Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Benjamin Walker (BW): I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the edgier, grittier New York, but this park has been overrun with dogs and babies.
RM: And this is my friend Benjamin Walker, reporting from New York City’s Tompkins Square Park.
BW: The first Tomkins 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.
RM: But it was the riot of 1874 that made Tomkins Square Park famous.
BW: 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.”
RM: In 1936, Robert Moses redesigned the park.
BW: He cut it into sections. And supposedly, he believed his design was riot-proof.
Vishaan Chakrabarti (VC): Well, I guess what we know about that is that it didn’t work.
BW: Vishaan Chakrabarti is a professor of architecture and design at Columbia University. In the late 80s, he had a girlfriend who lived near Tomkins Square Park. So he experienced the riots of 1988 firsthand.
VC: It was pretty extraordinary, actually. You didn’t want to wander around here too much at nighttime.
BW: Once again, activists battled it out with cops on horseback. But the difference with this riot is you can watch it on youtube.
RM: In 1992, the park was redesigned again. And there hasn’t been another riot. Yet.
VC: There does seem to be a more of a deliberate attempt to make it more of a place of circulations versus places 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.
BW: 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 it Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
VC: 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.
BW: 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.
VC: 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.
BW: 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.”
VC: There’s a sewer drain the diameter of a pizza in order to evacuate the blood.
BW: 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.
VC: 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.
BW: 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.
VC: 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 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.
BW: 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
VC: One could argue that nation actually may not be able to change without the kinds of activities that happen in the public spaces of cities.
RM: 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
RM: Hello 99th percentile, it’s me, Roman Mars, and I have a little bonus for the podcasters and website streamers. This story is from my friend Benjamin Walker, and he has his own program on WFM called Too Much Information. And if you do not listen to Too Much Information, you have basically just 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 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 (BW): 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 (GS): 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 throwups, not so much big pieces.
BW: The majority of these quick tags end up on the posters on the subway platform.
GS: You know, the knocked out teeth, the zombie eyes, I call them- either they’re 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.
BW: 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.
GS: 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 very unlike 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 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.
BW: How is this different than, say, like a conventional, authored graffiti tag?
GS: 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. Like 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, 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.
BW: 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.
GS: 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 are 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. A bit of a nod like, “not saying I agree but I know what you mean.”
RM: 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.
Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.