The Wheel

Discarded and decayed: most farms have this corner, the space where things are left. Not intentionally to rot, but a purposeless place. Things that have run their course. Mangled machinery. Broken down, perhaps with a vague notion that it will one day be repaired, but in reality, just another layer in the strata of redundancy. The wagon wheel, melting into the landscape, sits at the edge.

The Wheel

Ubiquity is the best disguise of all: we are blinded by it, our eyes dimmed to it’s wonder. Once these wheels were everywhere: wood and iron, bonded and bounded. The technology of agriculture and trade. And now, splintered and decayed.

The wooden wagon wheel is elegant: a device held in compression, holding an internal energy, barely caged. It’s construction, a matter of heat and sweat, temper and craft.

At the centre, the hub: an iron tube, which sheathes the axle. Iron to take the friction and heat, held in place by a simple pin. Before rivets and welding, simple wooden pegs were the mainstay of many types of fastening: clothing, timber frames, gates. Utilitarian, ubiquitous, unremembered.

The iron hub is encased in a wooden structure that needs mass: it’s the housing point for the spokes, but one that takes two types of force: compression, as all the spokes are pushed in by the rim, but also shear, the sideways force as the wheel does not always run straight.

Compression is a relatively simple force, especially for a material like wood, which is strong against this force, if applied down the grain. The mass of the hub presumably relates more to shear, especially as the spokes act as levers, amplifying the shear force from the rim to the hub. If the wheel is tightly bound, rigid, this force will presumably be distributed both around the rim, and around the hub, but any looseness and it will focus on one spoke. I suspect disintegration is both rapid, and terminal, in this case.

The hub is also our first encounter with the interface of wood and iron, and the application of bands. This leaves us to consider two factors: firstly, temperature, and, secondly, interfaces.

Temperature is the mechanism of coherence for the wheel: the wood remains as a stable temperature, but the iron bands are heated up to red, or white, heat on the charcoal of the wheelwrights forge. In an ironic twist, the heat that is needed to both smelt the iron, and to heat the band, is only possible through the use of charcoal (or other fossiliferous fuels, like coke or coal). Wood alone, in it’s primary form, will not generate the heat.

Charcoal is made by ‘burning’, although the term of the burn is a misnomer, as not all the wood is burnt by the charcoal maker: around a third is sacrificed to heat the wood around it, enclosed in an earthen or steel kiln, which allows you to control the oxygen flow. The wood which receives oxygen is sacrificial, burnt to create the heat, but the rest of the wood is effectively baked, and it’s this baking which creates charcoal. First, the water within the wood is steamed off, leading to clouds of white smoke from the kiln. But after maybe 24 or 36 hours, the smoke turns a gunmetal blue, at which point, the water, tar, and other organic compounds, have boiled out, and just the carbon remains. Now you are burning charcoal itself, and the kiln i banked, deprived of oxygen, until it’s starved to death, cooling, plinking, as it dies down.

The almost porcelain sound of cooling charcoal is not one that you forget. Charcoal is, of course, just a subset of wood, but carries several advantages: firstly, it’s much lighter to transport to the wheelwright, as all the water has gone. Secondly, it burns much hotter, maybe three times hotter, than wood itself, enabling iron to be worked in smithy and forge. As well as your BBQ.

But back to the wheel: the iron band, as heated, expands, as the energy from the charcoal is imparted to the iron, exciting the atoms, moving them apart, imbuing energy.

The red hot band is then placed, with care, onto the wooden hub, held in tongs, protected by leather gloves, and hammered down into a tight fit. But the tight fit when hot is not enough: the red hot iron is doused with cold water, causing it to spit and steam, and contract. Now, it’s already tightly hammered onto the wooden mass, so this contraction caused it to pull the central wooden mass more tightly together. It literally clasps it into place. The whole contraption held in compression.

But the technology of creation also holds the seeds of decay. Remember, our second factor: interfaces. It is typically at the interface that we find the issues: the interface between outside and in, the interface between brick and earth, the interface between wood and iron.

Each material behaves differently: iron, as we know, expands in the heat, but is reasonably stable in the damp, at least in the short term. Wood, however, has it’s own mechanism of expansion and contraction: damp. When first cut, the green wood carries a massive amount of water, but as the timber is dried, it gives much of that moisture up, distorting, shaking, as it does so. But subsequent immersion will move the wood again, causing it to warp and crack, as it differentially expands. Wood will also decay, as it’s organic compounds are consumer by multitudinous creatures. So in it’s very inception, the wheel creates the conditions of it’s own decay.

The spokes fit into this hub. They are shaped, appropriately enough, with a spokeshave, a tool that you hold in both hands, and draw towards you. Suitably sharpened, it is a decidedly satisfactory experience, the fresh wood carving almost like butter.

But why wood, and not iron, for the spokes? Wood is a tactile, and mobile, material, with a certain amount of give. In a wheel, that gives us a small amount of movement to play with. To a very small extent, wood gives a smoother ride than iron would. Plus, it’s cheaper.

