The Roaring ‘Twenties: an interactive exploration of the historical soundscape of New York City

Roaring Twenties interface

An interactive website by historian Emily Thompson exploring the aural atmosphere of New York City in the 1920s. [See also my post “Peddlers, jackhammers, whistles: Historian Emily Thompson lets you hear the sounds of life in 1920s New York City.”]

Website Editor’s Introduction

A visitor to my home in Los Angeles recently commented on the noisiness of my neighborhood. I was surprised by this, as I tend to think of my slice of LA as a fairly quiet one. I then began to listen with more care, and sounds I had grown accustomed to came gradually into focus: traffic moving along a nearby busy street, an occasional siren or helicopter, even the howls of the coyotes camped out by the reservoir. Still, I thought to myself, it is not like New York. As much as I love that city, I am always surprised by how loud it is and have learned to ask for hotel rooms far above street level. The cacophony is at once energizing and exhausting. In The Roaring ‘Twenties, Emily Thompson reminds us that it is also deeply historical and contextual.

1920s map of New York City

Thompson is a historian of sound, a member of a burgeoning community of scholars who turns our collective attention to the aural landscape, interrogating the materiality and texture of our sonic worlds. In many ways, The Roaring ‘Twenties serves as an extension of Thompson’s groundbreaking 2002 book, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, but this piece extends that earlier work into new sensory registers and toward new audiences. The project proceeds from a deeply archival impulse. It richly draws from the Municipal Archives of the City of New York, cataloging over 600 unique complaints about noise around 1930 while reproducing over 350 pages of these materials. It also includes fifty-four excerpts of Fox Movietone newsreels, early sound experiments that at once captured and technologically remediated the sounds of New York City, as well as hundreds of other photographs and print materials. Thus, this project brings together a large array of data, but it does not deploy the now-trendy logic of distant reading. Its data is mined through the time-honored techniques of the historian in the archive, through human filtering and detailed close readings. Presented here through a stylized multimedia interface, the piece invites its user to linger with the artifacts and to listen and read with care. The pleasures of this database are not about speed and the algorithm but about a slow and deliberate attention.

The visitor to the piece can navigate along three pathways that organize the site’s content via the rubrics of space, time, and sound, each offering a unique vantage point on the database that drives the project. When navigating the spatial pathway, the user can zoom into the various boroughs of the city, locating historical noise complaints throughout the fabric of the metropolitan region. When doing so, the vintage facade of the site is sometimes ruptured, allowing the twenty-first-century styling of Google Maps to burst momentarily onto screen. Similarly, the multi-hued Google logo sits brightly in the lower left corner of the map. These slight temporal ruptures are useful ones, serving as they do to remind us that access to the past is always mediated through the technologies and inquiries of the present, even as it’s quite engaging to dwell in the sounds of years gone by.

— Tara McPherson, September 22nd, 2013

To “The Roaring ‘Twenties” website.

Overlapping Disasters: Ground Zero Photos Damaged by Sandy

Redpath image

By from

131022-BEHOLD-001-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

Hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers, Michael Redpath, a New York City firefighter from Far Rockaway, Queens, was dispatched to Ground Zero. Over the next six months, he worked on the monumental recovery effort, all the while using his Canon AE-1 to document the uncanny landscape inhabited by the first responders.

“When I was going down to Ground Zero, I was going down as a firefighter,” Redpath said. “But in the back of my head, I wanted to document what I saw down there as much as I possibly could—as much for my own self, to revisit my experience, as to share [it] at some point with other people. “

For more than a decade following the conclusion of Redpath’s work in Lower Manhattan, his archive of hundreds of images went largely unseen, stored away in his basement studio. “It always felt too close to the day of the attack to share the work publicly,” he said. “I was maybe thinking of the 10th anniversary, but that didn’t happen—I was looking at the 20th anniversary at that point. And then Sandy happened.”

Nearly a year ago, the landfall of the devastating superstorm added a new chapter of destruction to this archive. Redpath’s home in Far Rockaway flooded, irreversibly transforming the negatives. The resulting images combined the monumental chaos and ruin in the aftermath of Sept. 11 with the psychedelic distortions of the flood surge. “When you ask people what is the worst thing that you lost after a fire or a flood, a lot of time they say it was their pictures. It’s the type of thing that is irreplaceable,” Redpath said.

131022-BEHOLD-002-003-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhotos by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-004-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-005-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

But Sandy’s destruction has finally brought Redpath’s images out of storage. During the cleanup effort following the superstorm, a friend of Redpath was working on a documentary about the aftermath in the community. The friend showed Redpath’s work to the eventual curator of the upcoming exhibit of Redpath’s flood-damaged archive, called “Residual Images.”

