Not Graffiti, but Style-Writing: The (Un)worlding of New York’s Street Networks and the (Re)worlding of the Three Train Yard
Keywords:Style Writing; Graffiti; New York City; Phase 2; Skeme.
How might a city know its people? And, how might people know their city, as their self or as their other? Each numerical edifice of course erases the knowability of some, to render the knowability of others. This essay examines the long-term effects of mid-century development strategies in New York City, specifically the ways in which urban planners used forced relocation practices, and the ways in which these practices led to urban decay. Here we will see that the city’s strategic, and often disingenuous, use of data led to the disappearance of city inhabitants from the city’s archives. With these strategies in mind, this essay outlines the ways in which city governance procedures functioned in aesthetic terms, rendering the city’s grid as an ethereal medium ready for remaking. These development practices led to a catastrophic decay of social networks. Most notably perhaps, we find the disappearance and reappearance of entire city streets from both the physical reality of urban space and also the archives of the city, here the metropolitan government lost control of that grid when urban decay encroached too strongly. We find that world and map-making succumb to their own discontents, as the source of that urban decay can be seen to be sourced from the urban development practices.
Yet, for all these de-worldings and decays, the life of New York emerges, this time from the subway tunnels neglected by the metropolitan government. The artist Phase II teaches us that the word “graffiti” is the wrong word for the aesthetics that animated the world of the street’s grid, and transformed the possible use of the subway, to now serve as a communication device, rather than only one of transportation. This aesthetics was not a deleterious scrawl, but self-identified by the artists as “Style-Writing”. We will see that the subway network in fact functioned as an opportunity for young people to grow robust cultural connections, connections which often crossed the segregating boundaries established by mid-century urban development. Quite different from the perception of subway art as a signal of the city’s vicissitudes, here we find that Style-Writing became a key tool for the social efforts of young people seeking to reconstruct an urban world. Specifically, we will turn to the work of Skeme and his artist crews, such as the Three Yard Boys, at Lenox subway station.
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