Aug 10, 2008

Design in the Divided City, or, the Myrtle Avenue Style

“But I saw a street called Myrtle Avenue, which runs from Borough Hall to Fresh Pond Road, and down this street no saint ever walked (else it would have crumbled), down this street no miracle ever passed, nor any poet, nor any species of human genius, nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it. For the genuine Inferno which I had to postpone for twenty years I give you Myrtle Avenue, one of the innumerable bridlepaths ridden by iron monsters which lead to the heart of American emptiness. If you have only seen Essen or Manchester or Chicago or Lavallois-Perret or Glasgow or Hoboken or Canarsie or Bayonne you have seen nothing of the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment. Dear reader, you must see Myrtle Avenue before you die, if only to realize how far into the future Dante saw.”

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn, 1938

The Post Office

Regulated by airport-style retractable tape barriers, the line at the Myrtle Avenue post office snakes around the room to the door, so there is ample time to stand and contemplate the space. It is what you might term “functional”, though perhaps not in the sense that modernist architects had in mind. Little natural light penetrates the barred windows; instead, rows of fluorescent lights illuminate the scene, highlighting the aesthetic sense of a rundown institutional space that may have once been deemed “public”. There is little attempt at “design” in any designer sense: the hardwearing vinyl flooring is speckled in faded pink and gray, worn off-white walls are decorated with a few recent posters for stamps, a self-serve stamp machine stands by the door, a couple of wooden desks strewn with trash stand opposite the teller windows, and a blank TV monitor perches high in one corner. Nothing removable remains in the public space of the post office – no envelopes, boxes or other packaging items. For fear of theft, they are kept behind the teller windows.

The line of impatient people faces a wall of plexiglas teller windows. Shatterproof, bulletproof, the two-inch thick plexiglas screen that separates me from the teller makes it difficult to communicate. The teller speaks into a microphone, I yell at the plexiglass screen, conscious of exaggeratedly articulating my words so as to help the teller lip-read. The transaction between us takes place with the aid of a simple but ingenious device built into the plexiglass screen. It is a kind of hatch containing scales that allows the teller to put boxes or envelopes onto the scales by lifting a screen while the plexiglas screen remains down on the customer side. Then, by pushing a metal bar through, the hatch can be opened on the customer’s side but not on the teller’s side. The metal bar mechanism ensures both sides cannot be open at once, thus no bodily contact is possible between the people involved in the transaction. The transaction is finally completed by exchanging stamps and cash via a metal cash tray cut into the plexiglas. Once outside, I turn to admire the functionalist exterior – a plain concrete stucco façade with only metal window grills for decoration.

The Liquor Store

Walking down the street, I stop in at the liquor store and, upon stepping through the door, immediately find myself enclosed within a plexiglas container, roughly twelve by five feet. Behind the plexiglas, I can see the bottles of whiskey, vodka, champagne and wine, but cannot touch them. I cannot handle them, read the labels or check prices. As at the post office, I must shout my order through a plexiglas screen to the teller, who passes out my bottle through a hatch where I also deposit my cash onto a metal tray which the teller scoops out the other side. If the teller likes the look of me, he may push a button and a door opens so I can walk in behind the plexiglass container to actually handle the bottles. Given that I’m white and generally fairly well-dressed, I get in, but I have seen people refused entry. Most customers simply shout their orders through the plexiglas screen.

I sometimes frequent another liquor store less than a mile away. In fact, more specifically, it is a boutique wine store which sells “handcrafted wines” from small wineries around the world. In contrast to the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, the wine store is an open space with racks of wine bottles lining the walls. There is no plexiglas. It is a space to browse and to linger, with two benches to sit down on. The staff are happy to engage in conversation about wine, the weather, or just about anything. Of course, the wine is not cheap, but if you’ve lived in the divided city long enough, you can sense that unconsciously from the design before you even begin checking the prices.

