Urban Materiality, Virtual Space
In May 1996, with just a scant 36 million people worldwide online, a peculiar web series called The East Village debuted online. Those 36 million people, less than one percent of the global population, weren’t even much bigger than the population of the New York City metropolitan area: indeed, at approximately 17.1 million people in 1996, the entire community of web users was barely twice as large as the place that inspired this early foray into web-only content.
Tracing the lives of seventeen characters across the “gritty yet urban” Manhattan landscape, The East Village placed a primary emphasis on the namesake neighborhood that had long been seen as a central hub for avant-garde culture and, more recently, massive gentrification. Referred to by its creators as a “cyber-soap,” The East Village was a notable early example in spending big-budget money on web content, testing the waters in getting people’s attention online when the web’s population was roughly equivalent to that of California, where much of this budding technology was coming to life.
Like so many early-Internet experiments, The East Village didn’t seem to last long, judging by its total absence in the Internet Archive. The first scrape of theeastvillage.com appears two years later, seemingly tied to a Geocities page that at that point had also gone offline. Like so many pages in this era, our near-total inability to recall what was once present leaves the present-day web user unaware of the real texture of these early pages, what it would have felt like to spend a minute waiting for a 500-kilobyte file to download from your dial-up home connection. The ambitious plans for The East Village almost certainly faltered for many at the doorstep of these sluggish download speeds, leading the twitchy early web browser to click to another window, curious at whatever might turn up.
I learned about The East Village in Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City, a fascinating book by Christopher Mele about the New York neighborhood’s gentrification in the Eighties and Nineties. Just a passing footnote in the text, which was published in 2000, I’m not even sure Mele realized that The East Village had already came and went several years prior. In my own research on the intertwined questions of urban and digital gentrification, the reference caught my eye; this peculiar little cyber-soap seemed like a synecdoche of these wider forces converging in one specific piece of media
While the Internet Archive proved inconclusive, other web articles led me to the project’s creator, Charles James Platkin, who told me I should call him to discuss things further. Within moments, my hopes were crushed: Platkin’s entire archive from the project was destroyed in a flood, bits of ephemera unmade in the material decay of waterlogged VHS tapes and project scripts. It was, in a sense, a perfect bit of irony, the missing digital archive resurfaced and then destroyed thanks to its very materiality. This rich history, less than a quarter-century old, now seems totally lost to history, just as the East Village in that specific moment of urban transformation remains inaccessible, faint traces from preserved buildings no match for the memory of the community as a low-income haven for more than a century, at one point the world’s densest community.
It is perhaps no grand revelation to suggest that forces impacting our physical worlds should also be seen playing out in digital spaces. While the metaphors we’ve used to describe our digital activity have, over time, lost their spatiality and sense of place, it seems that such a shift has happened precisely because certain lines between our digital worlds and their corporeal counterparts now feel indistinguishable, with computational tools engrained in the daily fabric of life. As Marshall McLuhan suggested in Understanding Media, tools become naturalized to the extent to which we no longer view them as such; the act of writing down our thoughts, now commonplace across several centuries of human life, was once an act of herculean effort, constrained to a similarly minuscule portion of the population as the web was just a quarter-century ago.
But while the naturalization of digital tools as ever-present forces in our lives rushes onwards, the sheer speed with which their widespread adoption has taken place now leads to uncanny possibilities for recognition, a chance to double back and begin questioning their impact through the lens of the built environment, its early encounters with the web, and a longer history of creating meaning through physical space. If even older millennials can remember a distinct before and after in the adoption of the web as a factor in daily life, can trace a life not lived entirely through the vector of a smartphone screen, and yet today are expected to do so, we can begin to ask productive questions of these tensions, drawing upon historic memory both near and far to gain insight. Especially after a year lived in increasingly constricted physical and virtual environments, daily activity carried out in cramped apartments and endless Zoom rooms, a reopening of the wider world also offers an opportunity to ask new questions of what we need from city spaces, and from the digital platforms that have tried to supplant material reality, however unevenly.
