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Urban Space and Representation:
(Nottingham Trent University)
A question for David Nye connected to your discussion of the economics of the introduction of electricity into the cities. Im coming from a slightly different perspective because Im wondering about the macro levels of the development of the electricity industry, the supply side which you outline and the micro side of electricians actually installing the wiring the actual work thats involved with it, and the contractors that were involved in those processes. I was wondering about what I imagine would be a very substantial economic impact at that micro level into the economies of the city. The way in which a large amount of investment was put into the development of the wiring and the way it resulted in a whole new industry developed - Im thinking of the way in which electricians became a very fundamental part of the industrial activity of the city. And the way in which there was a whole increasing infa-structure involving a network of electricity contractors, electricity suppliers and electricity workers. I wondered if youd been examining that dimension of the development of electricity in the city at all?
Yes, thats a very good question of how the development affects people who are installing it. The comparable situation today will be something like the way that people become computer experts in the 70s and 80s - there isnt any real educational system geared up to train people so we all know of people who are excellent computer IT specialists who dont have a piece of paper that says this but theyre just good at it and have a job. Its very much that way in the 1870s, 80s, 90s there was no education available yet, electrical engineering hadnt really been invented as a subject. So you had all sorts of people who, in economic or sociological terms, had experienced rapid upward mobility if they were good at this, because, as you said, there was a lot of money coming in. GP Morgan is the investor thats behind Edison, so theres plenty of money available for the development of the initial bulb and the whole generating system that goes with it. He didnt just invent a light bulb - the whole system, even the sockets, and the electric switches - every single thing that we now think of as standard had to be invented all at once in order to have this system at all. So there is a large number of people, many of them immigrants, who come in and become part of this. Edisons workforce was at least half European immigrants, many of them German and thats an interesting story - how they become part of it. Then theres another type of brute labour that has to be done you dont have to be good with electricity you just have to dig trenches, run cables underground and things like that. They were very often Irishmen, at least in Edisons case - that was the kind of worker that you could get hold of quickly, large numbers of people to dig trenches, to bury wires. There was a problem with them because they were often superstitious or afraid of electricity - even though the wires werent connected, they were afraid that theyd be shocked or hurt by it. So there was a problem educating people who did that kind of work. Then of course you get the people who are skilled electricians to work inside, which is another whole group - there were a lot of charlatans, people who didnt know what they were doing. Even Thomas Edison had his own house wired up, he was too busy, and the lights didnt work! Theres a tremendous amount of money pouring in and if you think of the way that the computer industry has grown very rapidly so that everyone wants to have a computer in their home its a very similar phenomena except that the computers were maybe a little faster, but its still somewhat similar with a large mainframe era followed by the domestication of the machines. Something like that and it only becomes professionalism later - when you actually needed a paper to say that you know how wire a house.
Weve concentrated, in both cases on light and I was wondering how this change in lighting the city refigures darkness within the city. We think of the trouble with the Victorian city and hearts of darkness and so on, and what youve presented is the city scene as its becoming illuminated. But clearly this then brings in a new framing and a new geography of darkness within the city which, precisely in the areas youve talked about relates to moral darkness and Time Square is as much an area of prostitution, an area of hidden or private and non-illuminated spaces in various ways. And then particularly in novels and cinema of the modern city very often there is the trope of the darkened room with the neon sign outside, the area behind the sign often as the place of a chase or something threatening is going on. So thats one question. The other is linked because I was thinking of Raymond Chandler and those blinking lights and then of Los Angeles, the classic view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood hills -again from behind the sign looking down over a city that is lit in a different way because this is the whole valley with individual lights rather than single great white-way, and I wondered how far, by concentrating on Chicago and New York theres a different kind of illuminated city from Los Angeles.
The thing about the darkness in the city, I had to compress and leave some things out , but therere actually areas of the city which are dark and which become darker because youve got all of this bright light in other spots so that in a way you edit the city landscape by lighting it up and the areas which are economically depressed are simply unimportant blanks, they dont exist at night, theyre not part of the pattern anymore. So what you see is the bridges, the skyscrapers and the great public buildings and of course the electric signs. You get this highly texturalised landscape which literally is shouting at you electrically "Im significant" and the rest of it is in a sense erased. The darkness becomes the area which doesnt exist even if it really does, but in the tourist postcard or the photograph, whoever is taking a picture at night they literally cant show the dark area, so that its just gone. Then you bring up the other thing that you can have tawdry lighting or lighting which also suggests a kind of evil light, the neon light - in a sense you abolish darkness as a part of the code almost, you say theres good light and bad light. Its an interesting phenomena.
