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Matt Delmont, Guest EditorINTRODUCTION UNDER REVISIONAfter the viewer enters the address where they grew up on the landing page, the video begins with a young person in a gray hooded sweatshirt running down a wide residential street. As new browser windows open and tile across the screen, the viewer sees multiple images simultaneously: an aerial view of the address they entered, a street level panoramic view, and close-up shots of the runner’s feet and hooded face. These tiled browser windows close midway through the video and a new window prompts viewers to write a virtual postcard on the screen to their younger selves.The video concludes with the young figure (now rendered as a computer graphic) running amidst a flurry of animated trees exploding out of the ground. Designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the Google Chrome browser and promote Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” the video succeeded on both fronts. The project won several advertising and web design prizes, including a Clio Award and Favourite Website Award. The website also helped to generate buzz for “The Suburbs,” which went on to be named Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Critics have rightly praised “The Wilderness Downtown” for its evocative combination of video, music, custom rendered maps, and cutting edge HMTL5 web features, but I introduce it here to highlight how the historical approaches to urban visual culture in this special issue offers tools for analyzing contemporary projects like “The Wilderness Downtown.” The essay by Laura Grantmyre, for example, calls attention to the video project’s limitations as a memory device. Using present day visuals from Google Maps to provoke memories of one’s childhood home is central to “The Wilderness Downtown,” but Grantmyre’s study of visions of urban renewal in Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District shows that for many people their childhood addresses no longer exist. Grantmyre notes that over 1,800 Lower Hill District families, mostly African-American, were uprooted as part of a redevelopment project. For these families, and thousands of others forcibly displaced by urban renewal, a their former addresses might be unrecognized by Google Maps, or a street view might reveal a freeway, arena, upscale apartment complex, or vacant lot where their home once stood. Rather than images of a childhood home producing nostalgia, these urban gaps and erasures suggest traumatic tearing apart of communities through urban renewal, which Mindy Fullilove describes as “root shock.” Grantmyre reminds us that these “ghost neighborhoods,” as Phil Ethington calls them in the context of Los Angeles, remain part of the visual history and memory of cities. In this context, the photographs of the Lower Hill District taken by Teenie Harris offer an especially important visual archive of a thriving neighborhood. Similarly, Bridget Gilman shows how Robert Bechtle’s photograph-based paintings like Twentieth and Arkansas and Twentieth Street VW, can be seen as precursors to the street view images used in “The Wilderness Downtown.” Bechtle’s work, however, can also defamiliarize the street level photographs that Google Maps has made ubiquitous. Adam Arenson’s essay on the reception of Home Savings and Loan art and architecture highlights how “The Wilderness Downtown” plays differently if you enter a commercial rather than a residential address. Aerial photographs make clear that bank branches, shopping malls, and distribution warehouses dot metropolitan landscapes and these sites of capital and commerce can both compliment and complicate the residential memories foregrounded in “The Wilderness Downtown.” Arenson also presents a postcard of a pedestrian mall that Millard Sheets designed and decorated to reinvigorate the downtown of his hometown in Pomona, California. The image features a Home Savings branch and, like the main street postcards Alison Issenberg has identified as central to efforts to promote downtown business districts in the early twentieth century, casts a different light on the virtual postcard viewers are asked to write in “The Wilderness Downtown.” Mona Damluji’s analysis of how Iraq Petroleum Company’s films and public relations materials projected an image of Baghdad being made modern through oil production, calls to mind contemporary intersections of technology, modernity, and resources. Viewed from this angle, the best sites to map in “The Wilderness Downtown” might be the Google Data Centers in places like Council Bluffs, Iowa; Quilicura, Chile; or Dublin, Ireland, that make web access to the video and, for many readers, this Scalar project, possible. Carrie Rentschler’s analysis of film and video reproductions of the Kitty Genovese case and my examination of how conservative politicians and parents used television news to oppose busing for school desegregation make it clear that the concept of “neighborhood,” central to the “The Wilderness Downtown,” is not politically neutral. The Genovese case remains one of the most famous examples used in social science and popular texts to describe how built environment shapes human behavior, with the failure of witnesses to call the police serving as a condemnation of apartment living and of some urban spaces as failed neighborhoods. Fearing the failed neighborhoods of the Genovese case, anti-busing politicians and parents mobilized around the concept of “neighborhood schools” as sites that needed to be defended from the threat of racial integration. These efforts to protect decades of federally supported racial privilege disavowed explicit appeals to anti-black racism in favor of color-blind rhetoric to justify segregated neighborhoods and schools. For busing opponents “neighborhood” was a fighting word. The filmic representation of the Genovese case and the television news coverage of busing protests cast “neighborhood” in more sinister terms, and prompt different questions about the young person running in the “The Wilderness Downtown”: Are there people in the houses watching this runner? Is this figure running from someone or something? Is the person welcome in this neighborhood or are they running away from it? The young person running in the video is wearing a grey sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, likely to conceal the actor’s race and gender so that viewers can more easily ascribe their personal memories to the video.“The Wilderness Downtown” was released in August 2010, but it is impossible for me to view the video’s “hoodie” runner now without thinking about seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot to death by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. Martin’s hoodie sweatshirt became a symbol of racial profiling and, after protestors wore hoodies in marches calling for Zimmerman’s arrest, an emblem resistance. Martin’s murder is the highest profile example that “neighborhood” means differently in different contexts, and the essays in this special issue offer models for analyzing how ways of seeing and practices of looking erect borders of inclusion and exclusion in urban spaces.I have introduced this special issue’s thematic foci in relation to “The Wilderness Downtown” to demonstrate not only the essays’ innovative research on urban history and visual culture, but also how these historical studies can illuminate themes that might remain unseen in contemporary projects. Watching and re-watching “The Wilderness Downtown” has also led me to learn more about Nicollet Towers, my childhood home in Minneapolis. The panoramic street views showed the apartment complex undergoing exterior repairs and featured a large sign for Volunteers of America Minnesota. These visual clues led to me to websites, newspaper articles, and e-mail correspondence that taught me new things about the place I grew up: that the building was built in 1979, meaning my family was among the first to move in; that the building has always been managed by Volunteers of America Minnesota, whose mission is to “help people gain self-reliance, dignity and hope,” that the agency helped to ensure that the apartments remained rent subsidized after federal funds declined in the 1990s; and that Nicollet Towers recently underwent a renovation as part of a public-private partnership for financing affordable housing, led by the MacArthur Foundation. Watching the animated trees in “The Wilderness Downtown” sprout from the concrete courtyard of Nicollet Towers reminded me of how, in the mid-1980s, that concrete replaced the real grass and trees in the courtyard.The video also made me realize how much more I know about the metropolitan spaces about which I write and teach, than I know about the city where I grew up. As an urban historian, I find “The Wilderness Downtown” to be a generative project because it encourages me to move among and across visions of urban space, on personal and popular scales, in historical and contemporary contexts. It is my hope that readers will find this special issue to be similarly generative for thinking about urban history and visual culture. Table of Contents:
You can access essays by clicking on author's names above, or use main menu on top left of screen to navigate to essays.