With spokes in place, the outer wooden rim can be formed, held loosely in place, before the ‘tyre’ is added. Not rubber, of course, but rather another iron band. Affixed by the same technique, it’s this outer band that pulls the whole wheel firmly into it’s state of compression.

Any imperfection will be shown up at this stage, if they spokes are not aligned, the wheel can collapse from the pressure.

Interestingly, although i have described the mechanisms of manufacture in terms of solidity, and heat, compression, and shear, the wheel is, at heart, a creation of sunlight itself.

It’s sunlight that is used by the tree to grow, laying down concentric growth rings. It’s sunlight, ultimately, that is trapped in the wood, laid down as coal, burnt into charcoal, used to forge the iron, and held trapped by the wheel.

The wooden wheel was a triumph of engineering, and mainstay of agricultural technology. But nothing lasts forever. Leather did not last well, when affixed to the outer rim, but rubber was transformative, as was the subsequent invention of steel, which led to leaf spring suspension, and an altogether less bumpy form of ride. The wagon wheel became redundant.

It would, naturally, have lived on, especially in farms, where nothing is ever truly thrown away, and much use is seasonal. But in time, that inbuilt weakness, the interfaces of wood and iron, would have signalled it’s weakening, and eventual decay, at which point it was thrown to one side.

Today, of course, the same fate awaits our modern wheels: the latest DARPA efforts are for wheels that can reshape into tracks, dynamic shapes, moulding from circular, to triangular, tyres into treads, capable of tackling every terrain.

Ubiquity is no guarantee of eternity: redundancy is built into all technology. It’s hubris to imagine we are safe in any context. But it’s worth remembering the art of the wheelwright. Mastery of internal forces, art and craft. An honest technology.

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The New York Dereliction Walk: Failure, Innovation, and Social Movements for Change

Things change: the cities, towns, and rural landscapes that we live within do not form a passive backdrop to our actions, but rather cast a sharp shadow from them. Today i am sharing my full notes and research for ‘The New York Dereliction Walk’. This is experimental work: an opportunity to walk through a landscape, exploring ideas of failure, innovation, and social movements for change.

The Dereliction Walk - New York

I am an Explorer of the Social Age, and the places i explore are not the wildernesses of Antarctica, or the deserts of Africa: they are, rather, the places of society itself. Our communities, our Organisations, our stories.

The New York Dereliction Walk takes us through a range of spaces, all united in one way.

They represent failure, change, socially driven movements, and rebirth.

We will be discovering buildings, spaces, and ideas, which form the hard evidence of the structures of society.

The things we build represent the purpose that they will serve, but also capture the idealism that lies behind it. They are aspiration and belief made real. Their failure is a judgement: they fail because they lack an ability to change.

Dereliction

Our built environment reflects our shared purpose, ambition, and effectiveness, but not just the successes. It’s the charred layers of our failure too: captured in broken windows, faded signage, and empty floors. As buildings lose their purpose, they fall derelict, into ruin. Colonised by weeds, and birds, washed into irrelevance by the rain.

It’s not just the architecture of society that is ruined by irrelevance: so too are ideas. Dominant narratives evolve over time and, as they do so, leave behind a legacy of failed stories.

Stories of segregation, of gendered power, of bias. Stories of the ways that ‘things just are’, which turn out to be fictions. The fiction of retail being centred on high streets and malls. The fiction of the ownership of cars. The fiction of money itself, maybe, or national society. The fiction of equality.

On the Dereliction Walk, we move through the city, exploring spaces, ideas, which have fallen into ruin, which have come to the end of the line.

Rebirth

But dereliction is not always the end. Some spaces are re-found, repurposed, refreshed. Built anew. Ideas evolve. Things change.

The spaces that we visit represent this: spaces, ideas, rediscovered, evolved, rebuilt. Adapted. They are visionary, or pragmatic, successes, but all built upon the dereliction of the old.

Often these spaces are changed by ideas: an idea for reuse, an idea for repurposing, an idea of what we can stop doing, and of the things that we can start. Ideas held within our community.

Community

Every place that we visit has one thing in common: community. The communities are not defined by the space, but rather they inhabit them. To make this journey, to take the Dereliction Walk, is to understand the purpose of community, and how we thrive within it.

When we consider change, we have to consider how to sow the seeds, to create the conditions for our own communities to emerge.

As you walk, remember that most of these communities, which have delivered such success, arose in opposition.

And as you return to your own Organisation, ask yourself this: can you hear the voices that you need to hear, or just the ones that you want to listen to?

Change

Change often involves fracture and dereliction, things that must fall to ruin before they can be reborn, and not just of the hard structures that surround us, but rather of the ideas that we hold themselves.

You cannot truly control change, because not every aspect is yours to control. But we are part of the community that inhabits the space where change occurs. Just as cities represent the collective vision of their citizens, so too, the culture of an organisation represents collective manifestation of culture.

