City views

The Sandpit from Sam O'Hare on Vimeo.

Francis became the mayor of the produce aisle

Seen in the window of a C-Town grocery store. I’m not a foursquare user myself, but is there any point to this? Wouldn’t a grocery store be the most banal check-in ever?

Miscellaneous transpo news

The New York City Council just passed the “Bicycle Access Bill”, which requires office building managers to provide bicycle access to tenants who request it.

TA’s constant advocacy has mobilized efforts over the course of many years. This time around, all the other pieces fell into place: a persistent sponsor in David Yassky, a Council Speaker in Christine Quinn who represents a cyclist-heavy district, and perhaps most crucially, a mayor and DOT commissioner who came out strongly for the bill. Even with the stars seemingly aligned, it took one last push from more than a thousand cyclists to put the bill over the top.

I actually have minor qualms with legally compelling private companies to allow specific types of usage of their properties, but overall the direction of making NYC a more bike-friendly city is a pretty great one. There’s been a lot of this sort of news in the past year, and I keep thinking I should stat bike commuting. I’m not crazy about getting to work all sweaty, though.

Also, the Times reports on a new study which indicates that your chances of getting into a car crash are 23 times higher if you’re sending a text message.

In the moments before a crash or near crash, drivers typically spent nearly five seconds looking at their devices — enough time at typical highway speeds to cover more than the length of a football field.

This might be stupidly obvious to some people, but there are lots of Americans who spend hours per week behind the wheel, and end up convincing themselves they can safely do anything else at the same time. Because if you actually grappled with the reality that your car requires constant attention so you don’t kill anyone, well, that commute’s going to get even less fun.

And Caleb Crain discusses bike salmon, by which he means cyclists who ride in the opposite direction of traffic. He cites the recent book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, and the experience of the Netherlands, and posits that bike salmoning might be personally dangerous but good for everyone else:

The Dutch facts suggest that irregular cyclists, by making the streets less predictable, force motorists to pay more attention, and when motorists habitually pay more attention, the streets become safer—for motorists, as well as everybody else. Of course lawless bikers offer this (perhaps hypothetical) public benefit at enormous cost to themselves—at the potential cost of death, in fact, which I can’t recommend.

Makes sense to me. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s very useful to spend time tsk-tsking cyclists for doing things that might be risky to themselves—riding the wrong way, not wearing a helmet, whatever. Unless you also tsk-tsk people for smoking, doing drugs, getting so drunk they throw up, rock-climbing, skydiving, or having a stressful job. Your risks are your own.

The city, she speaks to me

Infinity advertisement, 2009:

Add-on content for the video game “Mirror’s Edge”, released in 2009:

Video for “Star Guitar” by Chemical Brothers, directed by Michel Gondry, 2008:

School's out forever

As Detroit shrinks, the city government closes schools at a steady clip, and then crews of “scrappers” break in and ransack what’s left behind for raw materials to sell. Vice Magazine has some astounding photos of the wreckage.

(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Idiotarod 2006

A few weeks back, Justin, Owen, Mario, Thad, and I participated in the hipster-nerd riot that is the Idiotarod. Here’s what I learned:

1. Don’t try to tell Justin that when he uses the angle grinder, maybe he shouldn’t be wearing pants with gaping holes in them. He won’t listen.

2. You might think that a Tyvek hazardous materials suit, combined with dust masks and safety goggles, would make an excellent outfit for running a five mile race. But then, you’d be an idiot.

3. If you saw off the front and sides of a metal shopping cart, drop the resulting grill to the bottom, and then carpet over the top, you’ve got yourself a pretty good chair, kid. Now don’t go hurting yourself with it.

So I can’t tell you where we finished in the race, and the after-party at Tonic was too crowded for us to get in, but it was still a brilliant experience. All the better for the cops deciding not to try to arrest all 800 of us, particularly the one cop who was heckling us as we came over the Manhattan Bridge, saying “You’re so far behind—give up now!”

There were a few downsides. For one thing, if I could’ve easily walked around the next day, that would’ve been nice. Also, I would’ve liked to have seen more heavy cart reconstructions. Though I do need to pay my respects to the engineers behind Ben Franklin’s Sweet Ride—do you suppose the time travel kicks in when it hits 88 MPH?

