The one thought I’ve had over and over again, why is this not a freshman prerequisite? This should be mandatory for all incoming new students! If NYU wants to tout how “connected” they are to the local community, why are we not required to take a course like this, a “History of the City” course, that actually teaches students about the area in which they live? My one regret is that I did not take this course sooner, as I now feel like I’ve been walking around the city for years with blinders on. No wonder the Village hates us, we take over historic buildings and exclude the citizens, all while acting as if we don’t even really care about this city. Do we bother to teach our students about the history of the buildings they live and work in? In general, the answer is no, and the students don’t seem to mind. It’s embarrassing. I remember overhearing some students on the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire:
“What’s all this for?”
“I don’t know, some people were killed around here or something.”
“Like, a long time ago or something."
Overall, this was such a fantastic class, especially for a school within a city. I’m very glad I signed up. But, I must say, Take Back NYU? How about Give Back NYU, give it back to the city until the students learn to care.
There are a few stoops on my street, but for the most part the larger ones are separated from the general public by gates. The stoops that aren’t gated never seem to have people sitting on them, that is, except for the stoop on my building, which just so happens to be the largest stoop on the street. I don’t know what it is about this particular stoop, but it seems as if there is someone sitting on it almost daily. Sorkin sees the stoop as mixture of both public and private space, but I think most people see it as being a strictly public space, which is something that really bothers me. A public space is a bench. You’re welcome to sit as long as you want with as many people as you want on a bench, I don’t mind. Do you want to lie down on a bench? Fine. A stoop is not a public space; it’s a staircase to a private building that just happens to be outside. It’s a privilege that you get to sit on someone else’s stoop, it’s not a right. I wasn’t always the “Get off my stoop!” guy, but after years of living at my current building, I can no longer tolerate the permanent rudeness that exists on my stoop. I’ve found that people travel in groups and prefer to sit in the exact middle of my stoop, effectively blocking anyone who wishes to enter or leave the building. One night, after returning home from the grocery store, I saw a handful of people on the stoop. There I stood, in front of my building with my “grandma cart” (one of those rectangular metal basket/carts with wheels) waiting for someone to move. No one moved. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to carry one of those grandma carts full with food up some stairs, but it isn’t easy. I picked up the cart and began climbing the stairs of the stoop. Immediately, I growled, “Move.” It came out a tad angrier than I had planned, but it worked, the stoop-sitters quickly got out of my way. I’m not particularly mean to everyone who sits on my stoop, just those who lack the courtesy to let me pass.
If we are able to reach the main door, we then come to the mail “room.” The size of a closet, this section of the building houses the mailboxes and any notes from the super. Climb another set of stairs, open another door, and we have just entered the building. Walking past two apartments, we come to the staircase. I love the staircase in my building. The stairs themselves are marble, and the intricate railing and handrail are old iron. The thought never crossed my mind before reading Sorkin’s book, but now I can’t stop wondering, how am I supposed to get up and down these stairs if I’m injured? Walking on crutches, Sorkin had to figure this problem out for himself. “There were a number of near catastrophes when I missed the tread with a crutch and came close to tumbling down the rest of the flight” (Sorkin 30). There is no way I’d have the nerve to do that, the stairs in my building are too steep. Also, when the stairs are just the tiniest bit wet, you have to take extra care when walking them even without crutches. I’ve slipped on them twice the winter before last thanks to a slush and road salt buildup. Something I’ve found very interesting is that on the landing just before the roof access, the floor is not the same boring tile as it is in the rest of the hallways. In this section, the floor is a beautiful old mosaic of 1 square inch multicolored tiles. It makes me wonder, just like how the city paved asphalt over most of the old cobblestone streets in the Village, did my building manager cover the beautiful old mosaic floor up with generic grey tile?
These old Manhattan buildings pose another problem: what are you supposed to do when you’ve reached an age where it becomes hard for you to climb the stairs each day? The lack of discussion on this subject leads me to believe that one is just expected to move. If you can’t walk up the stairs, get out. Find another place to live. There is an 87-year-old woman who lives alone on the top floor of my building. It takes her a very long time to walk up or down the stairs, and she takes each step one at a time, holding on to the railing for dear life. Out on the street, she can’t get around without her walker, so she has to have someone carry it down from her apartment each time she wants to leave the building. She told me one day that she had been living in that same apartment since she was a teenager, and that she wasn’t going to leave the building until the day came when she was no longer able to make it up and down the steps (she was living just minutes away from Washington Square during the Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses/highway fight. I wonder if she ever got involved in the cause to save the area? The next time I see her, I should ask about her thoughts on the matter). So, in this city, if you’ve been living in the same walkup for decades but you can no longer climb stairs, your only options are to either pack up and move somewhere that has an elevator or move to a ground floor apartment?