For nearly as long as I’ve been online, I’ve heard lamentations of what’s been lost. There’s a certain inevitability to this, I suppose—the emergence of beloved, tightly-knit digital communities, built on the backs of internet infrastructures that often proved antiquated in the onrush of rapidly-evolving web infrastructures, has regularly created a fast-vanishing horizon, some ideal form of the internet always just beyond reach. That feels especially true as a younger millennial, old enough to hold faint memories of dial-up modems and 9/11, young enough to have anxiously asked my parents for the rights to a Facebook page in ninth grade. Those a decade or so older got to live through college without social media being stitched into the fabric of their house parties and idle conversations; a decade younger, and you likely touched a smartphone or iPad before ever sitting in front of a home computer, if you’ve ever even used one. The pace of change is dizzying, almost inconceivable.
Thus, my recollections of greener pastures online are largely supplemented by archivists, artists, and nostalgists today who help me appreciate an era just before my own. In practice, most of my digital life has been spent in the aftermath: the gentrifying internet, and the gentrified internet. But while the gentrification of our cities has taken generations of patient plotting on the part of governments, landlords, and investors, launched first in the battles waged during the era of urban renewal and over the course of the next several decades, the taming of the web was almost preordained from its inception. As The East Village example illustrates, these twin forces have fed off one another in the intervening years, as changing social forces in physical space are mirrored and amplified within the vast-proliferating web.
When The East Village first launched, there would have been few places more appropriate to watch it than @Cafe, opened at 12 Saint Marks Place in 1995. Fittingly, @Cafe took over the original location of St. Mark’s Bookshop, the city’s longest-running independent bookstore still owned by its founders, praised for “selling poetry, obscure critical theory and neighborhood-appropriate literature since 1977.” Dying were the days of familiar neighborhood shops and rent-controlled tenement buildings; never one to avoid the cutting edge, the rise of @Cafe, accompanied by similar projects Internet Café and the Heroic Sandwich, which opened in the neighborhood soon after, heralded New York’s commitment to keeping with the times and swallowing up its past in the process.
But if @Cafe and its companions suggested a rising tide of physical entryways to burgeoning online worlds, the realities of high rent and the isolating nature of online sociality soon led to their abandonment. @Cafe would close just a year after it opened, the cost of supplying dedicated high-speed access to curious newcomers not enough to keep the business afloat. (It’s unclear if @Cafe actually held on long enough to host viewers watching The East Village, as one model of the neighborhood’s increasing digitization passed the other in the night.) In a 1998 post-mortem of the net café phenomenon in the United States, New York Times writer Michel Marriott argued that these sites were being undone by their own success, while holding on in poorer countries where broader internet connectivity still lagged. As he wrote:
In a way, the decline of the cybercafe is an indicator of the increasing strength of America’s embrace of the computer and the Internet. As people who sampled the World Wide Web in cafes found themselves seduced by it, and as more computers became affordable, many got their own computers and speedy home connections. Along the way, the cybercafes started drying up.
At its launch, the cybercafe needed urbanity to thrive, with curious passersby not yet linked to the web enough proving a tantalizing customer base. But within a few short years, the web no longer needed the city to thrive. The suburbanization of the internet was a phenomenon both literal and metaphoric, as those with the disposable income to buy personal computers—people who could be found everywhere, but overrepresented in wealthier, whiter suburbs—would shape the way the internet looked and felt, in ways we still contend with today.