Light has to be managed and in the most recent developments in time Square developers had something of a dilemma in the beginning of the 80s because they had portrayed Time Square in such a negative light as flickering neon signs and what goes on behind those signs literally what goes on behind the sign faces - I showed a picture of a building that hold out had a scaffolding on it because a sign was about to be mounted over the windows were you know that whatever is behind those darkened windows is not going to be very rentable space. So it was to their advantage in the redevelopment of Time Square to prepare the way by discrediting or making the light disreputable. On the other hand the light in Time Square was also the source of its attraction so there was a kind of aesthetic accommodation in the late 1980s that was reflected in design criteria for new skyscrapers in time Square where they had to accommodate friendly light, ambient, travelling light, the spectaculars of Time Square, into skyscraper design. There was a good deal of reluctance on the part of major corporate tenants to be in any way associated with a building that had signs on it. So having prepared the way for redevelopment by saying that light was disreputable then at the end of the 80s the same people basically had to go back and say well its ok now, weve designed it so that its tasteful. It was a battle of aesthetics that went on in the late 80s which had a profound effect on capital, profit and the way that Time Square looked - centred around the sign.
The other question that you asked was about Los Angeles and I tend to think of that as the suburbanisation of electricity, that you get that very spread out look with just small individual lights spread around. Again an unintended landscape that nobody planned but it then becomes visible from a high spot. All of these landscapes are best seen from high up which is interesting because you illuminate the human being when you get up there, whether its above Los Angeles or New York - human beings may exist as tiny stick figures but they no longer have gender, race, class, theyre just, in a sense, wiped out as distinguishable people and they simply become marginal to the actual vision of what the city is. The city becomes this spangled area of light whether its done like Los Angeles of New York. I would focus on that aspect of it, of course the actual way it looks is different but the illumination of human beings as the centre of the city or the human scale that tends to be the same.
Im still on the light and darkness theme - you were talking about store windows earlier. Thats one of my obsession reading early parts of the century instructions to window display people - and one of the things they go on about is just how much you can make, at night time, the street into a theatre with your window lit up like all the other windows but yours standing out of course and really showing up the light against the darkness. And it seems there actually were some streets, and you mentioned the streets were the beginning of the street lighting led the store people to think that theyve got to fix up their windows, it seems that there must have been streets were there wasnt much street lighting where there was only the store windows that were on display at all, and theres an extraordinary passage from 1929 book which many people probably know, French visitor, Paul M . to New York, the books just called "In New York" And hes wandering round in the garment district and he says its an underworld visit, nobody had told me about division street and hes looking in all these windows which he says are like a phantom ball full of dancing outfits, ballgowns of all prices, just giving themselves a party in the middle of the night, just ghosts, and hes the only one walker in the street. Its a real sort of surreal, uncanny moment of surrounding darkness and then this extraordinary illumination just for him. Its very much the light changing the nature of darkness and the light as artificial light.
I agree with you. Its a very interesting transformation of what it means to walk in the city when you have those lighted windows becoming new sights - theres a whole science that develops, theres an association of illuminating engineers that has regular meetings starting in the early 20th century and theyre not like academic meetings where we all give our papers and then go away they usually have transcriptions of all the things that are said including like what were doing here today - so that for the historian its quite interesting to go back and they quite openly discuss, theyll say well now you want to make sure that you set the things at such and such an angle so that the light from the street wont spill over into the window because youll loose a sale there. And detailed descriptions of different types of lighting for windows and how to go about it - its a whole profession, very quickly. If somebody wants to research this youd have look into the history of the plate glass manufactures as well because they would be the ones profiting from the spread of the large windows that come with this. Windows in shops in the 1850s would be a lot smaller - the actual window area gets bigger and the architects design larger spaces for windows as this becomes a consideration, after 1885 I would guess.
This gives some idea of the use of plate glass they had the technology of glass nearly 100 years ago but nobody got interested in window display as an aesthetics until electricity and when all sorts of things happened all together
Ill try to come back to light and dark, I thought perhaps we should allow David, with impunity, not to have to speak about anything after 1931 but I thought that that was an interesting date - because Douglas was talking about Chandler and of course we think about D Hamet as well. Chandlers really major works are starting round about then, youve already got D H whose already made his impact so through literature particularly youre already starting to think of San Francisco, and perhaps even more of Los Angeles as the cities were the main streets are full of something more than darkness. Then, I think, New York gets a sudden surge, it begins perhaps to be identified with crime more so with, of course, sound cinema which again is coming in In the late 20s, early 30s and a very crude point of course is that so many of those films, were moving on to film noir, are in black and white. So that the neon that we see is not coloured neon, you might associate it more with Edward H but the neon that we see is black and white. Just a final point, I think it might have been with Douglas, we were talking about K C whose now writing novels about crime in New York in the late 19th Century. Hes got a new one out now so going back to what you were saying earlier its very realistic fiction because its depicting New York as dark.