There is always a hard frame, of stated intent and purpose, but the momentum, the energy, comes distributed throughout, and it is this that we must seek to understand.

As you make the Dereliction Walk, consider this: what parts of our own Organisation are falling to ruin, and where are the communities which may help us find renewal, new purpose, and rebirth?

The arrogance of power ends in dereliction, unless tempered by the humility required to truly change.

The High Line

The High Line was the final stage of a freight delivery system, first opened in 1847, delivering coal, dairy, and beef, around the city. The original railway was at street level, and some accounts say that over 500 people died as a result of accidents on the tracks on 11th street alone, despite the fact that the ‘West Side Cowboys’ rode horses in front of the trains, waving red flags!

The High Line on the dereliction walk

In 1929 it was decided to spend over $2 billion in todays money, to elevate the tracks above street level, and the first train ran in 1933. Over 640 buildings were demolished during construction, and the trains ran right through the middle of others, built with sidings to speed delivery and pickup.

But things changed.

The rise of interstate trucking in the 50’s led to a general decrease in railway traffic, and the southern section of the High Line was demolished in the 60’s. By 1978, just two cartloads of goods were delivered each week, and plans were made to re-route some of the tracks, to link to another network. A final load of frozen chickens were delivered that year, before a planned 12 month closure, but the railway never reopened. It fell derelict.

The 1980 saw competing narratives for reuse: powerful land lobbies aimed to demolish the tracks, free up land for development, whilst others sought to use the route for a new light passenger solution. The argument festered, with many favouring demolition. Giuliani, when mayor, wanted to knock it down.

But the steelwork, structurally sound, persisted, with just a few sections demolished: with it’s connections to the ground fully severed, it was colonised by hardy grasses, and rugged trees. Nature reclaimed this raised space, until it was thick with vegetation, obscuring the old tracks.

Urban Explorers, latter day adventurers, ‘rediscovered’ it, and a social movement emerged, to repurpose the High Line to a modern, shared, civic space. A raised park. The monumental task fell to a new partnership, one which crafted access points, and an active arts programme. Today, over five million people a year enjoy the High Line.

But that’s not all: the Line does not live in isolation: it’s sparked an incredible rejuvenation, that is still accelerating today: coffee shops, shopping, a revitalised Gansevoort Market, and Chelsea Market, and numerous luxury condos. But this transition is not without it’s critics: the former art lofts, galleries, and communities, of the meatpacking district, and Hudson Yard area are displaced, taking with them much of the culture that they formed.

As we walk the High Line, consider this:

* How vision got it built
* How an alternative vision (interstate trucking) caused it to fail
* How it ‘fell out of sight, in plain view’
* How competing forces failed to effect change
* How it was saved, and the mechanisms of social movement

The Piers

New York has always had a transience to it: acting as a primary immigration point, there was a rapid need to build piers for ships to dock at, and they have become the defining feature of the waterfront.

The Piers on the dereliction walk

Where the backbone of the city used to be water transport by sea and river, it’s now truck, plane, and rail.

Today, in a post industrial, possibly post immigration, America, the piers are largely redundant. There is still a cruise terminal, still plenty of cargo activity away from the Manhattan itself, but today, it’s the airports that take the bulk of the passenger load.

Collectively, the piers demonstrate a range of fates. Some, transformed from functional structure, to derelict relic. Others in limbo, serving time as car parks or storage units. Others have been gentrified, made into parks. Indeed, this is the most visible manifestation of change in the city itself, the use of piers are sports centres, and public spaces. No longer utilitarian, but recreational.

Pier 54 served as the terminal for the Cunard White Star Line, and would likely have been the place where the Titanic docked, had it not hit that iceberg. Today, after decades of decay, it sits as the foundation of a new three acre park, Pier 55, that will include an outdoor amphitheatre.

Pier 17 is being transformed into an upscale dining and convert venue. Pier 26 will form an eco-friendly play area.

In Brooklyn, Pier 2 forms the ‘Uplands’, part of the 85 acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, complete with a pop-up pool.

A few years ago, i saw Billy Idol play Pier 97. He joked, with his long time guitarist, Steve Stevens, how much the city had changed. From this gentrified, free concert, as we sipped our craft beers, he talked about how they had grown as a band in this space, when it was the home of drug dealers, transvestites, and homeless people.

Piers represent fixed infrastructure, whilst those communities he mentioned are transient: they have not gone away, just moved away. There is always a progression of community, as a space changes.

As we look out over the piers, consider these things:

* The ways that some capability is codified into fixed assets, permanent strength
* The consequence when purpose changes
* The years of dereliction that can persist before a new purpose is found

The Chelsea Hotel

As we pass the Chelsea Hotel, you would be forgiving for ignoring it’s importance: one more hotel in a city of hotels. But in origin, it was a ‘Hubert Home Club’, established as housing for artists. And it established a long running system of payment based upon art. It emerged as a creative collective.

