urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

The House of Jane (+ new updates!)

555 Hudson Street: the Mecca of Urban Studies (at least in my opinion).  To the urban planning nerd in me, this was it, a hallowed and storied place I had envisioned in my mind’s eye time and again.  What could this place be, you might ask.  None other than the house of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and a pioneer of people-oriented urbanism.  Jacobs fought tooth and nail against Robert Moses’ plans for a highway cutting through her beloved Greenwich Village, and to this day the quaint alleyways of the Village speak to her victory.  She was fearless and articulate, a true champion of cities at a time when an urban voice of reason was most needed.  Her spellbinding tome was an original inspiration for my interest in Urban Studies.

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

And maybe it was a little fan girl of me, but I staked out her old home in the West Village and counted down the building numbers to 555 one recent, sweltering day.  I almost passed Jane Jacobs’ house right by, what with the renovations underway and the yuppie boutique below (I wondered what Jacobs would have to say about that), but alas I spent a full few minutes gazing up in awe.  In her writing, Jacobs describes her New York neighborhood in great detail, taking pleasure in the small shops and familiar faces dotting the streets.  Hudson Street itself, with the exception of a few upscale stores, probably looks pretty much the same as when Jacobs lived here–and trod these exact steps!–and I could picture her sauntering around, oversized glasses perched on her nose and notebook in hand.  It was a wonderful day. 

Light streamed down on Jacobs' house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

Light streamed down on Jacobs’ house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

And now, back to my job!  First, here are some snapshots of my daily office duties:

I wake up around 7 so I have enough time to read before work; I love mornings!  My “commute” to work is a lovely 10 minute walk in which I pass some of the same people setting up their shops and starting their days each morning.  

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

Project for Public Spaces is located on Lafayette Street right next to the Public Theater, under Astor Place, and kitty-corner to Cooper Union.  It makes for such a scenic block!

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.

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The view from PPS, on the 7th floor.

I spend a lot of time doing research at my desk, but most days also include meetings with my wonderful and patient supervisor Casey or other co-workers.  In the afternoons, I usually take a walk into the surrounding neighborhoods–my favorite places to explore are SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the NYU campus, all of which are within a 5 minute walk.  Then there are always the surprises, such as when the other PPS interns and I got to help with a Placemaking exercise in Union Square for a grad class at Pratt a few weeks ago. 

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

The office is filled with light and curious objects/photos/memorabilia the staff has collected over the years. 

Check out that book collection!

Check out that book collection!

The front of the office facing the street.

The front of the office facing the street.

As for my projects, after some shuffling around I am now working full-time on a Placemaking project PPS is doing with none of than–Stanford!  PPS has been hired to activate Herrin Lawn, which is the relatively empty green space right next to the Herrin Biology Laboratories, and White Plaza.  I have been breaking down the space into different zones or “bubbles,” each of which corresponds to design recommendations, as well as doing research on benchmarks for similar spaces as inspiration for each bubble.  It’s so interesting for me to be engaged in the transformation of a space which means so much to me–the Stanford campus–while working at PPS.  It’s funny to watch my different worlds align.  I will share more about my projects next week as they progress!  

Tomorrow, I head to Crystal City, VA, which is right outside Washington, D.C., where PPS will be conducting a series of pop-up Placemaking workshops.  I can’t wait to share my photos and on-the-ground experiences from Crystal City next week!

Cheers, 

Amy

Going Live…

This week, my first project of the summer went live.

As I discussed two weeks ago, Working Partnerships USA has been leading a campaign to enact a new comprehensive Living Wage Ordinance in Santa Clara County. This would ensure that County workers and employees of County contractors earn enough to make ends meet, receive healthcare coverage, and can take paid time off if they get sick. It would also encourage full-time jobs, predictable shifts, and give workers the right to request flexible schedules so they can take classes or take care of kids. The County is currently in the process of studying the costs and impacts of such an ordinance, and we’re building community support for the living wage.

For this campaign, I’ve been creating materials to explain what the living wage policy is and why it’s so important. The first of these is a one-page micro website. Eventually I’ll be expanding this into a full website with more details, but we wanted to get an initial page up quickly. It looks like this:

Silicon Valley Living Wage

For me, creating this site was a great project. I’ve built plenty of websites in the past, but this was different in two key ways: it was only a single page, and there was very little existing content to work from. These two factors created some fun challenges.