Ill just add one thing to that comment - of course the theatres are very quick to use electric lighting because you can do things with electric light that you could never do with gas light. The location of gas light has to be fairly fixed because of the nature of the technology, the gas lines are not flexible like electric wires are. And they begin to use lighting as an important part of theatre so that they start to have lighting rehearsals just for lighting, beginning in about the late 1880s. Theres a whole book about lighting and electricity in theatres, its a fascinating topic. To get back to Time Square, the lighting of the outside of the theatre with all the flashing lights going on and off, is important for setting a tone, not just for New York but for many cities - this is where the action is, this is where something is happening. You get this expression "the bright lights of the big city" - Ive never seen a history of that expression but surely it must date from around 1900, and probably New York. I know that in the case of the Worlds Fair of 1904 in St Louis there was a song - "Meet me in St Louis, Louis meet me at the fair. Dont tell me the lights are shining anywhere but there". So there a real example.
I just wanted to pick up on 3 things that David said, one, about as electricity was getting going and you had all these wires going underground of overground, two, on the Edisons employees wearing those helmets to show the safety of electricity and three, the enormous costs of electricity that you mentioned in terms of what a light bulb cost. My double question is how inevitable was the spread of electricity beyond the public city environment to a domestic environment, and how many questions were there about the safety of what I think were called "deadly wires"?
Of course as you achieve economies of scale the price goes down and so the one reason you get a lot of electricity moving into homes is because the cost has come down so that it is cheaper than other types of illumination, and thats achieved by roughly 1905/10 depending on what city and what utility youre talking about. The insurance companies settled the question of safety - they were convinced by 1890, at the latest, that electricity was safer and less likely to burn your house down or to cause serious damage than a gas explosion so that the questions are really economic questions at root, as so many things turn out to be. People could still of course have resisted and said I dont want electricity Id rather have gas and theres no sense in which its inevitable. In my research Ive often tried to find, or keep my eyes open, for examples of people who didnt want it but it seems hard to find. The Armish are a great counter-example, they decided they didnt want that, but most Americans seem to have embraced it rather quickly.
There were always accidents with it but the insurance companies reassure public opinion that it is less dangerous, but theres a lot of fear which finds its expression in many ways - you get the verbal things like people saying "he got his wires crossed" or "he had a mental short-circuit" - theres an awareness of this that comes out in language. You also got the little hand held buzzer thing were someone shakes your hand and you get a little shock! So people are aware that electricity is dangerous but theres also the other side - electrical medicine is very big, they think its going to cure all sorts of things from ononism to cancer, and everything in between!
Its an observation prompted by you showing the inside of the Portman Mariott marquee - he uses light bulbs as a very cheap form of decoration and often he has them sequenced as a sense of movement, or there are lights up the side of escalators. So he uses light as a sense of movement and obviously one of the things thats problematic about representing the kind of periods you were talking about is the fact that most of it was in still photography. I wondered if there was also a representation of modernity in light that focuses particularly on movement and speed. I was thinking of those last sequences of Volta Ruckmans symphony Das Groschtaat on a film on Berlin, or films like "Manhatta" or other older films perhaps representing a speed of movement through light, I suppose particularly cars or some other dynamism that might be revealed through light or electricity.
Thats a good comment. The sign makers art is really a kinetic one so to represent it in a static way is, in some way, to edit it down or mis-represent it. It would be interesting to go to Hollywood and see what kind of stock footage they have of Time Square because if youre careful and you look at movies from the 30s and 40s, generally speaking, you can get people out of the way in the taxi cabs and take a look at what Time Square meant. But Im not really aware of much that would deal with Time Square from the pedestrians point of view which is the best way to consider it as a kinetic environment, not so much in a cab, but walking through Time Square. So if anything appears Id be eager to see it.
Its interesting in the Portman example how its not just lights, if you go to the lower lobby, and the kinetic nature of blinking lights, which, by the way, was a very old technique that came from gas lighting, but its also the use of mirrors and reflected light in creating an environment which made you feel self-conscious. So there was a way of inflecting this excitement, this kinaesthetic environment to make you want to go away which was, of course, Portmans intent. Once you got inside and it was a safe environment the lights replicated Broadway as they could, in a tasteful way, to reassure you you were somewhere in New York out there beyond the piano bar. But down below the lights were intended to be off-putting, to get people to filter themselves out -which you are indeed inclined to do, if you ever go into the Portman Hotel - I find it difficult to get to the lobby!
