Thursday, April 28, 2011

Origami Urbanism

At last I have time to work on an essay that's been invited (but not yet accepted) for a book on urban communication. Toward that end I'm playing around with a term that might be useful: Origami Urbanism (not to be confused with Mark Robinson's 2003 album Origami [and] Urbanism).

Origami Urbanism converts the city into a plaything whose apparently editable nature de-centers power relationships, presumably in liberatory fashion. The origami city folds and bends, not individually like the titanium fluidity of Frank Gehry architecture, but in a broader matrix of moving parts whose alteration remakes social order as easily as one might transform a plane (sheet of paper) into a crane. As such, Origami Urbanism trains viewers to imagine themselves as producers, not mere consumers, of a mode of urban performance wherein interpersonal communication and social networks become unfixed.

Here's an example:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Abandoned Bowling Alleys

I just had to share this collection of 40 abandoned bowling alleys. [I borrowed one from improbcat's flickr album to summarize the larger project.]

While I'm annoyed that I missed the Detroit example during my recent visit, I am still grateful that this assemblage has been pulled together.

You know, as I was searching my own photo archives for a suitable example, I realized that, with the exception of an animated neon sign, I don't have a single decent picture of a bowling alley.

Time to rectify that situation!

See the Collection: 40 abandoned bowling alleys

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Last Typewriter

I'm flashing back to that Simpsons episode ("Girly Edition") in which Lisa anchors a kids' news television show, competing with her brother to produce sappy human interest stories. In one scene, she stands next to a forlorn-looking train track and intones wistfully, "The old Union Pacific doesn't come by here much anymore." Just then, a thoroughly modern Union Pacific train barrels by - proof that nostalgia may be popular, but it's not always accurate.

So I will offer no tearful tributes today to the passing of another icon of the past; I merely note that the last company in the world to make typewriters - Godrej and Boyce - sold its final batch this week, and they're not making any more. Think of it. No more typewriters. Me, I don't miss them - except on those occasions when I'm required to fill out an important form that doesn't have an electronic version. When I first arrived in my academic department, we had one just for that purpose. Then one day it was gone.

Oh well. At least my office still has that old-school metal pencil sharpener bolted near the door in my office.

Learn more: Last Typewriter Factory in the World Shuts Its Doors

Monday, April 25, 2011

Continuing Slide in the Academic Market

Here are some highlights from the 2011 American Association of University Professors Faculty Salary Report. While this news has been out for several weeks now, I've only now been able check it out. No matter the delay, this report about today's academic market makes an important contribution to a growing array of evidence that questions the ongoing viability of the professorate.

The bad news:

• For the second year, faculty salary increased marginally but failed to keep up with inflation. [The AAUP adds some important context to this point]:
"Such a disproportionate increase in compensation for a single individual is an indication of misplaced institutional priorities—especially when faculty members and other higher education employees have been faced with involuntary unpaid furloughs, hiring and salary freezes, and cuts to benefits."
• Increases in presidential pay continue to far outstrip increases in faculty pay (especially at private schools).

• Contingent faculty - those not on a tenure track - and graduate student employees total 75 percent of all instructional staff. Less than one in four faculty are on the tenure/tenure track.

What's more, these trends show no signs of abating. If you're thinking about getting into academic life - especially if you're hunting for a tenure-track job - you should read this report.

Press Release

• Full Report

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Back from Berry

Wouldn't you guess it? I upload a celebratory message about this blog's 1000th post and then go offline for four days! Fact is, I've been working on a project that took me out of town and still have yet to resurface. Nonetheless I've got to share a couple pictures I just received from Kevin Kleine; these are from my recent talk at Berry College.

It was such a treat to visit with folks have taught and sustained me for so many years. I attended Berry from '92 through '94, finishing my undergraduate degree there, and I hope I've grown a bit since then. At the same time I can never forget the feelings I had at Berry - the sense of hushed awe I had when first visiting Hermann Hall, the gifts of time and patience offered by faculty who saw more potential in me than I could imagine, and the shared adventure of Jenny and I completing our degrees together. I love Berry College. There, I will always be a student.