When I started work on this site, we were still in the early stages of the campaign, and no one had dug into how to talk about the living wage. That meant I got to figure this out, which was really interesting. I read through a bunch of background research and met with our policy experts, then thought about the best ways to organize what I’d learned. After a few iterations and discussions with other member of the campaign team, I settled on three themes:

  • Better jobs for working families: explaining how the living wage would include a range of policies to create quality jobs and help workers access the middle class.
  • Smarter policy for our County: laying out how a living wage leads to more reliable service, improves public health, and reduces reliance on the County’s social safety net.
  • Stronger communities for all of us: highlights how the living wage benefits far more than just the workers it directly affects, such as by giving workers the flexibility to participate in their communities and generating additional spending at local businesses.

With these themes in place, I then had to decide how to organize the site. A one-page site meant that I had only a limited amount of space. Research suggests that visitors will scroll down a webpage, but only up to a point – people have short attention spans on the internet, so an overly-long page will overwhelms and drives users away. After trying a few different options, I went with four sections:

  1. An initial overview that laid out the need for a living wage, and introduced the three themes I mentioned above.
  2. A section that explained the elements of living wage policy, and linked to additional sources of information.
  3. A section that discussed each of the three themes in more depth. At first I wasn’t sure how to prevent this section from being too long, then decided to make it interactive with one slide for each theme.
  4. A get involved section that encouraged visitors to take action, such as signing up to receive email updates on the campaign.

With both the themes and structure in place, it was then just a matter of writing up all the content, coding the HTML/CSS/JS, and debugging everything to make the site work with various smartphones and old web browsers. This last step is never much fun, but is sadly necessary (shameless plug: make web developers like me happy by upgrading to a modern browser).

After I emerged from the purgatory that is Internet Explorer pre-version 9 and got some final approvals, I took the site live on Monday. So far, the reception has been pretty good. While I can’t discuss exact numbers, analytics data showed a clear traffic spike as we promoted the site via email and Facebook, and it’s currently one of the most visited pages on Working Partnerships’ website. More importantly, it’s a tool we can use to pass a strong living wage and create quality jobs in Silicon Valley.

Little victories

Lesson One: Austria is beautiful, its motorists kind

On Thursday morning I took Vienna’s U4 subway line to the very last stop, walked out of the station, and stood by the highway with my thumb out. Six hours and two rides with some very nice people later I was at my high school friend Peter’s house in a village in the mountains near the city of Innsbruck. The first person to pick me up was an immigrant from Chechnya driving with his two kids to visit his mother in Salzburg. It was a funny time talking because we were both speaking German, neither one of us very well, and so every so often his 9-ish year old son, who I assume had lived there for a few years and so was fluent, had to supply a word or explain something when we had completely not understood each other. Something we definitely agreed on, though, is that German is hard.

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View from my friend Peter’s home near Innsbruck

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Rest stop in between rides. A lot of people stopped or even walked up to me to ask where I needed to go, but unfortunately most of them were headed in the opposite direction as me. Found a ride in the end though!

Lesson Two: Research takes a long time

One thing I have learned from this experience is that research in the real world takes a lot longer than the research you do for that paper that’s due in 12 hours and you haven’t started yet. It’s nice to realize, though, that I don’t mind taking the time to do this kind of research because I find the topic so interesting- but it does make me wish I had more than 2 months to spend here in Vienna. However I mention this because we finished the questionnaire on people’s transportation habits and use of Citybike Vienna! (see below) We’ve gotten a large amount of responses in just a few days, so I am very excited. Florian Lorenz (my research supervisor) and I developed an English version and a German version, which included a lot of translation headaches, especially for Florian, and made me appreciate what a hard skill translation is. Now that the questionnaire has been released, I am going to be focusing on interviewing and talking to as many people as possible about their views on transportation and Citybike. Check back in for more updates!

Part of the finished questionnaire (German version)

Part of the finished questionnaire (German version)

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The youth center which Peter and other young people in the village built up together, a really cool communal space

 

“Community Cube”, Local Neighborhood Engagement, and Cross-Organizational Collaboration

This week afforded more adventures both with GRIND and in and around Jeppestown and Troyville. I will share three experiences with you now: my new “Community Cube” project, visiting the home and neighborhood of local legend Bheki Dube, and meeting and discussing urban ideas with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham.

The “Community Cube” Concept: A Maboneng Living Museum Exhibition

In a neighborhood development context, community spaces need to be flexible and welcoming for all. I also want my community projects to be sustainable and “owned” by community members themselves. As a part of this goal, Alice Cabaret (GRIND Director) and I have thought of the “Community Cube”: a 1.5m square cube that showcases local talent and potential, functions as a space for events and performances, and ultimately boosts social capital. It is owned and managed by community members, who will also assemble and construct the cube, and help design it.

When the cube is closed, it serves as a meeting table and gathering place. A cube design logo (designed by neighborhood residents) marks the top, and the sides include participatory chalkboard spaces, areas to post about local events and career resources, and spaces for crowd funding initiatives.

