New York City and the Experience of Modernity (6 more sessions)

with Thomas Wensing


Mr. Perry flicked at the burdock leaves with his cane. The real-estate agent was pleading in a singsong voice:
“I dont mind telling you, Mr. Perry, it’s an opportunity not to be missed. […] In six months I can virtually guarantee that these lots will have doubled in value.”
— Dos Passos, John; Manhattan Transfer, Penguin Books, Inc New York, 1925, first penguin books edition 1946, p.11-12

This is a seminar about New York City and its people. It is not a study of architectural styles and objects, – although the physical stuff of cities does play a role -, but it is a course about the experience of the way in which modernity builds and destroys cities.

Modernity is a historical force. It is messy. In architecture history modernity is usually narrated as an interplay between the combined forces of the Industrial Revolution and capital, with social upheaval, explosive population growth and immigration as its result. The invention of new materials and new technologies stimulated new forms, structures, typologies, and — in the most optimistic accounts — new forms of living. In this formal reading the historian looks at the artefacts produced by these forces as cultural evidence: railway stations, factories, powerplants and switching stations, dams, canals and railway lines, skyscrapers, tenements, and department stores, are all comparatively assessed, but rarely is the subjective experience of these spaces and landscapes considered.

The United States traditionally has had a fraught relationship with its cities in both a positive and a negative sense. Urban areas were, and are, pictured as alleged dens of vice, disease, and social corruption, while others project utopian aspirations onto the city which are hard to fulfil in the best of circumstances. Even social science, which intends to accurately describe the effects of economic change on the social fabric, lacks by nature the discursive framework to communicate the emotive impact of these processes on individual subjects.
—Walter Siebel; Die Kultur der Stadt, Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin, 2015, 2nd print, 2016, p.39-40 Walter Siebel sees literary studies as a necessary complement to the social sciences, to offer necessary detail to the abstraction of numbers.

In this semester the course participants will be presented with multiple views of the same topic; one drawn from the professional literature, and one from fiction or biography. Two datasets are compared: that of sociologists, urban planners, geographers, and architects, with that of the subjective vantage point of the biographical account or the fictional character. Writers and novelists have been able to direct the gaze at groups which have been excluded from the path of progress, – as it was defined and constricted by society – to express diverging meanings to life in the metropolis. Theirs were often minority views, but in expressing them, they were able to carve out space for the ‘other’, and they have expanded the conversation and imagination in indelible ways. A question which looms large in this seminar is the relationship between individual agency and collective action. The seminar encourages the expression of personal, familial, local, and ethnic explorations and to tie these to larger societal trends.
—Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air – The Experience of Modernity, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1982, Verso, London, Brooklyn, 2010, p.346-347.

Each week will consist of a visual presentation, a related lecture with group discussion.

Thomas Wensing is a Dutch architect who teaches architecture and architectural history at Kean University in NJ. He writes regularly on the intersection of architecture and politics.

5:30 to 7:30 pm US DST • 10:30 pm to 12:30 am (GMT)

The Affordable Housing Crisis

Its Capitalist Roots and the Socialist Alternative
A talk and discussion with Karl Beitel

In the 2020 Socialist Register “a number of the essays interrogate central dimensions of how we live and how we might live in terms of educating our children, housing and urbanism, accommodation of refugees and the displaced, and (to lean on that all too common phrase) the competitive time pressures for ‘work-life balance’. These are all key questions, of course, of ‘social reproduction,’ a theme that has cut across many volumes of the Register. They are the counterpoint to ‘economic reproduction’ and ‘how we work’ at the heart of several essays here. Today, this involves exploring and exposing all the hype and contradictions of the so-called ‘gig economy,’ where automation’s potential for increased time apart from work is subordinated to surveillance, hazardous waste, speed-up, and much else that makes for contingent work and precarious living. Finding new ways of living cannot but confront both these obstacles.”

One of the most striking features of the post-1980 urban environment has been the rapid rise in property values and rents at rates far in excess of the growth of average income levels. The effect for many working-class populations – cultural workers, those employed in the moderate- to lower-paid segments of the social and human services and retail sectors – has been a rise in the percentage of incomes these households must devote to housing payments.

In this essay, Karl discusses the economics of new construction in already densely developed urban environments. Paradigmatic cases of the type of development dynamics that this essay will discuss are found in cities such as New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris. Despite the fact that most housing is procured on the secondary market, new construction is central to the debate over how cities must act to accommodate increased demand due to population growth and the shifting spatial patterns of employment. In addition, new development has the ability to rapidly transform existing patterns of land use and the physical and sociocultural composition of the built environment. For these reasons, new production is critical to current struggles over whose interests shall be served by this development, and who has the rights to enjoy access to the existing – and newly created – urban environments. It also forces us to confront the question of how socialist urbanism will foster diverse urban spaces that can accommodate different requirements and preferences, and that ensure equitable allocation of resources to meet the needs of all urban residents.

Karl Beitel was formerly employed as policy analyst for Food First, and has years of experience conducting policy-related and legal research for public sector unions in the Bay Area (SEIU 1021, American Federation of Teachers, and International Federation of Technical and Professional Employees Local 21). He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics spanning land use policy and affordable housing (Urban Affairs Review), the impacts of financial market dynamics on urban development (Environment and Planning A), and the U.S. and global economy (Historical Materialism, Socialist Register). His work has also appeared in publications such as Counterpunch and Monthly Review. His recently completed book Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community, and State in San Francisco (Temple University Press) is an in-depth analysis of the history of community opposition to gentrification in San Francisco.

Admission is sliding scale. No one is turned away for inability to pay. Email for information

Small Is Necessary

Shared Living on a Shared Planet
with author Anitra Nelson

A presentation and discussion with activist-scholar Anitra Nelson, whose new book Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (Pluto Press) argues for ‘eco-collaborative housing’, i.e. smaller homes with shared spaces and facilities.

Houses and apartments in countries like the US, Canada and Australia grew larger in the 20th century even as household sizes shrank. This has made housing less environmentally sustainable and it contributes to the housing affordability crisis. Since the US mortgage fiasco triggered the Global Financial Crisis many countries have experienced skyrocketing house prices. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of state support for social and public housing means that private ownership or rental are the only options.

Small is Necessary advocates not only for smaller dwellings in compact settlements but for shared spaces and facilities. Anitra presents a range of practical options from co-living in a household to co-housing and eco-villages. She weighs the pros and cons of the tiny house movement and assesses the potential and limits of radical squats along the way. She considers the future of eco-collaborative housing managed by various different drivers—governments, market developers, and sharing economy initiatives, and grassroots communities.

Anitra has had ten years’ experience living in two different Australian housing collectives, but her new book is research-based, especially drawing on ecological footprint studies.

The author will sign books at the end of the program.

Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar whose research interests focus on housing and community-based sustainability, environmental justice and non-monetary futures. She is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia). She was a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (2016–2017) and was a Visiting Scholar at the New School for Social Research (2012). She is a co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011) and Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities (forthcoming).