The Chelsea Hotel

Hubert and Pirsson created the first ‘Hubert Home Club’ in 1880, ‘The Rembrandt’, as housing for artists, with some rental units to defray costs. It had a full staff of servants. Based on success of this, they opened other ‘Hubert Home Clubs’, and the Chelsea was one.

Built in 1883, the Chelsea Hotel was, for a time, the tallest building in New York. Today, it is emerging from scaffolding after a seven year refurbishment, the start of a new (and not entirely welcomed) chapter. It is designated building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whilst the modern hotel is betting on tourism, historically it accepted long term residencies, and more than 50 artists still live there under those conditions.

Many people know it as the place where Dylan Thomas died, or Nancy Spungen, murdered by her boyfriend, Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, but it’s equally famous as the place where Arthur C Clarke wrote ‘2001: a Space Odyssey’, and allegedly, where Jack Kerouac wrote (at least one draft of) ‘On the Road’.

Ginsberg, the beat poet, stayed here, but it is Patti Smith, who recounts her time here intimately in ‘Just Kids’, who really sets the scene of the place.

A community is more than just a space: it’s the relationships between people, the interconnected sense of things, the dependencies, the secrets, the shared narratives.

Stanley Bard was the long term manager, who started work at the Chelsea in 1957, as a plumbers assistant. He created a space for a community to emerge.

One tenant, photographer Timur Cimkentli, told NPR in 2011, that Bard “was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm, and that was the rarity of this hotel, that he would keep you on, he would see you, and you would owe him two months rent and you would cry to him and he would say, ‘don’t worry, keep painting, keep painting.”

As we walk by the Chelsea Hotel, consider these things:

* The role of the character in a community
* The interrelationship between different people within a system
* The relationship between ‘space’ and ‘community’
* The relationship between tiny actions and overall historical narrative

The Chelsea Hotel is adapting, but maybe losing some of it’s richness. Possibly becoming a parody, or shadow, of what it was. The materials of the building are being renewed, but the people are not: in one view, the community is fragmenting. Efficient, effective, profitable, but poorer for it.

The Stonewall Inn

In the 50’s and 60’s, the dominant narrative around homosexuality was that it was wrong, illegal, immoral. Today, that narrative has substantially shifted, if not to a perfect space, then certainly a more progressive one. The Stonewall Inn is the birthplace of the American LBGT rights movement.

The Stonewall Inn on the Dereliction Walk

We are visiting the Stonewall Inn, not because of it’s architectural beauty, of which it has little, nor really for what it is today (a friendly LGBT bar), but rather for what it was, and what it represents: movement of a dominant cultural narrative, the dereliction of an old idea, and the rebirth of a new one.

Prohibition, almost by accident, created safe spaces for drag queens, transgender people, gays and lesbians, to meet: the underground bars and speakeasies. New York City had laws in place, passed against homosexuality in public, and private, businesses, and so the police would routinely raid gay bars.

Many of the bars were owned by organised criminals, who watered down the drinks, but did at least pay off the police, reducing the number of raids. To get in, you needed to be known to the bouncers, or wear clothing that, at the time, was deemed to identify you as gay. Inside, the club was painted black, and was the only place in NY city where gay men could access a dance floor. If the police were spotted nearby, the main white lights were turned on, indicating that everyone should stop dancing, or touching.

During a raid, men in drag would be arrested, and any women not wearing at least three pieces of ‘feminine’ clothing.

June 208th, 1969, four plainclothes policemen turned up at the door, declaring a raid. But this time, things did not go to plan. During a raid, female officers would take customers dressed as women to the bathroom, to verify their gender, but this time, the drag queens refused to go. The police response was to arrest everyone, but during the 15 minute wait for the wagons to turn up, the crowd outside grew bigger, and went strangely quiet. One officer estimated there were ten times as many people outside.

The first shout of ‘gay power’ sounded out, but it was when one lesbian customer was hit over the head for asking for her handcuffs to be loosened, that the match was lit. “Why don’t you guys do something?”, she shouted. And they did: first pennies, then bottles were thrown, but the situation escalated to a full riot rapidly. In an ironic turn, the police, outnumber by hundreds of rioters, locked themselves into the Stonewall Inn.

Fader, in his account, says “we all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this shit… it’s like standing your ground for the first time, and in a really strong way… we’re going to fight for it.” One witness describes how all he could see was the transvestites, fighting furiously. The bar was set alight. The Village Voice reported, “a chorus line [formed] facing the line of helmeted and club carrying cops.”

The next day, graffiti appeared on the charred walls of the Stonewall Inn, “Drag Power”, “Support Gay Power”, and “Legalise Gay Bars”. The second night, the rioting was more widespread, more violent.

A year to the day later, the first Gay Pride march in America took place from Christopher Street. The following year, they took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. Within two years of Stonewall riots, there were gay rights groups in every major American City.

The Stonewall Inn was not the location of the first riots, nor the first attempts to organise. But it was a transformation point. This is where the narrative changed.