When the cube is closed, it serves as a meeting table and gathering place. A cube design logo (designed by neighborhood residents) marks the top, and the sides include participatory chalkboard spaces, areas to post about local events and career resources, and spaces for crowd funding initiatives.

Cubes are known for their pronounced, sharp edges. Places like Maboneng are beautiful because of their edges, their boundaries. People of different races, classes, and backgrounds come together and meet, and the result is not separation but intersection and diversity. Maboneng’s cube brings hundreds of living faces together to illustrate the diversity—and commonality—of South Africa’s ultimate urban experience.

On the inside, the cube opens and includes spaces to showcase local talent and civic leaders through ethnographic testimonials. The inside top also includes a whiteboard space for presentations. Small foldable two-board chairs are stored inside the cube for civic events. The floor will include a neighborhood map.

On the inside, the cube opens and includes spaces to showcase local talent and civic leaders through ethnographic testimonials. The inside top also includes a whiteboard space for presentations. Small foldable two-board chairs are stored inside the cube for civic events. The floor will include a neighborhood map.

A “community cube” is a light, mobile, and innovative site of collective neighborhood memory. On the inside, the community cube documents an area’s “story” not merely through traditional historical accounts, but through ethnographic testimonials of a great diversity of community leaders, residents, and workers. Such testimonials will take the visual form of a “Faces of Community” exhibition that shows faces and stories of neighborhood leaders, and also shows neighborhood talent, like art, poetry exhibitions, or music. As a light and mobile object, civic leaders can move a community cube to different events and functions. The cube can be located in outdoor public spaces and in museums with sufficient space. A cube is the simplest and neatest of shapes, and a community cube reflects the many complex stories and the messiness that exists in even the most even of shapes. Ultimately, a community cube empowers a district’s local residents to consider not just the spatial dimensions of their neighborhood, but the faces and histories of a local conglomerate. The cube can later be expanded as the basis for a larger exhibition or full community museum.

Adventures with Bheki Dube

Bheki Dube was born and raised in neighboring Troyville, just a ten minute walk from where he currently resides. Now featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles about the Maboneng Precinct and serving as the official “neighborhood host” and known as an essential community broker, Bheki was once just an ambitious Troyville boy photographing his city. As we walked towards his original home, Bheki explained some of his history to me. He showed me where old restaurants stood, where neighbors had lived. It was an impressive experience. It still shocks me that Bheki is 22 years old. After his first job, Bheki began taking photographs of urban Johannesburg, of places no tourist wanted to visit. And Bheki’s photography caught on. Soon he started a highly successful Johannesburg touring company, Main Street Walks, that continues to give inner city Johannesburg tours on “Art and Social Justice,” “Public Art,” and more. Bheki’s company was recently featured in the New York Times; he now employs half a dozen other tour guides to manage his many tour operations. And, most famously, Bheki partnered with Jonathan Liebmann to start Curiocity Backpackers, a Mabondeng community institution and essential place for people like me to meet and engage with local neighborhood residents. We passed the Jeppe Train Station, and then walked through to Jeppe Park. Bheki had grown up playing here, and today it was filled with eager youngsters surrounding the skatepark. Skatistan, an American NGO originally serving Afghanistan, had just built a new skatepark and American volunteers were helping local kids learn to skate in the dying sunlight.

Jeppe Station from above.

Jeppe Station from above.

Skateistan in Troyville Park.

Skateistan in Troyville Park.

Johannesburg skyline from Troyville.

Johannesburg skyline from Troyville.

Behind us I saw one of the best views of the city’s skyline. As we continued walking, I was ever more impressed with Bheki’s acute historical knowledge of the neighborhood. “See these house foundations?” he told me: “This is old Johannesburg, that’s why they have foundations of old stones, not bricks.” Finally, we arrived at Beryl Court, where Bheki grew up and where his mom still stays. Bheki enthusiastically greeted neighbors. Bheki introduced me to neighbors of all backgrounds. From there we went to the roof of his building. “This is the best view in Joburg,” he said enthusiastically, and he was right. We continued walking, and he showed me a small art gallery, the Spaza Art Gallery, run by a local artist and antique dealer.

Meeting with Boundless City Founder Alexandra Cunningham

Yesterday, I also had the chance to meet with Boundless City founder and co-director Alexandra Cunningham. Alex is another American, born and raised in San Jose, who runs a people-based urban development nonprofit (http://www.boundlesscity.com/index.html). We met at her newest operation, a community café, bar, and gathering space. It was beautifully built and is located right in the heart of Johannesburg’s CBD. Alexandra and I talked about urban development techniques, event and performances, and more generally how to make positive social change at a neighborhood level. Alexandra and Boundless City also produce dynamic consultation reports for neighborhood products. She ensures that neighborhood residents conduct all surveys and gather data and are compensated for their time and efforts. Our conversation was very inspiring and I look forward to working with Boundless City more in the future.

