Today, the Lab released the Mumbai and New York editions of the 100 Urban Trends, adding new sets of terms to those already published for the Berlin Lab. Over the coming months leading up to the opening of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, we are going to have a lot of fun here on Lab | Log exploring these trends more closely, using them as a lens through which to share anecdotes, opinions, current events, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. I’ll kick off this blog series today with a jaw-dropping true story related to a trend that appears in all three glossaries: Urban Sound.
On December 4, 1939, magistrate Henry H. Curran made legal history in the New York City courts when he awarded a well-to-do couple from Sutton Place an evening of wining and dining, a play, and a night at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The couple’s complaint? Lack of sleep due to excessive noise.
Mr. and Mrs. James C. Lewis had come to the municipal courthouse that winter day to file charges against the Merritt-Chapman and Scott Corporation—the contractor responsible for the construction of the then-new East River Drive (now known as Franklin D. Roosevelt or FDR Drive)—for the alleged violation of the city’s anti-noise ordinance. The project was behind schedule, and in order to finish work by the deadline necessary to secure federal grants for the project, crews had taken to employing pile drivers, concrete mixers, and hissing steam derricks in round-the-clock shifts. The noise was deemed legal by the court, by virtue of its necessity. But that didn’t stop Curran from throwing an empathetic bone to the Lewises with what the Manhattan Borough President’s spokesperson later deemed “a whim of iron.”
Reports of the case in the New York Times read like absurdist passages from a pre-WWII Lewis Caroll story:
Then Curran made his decision:
“You,” he said to Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, “go out to dinner this evening. Have a good dinner—the best in town—and with the dinner have burgundy. I’d suggest Clos Vougeot, 1923—that’s the best you can get. Have all the trimmings—caviar, and I hope you get Finnish caviar, not Russian. Then go see ‘Life With Father’ or ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’—they’re about the best shows in town. After the show, stop at a club and have another bit of a snack and a drink, and then go to a good hotel with smiles on your faces and have a good night’s rest away from the noise. Then come back here tomorrow morning with the bill—just an oral bill, for we’ll take your word for it—and Mr. Van Veen [here the judge looked over at the official] will see that the bill is paid.”
The Lewises followed the judge’s orders, feasting on beluga caviar, lobster Newburgh, duck a la presse with wild rice, salade de saison, peach melba, demitasse, sweet martinis and, of course, the prescribed burgundy. There was tongue-in-cheek debate in the press about whether the couple would be held in contempt of court for skipping the play, as they were so tired from the—sigh—sleepless nights before. They presented the bill of $65.32 (equal to over $1000 today) to the court the next day. After much political controversy surrounding who would bear the cost, it was eventually paid out of Curran’s own pocket, along with a donation in the same amount to the Salvation Army in an effort to gracefully evade public critique for his brazen disregard for the protocol of jurisprudence.
Stories like these, practically unthinkable today, remind us of the utter power of context for so many urban issues that we may take for granted. Whether looking from the perspective of a different culture, different belief system, or a different time, new context for urban concepts never ceases to enlighten. Imagine—a complaint about noise pollution so commonplace today that it would hardly occasion a turn of the head, let alone a court case, once merited court-ordered caviar! Today, the decibel level of an average New York street is enough to slowly beget hearing loss. When did we become so complacent?
We hope to raise more questions like this as we explore urban concepts from the three 100 Urban Trends glossaries, which were first conceived by Lab curator Maria Nicanor after the Berlin Lab (there she is above, plotting out the Trends with Post-its).
The glossaries look simple at first: 100 words or phrases that dominated the dialogue about city issues during the unique moment in time that the Lab was in a given city. But the beauty of the format really begins to emerge as one digs deeper, looking at the terms and their unique subjective definitions not simply as one-offs, but within the context of the terms around them, and how they relate to one another. What emerges is a deep sense of interconnectedness within the conversation, with each idea adding depth, context, and weight to the next.
Take your time to check it out in full. I personally recommend a choose-your-own-adventure approach to exploring it—not necessarily following alphabetical order, but rather hopping from term to term via the “related term” links in the right hand corner of most of the boxes. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
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Photo: Christine McLaren