Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

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Racked

January 2017

 

The Abercrombie & Fitch headquarters is composed of roughly 16 buildings set among 500 forested acres, which, during a late October visit, explode in fall colors. Security guards at the gate sport crisp blue button-downs from the brand. Banks of scooters let the 2,600 employees zip between meetings held in a series of massive, corrugated metal structures that look a bit like high-fashion barns. The grounds are filled with meandering paths, tree-lined walkways, and even firepits. The entire campus exudes wholesomeness, like a corporate wellness retreat that lasts all year.

“It’s a really lovely place to work,” says Clare Drummond, Abercrombie’s senior global PR manager, as she leads me past the company cafeteria, currently offering quinoa bowls and fresh juice. “We have a big roaring fire every morning, which is very lovely to come into at 7 a.m. There’s a really nice, communal feeling to the buildings.”

The facility has been a hive of activity the last few months, as the company revamped its catalog for the holidays, part of a larger brand refresh. Nearly every aspect of the business happens here, from designing the lines to storing inventory in gigantic warehouses. In one basement, photographers are shooting product images for the website. In another section, designers play with denim, using a bank of washing machines filled with rocks and pebbles in a quest to achieve the perfect fade. In another building, a full-sized mock store is being adjusted, altered, and tested to determine the right way to merchandise the latest collection.

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Curbed

October 2016

BURLINGTON

map of burlington

The northwest face of a Flatiron-shaped brick building in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood is graced with an image of Muhammad Ali, gloves up, a symbolic bee and butterfly orbiting around his head. The memorial to the boxer, painted the day after he died, was partially inspired by the experience of Prince Nartey Awhaitey, the 28-year-old son of the Mawuhi African Market’s owner, Pat Bannerman, an immigrant from Ghana.

As a child, Awhaitey just happened to have Ali as a seatmate on a domestic flight from Tennessee to New York; he remembers the icon entertaining him, performing magic tricks with a knowing wink the entire flight.

The mural was just the beginning of the makeover for the building, part of the motley crowd of colorful Victorians, single-family homes, and siding-clad storefronts that line this working-class street, the occasional cornice offering a hint of turn-of-the-century charm.

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Curbed

October 2016

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Pay a visit to Petronia Street in Key West, Florida, on a summer day, and density quickly becomes apparent. The humid air, a palpable weight, begins dragging you down by mid-morning.

History starts making itself visible. The eastern edge of Petronia almost backs up to the island’s above-ground cemetery, which holds generations of soldiers, settlers, and everyone in between—an everlasting last call in a city that self-identifies as the Conch Republic.

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Curbed

October 17, 2016

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It’s been called the Mother Road and the Main Street of America, but soon, Route 66 will become the testing ground for an experiment that developers hope may change our roadways. After some delays, Solar Roadways’ hexagonal glass panels will be laid over a sidewalk near a rest stop in Conway, Missouri, once a waystation for motorists on the famous highway that helped bring Americans west.

This small test, according to staff at the Missouri Department of Transportation, will start by early December and be the first public trial of the Solar Roadways technology by a U.S. Department of Transportation. A pilot public installation in Sandpoint, Idaho, just opened in October (and has its own webcam), and in Baltimore, which is scheduled to be conducted by the Abell Foundation in October. Two European agencies are also testing this type of futuristic technology, which begs the question: Are solar roads closer to reality than we think?

Solar Roadways, (better known as Solar “Freakin” Rodaways via their wildly popular fundraising video), the glass-covered solar panels that could turn roads into power plants, was developed by a husband-and-wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw in Idaho. They received a two-year, $750,000 Small Business Innovative Research contract by the U.S. DOT to conduct tests in 2011, and a few years later, they captured the public’s attention with an Indiegogo campaign that helped them raise more than $2.2 million through crowdfunding.

The concept seemed too good to be true. Beyond turning highways into green energy generators, the panels would also heat themselves, eliminating the need for salt and snow plows, and contain lights that could replace street signs of deliver warnings to motorists. Most importantly, the solar roads would pay for themselves.

The idea was met with a heavy dose of cynicism: They’re expensive, wildly inefficient compared to regular solar panels, and potentially unsafe. Why create an entirely new system of solar panels when rooftops around the world sit empty?

But Solar Roadways also saw widespread support, and now it’s about to get a real-world test in Missouri, as part of the state’s Road2Tomorrow initiative, which is piloting new technology for the highway of the future.

A rest station sidewalk is pretty far from the founder’s vision of smart, glass-covered highways snaking across the country, soaking up the sun and powering our green energy future. But it’s also a necessary part of the slow process of gaining the government approvals necessary to be placed on actual highways.

Along with a number of other current tests and pilot being conducted by European engineering firms and local governments, it suggests that while solar roadways still have a very long way to go, there’s been plenty of progress on the road to adoption. According to Laurel McKean, an engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation running the test, these small incremental tests are the right way for these kind of eccentric ideas find mainstream acceptance.

“Testing something regardless of the naysayers—isn’t that how we’ve grown as a culture and society?” she says. “To give someone who has an extraordinary idea the ability to test it out—I thought I’d never get the chance to do something like this. It’s amazing to be part of the scientific process.”

