Occupy Wall Street – Creekfreak Edition, circa 1993
October 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
Taking the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement in a somewhat Creekfreaky direction, I thought I’d share a little piece from my past, when I was a grad student in architecture at Columbia University. The year was 1993, I had graduated from college in the midst of what was the big Recession of its time (wow I sound so old writing this) – a recession marked by the fall of the Soviet Empire (meaning, defense industry jobs fell through the floor), a Savings & Loan crisis (deregulation), a housing market bubble that popped, and in California, civil and geologic unrest (riots and earthquakes). As now, there were “no” jobs for recent grads. Most of my fellow architecture students worked for free (despite the fact that that’s a labor violation, right?) or worked for dad. Neither was an option for me.
So I thought I’d hide out in grad school. This lasted a year – the toxic combo-pack of a really, really bad roommate situation and growing unease about my student loan debt led to me dropping out. Yes, I am a grad school drop out (the first time, anyway).
But that year was creatively engaging and fun. I’d always liked exploring issues of power and empowerment as reflected in urban design. So my jaw dropped a little when we were given the studio assignment to design a ferry terminal next to the Brooklyn Bridge – to help the commute of Wall Street bankers – this was actually a stated part of the program! Anyone familiar with Brooklyn in the early 90s may recall a large population of youth, many of color, without adequate parkland, some urban unrest, and with the recession, and beyond Brooklyn there was a general feeling that once again the middle class was being shafted while Wall Street continued to profit from downsizing, moving industries abroad, and, yes, bailouts. But with the collapse of the Soviet Empire came this correlated belief that all left wing ideologies had failed, to the extent that it had become socially unacceptable even among Democrats to challenge free market rhetoric. So many people felt adrift, without a political orientation to give voice to their actual experiences. And I had graduated from my undergraduate college with swaggering braggarts who truly believed that the riches go to the smartest and most deserving, meaning those who were willing to table their consciences to make a quick buck. But my father had, during my college years, literally worked himself to death in a commission-only job, my former high school had exploded with walkouts, angry unemployed defense workers were lashing out at immigrants and others, and Los Angeles had erupted with violence over the Rodney King verdict, but at its roots lay social and economic injustices.
And I was supposed to design a ferry terminal for Wall Street bankers? Because, it would be so distasteful to ride the subway with everyone else? Cabs aren’t enough? Clearly I found the program wanting. So I made up my own.
Sure, there’d be a ferry terminal, to meet the requirement of the course. But for the Wall Streeter, trying to avoid glimpses of the madding crowd, seeking to maintain denial of the consequences of their actions, there’d be no relief. My ferry terminal, placed in the East River next to the Brooklyn Bridge, would have a swimming pool/ice skating rink attached to it. The ferry terminal itself was be a minimalist piece, like a vulnerable raft floating in the East River, sharing the feelings of instability Americans were grappling with. The approach to the terminal would be like the subway entrances they were avoiding, going under the swimming pool – leading to swimming pool locker rooms as well as the ferry terminal platform. Bankers would rub shoulders with Brooklyn’s youth, and Brooklyn’s youth would have a new place to play, winter and summer.
Any students of mine will no doubt be amused by the (rough) graphic quality of this design. As to the design aesthetic, my Italian professor pushed me to play with rationalist, abstract, architectural styles. While I enjoyed this exercise in design as agit-prop, I think truly successful design needs to provide richer responses to community needs, modernist abstraction hasn’t been a big winner in that regard; I’d do this concept differently now – although I’d be tempted to keep the vulnerable platform. When Wall Street adopts personal responsibility for all those legal “people” called corporations, I’ll reconsider.
And moving away from the theoretical to the real world, Brooklyn did get a park, a very nice one, that includes swimming with water from the East River(!) near the Bridge (and from the looks of GoogleMaps, a ferry terminal as well).