The reliance on spatial metaphors to get a foothold on what the web actually offered early users was especially visible in the rapid adoption of Geocities, one of the web’s first popular domain hosting sites. The handmade, anarchic creativity of these early forays into internet identity-making are a pleasurable example of the web’s earlier unruliness, forcing users to learn basic HTML to make themselves known online. But beyond the individual page, the spatial structure that the site used to link its users (known as “homesteaders,” as they “staked a claim on their own plot of ‘land’ on the Internet,” reminiscent of earlier colonial conquests) was likely familiar to the millions of Americans first logging on from their wealthy suburban homes. Although pages were clustered around one of twenty-nine topics, from SoHo (for those interested in writing and the arts) to Times Square (hosting video game and entertainment pages), only the first 9,000 pages for each theme were hosted under the original title. Thereafter, each community sprouted its own suburban subdivisions to accommodate the digital population boom, an absence of physical space offering even less constraints than the typical urban sprawl that defined postwar white population dynamics.
Within this logic, it’s no surprise that Geocities’ most popular theme was Heartland, serving as the internet’s “Main Street,” where users could discuss “parenting, pets, and home-town values.” Spawning forty-one digital subdivisions of its own, with appropriately meaningless titles like “Bluffs,” “Cottage,” “Fields,” “Village,” “Pointe,” “Acres,” and plenty more, the Heartland was a model for the web as imagined by those with disposable income and conservative cultural values to spare.
It’s easy to dismiss this history as irrelevant today, a logic understandable to its time that’s been supplanted by new ways of using the internet as more and more of the global population gains access. Yet more recent events suggest that a suburban mentality continues to graft onto the social web in new and terrifying ways, fusing the social isolationism and homogeneous thinking of the traditional cookie-cutter community with the amplified groupthink enabled by digital platforms. In “Outer Limits,” web theorist David Banks notes that the internet allows minoritarian far-right thinking to proliferate in ways that once depended upon the urban scale. As he argues:
While cities have always done a good job of helping numerical minorities achieve a density sufficiently big to sustain a business (for example, a gay bar) or even a movement (think organized labor in major industrial cities), politically conservative suburbs and rural places have always faced a paradox: the built environment is made to support the individual family structure and is deeply isolating by design, which makes it harder to organize socially or politically. But social media is a good-enough stand-in for urban density, providing a means to form the early connections necessary for starting longer-term relationships. Platforms like YouTube, and talk radio before it, let anti-social conservatives who don’t want to live next to other people connect online and later in person for marches, rallies, and meetings.
Extending this argument, Banks argues that “algorithmic sorting takes on the role once left to urban scale and density.” But in this climate, with digital spaces facilitating a newer model of a hybrid commons, the lack of physicality and a near-total control exerted by Facebook and Google means that the rules of the game can change without warning. Banks writes: “It is as if huge swaths of the world live in cities where their public streets and squares disappear, rearrange, grow, and shrink at the whim of corporate owners and with no real ability by normal people to understand how much has changed at any given time.” In a sense, those like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin possess powers that someone like Robert Moses could only fantasize about: picture the demolition of an entire community with just a few keystrokes, unaccountable urban renewal enacted without the need for bulldozers or even minimal community input.
That’s not to suggest that all versions of the contemporary internet are equally governed by this overriding logic of complete control, or that the web is only capable of breeding extremist isolationism and social anomie. In An Internet for the People, Jessa Lingel argues that craigslist, born as an exclusive newsletter for those looped into San Francisco’s tech scene, is today a model for the “poor people’s internet,” resisting a polished aesthetic and creating space for meaningful encounter without having to worry about putting forward a carefully delineated digital identity. As one of the only early web platforms that still exists in relatively unchanged form, craigslist harkens back to the internet’s earliest promises of “connectivity, tolerance, and democracy—key themes surrounding the web for the past quarter century,” values increasingly hard to see on the web today. Lingel emphasizes the anonymity craiglist affords its users as one of the site’s defining assets—not coincidentally, also one of the key factors that’s defined modern urban life. “An internet where everyone has to be visible, all of the time, is not an internet of transparency, it’s an internet of control,” she argues, a logic that only becomes more apparent in every space we inhabit today.
