Claes Oldenburg's The Street and urban renewal in Greenwich Village, 1960.

Author:Shannon, Joshua A.
 
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Pedestrians walking down Thompson Street off Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park in the winter of 1960 were beckoned, by means of a messily painted sign and mural, into the basement of the Judson Church House (Fig. 1). The building served as the center for the social programs of the progressive Judson Memorial Church, which had presided over the south side of the square for more than a century (Figs. 2, 3). In the late 1950s, the basement of the church house had been converted into living and studio space for a handful of the neighborhood's many artists, and by the beginning of 1960, it had become the Judson Gallery, a public venue for the new urban and quotidian art working to counter the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism. Those curious enough to descend the stairs that winter found themselves in an exhibition called Ray Gun. The first room had been turned into an environment called The Street by Claes Oldenburg, a thirty-year-old neighborhood artist. (1)

The Street greeted the visitor with a visual cacophony of cardboard, paper, newsprint, wood fragments, and black paint (Figs. 4-7). Scraps of trash blanketed the floor from corner to corner, strips of newspaper hung from the light fixture, and the walls were covered with a brown and sooty-looking cardboard relief. A few freestanding sculptures shared the viewer's space in the middle of the scrap-strewn floor. The whole work, which Oldenburg described as a three-dimensional mural, bore marks of black paint, in places seeming only to give the installation a sullied look, but in others forming letters of the alphabet, defining scorched-looking contours, and identifying facial features. (2) In fact, the careful tearing and cutting of the cardboard, the nailing together of a broad variety of braces and sculptural supports, and the particular--if untidy--application of paint all worked, in their clumsy way, to make a legible representation of an urban environment. After spending some time looking closely, viewers would have been able to make out at least nine major human figures and four small automobiles, among other forms.

The surviving exhibition photographs, flash-bleached as they are, allow a fairly thorough reconstruction of the installation. Entering the room and facing right, the visitor would have confronted a bearded man in a top hat, slumping behind a shoe-shine stand (Fig. 4, lower right). At the shoe-shine man's shoulder was a shopwindow displaying indefinite goods and a small, illegible sign. (3) Further to the left, but along the same wall, there stood another figure, perhaps holding a gun in outstretched arms (Fig. 5, right). As the viewer turned left--negotiating the floor's muck of discarded shoes, empty bottles, and scraps of wood and wire--she would have approached a huge silhouetted face looming in the corner, its hair formed of scrawled-out words (Fig. 5, right). Her passage would have been obstructed, however, by two sculptures standing on the floor of the installation: a striding figure and, beside it, a prominent traffic barricade. Nevertheless, our viewer would have seen a few small forms floating in the undefined pictorial space on the far wall, some describing cars and figures (one, it seems, with a gun), some more ambiguous. Turning left again to face back toward the entrance, the viewer would have seen four major figures populating the remaining walls. Two of these (Fig. 6), although talking, were facing away from each other and rendered quite differently--one in round bulges of paper, the other in angular swaths of cardboard. The last two, on the wall by the entryway, had indistinct bodies, which seemed to merge together (Fig. 7). Just beside these were another automobile and, below that, a large illegible form, painted with the contours and indistinct splotches that ran across the entire installation. (4)

Most of the historical and critical literature on The Street has focused on its innovative use of banal materials or its dark representation of urban suffering. (5) This essay, by contrast, seeks to understand Oldenburg's odd streetscape as a cogitation on a contemporary crisis over the shape and nature of New York City. In particular, it considers The Street as a means of thinking about the possibilities for and limitations on the city, in view of the giant, and highly controversial, program of modernist urban renewal then reshaping much of New York. The essay argues that The Street offered a reflection specifically on renewal's central effort--through the promotion of order, negotiability, and legibility--to render a newly abstracted city. (6) This reflection was chiefly a negative one, insisting on the obdurate materiality of the city, but it was also far from single-minded. A proper understanding of The Street will require us to consider the work in both of its installations (Oldenburg installed a rather different version of the work at the Reuben Gallery in May 1960), as well as in its various contexts; first of all, it will involve us in a recovery of the earliest clamorous death throes of New York's classic period of urban renewal.

