Liberation Squares + NY Dick

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Benjamin Walker:
I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the edgier, grittier New York, but this park has been overrun with dogs and babies.

Roman Mars:
And this is my friend Benjamin Walker, reporting from New York City’s Tompkins Square Park.

Benjamin Walker:
The first Tompkins Square riot took place in 1857. A bunch of unemployed immigrants tried to set the park on fire. And then, in 1863, the park saw more trouble when the ultra-violent draft riots engulfed the city.

Roman Mars:
But it was the riot of 1874 that made Tompkins Square Park famous.

Benjamin Walker:
Over 7,000 workers battled 1,600 police officers, some on horseback, swinging clubs. Early labor organizer Samuel Gompers described the riot as “an orgy of brutality.”

Roman Mars:
In 1936, Robert Moses redesigned the park.

Benjamin Walker:
He cut it into sections. And supposedly, he believed his design was riot-proof.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
Well, I guess what we know about that is that it didn’t work.

Benjamin Walker:
Vishaan Chakrabarti is a professor of architecture and design at Columbia University. In the late 80s, he had a girlfriend who lived near Tompkins Square Park, so he experienced the riots of 1988 firsthand.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
It was pretty extraordinary, actually. You didn’t want to wander around here too much at nighttime.

Benjamin Walker:
Once again, activists battled it out with cops on horseback. But the difference with this riot is you can watch it on YouTube.

[YouTube clip plays.]

Roman Mars:
In 1992, the park was redesigned again. And there hasn’t been another riot-

Benjamin Walker:
Yet.

Roman Mars.
Yet.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
There does seem to be a little bit of a deliberate attempt to make it more of a place of circulations versus place of repose. You know, one can imagine crowd control happening in a different way now that there are all these circulation paths laid out. But no big lawns in which people can congregate. The height of the fences seems to keep growing.

Benjamin Walker:
Chakrabarti recently wrote an essay on the architecture of public protest for the website “Urban Omnibus.” He examines some of the protests unfolding in the Middle East, but he’s interested in the physical sites where thousands and thousands of people are coming together. The traffic circles of Bahrain and the large and open space that is Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
I think one of the most extraordinary sights when we looked at the protests from Tahrir Square, was that there were young and old and children and people who were clearly better off and clearly worse off, and I don’t think that actions like that are possible in cities without broad swaths of public space.

Benjamin Walker:
Chakrabarti recently toured the Middle East, and he learned that some authoritarian regimes are keeping the Robert Moses Tompkins Square dream alive: designing for control.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
If you go to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, here’s a city of four million people, it’s growing, and yet there are virtually no public spaces other than shopping malls.

Benjamin Walker:
Actually that’s not exactly true. There is a giant public square in Riyadh: Deera Square. But the only time the public is really allowed to congregate is when there are beheadings. That’s why the expats call it “Chop Chop Square.”

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
There’s a sewer drain the diameter of a pizza in order to evacuate the blood.

Benjamin Walker:
Chakrabarti says the Saudi royalty doesn’t need to build fences at Chop Chop Square or at the shopping malls because fear works just as well.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
The control doesn’t need that much physical intervention to be understood by the populous. There’s a clear understanding that if you break the rules, there are dire consequences.

Benjamin Walker:
Now here in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, there is no pizza-sized blood drain. But there are fences that keep people from coming together the way they did in 1988.

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
And, you know, look, it was a very tense time in New York’s urban history. A lot of the more peaceful protesters were protesting about affordable housing, and I think that was a very legitimate concern and actually I think it’s really impacted policy. You know, today the city of New York builds more affordable housing a year than the entire State of California.

