Caoineadh Dooley.

Like many memorable forays into the built environment this particular story begins with a trivial errand; one day this past August my watch died coincidentally at the same time as my co-worker’s. One of the partners mentioned there was a jewelry store by the Old Post Office that might be able to replace watch batteries and we set off at lunch to take care of the errand. The city I grew up in was predominantly a post-war city so the existence of a independently owned fine jewelry store that simultaneously sold breitling and rolex and replaced timex batteries for five dollars was somewhat of a welcome novelty.

We dropped our watches off and went around the corner to Dooley’s for a burger. Dooley’s was a famously non-descript pub lodged in the Chemical Building across the street from the Old Post Office in the most intact and urban area in St. Louis. The disregard for fenestration so often seen in truly exemplary watering holes made the gloomy two story space a welcome relief from the hot and sunny street and as my eyes adjusted I realized I had stepped back in time. Not only were the furnishings and plaid wallpaper strikingly dated but the weathered faces of the employees suggested they could have easily worked there for forty years, which in fact most of them had. As I finished off my cheeseburger (topped with a strangely satisfying pimento spread impersonating ball cheddar applied with an ice cream scoop) I thought to my parents stories of trenchers carving roast beef in dark saloons in early 60’s New York and realized this was my analogous experience.

Such experiences are generally antithetical to our the ideas of progress held by our society. Both the old trenchers in the Bowery and Cheddar Ball Cheese have now fallen victim to the desire for urban lifestyles that has been loudly proclaimed by persons such as Richard Florida It is of course a sad reality that as redevelopment occurs increased rents lead to the increasing property values that raise taxes and eventually force the redevelopment of almost all properties. In a related cycle, the capital necessary to redevelop forces the kind of massive rent increases that are not kind to independently-owned small businesses. Thus, in a bitter irony the laudable preservation of the long-endangered Old Post Office played an indirect but important role in the St. Patrick’s day demise of Dooley’s. Although many downtown developers and politicians, such as the CEO of Downtown St. Louis Partnership, were frequent customers none were able or willing to buck the market reality and facilitate the relocation of Dooley’s. As Dooley’s, Everest and several other recent cases attest there is now no room in downtown redevelopment for niche-defying small businesses. If given the option of the old sterile downtown-as-office park scattered with small struggling businesses or the current bland and overly safe disneyfied condo-land I would choose the former, but I'm sure Barb Geisman would beg to differ. After all, granting half the city twenty year tax increment financing is certainly a wise move in a a city with a notoriously constrained tax base. But then again, at least the dwindling conventioneers have a comfortable place to sip Gee and Tees.

Following recent trends, the condos in the Chemical Building will undoubtedly have a restaurant downstairs but if I am allowed to prognosticated I am sure it will contain “fusion” “pan-asian” or some other buzzword and probably be out of business within four years. The persistent irony of urban redevelopment is that the same unique local color that draws residents back to cities is so often obliterated by the demands they place on urban space. In this case the residents will certainly enjoy the ability to still live only yards from their cars in a dense city due to the convenient mid-block parking ramp that has replaced an authentic and distinctly local restaurant.

We interrupt this irregularly scheduled blog

for a hefty dose of design nerdry:

Typecast Yourself!

To some extent right, but certainly over-amplifying the trope. For the record I enjoy fixing and repurposing things too much to ever be a minimalist and really it depends on what your definition of loft is. If that means sign a 10 year cheap lease on an entire floor of a derelict warehouse building and create my own space, well then sign me up! Also 80's lugged steel bikes are way cooler and more sustainable then Priuses.

< /nerdry >

and back to the highbrow discussion at hand...

Stoplight Urbanism Pt. I

Many of the interventions that have most radically reconfigured the urban environment are also those which paradoxically have evaded examination and refinement through their ubiquity. On a walk or drive through the city recent interventions such as parking meters, traffic lights, signage and one-way streets remain out of mind due to their prosaic and common nature. While some degree of control is of course necessary, there has been little inquiry into the effects of the present systems and into the possibilities that exist beyond the current reality. The following series of writings on the traffic light seek to detail its history, to examine its effect on social life, and to explore alternatives to the automated device. While almost any such element in the city could have been chosen, the traffic light poses an intriguing subject at the confluence of philosophies of control, technologic determination, and modernization.

For millenia movement through cities and villages was regulated by mutual interest and rooted in a notion of common-law that began to be restricted with the enclosure movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Under such a system no traveller had a superior right over another; no person or vehicle had dominance and all spatial claims to the space of the road were recognized to have equal value. Such informal systems did not end with the enclosure movement or industrial revolution, they continued decades into the early twentieth century.

While in many western countries the establishment of the primacy of the automobile led to a drastic shift in custom and space, in developing nations the assimilation of motorized transportation in society has been unable to change customs regarding road use. In this regard, Stanford Gregory’s comparison of the informal driving practices of Egyptians with the linguistics of pidgin languages is fascinating. As a modern western observer, Gregory paints the typical first impression of chaos but is able to “discern an order in the madness,” which he believes is clearly emblematic of “social interaction at a fever pitch” [Gregory, 337]. Such intense systems of concession, predicated in intense interaction, result in the ability to change formation instantaneously and avoid obstacles and stoppages as they occur. These fluid dynamics utilize the whole of human reaction and intellect and exhibit a complex relation of communication and instinct not present in the smartest mechanical control.

In the developed world the industrial revolution initiated an era of technological determinism in which centuries of developments in civilization were rejected or radically reconfigured by an increasing reliance on totalizing rationalism and a preoccupation with efficiency through mechanical means. The technological pace of development was far faster than ever seen in human history. As a result of this pace, nothing other than the easily quantifiable instantaneous result was considered to have value. In the face of the accepted perfection of the machine, humans, especially those of lesser breeding and education, were considered to have little value.

The first traffic signal in human history was installed on December 10th 1868, outside the Houses of Parliament in London. The signals were intended to protect Members of Parliament crossing the busy street. They also helped to afford them a degree of separation from those whose interests they ostensibly represented. Like many traffic control devices, it had its lineage in railroads, who had been using semaphores for several decades. The London signal was a combination of a standard railroad semaphore arms and gas warning lamps but was not automatically controlled. The signal acted as a mechanical appendage of the constable who stood on the traffic island by telegraphing his orders to the mass of carriages, carts, and pedestrians. The signal was a technological aid but not a technological determinant. The London Signal was also an epitomization of the uneasy relationship between human and technological control: less than a month after the signal was installed the gas lamps exploded injuring the police officer “who had thought he was in control” [Pile and Thrift, 262]
and the age of the machine in traffic control had begun.

To be continued in Part II.

Works Cited

1. Gregory Jr, Stanford W. “Auto Traffic in Egypt as a Verdant Grammar.” Social
Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 48, No.4. 1985: 337.

2. City A-Z. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 262.