From Redesigning Cities to Industrial Ruins

I’ve been on the NY subway 7 times already today and have two more to go before getting to the airport in an hour or so… The noise in New York is really oppressive, but there are so many remarkable subtle things going on that sometimes you are charmed beneath the roar. An hour ago I was on the L train crossing into Queens and a young guy in front of me in a blue shirt with black sneakers sat strumming in his lap a tiny ukelele… he was practicing, more or less to himself, but it was suddenly just what I needed, transporting me far from the maddening screeches and rumble of the subway, its incessant clamor completely dominating. Earlier, as I entered the city in the upper east side on my way to meet Francesca at a museum (I had come from Penn Station where I was on the train down from Troy early this a.m.) I had that wonderful feeling upon ascending into the street at Lexington and 86th… New York! I breathed deeply, drinking it in, the endless sea of 30-story apartments in every direction, the cacophony of taxis and buses and trucks, the bustle and frenzy of pedestrians of all sorts… Nothing comes quite close to the specific sense of New York… ahhhhh.

Note the creek running down the middle of the tracks and the utterly decrepit state of this G line station. The NY Subway wouldn’t last two days without constant effort to prevent flooding.

I wrote the rest of this on the train some hours ago:

I had a great time on Saturday hanging out with old friends Chris W. and Donald N-S, mostly in Donald’s apartment, then a brief walk through Grand Union Plaza where there is about 30 different displays of potential redesigns that visitors are asked to vote on with their cell phones. We had a lot of laughs, talked a lot of politics and life, and by late afternoon I headed over to Penn station to make my way to Highland Park, New Jersey, where Leigh and Bruno were hosting me for an evening get-together with their friends and neighbors.

About 15 folks showed up, mostly older, though one gal who was in her twenties (a “Christian anarchist”!… emphasis on the “Christian” I deduced from a brief conversation). I gave my Nowtopia talk in muggy east coast heat, fans struggling to push the turgid air around while we all sat sweating in the darkening night. The crowd liked the talk, and a pretty good discussion ensued. The highlight for me, which carried on the next morning, was hearing about Bruno’s work and situation. He’s a child psychologist, and as he describes it, he feels like a polar bear on an ever-shrinking patch of ice in the sea. He works for a hospital which he finds surprising for the great diversity of its client population, and described (in the wake of my talk about class composition, time theft, etc.) how he has eeked out some time, unpaid, with some coworkers, to create a small garden where they try to bring the kids they’re working with. Once the kids are finished with the hospital setting, they’ve managed to connect to Sustainable South Bronx and get some kids to carry on their newly discovered gardening activity there. (Highland Park is next to New Brunswick and Rutgers University, about 45 minutes south of NYC by train.) He also recounted growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Camden, across from Philadelphia, where the baker, the butcher, and all the old small neighborhood businesses were run by other families, how they organically shared their products in picnics and festivals, each filling their niche, everyone looking out for each other’s kids, etc. As he noted, it’s a bit like we’re all trying to recreate that world that existed in urban ethnic enclaves, though nowadays perhaps with a greater openness to diversity. On the other hand, part of what knits together such communities is precisely the sharp definition of “inside” and “outside” and if you’re outside, you’re really not welcome. Interesting to ponder in the midst of seeing new communities forming” part of my conclusion is always to critically note the subcultural exclusivity that sometimes permeates some Nowtopian communities (not to mention the sanctimonious self-righteousness that provides its foundation!).

Leigh and Bruno, my hosts.

Leigh was the person who invited me, and she, like me, has a long pedigree in political activism, starting in the 1970s with anti-nuke work. She had read both Nowtopia and After The Deluge, and was a warm and enthusiastic host. We had an easy and automatic affinity. Some of the folks who came over for my talk were old politicos too, probably ex-CPers, but at least half seemed like they didn’t have a huge political background. Over breakfast Leigh explained a bit about her job, which is in pharmaceutical advertising. Pays great, she’s able to steal a lot of time and resources to do her political activities, and she’s a great mole inside the beast. We chatted about the absurdity of the drug biz, how the big companies are of course not interested in selling cures for anything but want people to get on permanent daily regimes that require them to take their drugs, e.g. all the cholesterol control drugs, which are basically designed to manipulate the numbers that appear in blood tests, but have no real effect on people dropping dead from heart attacks. Leigh and Bruno occupy different niches in the medical-industrial complex, and have different relationships to their work, Bruno doing good work while being increasingly hemmed in by the Managed Care bureaucracies that work so hard to eliminate his function, or to make it utterly meaningless, while Leigh is able to thrive in the bifurcation, thinking very dark thoughts about what her biz does, but carrying on to make the easy big bucks and diverting her energy and resources to subversive activities. Together they embodied a snapshot of two sides of our contemporary relationship to work.

After spending the night I took the train back to Manhattan where I had a charming lunch with my old friend Lisa S. at a timeless Italian place not too far from Penn Station. The extremely grumpy woman who was running the place was kind of like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but we enjoyed the air conditioning and quiet space for chatting and catching up. Afterwards we strolled over to Broadway at Times Square to enjoy the new public space that’s been inserted into the street. A funny juxtaposition, planters and tables and chairs, a smattering of folks sitting and having lunch or coffee, a newly green-colored bike lane skirting the space between the common zone and the sidewalk (yay! An actual separated sidepath in a major urban center in the U.S.! Finally!), but looming over it at the northern edge where it meets Union Square was a guard tower of that ubiquitous military occupation force, the NYPD.