Coinciding with the anniversary of the landfall of Sandy, “Residual Images” will be publicly projected in a park in New York City’s East Village. “It’s hard for me to show these photos in the respect that I don’t want to appear to be showing off or capitalizing on being there, or capitalizing on the terrible thing that happened there,” Redpath said. “I don’t want to spotlight myself over that. But I think they are important to show, and that most importantly, that people know what happened there.”

131022-BEHOLD-006-007-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhotos by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-008-009-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhotos by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-010-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-012-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

When asked how his personal experiences of disaster have changed his outlook as an artist, Redpath noted that an estimated $100 million worth of artwork was destroyed in the World Trade Center. “But this has been repeated throughout history—WWI, WWII … I guess it’s the type of thing where you’ve got to brush yourself off, just continue to work.” he said. “You have no other choice. It’s part of life—people pass on, it’s the same thing, but you need to look to the future.”

Even Redpath’s firehouse reveals the passage of time. “I have firemen in my firehouse who were only 10 years old when [Sept. 11] happened, and they have no idea what it was like or what was going on,” he said. “Time goes by quick. That’s the strength and the positive part of documenting events that happen for the future.”

“Residual Images,” presented by OSMOS, is on display at First Street Green in New York City from Oct. 24–29.

131022-BEHOLD-011-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-013-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-014-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

131022-BEHOLD-015-RedpathGroundZeroResidualPhoto by Michael Redpath

World’s Smallest Museum Finds the Wonder in Everyday Objects

Toothpaste tube

By Lisa Hix from

Tucked away in a lower Manhattan back alley, the freight-elevator-sized, generically named Museum is one of New York City’s newest curiosities. While it’s only open 16 hours a week, during the day on Saturdays and Sundays, the museum’s contents are viewable 24/7, lit and sealed by glass doors.

Passers-by are encouraged to call a toll-free number to learn about the 15 collections, comprising 200 objects, inside, including a series of Disney-themed bulletproof backpacks; U.S. paper money and coins so mutilated the Fed has deemed them unfit for currency, gathered by artist and writer Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector; a selection of objects from a fake Mars excavation; and personal items fabricated by prisoners, such as dice made out of bread, collected by multimedia artist Baron Von Fancy. Museum also offers several unique ways to experience the world: You can compare industrial designer Tucker Viemeister’s collection of toothpaste tubes from all over the map, or potato chip bags from various countries (collected by an eighth-grade class), as well as a globetrotting fake vomit collection. And that’s just the beginning.

“People say to us, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have to meet this person. They have a collection of potato chips that look like presidents!’”

Individually, many of these objects seem suited to a landfill, but taken together, they serve as a testament to the collecting spirit. At least, that’s how Museum co-founder Alex Kalman explains it, as he waxes poetic about the lessons everyday items can teach us. Kalman, along with brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, run the film production company Red Bucket Films upstairs from Museum, at 368 Broadway in TriBeCa. When the building owners offered them a defunct freight-elevator shaft on Cordlandt Alley out back, the filmmakers knew they had a place to showcase the weird cultural detritus they’d gathered over the years—such as a shoe rumored to be the one thrown at George W. Bush in 2008.

The three partners opened the free, nonprofit Museum to much fanfare in May 2012, with financial backing from the Spade Family, including Andy and Kate Spade (yes, of the purse company Kate Spade). Kalman spoke to us about what you’ll find in the current season of Museum, and how anyone can put his or her quirky collection into the spotlight.

Top: You'd never guess a tiny museum was behind these wrought-iron doors in a New York City alley. Click the image for a closer look. Photo by Naho Kubota. Above: A tube of Teelak teeth-whitening gel—sold in Spain starting around 1960 as a remedy for nicotine stains—from Tucker Viemiester's collection. Via mmuseumm.comA tube of Teelak teeth-whitening gel—sold in Spain starting around 1960 as a remedy for nicotine stains—from Tucker Viemiester’s collection. Via

Collectors Weekly: Could you tell me about the concept behind Museum?

Alex Kalman: We find amazing stories—as well as beauty and absurdity and inspiration—in what many would consider the vernacular. Our backgrounds are in filmmaking, and in many of our films, the stories are very much about the details of everyday life. We look at small, intimate moments and try to draw the poetry, or the universal meaning, out of them. These are moments we can all feel a certain level of familiarity with, much like a tube of toothpaste.

For us, Museum was about creating an institution that celebrates the extraordinariness of the seemingly ordinary. You can obviously learn a lot about the world by reading the newspaper every day, watching movies, or studying political science. But you can also learn a lot about the world by looking at the smallest things that cultures create and seeing the similarities and differences between them.

