Important Urban Issues Like Gentrification, Also, Being High In A Planetarium

When: Second year at Parsons.

It’s my second year at Parsons and I’m furthering my studies in video game design by taking a course centered around crafting environments. This particular environment-focused assignment dealt with "urban issues". Pretty standard. The class was asked to suggest urban issues they’d like to cover. Jose, one of the older, more focused students suggested gentrification as an issue. I suggested 'crotch placement' in subways. You know, like, when you’re sitting down in a subway cart and someone stands directly in front of you with their crotch in your face. It's far more efficient for standing passengers to all stand crotch-to-ass. Crotch-to-ass may seem crass but believe me - it is significantly less intimate. Asses don’t have personalities and expressions. Faces do. 

After all the suggestions were given, I opted out of crotch-placement and immediately hopped onto Jose’s suggestion for gentrification. I felt that ultimately I should learn more about something real. Also, the thought of another innocent student needing to deal with crotch-placement as a topic would be too hilarious to pass up. Sorry, Kim.

So, the urban issue I sought to tackle was gentrification. Which is defined by Google as the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.

Which is defined by Merriam-Webster as the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.

Which is defined by my future, more than likely, uninformed TedTalk as: Dick move, bro. 

Gentrification is tearing down the old, to make room for a fancier new. This is often at the cost of the people who are currently living in those soon to be “upgraded” locations. Despite the very straightforward definition, there are some interesting variations in how this can occur. Through my research, I've also found my own internal conflicts.

I’ve witnessed a form of rapid gentrification back home in South Africa, during the World Cup. South Africa had to host a mammoth horde of people from all over the world, a world of high standards. This saw our developing nation, develop on overdrive. The entire city needed to undertake a transport system overall. All locations deemed as desirable needed to be spruced up even more. All locations deemed less than had to be covered up.

We went less with a revamp of those "undesirable" areas and instead tried to drown out their existence with grand spectacle. Other places around the world have been more extreme. Massive rapid growth comes with a massive increase in value -- in turn a massive increase in the cost of living. Many people were hurled into an expansion that outpaced their ability to afford the cost of living. These people were priced out of their own homes or areas. This is a form of gentrification.

It's a tricky thing to fully understand. It has undoubtedly caused strain and ruined living situations. It's also made our public transport better than it’s ever been. It does benefit society but can also cause a deep harm. That's the first conflict. 

A developing nation wants to expand and wants to compete. If the cost of living exceeds the jobs available or the average household income. How do we find a pace and balance that allows for it's people to grow with it? I'm learning that gentrification like most urban issues is not just one thing, or a stand-alone issue but rather an issue that is linked to other issues which are linked to other issues.

How do we provide more jobs, better salaries? Well, gentrification creates work, right?

Not really. It provides temp work for singular projects. There’s no guarantee you’ll get another contract. Alex Cocotas, a writer and editor based in Berlin, brought this up in his Jacobin magazine piece titled, “Design For The One Percent”. In the piece, Cocatas writes of “mega-projects for the global elite” which speaks to the overhaul of space. An overhaul which excludes many.  

These overhauls do not necessarily benefit society and in some instances are impractical. A great example is given of a fire-station which was designed with such a lack of real awareness for the societal needs, it was deemed useless and later converted into a museum.

Cocatas speaks of designer and architect, Hadid’s work on the stadium during the Al Wakrah World Cup, Qatar - which was really the starting point for my reflection on South Africa’s changes during our own World Cup period.  

There are some other powerful ideas brought up in this reading, which like most things, require a little more contemplation and research on my part. Such as: 

•    What happens when new structures fail to integrate with the existing cultures?

 •    Should the focus be on globalization or local development? This one, in particular, is a heavy topic for me to fully dive into without bias, as someone living in America, originally from another country (SA) - idealistically in my mind globalization seemed like a life-saver, of course, I want that accessibility.

It is an increased flow of culture and opportunity but how will I counteract the repercussions of that rapid expanse.