- Laura Grantmyre, "Conflicting Representational Discourses of Urban 'Renewal' in Pittsburgh’s Hill District: Was a vibrant community supplanted by a symbol of racial injustice or was a desolate slum replaced by a marvel of urban modernism?"
- Bridget Gilman, "San Francisco Views: Robert Bechtle and the Reformulation of Urban Vision"
- Mona Damluji, "Visualizing Iraq: Oil, Cinema, and the Modern City"
- Carrie Rentschler, "The Archive as Witness to the 1964 Kitty Genovese Murder"
- Matt Delmont, "How Busing Became 'Massive': Television and Anti-busing Activism in 1970s Urban America"
Intersections and Repetitions
Potrero Hill, Bechtle's own neighborhood, and the Sunset district, for many years his place of work, are the dominant settings of his San Francisco paintings. Like the artist's images of Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland, these areas look quietly middle class. Though economic growth from the banking and technology industries over the past several decades has led to intense gentrification in the city, the Sunset's peripheral location has kept housing costs in the neighborhood somewhat lower. If Potrero Hill's appearance still retains some industrial roots, it is likely because of the adjacent area known as the 'Dogpatch,' for many years the center of San Francisco?s manufacturing and shipping economies. Originally separated from the city proper by Mission Bay, the area became increasingly populous with the connective addition of the Long Bridge and the subsequent filling of the Bay. In the early twentieth century the low-lying Dogpatch became a shipping center, while residential areas spread up and west over the hill.Bechtle has painted numerous parts of Potrero Hill's residences, though one intersection in particular, at Arkansas and Twentieth Streets, has consistently held his attention. The artist explains its appeal:
As he indicates, the regularity of this built environment encourages explorations of composition, light, color, and medium. Such formal emphasis was a formative part of Bechtle's development, particularly as embodied in the exemplar of the Bay Area Figurative painters. These local legends' integration of the figurative and the abstract provided a model for clarifying the structures of the Photorealist's information-dense source photographs. For Bechtle, Richard Diebenkorn's work was paramount. Both Diebenkorn's landscapes and more abstract 'Ocean Park' series communicate a distinct sense of surface relationships; Bechtle adapts these 'interlocking of diagonals' so that the shapes and colors of each paintings press back against the spatial recession of his photographic rendering–qualities evident in the patchwork sidewalks and variant window and garage geometries of the Twentieth and Arkansas works. There is also, as Bechtle's comments suggest, an architectural 'snapshot' effect in this locale, as the space captures a singular moment of the neighborhood's development. Eschewing San Francisco's famed Victorians or neighborhoods with eclectic conglomerations of architectural styles, the artist instead chooses blocks that exude visual and chronological uniformity–a quality with strong suburban resonance.These are houses that were all built at the same time, so there is a kind of uniformity to them that I find, you know, sort of fascinating. The places I have photographed in the neighborhood tend to be places where that sort of thing exists. You know, there are lots of places in the neighborhood where the houses are all from various times and styles plopped right next to each other. And I always avoid those.This consistency in turn serves as a springboard for formal experimentation. In the case of the Arkansas and Twentieth location, Bechtle has made at least twenty works depicting this corner over the course of three decades. Many of these works are re-envisionings of the same source photograph, such as the oil painting, watercolor, and charcoal works all titled Potrero Stroller–Crossing Arkansas Street (1988, 1989, 1989). As the medium shifts, so does the composition: the more intimate scale of the watercolor and drawing are echoed in a cropping of the original painting, tightening in on the pedestrian though maintaining the focal length of the source photograph. Collectively, the multiform arrangements yield a distinctly spatio-temporal effect. Just as the works' cropping implies the pedestrian?s movement and the row houses' ascent continue out of frame, the repeated re-staging of this moment is an index of routine, everyday journeys. Likewise, the red car pictured reappears in precisely the same spot in Potrero Intersection–20th and Arkansas (1990): the perspective has shifted to the left, providing something akin to a preceding film still in a camera-pan view of the neighborhood. The still-frame staging is symbiotic with the Potrero environment, its steep slopes guiding the eye out above (or below, depending on one's orientation) the current location and thus setting one's vision into motion. Bechtle's strategies of excision, repetition, and overlap generate compositions that are at once sufficient as stand-alone images but also cumulatively profound as continuous portions of a larger environment.