Moving up the stairs, we reach the third floor landing, turn right, and walk down the hall. If the old black door reads “12,” we’re in the right place. Walking in, we find ourselves in the kitchen, and I’m reminded of Michael Pollan and his quest to build a comfortable place of his own.
“Like a suit of clothes, Charlie had designed the space to the measure of my body, so everything I could possibly need—books, files, supplies, heater controls, machinery—I could reach without ever having to get up from my chair. Taking my seat in the lower section of the writing house came to feel like putting on a favorite old sweater or pair of socks. It fit me to a T” (Pollan xv).”
This is exactly how I feel about my apartment. Although I obviously had no hand in constructing the actual building, my years of living here have led this space to feel as if it were tailor made to meet my exact specifications. Unlike most college-aged individuals who either move from dorm to dorm or from apartment to apartment regularly, I have spent my entire college life in this same apartment. I don’t need to move from space to space searching for something (a better space, a bigger space, a cheaper space, a space that is closer to “the action,” etc.), I got lucky and found just what I was looking for. As we stand in the kitchen with our backs to the door, walking forward and to the left will eventually bring us to the bathroom. The bathroom is just a bathroom, but it contains something very neat: a 12” x 51” window. With such odd measurements, one has to immediately think back to Pollan’s own custom window fiasco. Something I often wonder about is whether or not the five windows in my apartment existed when the building was originally built in 1891. Judging by the construction, I would bet that two of them were added later on to comply with light and fresh air laws. Leaving the bathroom and passing through the kitchen, we can enter either the “main room” (converted from bedroom #1), or bedroom #2. My favorite thing about the main room is the kitchen table, which was bought by my parents back in the early 1970s and was used as their dinner table in their first home (pre-marriage, pre-kids, or as my father would say, “back when we had lives”). The brown wood is scuffed and scratched with decades of memories. My feelings toward this table must be similar to how Pollan felt about using those two-hundred-year-old old growth pine floorboards. Old wood is one of the most special things one can find. The patina that develops is absolutely unique to the piece at hand; no two sections of old wood will ever look the same.
Entering bedroom #2 through a pair of beautiful French doors, we are now in my bedroom. Pollan called the specific area at his writing desk his “cockpit” (xv); at the foot of my bed in the corner of the bedroom I have two large comfy chairs separated by a black wood coffee table. If I ever had a designated cockpit like Pollan, it would absolutely be the chair on the left. I sit here so often that there is a permanent imprint of my ass in the cushion (a point of pride, I know). I do everything in that particular chair; probably 75% of all of the papers I’ve written in college were done there. My computer is to my left, the coffee table where I place food and drinks is to my right, further to the right are windows that pour in tons of bright natural light and overlook a garden and patios, a television is directly in front of me (across the room, next to my dead Christmas tree which I still have), and an ottoman is underfoot. Everything is done in this chair (I’m writing this paper in it right now). It is my cockpit.
In the preface of A Place of My Own, Pollan sadly describes how after ten years in his writing house he was forced to leave it and move to California. He now leases out the home to a young couple who have managed to turn the important space into nothing more than “a crowded real-estate office plopped down in the woods” (xvii). How depressing. I wonder how I’ll feel after I have to move out of my home here on Jones Street. Like the young couple that moved into Sorkin’s New England home, the new tenants of apartment 12 will surely kill the magic that I’ve created for myself over the years. There’s no doubt that I will nostalgically look back on my time in the comfy chair on the left side of the coffee table where I’ve spent an incalculable amount of time writing paper after paper after paper.
“As the landlord proceeded with the conversion of the building, one of the huge freight elevators was removed and replaced by a smaller passenger cab that descended to a new lobby designed for the use of the new residential tenants.”
