Occupying a Modernist Facade, From the Public Housing it Overshadowed
November 18, 2011
Image via Atlantic Wire.
20,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge last night. Whether or not you agree with the aims of Occupy Wall Street is irrelevant: this is an urban intervention at a scale unseen for decades. And OWS’ action had an unlikely collaborator, one that’s been called an irrelevant, dead mistake for decades: public housing.
A good deal of the evening’s magic came from a projection trained on the facade of the massive Verizon Building (Rose, Beaton & Rose, 1975), just feet from the bridge. Some hidden projector (and projectionist) was broadcasting OWS messages onto the monolithic beige face of one of the most hated buildings in the city. Protestors followed along, screaming the names of occupied cities and slogans. My favorite? The heraldic “We are a cry / from the heart / of the world.” Continue.
Boing Boing interviewed the project’s creator Mark Read today, and from him we learn that the projections came from within the 16th-floor apartment of single, working, mother-of-three Denise Vega. Vega was born and raised in the long-infamous projects next to the Verizon building. She found out about the OWS projection project when Read posted a sign in the hallway of her building earlier this week, offering cash in exchange for use of an apartment for a few hours on November 17th. Read describes looking for a willing collaborator in the projects to Boing Boing this morning: “there’s a lack of services, lights are out in the hallways, the housing feels like jails, like prisons.” Still, the projects faced the Verizon target dead on, making them ideal for the location of the projector. Vega responded to Read’s ad, and allowed him and his team to use her home as the staging point for their 12,000-lumen Sony projector. She refused to take any cash, saying, “this is for the people.”
When the Verizon Building opened in 1975 (it was known as 375 Pearl back then), critic Paul Goldberger called “utterly banal.” The only windows the building offers are jet black, a trick of details that inexplicably makes the building appear completely solid. New York was at its most dangerous, and the 32-story, seemingly window-less corporate tower was an unwelcome addition to the historic-yet-blighted neighborhood around it. The eve of Postmodernism, writ large on soil tilled by New York’s first settlers.
Last night’s light show came from the oldest neighborhood in the city, the 1500-foot-wide piece of land wedged between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Native Americans had settled there when the Dutch arrived, who turned the land into farms and villages. American rebels battled British forces there. In fact, George Washington lived there. The area became an arrival point for immigrants in the 1800s, leading to the construction of infamous tenements. When Mayor La Guardia founded America’s first public housing program in the 1930s, this area was one of the first to be redeveloped into housing blocks, such as the one where Denise Vega lives. Those housing blocks, in turn, became infamous, as Read described to Boing Boing. Underfunded maintenance and security services, along with the inherent design flaws of the typology, conspired to make public housing synonymous with blight and crime. The 1975 opening of Verizon’s brutal, corporate data center was no more than a late death knell for the optimism that spurred the construction of such housing projects.
Yet last night, a lifetime occupant of one of these structures symbolizing the failure of modernism, offered it up as a vital point in a node of urban progress. The project of modern housing, resurrected – or at least, memorialized — by three guerilla artists and a single mom, operating from a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side.
Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s similar intervention in 1984, just before national elections, has the AT&T Building with its hand over its heart, as if in salut. Via.
Image via Animal New York.