Use your time at the Stonewall Inn to consider this:

* The evolution of dominant narratives
* The role of protest
* The mechanisms of aggregation for subversion
* The nature of opposition in accelerating change

And ensure you take a moment to reflect upon where we are truly equal today, or just nearly equal, which is to say, not equal at all.

Toby’s Estate

By one estimate, in 2017 there were 3,389 coffee shops in New York City. They represent an architectural tidal wave, in many ways mirroring both social attitudes, and the evolution of work itself. The notion of segregated space has fallen derelict, and the idea of ‘my six square feet’ is ascendent.

The Coffee Shop

Toby’s Estate has five branches, a relatively new player, anchored in the culture, visual language, and social organisation, of Brooklyn and Williamsburg.

Walk into any coffee shop, and you will see people working. Or at least sat behind a MacBook, drinking coffee. Just stop for a minute to consider how radical a shift this is.

Historically, we lived in two spaces: the first, the formal world of work (where we donned a uniform, and conformed with the rules), and the second, ‘social’, our homes and social spaces (where our ‘uniforms’ were dictated by dominant narratives of fashion, and the rules were socially enforced. Today though, all that has changed. We substantially live in one space, a space of tension between formal and social systems, and we live under incomplete, or often misapplied, or misunderstood, rule sets.

Infrastructure, which used to be at the heart of an Organisation, becomes a liability. Under-utilised, and expensive.

Coffee shops, and Organisations, exist in a dance: as the time bound structure of work broke down, as the dominance of uniforms was eroded, and as technology miniaturised and democratised, so people looked for new places to work, places to colonise, and the coffee shops were one of them. More sociable than you kitchen table, but less formal than the office. But once this social movement emerged, it accelerated, as people started to ask ‘why?’

‘Why’ am i just allowed to work at home one day a week? Treating freedom as the gift of the Organisation may be a mistake. Make a hole in the dyke and the water will find a way to expand it.

More people sat in coffee shops, leads to more coffee shops, and so the dance begins.

Latterly, the emergence of co-working spaces at scale represents a new iteration of this. These spaces include coffee shops (and even bars), they have infrastructure (printers, kitchens, showers), they are, in a real sense, fully functioning offices. Just not your office. They are often creative communities.

Use your time in the coffee shop to consider these things:

* Coffee shops as power
* The role of infrastructure in control
* The fragmentation of ‘work’
* The breakdown of work spaces
* The importance of these engaged co-working communities.

Lomography

To meet a fellow lomographer is to find a friend, wherever you are in the world. Nobody is apathetic about lomography: it’s a community, united in failure. Just not the failure that you would expect.

Lomography Store New York

Lomography cameras are delightfully cheap, and imperfect. If you want perfection, look elsewhere, or at least look elsewhere if your idea of perfection is flawed: these cameras leak light, flare wildly, generally misbehave, and often lack any kind of control whatsoever.

‘The Spinner’ chews it’s way through half a roll of film, once you’ve pulled the ripcord, spiralling wildly as you hold it’s grip above your head. ‘The Fisheye’ brings a cheap Japanese plastic lens, to distort everything you shoot. And my favourite, ‘The Sprocket Rocket’ exposes three full frames at a time, including the sprockets used to pull the film through. Oh yes, did i mention that they use REAL film, thus ensuring that your mistakes are costly.

But any view that Lomography represents failure misses the point: Lomography is less a camera company, more a community, and certainly a philosophy. There are ten ‘rules’ for lomographers:

1. Take your camera everywhere you go
2. Use it any time – day and night
3. Lomography is not an interference in your life, but part of it
4. Try the shot from the hip
5. Approach the objects of your lomographic desire as close as possible
6. Don’t think
7. Be fast
8. You don’t have to know beforehand what you captured on film
9. Afterwards either…
10. Don’t worry about any rules

‘La Sardina’ is a camera built into a sardine tin, which comes complete with the plea to carry it everywhere you go. I took mine all around Morocco, to the bemusement of all. And three weeks later, discovered that not one of my shots had come out. All four rolls of film (expensive to buy, expensive to develop) were blank. Because i had not pulled the lens out of the sardine tin properly. BUT I STILL LOVE IT.

Lomography started in Vienna, in 1992, by a group of students. They stumbled across the Lomo LC-A, the most popular, and notoriously quirky, Russian camera of the 80’s and reinvented it from there. Today there are over a million lomographers around the world.

Recent cameras have been Kickstarted, with great success. There is a hugely active community, borne forward particularly by Instagram, where a simple #HeyLomography will get you into a conversation with the team themselves. I cannot tell you how elated i was when one of my shots (four frames from the LomoKino, a desperately cranky cine camera, where you wind the handle as fast as you can to make ‘video’…) of a friend surfing was featured by them.

By every right, Lomography should fail: it delivers an inferior result (if you measure by the wrong standard of ‘right’), it’s asynchronous in a world that is instant (but a world that forgets the excitement of a child, waiting for Santa to call), it encourages you to experiment, and fail (in a world that judges failure), and it has no formal mechanism of engagement, and yet is wildly engaged.