 •    Maintaining budgets, how are the finances of these situations handled - the readings point to a plethora of cases where the budgets simply weren’t handled at all. Budgets constantly overrun. 

•    Perhaps less to do directly with the topic of gentrification -- but another aspect this reading addresses is architecture made as a form of propaganda. The idea of the necessity of gentrification OR the horror of gentrification seems like one that would be easily pushed through via propaganda. Especially, if being used in a manner where a group or people is blamed for its occurrence OR are being told they should desire it’s occurrence.

All these things are making the rounds in my mind as I dive further into this. It all leads me to think about what it really means to build urban spaces? 

I guess if you’re @Yung_Rob_Mo$e$ it means designing with the purpose of segregating classes and race. Lena Groeger uses the terms “Hostile Architecture” and “Unpleasant Architecture” to describe Moses’ discrimination in her piece “Discrimination by Design” in the publication, ProPublica. 

Hostile Architecture refers to things like designing an overpass, so lowdown, busses (public transport) can’t get through. This results in a class devide. People reliant on public transport are now kept out of a certain area. Another example would be designing buildings with separate entrances for the wealthy tenants and the poorer tenants. 

For myself, building urban spaces is to build well-considered infrastructure that allows for growth in a very integrated manner -- one that is in service of the people who will be affected the most by it’s growth.

Ideally, to build at a pace that allows for unified growth. As long as we get rid of all the wildlife we should be fine. Just kidding. How insane would be if I ended this all of on, "KILL ALL NATURE."

I am aware that all of this is very idealistic -- perhaps not helpful.

I saw some work featured on Vice’s The Creators Project. Dj Pangburn covered Blast Theory’s (a design/art collective) attempt at utopian design as they created fictional utopia’s as a way of sharing the possibilities of what an ideal living setting could be.

Ultimately, this remains fictional and does not combat desensitization, only adds to it. A huge part of me believes that the constant reliance on entertainment parading as anything other than entertainment has blinded people from reality. It has blurred the lines between the real and the contrived. It has also caused a crazy shift in priorities.

People had a genocide in Aleppo live streamed to them via Facebook and most people cried harder when Glen died on The Walking Dead -- that show even has an after show to help people deal with the loss of its fictional characters. (Chris Hardwick, I love you but-) The concept and waht that means for people as a collective is ultimately pathetic..

My point is, if we’re using games to depict anything in the hopes of a real world change -- we should depict some kind of reality. This can be done in entertaining ways for sure. If we’re building utopias, and saying, “See, we could have this!” -- yet are offering zero plans as to how -- it’s difficult not to feel like time and effort is being wasted. I guess that went from idealistic to cynical a little too fast.

Perhaps a dérive would help me find clarity -- a dérive contrary to what I originally thought, actually isn’t just “pretentious strolling” -- but rather a fluent, focused, yet spontaneous movement based on your psychogeographical state. Done for the purpose of observing and finding inspiration. 

So, pretty much pretentious strolling. 

I didn’t have much issue embracing my inner flaneur. That’s easy to do in a city like New York. I started my dérive on 8th Mott St Chinatown, Valentine’s Day (alone). Chinatown is a lot of the same thing, yet it manages to escape its intrinsic monotony with a lively pace and an undying energy.

Chinatown market treats.

Chinatown market treats.

I made way to Canal St, wandered back and forth, really just vibing with the pace and flows of the crowds. Eventually, I reached the tip of Little Italy which seems like its having it's nose slowly gnawed off by Chinatown.

Chinatown has an interesting internal economy and unified strength (as viewed by myself, a complete outsider.) It seems to be an area that expands at a solid pace which isn’t excessively hostile to its people. 

It seems to be resisting gentrification for the most part, not being forced to conform to “middle-class ideals” but instead slowly acquire more of its own space, or rather more space around it, then transforming that space into it's own. That tiny piece of Little Italy seems an example. Which is more just acquisition? The definitions of gentrification made it seem like something based specifically on the middle class. 

Then again, that is all relative -- in an expensive ass city like New York, being able to afford a lot of the spots in Chinatown would make you middle class. So, I guess that is a form of gentrification. 

