January 2009


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I discovered the government buildings of Vacationland gradually and with some surprise, an appropriate metaphor for the relationship that government has with the idea of Vacationland as a whole. Political Vacationland is almost a misnomer, because the users of Vacationland and its residents are two very different groups. To tourists, the role of government in Vacationland is reduced to the custodial, putting out fires and picking up trash. To residents, Vacationland government must fulfill all the normal functions of small-town representative American government, hosting elections and city council meetings and passing laws and funding parks. The year-round population of Vacationland—that all-important Census-number which determines the number of representatives and state and federal funding—is likely to be low, especially compared to the region’s high-season population. So government here is quiet, unimportant, muffled in terms of representation and funding.

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This is both funny and strange: Funny because Vacationland’s political blocks are treated like the small towns they are during winter, but expected to act like the big cities they are during summer. And strange because Vacationland’s local government must continue to function like local government despite the area’s whole-hearted devotion to the industry of tourism. It must provide schools and emergency services to year-round residents, who, unlike tourists, hold permanent political membership in Vacationland.

But in some ways, the economic membership that tourists hold is more important to the continued operation of government than is the residents’ political membership, furthering the odd disconnect between residents and tourists. Tourists are a necessary evil, necessary in so many ways that their economic force can overwhelm even the government itself.

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Tourists represent perhaps the ultimate in flighty capital, and vacation destinations are nothing if not fungible. The danger of tourists is more than simply their non-localness, it is that tourism can encourage a race-to-the-bottom mentality among differing municipalities. And it has: witness Atlantic City or parts of the Outer Banks. For every Beach Haven or Ocracoke Island, for every place that cares about preserving its past, about cherishing its differences, there will be a part of Vacationland content to change zoning regulations or set-back requirements to make a quick buck. This is the danger of tourism: Not the remodeling of the economic landscape or the absentee ownership or the lack of political membership, but the allure of money, and how quickly a town will destroy itself in pursuit of that silvery, ephemeral goal.

Previous posts on Vacationland: Its residential architecture and its economic landscape.

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The excellent built-environment blog Bearings has just published an article of mine, about a trip I took to the derelict Six Flags New Orleans amusement park this past summer. Check it out here!

To readers arriving from Bearings, welcome! You may be interested in recent posts on Vacationland or Funereal Architecture.

“[Working at Sephora] is an intense, high-volume job, and the cast members do it in flat shoes with the grit of battlefield triage nurses. Their black ‘costumes’ are spattered with the gore of prosthetic skin tones, but their hands are steady. They are on the front line, in the trenches where Beauty is fought and won in the unending blitz of toxic urban stresses. They holler at one another in efficient emergency-room snippets, over the heads of college-age women in Ugg boots: ‘Hey, is there a kit that provides more contour product?’ ”

— From the New York Times column Critical Shopper, “All’s Fair in Beauty and War.”

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The economic landscape of Vacationland, captured in its businesses and industries, reveals both how its users make economic decisions and what economic decisions are possible. No surprise here: Vacationland businesses tilt heavily towards offering what you need for a vacation, both primary vacation gear (swim suits, goggles, pool toys, sunscreen, etc.) and secondary vacation gear (disposable cameras, souvenirs, etc.). The scaling-up of the tourism industry thus leaves an economic footprint. The seasonal nature of Vacationland also leaves its mark on the economic landscape: During the off-season, many businesses close down completely. Others are open only on weekends. The strength of a given business’s ties to the tourist economy is revealed by what times of day or year the business is closed

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Staple businesses, like grocery stores, banks, or pharmacies, are open year-round. This type of business may alter its hours, or change what merchandise it carries for the high and low seasons. The merchandise change-over is likely to be a more extreme restocking than the usual summer-winter sunscreen-versus-eggnog restocking that takes place elsewhere, because the businesses of Vacationland must cater to both Locals and Tourists, to different demographics in different seasons. Locals live in Vacationland year-round, and their material needs are no different than the average American citizen. Tourists visit Vacationland for short stretches. Depending on their hometown or socioeconomic standing, they may bring with them more cosmopolitan tastes (better wine, organic meat, whatever) but, more importantly, tourists bring the idea that they are on vacation. This idea itself introduces economic variations.