He goes on to say that the current occupants were not allowed to use the new elevators or the new lobby, except for the times when the older two elevators (which had fallen into disrepair) were not working. Its very sad to contrast the two living spaces: Sorkin and fellow tenants were made to enter through the old non-air-conditioned lobby with frequently broken elevators, while salesmen and prospective residents could experience the new lobby, which was “cool and sleek, lavish with stone and wood paneling, and elegantly frescoed” (185).
Sorkin then discusses elevator etiquette. “For me the paradigm is face front, evenly spaced, complete silence” (186), he says. Most people would probably agree with this model, although there are certainly those who feel as though the elevator is their own personal space to do what they wish. When I get in an elevator, I prefer to stand by one of the sides to give everyone else enough space. Often, a person will enter and then decide to stand right next to me, even when there’s a bunch of empty space. A few days ago, I got on an elevator with another man. Even though we were the only two people in the elevator, he decided to stand right beside me. To make matters worse, he had terrible body odor and was stretching his arms behind his head, forcing his armpit stink to fill the tiny room.
Another unspoken rule that I take very seriously is that talking should be at a minimum. I’d say the smaller the elevator, the less talking that should occur (of course, if the elevator is empty other than the person you wish to speak with, go for it). The elevators in Gallatin should have no talking at all. It’s just weird to share a tiny closet of space with four other strangers and have two of them yapping away at each other (usually with you standing in the middle of them). 1) I don’t want to hear your conversation; 2) Do you not realize that we are in a small and enclosed area? You do not need to use your outdoor voice! 3) Is what you are saying really that important that it cannot wait the 20 seconds it takes to reach your floor? The same no-talking etiquette applies for all cell phones. I wish people would be more polite, especially when I have to stand one foot away from them in a small metal box.
As with the injured, the trouble with stairs is that they also create a problem for the elderly. In my building, there is an 87-year-old woman who lives alone on the fifth (top) floor. It takes her about 10 minutes to get from the street to her apartment and she cannot even walk without the aid of a walker, which is too heavy and wide for her to use on the staircase so she has to have someone carry it up and down the stairs each day. She told me one day that she had been living in that same apartment since she was a teenager, and she wasn’t going to leave until the day came when she could no longer make it up the steps.
On the first page of the book Sorkin touches on buildings with elevators, describing how we are often dissuaded from using the stairs, as they are “residual,” “unpleasant,” and frequently “alarmed to prevent non-emergency use” (10), and I immediately pictured my sister’s building in Chelsea. It’s an upscale building so it has elevators and what Sorkin describes as the hidden, emergency-only staircase. The only problem is, I have no clue as to where that staircase is located. I have never seen them, a door labeled “Stairs,” or a sign in one of the hallways with an arrow pointing to the stairs. I wonder if the tenants know where the stairs are…
While the public saw the park as being lived-in and comfortable, Moses only saw the negative aspects; Washington Square Park was an old and waning space that desperately cried out to be modernized (71). His original 1935 redesign was essentially a gigantic traffic roundabout, replacing the fountain with gardens and turning the square park into a circle. The plan failed and eventually, Moses’ idea was to plop down a roadway right on the park itself. The neighborhood again expressed their opposition. Why would anyone want to allow dangerous automobile traffic to go through a public park? “Washington Square was a park, and a park was no place for highways” (79).
I love the idea that the Village is not just like any other part of Manhattan. The Village is a community. Village Voice journalist Mary Perot Nichols wrote that altering Washington Square Park would be the first step in killing the neighborhood as well as the community. She believed that by building a roadway through the park, Moses would turn Greenwich Village into just another faceless part of the city, removing the uniqueness and people-friendly spaces that have come to define the area (84). I feel that this belief is very accurate. Living on a quiet street in the West Village, it isn’t very often that I like to travel too far outside of this area (why would I, everything I need I have right in my little neighborhood). On the occasions where I do need to go uptown/downtown, I always have some reluctance. Leaving the subway at my destination, I am immediately struck by “it.” I might just be crazy, but it seems like everything is different; the smells, the sounds, everything about it is just wrong. I always wonder, “Why would anyone want to live here? It’s so cold and distant.” Everything seems manufactured, like I’m walking through a Walt Disney neighborhood. When I arrive back home and go up onto the street, I breathe a sign of relief. I feel like I’ve come back to an actual neighborhood, a nice place where I’m not engulfed by anonymous glass buildings or swept away in a sea of migrating businessmen. The road through Washington Square Park would have certainly been a nail in the coffin for Greenwich Village. If the plan had been completed, I feel as if the relatively quiet space of the Village would have eventually turned into something else, something unfriendly that would have ultimately destroyed that community feeling.
