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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"
The (Anti) Panoramic Impulse
One further element is fundamental to these works, and indeed most of Bechtle's city images. This is the view up the hill. As noted, the Potrero neighborhood, like much of San Francisco, is a supremely hilly terrain. The city's picturesque quality is due not only to its peninsular views of the Pacific and San Francisco Bay, but also because its inclines regularly afford dramatic perspectives. Artists have utilized these views throughout the city's history; this (often photographic) tradition is evidence not only of particular notions of urban visual pleasure, but also specific historical perspectives and spatial ideologies. San Francisco's topography granted early western settlers a ready-made form of illustrative mapping: standing on any number of hills, one could render a sizable portion of the city below, and thus easily convey its economic and residential growth. This tradition reached its apex in the late 1870s, when photographer Eadweard Muybridge made 360-degree panoramas from the top of Nob Hill. The marvel of these images rests not simply on the famous innovator's ability to assemble a mammoth, continuous view of the city–by this moment at least fifty such photographic views had been produced–but the technological-geographic alliance they represent. The city offered up both wealthy patrons and a physical terrain ripe for such proto-cinematic recording. The photographs, in turn, are both documents of civic boosterism and vivid descriptions of a continually expanding and rebuilding city. As David Harris argues, these two functions are inextricably linked: not only did Muybridge's Nob Hill perspective offer a totalizing, immersed urban view, the locale was also home to the opulent mansions of California's political and industrial tycoons, including railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. Stanford was Muybridge's foremost patron: Stanford funded the photographer's foundational motion studies, and commissioned sweeping views of the city from his new home. Likewise, Muybridge's panoramas were made from a privileged point of access at the Hopkins residence.Muybridge's photographs bring the viewer beyond everyday, embodied experience to a new form of technologically and culturally-advantaged perspective. This first fully-circumferential image of the city implies an all-seeing, mobile vision; even to absorb the entire set of prints requires physically traversing their large linear expanse, a process which amplifies the already dramatic hilltop view. This tradition finds its most notable legacy, not surprisingly, in many cinematic representations of San Francisco. If Muybridge's panoramas are the acme of a powerful photographic archetype, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is the city's filmic equivalent. As the title indicates, acrophobia is the central motif; the film's spatial thematics are largely structured by the city's inclines. Repeated shots of Scottie, the protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart, descending over San Francisco's hills help establish Vertigo's journey of psychic decline. Numerous films follow suit in using San Francisco's swift, curving slopes as dramatic propellants: think Steve McQueen hurling through the streets in Bullitt's (1968) famed car chase or the rooftop shots of Clint Eastwood and his serial killer nemesis looming over the city in Dirty Harry (1971).Both later films, in fact, picture Potrero Hill. The neighborhood is part of Bullitt's central car chase; the cinematography and stunt staging cannily utilize the visual trickery of repeated inclines, allowing the cars to bob in and out of sight throughout the pursuit. The hillcrests also render the vehicles airborne, creating rollercoaster-like views through the front windshield and generating the voyeuristic pleasure of mechanical buoyancy as part and parcel of death-defying stunt driving. If some of Bechtle's images of Potrero Hill bear an uncanny resemblance to still frames of Bullitt, as with the artist's 1994 watercolor Twentieth and Mississippi and an image of Frank Bullitt's Ford Mustang at Twentieth and Kansas–the sites are just several blocks apart–the parallel is ultimately deceiving. For nearly every film still of the cars framed by the pavement gradient is countered with a vertiginous view down the hill, or, in the case of the Twentieth and Kansas sequence, a shot which juxtaposes ascending and descending views through the pursued's rear view mirror.This difference of up versus down is what separates virtually all of Bechtle's work from the vast majority of San Franciscan imagery. The artist avoids using the city's inclines as panoramic or privileged perspectives, instead constantly turning the viewer's attention toward the ascending slope. Consider, for instance, the works depicting Arkansas and Twentieth Streets discussed above. Those who have never visited the neighborhood may be surprised to learn that the view in the opposite direction is a fairly spectacular slice of downtown San Francisco. It may seem disingenuous not to offer this bird eye's perspective of skyscraper development, but Bechtle steadfastly adheres to the residential. For the artist, works like these offer the challenge of grappling, as in the case of Twentieth Street VW (1990), with a supremely high horizon line and vast quantities of pavement. The formal task here is very much a modernist one: as Bechtle puts it, 'having a painting that's two thirds or three quarters blank space and the challenge of activating that space without painting every pebble.' But his disinterest in the classically 'urban' aspects of San Francisco also has much to do with the artist's staunchly anti-touristic position. His sense of native vision precludes even familiar destinations from becoming frequent painting subjects: though Bechtle has owned a vacation home in Massachusetts for over 25 years, the artist comments that he still has not figured out how to paint the area without feeling like a tourist. Likewise, in San Francisco he not only avoids recognizable panoramas, but also the city's numerous natural and architectural icons.