Working on palimpsests (I). Snapshots and stamps of the urban landscape

Palimpsest is a concept widely used from many sides for talking about the city and urban life. Andreas Huyssen used it in an attempt for linking memory, as a political subject, to spatial practices in three cities that have suffered either “major social or political traumas:” Berlin, Buenos Aires, and New York.

The chapter number five of his book “Present pasts: urban palimpsests and the politics of memory” is about the redevelopment of Times Square occurred in the ’90s. Huyssen imagined Times Square as a disputed palimpsest where two modes of interpreting the development of this area where deployed. The background is its supposed Disneyfication.

He starts drawing a set of parallels between the Nazis and Disney, the old and the past, and then, finally, between two conceptions of understanding the mass culture. The clean, the mainstream, the family valued one vs. the minoritarian and the marginal. The famous debate “Adorno-Benjamin” was also over the table.

The main discussion in this chapter is regarding the metaphor of the city as an image. Huyssen introduces the idea of “artificial paradise” as a response from the city-makers to the necessities of a new category of citizens: “the real subur­bia no longer satisfies its inhabitants, who are flocking back to the city as tourists and consumers in search of entertainment and spectacle.” (Huyssen 2003, 89)

The conception of the city as an image but also as a museum, a theme park, or as an art exhibition is offering an attractive alternative for rethinking the concept of the city as a laboratory. From that perspective, our current urban spaces in big agglomerations are not rigid sociotechnical products anymore. They are tourist landmarks produced by experiential marketing activities, an exclusive design product.

More than exploring the recent city-branding boom, I would like to close the focus on particular places: a plaza, a street, a neighborhood and thinking on them as snapshots for collecting. The current urban-walker is not a flâneur anymore it is a tourist looking for the best location for taking a selfie.