September 1998: The first thing that I would like to push these two papers on is the construction of race, especially as the phrases "white way" and "light and darkness" challenge us to think about the ways in which urban electrification is creating a discourse of racial difference. And here my text of reference would be the beginning of Ellison's Invisible Man, with its rhapsody of light bulbs. As electrification emphasises certain spaces as commercial zones, or ones of social prestige, the lighted streets highlights a social chiaroscuro that suddenly means that the black man on the street (I bracket gender for the moment, but it's clearly an issue too) moves from being nothing to worry about to an instantaneous threat. Spaces become invested with issues of security and danger through the technology of light, which is a technology of race-creating.
Nye does an excellent job of showing how a technology has certain initial limits (need for spatial density) that are then turned to good advantage as a marker of social charisma and prestige (there is a link here to David Harvey's essay on "Money, Time, Space, and the City" and how the control of social space acts as a machinery of social power) and then how an elite use of light becomes democratised through the intervention of the market (shop windows), and then how this public interest become a regime of truth for a certain group of intellectuals (the lighting engineers). So what Nye has uncovered, with his description of convergence of interests, is what Foucault calls the "swarming of institutions." This is why I specifically say the "discourse of light" because Nye could read this history through the kinds of social mechanisms that Foucault does in Discipline and Punish, and then show how electrification acts as a medium for one technology (of class) to be used to make another (of race). The question of interest here is why did the city of light and darkness become a city of whites and blacks in this way? What contingent forces turned the metropolitan zone into a laboratory of race-making? (a question of method would be see if there are any changes in crime reporting through electrification and to see the relation of the construction of Harlem to street lighting - was lighting used to create "neighbourhood" difference in a tightly packed space like Manhattan?)
I also like how Nye shows that the utilities people worked behind the scenes. If this isn't a "phantom" public sphere, or false appearance of civic consensus, then I don't know what one would be. (As an aside, has he tried to do anything with Dreiser's Yerkes trilogy about the creation of mass transportation robber barons?).
This may well be in his earlier research (so please forgive what may be a redundancy), but I would also be curious to hear he thinks about electrification and the impact on public health and civic (commercial) sexuality. The Tenderloin region around Longacre (Times) Square was one of the most densely populated with brothels at the time of electrification and the immediate contrast to "white light" districts is the "red light" ones that occupied the same region. Does electrification abet or antagonise the traffic in women (a key question considering the popular history of Times Square pornography). A good reference here is Timothy Gilfoyle's City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialisation of Sex, 1790-1920, and he too has some interesting readings of Sloan and Bellows canvasses that use electric light to illuminate prostitution.
What I might caution Nye on is the move to end the piece away from social forces to the description of individual's aesthetic production (the discussion of Sloan). This gesture would be more satisfying if the flow from the social to the individual is then pulled back from the Sloan to make some larger comment about society or the larger reception of light pieces. (Parenthetically - Nye's brilliant observation about the word "moonshine" can also be read, if the dates are right, as a comment about prohibition - moonshine as illegally made alcohol - the electric city as drunken one - cf. Fitzgerald's description of the sugar cubes of NYC in Great Gatsby).
Sandeen's work on Times Square nicely brings Nye's up to date, but I hesitate over some of his formulations.
I'm worried about the tendency to give too much agency to signage and making it an autonomous subject. While it does not read as if this is his sensibility, at parts he comes close to a post-structuralist abstraction on the "sign" (signage as signifier) (the language about signs loving undercapitalised space and waiting for a developer).
There is also a confusing ambivalence about periodisation. I don't mean that I necessarily disagree with him, but after arguing for the break in the early 80s, there are some flip-flops back and forth between saying that a change took place in the mid-70s and then that the change was in the early 80s. Which is it? Or rather than choosing one date rather than another, this indicates maybe some other historical period that encompasses both sides, and that new framing might be the most valuable discovery of the piece, in ways listed below. (As an aside, I don't believe that the 70s were the strongest time for developers, clearly the Koch 80s were much more favourable to these interests. The claim for the 70s, at the height of capital disinvestment in the city is the paper's most controversial point).