More updates to come in future weeks. I will tell you about the status of my community cube project and will highlight more adventures from the City of Gold!

Arts programming at Bounless City

Arts programming at Bounless City

Collaboration Cafe space at Boundless City.

Collaboration Cafe space at Boundless City.

Friends of Boundless City

Friends of Boundless City

 

Shorter thoughts and longer thoughts

I have been in Vienna for almost a month now- which I’ve decided merits a “my typical day” post:

Typical day

1. Have intentions to eat breakfast and instead sleep extra

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Beautiful morning view out my kitchen window

2. Cycle to work (all of 4 blocks)
3. Set up camp at my desk:

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My essentials: laptop, water, chocolate croissant

4. Work for a few hours
5. Eat lunch in the office’s hella nice kitchen:

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Hella nice office kitchen

6. Afternoons are varied: meetings in the city, cycling around exploring the city’s bicycle networks and infrastructure, working more at the office
7. Evenings often consist of sports- either playing them myself or watching them on television somewhere in the city (although now the World Cup is over, I’ll probably just be playing them)

Now some thoughts:

“How does this city have so much money?”

I found out the answer to this question from Josh Grigsby, one of Smarter Than Car’s directors, during a conversation about the differences between Vienna and many U.S. cities: notably, the absence of “bad areas of town,” the relative lack of socioeconomic and racial segregation, and the generally much more affordable cost of public transit (the all-encompassing annual pass for access to subway, bus, and tram costs €1 a day). I’ve heard a lot of people refer to Vienna’s prosperity, and coming from the U.S. where cities now seem more likely to go bankrupt than be labelled “prosperous,” this was rather incredible to me. However Josh explained some of the long-term trends that have led to the reality that the city government actually owns or controls almost half the housing stock in Vienna. To quote from the city government’s webpage, “housing has been seen in Vienna as a public task for more than eight decades.” Josh explained that this really is the case: there has long been an emphasis on not just public housing, but quality public housing. Four criteria all equally inform the development of new projects: architectural quality, environmental performance, social sustainability, and economic parameters. This Governing article points out that this emphasis on community building and good design, coupled with the fact that virtually all public housing projects are mixed-income as residents can keep their original contracts even as their incomes rise, means that Vienna doesn’t have the problems that have plagued many poorly designed, poverty-concentrated projects in the U.S. like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, bound for demolition just 15 years after it was constructed. There is also no stigma in Vienna to living in public housing when almost half the city lives in some kind of public housing.

Ok, so how does the city have the money to do all this? Well, rent, was the answer I got. There are perks to pretty much having a monopoly on the housing market. Vienna just might be the most benevolent landlord in existence, however, because it puts that money back into places like Sargfabrik, a public housing project with cultural programming, kindergarten, and bathhouse. I’m guessing it also partially makes possible things like €1 a day public transit, university tuition that resembles a U.S. college student’s textbook budget, and, lest I not say this enough, €1 for a lifetime membership to the bike share system. Pretty crazy stuff. What this has me thinking about, though, is how context and history are so incredibly important- Vienna’s housing system did not spring up overnight, it is the ongoing product of decades of culture and policies that simply were different from the U.S.’s. So if you have an opinion, let me know what you think. Should the U.S. try and adopt a similar system? Would it even work?

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I figure I wouldn’t be a real Urban Studies major if I didn’t stop to take pictures of street art.

Calling on Apple to think different(ly)

This week, I visited Apple HQ for the first time. Now, I’m a recovering Apple fanboy, but I wasn’t there to see “the Mothership” or pick up Apple-logo swag at the Company Store. Instead, I was there to protest.

You see, while Apple takes a great deal of care when designing its products, it hasn’t taken nearly as much care of its employees. Engineers and programmers are well compensated, but support staff – the people who keep Apple’s buildings clean, its workers fed, and its secrets safe – are not. While Apple’s profits have skyrocketed over the past decade, its food-service workers, janitors, and security officers haven’t seen any share of these gains. In fact, they (and their counterparts at other tech companies) have seen the opposite: between 2000 and 2010, the median household income in Silicon Valley actually fell 19%.

