Messing with Manhattan’s Control Panel

Messing with Manhattan’s Control Panel settings

There were two artists crouched outside Lafayette Cleaners this morning, drawing a startingly detailed portrait in charcoal and chalk. It was titled “American Astronaut”, and showed a bald man staring up from the concrete with an inscrutable expression. It’s not rare to see street art in my neigborhood — someone nicknamed “the shadow” has carefully spray-painted around the streetlight silhouette cast by each fire hydrant, each parking sign, and each standpipe. Someone else, lately, has been stenciling “Drop The Rock” in various colors dozens of times at each intersection; something to do with America’s growing prison population.

The messages written by New Yorkers for New Yorkers aren’t limited to art, though. It’s a common practice to see comments scrawled in pen on the posters in the subway station. A poster for Madonna’s tour in the Spring Street station is pretty representative — a speech balloon has been added, with the words “I suck dick!” The sentiment is common on subway posters; local newscasters aren’t on the wall for three nights before they’re assaulted with a fusillade of scrawled phalluses. Other subway comments are wittier: A poster for the U.S. Open now reads “Every Player. Every Emotion. Every Hack Rich Spectator.” Most, though, are simple and heartfelt: an MTA poster reads “Why run for the train? There’s another one just like it on the way.” To this weak joke, New York’s answer is simple: “Fuck You!” in black Sharpie.

I suppose you could call it grafitti, but I think it’s more about communication in the city, a kind of meta-layer that New York residents have superimposed on the city itself. It’s necessary, if the city is to be livable, to tweak things here and there, just like you’d straighten a picture in a hotel room. Except that, here, the hotel room is one thousand degrees, loud and muggy, and the picture is a stupid piece of corporate twaddle thought up by an intern who wasn’t really trying that hard. It’s necessary to push back a little, it seems like, or the city will get the upper hand.

Like the conductor on the new brushed-aluminum six train was doing this morning, fighting with the new computerized recording in the loudspeakers. “This is… Bleecker Street”, announced the train in a cool, recorded voice as we pulled into the Astor Place. “This is NOT Bleecker Street!” cut in the less cool, definitely non-recorded voice of the conductor, background noises almost drowning him out. “This is ASTOR PLACE! ASTOR PLACE! ASTOR PLACE!” At every station up the line, the conductor drowned out the train, superimposing a faster, grittier, and more accurate reality onto the MTA’s, well…

sucky one.

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