Today I keep Miss Berry's Final Letter to Alumni on my desk, and I read it often. I can't say yet that I've lived up to her call for graduates to help Berry "stand through the ages," but I'm glad I had this opportunity to stand with my teachers and friends, if only for one night.

Friday, April 15, 2011

1,000 posts!

Today's the day: 1,000 posts!

OK, some posts were kind of lame (like, "sorry folks, not gonna post for a while, I'm traveling to…") and some were merely links to cool articles that I read. Some posts were breathless accounts of pop culture phenomena that quickly vanished (cue obligatory link to my first Chatroulette post). But, overall, this blog has provided me a rich opportunity to work through ideas that culminated in City Ubiquitous, fortified several public lectures (especially the one in Denver), and are, even now, helping me develop new essays on topics that include origami architecture and world's fairs.

Woodland Shoppers Paradise started about four years ago, first as a daily blog - even on weekends. These days I'm happy to post about four days a week, and sometimes I don't accomplish even that goal. Still, I consider it an important form of mental exercise. Initially I saw this site as an entirely separate thing from my teaching; now I regularly integrate posts into supplemental reading recommendations (especially when students struggle with things like semicolons!). I'm not a great writer, but Woodland has helped me get a little better. Here you see my enthusiasms, my excesses, my fears, my frustrations, my hopes, and my inchoate notions. Woodland is me in draft-form.

Over the past 1,000 posts, Woodland has shaped several projects that continue to thrive, such as Wood's Writing Guide. A few others, such as Road Trip Essentials, lie dormant yet may flourish again one day. My favorite ongoing project is Daytime Dispatches, an annual dive into the miasma of daytime television shows. I can't imagine that more than a handful of folks drop in to share my suffering at those hours of raunchy talk-show schlockfests and cheesy bodice-ripping soap operas, but I still prepare for the day like I'm heading to battle. ["Daytime Dispatches Four" is scheduled for Friday, June 24th!]

This blog has meant a lot to me. Sometimes it meant something to other folks too. Some one-shot posts, such as my reflections on Suicide, inspired friendships that enrich my life years after I clicked "publish." And I'm still amazed at the number of responses to my recollections about Webb's City, my all-time most popular post (judging by comments). Not every writing effort was so fruitful though. Some posts - I'm looking at you We made it. Can we unmake it? - called forth my swing-for-the-fences response to Big Problems. The response? Crickets. My Learning to Fly post seemed like a good piece of how-to-live-life philosophy. No feedback (maybe for good reason). You never know which posts will make a difference.

Looking back on 1,000 posts I am especially grateful to several fans who regularly share comments. As any blogger will tell you, readers who take the time to share commentary, suggestions, encouragement, and even critique offer a gift worth more than dollars (which isn't saying much these days, but you know what I mean). Frequently I've felt that I was writing with one or two people specifically in mind - anticipating their responses as I arranged ideas, images, and arguments. Let me tell you, writing is so much better, so much more fun, that way. Ultimately Woodland is for me. But I get such pleasure at the idea that other folks have found it useful too.

Most of all, I want to take this moment to thank Jenny Wood, my wife and best friend. Jenny has read more posts more carefully and more patiently than anyone else in the world. She is my unofficial copy-editor and reality-checker. If Jenny says that an idea is half-baked; it's half-baked. I may argue and I may cringe, but I've learned to trust her instincts. I may still drop some bombs of silliness or error into the blogosphere now and again, but Jenny's eagle eye has helped keep Woodland Shoppers Paradise on a firm foundation. Thank you, sweetheart, for visiting, for commenting, for reposting, and for encouraging me to keep at it.