If Geocities suggests that earlier web platforms needed spatial referents to help their users navigate novel virtual environments, the intervening years have seen this sense of spatiality eroded. Once it escaped the realm of the dedicated computer nerd, it took just a few short years for millions of everyday people to possess enough computational literacy to roam the web with ease, a power enhanced with the introductions of search engines that mapped pages once significantly harder to find on their own. But if users no longer needed spatial metaphor to function online, more recent evidence suggests that the web’s lack of contextuality and spatiality, which we otherwise use to order reality on an individual and societal level, has deprived us of important qualities of memory and recall that make life comprehensible.
Another way of conceiving the harmful impacts of placeless digital platforms is through the concept of “context collapse,” first articulated by web theorist danah boyd in the mid-2000s. Context collapse, in short, suggests that digital platforms are premised on a lack of differentiation of audience, a mismatch of potential readers and viewers that can reduce thinking to a lowest common denominator, not to mention increasing the likelihood of bad-faith mischaracterizations when statements are removed from one setting and placed elsewhere. Not only are our audiences collapsed in many social media platforms today, but we also find ourselves assaulted with a stupefying mishmash of information, data pulled in from all directions of once that often fails to cohere into meaningful understanding.
In Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing, she shares a telling snippet of tweets plastered on her feed, baffling when tied together: disturbing articles about ISIL and ethnic genocides sit next to announcements of meme pages selling T-shirts, next to birthday wishes for a former NASA employee, next to a university job posting, next to an Apple ad. These tweets, only a small fragment of a feed scrolling into infinity, leaves us grasping for a toehold to build any degree of comprehension. This lack of meaningful distinguishing between different orders of information is only worsened by the manner that materials appear on our feeds: despite small visual differences between text-only posts, compared to those shared with images or video, it’s nearly impossible to make information appear different from another on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, further eroding the ability to parse distinctions in content in each successive post.
The sense of encountering all information without separate physical cues has only heightened in the last year of pandemic-induced lockdown. Where once daily routines like a commute could at least offer many the chance to intersperse their day with motion and an opportunity to reconstitute themselves in different formations across an urban landscape, the sense that both anything and nothing could exist in one place has largely defined a year spent isolated from the outside world. These concerns, and their relationship to urban spatial formations, were explored by Paul Virillo in his 1986 essay “The Overexposed City.” Written years before electronic tools would weave themselves into the daily functioning of our lives, Virillo nevertheless anticipated the placeless engagement with information. As Virillo wrote: “With the new instantaneous communications media, arrival supplants departure: without necessarily leaving, everything ‘arrives.’” Virillo further describes an “abrupt confinement [that] brings absolutely everything precisely to that ‘place,’ that location that has no location.” This “abrupt confinement” certainly describes many people’s encounter with the pandemic, introducing unforeseen transformations to the rhythms of our daily lives that are only just being disentangled in the United States and remapped onto our surroundings once more. As society is reconstituted in the months and years to come, an attentiveness to the perplexing expansion and contraction of space as mapped across both physical and digital realities will be necessary, especially as juxtaposed against the incredible claustrophobia of the last year.
But if physical space can at times offer greater differentiation from one moment to the next, it does not always mean that such juxtaposition is readily legible or useful. Indeed, evidence suggests that disordered cities may contain many of the same stumbling blocks that highly polished digital platforms introduce for users, and that the art of a well-ordered city is a rare gift rarely found in even the most beloved cities.
The key text used to understand how city forms enhance or detract from our ability to legibly define ourselves in the streets is Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City. The book has become foundational to urban design, as Lynch examined the mental maps that residents of different US cities had formed to make sense of their surroundings. While the city is necessarily an assemblage of many layered histories, almost by necessity suggesting an unruliness that would exceed rational order, Lynch nevertheless found defining characteristics that help people impose meaning upon the chaos, the kinds of details that allow a mental map to form over time. In many ways, these kinds of guideposts are precisely what’s absent in our digital spaces, too many distinguishing features subsumed to a singular organizational logic too rigid to meaningfully facilitate complex thought.
