Category Archives: Essays

Seriously, though.

LA River: Imaged and Occupied

What follows is the script from my final presentation for my Masters class ‘Infrastructure and Architecture’. I intentionally selected a topic I reviled. 3 months later I am in love. Later this summer you will find another of these. After the mid-term I changed directions for lack of time to flesh out my original idea. I’m pleased with this though. The link below will take you to the accompanying Power Point so you can follow along. Without  it this is almost useless.

Post Final

The images below cemented my concept and are a beautiful depiction of the various realities which the river takes on.

Credit: John Humble
I owe a debt to anyone who carefully considers the L.A. River artistically.

Credit: John Humble Credit: Carol GarlandCredit: Carol Garland

I. Introduction

The L A River is as storied a place as any in America. Previously Nick shared with us one of those stories, the story of its redevelopment and future. Today I will share the story of its recent past by way of its origin through the eyes of the people around it and the things that came out of it.

II. Past

A.Geologic place setting

First, a little place setting: The L.A. River travels 51 miles from its head in the San Gabriel Mountains to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.  Along that route, the river travels further vertically than the Mississippi descends along its entire course from Minnesota to the gulf. The raging torrent brings the mountains with it, forming an alluvial fan as water deposits the eroded sediment across the valley floor. The orange and yellow colors represent varieties of loam, which is Geology speak for sandy/silt-y soil. The floodplain is as rich as it is loose, giving the river its unpredictable nature. The river has changed course several times in recorded history.

B. American Settlement and the Early River

For the majority of its life, the Los Angelis River occupied a comfortable swath of land, for a time, serving as a divide between the early settlement and the farms fed by the river.As real-estate interests ascended, the river found itself crowded. Several catastrophic floods in the first half of the 20th century formed the backbone of arguments to quell the river.

To avail themselves of the adjacent land, the whole length was transformed into a flood control channel. Over the subsequent 30 years it took to build the channel, images of families communing with unscathed nature became increasingly rare.

III. LA River Imaged

It’s a common exclamation: “LA has a river?” And who could be blamed? The river was tucked away long ago, behind the warehouses and billboard signs that came with the cars. ­ For a time after the channelization, even maps did not acknowledge the river, labeling the body a ‘flood control channel’. Despite the official nomenclature, and laws barring access, life in the river survived channelization. The river today is a reflection of the city. Mathew Gandy, a prominent geographer, writes of the L.A. River:

“These urban landscapes seem oddly compelling because they reveal the materiality of the city as a functional metropolis. We encounter a late-modern manifestation of the technological sublime where the scale of human artifice is revealed in the form of a Loosian ‘pure urbanism’ devoid of embellishment or ornament.”

A. Movies

An image of the post-canal river begins with cinema in the 1950s. The film ‘Roadblock’ contains one of the earliest depictions of the canonical concrete channel car chase. In traditional film-noir-detective-story fashion, the protagonist is fleeing the police with his beaux when she highlights the driving force behind the role the river plays. Her question, “where does this highway take us?” is met with the response: “This isn’t a highway; this is the Los Angeles riverbed”.

Two of the L.A. River’s best-known cameos are in ‘Grease’, when Danny must race against rival gang leader, Leo, after Kenickie get sucker-punched; and in ‘Terminator-2’ when John Connor, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the T1000 converge on the LA River, with an explosive conclusion.

The L.A. River has played host to a variety of these quintessentially Hollywood scenes. From the epic “To Live and Die in L.A.” the classic ‘Gone in 60 seconds’, the humorous, ‘Freaky Friday’, to the coming of age tale, ‘Repo Men’.

There is a helicopter chase scene in ‘Blue Thunder’.

In the opening scene of ‘The Core’ a space shuttle drops out of the sky over Los Angeles, and adeptly maneuvers into an emergency landing onto a dry, concrete L.A. River bed. In case you were wondering, the scene is an overt reference to Eisenhower’s plan to accommodate B-52s’ taking off and landing on interstate highways.