OK, enough congratulations. Let's wrap this thing up with one final item. If you've ever wondered about the name, Woodland Shoppers Paradise - if you've ever asked, "Why'd he call it that?" - well, back in '07 I didn't give it much thought. I was playing around with the interface for Blogspot (as Blogger was called back then) and I had to put something into the name field. It was just a lark, this blogging thing. I didn't think it would last a month or two. And I like the idea of a blog as a mall; you can amble about, find what you like, and enjoy the pleasure of feeling slightly overwhelmed by the spectacle. A lot of this stuff is surface-level glitz. You won't find much depth in a mall, or in this blog. Anyway, the name seemed catchy enough. And I wasn't thinking about a long-term project.

Who knew?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Detroit Wrap-up

This week I've been writing about my travels in and around the Motor City, and I've used these posts to inspire conversations with my students about a range of topics: the transformation of America's cities, the intersection of scholarship and tourism, and the role of academic inquiry beyond the Ivory Tower. Monday introduced a video about Detroit ruins, Tuesday featured the Michigan Central Station, and Wednesday focused on the Heidelberg Project. Today I thought I'd wrap this blog series up with some images and memories that don't fit into any particular narrative.

I begin at Johnson's service station on Junction and Kopernick, a jaunty deco burst of auto-enthusiasm set in a sea of dreary red brick. This place recalls the pleasure of chance discovery that happens when I allow myself to get lost in a city. Right turn, left turn, right turn, random direction - and repeat. And suddenly I'm looking up at this white tower, its ersatz battlements and chevron runes meant to evoke a stylized version of the past. Today Johnson's is a cheerful thumbs-up to the motorist who doesn't have time to read architecture any more deeply than a passing glance. Take pictures soon; you never know how long it'll look this good.

Later on, as I'm taking US 12 west out of town, I come across this sign for Yellow Tigers Karate School. Actually this is my second visit. The previous day I'd stopped to take a picture, but kids were coming and going - and parents were waiting with the anxious, focused eyes of folks who know that a few lessons in karate are little protection against these streets. Taking pictures near their kids is a pretty stupid idea. So I abandon my plan, only to return the next day. The light is lousy and I must cross a Frogger-maze of fast moving cars to get here, but I will snap a shot of this badass dude bringing some righteous thunder on a truck because, well, because he can! No way I'm passing this place up twice.

Finally there's Miller's bar in nearby Dearborn. I recently read that Miller's serves one of the best hamburgers in America. And since I can't load up on Slow's Bar B Q [their spelling, not mine] for every meal, I figure I ought to check the place out. Now in case there's any confusion, Miller's is a bar that happens to serve some of the best burgers in the nation. Yep, there's a grill and there's the steam of patties lovingly pressed, but not too hard. So I savor a Pabst and wait. A few minutes later the bartender plops down a doorstop of meat that's packed in a hearty but otherwise unobtrusive bun. No special spices, no gimmicky sides in this joint. Just good meat. Thank goodness they don't charge by the napkin because this is a wet ride. It'll take days to unclog my motor after this visit.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Detroit's Heidelberg Project

Following up on my recent Michigan travels, I decided to focus on one of the area's most important social statements: The Heidelberg Project. HP is an outdoor art space in Detroit's McDougall-Hunt neighborhood where two blocks of blighted houses and empty lots have been transformed into colorful, disturbing, witty, and thought-provoking comments on the Motor City's state and fate. As you'd guess, Heidelberg is a street passing through the area, once a sign of dilapidation, now something far more lively.

Tyree Guyton launched the project in 1986 as a personal and politically charged response to the despair and decay of his neighborhood. No etherial artiste, Guyton took wreckage as his media, determined to draw attention to the forces of racial discrimination and economic depravation that helped wreck his hometown. Working with his grandfather, Sam Mackey, along with other local artists and neighborhood kids, Guyton painted polka dots, assembled discarded items, and composed jarring juxtapositions to challenge others to rethink the meaning of ruin.