In the book’s opening chapter, Lynch suggests that a successful city environment possesses imageability, or “that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probably of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” Within this definition, Lynch offers several key qualities of a highly imageable space: that it “[allows] the individual to operate within [their] environment to the extent desired”; that it “should be safe, with a surplus of clues so that alternative actions are possible and the risk of failure is not too high; and that it “should in some measure be communicable to other individuals.” Most fundamentally, and in contrast with the closed-loop environment of the endless scroll, Lynch argues that our city image “should preferably be open-ended, adaptable to change, allowing the individual to continue to investigate and organize reality: there should be blank spaces where he can extend the drawing for himself.”
While there is not a direct, one-to-one comparison to be made between our image of the city and our image of reality on social media, the qualities that Lynch identifies as key to navigating our physical surroundings nevertheless vanish in too many digital environments. As Jenny Odell’s Twitter context collapse example above suggests, we are so often dealing with information as if it were a ten-car pileup, too many unrelated fragments smashed together with little regard for our ability to understand them. Moreover, while Lynch suggests that the best version of a city is one that feels open-ended, capable of individual transformation to suit our needs, our ability to act within the structures of digital platforms, to leave a specific imprint upon the grid, only reinforces the slippery churn of the feed itself. Without something like a well-defined webpage, at one point our primary reference point for meeting new people in virtual spaces on sites like Geocities, we lack the ability to give context to others about what matters most and what is intentionally fleeting, basic context that we gain from physical reality and more substantive social encounters that’s all too easily effaced online.
All of this would be troubling if it only reflected poorly on our ability to navigate virtual worlds. Yet it’s also clear that our cities are increasingly unimaginable to us without the mediating power of our phones, vital tools that aid navigation and minimize unexpected social interactions that so often characterize encountering strangers in public. In “Smartphones and the Uncertain Future of ‘Spatial Thinking,’” Henry Grabar laments the encroaching influence of algorithmic aids on his intuitive sense of city navigation. “[W]hile I’d like to think the recommended route (from Google, Waze, Hopstop, etc.) is just one influence among many—that I have other preferences their algorithms can’t perceive—I’m not too proud to confess that I trust the computer more than I trust myself,” Grabar writes. Grabar notes that high-accuracy GPS is a product of the 21st century, not readily adapted into people’s daily lives until very recently. These tools, while no doubt a boon to those who find themselves in unfamiliar environments, nevertheless erode our cognitive maps, which Grabar defines as “a personal library filled with discrete bits of knowledge, landmarks (a bus stop, a church, a friend’s house), and routes.” In time, Grabar warns, “mobile navigation systems function like blinders, reducing the landscape to the width of a street,” leaving us less capable of building complex understandings of our surroundings that can withstand the sudden loss of digital assistants.
Digital mapping is perhaps best characterized as a double-edged sword, powerful in unlocking unfamiliar terrain while eroding our innate ability to wayfind with the clues we’re provided. Still, a more profound loss is perhaps felt in our diminishing ability to simply exist without our thoughts being routed through our phones as we explore the city. Grabar expresses this fear, as he argues: “From now on, an aimless jaunt is marked not only by openness to the stimuli of the physical world, but by the strain of blocking out their virtual counterparts. Contingent on technophobic self-control, wandering has lost its essential ease.”
This concern is clearly heightened by how we’re being changed by our phones. But it was also not far from Walter Benjamin’s mind more than a century ago, describing the challenge of being meaningfully lost in the city as a great art. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling,” he wrote. “Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley.” While the city remains capable of granting attentive seekers this same sense of wandering reverie, the ability to tune out enough unwanted stimuli to achieve such ends grows more challenging with each passing day.
Today, digital logics continue reshaping physical space; assumptions inherited from thousands of years of material reality make themselves felt on apps and platforms that otherwise insist upon a total homogeneity of virtual space. But perhaps the most revealing sites to understand where we’re headed is the messy in-between, places where virtuality and materiality co-exist in uneasy admixtures. Whether dystopian or playful, authoritarian or artistic, we are daily surrounded by environments that call upon both domains to function properly, revealing new gradients in both directions.