Films like ‘Drive’, however, shift the focus from seeing the river as a white-knuckle-speedway, to seeing it as the last bastion of open road–the ideal place to experience both car and nature. There is an emphasis on the ‘hidden gem’ qualities of the river.

While driving the female lead and her son home, Gosling’s character suggests they make a detour. The mood is light. Everyone is smiling as the wind ripples through the trio’s hair. The scene transitions to a naturalized portion of the river where the party basks in what I can only describe as golden light; all of this is underpinned by some airy synth-pop.

Likewise, the film ‘In Time’ depicts a member of the upper class spending his last moments stoically gazing out, over the L.A. River from the 7ths St. Bridge.

The Sepulveda Dam serves as the backdrop for Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s reflections on the state of their dystopia in Gattaca.

Channeling fear and guilt, ‘Volcano’ casts the river as an unlikely champion. When the city is beset by a new river–one of lava–Tommy Lee Jones re-routes the destruction into the insulated channel of Bellona creek. Ironically, what drains the city of its vital water supply becomes a blessing as it fast tracks the molten rock into the Pacific.

The film ‘Them!’ is built around a snafu involving nuclear testing and giant, radioactive ants, which move into the L.A. sewer. The climax is a scene in which the detective investigating a missing-persons report puts together evidence suggesting that the missing boys must have been flying their toy airplane in the L.A. River with their father when the ants attacked, causing the boys to flee into the sewer.

B. Poetry

The river has its very own poet laureate, Lewis MacAdams. Founder of one of the most robust river advocacy organizations: Friends of the Los Angeles River, or, FoLAR, he has donated his talents to raising awareness of the river. His book of poetry  “The River: Book One” focuses exclusively on the L.A. River. An excerpt is engraved on a plaque along the river. It reads:

” I wish you would walk with me here more often – Red-wing blackbirds next in the cat-tails, electricity humming in the high-tension lines.”

Here, again, the duality of the river is visible.

C. Paintings/Photographs

Professional and armature artists alike have fed off the river. Most noteworthy are the photo-essay by John Humble, and the painting series by Carole Garland titled ‘Postcards from the LA River’.

Of particular interest in the paintings by Garland  are the varied activities and moods depicted. Here, a man is reflecting on the slopes of the cement banks. There are heavily saturated scenes, and mute scenes. There’s even a horse.

John Humble’s photographs compliment the paintings, corroborating Garlands assertion that there is a multitude of atmospheres which the river takes on. The gray haze, the pink swirls, with green patches–the life and the void are all aspects of a singular reality that is the river.

IV. LA River in use

A. Recreation

Though there are no official records regarding the origin of the L.A. River as a zone of recreation, a lot of credit goes to Ernie LaMere, creator of Ernie’s Walk. In 1988 Ernie started a lifelong grass-roots campaign of beautification. After harassing the city to remove the trash built up along a neighborhood service road for the river, he installed benches and planted flowers.

There are numerous advocacy groups working in a complex cooperative framework toward the common goal of activating the river.  At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish between ’larivercorp.org’, ‘lariverexpeditions.org’, ‘lariverrecreation.org’, ‘lariver.org’, and ‘thelariver.com’,  but each does its part to disseminate various levels of information. Each serves the other in a system of check and balances. Lamag.com, ‘latimesblog.com’, ‘ la-bike.org’, ‘kcet.org’, ‘grist.org’, ‘caltrout.org’, ‘themeaningofriver.wordpress.com’, and FOVICKS (Friends of Vast Industrial Concrete Kafkaesque Structures, my personal favorite) are links in the chain of websites spreading the word . More legitimate news channels, such as the LA Times, the LADPW, folar.org,  lapl.org, and the digital library of USC, abet the blogs.