Naysayers, including two mayors, have called for the HP's demolition, and a number of Heidelberg houses were razed in the nineties. Even so, the Project draws photographers, activists, and curious onlookers from around the world. Tell a few folks that you're visiting Detroit and at least one person will insist that you add HP to your itineracy. Indeed a few local boosters have even begun (nervously) to add this place to their lists of must-sees. Just imagine the sight of reclaimed houses - eyesores to critics - on those glossy four-color brochures selling Detroit as a tourism destination.

Artwork by Tim Burke
During my visit, on a blue-sky weekday, I saw an empty information booth and a handful of tourists taking pictures from their cars, windows up. I was compelled to get out and walk. I spotted a couple older guys sitting in a pickup and asked whether they thought it'd be OK for me to take some pictures. "Go ahead," one guy said. "But don't sell 'em," the other one added. Unsurprisingly several neighborhood signs warn that the entire place is copyrighted. Detroiters know a thing or two about exploitation.

Artwork by Tim Burke
Since visiting HP I have wanted to learn more about this experiment in urban renewal. The official website offers plenty of information about one of this project's goals: "The inclusion of vacant lands into a networked system of art/play/garden spaces and the adoption of an 'art-as-life' philosophy into all components of the neighborhood infrastructure" - a worthy enterprise, especially given the alternatives in this part of town.

In many ways, project founder Tyree Guyton is a symbol of Detroit. He served in the Army, he was an autoworker, and he was a firefighter. Now he's an artist, active as ever. In fact Guyton has just mounted a temporary show called Street Folk, an exhibit of about 10,000 shoes filling a city block, seeking to evoke the plight of Detroit's homeless population. For better or worse, the Motor City is increasingly a work of art.

Take a tour with Google Street View - and then visit for real.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Michigan Central Station

Following up on yesterday's post - sharing my video photoessay Detroit Dirge - I thought I'd share some more photos of Michigan Central Station. For most people, this abandoned site offers the quintessential view of the Motor City, mute testimony to the death of America's industrial might. During my recent visit, I found that hanging around this place all but ensured some conversation. Locals and out-of-towners are drawn to this Beaux-Arts relic, 18 stories high, that dominates the skyline of Detroit's Corktown neighborhood.

Visiting in mornings and evenings, seeking the right light for photos, I chatted with folks who are attracted to this place. Other times, while I was visiting the Heidelberg neighborhood or photographing the forlorn Continental plant, people would invariably remind me to head to MCS. "It's the one with no windows," one fellow helpfully added. As Susan Saulny writes in the NYT, the last train departed more than 20 years ago. Now the station resides on the National Register of Historic Places, even as preservationists battle critics who insist that MCS should be razed.

Cops come by the station too, keeping a wary eye out for folks like me. They're not searching for looters so much any more; the opulent chandeliers are long gone, and more practical stuff like copper has largely been stripped. Still photographers and other urban explorers make regular appearances. The signs are everywhere, warning trespassers to beware the razor wire. Decaying floors and other dangers wait to snare the foolish. Unofficial residents too. So I wasn't surprised when an officer pulled up. Just the day before, he said, several college students were caught sneaking around inside. They got tickets for $175 each, while the professor who allegedly inspired the adventure got nothing. He was back in Maryland. The cop lowered his voice with playful menace: "You're not from Maryland, are you?"

Every once in a while someone would mention that dude who'd been found in the nearby Roosevelt Warehouse, a depository whose books and other school supplies moulder away (a fire back in 1987 didn't help matters). So, the story goes that a guy was spotted in an elevator shaft, frozen in ice. Only his feet were sticking out, like Popsicle sticks. Reporters came around and did their bit - this was a couple years ago - and people still tell the tale. Even during my visit, the police officer recounted the particulars, but he was looking at my camera with particular interest. "Are you sure you haven't been sneaking around the station? It's so easy to get in." No, I replied. I'm staying outside (and that was essentially true). "But it's so easy to get in," he pressed. Hmmm, I thought.