Endless dystopian examples of hybrid spaces, embodying the worst aspects of both real and virtual space, spring to mind. One of the most jarring came in October 2017, just a week after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico decimated. In a Facebook Live video demo, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s social VR chief Rachel Franklin used Oculus Rift headsets and the company’s Facebook Spaces platform to ‘tour’ the country’s devastated landscape, their lifeless avatars floating above a rescue boat, cut off at the waist. “One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is, you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” Zuckerberg said, his digital stand-in barely keeping up with the words. In the most useless, tone-deaf manner possible, two extol the virtues of finding new modes of empathy through their headsets, before clumsily attempting a high-five only slightly more awkward than its real-world counterpart.
If Zuckerberg’s Puerto Rican foray leaned more into virtual space to make sense of physical reality, the story of Google Glass provides an instructive example of physical space providing a stable ground for more targeted virtual elements to play out. While Google Glass lives on in more specialized, workforce-focused forms today, it was the company’s 2013 rollout to early-adopter “Glass Explorers” where the product’s legacy was cemented. Within months, Glass headsets were derided for their invasive, nonconsensual impact on social space, especially when worn by well-to-do early adopters who soon acquired the nickname “Glassholes.”
While Google Glass’s method of layering meatspace with augmented-reality popup information bears similarities to similar AR phone apps like Pokémon GO, Google attempted to sell the product less as a mediating tool, and more of opportunity to better experience reality in its full glory. In an academic article discussing the technology, Safiya Umoja Noble and Sarah T. Roberts argued that “Google marketed it as tool of freedom, with a powerful video depicting a series of experiences that can be captured ‘hands-free’ to foster a greater sense of participation and power over one’s informational and geospatial environment than one can experience holding a smartphone.”
By planting its interface directly onto people’s field of vision, Glass embodied the many cheerful fantasies of technological utopias in-the-making, making seductive promises that the digitalization of one’s surroundings need not remove people from their full embodied experience. But this argument rested on a flimsy, unfulfilled premise, disproven soon after they hit city streets: that glass wearers would not alter their social interactions as soon as they turned on their headset cameras. Glass could not escape the context of its physical surroundings, most notably its rapid adoption in the same Bay Area communities where thousands of tech employees were daily arriving and leading to the displacement of existing residents. Intentional or not, Google Glass headsets prompted others to expect a particular mode of social exchange from its wearers, a kind of elitist know-it-all-ism that dogged the product once the novelty wore off.
While these previous examples embody the worst tendencies in the realm of blended realities, other models demonstrate how much more we can understand our physical environments through the careful extension of digital flexibility. At their very best, hybrid physical/digital urban spaces imbricate the grounding materialism of the physical world with the unexpected virtuality of digital space. Where unmediated physical space is often the site of individual narrative exploration, without clear intentionality, certain models of digitally reinscribed space can emphasize these storytelling capacities in their infrastructure, an explicit affirmation of the natural tendency to seek meaning in our surroundings. This model is well represented in “Legible City,” a pioneering 1989 virtual reality environment created by artist Jeffrey Shaw.
In an interview about Legible City years later, Shaw described the project’s philosophy in this way: “A city is simultaneously a tangible arrangement of forms and an immaterial pattern of experiences. Its architecture is a linguistic morphology, its ground plan a psychogeographic network and its streets a labyrinth of narrative pathways.” To accomplish this heady vision, Shaw paired the spatial arrangements of Manhattan, Amsterdam, and Karlsruhe, Germany with unique textual elements, scaled to the size of respective buildings in each city. Users would then navigate through these spaces, projected floor-to-ceiling, on a stationary bike, choosing a pace and routes that seemed most intriguing to the user’s eye. In New York, eight imagined monologues, presented from the perspective of people like “Frank Lloyd Wright, Donald Trump, a tour guide, a confidence trickster, an ambassador, and a taxi driver, “remind us that both titans of industry and everyday people inscribe meaning upon their surroundings, even as we do not all possess equal capacity to reshape physical space. By leaving viewers in charge of their path across the city grid, with users also capable of pedaling through buildings with no physical resistance, Legible City reinscribed a familiar landscape with profound narrative potential, not an easy task for a city already so saturated with narratives projected upon the physical environment.