At Apple, a group of security officers has been trying to change this. The average Silicon Valley security officer is paid just $30,971, around $10,000 less than the Self-Sufficiency Standard (a measure of the cost of basic expenses for a family of four, assuming both parents are working). That’s simply not enough to make ends meet in expensive Silicon Valley, so security officers have been pushing Apple to put just a fraction of it profits ($10.2 billion last quarter alone) into higher wages. Apple’s response, however, has been to pass the buck. When asked by KCBS radio about its treatment of security officers, Apple’s response was “technically, these guards are not our employees.”

Technically that’s true, but it’s disingenuous. Apple contracts with companies like Security Industry Specialists to provide security services, which then hires (and sets wages for) security officers. SIS has a history of paying low wages, not providing quality healthcare coverage, forcing officers to work part-time with unpredictable schedules, and intimidating workers who speak out. Apple chose this contractor, and could easily make better conditions a requirement for its contract (as it does for its manufacturing contracts in China) or switch to a more responsible security company.

Yet despite CEO Tim Cook’s statement in 2012 that “workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment,” Apple has continued to ignore the unfair conditions for security officers right at its own headquarters. That’s why I was at Apple on Wednesday – to send a message that was a little harder to ignore.

With about 40 other volunteers from Working Partnerships USA, the South Bay Labor Council, and other labor and community organizations, we turned Apple’s Company Store and “1 Infinite Loop” sign into a rally site. Armed with megaphones, banners, and blue t-shirts (similar to those worn by Apple store employees, but with a slightly different message), we called on Apple to do right by its workers. We also handed out flyers and spoke with Apple employees and visitors, explaining why we were causing a ruckus. Apple management apparently decided to pretend we weren’t there, but then again, what could they really do? Send their security officers to kick us out for demanding fair wages for security officers?

Our banners outside Apple HQ

Thanks to growing up around community organizers, I’ve been to plenty of protests and rallies, but this one felt really good. The engineers and other Apple employees we talked with seemed receptive, even taking photos of our banner comparing Apple’s profit growth to the declining median income in Silicon Valley. From talking with programmers and my computer science friends at Stanford (some of whom have gone on to work at Apple), I believe most tech workers would support fair wages and decent working conditions, but simply haven’t thought much about the problem. Unlike some other industries (such as fast food or Wal-Mart) where profits largely come from squeezing and underpaying workers, providing decent middle-class jobs to security officers and other support staff would barely dent profits for most tech companies.

Talking with Apple engineers and visitors

Hopefully Apple and other tech giants will come to this conclusion, and begin paying wages that allow workers to take care of their families and grow our economy. Until then, we’ll pull out our banners and megaphones, and keep coming back.

Week 3: Beyond the parks & plazas

We all know about the famous examples of public space.  In this city, Central Park, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center take the cake.  Bryant Park is a more recent addition, with its new host of canopied food vendors, outdoor film series, and inviting chess sets.  These public spaces are celebrated because they work, and thus have come to appeal to a culturally accepted rhetoric about what public space should look like, how it should be managed, and for whom it should be intended.

A bustling day at the lovely Bryant Park.

A bustling day at the lovely Bryant Park.

 

That’s all well and good, and the result has been some vibrant and well-loved destinations in New York City as well as cities everywhere.  In fact, these classic public spaces even define some cities, if not only their guide books.  However, I am determined to uncover the other public spaces: the hidden gems, the secret hideaways, the ingenious appropriations of limited urban space.

 

I want to find the unconventional public spaces of New York City.

 

It’s not that these spaces are lost and forgotten.  Hardly!; in fact, the public spaces I’m after are the ones innovatively shaped by the people who know and love them best, the native New Yorkers who create them.  These aren’t the tourist attractions because they wouldn’t mean anything to outsiders who haven’t devoted the time and labor to take charge of their space.  Because ultimately, the unconventional public spaces of New York are examples of something greater than themselves: they are grassroots relics of concerned citizens changing their own city.  I think that’s a beautiful and inspiring notion, this bottom-up reclamation of meaning in a place where anonymity can be so pervasive.   

 

With a little bit of research under my belt and a point-and-shoot camera in hand, I set out on my first round of inquiry this week.  And let me tell you, there are some pretty cool finds out there!  Places that may not command a first look, but that, if you know what you’re looking for, are worth ten. 

 

Such as this historic home at 190 Bowery. 

The wonderfully, eerily mysterious 190 Bowery building.

The wonderfully, eerily mysterious 190 Bowery building.

What a door!  Looks inviting!

What a door! Looks inviting!

The notorious Bowery was once a desolate and dangerous stretch, but has since perked up.  As luck would have it, photographer Jay Maisel fortuitously—and perhaps clairvoyantly—purchased this six-story house for $102,000 in 1972, in what NY Magazine dubbed the “greatest real estate coup of all time.”  No, 42 years later, he still lives and works here (much to the chagrin of real estate developers).  The catch: you would never know 190 Bowery is inhabited by anyone or anything due to its haunted mansion aura and, notably, its graffiti-splattered ground floor.  Maisel’s generosity, or perhaps resignation, to graffiti artists has led to a veritable work of art that doubles as a mask of anonymity for this unique home. 