If that were not enough, there are events from within this web ring that stand on their own  (bike fundraising for the river). The cycling scene in L.A. rivals that of New York. The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, specifically, is geared toward fundraising for the health and awareness of the river. Their annual ‘River Ride’ is in its 14th year and continuously growing. Last year they attracted around 3000 riders. Prizes include a trip to the Etruscan countryside, a new bike, and hard cash.

Even more so than the M.T.A. of New York, the L.A. Metro is working to promote bicycle culture. They host monthly thematic rides, including this one, along the historic arroyo seco. It seems that novel quality of the graphics is a move toward inclusivity. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, the city’s bike infrastructure is extensive. The narrow purple, pink, green, and orange lines represent different types of bike lanes. Note the green lines, which run parallel to the river and its branches.

B. Sculpture/Art site

Every step deeper into the river reveals greater intrigue. Not content to remain a subject, the river is a site for art. “The Great Wall of L.A.”, started in 1974 under the direction of Judith F. Baca runs for 2754 ft., the longest in the world. It contains scenes from every decade of Los Angeles’ existence, including one for the dinosaurs who lost their lives at La Brea. When complete its span will be double what it is today, nearly a mile, with 50 more remaining for future growth.

‘The Outpost for Contemporary Art’, an organization for the proliferation of contemporary art, took the stage in 2010, when artist Vlatka Horvat arranged (and re-arranged) 50 chairs in the river for 8 consecutive hours in an effort to display the potential variety of relationships which occupants of the river may have with one-another.

C. Illicit

Last but not least there is the seedy underbelly we know and love. I will refrain from going into detail documenting the drug exchanges and gangland cultures under the bridges. There is less research available anyway.

That being said, there are less nefarious illicit activities which deserve to be brought into the light.  Life magazine did an amazing job  documenting the realities of channel drag racing in the 1950s.

Anarchists of the city can turn the under-monitored river into a temporary paradise. These images are of an ad-hoc concert organized either serendipitously or anonymously. The show played until the police arrived. From what images exist, it appears to have dispersed peacefully.

The most incredible ‘show and tell’ items I happened upon during my research are the wedding photos of this couple. There is no information about who they are, but if nothing else shows an appreciation for the existing conditions, these photos do.

It has been 70 years since construction began on the channelization of the LA River. Though much of the intervening years have been spent obscured from view and off limits to the public, the L.A. River has retained a vital spirit. Countless people’s lives are touched in both mundane and dramatic ways by the river. So hold the bulldozers, please. William Mulholland was right when he recognized that his beloved ‘limpid stream’ was no longer. In its place, today’s LA River stands , providing a robust stage for activism  and  a focal point for reflection on the human condition.

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Newark: Sandbox City

Newark: Sandbox City

By Nicholas Dingman for Gabriel Esperdy’s Delerious NJ Research Seminar

Forward: The title introduces a phase I recently coined after several years of participating in various volunteer projects within Newark and witnessing just how far a little effort will carry someone here. The phrase casts Newark as a scaled model for larger and more difficult cities to become socially fluid within (i.e. New York). While Newark deserves every bit of credit for being a fully-fledged city, I also see it as a test bed, a teacher, and a place where my bold ambition can be carried out with no hindrance other than my own ability and the plausibility of my ideas.

By curating a tour of Newark, one may jar preconceived notions of the city and relieve some of the pressure caused by New Jersey’s pronounced inferiority complex.  By challenging people’s perceptions of what makes ‘place’, the definition of ‘good place’, and the concept of ‘authenticity’, a line of interrogation with audience members can open. ‘How does one evaluate the built environment?’, ‘Hold multiple opposing views simultaneously?’ ‘Develop an ability to suspend judgment?’

The tour itself will be comprised of a complimentary pair of techniques: a ‘point-of-view’ video recording of one tour, and accompanying series of post cards. The ‘film’ will be shot from the perspective of a silent tourist. Careful direction will ensure that the camera faces the guide and pans to the subject at designed moments. For instance, the audience may take notice of a large building before an explanation. Inversely a stop may include monolog that explains why it is significant before an audience member takes notice.