The East Village is, for better or worse, still stuck in the same cycle of gentrification that it’s been experiencing for the last several decades. Absent the death of capitalism itself, life in Manhattan will likely only remain viable for those who can pay thousands of dollars in rent a month, with the exception of a few lucky souls grandfathered into rent-controlled units.
Theeastvillage.com, by contrast, retains a genuine sense of the neighborhood’s longstanding artistic credibility. Even if the domain’s original inhabitant, the East Village “cyber-soap,” cannot live on to tell us something of the neighborhood as it was a quarter-century ago, the site has, since 1998, played host to a lo-fi poetry collection that spans thirteen volumes. Though the last installment came out in 2002, the domain has miraculously been maintained ever since, perhaps aided by consisting primarily of text-only pages, interspersed with a few Quicktime videos that no longer function. The website is as antiquated as the neighborhood character it invokes; while the abstract ideal of the East Village will not easily be erased, the real, living experience of the area as a site of mixed community, artistic expression, and authentic encounter continues to be assaulted by capitalist urbanization. In more than one sense, theeastvillage.com is a holdout from another era.
Perhaps we must make do with these kinds of symbolic artifacts, markers of absent legacies that are daily effaced from the lived experience of the community, similar to the fate of so many other neighborhoods like it. A desire to look backwards at some mythic vision of the city could hinder us from making something different with it now; such a backwards gaze is also an easy recipe for overlooking past flaws, rendered poetic in contrast to present-day miseries. At the same time, the art of inhabiting the city just departed has propelled artistic and social movements forward for generations. Whether in the form of Walter Benjamin’s lonely reveries of the defunct Paris arcades, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s insurgent New York graffiti in the long shadow of Keynesian capitalism’s decay, or the Parisian rebellions of 1968 that inspired Henri Lefebvre to define a “right to the city” as a fundamental principle of leftist politics, the city formation itself has been key in making these earth-shifting actions possible.
Even if it feels like our cities are being inextricably lost to time, the imbrication of digital and physical space can also serve as a hopeful reminder of the possibility of fresh changes to come. That optimism is well articulated by feminist scholar Elizabeth Grosz, whose writing on architecture and the increase in digital technologies reminds us “that the world in which we live, the real world, has always been a space of virtuality.” As she argues in her essay “Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Real,” “The real is saturated with the spaces of projection, possibility, and the new that we now designate as virtual in order to keep them contained behind the glassy smoothness of the computer screen.” As our lives feel increasingly boxed in underneath this “glassy smoothness,” we can appreciate the gritty materiality of our cities as a grounding force, a concrete reality where the need for change has never been greater.
While we are right to be concerned about the godlike power vested in those who can transform digital environments on a whim, platforms that constitute an increasingly large portion of our lives, such platforms are only one piece of the puzzle. Moreover, if we limit ourselves to these fleeting spaces, we lose sight of what we are capable of changing in our material surroundings. As Grosz questions: “Can the computer screen act as the clear-cut barrier separating cyberspace from real space, the space of mental inhabitation from the physical space of corporeality? What if the boundary is more permeable than the smooth glassy finality of the screen?”
It’s an unsettling question to ponder, not made any easier by a year that’s severed many of the routine happenstance that lets us live in unexpected and resonant ways in the cities we call home. But if a “smooth glassy finality” still seems to coat many of our daily interactions, putting a barrier between ourselves and our surroundings, I still trust the material city to bring me back into other ways of being. I look at my own phone screen, cracked and shattered by city pavement, functional but hardly the pristine device it promised itself to be, and remember that the material world will always have its own plans for us, unpredictable in the best sense of the word.