Benjamin Walker:
Vishaan Chakrabarti is not saying the open space necessarily leads to open change. But what he wants us to see, when we watch those giant crowds in the Middle East on tv, is this-

Vishaan Chakrabarti:
One could argue that nations actually may not be able to change without the kinds of activities that happen in the public spaces of cities.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced by Benjamin Walker and me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Hello, 99th percentile, it’s me, Roman Mars, and I have a little bonus for the podcasters and website streamers. This week’s story is from my friend Benjamin Walker, and he has his own program on WFMU called “Too Much Information.” And if you do not listen to Too Much Information, you have basically resigned yourself to have one hour of your week suck when it could actually be awesome. When I asked him to do a story for 99% Invisible, I told him to highlight something that was kind of hidden, that has some greater thought and design put into it. I said, do a story like that penis graffiti story you did for TMI, but I can’t use that one because I can’t talk about genitalia for four minutes during Morning Edition. It’s actually a really nice story about finding meaning in what seems like the most crude of artistic displays but, still, too many penises for 7:30 in the morning. But alas, it’s perfect for the podcast. So young master Gilbert, please check with your dad if it’s okay, but for the rest of you, this is Benjamin Walker, again, from his program, Too Much Information.

Benjamin Walker:
Galen Smith lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan. So he spends a lot of his time riding the subway and waiting for the subway.

Galen Smith:
Living in New York, you know, you see a lot of graffiti and in the time period in which I’ve lived here, which is from like the 90s until now, it hasn’t been real big, classic 70s and 80s train murals. It hasn’t really been that famous New York style that really got the ball rolling all around the world. It’s quick tags and quick throw-ups, not so much big pieces.

Benjamin Walker:
The majority of these quick tags end up on the posters on the subway platform.

Galen Smith:
You know, the knocked-out teeth, the zombie eyes, I call them – they’re either blacked out or cut out eye sockets. You know, mustaches all the way from Chaplin/Hitler over to Salvador Dali style. But, you know I’m a graphic designer and over time I got past the initial feeling of blur. And then something really jumped out at me in a way, the most obvious things, like there are penises drawn almost on every single poster.

Benjamin Walker:
Galen Smith is the author of “New York Dick,” a book about the subway penis. A primitive little symbol, to be sure, but one he believes is giving voice to our true feelings about our media landscape.

Galen Smith:
These posters are ubiquitous, if you haven’t traveled in New York, you may not realize that they’re on practically all subway platforms and there are dozens of them. They’re all over the place. They’re literally in your space. They are about the height you are and they’re large. Very unlike print ads, and of course nothing like video-type stuff. And you’re sort of bombarded with them all the time. Even if you don’t think of yourself as being bombarded, you’re hanging with them a lot. And it can get really tedious, especially if there’s one that you don’t like. But in this space, in this context, you really can make your own counter-argument, your own counter-statement, and everyone knows what you mean.

Benjamin Walker:
How is this different than, say, like a conventional, authored graffiti tag?

Galen Smith:
I think one of the things that makes it different, and for me makes it really interesting, is that it’s even more folkloric. There’s no authorship, there’s no getting famous, well-known, you’re not even really getting a lot of cred with your friends. I mean your friends may have been here giggling with you when you did it, but it’s not like you’re really going all city with these dingeses. No one’s claiming this is art. Everyone knows it’s a little stupid. But there’s something about the idiocy that is part of why it works so well, and in our culture, a way to show absolute disrespect is to draw this penis. That’s a very New York-y conversation, or at least how New Yorkers like to see themselves. Very aggressive, moderately clever, and really sort of disrespectful. But honestly disrespectful. The person drawing the penis didn’t start this conversation. They didn’t think they were winning and dominating this communication. The advertiser and the system did, and so it’s a way of putting some breaks on this rampant and constant “getting over on one” that advertising seems to feel that its doing. Now I like advertising okay, I find it very interesting in a way and some ads I think are really fun. But a lot aren’t.

Benjamin Walker:
Every time I see one of these penises now, I get kind of excited. It’s like, finally proof that there are tons of people who feel the same way I do about our ever-encroaching commercial world. Tons of people! And they’re all saying the same thing: screw you. Really, it’s awesome.

Galen Smith:
This is actually happening now, with real people making real comments in a real space, and it’s more of a community than you might realize. And in New York City subways, there’s potentially thousands of people that can join in that conversation or can just witness it and give that sort of little bit of a chuckle, little bit of a nod like, “not saying I agree but I know what you mean.”

Roman Mars:
That’s an excerpt from Benjamin Walker’s “Too Much Information.” Find a link at the 99% Invisible website, that’ s 99percentinvisible.org. That’s it for me this week. I’m Roman Mars. Take care.

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