In the chapter on “The Roof,” Pollan discusses a design by Peter Eisenman called House VI. Having never heard of this building, I decided to investigate. Pollan says that the goal of Eisenman and crew was to deconstruct some of the fundamentals of architecture, specifically the ideas of “shelter, aesthetics, structure, and meaning” (193). They wanted to pull the rug out from underneath all those who took the familiarity of houses for granted.
Very few of Eisenman’s Houses were actually built, and the website for Eisenman Architects contains pictures of the completed House II in Vermont and House VI in Connecticut, along with a model of House X that was never built. Pollan calls House VI “some sort of spiny gray-and-white spaceship hovering several feet above the lawn” (194). To me, it looks like a composite house made from mismatched parts of several different houses.
The interior of House VI is destabilized, as was Eisenman’s goal. Architecture website ArchDaily writes that many of the columns and beams provide no structural support and in fact only exist as design elements.
“[Eisenman] made it difficult for the users so that they would have to grow accustomed to the architecture and constantly be aware of it” (ArchDaily). If this was the goal, Eisenman clearly succeeded. Pictures of the interior of House VI look so awkward and unfriendly. There is a column that hangs over the dinner table in such a way as to intrude on the space of the diners, separating them and making conversation difficult. The master bedroom is split in two by a large glass slot, forcing the owners to sleep in separate twin-sized beds.
Critics say many important details of House VI were overlooked, which caused owners Dick and Suzanne Frank to shell out thousands upon thousands of dollars for repair, including a complete reconstruction in 1987 that basically left only the original frame of the house.
Pollan says that with some architects, it is more often the media’s opinion (as opposed to the client’s) that actually matters, and that the overall image is more important than material quality and the “experience of space” (204). This seems to be the case with House VI, given the amount of reconstruction and fighting with Eisenman the Franks had to endure just to make their house livable. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in that plastic, geometric maze.
House VI in ArchDaily
Eisenman Architects and Photos of House II and House VI
Pollan’s favorite aspect of his tree house was the trapdoor that was so small his parents could never enter, making his fort a lawless parent-free zone. Similarly, the only entrance to my fort was a single hidden roof plank that was purposefully never nailed down. You could only get inside if you knew exactly which plank to remove and how to remove it. I would imagine that most childhood tree houses have trapdoors or hidden entrances, you have to keep away the nosey siblings and other unwanted kids somehow. Like Pollan, my parents never bothered me about my fort, so it quickly became a safe house for me and my friends, “…a room of my own, which I came to regard as a temple of my privacy and independence” (16).
Just as Pollan’s tree house was a shelter from neighbor Jeff Grabel, my fort was a shelter to me and many other neighborhood kids participating in games of Cops and Robbers, snowball fights, flashlight tag, and Super Soaker battles. Describing the other various kid-shelters in his house (coat closets and crawlspaces), he refers to them all as being private and free worlds where parents could not be in control. This is probably one of the most significant driving forces behind the creation of most tree houses; children love to venture out “own their own” and make their own little independent worlds (even if it is right behind their parent’s house).
I think I was 4 or 5 when we first visited the neighborhood. Everything was under construction; the newly made roads still had neon paint markings for gas lines and electricity. The concrete curbs were stained with light brown dirt. Most of the lawns were not yet lawns, they were dirt fields topped with a thin layer of hay. There was hay that had spilled out onto the streets. The hay was to combat the mud.
Within the first year in our new home, there was a terrible rainstorm. Most of the houses were already built and most of the lawns had grown grass, but the mud came from somewhere. It collected across the street from my house in the shape of a towering mountain. I called it Dirt Mountain. It remained for roughly a week.
You could almost call the shape of the neighborhood an oval, but it wasn’t an oval.
My home was situated at the bottom of a hill. We had the biggest yard in the neighborhood. It got the most sun in the summer and the most shade in the winter. We were always the house on the block that had the most snow come the end of winter. The snow never melted in our yard, so there was always a snowman even when the surrounding houses had no snow at all. It looked as if it had only snowed on my home.
At the first visit, there were no houses, just acres and acres of hilly, razed farmland and clumps of decades-old trees.