Mutilated-money collector Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector, says this graffiti-covered dollar was given as change. Via

Mutilated-money collector Harley Spiller, a.k.a. Inspector Collector, says this graffiti-covered dollar was given as change. Via

Honestly, there wasn’t as much of an articulated philosophy when we were starting out. It was something we naturally did. When we were filming movies, we were always collecting what we call “modern-day artifacts,” which we would bring back to the studio and share with each other. It was always about having the eye to find the absurd detail in something that others might pass over because it appears to be just another bag of potato chips, or another shoe. But in fact, there’s something insightful or crazy, funny or sad, ugly or beautiful about it. As we were collecting these artifacts, we thought to ourselves that we wanted to open an institution for these things. We wanted to put them on display in the way that we saw them. And that would be, of course, in the form of a museum.

[Full article]

Type-o-philes Scour NYC for Urban Signage Project

New York City signage: "No Parking"

By Jakob Schiller from

[Ed. Entertainingly, this article was originally titled “Type-o-PATHS Scour NYC for Urban Signage Project.”]

New York City is such a sensory overload, it’s easy to miss the details — like the graphical symphony of typography that’s playing under your visual field. aims to bring that symphony to the surface by capturing all the different typefaces that plaster the walls of New York City in an Instagram hashtag. From signs to posters to handbills, the site, which launched this week, hopes to highlight the ways in which letters and words help give New York a particular aesthetic and character.

“I feel like cataloging [the typography] is a celebration of the craft of design and of the city,” says Matthew Anderson, the site’s editor [continued below].

Anderson, 33, along with a couple of friends, started a similar blog back in 2007 but it was too sporadically updated. Now, thanks to more camera phones, Instagram and hashtags, they’ve found a solution. Their current site uses Instagram’s API and culls any photo with the hashtag #nyctype. Their contributor pool has, predictably, grown, and hundreds of submissions have already rolled in.

Anderson says he keyed in on typography because it’s an important part of every New Yorker’s daily life. Residents there are bombarded with visual messages. Unfortunately, he says, the uniqueness of the signs that fill the boroughs has been diminishing. Hand painted displays used to be more common but are on the decline and he’s personally on a mission to document as many of these one-offs before they disappear. He prefers the hand painted signs because he thinks there’s an art and certain amount of humanity to them. For him, the mass-produced or more corporate-looking signs that now dominate the city have less soul. (While graffiti makes its way onto the hashtag, it’s not Anderson’s focus).

“We have a visual culture that is erupting but it’s often guided by people who care more about marketing and less about design,” he says.

Down the road, Anderson says he’d like to find a streamlined way to incorporate higher-res photos taken by people with DSLRs. Including video is also a possibility. Beyond that, he’s thinking about white-labeling his website as a platform for general hashtag curation.

“My passion is typography,” he says. “But I realize that this is one of those ideas that could be used for any topic.”

If Payphones Survive, Will They Look Like This?

NYFi payphone image at night

Diagram of NYFi payphone features


When was the last time you used a phone booth to make a call? Odds are, not for several years at least. So are all of those city phone booths rendered useless, relics of a bygone era? Not necessarily — they might just need a bit of a makeover.

Late last year, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s office announced a Reinvent Payphones competition to reimagine the city’s 11,000+ phone booths, many of which are from a 1999 contract that will expire in 2014. Think about the year 1999 — there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no smartphones, let alone touchscreens. At the time, Google was a nascent startup focusing solely on search.

With payphone contracts expiring soon, the city wants to reinvent the underutilized sidewalk machinery as a tool for Wi-Fi connectivity (pilot programs have turned several payphones into hotspots). The mayor’s office received more than 125 Reinvent Payphone submissions; of those, one stood out both for its design and its utility. The judges awarded architecture firm Sage and Coombe‘s NYfi (a play on “Wi-Fi”) the best connectivity award, and New York citizens deemed it their favorite design.

[Full article]

NYFi payphone at night

Uncovering the First, Fascinating Rulebook for [New York City] Subway Sign Design

New York City Subway Signage Standards Manual

New York City Subway Signage Standards ManualFrom

Late one night last August, three Pentagram designers rummaging through the design firm’s basement archives found the Rosetta Stone of New York subway graphics: the original Standards Manual, designed by Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli in the late 1960s.

The 180-page binder, the key to the system’s iconic design choices, outlines a meticulous vision of signage intended not merely to look good — though it does — but to simplify navigation of the subterranean labyrinth. In its attention to passenger behavior, the manual goes above and beyond what most of us would term graphic design.

The existence of the book is well-known; its contents legendary. But apart from a few off-kilter snapshots posted to Flickr in 2006, images of the document itself were scarce. So when Niko Skourtis, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth found the 1970 manual in a locker beneath a pile of dirty clothes in the Pentagram basement, they did the world a favor and posted its pages, PDF by PDF, on a new website.

[Full article]