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Curbed

October, 17 2016

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Potential changes to zoning rules meant to protect the city’s manufacturing could radically reshape Chicago

In a city where broad shoulders and a brawny industrial past are a civic cliche, there was always something magical about seeing sparks fly at Chicago’s A. Finkl & Sons Steel plant. In an industrial strip on the Chicago River, located in the near northwest side and sandwiched between two of the city’s hottest real estate markets, Lincoln Park and Bucktown, curious cyclists or drivers could roll down a rickety stretch of Cortland Street, bumping over embedded rail tracks and a paint-flecked bridge across the north branch of the Chicago River, and spy cylinders of red-hot, molten steel through the sliding doors of the century-old factory. Furtive glances at the Vulcan glow made more sense after passing the scrap heaps at Sims Metal Management next door; perhaps those husks of old cars or shredded pieces of aluminum fed the industrial beast.

When the manufacturing center was razed last year (Finkl had already moved to a newer facility on the city’s South Side), it seemed symbolic of a shift that had been going on for decades, part of the slow decline of the heavy industry that helped build the city’s economy in the 19th and 20th century. But talk to developers, investors, and city officials today about the 28-acre site, and it appears like a new era is just getting started.

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Curbed

December 2016

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New companies see an opening in the city’s shifting rideshare market

Business travelers arriving at any major airport in the United States, regardless of the time of day, climate, or even city, will, almost on cue, do the exact same thing: They’ll open Uber or Lyft, looking for a ride before they walk out the door, sometimes even before they get off the plane. These two companies alone accounted for 52 percent of all ground transportation costs (including car rentals) during a three-month period this fall, according to a recent study by Certify, an expense management software tool. In this context, the experience of getting a ride at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, is odd.

 

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T Brand Studio Paid Post

May 2016

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“Roots” remains a touchstone for its portrayal of an African-American family over generations; decades later, the miniseries’ themes, and artistic influence, couldn’t be more relevant.

A poignant, painful and ultimately empowering family story, “Roots” was the rare cultural event that combined unthinkable reach — around half of the 220 million Americans alive in 1977 watched at least a part of “Roots” — with incredible intimacy.

Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the show introduced viewers to Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George. The series showed African-Americans an example of their own family backstory and, on a broader scale, presented America with a story central to its past.

Declared “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America” by Vernon Jordan, former Urban League president, its powerful storytelling has made it a wellspring of cultural and artistic influence. With so much to say about identity and perspective, the multigenerational saga still inspires American art and society today.

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Curbed

June 21, 2016

Like any good developer, Kyle Zeppelin sensed a trend, noticed undervalued property, and made his move. A Denver developer who grew up with the family business (and currently partners with his father, Mickey), Zeppelin wasn’t blind to the demographic trends reshaping cities and urban areas across the country: families wanting to live downtown, and young adults looking for a cool, authentic urban experience.

So unlike some developers pushing cookie-cutter luxury condos, the Zeppelin family began work on a development in a disused, riverside industrial park 16 years ago that has, through numerous additions, become an ideal urban village. One of the latest additions to the collection of mixed-use housing, commercial buildings, and office space known as Taxi (named after one of the buildings, a former taxi dispatch station) features affordable rental housing and townhomes meant for families.


“This stuff is very proven in Europe and Latin America,” says the younger Zeppelin. “It’s universal human values. It’s not everybody’s ideal, but some people want a version of urban housing that works for people throughout their lives. We just completed 50 units of family housing, and leased out almost immediately.”

The Taxi development, now part of the hip RiNo, or River North Art District, contains a child care center, maker’s studio, and community garden. It could be labeled peak millennial if it wasn’t so successful, so deeply considered, and so not meant for a single demographic. Zeppelin’s vision aims to be more sustainable and to support a lifetime of urban living.

“Everyone at these real estate conferences mentions millennials like 50 times, but the real estate market is slow moving and reactionary,” he says. “Developers are hung up on getting the most value per square foot. But for the people occupying it, it’s all about the value they’re receiving. A small footprint doesn’t matter to them if it’s, say, under $1,000 and gives them the amenities, functional space, and lifestyle they want. This campus-like setup offers people more of what they want, and more time to do what they enjoy. The American dream in the suburbs is overrated.”

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that millennials prefer urban living and the culture and excitement of the big, dense cities, want to be flexible and avoid owning a home, and if given a choice, would rent an apartment in a development like Taxi in a heartbeat. But as millennials age, and more marry and consider starting families, the numbers tell a different story.

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Curbed
March 28, 2016

Even in quickly evolving New York City, there’s something romantic about slowing down, stepping out of the fast currents of foot traffic, and looking up. Few neighborhoods will disappoint. Look up high, especially in Manhattan, and you can see the built history of the big city play out in the architectural details and ornamental facades of buildings, awnings and balconies standing out like grooves in record, ready to reveal the story of each block. Within the skyscraper canyons of Midtown, you can spot the pinnacles of great towers, and the cranes of greater towers in the making. But look a little lower, around the corners and in the alleyways, and you’ll see a structure with a romantic connection to an older New York City, zig-zagging down towards the streets.