I was in the Leica store in Vegas, looking at cameras at the other end of the spectrum: as the Brand Ambassador was letting me play with the beautiful $7,000 camera, we shared Instagram details, and he saw some of my panoramic shots from Morocco. And then he shared his guilt secret, in a low whisper: “i’d forgotten how much i love Lomo cameras, i’m going to get mine back out again…”. Treasonous words in this controlled space. But shared from the heart.

Much of the technology behind Lomography has fallen derelict, judged to have failed, and yet it has been repurposed, alongside a new view of failure.

Our view of perfection is not the only view. What if ours is wrong?

As we pause outside the Lomography Store (and you add @lomography to your Twitter and Instagram feeds), consider these things:

* The contextual view of failure
* The importance of community
* What makes people engage?
* What makes you feel great?
* Culture vs counter culture.

St Marks Place

‘The hippest street in America’ is a diverse, multicultural area, with it’s roots in the establishment of New Amsterdam. It has changed beyond recognition. We are here to explore the emergence of accidental order, and the relationship between communities, and space.

St Marks Place New York

Today, St Mark’s Place, in the East Village, is an easygoing, residential area, with restaurants and coffee shops. Utterly gentrified. But it’s not always been this way.

A 1965 Newsweek article told urban explorers, “Head east from Greenwich Village, and when it starts to look squalid, around the Bowery and third avenue, you know you’re there.”

This is an old part of the city, with a river running through (and under) it, which partly dictates the modern day layout. Historically, a Native American pathway crossed the street a little north of here.

The first trace of St Marks Place was a tobacco farm, owned by Wouter van Twiller, the colonial governor: it was not unusual, at the time, much of Manhattan was farmed. He lived in the area. As the city grew, it underwent the first of many reinventions: it was in 1811 that the ‘Commissioners Plan’ laid out the now familiar grid pattern, and the streets started to define the space. You can see this easily on a map, and feel it as you walk further down Manhattan: lost is the regular wait at crossing lights, gone are the neatly rectangular outlines, as the old city and new converge.

St Marks has always been a place of collision: culturally, and in one case literally, as the old tree, allegedly planted by Twiller himself, which outlived both him, and his house, standing on a new street corner, fell victim to road traffic. A remnant of a previous iteration of the city.

The Astor OPera House, as well as a famous literary salon in Waverly Place, demonstrated how this has always been a culturally ambitious are, initially mainly German, but latterly very multicultural. It was property developers who christened it East Village, enticing wealthier owners into the area, leading by a fairly straight line to it’s ultimate reputation as ‘America’s hippest street’.

Sylvain Sylvain, bassist with the proto punk New York Dolls, lived here, in a basement, eventually becoming part of Andy Warhol’s scene, much to his dismay. Warhol himself ran a club here, and Jagger shot the cover of ‘Waiting on a friend’ on the stoop of 96-98 St Mark’s Place.

Gem Spa has been a convenience store for locals for over 80 years. St Marks comics is an iconic comic shop, must loved counter cultural space.

In her awesome book, ‘St Marks is Dead’, Ada Calhoun said “it’s for the wanderer, the undecided, the lonely, and promiscuous”. “It’s not a street”, she said, “for people who have chosen their lives.

As we walk through St Marks Place, consider these things:

* The nature of change: nothing last forever
* The evolution of dominant purpose: farming, to urban
* The colonisation of spaces by communities: colonisers, farmers, dwellers, retailers, tourists, musicians, hippies, poets.
* The social functions of organisation: why everywhere needs a corner shop
* How sub cultures (comics) nest within dominant culture, in the cheap spaces

St Marks is a shadow of a previous iteration of the city: where do you see shadows in your own Organisation?

St Marks represents the dereliction of social organisation, the dereliction of community in some senses, but the rebirth too, through it’s ability to constantly change.

Grand Central

Today, Grand Central Terminal is a cherished landmark. But in the mid 1970’s developers sought to partially demolish it, as they had Penn Station, to build a giant office complex on top. Preservationists, led by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, ran a battle to the High Court, and triumphed. This represented a shift in the dominant narrative of development, across the city.

Grand Central Station New York

Grand Central is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, with nearly 22 million people a year coming to look out over the central concourse, and snap an iconic photo.

The terminal covers 48 acres of space, 44 platforms, across two levels. Including rail yards, there are over 100 tracks. One track, number 14, is only used for loading a garbage train. The basement area is the largest in New York, including the M42 ‘secret’ basement, which houses the AC to DC power converters, that power the tracks. It appears on no maps.

The clock on the facade facing 42nd street contains the largest example of Tiffany glass. The sculptural group surrounding it is considered the largest in the world, including representations of Minerva, Mercury, and Hercules.

In the main hall, the ceiling depicts an elaborate astronomical scene: there is a small dark circle, above Pisces, a legacy from 1957, when, in an attempt to counter the feelings of insecurity from the Sputnik launch, a Redstone Missile was set up in the main concourse. A hole was cut to attach a stabilising cable.