(Photos by Andrew Wood)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Detroit Dirge

No, this is not all of Detroit; it is simply one facet of a place reeling under the weight of a collapsed auto industry and a disintegrating tax base. Once the nation's fourth most populous city, Detroit's numbers have now fallen to 1910-levels. Little more than 700,000 people live there today. Roughly one-third of its area - 138 square miles - lies abandoned. You can drive for hours and never see a chain grocery store. Even so, many of Detroit's remaining residents are working hard to breathe new life into their hometown.

I visited Detroit over three days in March, drawn to its ruins - especially those downtown office buildings that tower like tombstones, unlit at night. My memories are fragments: vapor plumes rising from steam vents, downtown traffic lights switched to blinking yellow, and a tense moment with a guy determined to break into a car while I was shooting the GAR building. They say that local boosters have come up with a crackerjack way to draw tourists: they want to build a $50,000 statue of Robocop.

I remember other things too: the vibrant transformation of the Heidelberg Project; tasty BBQ at Slow's (and a nearly perfect burger at Miller's Bar, in nearby Dearborn); and friendly conversations with locals who share my fascination with Michigan Central Station, that Beaux Arts ruin that has come to symbolize, for many, America's postindustrial decline. During my visit I drove day and night, and I felt the survivor's guilt of someone who lives a country away from a place that is not the backlot for a grim movie but is, rather, home to its residents.

Detroiters are understandably tired of photographers reproducing the same images of ruin and decay that feeds hopeless narratives of a dying city. More than once I received a withering stare from a local who saw me as some sort of Thanatourist, a holiday-seeker of death and suffering. [Plenty of other times, though, I also received smiles and advice. Here, as in all places, most people are basically good]. I did not come to exploit this place - though others may disagree.

The news is not all bad. Citizen volunteers are working to strengthen their neighborhoods. Entrepreneurs and artists are streaming in, taking advantage of dirt-cheap housing and the hunger for new ideas. Urban farmers are wrangling with weeds to produce jobs as well as sustenance. Chrysler's defiant Imported from Detroit Super Bowl ad tells the story well enough: Detroit can work. Even so, I just can't shake the sadness I felt here.

We feel no guilt at photographing a true ghost town, but we feel a collective guilt for the wrenching transformation of the Motor City. It says something about our country, about all of us. At the same time, any effort to watch this place, to photograph it, to report on it, conveys another kind of guilt. Any story of this place is bound up in our fascination with death, the easy narrative that resists an honest reckoning. So I offer no truth about Detroit in my video-essay - just some pictures of a place caught between what it was and what it is becoming.

(Video and photos by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shameless Media Plug: Rome News Tribune

Still on my travel hiatus - just returned from an amazing week on the east coast [with plenty of pix to come]. But I wanted to share this plug from the Rome News-Tribune about my forthcoming Berry College presentation.
As part of the Oxbridge Lecture Series, Wood will speak at 7 p.m. in the Berry College Science Auditorium. The event, entitled “Seeking Public Life in a Mediated World,” is sponsored by the Berry College Honors Program and admission is free and open to the public. A reception sponsored by the Berry College Forensics Union will follow the event.

In the lecture, Wood will explore how today's communication practices reflect broader transformations in urban design. Tracing a path from the boulevards of 19th century Paris through the totalizing spectacle of 20th century world's fairs to the rise of today's surveillance society, the lecture examines the modern paradox that simultaneously converges and fragments people, that, as Wood explains, leaves “us tapping on cell phones and clicking on virtual corn crops to relieve anxieties we can barely name.”

Bridging scholarly research and pop culture fascination, Wood will lead a tour through digital footprints, iPod dogma, the death of Detroit and why the next Depression will be televised. This presentation, anchored in critique but motivated by hope, aims to get audience members talking.
Read More: Oxbridge Lecture Series Presents Professor Andrew Wood April 6