Tuesday, April 1, 2008

George Washington at the Bollards

Every time I hear a plane pass low over Manhattan, I wonder if the whine of the engines heralds the next missile made of jet fuel and people. I heard a plane as I was walking through Wall Street, which is at once an historical site, a financial center and, after 9/11, a trauma point. As I listened to the plane and looked up at the statue of George Washington, who was inaugurated there, my stomach lurched with a mix of pride, worry and disappointment. The pride was for a nation founded on the principles of equality and freedom. The worry was for the future of family, friends and self and it is a worry that will not to be quieted by Homeland Security procedures or the war in Iraq. The disappointment was for the nation’s response to 9/11, which was rooted in hubris, fueled by fear and executed with extreme violence.

With this mix of thoughts and feelings, I continued to walk through Wall Street, studying the look of the place.

The colors of business on Wall Street are black and white with accents of gold and red. Black is impressive. It enhances the contour of powerful form, while minimizing detail and imperfection. White is divine. It is all the colors of the spectrum at once, bright and pure. Gold is power. The stuff of crowns, it signifies the material wealth and wisdom of the sovereign. Red is the imperial body, all busy meat and wine.

The colors of Wall Street business, however, are interrupted with slashes of warning-orange at perimeter defense stations where retractable, vehicle barriers are inserted in the center of the streets leading to the New York Stock Exchange. Before these steel barriers are lowered into the ground, vehicles are checked by men and sniffed by dogs.

Classical forms, both Greek and…

Modern, dominate the street. These styles plainly display the logic of construction and both claim that the physical order of the exterior is a reliable indication of the civic virtue that resides within.

There are a few opulent sights, which in this classical environment seem naughty. But they are discreetly tucked away like the paisley lining in a wool suit.

Since the streets are narrow and the buildings are tall, the sky is cut into shapes like a dagger and …

a pointing hand and...

a falling star.

But at one intersection, the street opens to a breathtaking vista in which a classical temple, aped in glass and steel, seems to sit majestically on an acropolis of competing businesses. It’s an, “oh my god moment”, that is really funny. I wonder if the visual joke about the collision of classical ideals and capitalist competition is intentional.

There is little advertising on Wall Street and the few images that are there appeal mostly to men and predictably portray them as massive chins in pin stripes.

There are colonnades grand enough to host legions of well-groomed, financial workers.

But the streets at 10 AM were quiet and populated mostly by smokers idling in granite niches, avoiding the wind.

Security on Wall Street is high and photography is not allowed on private property. Several times I was stopped and warned about taking photographs, so I stayed in the public domain. One security guard, however, approached me very aggressively and challenged my right to take pictures on the street. Our encounter got a little heated, and afterwards I regretted the exchange. It would have been easy to diffuse the situation if I had stayed calm and introduced myself instead of responding in kind. Responding to aggression with more aggression is not usually as effective as getting to know the adversary in attempt to find common ground. Someday, I hope a majority of people know how to resolve conflicts without resorting to escalating threats. It would be great for George Washington to once again preside over a Wall Street free of bollards.

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