Material excluded from the monolog will also be included. Panning to an eye-catching building that remains over-looked or something gritty that reveals an unspoken aspect of the truth can guide a non-participatory audience toward the project’s goals while loosely developing a character through an increase in these ‘unscripted’ moments as the film progresses. Ideally, the film will be a single cut spanning no more than one hour, but one of those aspects will have to give, or certain walking scenes may be double speed.

The set of post cards will be limited to 10, as will the number of stops in the film. The connection between the two mediums will be references to the series of post cards within the monolog. The cards themselves will consist of either a deadpan photograph taken of the building in elevation, or a hand drawn elevation.

More diagrammatic approaches are best suited for introducing color to an otherwise black & white elevation. If the buildings are represented as hand-drawn elevations, superimposed upon them will be a graphic language situating the stop in time and space on a local, state, and national level. For instance, a key-map of the potential route building materials took to reach the site, a figure-ground of what existed prior, and a diagram of what the building represented (vernacular, cutting edge, economic boon, monument to industry).

In order not to overpower a vibrant, artistically considered photograph, black or white text (12pt. Futura) Spelling out an overview of the pros and cons of multiple arguments surrounding each building will consistently represent a big-picture outlook of the built environment. Bullet: “The Prudential Center brings in thousands of people from outside of Newark.” Bullet: “There was once a vibrant community of Chinese immigrants on the land now occupied by the Prudential Center, replete with their own ‘Chinatown’.” Bullet: “Prudential has maintained its headquarters in Newark since the city’s incorporation. The city benefits from the tax revenue this provides as well as philanthropic projects provided for by Prudential.” Bullet: “Prudential owns a number of unoccupied buildings in Newark.”

By treating each site on the tour equally, that is, representing as many sides of as many arguments as possible, presenting both pro and cons, aspects the audience are comfortable with and aspects they are not comfortable with, creating cognitive dissonance is the intention. With a suspension of judgment, a metaphorical reboot of their attitudes the audience may become introspective.

As early as the 1760s Benjamin Franklin’s put New Jersey’s inferiority complex into words with a remark likening the state to a barrel tapped at both ends. It was an astute gauge of the economy, as well as the feeling of its inhabitants. New Jersey was settled based on its innate ability as an agricultural and industrial powerhouse. For some this was a source of pride. “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” glow the letters of the Lower Trenton Bridge.

The state grew by forming physical connections to and between New York City and Philadelphia. The cheap land and proximity to both raw materials and two of America’s largest cities drew the likes of Thomas Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, Einstein and Bell Labs; innovators of intellectual property that corroborated the American Dream and cemented the nation’s geo-political pole position.

Why, then, does the feeling of inferiority persist? Even after playing a major role in the birth Jazz, hosting iconic musicians Bruce Springstein and Bono of U-2 fame; after learning about the central role New Jersey played in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; after our governors have gone on to win Presidental elections, the complex takes a toll.  Some wear their pride as a badge of honor, refuting the existence of any complex. Others scoff and turn their nose up in disgust, unwilling to broach the topic for their disdain of New Jersey. One thing is for sure: If New Jersey’s pride ever resided in its manufacturing prowess, that prowess has long since left us.

Two major problems arise with a cultural inferiority complex. Those members who, seeing their own potential, and a lack of potential in their surroundings, decide to leave, place a strain on the economy as they take the investment they embody to another place. Members of the culture who see a lack of inspiration in their surroundings, and fail to meet their potential, harbor resentment and embody the inferiority, perpetuating a feedback loop.

For such a Herculean (if not Sisyphean) task to render positive results, it is not enough to know the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. The component of ‘who’ must be specific. Young people occupying Newark are of greatest concern in the scope of this endeavor. They stand the greatest chance of benefiting from a change in perception. The bits that follow inform one of how best to create an efficacious experience.

