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Walking Williamsburg

text and photos: Christina Ray

On Saturday, August 23rd, about 15 people gathered to participate in this month's Glowlounge, which took the form of a walk organized by Attack the Map's Markus Nystrom. We met outside Kellog's Diner in Williamsburg at 4pm, and were handed a photocopied map of the area - a map circa 1850. As we pondered the old map and plotted our current location on it, we awaited direction from Markus. After a brief historical review of psychogeographic practices, Markus invited us to walk in groups of two or three, guided by instinct, noting the various features of our surroundings with different colored marks on the map. We were also asked to consider whether we could discover any particular patterns or "rules" describing the neighborhood. These rules could include, for example, how factors such as traffic, noise, commerce, nature, housing, and population density appear to affect local residents. In an email sent out the day before, Markus advised participants that "Instead of letting the urban environment shock us into a lull of passivity, we're going to ask it some questions. Instead of forking over our ID, we'll demand that the city state its purpose. An important part of this will be making notes: How does the volume of traffic affect the liveliness of people on a given street? What is the color of that knowledge? An aspect of particular interest is the quantification of the relation between work and play." Markus mentioned that he was particularly interested in having us note where or whether people were engaged in leisure activities, since we had gathered on a weekend. We all agreed on a location to re-convene at after one to two hours of walking, then split up and set off in different directions.

I walked with three people - Pitchaya, Scott and K.C. We decided that we couldn't map a lot of different features in the span of two hours. Scott was interested in looking at the hipness factor of our surroundings, since Williamsburg has a reputation for being a (sometimes painfully) hip neighborhood. K.C. wanted to note areas that seemed friendly versus unfriendly. We all found ourselves attracted to the changes in architecture as we traversed first residential, then commercial, then again residential areas. We headed south on Union and meandered east, then south, then west for a few streets and finally north again.

As we walked along Union Avenue, Ainslee Street and Lorimer Street, we tracked the signs and symbols people use to identify their religious, political and community ties - from Virgin Mary statuettes and flags to anti-abortion signs and anti-power plant posters. We found these at residential and business locations, but the language of the street was completely different - anti-Bush slogans and street art, anti-war posters, tags and murals covering all available surfaces. There seemed to be a battle of messages happening between the conservative, lace-curtained bay windows of the pastel-colored homes and the liberal (and liberally painted) public spaces. We wondered how much age has to do with where people express their opinions - the younger the individual, the more aggressive the positioning of the message?

At the corner of Union Avenue and Grand Street, we stopped to discuss this commercial area. The liquor store with the brilliant vintage sign scored high on Scott's hipness chart. The Key Foods superstore had a gleaming white facade, most likely freshly and frequently painted to mask graffiti. A sad-looking, out-of-business business had become a mini-dumping ground for trash and bikes stripped of seats and wheels. A woman silently scattered the sidewalk with bread for the pigeons, and families and cars navigated the busy intersection in the course of weekend errands. As we crossed the wide road, Scott spoke of Jane Jacobs' urban design theories.

By this point, we had completely abandoned our maps and any attempt to make colored marks on them. We did take notes, though, mine being in the form of photographs. At Maujer Street we came across several new and renovated housing units, mixed among old warehouses. We noted the differences between building types and all agreed that we preferred the old over the new. Pitchaya remarked that recent immigrants and older residents might find the worn paint and fading brick of the factories unpleasant and be more attracted to the newer buildings, which we considered to be lacking in character. Indeed there were several buildings which, although relatively new, had been decorated with faux roof tiles and other embellishments in an attempt to soften their appearances.

K.C. gave Maujer street a "friendly" rating; here we found kids at play, artists soaking up the late afternoon sun on the stoops of their studio buildings and an empty lot filled with wildly overgrown local plants whose bright green stalks grew skyward through ancient abandoned cars and other unidentifiable objects. In the trash pile next door there were several discarded refrigerators and appliances, on top of which we discovered a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Scott plucked it from the trash pile and noticed it was from the Brooklyn Public Library. At the end of the block was a small triangular park, fenced off so that no one could enter it. Scott gently placed the book here and we moved on.

Walking down South 1st Street we found a group of artists outside the Good/Bad Art Collective building giving the brick walls a fresh coat of paint. We talked with them for a few minutes about the neighborhood and continued west, past a basketball game in progress and around the corner to Borinquen Place, which turns into Grand Street. A group of auto mechanics posed for a photo and an old, battle-scarred mutt lumbered over for a scratch behind the ears.