The first terminal opened in 1871, and it has been almost continuously adapted, and repurposed ever since. At various times, it’s housed a tennis court and film studio. The current structure was substantially started in a complete rebuild between 1903 and 1913. There were strong objections to the destruction of dozens of building on the site.

Grand Central was designed to support a tower built above it. In 1954, William Zeckendorf proposed replacing the station with an 80 story tower, taller than the Empire State Building. The plan was abandoned. In 55 Erwin Wolfson proposed a tower north of the terminal, and the Pan Am building (now MetLife) was completed, even though that part of the Terminal was not designed to support a tower above it.

The station continued to decline, and sister station, equally grand, at Penn, was demolished in 1964. In 1968, Marcel Breuer designed a structure that would have destroyed the main facade and waiting rooms. Kennedy said “…if they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe… this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes”.

As we walk through Grand Central, consider this:

* How ‘glass and steel boxes’ became a dominant architectural narrative: how uniformity emerged
* How the social movement saved the station, but Penn had to die first.
* How Grand Central only emerged from the dereliction and destruction of the first station.
* Consider how the station is beautiful: does form or function give beauty?

Reading List and Bookshops

New York is blessed with both great writers, and great bookshops. Here are a few of my favourites, as well as some of my favourite places to read.

How New York Breaks Your Heart’ by Bill Hayes: a beautiful portrait of the city, and his life with Oliver Sacks.

St Marks is Dead’, by Ada Calhoun: a multi generational story of St Marks, unrivalled in scope.

Just Kids’, by Patti Smith: the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, against the backdrop of a changing New York. If you just read one book this year, make it this one.

Three Lives and Company’ bookstore http://threelives.com

Posman Books’, in Chelsea Market, https://www.posmanbooks.com

Toby’s Estate coffee. Williamsburg is my favourite. https://

Irving Farm Coffee Roasters. Up on 71st is my favourite, for the egg muffin with a good book for jet lagged breakfasts. Lots of chilli sauce. https://irvingfarm.com

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Apollo

The Saturn 5 rocket, the one that lofted Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin, into space and set them on the path to the moon, had more than three million parts to it. It’s sometimes reckoned to be the most complex machine ever built (standing in comparison to the human brain, which is sometimes thought to be the most complex system we have yet discovered.

Apollo Lander

It was built to fail. Not collectively, but comprehensively, in small ways, throughout. It was built with a clear understanding that not every bolt would hold, every pump activate, every electrical circuit fire. It was built with layers of redundancy, and a belief that failure would not cascade through the system. And it was done right: it’s one of the safest rocket systems every designed. Failure occurred, but rattled around within the systems, every time it flew, rather than aligning, and cascading.

Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo landing, and today, i’m sharing an illustration. I’m considering writing a short book about the lessons of Apollo, sharing some of the key moments of the programme, and considering it’s wider impact and legacy.

One aspect of the Apollo programme really stands out for me. It was not a matter of understanding complexity within a known system, but rather a case of creating the complex system. This is nowhere more true than in the systems of codified activity that made up mission control. Today, mission controllers operate in a known discipline, but back then, there was no paradigm of what mission control was, or how it would ‘control the mission’. Operating as a structured spaces of pre-thinking, able to respond, guide, and react, at speed, it meant an evolution in the nature of, and relationship with, knowledge, and the creation of systems of risk, consequence, and operation, hitherto unknown.

The first boot print that Neil left on the moon is the moment that we remember. But the effort required to make the boot, and get it to the moon, is the most fascinating story to uncover.

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Why Storytelling

Stories are not just words. They are ideas, they carry meaning. A story can reinforce and confirm those things that you already know to be true, it can open up new areas for us to recognise our own ignorance within, or it can outright deny and denude the foundations of our understanding of how the world works. Stories can make, or break us. Stories can provoke or comfort us. Stories can donate to, or take from us.

The Landscape of Stories

We are a storytelling species: homo sapiens is not simply the thinking ape, but the storytelling one. We ‘think’ to create meaning, and we ‘story’ to share it.

A story, well crafted, shared wisely, tuned carefully, may spread meaning throughout a system. But it may equally be countered, denied, perverted, distorted, or fractured, by another story. Because stories do not just carry meaning: they carry power. They carry violence within them.

It’s hard to divorce ‘story’ from ‘context’. A religious text may carry one meaning, if shared in a society where that religion forms the dominant belief system, but when shared in another, or shared a thousand years after the death of the last believer, it has no meaning at all: it can lose it’s context. Context is imbued through our broader cultural understanding, not carried inherently in the form of the story itself. Even cultural norms of beauty and grace are aggregated delusions. Normalised perceptions.

Similarly, the words of a powerful leader may carry great meaning. Until that leader is dismissed for bullying, or harassment, at which time the context strips that meaning away.

