Art(h)ist\’ry

the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Sanitizing Our News(Racks)

Posted by gninja on July 27, 2007

(This is not a photo of a street in NY, but I like the photo):

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Over at Gothamist, they’re reporting a new competition organized to ameliorate a supposed blight on the city’s landscape. The competition is being held by the Municipal Art Society of New York, a society about which I’m rather ambivalent.

According to their website:

The streets of New York City are littered with filthy, poorly maintained and decrepit newsracks that are both eyesores and potentially hazardous to New Yorkers.

Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam don’t tolerate this scourge on their streets, and Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami Beach, Houston and San Francisco have cracked down on the newsrack blight too. But New York City continues to tolerate it, and we think this is outrageous!

Ridding our streets of these nasty newsracks is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it, and the Municipal Art Society needs your help. Submit your best photographs of the dirtiest, most unkempt, most repulsive newsracks in New York City to our OUTRAGE! contest and help persuade elected officials that filthy newsracks are rotting the Big Apple and that they must commit to regulating them.

I’d say you can learn a lot about this organization from the tone of this snippet alone. “Outrage”? I can think of far more outrageous things occurring on city streets. But I’ll leave the rest of the snippet-dissecting to you.

So what is this Municipal Art Society anyway? In their own words:

The Municipal Art Society of New York is a private, non-profit membership organization whose mission is to promote a more livable city. Since 1893, the MAS has worked to enrich the culture, neighborhoods and physical design of New York City. It advocates for excellence in urban design and planning, contemporary architecture, historic preservation and public art.

Their chairman is a lawyer, and their president, Kent L. Barwick, sounds more like a glorified realtor. It has its roots in the late 19th century as a group of architects and aesthetes championing the City Beautiful movement here in NY, but whose concerns broadened to include urban planning and historical preservation. (You can read a brief review of Gregory Gilmartin’s book about the MAS, Shaping the City, here.)

But for all their good works and good intentions, this current project/competition is an outright imposition of an elitist civic ideal upon the city’s topography, as well as a threat to free speech. For one, they seem to be targeting the free mags whose stand alone newsracks provide reading material and information at no cost to pedestrians. According to the contest rules:

Photos of newsrack eyesores that are also illegally placed (within 15 feet of a fire-hydrant, in a bus-stop, within 5 feet of a corner area, etc., will be given special consideration!)

I doubt any pay-per-read NY Times or NY Post racks fall under this purview.

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(This photo, by the way, comes directly from the MAS site entry for the photo competition.)

Furthermore, the city has already made repeated attempts to rid the streets of such stand-alone newsracks, or at least regulate them so stringently that they are all but prohibited from remaining. Frankly, I think the lack of prudent prioritizing here is best summed up by The Villager:

Exacerbating the problem, are the ever-vigilant community group members, marching through the tony Uptown neighborhoods, clipboards in hand, documenting the offending news racks, creating lists of complaints to send to DOT. Their mission is to save New York by removing news racks from the sidewalks. Council members who could and should focus valuable time and resources on crumbling schools, lead paint, the homeless population, and the dismal Downtown economy, are instead, working feverishly on a mission to remove the horrible blight on the landscape created by news racks.
Which brings me back to the MAS and what this all has to do with art. By categorizing this mission under the rubric of “municipal art” this society is ironically giving a nod to the valuable aesthetic presence of New York’s news boxes. For a society so concerned with the image of our streets–including, primarily, landmarked buildings and neighborhoods designated as ‘historic’- their attention to the newsracks communicates to me that these racks are contributing to the aesthetic quality, the image of New York’s streets.

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It’s just that they don’t like the image that they’re seeing.

But not only are these free mags providing an alternative view (generally) from the MSM, they’re adding color to our sidewalks, in addition to a forum for street artists.  The Village Voice news box even has a design which emulates graffiti.  These racks are just as valuable to the image of the NYC street as our bodegas, corner delis, and kiosks:

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