Boston. The people I knew there were tough. I send them and the city my love, even if love has long since faded from the equation. I loved that city.

Tag Happy

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THERE’S NOTHING, YOU’D THINK, really very interesting about graffiti tags. To outsiders, they’re thoughtless, disruptive, ugly, and illegible. At worst, they’re a sign of the slipping middle class grip on suburban morality; at best, a nuisance to clean off walls.

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Personally, I’m in two minds about tags. They don’t – unlike some more painstaking pieces – have much artistic merit or objective appeal. I can’t see signs of reflection in wanton graffiti, just a quick, furtive spray of paint, forming seemingly meaningless words in a script of typographers’ nightmares. But I imagine that, to their authors and readers, tags do have meaning. I imagine that they’re liberating to apply, allowing the painter some sense of intensely personal ownership of space, ownership that is enacted over and over in strips and pockets of the city. They cannot simply be thoughtless squiggles and stripes, but rather designed, deliberate, and evolving signatures and symbols.

Most tags are, I’d venture, fairly ugly in themselves. But taken in context, grouped and sorted, random graffiti can give a feel to city space that I rather like: you know, when you enter one of those suburbs where picturesque cottages and grand homes are enclosed by tag-ridden walls, that you’ve stepped into somewhere interesting, somewhere where things happen by day and by night.

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