More links: A gajillion Flickr photos, and mainstream media validation in CBS News and the New York Daily News.

Incidentally, did you know that just a few days before the Idiotarod, eight people from Improv Everywhere were charged for disorderly conduct for organizing the 160-person “No Pants” subway ride? That is some bullshit. I wonder if anybody’s forming a No Pants Legal Defense Fund. You better believe that’d be a fun benefit party.

The Gates

Alex and I took the 6 train uptown on Saturday morning, and we met my friend Claire and some of her friends a little to the south of the Met Museum. Along with thousands of other New Yorkers and visitors, we spent the next few hours walking around Central Park, taking in The Gates. It was a nice enough day—not warm, exactly, but warmer than the week that had preceded it, with the occasional parting of the clouds to warm us for a minute or two. And I was glad to get the chance to see an artwork by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I wanted to get a sense for myself of whether there was anything behind the hype.

Among the art world, Christo and Jeanne-Claude get plenty of flak for being sensational and theoretically slight. (Tom Moody’s sentiments are probably a good example, though he might be annoyed at me drafting his posts to represent “the art world”. Sorry, Tom.) Personally I don’t mind that a work like The Gates—technically, its full name is The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005—doesn’t have challenging theory behind it. What matters more in a case like this is execution: Impeccable delivery saves many a simple idea. Unfortunately, I’d say The Gates falls far short of this standard.

If it were more artfully designed, The Gates could have integrated well with Central Park, but the artists have treated the park more as an abstraction than as an actual place. The first sign of this tendency might be the fact that The Gates looks much better in still images than in situ. Looking in, say, Flickr, it’s easy to find an arresting image lifted from this subject: A single orange flag, fluttering in the wind against a backdrop of bare tree branches. But such a photograph doesn’t capture the feeling of walking past that flag, and another, and a hundred more, until the eye becomes fatigued by all that unceasing orange plastic.

Set against the gray tones of Central Park in February, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s rectangular orange gates catch the eye and don’t quite let go. And they’re everywhere: There are 7500 of them, covering pretty much every path in the entire Park. They start at the borders of the park and continue all the way through at roughly the same density. After you spend some time walking among the result, this distribution feels more methodical than artful. (This is a fairly common problem with installations, whether they’re the size of a broom-closet, or an 843-acre park.)

To play backseat-installationist for a minute, I wonder if The Gates could have benefited from more variation in placement, size, shape, or even (gasp) color. I wonder how The Gates would look if the gates were sparser in certain areas of the park, or even if they were barely visible on the outlying streets and increased in density as you walked inwards.

Normally a walk through Central Park presents a wide view of hills, rocks, water, and trees, with the paths lying inconspicuously at the bottom of your view. But right now, every concrete path within a few hundred feet loudly announces its presence to you with tall orange gates. Today the park looks like an engineered network of walking paths, where it normally looks like an unstructured expanse of nature.

Well, relatively unstructured, anyway. I suppose it’s a bit quixotic to make an appeal to natural order when discussing a park that’s accessible by subway. But I have to admit that I’m a fan of the park. It’s well-groomed, sure, and overrun by people on warm days, but the structure imposed upon it by the city is more like the natural structure present in leaves on a tree than the artificial structure in the right angles of a city grid or a Gannt chart. (See also: Christopher Alexander.) The park’s meagre acres are vast without feeling overwhelming, as full of quiet corners as open vistas. It’s jam-packed with historical and architectural wonders such as the Bethesda Terrace or Cleopatra’s Needle, but without the insistent feel of a warehouse store of a Greatest Hits record. The Gates could have taken a cue from the park’s design and given its own offerings some space to breath. Instead, the artwork seems too aware of its short lifespan, and a little anxious to be remembered.

But even with these reservations, I can’t entirely condemn the enterprise. Public art gets much worse this: Take as an example that godawful Cow Parade trend a few years back that blighted cities around the world like some sort of aesthetic SARS. And the attention spent on this work probably has positive dividends. Hundreds of thousands of people will seen The Gates; more than a few of them will be inspired enough to take a deeper interest in art. You could call this the “Oprah Book Club defense”: the work itself might not be that good, but more time talking about art is better than less. And more art is better than less art. Even when the art in question is something frustrating like The Gates.