The future basement of our home was carved out of the ground. It looked like the Grand Canyon, a giant hole in the ground, but I was only 5 so that was probably the result of my imagination. I wanted badly to play in that hole, but there wasn’t a ladder so how was I to get back out?
I played in Dirt Mountain when it was still mud. Somewhere there are pictures of a very young me in rain boots and a slicker climbing and falling off of the Mountain. I liked to make mud pies and put them on my face. When Dirt Mountain dried out, it was only good for throwing.
There were two parts to the immediate neighborhood, the part that existed prior to the expansion and the part where my house was built. The only way to differentiate between the two was to notice the construction styles. It’s funny that we used to refer to them as the New Section and the Old Section. “I’m going to go ride my bike in the Old Section.” I haven’t called them that in years. They are now both an Old Section.
To better understand Ocean City, here is a short history:
On land originally owned by Thomas Fenwick, a man named Isaac Coffin built the first seaside resort in 1869. People came from all over the east coast to experience this pristine and untouched strip of sand. The land was surveyed and a corporation was formed to develop the land. They split the area into 250 lots and sold 4,000 shares of stock at $25 each. The first major hotel, the Atlantic Hotel, was opened July 4, 1875. In 1878, a railroad was built, which connected Ocean City to the nearby town of Berlin. Development continued at a moderate pace until the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane that caused $369.4 million in damages, killed 30 people, and destroyed the train tracks. It also created the Ocean City Inlet, which now separates Ocean City from Assateague Island. The storm ultimately proved beneficial when the inlet established Ocean City as an essential fishing port off of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed and in 1964, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed, giving easier access to those living in the Baltimore-Washington area. Tourism exploded with the completion of the bridges, and in the 1970s over 10,000 condominium units and high-rises were built. Today, the city is faring so well that the area to the west of the resort town is beginning to fall victim to the sprawl of Ocean City.
Ocean City is a strange place in that it only really exists a few months out of the year. According to the 2000 census, the number of permanent residents is 7,173, but during peak vacation times in the summer the area hosts roughly 345,000 people (“Town of Ocean City Maryland”). During the winter months, there are so few cars on the road that the city actually turns off a large number of traffic lights. But in the middle of summer, the road often becomes gridlocked with hundreds of cars. When I say “the road,” I actually mean the one road of Ocean City. It’s the Main Street, the Strip, or the Main Drag called Coastal Highway. The city itself is an odd shape, being about 9 miles long and only 1 to 1¾ of a mile wide. Due to the narrow shape, it makes a lot of sense to only have a single highway running from north to south. On each side of Coastal Highway are a number of small single lane roads leading to condos, restaurants, and shops.
The main problem with Ocean City is that, due to the buildings, it’s very close to being a generic “nowhere” city. The majority of the buildings were constructed during the same time period in the 1970s, and driving down Coastal Highway this is very obvious. The resort hotels are all between 20 and 30 stories, rectangular with flat roofs, have balconies with railings, are painted in some very noticeable type of sickly taupe, salmon, or light pink color to match the sand, have the name of the hotel painted in cursive on the side facing the street, and are surrounded by large parking lots. You also have an older-looking type of hotel that is 2 to 3 stories tall, is painted in an awfully bright color like teal or pink, and is also surrounded by a parking lot. Finally, you have the condominiums. These are honestly some of the worst buildings I have ever seen. They are all 4 or 5 stories, each one is painted in a drab sand, off-white, or light brown color (again, to match the sand), and they are rectangles. They don’t “sort of” look like rectangles, they are actually perfectly rectangular in shape. Given that these buildings were made decades ago, the exterior of these hotels and condos all share the same general amount of decay. The paint has darkened over years of exposure to dust, dirt, and air pollution, and it is quite common to see sections of chipped away paint thanks to a combination of wind and sand. When Kunstler stayed at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, he noticed that the fiberglass window and door moldings were starting to chip, fade, and resemble surfboards (Kunstler 233); this is how 75% of the hotels and condos look in Ocean City, old, faded, and worn away.
