Archives for posts with tag: Eran Ben-Joseph

If like me you are a diehard lover of cities and the sidewalk, where democracy is formed, you’ll love Chop Shop,  now streaming at Netflix. Ebert says it’s one of the best movies of the oughties. I wouldn’t know, but it has many virtues.

The 12-year-old actor Alejandro Polanco celebrates Willets Point, Queens, in the 2007 neo-realist movie, Chop Shop.

First, it is neo-Marxist. Modernity, it is argued, began in public space with the uprooting of the cobblestones people used to throw at the Bastille. And democracy itself was invented in the plazas of Athens, where citizens gathered to vote on civic matters. Willets Point is not a planned city – so far from being planned it overlooks Rikers Island, the nexus of New York City chaos – and has no sewage system or streetlights. It is an organic, Systeme D — the back channel economy in which half the world’s workers now labor — explosion of auto parts and repair shops where there used to be junk yards.  Visually, cinematically, it is the opposite of the planned, organized, civilized city and much more in the realm of the visual chaos Robert Venturi first discovered in Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas celebrates in Lagos.

Willets Point is the urban version of the vast parking lot in which most suburban Americans live, and which academic architecture, who fancy themselves the avatars of modernity, are just beginning to address.  It is not the architecture of reassurance symbolized by Disneyland and everything else Hollywood builds into a set.

The suburbs – I suppose Queens could be considered a suburb of Manhattan – are where all the entry level immigrants now live. The outer boroughs are no longer for white people only, and that clash and ascendancy of cultures is what Chop Shop is partly about. Shea Stadium is right there; the kids sneak into baseball games; everyone in the world wants to own an American muscle car and comes to Willets Point to get one.

Second, the  neo-realist story idea arose from reality. No member of the chattering classes has ever laid eyes on Willets Point, Queens. No Spielberg or Bruckheimer has the nerve to emerge from un-air-conditioned space to regard actuality.

The Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, guided there by a roadie who’d had his own car chopped there, spent months hanging out in Willets Point.  He didn’t know what his story was going to be. He waited for the neighborhood to tell him. In the visual chaos, he slowly began to see that there were children who lived and worked there.* That children in America live and work in junk yards is something you’d never know unless you just quietly hung around a place, not re-conforming the reality to make it videogenic. Apprehending, I don’t know, reality.

Third, he had no casting director and basically no lines to memorize, only a carefully rehearsed and diligently pre-shot, shot and re-shot improv script. He found the lumniscent young actors who play the orphaned brother and sister himself. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales epitomize the lure of British television and movies to me – indeed Bollywood, Australian, Spanish movies and movies everywhere else but America – they are real faces. Uncut, unBotoxed, shining out light the way no Hollywood mask can.

Gonzales and Polanco live in a crawl space above the chop shop.

Polanco looks, walks, speaks, and acts everything that is good about boys of all ages, and the poignancy of his being 12 years old, a little man — sometimes trudging like a tiny pigeon-toed old man —  is the heart of the story of the working child. Gonzales has the more unsympathetic part, more difficult, perhaps to play than the beautiful boy, but her face in the scene in which she embraces her little brother and swings his legs around in a kickball game is one I will never forget. Then there’s the pigeon scene at the end. Oh me.

Gonzales and Polaco kick ball in Chop Shop.

Finally, there are scenes in the movie, notably one in the subway where Polanco and his much shorter sidekick sell candy, in which there are no actors whatever. Every candy buyer in the subway cars – mostly hard-looking young African-American men – is a real New Yorker caught by Bahrani’s hand-held camera. Bahrani says, “That’s the great thing about New Yorkers is, they’ve seen so many cameras they don’t really care. (Laughter) I’m amazed still. Like, that woman who—not even once does she look into the camera, or even care! No one asked any questions, either, like, “Why is there a camera and five people following?” They just bought their candy and went… It’s amazing, you know? Thank you, because that was like New Yorkers; they allow these things to happen.”

http://www.movingimagesource.us/files/dialogues/3/81269_programs_transcript_html_302.htm

Totally open, and totally cool. The new Jerusalem, the city on the hill for which we left so much behind. Run, comrade. The old world is behind you.

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*The NYT has a wonderful piece about the single, lone legal resident of Willets Point, Joseph Ardizzone,of the auto repair ghetto where so much life goes down.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/17/nyregion/17willets.html?_r=0)

Ever since I noticed a back channel used car business, conducted entirely in cash and Espanol, running on Saturdays in the large suburban Maryland parking lot where the last outpost survives of a grand store, G Street Remnants, that fled the city for the burbs during the Martin Luther King riots, I have known parking lots were a beat.

I was not surprised to find a good number of Cambodian refugees manning the suburban cutting tables at the venerable fabric store.

I have also said, in a private blog, if I were a young reporter starting out I’d invent and cover the parking lot beat. I think all kinds of things take place there, including drug transactions, lovers’ lanes, dances, suburban teenage life, the entry level immigrant life (see back channel economy, above) whereby the brown peoples have taken over the close-in, formerly lily-white, burbs, and in which the D. C. snipers invented a new kind of crime which can paralyze the megalopolis.

Now comes a report, due out in March, from MIT urban planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph, called Rethinking a Lot, which proposes upcycling and greening parking lots, “the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment”.

You read it here first.


Police search highway verge at Seven Corners Shopping Mall in Virginia after the D.C. snipers, parked in a car across the four-lane highway, shot and killed Linda Franklin in the Home Depot parking lot. The motive was probably to frighten Mohammed’s former wife, who worked in a mall-based Michael’s hobby shop store.

Behind the cut, I have italicized the important propositions that greening the parking lots have for The New Economy.

The most important concept, not fully worked out in this NYT piece, is the pop-up or flash-mob day care center, one of the things the post office workers in the near-abandoned ’70s shopping mall in Fishkill, NY, told architects they wanted. These could be fabricated from school busses or RVs. Children don’t need play equipment or $100-a-square-foot soft-fall surfaces — they’re a boondoggle. Scores of unsupervised city children over the centuries have come up with asphalt games, well represented at the 2001 Smithsonian folk life festival which feattured New York City, ranging from street hockey to jumprope, broomstick/Spaldeen softball, the paraffin-filled bottle cap game, whose name I’ll be Googling in a minute. Skully.

Before he became a physician and a PhD. in education, Bill Cosby was a kid playing football between the cars on the streets of Philadelphia.

I think any reporter who spent time in a parking lot where back channel economies are practised, nights and weekends, would discover, for example, back channel soccer leagues where important community projects — job markets, fake IDs — are played forward as vigorously as the second-hand soccer balls. While I didn’t love Tom Wolfe’s last novel but one or two, A Man in Full, it was important in ways no other prose writer — except perhaps Ehrenreich, in Nickeled and Dimed — is aware of. For this, Wolfe is still, aged 193, a reporter to watch, for the as-yet undeveloped insight that the back channel, or Blade Runner, economy is where we’re all headed.

It takes place in parking lots. Be there or be square.

Pamphlet on <a href=”http://www.laforum.org/content/publications/pamphlet/dead-malls-pamphlet”>2003 Dead Malls competition</a> which Interboro, the Brooklyn architectural firm cited in the Kimmelman piece, seems to have won.

Copyright Jeannette Smyth, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Kimmelman’s NYT Parking Lot Piece

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