Archive for August, 2008

gehry/brooklyn, housing in macro and micro

Nathan Glazer pens a book on a topic I wish I wrote on, and Charles Taylor writes the response I wish I had written (ditto for Jonathan Lethem’s Slate piece, in which he calls it a ‘trojan horse’). Gehry’s monster project will shape beloved Brooklyn in a way that no other project has since the Navy Yard. Speaking of buildings, I had a great time a few weeks ago at MoMAs Home Delivery exhibit. It touched my fond architectural memories, and got me excited about teaching Urban Sociology later this week (only later in the semester will we be talking about temporary spaces and cultures).

“ts’i mahnu” @ floating cities

Taking a break from camping this weekend, I got to check out the Calvino-worthy performance of Swoon‘s ‘Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea‘ at the DIA Beacon last night. I’ve been committed to a lot of unconventional city readings this summer (on top of the aforementioned The Ghost Map and Underground, also Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950).

Swoon is at the top of the graffitti world (not just ‘female graffitti artists), and has done a similar project down the Mississippi. This trip is a more modest storytelling exbidition down the Hudson river. The hour-long performance is a series of monologues loosely tied together by pantomime and music (by Dark Dark Dark). These experiments on ‘loose communal life,’ are decidedly reflexive about it. 60-odd performers participate on seven ramshackle ships (The ‘Seven Sisters’–ahem):

The boats use recycled motors, one from a 1968 Mercedes, another from a Volkswagen Rabbit (itself recycled from “Miss Rockaway”). One uses a gasifier, which burns organic waste materials.

Of the seven shipbound monologists who provide their overlapping and conflicting tales of the origins of the flotilla, one, ‘David,’ is a sociologist who stumbled onto the ‘docks that were disconnected from the waters edge.’ He talks about the crew as a form of civilization, and how the waters will soon be the world’s last open space. Expectedly the crews all playfully boo him for his scholarly analysis. But obviously, this was where my mind was wandering anyway. It reminded me of the alterative cart/homes for the homeless proposed by Duneier and Neil Smith, and the roaming Tent Cities of the American South and Northwest.

mad men

I know that I’m not the first person to gush about Mad Men, but I was given the first season on dvd for my birthday and the first episode impresses from alpha to omega. Not only is there great display of 50s gender politics, but the cultural production zeitgeist is in full swing as well. One of the best ad stories of the time–if not of all time–is glanced upon: the transformation of the ‘Nazi Car to Love Bug,’ or how a Jewish ad executive, William Bernbach, helped to re-industrialize Germany. (I used Thomas Frank’s book, The Conquest of Cool, in my culture class. It details this well, and with less smoking.)

the ghost map, the 21 steps, and hand drawn maps

One of the other great things about the ASA is the book exhibit, which allows for all sorts of new ideas to bounce around in your head. I picked up Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, and inhaled it in two days. It is a near-perfect book for urban sociology. It has everything: a deadly disease (cholera) a tale of scientific inquiry triumphing over myth (social research over the ‘miasma’ hypothesis), compelling protagonist (the premiere London anesthesiologist who uses ‘shoe-leather’ and sociological research to solve the riddle, and a young priest who uses his neighborhood-level knowledge for crucial assistance), and maps!

It is the story of the 1853 cholera outbreak. Deaths were assumed to have something to do with bad air (‘miasma’), and that theory led to questions over elevation, leading researchers to believe that inner-city dwellers at once were to blame for the miserable conditions they were in, but also to explain how elites who lived in places like Hampstead were spared. (The result of the 19th Century outbreak was about 1000 London souls–in proportion, greater than the deaths from 9/11.) In truth, the communities at higher elevations:

tended to be less densely settled than the crowded streets around the Thames, and their distance from the river made them less likely to drink its contaminated water. Higher elevations were safer, but not because they were free from miasma. They were safer because they had cleaner water. (p. 102)

There are all sorts of lessons for students within. Examples include: the Durkheimian specialization of roles in cities (and particularly around the problem of waste/’night-soil’) (p. 1-5),  social prejudices of class and race affecting research (p. 133), local knowledge (inter alia, p. 146-7), the interviewer effect (p.155), urban planning gone askew (p. 120), how a bad theory can frame research questions (p. 165), city planning and infrastructure (inter alia, p 18), urban development as a mixture of collective action and individual choice (p. 91), urban traumas (p. 33), the power of local knowledge and autodidacts (p. 202 and 220), mistakes over correlation and causation (p. 101), the ramifications for global cities wherein over a billion squatters live today (p. 216), and the effects of powerful visual representations of social data (p. 193-97). It has given me a few more ideas to the festival project. (You can listen to the author talk about it here.)

In another retelling of London, Penguin Books is offering up a ‘We Tell Stories’ series, wherein authors are asked to tell a story using the first line of a classic, using new technology in some way. Charles Cummings wrote ‘The 21 Steps‘ (spinning off of James Buchan’s The 39 Steps), which is a fun romp. It is a detective story that uses Google Maps to help tell the tale. Here is the background of its creation.

And last, here is a link to ‘The Hand Drawn Map Association.’

sociologist ≠ american

@ 30 seconds. Thanks, Kristina!

things to listen to

This year’s ASA was a lovely mix of old friends and new ones I very much look forward to corresponding and working with for years to come. I learned a lot. But it is always cool water when, at an academic conference, you meet someone and immediately start talking about something other than the topic of the day. Music, of course, is an easy topic to turn to, but never has anyone done what my new friend did for me at 2AM: pull out a sheet of paper and make me a list, insistently pressing it into my palm. Here it is: Matthew Shipp, Roy Hargrover, William Parker, Ken Vandermark 5, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Madlib Remix of Blue Note, Sam Rivers, Steve Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra & Sex MobMary Lou Williams, Alex Von Schlippenbach, Bill Frisell, and Djam Leelii.


This is the image produced by ‘wordle‘ when I had it run my entire manuscript. Pretty humbling. After the ASA meetings, where I described my research dozens of times, I perhaps should have just passed out copies of this image. (I don’t know why it’s shaped like New York State.)

Addendum: Interestingly, The Boston Globe offers up a similar analysis of the two presidential candidates’ blogs.