Categorically there are those living within and those living without the city. Those from without occupy the city on a part-time basis for work, school, or play. Those from within remain within for work, or school, and some play, but also travel to Manhattan both for work and play.

Though simple, the two groups can represent poles of an advantage spectrum. Upper-class suburban dwellers occupy one pole while disadvantaged urban dwellers occupy the other. In the polar vein established, it is safe to say that advantaged children lack a sense of place in the sense that they are raised in the Cartesian sprawl and taught to fear the cities. Disadvantaged children grow up in the former centers, blind to the history at their feet.

This younger generation takes on the task of crafting a new vision of authenticity; combining what their parents overlooked or took for granted, and contemporary technology which they are uniquely suited to. Each of the two poles generates their own brand of authenticity. The bright and shiny objects of developer pet projects such as the Prudential Center or the Indigo Hotel may or may not appeal to either pole, but those projects do represent something they are comfortable with.

With that in mind, what follows is a list of the top ten monuments of Newark, and a taste of what each represents. There is no order, but the list is carefully comprised of aforementioned comfortable and uncomfortable aspects of the city. What each represents is likewise attempting to focus on dualities.

1 The Prudential Center is a monument to urban revitalization, unwanted guests, congested streets, and the benevolence of Prudential Insurance.

2 The remnants of the Hartz Mountain industrial campus are a monument to the vibrant industrial past of Newark, a classical American success story, the site of what is to come, a sacred ruin, a tale of the one that got away, a former source of confidence, and blight to those passing through.

3 The extant Westinghouse factory is a mystery, a monument to decay, part of the body of evidence calling the actions of Rutgers into question, and a slate upon which to thrust one’s imagination.

4 The gargantuan drawbridge carrying trains into and out of Newark is the city’s gate, a monument to the demands of our industrial past, an expensive thing to maintain, a source of frustration for commuters when it’s not functioning, the peak of bridge engineering for at least 5 miles in all directions, and a monument to monumentality itself.

5 Peddle Memorial Church is a monument to the foundation of Newark and the role religion played and still plays. It is a monument to the benevolence and power of that Baptist ministry and serves as a standard to judge other architectural ‘gifts’.

6 The Proscenium Theater represents the previous inhabitants of Newark, and the palimpsest created by the people who filled the void left when that generation fled. It represents a foreign form of entertainment, a great looking place to engage in sneaker culture, the bleeding hearts of preservationists, and the unblinking eye of users today.

7 The National Newark and Essex Building is a monument to benevolence of private enterprise today. It is the tallest building in Newark and tells a tale of gratitude for being saved from an unthinkable fate. It is a display of power in the city, and of consistency. It is also a door through which few are privy to walk through. The few locals who do don a gun and a badge; they do not enter the elevator.

8 Rutgers Business School at 1Washington (and/or) Seaton Hall Law School represent small steps toward progress in terms of education and economic development, they represent flashing lights, and they represent a false sense of open-ness.

9 The Griffith Building represents a final and efficacious attempt to preserve music culture in Newark. It represents equal rights, an American success story, exotic as well as local culture, and Newark’s past as host to upscale private offices.

10 The Diamond Alkali Superfund Site serves as a memorial to those lost to invisible chemicals who’s killer was never held responsible. It is a monument to an ecological victory, however hard-won. It is a monument to the resiliency of the Iron Bound district of Newark, a joke among those in the know, and a stark reminder.

11 The First National Bank Building is a monument to a time when famous architects dotted our skyline with their work, a sign of the changes ahead, representative of economic progress, a feather of hope, a beacon in the night, a treasure to some, and another empty building to others.

12 The Rutgers Medical School main building (Formerly UMDNJ) is a reminder of Newark’s dark past, a display of eminent domain, and a scar which, when touched, inspires distrust and resentment within the community.

13 Any good-looking home in forest hills is a reminder of a private, untouched Eden within Newark. It’s something to aspire to, something to covet, and something to resent.