Modernist Renewal and New York City

From at least the 1930s, American urban planning had been shaped by the hegemonic European modernism of Le Corbusier. In his books The City of Tomorrow and When the Cathedrals Were White, Le Corbusier had proposed the wholesale destruction of chaotic, dirty old cities such as Paris and New York. (7) In their place would rise gleaming, new cities of uniform towers, surrounded by parks and connected by ribbons of high-speed automobile expressways (Fig. 8). This sort of urban planning became a kind of official program among Europe's leading architects when, in 1933, the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) adopted the Athens Charter, a manifesto for the new city. Meanwhile, in the United States, the means of engineering the new express-ways were being worked out by the German immigrant Fritz Malcher, whose 1935 book The Steadyflow Traffic System proposed soft curves, dedicated turn lanes, median strips, and separated parking areas in order to promote the ceaseless, signal-free flow of cars across cities. (8) His book, which began by excluding any discussion of sidewalks, formed the foundation of American urban traffic engineering. The tower-in-the-park program and the expressway program became the two chief elements of modernist urban planning.

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Although the sheer scale of Le Corbusier's schemes made them virtually impossible to adopt completely, at midcentury many governments found ways to incorporate aspects of the Athens Charter in their urban plans. Brasilia is the ultimate example of this kind of planning, but it was constructed from scratch. If existing cities were going to adopt the modernist model, they needed laws of eminent domain allowing them to dynamite existing blocks to make way for the new towers and greenery. (9) In the United States, such a possibility was opened by Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, which appropriated $1 billion to initiate a national program of urban renewal, and which allowed governments, for the first time, to seize private property in order to offer it, below cost, to private developers. (10) (The developers, who stood to profit neatly when areas were declared blighted, were often under no obligation to provide affordable housing in their new buildings.) In New York City alone, $267 million had been spent on Title I housing reconstruction by 1957, twice as much as in all other American cities combined. (11) This private development was accompanied by the public projects of the New York City Housing Authority, which by 1960 had completed fully a third of the multiple-dwelling construction in the city since World War II--virtually all of it by razing old brick tenements in order to put up neo-Corbusian towers. (12)

Meanwhile, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the interstate system, guaranteeing federal money to cover 90 percent of the cost of its construction, and initially committing $25 billion. Despite confusion at the highest levels of government about whether the interstates were meant to continue within city limits at all, 7,000 miles of urban highways were planned as part of the system, an amount that would more than quadruple total city highway mileage. (13) Greater New York's urban highway boom was particularly robust, with 899 miles existing or under construction by 1964, twice as many as in the runner-up, metropolitan Los Angeles. (14) A plan adopted in 1951 called for the easing of street traffic as well, and by 1960, Manhattan had converted nearly all of its avenues to one-way flow. (15) Over roughly the same period, the borough narrowed sidewalks on over 450 of its streets. (16)

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At the head of virtually all of New York's rebuilding efforts was Robert Moses, who simultaneously held jobs as city planning commissioner, chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance, and commissioner of parks, among other positions. As director of the extremely lucrative and autonomous Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Moses bullied governors and mayors--from the 1930s to the mid-1960s--into letting him realize his plans for New York City and its suburbs. His biographer estimates that, counting only the projects executed directly under his authority, Moses built public works costing $26 billion and displacing a stunning half million people. (17) He oversaw the construction of the Long Island, Gowanus, Brooklyn-Queens, and Major Deegan Expressways, among many others, as well as the erection of towering housing projects from Brooklyn to the Bronx.

The realization of a new vision of the city through renewal and highway construction was accompanied by subtler methods of controlling urban chaos. The Big Sweep, an annual street-cleaning campaign begun in 1956, formed one front in the battle for a more ordered city. The 1959...

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