The problem, as Kunstler explains, with having an entire town of homogenized buildings is that they lend nothing to the identity of the location. These “monoculture tract developments of cookie-cutter bunkers” (147) are so generic that they could be mistaken for buildings in any town or any state across the country. You could blindfold an individual, take them to Ocean City, put them in front of an average hotel or condo and they probably would not even realize that they are only steps away from the ocean. Even the small shopping centers along Coastal Highway are undifferentiated, as they look exactly like the shops outside of the neighborhood where I grew up roughly 130 miles away (brown brick, roof extended to hang over the walkway, concrete pillars every 10/15 feet). Another problem that comes from having a monotonous living space is that it could make the inhabitants simply not care. If a town is filled with the same boring buildings on every boring street, the residents are not going to have pride or a desire to keep the town “running smoothly.” There could be little to no motivation to prevent unnecessary building, sprawl, or harmful expansion. In a town with no charm, new individuals will not wish to move in, and those who already live there will probably have no qualms about moving out. It is quite possible to destroy a town by filling it with generic structures. Contrasting with Kunstler’s view of a dull Ocean City would be Jackson, who might not find the buildings to be so dreadful. J.B. Jackson does not share the view that a lack of variety in construction is a bad thing. He calls this not a mistake, but a distinctive, classical American style. Any possible monotony is purely a “consequence of devotion to clarity and order,” although he can easily see why some have acquired a distaste for this American style, “Since the classical American town is easy to understand, its interest is soon exhausted” (Jackson 67). Experiencing an over-familiarity with the classic simplicity of our traditional style is how Jackson would explain Kunstler’s gripe with the average American town. I suspect that Jackson would walk down Coastal Highway looking at all of the similar condos and hotels, and declare Ocean City to be a classic slice of Americana.
One of the running jokes in Ocean City is a junk shop called Sunsations, which is a large, very basic, warehouse-type building that sells everything you will never need. There is actually one on every single block (you can stand out front of one Sunsations and see another one down the road). In the 9 miles that is the entirety of Ocean City, there are 13 Sunsations stores and 2 more if you go 5 minutes north to Fenwick and Bethany. As a result of these ultra-generic and easily overlooked shops and shopping centers, the owners heavily rely on advertising. “Buildings no longer mattered. Whatever their purpose… they were all just cinder-block sheds… What mattered were the signs attached to them” (Kunstler 82). As you can see from the pictures in the slideshow, Sunsations’ main advertising strategy is to paint the buildings in disgustingly bright and tacky ways. This is reminiscent of how Kunstler describes Robert Venturi’s process of creating “decorated sheds:”
“Ornament was okay… as long as it was applied rather than integral… For example, the firm did a showroom building for the Best Products Company in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania… They designed a motif of enormous red-and-white cartoon flowers on glazed metallic panels to decorate the façade… They camouflaged the inevitable banality of the architecture form and read as a sign across a vast parking lot and speedy highway” (82-83).
Regardless of how aesthetically unpleasing Sunsations is, their advertising is effective in that frequent Ocean City-goers know to look for a hideously painted building if they ever need a cheap pair of flip-flops or a towel. It also succeeds in that it is a welcomed change from the drab colors of the hotels and condominiums. In their attempt to market themselves, Sunsations has actually done a good thing by creating a memorable and easily recognizable place in an otherwise unremarkable town. The obnoxious colors of Sunsations is one of the few things that saves Ocean City from becoming a complete “nowhere” location.
For what it’s worth, I happen to love Ocean City for some of the exact same reasons that are listed in this essay. I love the awful colors of the generic, boxy hotels, I love how the sand has worn away patches of paint on the ugly condos, and I love the fact that you can stare down Coastal Highway and have no clue as to the current decade. I may be agreeing with Jackson on this, as the quiet simplicity really adds to the classic American-ness that is Ocean City. I can only think of 4 new condos that were built in the past 15 years, and they stick out like sore thumbs. Dark grey with white plastic trim, they were modeled after the popular “McMansion” fad and they certainly don’t blend in at all with the sand and taupe colored surroundings. Demand for these new-style condos has clearly been nonexistent, which according to my view is due partly to the resident’s desire to keep Ocean City plain looking, ambiguous, and therefore classically American.
More photographs of the Ocean City of yesteryear as well as a quick “drive” down Coastal Highway are available on my slideshow.
"Draft Comprehensive Plan." Town of Ocean City Maryland. Web. 5 Mar 2011. <http://www.town.ocean-city.md.us/Planning%20and%20Zoning/DraftComprehensivePlan/Chapter1.htm>.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. New York: Touchstone, 1993. Print.
Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. Print.
Almost overnight, a huge business park was built behind the older one. To keep up with all of the new businessmen driving to work each day, a large gas station/mini-mart was built. Less than 500 feet down the road, another large gas station/mini-mart was built. Completely useless mini-shopping centers of four to five stores were randomly constructed along the highway. How useless were they? The first shopping center that I wrote about in the previous paragraph was made too large. There were handfuls of empty shops that no company wanted to rent. When the recession hit, there were still construction crews building more mini-shopping centers along the highway. There was a point where the residents collectively said, “Enough is enough!” There was picketing, foul words were written in the local newspapers, and there was a general anger in the community. No one wanted this shit around their nice neighborhood. Companies would come in, knock down scores of decades-old trees, build a store, go out of business, and then we would be left with an ugly, empty, brown building. “Our towns no longer have boundaries, but sprawl out of their old containers into the countryside, where the functions of the town—markets, restaurants, law offices, hair salons, TV repair shops—tend to destroy open space without adding up to a community” (148).
One of the worst parts about what is happening to my old town is the buildings themselves. They all look the same, some variation of a brown brick cube. Sometimes the cubes have one floor; sometimes they have two or more. Sometimes the cubes have “lovely” balconies where one can enjoy the view of the parking lot, and sometimes there are benches and tables where the citizens are supposed to… sit. Kunstler rightly calls these constructions different versions of nowhere, since they could exist anywhere at anytime yet still share no connection to the areas they surround. When new buildings like these pop up around the country, they lend absolutely nothing to the identity of the town and can actually end up destroying it by taking away some of the original charm and allure. Who wants to live in a town with no identity?
Llewellyn S. Haskell was a Mainer turned New York City pharmaceutical salesman with an awareness of the hazards of living in an industrialized city. Living in New Jersey, he would commute to the city on horse and buggy. When he began to experience health problems, he moved west to Orange, NJ. At this time, the construction of railroads meant that living space and working space no longer had to exist in the same area. Haskell would take the train into the city each morning, and then return home to New Jersey in the evening. After initially purchasing 40 acres for himself, Haskell decided to buy an additional 350 acres to start a private community of “health-seeking, nature-loving souls” (47) called Llewellyn Park. In similar fashion to the fabricated English parks, Haskell created a beautiful man-made landscape and inserted homes. This area became the antithesis of Manhattan, with curved and winding roads, large gardens, and unconventional houses. A large 50-acre area (“the Ramble”) was left undeveloped and became a common area for the residents.
At first, in Llewellyn Park, the emphasis was placed on nature. Architect Alexander J. Davis had the small homes painted in earth tones so they would not stand out from the surroundings, and he oversaw construction to ensure that Llewellyn Park “remained wild, irregular, playful, and spontaneous” (48); the perfect Manhattan getaway. With the addition of another 400 acres in the late 19th century, the Park became yet another exclusive playground for the rich. Thomas Edison, the Colgates, and the Mercks were some of the families who bought homes in this popular gated community (pictured is Edison’s home Glenmont). As the money moved in, Llewellyn Park lost a lot of its original charm. Davis’ original homes were torn down and replaced by mansions that stood out, rather than blended in, with the natural scenery. Kunstler calls this Park the “prototype” of the modern American suburb (48), complete with artificially constructed environments and where an emphasis is placed on exclusivity and the division of land among residents (in Llewellyn Park, houses were spaced far apart to stress land ownership, whereas today the suburbs are sectioned off by fences).
Recently, as Jackson explains, artists and land architects have evolved away from old terminology and now use various words (land, space, environment) to define their work areas. Physical “landscapes” have been replaced by living/working/existing spaces. This makes sense if we compare painting and physical space. A majority of people staring at a painting of an outdoor scene would probably define it with the use of the word landscape. In modern culture, paintings tend to have a reputation of being dull and uninteresting. Why, then, would land architects want to equate their grand works of physical space with static and lifeless paintings? These individuals are hired to create a specific area and an accompanying mood, so one can see why these architects would want to distance themselves from the not so interesting term landscape.