Notice the guard tower over my shoulder in the distance!

Back on the train at 3:30 I enjoyed the gorgeous ride up the Hudson River to Albany, where Andrew L. of Troy Bike Rescue and the Sanctuary for Independent Media met me. As we drove into Troy he explained how just that morning the Yes Men had been shooting their latest film in the ruins of an old factory’s office, so we stopped off there to indulge my own love of ruins, where I took these shots in the golden light:

It was wonderful to meet Andrew and Vicki and James, who graciously put me up for my day and a half in town. They are near the pulse of what seems to be a burgeoning movement of Nowtopian initiatives in the Troy area (includes Albany, Schenectedy, Cohoes and various smaller towns in the area). Thanks to Branda and Steve P., both profs at RPI, and both fully engaged with building the awesome Sanctuary for Independent Media (an astonishingly large facility in an old church in Troy, the basement full of a complete video production suite which was used to do a 3-camera shoot of my talk there last night to a standing-room only crowd of apx. 160!), I was invited to speak to two classes together during the afternoon, one on “Engineering Ethics” and the other an intro to Media Studies for freshmen. That paid a good part of my travel expenses for this trip, and also gave me a chance to deliver my schpiel to 18-22 year olds”¦ they were pretty quiet (I find most audiences pretty quiet”¦ attentive or bored, it’s hard to say sometimes) and after some initial hestitation, they began asking questions and we managed to take it a bit further. I’ll get more feedback from Steve and Branda after Thursday when they have their next classes and (hopefully) get an earful of what the students *really* thought! But several came up to me at the end and had clearly been inspired, so that in turn inspires me, and on it goes.

Here I am at RPI.

And at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY.

Andrew and Dakota of Troy Bike Rescue took me on a long meandering bike tour during the afternoon, visiting the old Erie and Champlain Canals, which I absolutely loved! Imagine what it must’ve been like here in Troy when the confluence of rivers and canal building and textile mills and iron works made this one of the wealthier towns in the U.S. (mid-19th century), but typically of the era, one of the areas with sharp class divisions, industrial pollution, and the endless screeching and clanging of early machines, trains, and factories. Riding the train up and down the Hudson gives a small taste of the river (the motley crew of the Switchback Sea gang, whom I saw the other night on the East River in Queens, managed to navigate down the Hudson in their ghostly fleet of semi-rafts, built of scrap wood and metal, and in performance they reached for the old Tall Tale lore of the sea in a series of nesting loops of nostalgia, fake history, and post-industrial punk aesthetics), but to have experienced the river and the canals as the interstate highway system of their era is difficult to fully imagine.

The fleet at rest at night.

Cycling along the Champlain Canal.

Here I am on Lock #1 of the Erie Canal.

A large textile factory called Harmony Mills stands alongside the remnants of “Clinton’s Ditch,” the first Erie Canal built in the 1820s, but superceded by a bigger and better one in the 1840s. I thought at first that maybe it was an Owenite community, inspired by Fourier’s anarchist writings at the dawn of industrialization, but when I checked the dates and read about the Company Town that they built around their factory, I realized it was just a classic 19th century industrial tale. Now, of course, the factory has been converted, part of it into new condominiums overlooking the Mohawk River and Erie Canal down below, and another huge building into self-storage units (future apartments?). There’s a great view of the waterfall from behind the old English-style worker housing, and across from the massive factory/condo structure a nice set of historical displays detailing the last visible remnant of Clinton’s Ditch.

Mohawk River Falls below Harmony Mills.

How the river power was harnassed to drive belts and pulleys to make the 1000s of looms go...

Troy is a very interesting place, in spite of the comment on the last post from someone who found it bereft of culture and interest. My experience was quite the contrary: A thriving community gardening scene with dozens of abundant lots, a small but energetic bicycling community, an extremely well organized media center with ample facilities and lots of motivated and talented volunteers, and a bunch of great people. And to top it off, there’s a shitload of super cheap real estate here, so if you’re looking for a place to settle, you can buy a house for under $100K, you can find a great scene already well underway, but still with lots of room to take new initiatives, and you’ll be in a town just layered with history and possibility. (No, I don’t own anything in Troy!)

This crumbling mansion, though not typical of all the houses in Troy, is not so unusual in terms of era and style...

Thanks to Andrew and his comrades for a great visit to Troy!

4 comments to From Redesigning Cities to Industrial Ruins

  • cc

    Thanks Rocco… want to come to LA but at this point I need more happening to lure me there… specifically I need a couple of paid speaking gigs at universities down there to finance the trip. So if you know any profs that can swing that… let me know!

  • rocco

    fantastic posts lately. inspiring really to follow you on your travels. i was born in niagara falls and spent too much time in toronto (thus my love for Canadian beer!) and yes many of the places you visited on this tour are quite charming!

    now just bring the nowtopia express to Los Angeles, man!

  • thanks for all the kind and interesting words Chris! what an awful picture of me!!!!! surely youve got better. i mean, i know i am not photogenic, but jheez.

  • Martin White

    Remarkable report, and I certainly stand corrected if you found a burgeoning scene in Troy. The Sanctuary is indeed an amazing place with an incredible line-up of speakers and performances, but as with the typical crowd reception you noted, it was hard for me to see a film discussion begin with mostly silence and crowd-sitting. Otherwise, good for you, and good for the brave people of Troy – the crowd numbers you describe are amazing.

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