A story may hold great authenticity, and spread because of that compelling force, only to lose it if the roots of it’s power are uncovered to be false.

We exist within a Landscape of Stories, and to become a Social Leader, we need the bravery, and humility, to explore.

Social Leaders are empowered by their communities: their reputation grounds their Social Authority. You already have your formal power, nested within a hierarchy, but to become a Social Leader, a humble Storyteller is to gain a new type of power.

This month i launch my first Social Leadership Certification programme, exploring ‘The Landscape of Stories’.

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Fallout: The Failure of Dominant Narratives

A dominant narrative is a story that takes on a life of it’s own: it becomes the accepted norm. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, all across the United States, tens of thousands of nuclear fallout shelters were built, nearly twenty thousand in New York City alone: these were rooms with no windows, either basements, purpose built, and stocked with government supplies of high energy biscuits, water barrels (which could helpfully double as toilets when empty [!]), and emergency drugs. The narrative was clear: nuclear war could break out at any time, and the route to survival was ‘duck and cover’, make your way to the shelter fast, and prepare to receive instructions.

Fallout

It was, of course, a hopeless narrative: the chances of surviving a nuclear war were unlikely to be much improved by sheltering in the laundry room, but the narrative was not really one about survival. It was one about national identity, about conformity, and difference. This was more a story about hope, than about improving your odds, and more a story of patriotic opposition, and the unity that that engenders.

In the 60’s a succession of businessmen tried to market ‘luxury’ bunkers, and government communications were more likely to show a gingham tablecloth, and happy family, than they were to show crowds of radiation poisoned citizens sitting on their water barrels.

Today, most of the shelters are empty: in the seventies, the government even had to resort to paying contractors to go in and recover the drugs from them, following a wave of break ins and incidents with people stealing them. It turns out that a nuclear shelter provides greater utility when repurposed as somewhere to store your bike, or do the laundry. Unless, that is, you believe the tales of ‘rats the size of dogs’ overwhelming many of the shelters, attracted, no doubt, by the ‘high energy biscuits’.

The dominant narrative of nuclear war led to a convenient narrative of communism, and, directly, to the purges of liberal creatives. Stories carry power, and often inherent violence, within themselves.

In time the narrative of nuclear war, and especially the notion that you could ride it out alongside the rats, became so threadbare, that it crumbled. And as the story failed, so too did the shelters.

Today, walk around New York, and you can still find the rusted yellow and black signs, screwed to a wall, high up, indicating where to run to in times of war. Although even these signs are starting to fail: since 2017, FEMA has been quietly removing the signs from schools, and other public buildings, concerned that, in the event of war, people would deem the bunkers still functional.

Ironically, nobody seems clear who even owns the signs, so those on private property remain untouched, lest someone fall foul of a federal rule about damage to war property no doubt.

Today, in the event of nuclear war, you are more likely to receive a government text message, which i am sure will be a deep comfort.

The Fallout signs are a reminder, a shadow, of a dominant narrative that simply stretched too thin, and ultimately, was revealed as folly. But the signs remain, to this day. Shadows of the thing.

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New York: Divided

Our view into a community is inherently divided: we see just one layer, one context. One city. The last few days, walking through New York, i find myself moving not just up and down, across the grid, but also through different layers. Layers of dereliction, layers of renewal, layers that are disenfranchised, peripheral, layers that are permanent, and ones that are transient, and all, of course, framed by the dominant narratives of commerce and control.

New York Divided

I find myself standing outside the Stonewall Inn: the sun is out, it’s quiet, so quiet i can hardly hear the shadow, the whisper, of one woman, handcuffed, beaten, shouting “why don’t you guys do something”, as the police dragged her down. The spark that lit the Stonewall riots, birthplace of the equal rights movement in the US.

The Stonewall Inn on the Dereliction Walk

Because the guys did do something: one account has them lining up in a chorus line, doing high kicks as the police charged. But the truth is probably more prosaic: scuffles, violence, the the start of an erosion.

Stonewall represents the fall of one dominant narrative, and the rise of another. The city represents many different narratives, aggregated, captured in brick and steel. Dominant narratives are those that are so established, that we do not hear them shout. But as much as they empower, they trap us: a dominant narrative of inequality was only fractured, divided, by violence. A tipping point.

The physical city simply delineates space: a cumulative delineation. City upon city. Story upon story. One city, divided.

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New York: Looking Up

My head is caught up in perspectives: as i plan the Dereliction Walk, i’m walking around the city, choosing locations, sitting writing in cafes. Head down. Focussed. When we are focussed, it’s hard to look up. And not ‘looking up’ leaves us at risk of failure. I keep coming back to it: perspectives, frames, lenses, the ways that we look at the world are biased, pre-contextualised.

New York Looking Up

When we look up, when we depart from our established narrative, we find different views, we see things in a different light. And it’s not about seeing things in a ‘right’ way, but rather in recognising the limitations of one view. To open ourselves up to the possibility of a different way, is to hold the potential for change.

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