January 31, 2012

"I like fire escapes. To me, they're unintentional urban art forms."

"Think about West Side Story and the role fire escapes play in that production. Audrey Hepburn sang 'Moon River' out on a Manhattan fire escape in Breakfast at Tiffany's. How many spy thrillers have featured chases across rooftops and swings from fire escapes? Fire escapes are romantic. They're urban art, and they wait for adventure."

Citizen Dave (the erstwhile Madison Mayor Dave (Cieslewicz)) has an amusing intro to a column about a proposed project that would repurpose some elderly buildings on State Street near the Wisconsin Capitol. If you want to understand what opposition to new buildings looks like in Madison, Wisconsin, read the whole column.

It's funny the way Madison progressives revere tradition when it comes to buildings. I like the old things too, and I certainly wouldn't want to waste money on a rampage against fire escapes on the theory that they're a terrible eyesore. But it's quite another thing to reject urban development to preserve them.
It comes down to whether you can appreciate an urban aesthetic or not. It comes down to our tolerance for the grittiness of real urban spaces versus the idea of suburban tidiness — and the sterility that comes with it.
There's a continuum from the worst grit, which everyone wants to eliminate, to the most extreme sterility, which only makes sense to attempt in completely new development. The political battles take place somewhere along the continuum.

How should these battles be conducted? Do you like the "I'm urban, you're suburban/I'm gritty, you're sterile" gambit?

26 comments:

Paul Zrimsek said...

The high point of West Side Story was Natalie Wood singing "I Feel Gritty".

chickenlittle said...

I like fire escapes. To me, they're unintentional urban art forms

That reminds me of R. Crumb in the Zweigoff movie where he says "You can't make this shit up." Crumb was talking about telephone wires like those he sketched here.

edutcher said...

As a kid, (7 - 11 y/o), the building where I was in school had a fire escape which we had to use during fire drills.

It was the ricketiest old thing you ever saw and scared the Hell out of me (and probably a lot of others) whenever we had to use.

I'm glad the former mayor appreciates the aesthetics, but I wonder if he's ever been out on one.

Meade said...

Mayor Dave's witty
Such a pity
That the city didn't vote him its key
A committee
Should be organized to honor D

Salamandyr said...

Suburban sterility...yards, kids, dogs, swing sets, barbecues, trees, swimming pools, life.

Sure, suburbia is just a sterile wasteland. What rot.

chickenlittle said...

Speaking of rickety old structures and Madison--does anyone else remember the old ski jump at Hoyt Park? Long gone I suppose. Here's an old photo.

TosaGuy said...

There go those Madison folks comparing their little village to NYC again.....


wv:recon .... something I used to do when I was in the infantry.

Richard Dolan said...

"Do you like the 'I'm urban, you're suburban/I'm gritty, you're sterile' gambit?"

It's an interesting rhetorical trick -- going from a description of an architectural environment (here, fire escapes on the exterior of buildings) to a generalization about the inhabitants of those environments. Contrast this with yesterday's post about Franzen and his mania for isolation when pursuing his writing -- by any (sensible) calculus, he'd be at the opposite end of the scale from "sterile" but perfers an environment that is sterility squared.

While I can't speak about Madison specifically, taken more generally the mayor's romance about fire escapes is weirdly ahistorical despite its ostensibly preservationist purpose. In Brooklyn, for example, fire escapes on the exterior of mid-19th century buildings were added relatively late -- when the borough was in a downward spiral from the '30s to the '60s. Removing those fire escapes is a preservationist goal here. Same is true generally in Manhattan where exterior fire escapes were once the norm -- G Village and Upper West Side, for example. You can still find plenty of examples where the fire escapes still exist, but it's hard to find a preservationist interested in keeping them. Perhaps the only area here where that might be true is in the Lower East Side, where the fire escapes add to the gritty feel of the (former) immigrant slum. It turns out that grittiness in some contexts has cachet (and market value).

Perhaps the architecture of Madison dates entirely from a later period when small buildings were originally erected with exterior fire escapes. Never been there, don't know.

TosaGuy said...

It should be noted that the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, non-profit group. It is not the city's historic preservation commission.

Strelnikov said...

These are people living on the grim, mean streets of Madison, WI, right? Someone should stab them a few times and they'd go back to the suburbs where they belong - taking their "grittiness" with them.

TosaGuy said...

"These are people living on the grim, mean streets of Madison, WI, right? Someone should stab them a few times and they'd go back to the suburbs where they belong - taking their "grittiness" with them."