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Food becomes an element of self-identity, of the auto-mythmaking of a place, in the way that Vermont maple syrup is produced in vast industrial vats, but advertised as dripping slowly out of maple trees into quaint wooden buckets. Vacation food and real food are two different things, so different, in fact, that locals may never eat what tourists do. (I saw this in New Orleans, which doesn’t fit the definition of a Vacationland—not seasonal, too many people live there—but which has the same sort of deeply-rooted insider/outsider ideas that underpin Vacationland. The tourists ate gumbo or Zatarain’s red beans and rice. The locals ate Roly Poly wraps and went to Starbucks.) Vacation-foods may be further informed by place instead of availability—we expect to eat seafood at the seashore, but why is the New Jersey seafood stand shown above selling lobster from Maine? The idea of the place can overwhelm its reality; tourist expectations guide and form a tourist world, a world balanced between reality and the myth of vacation. Tourists are in this world, but not of it; locals are of this world, but not in it.

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Certain foods become more acceptable in Vacationland; vacation becomes a social excuse for indulgence. And not just when it comes to eating: Luxury purchases themselves become a type of souvenir, a way to internalize the vacation experience. Purchase a part of the place, and carry it with you—hence the jewelry stores, art galleries, and antique shops that proliferate in certain segments of Vacationland. Tourists are paying a premium for these luxury goods, paying for the privilege of purchasing it while they are on vacation. Vacation is something you buy over and over again

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Real estate in Vacationland is huge. The tourist industry is built on medium-to-long term vacation rentals, and real estate agencies typically handle the cleaning and maintenance of rental units for absentee owners (which is to say, most owners in Vacationland). Brokers show properties to potential renters, filtered by number of bedrooms, beach proximity, and price range, much as they would to potential buyers. Vacationeers may rent the same property year after year and know that two-week period of Vacationland and only that two-week period. But they know it and know it intimately. Vacationland builds unintentional spatial products that are materially ephemeral but codified in dates and travel times, rental agreements and damage-deposit checks.

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Another set of businesses unique to Vacationland is the off-season industry, an entire group of services and products meant to help you turn things on and off. These are the guys who will shrink-wrap your boat, drain your pool, flush your pipes. In early June, they’ll paint your trim; in late September, they’ll install your storm windows. The real estate industry is a big client: If absentee owners don’t want to vacuum their rugs between renters, you can bet they’d also rather have someone else handle opening and closing their home for the season. Quoth the New York Times, on the high/low season divide in the Hamptons:

The summer infestation is greeted with ambivalence (great for the bottom line, bad for the blood pressure) endured with fortitude and a fixed smile, and forgotten with haste. “It’s a little bit of a clash of cultures,” observed Mary Croghan, an owner of East Hampton Business Services. “In the summer I have 18 people double-parked, some with their motors running, and standing in front of me punching their BlackBerrys. A lot of their urgency, let’s face it, is artificial. These people haven’t drawn a breath to the bottom of their diaphragm in a decade.” Some of those businesses have to adjust their offerings (more lobster salad), their supplies (more refrigerators), their staff (more bodies) and their hours (start earlier, end later) to prepare for the summer population. All of them have to adjust their attitudes and coping strategies.

The article from which this excerpt is taken is the best study of local attitudes towards seasonal residents I have ever found. It perfectly captures the high/low, tourist/local divide. Another Times article (from 1995!) makes many of the same points, and notes that the 50-day summer influx of seasonal residents “generates between 60 and 70 percent of the year’s economic activity.

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Vacationland is not an idle or frivolous place, and the leisure it packages is sold at a price. This is an economy that leaves homes and businesses empty for most of the year. This is an economy that remodels its host, and the goods and services it offers, twice every year. This is an economy as serious as any other: Lopsided and funny-looking though it may be, this is what makes money. The strength of these economic forces varies up and down Vacationland, with affluence and climate, and a summer in the Hamptons will be different from one at the Jersey Shore which will be different still from one in the Florida panhandle. But regardless of where you happen to be vacationing, you are still on vacation.

These economic forces are easy to see in the high season, but they come into starker relief during the low season, when the streets and parking lots are empty, the traffic lights blink yellow, and almost every store and house is dark. 

Up next: The governmental buildings of Vacationland.

The New York Times ran an article the other day about the inauguration rehearsal, calling it “momentous and kind of weird.” From a distance, writes Mark Leibovich:

it had the look and feel of the real thing: amplified speeches and announcements could be heard several blocks away, honor guards and color guards and processions of dignitaries (or stand-ins thereof) assembled along the western end of the Capitol. The (actual) Marine Band showed up to play “Hail to the Chief” to honor the (fake) new president.