The 99 Cent Store

Finally, I stop in at the 99 cent store. Before I even enter the 99 cent store, I encounter the merchandise spilling out onto the street – wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items surround the entrance. Inside, to the right, stand racks crowded with an assortment of clothes, loosely organized according to gender, with prominent prices on handwritten cardboard signs above each rack (2.99, 3.99, 5.99). In front of these lie an expanse of plexiglass trays on low tables which contain a colorful assortment of shoes, belts, socks, hats and other accessories. Beyond the clothes are towels, cleaning products, kitchen accessories, curtains and bedding. On the other side of the store I find stationary, personal hygiene products, gifts, toys, electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. The goods are displayed on wire hanging frames or metal shelving, much of which is difficult to see due to the sheer volume of merchandise covering every possible space. The store is lit by rows of fluorescent lighting above, with floors of beige vinyl tiles below my feet. I wonder if the owners used same floor and lighting designer as the post office and liquor store.

The 99 cent store is a down-market department store, a cornucopia of surplus generic commodities made in developing countries dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share is their generic, un-designer nature, the absence of brand names and poor quality. Instead of quality or designer brand names, there is an emphasis on volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable, but cheap and disposable. Within the cramped space stuffed with merchandise, I notice the absence of fitting rooms, attendants, and, on my way out, the absence of designer carry bags (strictly black plastic bags).

Design and Differentiation: the Divided City

In his book, Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty argues that design functions as a means of social differentiation. In his analysis of late 19th century manufactured goods, he suggests that their design “became the incarnation of contemporary ideas of social difference.”(Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750, Thames & Hudson: London, p. 63) It is worth extending this idea into the 21st century to consider these contemporary Myrtle Avenue spaces in terms of how they both reinforce and create social differentiation in New York. Myrtle Avenue, until recently known as “Murder Avenue” due to its high homicide rate, is situated in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Central Brooklyn. The street is currently the site of a predominantly white middleclass incursion into a depressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood – it is thus also an exemplary site for analysing design’s role in urban social dynamics. Following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, spatial experiences within the city become primary vehicles for the coding and reproduction of social relations (see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Havard: Harvard University Press, 1987). Within the safety of nearby middleclass enclaves, the experience of retail spaces and consumption patterns changes markedly.

The Myrtle Avenue style typifies many spaces in New York’s depressed neighborhoods, far from Manhattan’s starchitect-designed fashion boutiques, hotels, restaurants and condo towers, and beyond the New York design and architecture featured in books and glossy journals. While my examples are from a particular Brooklyn context, these types of spaces are not uncommon in other large American cities. Initially, I was fascinated by the phenomenological experience of such spaces and how they create and reinforce alienation. This is thus an initial attempt to make these spaces visible, as part of an ongoing project of analysing design and architecture in the divided city. In this sense, it is also an analysis of “everyday life” in the mode of Henri Lefebvre’s writings and its more specific outcomes in architectural theory such as Steven Harris and Deborah Berke’s, Architecture of the Everyday, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997. The Myrtle Avenue spaces analysed here can be seen as very specific instances of Lefebvre’s alienation produced by the anonymity and sterility of everyday spaces (see also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, originally published 1974).

The Myrtle Avenue Style is an outcome of the divided city, a geographic phenomenon which has its basis in the inequality brought about by, on one hand, the shift to a postindustrial city and, on the other, the new style of capitalism, neoliberalism, and its effects on urbanization. From the mid-1970s, New York’s economy has gradually changed from a predominantly industrial one with a strong manufacturing base to a postindustrial city whose 21st century economy is increasingly reliant on the financial and real estate sectors (see the recent book by Kim Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present, New Press: New York, 2007). While the divided city metaphor is more complex than simply a wealthy white/poor African-American and Hispanic dichotomy that some critics have suggested in the past, it is certainly a useful image of socio-economic differentiation at the extremes, and can be usefully extended to architecture and urbanism. Following geographer David Harvey’s recent thesis on the uneven development of global capitalism, the Myrtle Avenue style highlights uneven design within the global city (David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London: Verso, 2006).

The Myrtle Avenue style might otherwise be termed defacto design for the poor. These are the spaces inhabited by those excluded from the recent stock market booms, by migrants and poor African American and Hispanic populations who stock the low-wage sectors of the city’s economy, typically working for the professional classes of Manhattan or gentrified Brooklyn. However, former depressed areas such as Myrtle Avenue and its surrounding streets, which comprise rows of late 19th century brownstones, have become attractive for New York’s professional classes as a cheaper alternative to Manhattan.