That is why nearby Sun Prairie, WI, is one of the state's fastest growing cities. It is a picture postcard of suburban "tidyness"

Michael Haz said...

Citizen Dave and others like him are Socialist Developers.

They believe that any property they see belongs to them, even if they have not purchased that right.

And because it *belongs* to them, they can dictate what is done to the property without regard to economics of the property.

Kit said...

Pleasant Rowland's mixed reviews to her refurbishing of her old cillegal town, Aurora NY, is the fear, here.

Think Pleasantville.

Scott M said...

It comes down to our tolerance for the grittiness of real urban spaces versus the idea of suburban tidiness — and the sterility that comes with it.

It only comes to sterility if you lack imagination. While the city tends to wear it's heart out on it's sleeve, the 'burbs are a seething cauldron of passions buried beneath a thin vaneer of blue fescue and composite decking.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Madison's gritty 'hoods need new, gritty names. Like "Brats" (rhymes, of course, with Watts) or "Heck's Kitchen".

Amartel said...

I like silos. To me, they're unintentional rural art forms.

ricpic said...

If the central planners gain total control there'll never be any "unintentional urban art forms" ever again.

Amartel said...

Citizen Dave doesn't want his urban aesthetic fantasyland spoiled by a bunch of old people housing. Fucking olds and lames and their unsightly new building requirements. What a selfish prick. Nothing against fire escapes but their fictional aesthetic value is just a prop for Citizen Dave to promote his fantasy, damn the reality of the situation and how it might affect other peoples' lives. Same thing happened in Portland, OR when I was a kid. A bunch of progressive whiners from Portland who wanted to be able to drive to their vacation homes at the beach or the mountains without having to see the hideous poors and their grotty trailer homes got the zoning laws changed so you couldn't build on your own property without fighting (and paying) your way through a bureaucratic jungle only to learn that you still couldn't build on your own property so there. Ostensibly it was for the environment. Really it was for the liberal 1% and the promotion of their aesthetic values.

dbp said...

Is "Citizen Dave" considered important in Madison? I ask this because his image; dress shirt and tie, bicycle helmet and sweaty face, strikes me as clown-like.

"It's not just his money at stake here. Jerry is reshaping a public space and impacting the public coffers, both positively and negatively." Back when the term was new, using "impacting" in this way was almost tolerable. There is really no excuse for it now.

TosaGuy said...

What folks like ex-Mayor Dave don't realize is that the aesthetic of fire escapes and other "gritty" urban elements is because at the time they were necessary and utilitarian. Many of those things are now useless relics that are now ornaments.

Style is an important and do add the the whole of the building. Style disguised as useless utility is fake.

So much for authentic, gritty urbanism.

garage mahal said...

Citizen Dave and others like him are Socialist Developers.

Your posts are sounding pretty hysterical lately Haz. Recalls getting to you?

chickenlittle said...

Garage, have you ever considered your own reality TV show about the great Wisconsin outdoors? A fellow named Stan Bran (RIP) did this years ago in Madison when I was kid. Huber beer sponsored him, but I'm sure you have connections with better beers.

You could call your show "Outdoors Recalling"

garage mahal said...

chickenlittle
Maybe I can get New Glarus to sponsor a show where I hit every tavern in Wisconsin. A 3 year series.

chickenlittle said...

Oh you bet. I'd watch fer sure.

LarryK said...

I happen to like the fire escapes in question - they add a nice aesthetic touch to the buildings, and back in grad school I attended a party in one of the adjoining apartments and remember venturing out on the fire escape and watching traffic go by on the 'outer square' below. But are these sentimental memories enough to stand in the way of redevelopment? Nah..

T.K. Tortch said...

It comes down to whether you can appreciate an urban aesthetic or not. It comes down to our tolerance for the grittiness of real urban spaces versus the idea of suburban tidiness — and the sterility that comes with it.

Aside from the front-loaded qualitative presumptions in this statement, it ignores the sterility that comes with the unrelieved grittiness of urban spaces, especially if you're economically trapped inside one and don't have the luxury of appreciating the fine aesthetics knowing you can always leave.

Also, generally, whenever I hear some artist or critic describing how their art addresses, say, the meaninglessness of life, or the "sterility" of this or that segment of society, I can't help thinking that what's really going on is that the artist has failed to find meaning in other people's lives, which is the artist's imaginative failing and nothing more.