 

The ground floor of 190 Bowery has been transformed into a street art canvas.

The ground floor of 190 Bowery has been transformed into a street art canvas.

190 Bowery, and especially its adopted uses, are not considered in the general lexicon of public space.  In fact, they’re not even publicly owned (which gets into a whole other realm of privately owned public spaces or POPs, but we won’t go there right now).  However, they are an example of the public using space, and shaping that space for an even larger public realm.  It could even be considered manifest destiny, at the urban level. 

 

Here are some more notable examples of eye-catching street art from my trek:

 

Such lively colors on the Centre-fuge dumpsters!  They really brighten up a street covered in construction materials.

Such lively colors on the Centre-fuge dumpsters! They really brighten up a street covered in construction materials.

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These  trailers are part of the Centre-fuge Public Art Project in response to the persistent construction of the 2nd Ave subway line on nearby Houston Street.  In an effort to “re-beautify this incredible block, but also to encourage the community to express itself in a public forum,” Centre-fuge commissions local artists to submit proposals and paint the construction dumpsters on rotating cycles, thus infusing life into a perennial work zone.  The result is both colorful and engaging, and, in my opinion, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. 

 

These dumpsters are a great example of an "unconventional public space."

These dumpsters are a great example of an “unconventional public space.”

Who knew dumpsters could be so avant-garde?

Who knew dumpsters could be so avant-garde?

Again, this space isn’t necessarily public nor is it a place one comes to hang out or stick around, as in a park or a plaza.  However, the unconventional public spaces serve subtly powerful functions in that they change the urban landscape according to the needs and desires of real urban residents.  It brings to mind the Margaret Mead quote which has come to be lovingly touted in many activist communities:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

 

There are such groups changing their worlds across New York City, one public space at a time, and I can’t wait to discover their priceless work.   

 

Cheers,

Amy

 

P.S. Check back soon for an update on my day-to-day life in NYC!

The Daily GRIND Part II: My Day-To-Day in Johannesburg

In my last blog post, The Daily GRIND Part I, I briefly discussed some events and activities I am working on in the precinct. In this post, I hope to provide more color on my surroundings and context in Jeppestown and Johannesburg.

I spend my nights in the neighborhood, just about a block from the GRIND office, on Fox St. Curiocity backpackers is owned and operated by Bheki Dube, an well-known local photographer and community leader. Whether I talk with retailers, young people, or religious leaders, everyone knows Bheki, and they all respect him greatly.

Home for now is at Curiocity, a hostel, backpacker’s lodge, and bar.  Curiocity is always abuzz with local residents, and staying with Bheki has given me the opportunity to meet dozens of talented local young people.

Home for now is at Curiocity, a hostel, backpacker’s lodge, and bar. Curiocity is always abuzz with local residents, and staying with Bheki has given me the opportunity to meet dozens of talented local young people.

On my way to work, I often stop at Eddy’s Bakery, also on Fox St.  Eddy is a Nigerian immigrant who came to South Africa looking for a job.  He found an old confectionary and decided to start his own business.  Eddy makes delicious fresh bread each day, and also serves pastries, coffee, and tea.  The two of us are good friends.

Eddy and Precious sell bread, coffee, tea, and pastries to customers on a Wednesday morning.

Eddy and Precious sell bread, coffee, tea, and pastries to customers on a Wednesday morning.

Next to the GRIND office, I pass an abandoned building which houses 54 families and a thriving recycling operation. This building’s residents inhabit the ground floor without documentation, and run a recycling center on the roof. Maboneng developers termed it a ‘hijacked’ building, and GRIND is hoping to initiate a project that gives the building a renovation, running water, and a new recycling space while still keeping the 54 families in their building.

Fifty-four families live in this ‘hijacked’ building and run an informal recycling operation on top.  Today is recycling day.

Fifty-four families live in this ‘hijacked’ building and run an informal recycling operation on top. Today is recycling day.

A walk to the GRIND offices along Fox Street in Maboneng.

A walk to the GRIND offices along Fox Street in Maboneng.

The GRIND building itself is a beautiful place. It was once a large industrial building home to printing companies and other factories, and the large concrete warehouses reflect that history. The GRIND office is on the top floor. GRIND director Alice Cabaret has done a fabulous job of turning this once empty industrial space into a thriving, creative studio hub. GRIND is filled with work tables, innovative urban exhibits, chalk boards for creative collaboration, and even a message table and small bed. GRIND also has one of the best views of downtown Johannesburg; it is an inspiring place to work, to say the least.