Other Spaces

New York design is typically situated in Manhattan’s expanding zones of conspicuous consumption that have increasingly become characterized by spectacle. From Times Square to designer hotel lobbies, from fashion boutiques to starchitect-designed condo towers, New York offers a vast smorgasboard of designer “culture”, a series of spectacular experiences that have been sanitised for easy consumption by tourists and local flaneurs alike. This is an image of the designer city constantly repeated not just in architecture and design journals, but just as importantly, in film and TV series. Manhattan has largely become a series of spectacular images, organised theatrically through an eclectic mix of styles, historical quotations, ornamentation and technological effects.

The Myrtle Avenue spaces described above are a long way from this image-world of conspicuous consumption. These are functional, anonymous spaces of exclusion and distancing. If designer Manhattan spaces such as fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies are stage sets on which we can play out our consumer fantasies, the Myrtle Avenue spaces such as the post office, liquor store and 99 cent store frame and limit our possibilities. There is nothing of the heightened aesthetic of Manhattan’s designer spaces – hotel lobbies by Philippe Starck, for example, which might epitomise the “culture of distraction” for those with the luxury of time to be distracted, or “lifestyle living” in starchitect-designed condos for those who can afford it (see also my detailed analysis of recent starchitect-designed condos in New York, Designing Lifestyle in 21st century New York: Starchitect Condos).

Compare, for example, the 99 cent store described above with the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada flagship store in Soho. In a retro-fitted warehouse, Koolhaas has seamlessly blended the worlds of retail shopping and entertainment. Beyond the huge picture windows onto the street, I enter a cavernous open space and descend a staircase, creating glamorous fantasy of being on display. Hanging cabinets for clothes, though vaguely industrial, gleam with clean, shining surfaces. An excessively large cylindrical glass elevator takes shoppers up and down one floor. In the main shopping space below, numerous playful cameras and plasma screens scattered amongst the clothing racks create visual effects to distract and entertain. Mobile display shelving and constantly changing décor add to the entertainment experience. Rather than plexiglas, Koolhaas installed high-tech privalite glass on the fitting room doors that change from transparent to opaque with the flick of a switch. With helpful attendants, designer shopping bags, and numerous high-tech distractions, Koolhaas has created a glamorous phenomenological experience, with the freedom to wander, explore and enjoy the visual pleasures.

In contrast, the Myrtle Avenue spaces are spaces that discipline and exclude. Rather than the enchanted world of the designer boutique, the Myrtle Avenue style, with its plexiglas barriers, reflects the disenchanted world of raw paranoia. This type of vernacular design is unlikely to appeal to postmodernists who valorise the vernacular (literal followers of Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s “Learning from Las Vegas” thesis). It is difficult to aestheticize or romanticise these spaces, with their absence of decoration, seduction, or nostalgic appeal. However, there is also nothing contrived on Myrtle Avenue, either, nothing artificial or hidden – these spaces, based on raw exchanges, are functional, but perhaps not in a way that Le Corbusieur or Mies would have appreciated.

While there is nothing as sophisticated as a panopticon in these spaces, much of the design of the Myrtle Avenue style functions to allay paranoia – particularly through the separation of customer from retailer via plexiglas in the liquor store and post office. It is also worth noting the similarity here to the design of contemporary prisons, or, as the current euphemism has it, the design of “justice facilities”. Contemporary justice facilities are likewise founded on paranoid walls of plexiglas and similar techniques of separation and exclusion. Ironically enough, the fantasy spaces of Manhattan bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries, fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies might actually reflect no less paranoia – it is simply the way it is utilized that is different. In designer spaces, discrete cameras and sophisticated electronic monitoring systems take the place of conspicuous plexiglas screens to create a seamless illusion of freedom and mobility.

Urban theorist Oscar Newman’s 1970s treatise on space, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, involved extensive research into various aspects of security through design (See Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, Collier Books: New York, 1972, first published 1970). His research focused on low income housing projects in urban areas, especially New York. The book aimed to offer practical solutions to crime prevention such as creating carefully defined territories, strategically organizing surveillance and modifying existing housing projects to counter possible security threats. While Newman was mounting an argument for maintaining ghettoes (albeit safer ones), unwittingly, he also revealed design’s influence in creating stigma and isolation – public housing projects, for example, stand out clearly from their surrounding milieu, stigmatizing and isolating the poor.