Turning north onto Union again, we passed the Williamsburg Publik House, a bowling alley-turned-bar/nightclub with beautiful hardwood flooring in thin strips slick with years of varnish that was being mopped in anticipation of the Saturday night crowd. Across the street we found a store called "Pictures" on the corner of Union and Powers. The ultimate in local kitsch (and a hipster's dream, noted Scott), the tables of dusty, molded-plastic religious icons shared space with faded framed prints of puppies and angels, and a variety of old lamps and fixtures graced the front window. The owner was outside painting the walls a bright crimson and he was pleased to tell us the building's history dating back to the 1920's. Unfortunately his story went straight over my head as I was busy taking pictures (Pitchaya, Scott, K.C. - did you catch it?).

We finally made our way back to the designated meeting-place, Union Pool, a bar that used to be a pool-supply store and still smells faintly of chlorine. We met the other psychogeographers on the patio and talked about our adventures over cold beers and sandwiches. Some groups had charted neighborhood characteristics on their maps. Sharilyn Neidhardt made field recordings with her mini-disc recorder, while Holly Tavel created a complex system of symbols for documenting local activity. Other groups photographed their walks with PDA/phone-cameras; still others (who actually followed the directions) returned with colorfully marked maps.

The general consensus seemed to be that while we all made interesting discoveries, the walk was too short to really formulate specific "rules" about the area. Some people enjoyed comparing the 1850 map with current streets, but many felt that it was difficult to navigate given that we were also busy studying the neighborhood. I was interested to learn that the area we walked in was described on the map as a Methodist cemetery, and I made a mental note to return to the area to see if I could find any remaining traces of the old burial ground. Markus collected our maps for further study, and as the sun set we traded emails and agreed to meet again for future psychogeographic experiments.


11:40 PM | Permalink


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Thanks for the recap! I've also posted a (far less comprehensive) review at sitelanguage:

Posted by: Andrea | Aug 28, 2003 11:49:24 AM

The story about the building at Union and Powers, as told by the owner. It had been in his family's care since the 1920's. It used to be a bar called Armrest. Now the building houses his store, Pictures, an emporium of fine modern fixtures and kitsch antiquities.

If I were him, I'd open up a restaurant there. It'd be called Union Power, makers of The Finest Grilled Cheese Sandwiches in the Land.

Posted by: PS | Aug 29, 2003 2:48:34 PM


Saturday streetcorner, there are fifteen of us.
puzzling over maps that crinkle as
they align with our minds.
we are all dressed - we might call it
normally, at least as normally as
those uptight english country dwellers
who traversed gardens and hedgerows
and pheasant runs in straight lines,
to make sure that everything was in order
there are the quick initial transactions
of walking and looking, we’d be like
a flock of hens, spitting image
if it weren't for the brief smiles.
but hens have a keeper, and we walk unkept.
Who would keep us here?
we split now into smaller flocks, autonomous,
and drift into zones that are different and the same.
in each the streets and stores are different,
in each the lack of life the same. why
do you wish that I should lie?
the sun, yes, it shines,
but are we girasoles, and do we heliotrope?
to (not in) my mind these streets are the perfect
travesty of a summer afternoon

it would be better to dream
fancy what is felt behind those windows
as the bodies twitch, lightly
giving themselves to sleep
and all character
all roles and other coats of mail

this is the city I like
hidden, infinite and unborn
it is true, the traces we find…
flashes on a windshield
birds over a lake in autumn
there is an old industrial star
holding a brick wall tight to the beam
we eye it and feel a part
of a secret whispered as we put our ears to the grout
to be part of anything, and not pay: grace.

between our soles and the sidewalk's geologic dust
there is an electricity
see - in that moment
lift and step
hanging in the air as the sun shines and the cars burn by
in that moment before the foot must leave the air
leaving all that is motion
this too, is a sort of baptism.

our eyes are peeled
no, they bleed for a sign
there we spot the bus bench there
a flicker of shared signals
a jerry-rigged fall-down affair
propped along the picket fence
so we would have a place to rest
rain-soaked and crusty but fully
as generous as the old potlatches
we still dream of

Posted by: Markus Nystrom | Sep 11, 2003 1:22:43 AM

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