The GRIND studio.  My desk is in the foreground.  With one of the best views of Johannesburg’s skyline out the window, the GRIND space is inspirational!

The GRIND studio. My desk is in the foreground. With one of the best views of Johannesburg’s skyline out the window, the GRIND space is inspirational!

The backside of the GRIND building.  This building used to be filled with industrial warehouse space for printing factories and other operations.

The backside of the GRIND building. This building used to be filled with industrial warehouse space for printing factories and other operations.

I love my GRIND office space, but most of my day-to-day work with GRIND takes place outside of the office.  I often walk the streets of Maboneng and Jeppestown talking to local residents, meeting talented young people, and thinking about how best to put together a community museum.

A Walk Around the Neighborhood:  Maboneng and Jeppestown

A short walked around the neighborhood from the GRIND office provides a good overview into the changing urban dynamic of east inner city Johannesburg.  GRIND has done a fabulous job initiating public art and mural projects, and Maboneng is also filled with public spaces and exhibits of participatory urbanism.  Maboneng does a good job of taking spaces like highway underpasses or vacant street areas, for example, and adding artistic and creative elements.  Participatory chalkboards allow residents (new and old alike) to join into the artistic conversation.  Larger murals (pictures below) are full portraits of Jan Van Riebeeck (Dutch colonial administrator and founder of Cape Town), Nelson Mandela, and a Springbok drinking water.

Street art in Maboneng.  Can you decipher the meaning?  Do you find it ironic?

Street art in Maboneng. Can you decipher the meaning? Do you find it ironic?

Kruger Street in Maboneng.  The building on the left is the Museum of African Design (MOAD), and the building on the right is an abandoned space that used to house the Cosmopolitan Jazz Club.  Maboneng hopes to re-open a jazz club in this same historic building.

Kruger Street in Maboneng. The building on the left is the Museum of African Design (MOAD), and the building on the right is an abandoned space that used to house the Cosmopolitan Jazz Club. Maboneng hopes to re-open a jazz club in this same historic building.

Full murals of Jan Van Riebeek and Nelson Mandela boxing take up the entire wall.  Street art like this can be found on the side of buildings throughout the Precinct.

Full murals of Jan Van Riebeek and Nelson Mandela boxing take up the entire wall. Street art like this can be found on the side of buildings throughout the Precinct.

Full murals of Jan Van Riebeek and Nelson Mandela boxing take up the entire wall.  Street art like this can be found on the side of buildings throughout the Precinct.

Full murals of Jan Van Riebeek and Nelson Mandela boxing take up the entire wall. Street art like this can be found on the side of buildings throughout the Precinct.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

GRIND works to add street art in otherwise desolate locations, like highways underpasses or sidewalks spaces in front of abandoned lots.

Participatory street art exhibitions allow residents—old and new alike—to dynamically “draw” their Maboneng experience and shape the artistic product.

Participatory street art exhibitions allow residents—old and new alike—to dynamically “draw” their Maboneng experience and shape the artistic product.

Participatory street art exhibitions allow residents—old and new alike—to dynamically “draw” their Maboneng experience and shape the artistic product.

Participatory street art exhibitions allow residents—old and new alike—to dynamically “draw” their Maboneng experience and shape the artistic product.

That’s all for now!  I hope this post provided a bit more local color as you picture the Maboneng / Jeppestown area, and GRIND’s work in the precinct.  More soon!

A street scene in the developed portion of the Maboneng Precinct.  Both sides of the street consist of high-end apartments and ground floor fashion and retail stores.

A street scene in the newly developed portion of the Maboneng Precinct. Both sides of the street consist of high-end apartments and ground floor fashion and retail stores.

 

The Fellowship, United (virtually, that is!)

We just finished our biweekly Skype session in which we bridge oceans and time zones to come together and share our experiences, solicit feedback, and brainstorm ideas for the weeks to come.  How great to catch up with the other fellows and get a window into their current work!  What really struck me was how very different our locations and partner organizations are–which is exactly what made the conversation so interesting.  One example: Stefan reported on the freezing 20 degree conditions of the Johannesburg winter (his double-sweater look is proof) while the window of my NYC office was literally steaming up from the toasty weather.  Wow!

The Urban Studies Fellows + our wonderful advisor Deland, checking in from around the world!

The Urban Studies Fellows + our wonderful advisor Deland, checking in from around the world!