Fire escapes have a fairly straightforward purpose, designed for the noble role their name implies. But for much of their history, in cities across the world, they’ve served altogether different roles. Tenement dwellers slept on them, bickered on them, turned them into literal community grapevines. For the optimistic and dirt-poor trying to eke out an existence in a dense city, the iron grates offered a blank canvas to conjure unaffordable luxuries; a mattress became an extra bedroom, especially before the comforts of air conditioning (“whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear,” wrote playwright Arthur Miller about growing up on 110th Street); a flower pot was as good as a garden, and the stairs offered an easy way to the roof, “tar beach” during hot summer days. “The greatest thing I remember about wintertime,” Chicagoan Bill Bailey once told Studs Terkel, “you’d reach out on the fire escape and pull in some snow, put condensed milk on it, and you had great ice cream!”

Fire Escape Immigrant
A newly arrived immigrant eats noodles on the fire escape in New York City. © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos 1988

“They hearken back to a time when the barriers between your and your neighbor’s lives and physical space were much more tenuous than now,” says Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, who’s spent his whole adult life in a pair of Hell’s Kitchen buildings with fire escapes. “This was an era when people had communal bathrooms and lots more shared space. It was time when there was an expectation, at least for many of us of modest means, that our lives would be much more intertwined and interdependent.”

For many, fire escapes exist somewhere between the practical and the aesthetic. And while everyday citizens made them part of their homes, artists and intellectuals made fire escapes romantic symbols. Photos and films have caused fire escapes to be intertwined with urbanity, as attached to our collective imagination of cities as they are to the sides of buildings.

Consider how fire escapes make it into the foreground and background of the New York City’s creative culture: surreal, black-and-white symbols of alienation in film noir, the modern balcony in West Side Story’s interracial spin on Shakespeare, the workplaces of crime fighters and comic book heroes, framing devices for Hitchcock’s exploration of voyeurism, Rear Window.

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Rear Window; James Stewart, Grace Kelly, 1954. Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Rear WIndow Movie Poster

A poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery film ‘Rear Window’ starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

One of Andy Warhol’s first videos was shot on a fire escape, a short of his boyfriend, scissor in hand, giving Edie Sedgewick a pixie cut. An impossibly young Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe posed next to the iron railings in ripped jeans and white tees, punk poet and photographer in repose. On Wu-Tang’s song “C.R.E.A.M.,” Raekwon raps about “running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes/Making my way on fire escapes.” James Baldwin’s short story The Rockpile, the two main characters, a pair of stepbrothers in Harlem, survey the landscape below them from the fire escape outside their window. Paul Simon looks out from a fire escape on Crosby Street on the cover of Still Crazy After All These Years. Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs dueled over Greenwich Village neighborhoods such as Hell’s Hundred Acres, where fire escapes with pots of geraniums signaled the home of an artist, likely an illegal squatter.

Fire escapes have seen so much. And sadly, in their extreme age, they’ve gone from a safety solution, to a symbol of the city’s romantic past, to worn, often unsafe landings and occasional eyesores—the antithesis of their roles as protective devices. Francisco “Cisco” Meneses, who repairs fire escapes and runs the National Fire Escape Association, a nonprofit that trains fire departments to investigate and spot these rotting structures, has found that rust, corrosion, and general neglect has turned many of these external stairs into potential dangers.

“Many of the connections for these fire escapes haven’t been examined for decades,” says Meneses, who calls the escapes “rusty gold” due to the potential number of repairs and upgrades needed across the country. “When I examine them, 75 percent aren’t up to code, and 50 percent could cause safety incidents. These are still up because people have maintained old buildings. Fire escapes are just along for the ride. Ask a fireman; they avoid fire escapes as much as possible.”


The Polis concept from Studio Gang would remake police stations into community centers and neighborhoods hubs offering numerous community services. Images via Studio Gang.

The eclectic body of work of Chicago architect Jeanne Gangdraws inspiration from unlikely sources. The angled profile of the WMS Boathouse mimics the motion of rowers, and the unfolding roof of the open-air Bengt Sjostrom Theatre provides a star-shaped view of the night sky. Deep dives into nature tend to inform her work—which includes numerous urban park and landscape projects—a product of a large reading list and a curiosity about science. So what would lead her to tackle the hot topic of policing reform?

As Gang explains, the people at her firm were, like everyone else, “outraged” at seeing the results of deteriorating relations between communities and the police. So earlier this year, they decided to do something about it. After months of research, came up with Polis, a research project that proposes turning police stations into community centers, and have started the process of turning some of those ideas into action in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The project, on display at theChicago Architecture Biennial, offers a chance to examine the working methods and thought process of Gang and her firm, which she spoke about with Curbed.

“This is a nice example because it’s self-initiated,” says Gang. “We’re interested in this issue, we read the paper everyday, but we’re not a client of the police or any community groups. But, if you are designing a police station, you should be working for both groups equally.”

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