The word landscape can also be used in a nonliteral sense. It is now quite commonly used metaphorically, “Thus we find mention of the ‘landscape of a poet’s images,’ ‘the landscape of dreams,’ or ‘landscape as antagonist’ or ‘the landscape of thought,’ or on a different level, the ‘political landscape of the NATO conference,’ the ‘patronage landscape’ (4). In this sense, the term landscape is used to identify a particular environment and can be used like the similar term “atmosphere,” although Jackson objects to this use based on his idea that a landscape is a concrete reality (5).
The idea that a passing moment may have more of an impact than a lengthy experience is something that Tuan writes on in his chapter “Time and Place.” He quotes James K. Feibleman as saying, “It may take a man a year to travel around the world—and leave absolutely no impression on him. Then again it may take him only a second to see the face of a woman—and change his entire future” (184). I cannot recall a specific situation of this nature happening to me, although I can speak for a friend of mine who spent a few months in Rome. Before leaving the States, he had told me that he was excited to “experience the real Rome, not just what you see on television.” Upon his return home, I had an opportunity to ask him if he ever experienced “real” Rome, whatever that may have been. He told me a story of how he became lost in the city, and as his mood soured, he wandered down a dirty street and had a seat at a small café. He ordered some type of coffee and then just sat and relaxed. There was a nearby couple arguing loudly in Italian, which at first annoyed him, but since he was tired and had just gotten a coffee, he decided to stay. He only spent a few minutes, but it was at this seedy café that he claimed to have uncovered the “real” city. While his time in Rome was “fun” and “interesting,” a quick drink alone in a non-touristy area was the best and most memorable experience he had had.
I would imagine that this scenario is quite common, especially for university students studying abroad. One short moment, a late night food craving, a particular smell, an encounter with an angry native, can hold more weight than the majority of the trip. Feibleman argues that the experience has more to do with the intensity of the moment than its length, although I disagree with this idea (he uses the extreme example of falling in love at first sight). I do not believe that the moment has to be intense for it to be meaningful. Take, for instance, the scene at the Rome café. I would hardly call enjoying a nice coffee “intense,” yet it was still by far the most memorable and important moment of his trip. Any moment can be “the” moment, depending on perception.
What I find rather interesting is that this practice has followed me here to the city. I almost never actually think about where I am headed, I simply start walking and soon, I end up where I need to be. One time, though, this did not work out in my favor. A few semesters ago, I had an early class in the Puck building followed immediately by a class at 1 Washington Place. Making this trek twice a week, I would routinely “zone out” or listen to music to fill time. Apparently, my daily routine had become very ingrained in my brain. After the semester ended this past December, I had to meet with one of my professors at her office in Puck at the end of the day. It was cold, dark, and raining. After the meeting, I left the building and headed home. I was freezing and wanted nothing more than to get out of the rain. As I walked, I had my head down and the majority of my view was blocked by my umbrella. The next thing I knew, I was pulling open the door at 1 WP. I actually stopped midway and said very loudly, “What the shit?” The security guard gave me this puzzled look, and I responded with, “Uhhhhh” before I shut the door and walked back to my apartment. Luckily, I was already headed in the right direction. Sort of.
I loved this place. It wasn’t just the home, but also the surrounding wilderness. Head off into the woods for a day of exploration. Camp, fish, canoe, hike, or climb rocks; what else could a young boy ask for? The woods were so quiet, so calm. There was no one around for miles. Peaceful. When I was roughly ten years old, I went for a walk in the woods and came across two baby bears. They were just moseying about, looking for things to eat. Even a child knows that a baby bear means a nearby mother bear, so I quickly returned to the safety of my Great-Aunt’s house. Nothing could hurt me in that old fortress.
One of the most important factors in determining a “good place” would be the weather. I want cold and I want snow. The Maine woods in winter are amazing (if you can brave the snow). Layer the Shetland and put on your boots. Multiple feet of snow is not uncommon, as I can remember quite a few times where the accumulated snow was higher than I was tall. As long as there was a mug of hot chocolate waiting for me upon my return, I would be fine.
This is my “good place.” A location I can go where I won’t be bothered by anything. No people, no media, no advertising, no constant communication, no problems. Permanent vacation. It’s funny that I live in Manhattan, the polar opposite of tranquil. I wouldn’t call the city a good place, a fun place at times, but not a good place. There are too many people. The air is terrible. There’s a lack of vegetation and not much breathing room. I’m rather fortunate to live on a tiny, quiet, and secluded street. A good place? No, but it’s good enough.