Such a rehearsal gets at ideas about reality and statecraft: How do we distinguish between this rehearsal inauguration and the real inauguration? Or the real presidential debates and the West Wing presidential debates?  What differentiates the United States of America from the Principality of Sealand? Micronations and contested political statuses and rehearsals like this are all different representations of the same idea: That political legitimacy is more difficult to come by than its trappings. Aesthetic representations of statehood—having a flag carrier, issuing postage stamps, fielding an Olympic team, and, yes, inaugurating your chief executive in a fit of pomp and circumstance— are all, in a way, necessary (see e.g. North Korea, which certainly seems to think they are) but not by themselves sufficient. You can’t run a country on pageantry alone, but these weird fragments of irreality will still pop up in the most serious contexts and at the most serious times.

[Hail to the Faux Chief We Have Chosen as Rehearsal Stand-In via NYTimes]

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Greetings from Vacationland! I spent this past week in lovely Beach Haven, New Jersey. Beach Haven was a place to explore the definition of Vacationland, an idea I’ve been playing with since I visited the Florida Panhandle this summer. Vacationland, loosely defined, is an area or region directed wholly towards tourism, typically seasonal tourism. Geographically, Vacationland starts in New England (in Maine, perhaps?), hugs Cape Cod, extends south along Long Island, stretches along the Jersey Shore, then follows the Intracoastal Waterway down the East Coast, through the Outer Banks, around Florida, and along the Gulf coast into  Texas. 

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Vacationland relies on seasonal tourism, filling up with vacationeers during warm months and emptying out empty during cold months. (The contrast between the high and low seasons is starkest in colder climes.) It is characterized by medium- to long-term tourism, with vacationeers lasting from a single weekend to two weeks or more. Vacationland is typically within driving distance of the primary residences of its users, the vacationeers; the drive may take up to a day but does not typically require an overnight stay en route. The primary housing stock in Vacationland is single-family residences, organized into towns or into newer suburban-style developments. These houses’ owners usually live elsewhere and maintain the house as a vacation rental with the help of local real estate companies. In many cases, Vacationland will have grown up around existing settlements, repurposing them to serve as hosts. This is Vacationland: An entire realm that exists in support of leisure.

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Setting aside specific geographic areas for leisure activities is not a new idea in the American consciousness. Vacationland can be traced back at least to the rise of railroads and how they enabled easy and quick transportation between disparate points. Beaches were a natural summer vacation destination because they (a) tended to be cooler than urban environments, especially before the invention of air conditioning, and (b) were close to major centers of population. Buried in all of the Vacationlands is, I think, a Dolores Hayden-style theory on the growth and stages of leisure-directed land-use. Beach Haven is an older Vacationland; the Jersey Shore has been a Vacationland since the early 20th century. Other Vacationlands I have visited, including the Outer Banks and the Florida Panhandle, are newer.

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Regardless of age or origin, different Vacationlands share architectural motifs. The architecture, both residential and commercial, tends toward a strong coastal or nautical flavor, emphasizing shingles, widows’ walks, portholes, screened porches, balconies, etc. Older houses tended to naturally build these elements in, whether to accomodate the local climate (screened porches) or because their builders were the sea-going sort (widows’ walks). Newer houses ape this style, exaggerating it and stretching it in funny ways, distorting it and ballooning it, emphasizing the certain features that “read” as nautical. What’s interesting about newer vacation architecture is not that it tries to look nautical, but that it all tends to look the same, regardless of where you are. It’s as though there are certain rules and codes built into the built environment of Vacationland, reminding its users that they are on vacation, and nowhere else.

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From the architecture and purpose of Vacationland, a tautology emerges: These areas look like places to vacation because that’s what they are; these areas are places to vacation, so that’s what they look like. Bound up in Vacationland are ideas about autonomy, leisure, individuality, home ownership, property, common access to public goods, responsibility. The ideals of Vacationland—a family vacation, a good time—are bound up in the architecture, creating a tangible discourse about what is or is not an acceptable use of the place. The Right Story. But there is also our old friend, The Wrong Story. Vacationland is a peripheral space, a borderland. It encourages activities that are deemed inappropriate for non-Vacationland, such as walking around half-naked or drinking beer through the afternoon and into the evening. To what extent do these messages of acceptability lie latent in the architecture?

Beyond these narratives about Vacationland’s vacationeers are stories hidden, lying latent, describing the lives of the people who live in Vacationland full-time. These people may work in support industries, staffing the stores, the banks, the construction firms; they may live off-peak, traveling during the high season and returning to live during the low. Regardless of what they do or how they interact with Vacationland, they are always locals in a world meant for tourists. Townies in a town meant for outsiders. What are the tensions, the underlying issues there? Vacationland is interesting because much of its structure doesn’t neatly square with traditional American political ideas about local government or representation, which assume a fixed, stable population. Who votes in Vacationland? Who serves on committees? Who holds bake sales? 

