This post was going to be about Hypercities, to which @westcenter alerted me today – but boy, is there a lot to dig into: hundreds of years’ worth of maps and media about some of the world’s beloved cities, presented by scholars in a beautiful and novel way.
I’m just getting started, so I’m turning – and taking you along – to “You are listening to Los Angeles,” an audio complement to the views like this one from Hypercities, of Los Angeles in 2010:
The “You are listening to…” site combines three elements to create an urban soundtrack in, well, a beautiful and novel way: a sweeping photo of the cityscape, a track of ambient music and a stream of scanner traffic – the live radio chatter of Los Angeles police. Sibling sites exist for New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Montreal.
The effect of the radio chatter, in particular, must be different for everybody. When I was growing up, the scanner was almost always on at home or at the office of the weekly newspaper my mom edits. She used it to track the news, but lots of families we knew kept scanners at home for other reasons – keeping tabs on a father or son in the fire department, staying on top of gossip.
For us, the scanner narrated city life, such as it was. Slow days and false alarms gave way to emergencies small – cat-in-tree stuff – and large, like the time the Nilsen barn behind Nilsen’s burned down on Main Street on Christmas night. Mostly, the scanner crackled on low volume in the background as we worked or cooked dinner. At my first newspaper internship away from home, the editor kept three scanners on at all times: one at home, one in the car and one in the office. It was a soothing reminder a of home and a way to learn the new city. When the “sidewalk ballet” turned dramatic – a chase, a collision, a fight – the crescendo of the scanner cued us, the city’s characters, to take our places.
The scanner has its own language, the language of some of urban life’s most enduring characters, reviled or celebrated as they were in cities’ histories – police officers, highway patrolmen, firefighters – and reporters pride themselves on fluency. “Brace yourself,” a colleague once told me on my way to cover an accident. “It’s an 1144.” Someone had been killed.
Of course, you won’t necessarily hear tragedy on “You are listening to…”. The creator of the site demonstrates the point by streaming both the music and the scanner traffic continuously: city life goes on and on, mundane mixing with extreme. And perhaps for you, the music, the image or another thought is entirely more evocative than the scanner. I imagine reactions vary widely among people, backgrounds and cities, raising questions such as: what happens when urban noise comes to the foreground, as it does at this site? Which sounds provoke emotion? Which narrate the city experience? For whom and why?
For further reading, I suggest “Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience” by Michael Bull (h/t Urban Studies 114). I’ll get back to Hypercities and the sounds of LA. If you’re tuning in at home: happy listening.