Both of these images are from NYNJ Port Authority bus stations: the first one outside the main terminal at 42nd Street; and the other at 178th Street. The latter building has a roof platform by the innovative master of reinforced concrete, Pier Luigi Nervi. I think the towers and the terminal look like something from the notebooks of the futurist Antonio Saint’Elia. For some pinhole images of Port Authority “monuments,” including the Calatrava extravaganza, visit this post.
Tail end of my trip to the Delta was a short visit to Memphis, and the first stop was the National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered while he was there on a visit to support a strike by the Memphis sanitation workers. I was very pleasantly surprised by the exceptionally high quality of the place: I had expected a more standard, triumphalist, and celebratory exhibition that focused heavily on MLK, but instead I found a rich, creatively arranged multi-media exhibit that described the huge effort by many actors that made the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The museum did not shy from presenting information on the divisions that existed in the movement, and MLK, although clearly the great leader the movement needed, was not alone in his work.
Of course, since MLK stayed there, that area of South Memphis was the black side of town in those days. Subsequently, it seems to have declined quite a bit, and today, in the numbing and depressing development cycle we call gentrification, it is being given new life. The old buildings have coffee bars, galleries, and not-too-cheap condos, and some new building are plopped into spaces where old ones have been demolished. The developers, having ignored the area for generations, are swooping in to make their kill as the grand march of capital moves into another “virgin” territory. But as with the Spanish conquistadors, there were people there already, but now they are being squeezed out. As it happens, on the drive up to Memphis, we heard this fantastic, but very depressing report on part of how this all happens today.
The pictures below were all taken in South Memphis, along the river, or Main Street.
I have been reading this book because I am fascinated by medieval art, and I see a lot of reliquaries. The book is sort of rambling, and it jumps around thematically, but it has focused my attention on these objects lately, so I took another trip to The Cloisters to see a few. I drove in, and decided to park and walk around Washington Heights with my camera a bit before going to the museum.
First off, again, the Port Authority Bus Terminal with that fantastic reinforced concrete roof by Pier Luigi Nervi. I was struck by this view from my car, and walked back to capture it. It conveys, for me, the creepily attractive monumental and oppressive nature of some modernist architecture. The tower in the background, one of four known to traffic alert listeners simply as “The Towers,” gives the view a Futurist look.
Once in the museum, I went to see the three little ladies, reliquaries purportedly containing the skulls of martyred women, three of the 11,000 killed with Saint Ursula.
Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it made me think of this final scene from Mystery of the Organism.
On my Lower Manhattan jaunt I took two pinhole cameras: a coffee can model; and a rectangular box type. My photo journey began uptown, of course, at the 178th Street Port Authority Bus Terminal. The building’s roof was designed by Nervi was designed in the early 1960s, and I just love the trapezoidal-shaped columns resting on a massive steel rocker. This was shot with a rectangular box pinhole.
As usual with my interior pinhole shots, I had trouble getting the exposure right. Actually, getting the exposure right is always a problem, but it’s harder indoors. Considering the overcast skies, this one came out pretty well, but I have been finding that my low-light outdoor shots are often over exposed because I have been relying on an iPad light meter app. According to the reciprocity law rigmarole, long exposures calculated “by hand” are too low and need to be increased. I don’t know what the “rule” is for light meters that include very large f-stops, or maybe there isn’t one. I should probably rely on rule of thumb and experience and dump the meter!
This coffee can shot of the plaza outside of the $4 billion luxury shopping mall otherwise known at The Oculus or Transit Hub by Calatrava shows the exposure problems. It is also a roughed up image, showing the effects of my clumsy field handling of the cameras in my darkroom bag. Haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.
This interior shot of the structure was also taken with a coffee can pinhole, and it turned out pretty well. The building is more impressive in this image that it is in fact, but I could go on about this for a long time…
I found relief from the contemplation of the Port Authority’s pharaonic waste at The Rubin Museum on 17th Street which contains fantastic collections of Tibetan art.
After my visit, on my way to the subway to get back to Nervi’s place, I captured this little scene, so typical of Manhattan, with my coffee can pinhole.
I revisited one of my favorite buildings in Manhattan; the multi-storey sub-basement of an old apartment building in Washington Heights, amidst the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Complex.
It really does seem like a dungeon to me.
It’s barely visible from this perspective amidst the hospital behemoths that recall to my mind the fantasies of Saint Elia.
Manhattan Schist, so it’s called, is prominent up here, and from such soil, great structures grow.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we had barely two seasons: I love the winter!
After all this gawking at icy splendor, I retreated to The Cloisters.
Yesterday, I ventured into Manhattan to meet a friend for lunch down near where I used to work, and afterwords, we strolled over to the WTC Memorial, directly across from my old office. (Also from Century 21, where I bought a pair of Italian shoes. 🙂 ) I had been planning to take some pinhole shots, and the weather was good.
I had my 5″x7″ photo paper camera loaded and ready, and I set up my tripod for what was to be a one-minute exposure. Oops, no tripods allowed, I was informed by two policemen. I can see how they would need to have that rule to prevent the area from being clogged with photographers at their stations. Nevertheless, when they saw the nature of my equipment – clearly, I was not a professional doing commercial work – they looked the other way for sixty seconds, and I got this shot.
Over near the Santiago Calatrava PATH terminal, I took another shot, this time with my 0.2mm, 0.9″ pinhole using 3″x 3″ paper. I crouched down and held the camera in my lap for a thirty second exposure. Not tripods there, either! I like the spooky, Expressionist feel to this image.
I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races. I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored. I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.
One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere. Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all. I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way. At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town. I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.
As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out. And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands. The level of the musicianship is amazing! At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.
New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing: the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place. The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule. Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse. Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.
Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico. I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.
Levee is French for raised up. That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side. The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation. The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture. The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves. None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.
New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense. Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.
The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere. We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river. (More on that later.) The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.
In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.
In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.
This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics. The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online. He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level. These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level. Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development. The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.
This effect is seen in many places around the world: In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them. As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters. When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking. In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work. But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!
Oh, and a word about those cemeteries. Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial. Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level! Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.
The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world: the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley. In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers. The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows. The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side. New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.
I remember when this …er..ensemble was created, and the incredible press it got. “The End of Modernism!!” shouted the critics, and the bravos of the Post-Modern wave. Eh, what..?
Created to commemorate the contribution of Italian immigrants to New Orleans, not the most prominent group in NOLA consciousness, it’s true, it was declared a masterpiece by some. What I did not know was that barely a few years later, it was decrepit and unused, a lonely architectural joke in a location where the expected development did not occur. Some quipped it was the world’s first post-modern ruin.
This self-conscious pastiche has learned a bit too much from Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s take on it, for my taste. Fine for the backyard of a trendy summer house or an architect’s getaway, but as a node in a downtown urban redevelopment scheme? As this interesting recap of the birth, death, and rebirth of the plaza quoted:
Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. “[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans,”
Douglas wrote. “Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke.”
It’s all been refurbished now, to the tune of one million dollars, and it looks pretty much as when it was unveiled. It sits in a lot between a giant hotel and, I think a parking lot. Not exactly an eye-catching spot. Maybe in better weather there is more life to it, but for me, happening on it by chance and instantly recalling the picture of it on a magazine cover years ago, it was as if Disneyland had just landed in front of my car in New Orleans.