Traditionally we think of Manhattan as the prototypical modernist city and Los Angeles as the prototypical post modernist city. But Sandeen has his thumb on an inconsistency. The Marriot hotel in Times Square functions "exactly" as does the Bonaventura Hotel that Jameson canonizes in his 1984 postmodernism essay. The description of the difficulty in finding the entrance and the reception desk belong to both hotels (since each are Portman structures with glass elevators). But, as Mike Davis has pointed out, the Bonaventura Hotel is precisely part of a militarization of the everyday - a class/race war against the streets - and this is, of course, how I read the Disney-fication of Times Square. This is the seeming use of democratic commercialism as race and class war by the New York power elite by clearing the urban landscape of an unwanted population. The move from violent clearing to leisure space for the elites is, of course, classically described by Marx in Capital's chapter on Primitive Accumulation (and I tried to show this in my piece for Liam and Maria's Urban Space book). This is the essential (not new, not postmodern) aspect of capital's relation to land use. This is why I hesitate over Sandeen's relative acceptance of the commercialism of Times Square.
Essentially the Times Square project is part of a larger plan by the urban regime that the Giuliani administration represents to bring capital back to Manhattan by making it palatable for the suburban white, shopping middle class, and to do so means having to conduct a "burnt earth" policy of destroying plebeian and black public space through a mixture of rezoning, commercialisation of police (BID cops, business interest districts subcontracting of violence), or to only allow blacks entry to social space as they become consumers (here Mickey Mouse, to cite Fanon, is the black body with a white mask on it). Even under commercialisation, there are different trends and emphases. Giuliani could have used Times Square as a means of glorifying what Dinkins called the "beautiful mosaic" of NYC, but he chose to resort to a white, white version. Here I specifically mean the competition for the much desired 10th Avenue space for a hotel across from Port Authority (the transportation node for the less affluent - since it is for long-distance buses, the use of which are strongly race/class coded in the States). The project finalists included the Miami firm Arquitectonica, which is known for its colourful design. This would have imagined the space as having a Latino feel that would also resonate with a gay look (Miami's South Beach). Instead the space was given to Disney as the white competitor. So what I ask Sandeen to do is to look at the overall material-symbolic construction of Times Square project and not just its singular elements. Read the Times Square project as part of time series about municipal (violent) control of NYC in which the argument that Times Square could be successful was "proved" by the previous "clean up" of Bryant Park and before that the police confrontations over Tompkins Square (and Washington Square) as the peripheral laboratory for cleaning a region of the homeless and other "lumpens."
I think that this argument even appears in the essay when he talks about controlling crowds during New Year's Eve. The examples he uses seem to me coded as anti-ethnic ones (especially Riis').
Two last words:
October 1998: One question I was hoping to ask Mr Sandeen at the conference, although the discussion ran out of time, concerns the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Mr. Sandeen talks about the retreat from the street and the idea of surveillance of the street, both of which are interesting points in relation to the lobby piano bar. That which is unique to the Marriott Marquis however is "The View." This top floor revolving bar and restaurant represents the city's only public and (relatively) affordable viewing deck on the whole city itself (although the new building currently being constructed (and endangering lives) in Times Square is in the process of blocking out the previously excellent view of the Empire State Building). In a sense this space represents not surveillance of Times Square, but surveillance of the city, a sort of mammoth panopticon. In short, where it may have been the case that one went to Times Square to see Manhattan (it being the essence and most exciting part of the city its microcosm), it is now the actual fact that one does go to the Marriott Marquis to see the entire physical city. The important change here being from watching the street (people) to watching the architecture. An important question would be the extent to which "The View" is consistent with the rest of the hotel in providing 'an alternative, private New York.'
February 1999: I thank Shapiro and Haw for their comments, which I have been too long in answering. To clarify my position Through the zoning incentives that characterized a period of disinvestment, the 1970s prepared the way for what we now see. The Urban Development Corporations 42nd Street Redevelopment Plan made the 1980s a time of private investment in Times Square, prepared for by the assurance of class- and race-based cleansing offered by the UDC project. Private and public development have worked together -- consecutively and now concurrently -- to craft the family-friendly Square of Giulianis New York. Only in the 1990s have we seen the full weight of state-sanctioned authority in Times Square working in concert with multi-national capital. (Its a small world, after all.) In order to set up the syncopation of the contemporary beat in Times Square, I am arguing that we should see the 1970s as presenting two competing moments in Times Square, one dissipating and the other emerging. I am treating signs quite literally as an element of the urban landscape/urban design. Any postmodern, poststructural, or semiotic interpretation on my part is secondary to the debate over their placement and their persistence in the urban fabric. In regard to the Marriott I have a hard enough time getting past the lobby to the piano bar -- I find that environment to be so anti-urban. The point about The View is well taken (and Ill take Haws claim for its significance so seriously that I may actually brave the gondola elevators and blast through the roof the next time Im in the City). Haws word about the reconceptualization (or recommodification) of the skyline is right on the mark.
Last updated 16th October 2000