Localities


When countries take flight, dreams take wing. Interflug, more than serving as a tangible marker of East German culture, was interesting for what it said about statecraft: It suggested that a state airline is a necessary condition for modern statehood. Interflug is interesting because both it and the state it represented have disappeared; Air Nauru is interesting because it is an outlier, the state airline of the Republic of Nauru, population 13,770. (That’s an Air Nauru 727 in vintage livery.)

Nauru is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. So what gives a country with maybe a quarter the population of my hometown (also an island, but there’s no Air Bainbridge) the right to have an airline? And airline, moreover, that at one point had a fleet with a seating capacity equivalent to 10% of Nauru’s population? Phosphate.

The vagaries of the global commodities market concentrate wealth in strange places, and cause people to do strange things with it: Air Nauru once flew one of the most comprehensive route networks in the South Pacific, even though most routes were unprofitable and the average load factor throughout the network hovered around 20%. On a 737, that’s about 26 people on a plane designed to carry around 130. To look at it another way, that means one person per row of seats.

But having an airline means you run with the big boys. Note the eponymous Emirates and Singapore planes in the above photo, and the United (US) and Qantas (Australia) planes beyond them. The United Arab Emirates, although a good deal larger in area and population than the Republic of Nauru, is, I think, a fair comparison, an example of how the Nauru model scales up. (Or, to put it another way, how the UAE model might scale down to suit Nauru.)

And although these countries’ airlines have larger planes, longer routes, and more passengers in a day than Air Nauru sees all year, I’d argue they’re not so different. Scale up, scale down. It’s like putting toddlers in suits for weddings: Let me just measure your state and we’ll be able to cut an airline to fit straight away.

Air Nauru is now known as Our Airline (slogan: Let Our Airline be Your Airline). This new name makes the connection between national identity and airline ownership explicit (and ironic, because Our Airline is privately owned and operated). The slogan, cheesy though it may be, speaks to the importance of an airline like this: Nauru gets something from it (a claim to statehood, a chance to be taken seriously, a demonstration of ability) and so does the world (another airline, another state, another voice).

On a larger scale, Our Airline speaks to how we chose to order our existence. It represents, as Interflug did, an alternate reality, another way of seeing and experiencing the world. How do we choose which airline to fly? is really just a proxy query for the deeper question: How do we choose how we want to live?

 

Related: Fly Interflug! and Regionalism in Flight

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Interflug represented East Germany, and American regional airlines are freighted with cultural meaning much in the same way Interflug that was. Regional carriers abound: In Seattle and Anchorage, expect to see Alaska Airlines 737s and Horizon Air turboprops. In Minneapolis, check out those Sun Country planes. If you’re passing through Milwaukee—although why would you be?—take a gander at those Midwest Airlines 717s. Or look at the animals painted on the tails of Frontier Airlines’ Airbuses in Denver, CO.

What does it mean that our regional airlines have concentrated in these pockets? What is it about the north Midwest and the Pacific Northwest that have given each their own airlines? The only other region that has really had its own airline was the South, with Delta and Southwest, but both have since become national airlines. Are regional airlines indicative of a stronger regional culture? Of weak links to a national culture? Or a symptom of automobile dependence in a post-railroad age: Cities just too far away from each other to be linked by car?

The airlines named above are just the big players: There are also a smattering of tiny, truly regional carriers. The fascinating thing about these is that they, almost without exception, operate under the names and liveries of the big players. You’ve probably flown, without realizing it, with Air Wisconsin, Mesa Airlines, or Chautauqua Airlines, whose planes and crews wear the liveries and uniforms of US Airways Express, Delta Connection, United Express, American Connection, or Continental Express. Regionalism in disguise, wearing the mask of national authority.

We seek our identity in strange places, in strange reflections. We seek it in sports teams and local newspapers, on water towers and postcards. Regional airlines, too, play on ideas of hometown pride and local boys done good. (Alaska is “proudly all Boeing.”) We take these planes as confirmation of our self-worth, players as they are in an anonymous system larger than any of us. If these airlines can make it out there in the world, then so can we. We carry our homes with us, in our hearts and in our liveries.

