Guerrilla Art and Urban Identity in San Francisco: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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"Defenestration" by Brian Goggin. (Wikimedia Commons)

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"Creative San Francisco Laments the Death of Guerrilla Art," Chris O'Brien, Los Angeles Times

Brian Goggin perched on the blue sofa that hung halfway off the roof. He looked down one last time on his guerrilla art masterpiece, "Defenestration," that had become one of the city's unlikeliest icons.

More than 17 years ago, Goggin and an army of artists had transformed the four-story, dilapidated building below him by attaching a menagerie of furniture to the sides, creating the illusion of objects being flung into the air.

It was a physical manifestation of the word "defenestration," which means "a throwing of a person or thing out of a window."

There was the vintage green refrigerator. The grandfather clock twisted into a slight corkscrew shape. The tables and TV whose bent legs made it appear they were running and leaping. A telephone, swirling lamps, an old radio. Altogether, 34 pieces, including the blue sofa.

Now it was time to take them down. The building is scheduled to be demolished to make way for much-needed affordable housing.

Goggin, 48, donned a hard hat and climbed into the basket of a giant crane that moved him from piece to piece. Using an electric buzz saw and blowtorch, he cut through the metal beams that held the furniture in place, then lowered each piece to the street below. By the end of the day, all but two pieces were down: the sofa and a bathtub that hangs out of a window.

"Honolulu Shores Up Tourism With Crackdown on Homeless," Adam Nagourney, The New York Times

It was just before 7 a.m. and the streets of Waikiki were filled with tourists, surfers, early morning joggers — and Ronnie Cruz, a 34-year-old homeless man getting a ticket from a Honolulu police officer for pushing a shopping cart piled high with his belongings along the sidewalk.

“Happens all the time,” Mr. Cruz said after he made his way to the other side of Kalakaua Avenue. “They won’t let you stand over there.”

“I’ve got four of them,” he said, reaching into a billfold as he displayed the tattered tickets.

This tourist mecca has had a surge in its homeless population, which is up 32 percent over the past five years. The explosion has prompted one of the toughest police crackdowns in the nation, sounded alarms among civic leaders that aggressive panhandlers are scaring off tourists, and set off an anguished debate on how to deal with the destitute in a state that prides itself on its friendly and easygoing ways.

Honolulu officials say they are confiscating up to 10 tons of property left on the sidewalk by homeless people every week.

"Green Construction," Aaron Wiener, Washington City Paper

The ribbon-cutting for the Marriott Marquis convention center hotel was a patriotic affair. A choral rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” opened the June 10 ceremony, which took place against a backdrop of three hulking metal sculptures titled “America,” “Flag,” and “The Birth of the American Flag.”

But as Mayor Vince Gray took the podium to welcome D.C.’s new largest hotel, China was on his mind.

That day, he announced, marked the beginning of direct flights on Air China between D.C. and Beijing—something his office says it’s worked to bring to fruition. “Today is the maiden flight,” he told the assembled crowd. “We will have a flight bringing people from Beijing to our city, and we hope they will stay in the Marriott Marquis!”

It would be fitting, given that foreign investors—half of them from China—contributed a portion of the money to pay for the hotel, earning green cards in the process.

The June 10 grand opening of the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C.

"Taxi Medallions Have Been the Best Investment in America for Years. Now Uber May Be Changing That," Emily Badger, Wonkblog

A taxicab is a car remade by government, modified dozens of ways by edicts within subsections of articles of the city’s taxi code.

“Everywhere on this car has been regulated,” John Henry Assabill says. “Look at it!”

He throws up his arms in the direction of his gold-colored 2012 Ford Transit Connect. The car’s medallion number — 813 — is painted in black plain gothic figures (must be black plain gothic figures) on the driver’s-side hood, on both passenger doors and, for good measure, on the rear. Inside, there is a camera mounted over the rear-view mirror, a dispatch radio bolted to the console, a credit-card reader snapped to the passenger headrest.

From the back of Assabill’s seat hangs a sign — lamination required — spelling out the city’s fare structure: $3.25 for the base rate, $2 for the airport departure/arrival tax, $50 vomit cleanup fee. Everywhere, there are mandatory stickers. “That one costs a dollar,” Assabill says of a window decal reminding passengers to LOOK! before opening the door into the possible path of cyclists and pedestrians. “The fine for not having it is $100.”

Then there are the holes. Several have been drilled into the roof to mount the top light that distinguishes cabs from other cars at a distance. Another has been punched right into the hood, bolting down the palm-size metal plate — the “medallion” itself — that gives Assabill the right to operate this cab, one of 6,904 in Chicago.

Chicago taxi medallion. Image: Daniel X. O'Neil on Flickr/CC License.

"Maximum City," Jacob Dreyer, The Calvert Journal

As I cycled to work on 20 May this year, the Yan’an Expressway — Shanghai’s crosstown artery, named after the utopian socialist city that was Mao Zedong's 1940s stronghold — was eerily silent, cordoned off for a visit by President Vladimir Putin. We discovered the next day that the upshot of his visit was the signing a $400bn contract with China for the export of gas and petroleum. As President Barack Obama had once promised he would, Putin made a pivot to Asia, albeit on a slightly different axis. From Shanghai, the terms of the deal — which was immensely advantageous to China — made it seem as if Russia was voluntarily becoming a vassal-state of the People’s Republic, making a reality of both the predictions of Vladimir Sorokin’s dystopian fantasy novel Day of the Oprichnik and of Russian scare stories about Chinese immigrants flooding into Siberia.

The irony is that models of society imported from Russia during the Soviet period — as realised in popular culture, legal apparatuses and, of particular interest to the cyclist, in architecture and urban planning — are as influential as ever in China. If, as Chinese philosopher Wang Hui observed in his book The End of Revolution, Socialism was the door through which China passed on its voyage into modernity, then it was Russia that opened that door, by exporting models and expertise that laid the foundation for much of what constitutes modern China.

Perhaps the most tangible of these legacies is the look and feel of the contemporary Chinese city; and since China is a centrally planned economy, this look and feel is remarkably unified. The prime shaping factor for the modern Chinese city was Soviet urbanism — or more precisely, Stalinist urbanism. In 1949, when the Communists came to power, Beijing was a city of half a million people: 95% or more of both the population and built structures in today’s 20 million-person agglomeration emerged from the revolution, and from the Soviet advice that the new government relied on. In his brilliant book Beijing Record, Wang Jun makes clear the scale of this influence: “On 16 September [1949], a group of Soviet experts in municipal administration arrived in Beijing. They were supposed to help the new government in its work to plan the city’s development. In reality, however, they were to have absolute say in everything."

Top image available through Creative Commons.

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