By their design, the Myrtle Avenue spaces confirm our suspicion that the street, indeed the outside world in general, is a fundamentally dangerous place. This is particularly clear at night, when metal shutters come down to seal up the street and even the 24- hour bodegas close their doors. The bodegas, however, continue to do business through an ingenious plexiglas window with a revolving cylinder (see photo below). The customer on the street puts money onto the revolving cylinder which the shopkeeper turns and goods come around onto the street-side. Again, raw exchange and paranoia is at the heart of the Myrtle Avenue experience. Although impossible to quantify, there must be some psychological effects on people’s sense of dignity, trust and self-worth when encountering these spaces on a daily basis.

Here, Michel Foucault’s analysis of power might prove useful. In works such as Discipline and Punish, Foucault analysed the physical body’s subjection to regimes of power through indirect means (rather than direct violence. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books: New York, 1979, especially pp. 25-26). Foucault’s research focused on the subtle training of the physical body by way of daily habits, expectations and power relationships. The Myrtle Avenue Style certainly disciplines and frames bodies as criminal. Where point and shout becomes the habit, muffled communication becomes the norm. In the Myrtle Avenue style, the physicality of the plexiglas barrier, without recourse to physical violence or force, disciplines the customer with its mute impregnability and restriction of movement. Foucault also suggested that disciplinary spaces, rather than stopping criminal behavior (as theorists like Newman had hoped), may actually help create criminals by their exclusion and distancing. Even at the 99 cent store, customers rummaging through merchandise heaped together like unwanted scraps sense a similar exclusion from the designer experiences of Manhattan boutiques.

The Heart of American Emptiness

There is no nefarious power directly behind the Myrtle Avenue style – it is not, for example, designed by government agencies or ruthless corporations; indeed; such spaces are largely overlooked by both government and big business. And of course, they are also overlooked by professional architects, interior designers and the attendant design publishing industry. Such spaces are a physical manifestation of the divided city, a concrete realization of the “other” New York and, to those who inhabit these spaces on a daily basis, a constant reminder and reinforcement of their place within the divided city. Importantly, such physical manifestations of social polarization not only illustrate economic and social conditions, but also reinforce them.

Finally, Henry Miller’s evocation of Dante’s inferno in the opening quotation of this essay is perhaps overstated. There is nothing spectacular or poetic about the Myrtle Avenue style – the sheer banality of such spaces is difficult to aestheticize. Further up Myrtle Avenue from these stores, a walk through the back streets, revealing Brooklyn neighborhoods scarred with years of neglect, decaying housing projects, and streets containing burned out, boarded up buildings, is enough to show that the recent gentrification only extends so far. Myrtle Avenue may be gentrifying in parts, but you don’t have to go too far to find the same design principles and the same phenomenological experience in Brooklyn’s outer neighborhoods. Metaphorically, Miller’s quotation seems prophetic: the Myrtle Avenue style continues into the 21st century as a silent reminder of “the heart of American emptiness… the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment.”

All photos by D.J. Huppatz, Myrtle Avenue 2006-07


  1. Daniel, I'd read this before, but I'd forgotten just how profoundly brilliant it is, from the Miller quote on. Bravo!

    I'm just a little stunned that no one has commented on it.

  2. Thanks, man. This is good stuff. HMiller is amazing. He really kind of gets it. If you could understand life thru Myrtle Ave, Canarsie, and throw some random town in France into the equation, you're a bit further along than the rest.

  3. I went to Pratt in the early 80's and first opened up Tropic of Capricorn while waiting for the bus on the corner of Myrtle and Washington. I was stunned at how accurate the description was. Pratt, at the time, was a 4-block oasis bordered by one of the poorest, most dangerous desperate ghettos in the country. The A & P on Myrtle was full of rats, stray cats, and filth. Kum Kow was a tiny take-out where you handed cash through a hole in a plexiglass shield.