I understand my wavy back and forth can be jarring, but it’s how I work through topics.

During my dérive I ended up in:

Wall St, Bowling Green, back to Chinatown, Union Sq, Time Warner Center on Upper West, to Time Sq.

In Time Sq, I ran into a kid I vaguely knew from New York Film Academy. He told me there was a great sadness in me, in my soul. Which was not inaccurate, so I listened up. He then told me he had the answer. 

Flash forward past all the boring details and I find myself inside the planetarium near Roosevelt Park, the one connected to the Natural History Museum. Everything was amazing and blew my mind, for science reasons and other reasons. The colours just popped brighter than ever before and I could see tiny little intricate patterns subtly moving in everything around me. 

Definitely not high in a planetarium.

Definitely not high in a planetarium.

Me, being effected heavily by the science.

Me, being effected heavily by the science.

I felt super duper connected at this point. I thought my newly acquired powers may be able to help me better see the urban issues around this city -- issues which should be glaringly obvious in nature. Unfortunately, instead, I went into an Imax presentation of how the universe was created.

The loud voice and visuals sent me spiraling into an existential mess, I was so enamored by the beauty of the universe and so pained by my own insignificance inside of it.

I was started to cry and I know everyone around me thought it was because I was by myself in a planetarium during Valentine's Day... but really I was crying because of the science, and other reasons.

Anyways -- the point of this is that I’d be a total fake if I told you, I didn’t get distracted on my long walk around searching for signs of something my privileged-ass has only recently been able to see in my own country.

While I didn’t learn much about gentrification on my dérive, I did learn an important life lesson, that if anyone senses great sadness in you and offers you the answer in an edible form, more than likely,  it’s not the answer -- but a mild distraction from the real answers.

(Do words go to the gym? If so it must be leg day ‘cause these sentences be running…)

After this ordeal, I crossed from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side via Central Park. Didn’t notice much on this little transitional lap, other than a child making possibly one of the weakest ass snowmen I’ve ever seen. His parents were right there and neither of them expressed any disappointment. It was almost insulting. 

Anyways, I made my way back to the Upper East Side, and noticed something... a lot of young, attractive people. The UES always seemed inhabited by mainly thousand-year-old white folk, even as recent as the last two years. The UES was for older wealthy people. Then I realized, "Shit, I live here… with all these young attractive people. I’m one of these young attractive people." 

My spot on The UES is actually really affordable compared to a lot of places in Brooklyn -- maybe this speaks to the gentrification of that area? Brooklyn has become a far more upmarket location and wealthier people have moved to invest. In contrast, some areas of Manhattan became slightly more affordable in certain niche occurrences.

The dérive seemed to, for the most part, serve only to further cement what I had gathered from the readings but it has gotten me to consider my surroundings from several perspectives and not just my own.

Wow, for an essay there, I almost forgot I was in a game design course. How would this be integrated into a play experience without trivializing things?

Perhaps an interactive experience that utilizes both the 2D and 3D build capabilities of Unity. I’d show the world from a designer or architect’s schematic view (as a 2D interaction) it would be fairly easy to traverse -- the game would then switch to 3D to show the world from the viewpoint of someone living in that designed environment. The first-person perspective would be far more difficult to traverse (Hostile Architecture). That could be a decent metaphor. 

Perhaps an interactive experience that has the player assume the role of an architect tasked with revamping a city. You first interact with people in the city and get to know them. Get to love the surroundings. Then get the opportunity to alter the city “for the better” -- every time you hit a prompt to alter the city, some people you’ve interacted with will disappear while others prosper -- but if you choose not to alter the city at all it slowly becomes less affluent. 

The person engaging will have to find a balance. I think this could work well, soundtracked by an old industrial energetic panic-growth sound. The piece would serve as one aspect to a wider discussion about gentrification. Perhaps a play through of this experience at the top of a page which later drops down to reveal an article/study or documentary that delves into why finding that balance is so difficult and the real factors that bring about gentrification.

I still have quite a long road ahead of me but I think this is a good starting point.