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A fan proclaiming allegiance to Apalachicola, FL. When I saw this fan over the summer, I thought its conflation of “fanatic” and “cooling device” was outrageously clever. (I still think so.) But given time to reflect, I’m struck by how catchy this word/image combination is, even though it is not at all specific to Apalachicola. Imagine, for example: I’m a fan of Paris. Of Cincinnati. Of Bellingham. And while the cadence of “I’m a fan of Apalachicola” makes the name stick more readily than other place names, the form of this advertisement is wholly independent of its content.

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The form of the memorial license plate is equally independent of content, but the designations we stick on geographic places are—by their very nature—specific. Only Apalachicola can be the Oyster Capital of the World; to replace ‘Apalachicola’ with Paris/Cincinnati/Gorst would be to lie. Content can be as powerful as form, but without form is more forgettable—I remember the fan, but not the oysters. I’d like to see Apalachicola’s destination branding combine the two by plopping down a giant oyster at the corner of 9th and Market Street.

This combination of the form and content of a local icon is, I gather, the driving force behind such projects as Pigs on Parade and the Baltimore Crabs. The inspiration for these projects, the Cow Parade of Chicago, is, oddly enough, diluting itself through offers of syndication and franchising. Want cows in your city? Sure, why not! Location branding should be the ultimate in location-aware content, not a stale repetition of something Chicago did better nearly 10 years ago.

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A collection of trucks idling on York Street at midday, all making deliveries.

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Different backgrounds, similar tasks.

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A tension between form and content.

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Trucks as a kind of mobile Journal of Urban Typography.

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A momentary herd, parked nose-to-butt up the block.

So this is incredible: What appears to be an ad-hoc theatre company is staging a moving play inside the New York City Subway system. The play is called I.R.T.: A Tragedy In Three Stations, and recounts the history and development of the city’s subway network as the play hopscotches through stations and trains. 

The show is sold out, of course, and reading this article makes me wish I had taken Site-Specific Theatre and Performance this semester. Quoth the New York Times:

“Tonight, these platforms will be our playhouse,” [Actor Jim] Ford, wearing a tuxedo and a handlebar mustache, told an audience gathered on a Brooklyn subway platform during the prologue. “Conductors will manage our stage. The sound designer is a passing train, and these fluorescents light our way.”

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly similar to, the production of Waiting for Godot that was staged in Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Both productions are examples of showing instead of telling, of exhibition rather than exposition. Godot piggybacked on New Orleans to emphasize the themes of the play, and used the play as a lens to focus the trauma of a post-Katrina city.

It drew power from exaptation: Godot was written before Katrina, for an audience in a different time and place. The setting amplified the play’s themes by finding unexpected commonalities between the characters and the residents of New Orleans. (Godot had earlier found similar success at stagings in Sarajevo and in prisons—Does this material universality somehow diminish its power, or does it enhance it?)

 I.R.T. is different. It was purpose-written for the space in which in it is performed, so the moments of serendipitous connection between the text and the space will be different, a little muted, a little planned. Still clever, but with a self-consciousness to this very public performance: It is meant to be watched, the audience and players are clearly defined, and the frame of theatricality circumscribes the entire performance. (Contrast that with Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station to see how passers-by respond to art without a frame.) Like Godot, I.R.T is gives its audience a lens, but the lens in this case is more like a pair of X-Ray Goggles, allowing the audience to see history and detail in the ordinarily mundane world of New York City public transit.

I’d like for I.R.T. to inspire a whole series of subway plays, each set in a different time or playing at a different theme. You can imagine heritage cars, or entire heritage trains, filled with actors in period dress. A subway moving through history: an eleven-car train, one car for each decade the subway system has been in existence, each car with different seats, different advertisements, different lighting, different people, the past loosed from the tracks of the MTA Transit Museum and forced out into the real world.

Or plays set in the parks and streets New York City, a kind of historic Improv Everywhere, giving life to the stories that lie latent in our surroundings. The stories are already there. We just have to learn how to listen, how to see.

[In the Subway, Moving Theatre, in More Ways Than One via NYTimes. Earl Wilson photo.]

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

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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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