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Contemporary Vacationland architecture leaps beyond exaptation of existing styles and into a fully-fledged style of its own. There is a McMansion-esque aspect to it—the faux-Italiante style, the emphasis on the trendy, the size, the height. Part is internally driven: The twelve people staying here for the week all want their own bathroom; changing ideas about how domestic space should or can be shared has increased the internal infrastructure of a house. Advances in cooking and entertainment technology have meant that those spaces need to be upgraded. How closely do changes in Vacationland track with changes in primary-residential architecture? When is it no longer acceptable that one’s vacation cottage lacks a flat-screen TV or an eight-burner range? And part is externally driven: The styling is ornamentation on a domestic envelope, to make the house “fit in,” however poorly. Again the self-justification: If all Vacationland architecture is nautical, this will be too.

But there’s something deeper and more interesting about contemporary Vacationland architecture in how it relates to primary-residence architecture. Ideas about acceptable luxury and the places where such is appropriate may have exaggerated the disconnect between vacation and primary-residence architecture. This disconnect is relatively small in older Vacationlands, like Beach Haven, where many early (c.1930) houses weren’t so different from their primary-residence counterparts in style—maybe smaller, a little cheaper. But in newer Vacationlands—and here I’m thinking of the Florida Panhandle—people rent houses that they would never, ever live in. Elaborate three-storied bright-blue-shingled confections, with open kitchens and huge porches and boardwalks connecting them to the beach. Does Vacationland offer us a place to play with ideas about appropriate domesticity? Has it morphed from following trends in domestic architecture to setting them?

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As these transformations continue, what becomes of Vacationlands past? Areas rich in potential profit are notoriously difficult to preserve; when everyone wants a nicer house, who has to keep living in an “outdated” vacation cottage? What will the future bring? Preservation is made more difficult by a constituency of absentee owners, all of whom want to stay at the bleeding edge of Vacationland technology. This discussion is dangerous in many Vacationlands, because the very popularity of the place threatens to destroy it. Vacationland must balance change with preservation, future with past, in a way perhaps more immediate than the balancing required by many American communities.

Up next: The commercial architecture of Vacationland.

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Flyers left under windshield-wipers for the car’s owner. This practice assumes a relatively tight correlation between user and object (that is, leaving a flyer on a car is the same as handing it to someone) and a relatively small temporal lag (that a flyer left on a car will be received the same day or so).  Our automobiles as proxy for our selves—a metal body standing in not for our flesh-and-blood incarnations, but for us. The car becomes our body, the windshield wiper no different than a hand. 

In this way, the car is like a part of our data shadow. A data shadow is the mass of information that follows us around—bank records, social security information, voter records, tax returns, phone numbers, email addresses. It is the shorthand for a system too large to process people and which must instead process information. We are not authenticated—at the airport, at the bank, during a credit-card transaction—our data shadow is. The data shadow acts as proxy, and the system assumes a tight (or tight-enough) correlation between us and our data shadow that each may stand in for the other. The system reveals itself in its breakdowns: Minors are able to buy alcohol not because they are 21, but because they can manipulate their data shadow through borrowed or forged ID to say they are 21. The data, not the person, is authenticated. (And even our proxies have data shadows—the car has its VIN, license plate number, automated toll boxes. Or are our proxies’ data shadows a part of our own?)

The more central and integral things become in our day-to-day lives the easier they are able to act as our proxies: murder suspects are exonerated by their MetroCards or their cellphones. How long before these proxy assumptions are hacked, and a bank robber, say, is caught on security camera in Manhattan at the same time his cell phone and MetroCard place him in the Bronx? When do proxies cease to be trustworthy?

Or more directly, what qualities keep proxies trustworthy? Security researchers have proposed all manner of proxy tests, from the “security questions” we have to jump through to get at our bank accounts to the PINs that have been with us since the checking card reared its plastic head. But these rely on the user providing a second set of information—a second key—to authenticate the first, which reduces abuse but does nothing to solve the root problem that information is itself a proxy. One of the more interesting proxy tests does not ask for information but instead asks decision-based questions: Would you do this or that? People can forget information, the system reasons, but they are unlikely to fundamentally change how they make decisions. 

As more and more proxy services converge in a single device—email and telephony on my iPhone, or library, dining, print/copy, and door-access services on my school ID—the value of that device increases. Will we soon realize über-devices—devices that integrate every proxy service, every data shadow link we need? This tightens the data shadow and strengthens its link to the shadow’s owner, but does nothing to solve the critical failing of a data shadow: regardless of how tightly it fits its owner, it is still separate from its owner. The flip of an über-device is a world of ultimate disposability, where we have no proxies and our data becomes a part of us. Might biometrics be the answer?

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