Some highlights from our conversation:

  • We kicked our Skype session off by discussing this article, which is part of series on Detroit by the New York Times.  We thought it raised relevant questions to our work about the roles and responsibilities of non-profits and NGOs as they engage with local communities.  Stefan brought up a great point about the difference between integrated urban regeneration versus gentrification, and how this difference can mean everything between positive urban growth and economically inaccessible neighborhoods.
  • We bounced ideas off each other about how to redefine our projects and scopes of work to be attainable in our 8-week internship period.  How to effectively distribute surveys to reach a greater population as well as fitting our independent work into our larger organizational structures were some timely issues that arose.

Despite the vastly different sub-areas of urban studies we’re pursuing, the common thread uniting our work is a shared passion for urbanism and how to make cities better places in which to live, work and play.  It’s so inspiring to hear how each of the other Fellows are accomplishing this.

Until next time, cheers from New York!

Getting lost, getting late, getting educated

 

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Things I have learned in the past week:

1. When going to a new destination in the city, sometimes it’s best to forgo your pride as a cyclist and take public transportation instead of trying to navigate unfamiliar streets. I took a wrong turn (very wrong- the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go, in fact) and after trying and failing to understand the pizza stand man’s directions, calling multiple friends, and abandoning my bike and getting on a tram, I arrived 90 minutes late to my meeting with the people at Citybike Vienna. Despite my panic, it was totally fine- although I suspect that has less to do with my natural charm and more to do with how dang nice the Citybike people are.

2. Flood prevention makes great public space. I visited the Donauinsel (Danube Island) this weekend, a 21 kilometre-long island in the middle of the Danube River. Constructed during the 70s and 80s to protect Vienna from floods, it is now an immense public park. I cycled nearly to one end (unaware of how big it was, I grew increasingly amazed that so much time was passing and yet, somehow, I was still cycling). I saw people sunbathing, biking, rollerblading, climbing, swimming, canoeing, writing, reading, sleeping, making out, playing soccer, eating, drinking, and also one particularly impressive guy who was walking along a 50-meter slackline above the river. The Donauinsel was a pretty incredible sight, especially considering I was only a 10-minute bike ride away from the dense city centre.

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The enormous, well-used public park Donauinsel/Danube Island (http://www.wien.info/en/)

3. “The best way to get to know a city isn’t cycling- it’s walking.” This is what HAE, the head of Citybike Vienna, said to me at the end of our meeting. As he has pretty much dedicated his life to cycling, I took him seriously: the next time I wanted to explore the city, I took a Citybike to the centre district, returned it to a station, and set off walking. However, it was 9 o’clock on a Saturday night, in Vienna’s city centre: tourist-watching was entertaining for all of 15 minutes, and then I felt the need to leave. The walk home, though, was very pleasant- there is something quietly thrilling about strolling through the streets of Vienna at night, whistling classical tunes in a city that has witnessed some of the most beautiful music ever created.

Updates on the Project
(Because I think public transportation and bike share are fascinating, and also so you don’t think that all I do in Vienna is get lost, hang out in parks, and watch tourists)

1. I met with the cycling coordinator for Vienna, Martin Blum, and had an interesting discussion about how he views success in a bike share program, the problem with offering bike share in lower density areas, and cultural perceptions of different modes of transportation. He mentioned that despite the assumed cost-accessibility of cycling, those who bike in Austria tend to be more educated and higher-income than average, similar to in the U.S.

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Talking with Martin Blum, Cycling Coordinator for the city of Vienna

2. We have almost finished developing a questionnaire on public transportation and Citybike use, to be released by mid-week. If you happen to be in Vienna- first off, that’s really cool, and second, please fill it out!!

3. My meeting with the people at Citybike, despite my late arrival, really was enjoyable and productive- I got to talk to two other people who have worked at Citybike for a while, as well as ask some follow-up questions of HAE that I’ve been pondering since we talked at the think tank two weeks ago. They also gave me a great deal of the survey data they collect on riders (to be published only with permission of course). I also learned a good deal about riding the tram. I also learned that when I’m cycling somewhere I should probably check that I’m not heading in the opposite direction of my destination.

Check out more photos and stories below.

Bis bald!

Sara

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A side project: learning how to use Twitter and other social media to promote the World Bike Forum!

 

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Tagging along to a public walking lecture given by professors Christiane Hintermann and Yvonne Franz of the University of Vienna as part of the Vienna Summer School in Urban Studies.

 

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Professor Hintermann talked about the exclusion of migration history from urban public spaces. Visiting one of the few exceptions was a sobering experience- the Marcus Omofuma Stone commemorates a Nigerian man who was deported after being denied asylum in Austria. During the deportation flight he was bound and gagged by Austrian police, who apparently realized only at their destination that he had subsequently suffocated and died.

 

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