“There it is, ladies and gentlemen: the Bronx is burning.”
These words, spoken by a baseball announcer during the 1977 World Series when a fire broke out near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, reflected a general feeling that the New York City borough was in decline. Starting in the 1960s, new housing policies and projects were forcing poorer residents to the South Bronx; the financial crisis of the next decade pushed even more residents out of the Borough altogether, leaving many buildings destroyed by arson or left abandoned. The beauty and prestige of the Grand Concourse, the Bronx’s long, broad thoroughfare, and its surrounding buildings seemed to be fading.
This is not the Bronx story that Angus McCullough ’10 decided to focus on when designing his proposal, entitled “Live Wired,” for “Intersections: The Grand Concourse beyond 100,” a competition for which he is now one of the seven finalists. Instead, McCullough was inspired by the fact that, despite decades of dramatic shifts and decline, the Concourse and its surrounding neighborhoods not only survived, but also remained a hotbed of innovative culture and art.
McCullough, an architecture and studio art major, says he began looking for an architecture contest to enter last semester while working on an independent tutorial with Assistant Professor of Art Elijah Huge.
“I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life and so I was attracted to a project based in the City,” McCullough said. “Break-dancing and graffiti both originated in the area. Graffiti is a really old art form, but it turned into its current form in the Bronx. ”
He was also infatuated with the culture and history of the neighborhood, which boasts being home to the largest collection of art deco buildings in the U.S. Graffiti, in particular, inspired McCullough’s design.
“Graffiti artists find public spaces that are underutilized and make them personal,” he said.
McCullough wanted to do the same thing for the Grand Concourse through his design for the “Intersections” competition.
“Intersections” was opened in February of 2009 by the Bronx Museum of the Arts in partnership with The Design Trust for Public Space, a New York based non-profit organization. The idea behind the competition was that the Concourse area was finally poised to be reborn; the hope was that, with the right design, the vibrant and creative nature of the Bronx itself could be felt publicly on its greatest boulevard.
The guidelines of the competition were very flexible. Submissions were supposed to include ideas and designs that simply addressed how the Concourse could increase quality of life and community and push the Bronx positively towards the future. Seven finalists, including McCullough, were announced last July and given a $1,000 cash stipend to further their proposal for an exhibition at the Bronx Museum (opening this November). The winner will receive $5,000.
The Grand Concourse itself was designed by railroad engineer Louis Risse in the 1890s and opened in 1909 in order to connect Manhattan to the northern part of the Bronx and its large parks. Risse’s design was modeled on the wide Champs- Élysées in Paris but the Bronx Concourse is actually much larger. The Concourse stretches four miles from 138th street to 248th street and is 180 feet across, though it is separated into three roadways by tree-lined dividers. Risse hoped the road would bring harmonious social order to the area.
This was also the idea behind “Live Wired.” However, McCullough felt that the dimensions of the Concourse were obstructing rather than promoting the harmonious nature of the area.
“The neighborhoods along the Concourse are fantastic, but it distances people,” he said. “I wanted to pinch what is a long string and move it together.”
He aims to do this through what he calls a technological nebulous, or an audio-visual nervous system. McCullough was inspired by the culture of the neighborhood itself more than its aesthetic qualities.
“I tried to focus on the good that was already there,” he said.
“Live Wired” consists of five major interactive nodes that will tie people and programs all along the concourse into a web of communication.
Partly motivated by his love of the New York subway system, one of McCullough’s five nodes, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) skyway, was designed to create a sense of interconnectedness in its platforms.
“I would project images of the outside sky onto the ceilings of subway platforms, which would be aesthetically pleasing but would also provide riders with weather information,” he said. “Simultaneously, aerial views of the platforms below would be projected onto the sidewalk above each station, making the people above and below ground feel part of the same space.”
The second node, the MTA mutual intercom connections would outfit the subway stations and bus stops with a system of intercoms that will allow riders to share travel information with one another.
A similar node, the Bodega Broadcast Network, would be a speaker system put in place near busy places like delis and grocery stores. Storeowners could, by request, broadcast short messages along the Concourse, enabling people to quickly contact one another and share information. Another is the Yankee Game-View Mirror.
“The Yankee Game-View Mirror would not only project home games onto the Concourse sidewalks but also stream video of passing pedestrians onto the jumbo-tron inside Yankee stadium,” he said.
All of this and more would be documented on the final node, the Concourse Connection website.
“The website allows the wider world to access the Concourse and learn about its history, McCullough said. “But it would also act as a hub connecting the concourse to the wider world.”
Together, the nodes reflect the positive change that McCullough wants to see in the Concourse area.
“The way it is now, the systems of communication are one-ended,” he said. “The information civilians submit to the concourse is not returned. I wanted both ends of every system open.”
To see more about “Live Wired” and other work by Angus McCullough, go to angusmccullough.com.