A still from the Rodney King Tapes, from the documentary *Seeing is Believing*.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the first modern acts of citizen journalism — and it all started out a highrise window.
In March 1991, George Holliday heard police sirens and commotion out his 2nd floor bedroom window. He picked up his new consumer video camera and from his balcony, filmed the confrontation unfolding ninety feet below on a LA highway. He recorded almost 10 minutes of tape: four white LAPD police officers brutally beating Rodney King, a black man, but it was one minute of the footage that would be broadcast on TV around the world, and would spark the “Handicam Revolution.”
The images, “the Rodney King Tapes,” became shocking evidence of police brutality in the public gaze of television, and they were used in the first court trial by the prosecution – as well as the defense. The images were slowed down, frame by frame, and used by the police lawyers to explain how the police officers had “followed police protocol.”
When the four officers were acquitted in 1992, South Central Los Angeles erupted in what came to be known as the “LA Riots” resulting in 54 deaths, over 2382 injuries, 7000 fires, over 12 000 arrests, and over 1 billion dollars of property damage.
It was only in a second trial and a Federal Grand Jury that found the officers guilty in 1993.
The footage, its use, impact and legacy – and the political impetus to use video technology to document human rights abuses – was the subject of a film I made almost 10 years ago with co-director Peter Wintonick, called Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News.
But it was only this month that I made the connection between *the HIGHRISE window* and the genesis of citizen journalism as we know it today. It is not inconsequential that new consumer-grade communications technology, which was, in the early nineties, becoming ubiquitous and affordable, would be used in one of the originating acts of citizen journalism on a balcony of the most commonly built form of the 21st century: the highrise building. And the HIGHRISE, of course, is now the frame of my multi-year, many media exploration of the human experience in vertical suburbs around the world.
Today, we continue to witness the inextricable relationship between communications technology with people’s movements around the globe; in these last months in North Africa and the Arab world.
I am reminded of the words of Dr. Alex Magno, a sociologist we interviewed in Manila for Seeing is Believing back in 1991: “In the last two decades or so, most of the political upheavals had some distinct link to communications technology. Iran, the Iranian Revolution, was closely linked to the audio cassette. The first EDSA uprising in the Philippines was very closely linked to the photocopying machine and so we called it the ‘Xerox Revolution’. Tiananmen, the uprising that failed, was called the ‘Fax Revolution’, because the rest of the world was better informed than the rest of the neighbourhood because of the fax machine. The  January uprising here in the Philippines represents a convergence between electronic mail and text messaging. And that gave that uprising its specific characteristics.”
Today we can add to Magno’s list the powerful roles that Twitter, live video streaming on the net, Facebook and even dating sites have played in various stages of democratizing gestures in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond.
I’m also realizing we need to understand how, just like the technology, the HIGHRISE built form (which I consider a metaphor for urban density) plays into these events. Doug Saunders, the author of Arrival City, has recently made a similar compelling argument about the role of urban slum density in the Egyptian uprisings.
Inside these grey architectural structures that contain and shape our human, urban experience, lies the power of ingenuity, social innovation and communal force to harness and usurp our available technologies (and points-of-view) to transform them into historic, profoundly contemporary political acts.No Comments »
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In honour of Earth Hour, our photo of the week (on our front page) is out a highrise window in Seattle during “lights off!”.
Earth Hour is celebrated in urban centres around the world – it’s a symbolic 60 minutes when residents and businesses turn out their lights out inside all sorts of architectural forms: from single family homes to the skyscraping highrises of downtown New York City.
But its possible to honour the Earth every hour. The photo above is an example of it. Its a recladded Berlin highrise. There’s a myriad of concrete ways to conserve energy in our concrete towers, inside and out. The Tower Renewal movement is a fine example of environmental solutions: its an agenda to encourage the retrofitting of our aging highrises to conserve heat and energy. Simple ideas. To clad the buildings with insulation to keep the heat in. To replace the windows. To create rooftop gardens. To create regional geothermal stations that take a cluster of highrises right off the main grid. To spread the notion of Urban Agriculture. Tower Renewal has precendents in highrise neighbourhoods around the world.
And here at HIGHRISE, these are all ideas we explore daily as we put the finishing touches on our latest project, 2000th Tower. A whimsical animated film that brings to life ideas for renewal in a Toronto Highrise neighbourhood. Watch for the launch later this Spring, and in the meantime, Happy Earth Hour.No Comments »
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This week, as part of our ongoing series to highlight photos from our new Out My Window/participate project, we go to Alexandria, Egypt.
These are the stunning photographs of Corinne Grassi, as she documented the events of Egypt’s revolution unfolding through her 7th floor window in the northern, coastal, ancient city of Alexandria. She wrote to us during curfew, earlier this week.
“When I look out of my window, I’m in the heart of Alexandria with – on one side – the magic sea covering the antic lighthouse not far, the famous Bibliotheca, and – an the other side – Champollion street passing all the way from the medicine faculty and Shalalat gardens to the sea. Just behind the building where I live, is the Ibrahim mosque.”
“For years, I’ve shared this window on a terrace, gathering often here with friends and colleagues. During Ramadan, every night brings more and more people praying in the streets. The 27th night (Leila al Kadr – the night of power) is a captivating moment where thousands of people pray, all following a magic and captivating voice.”
“The first time I witnessed it, I got vertigo looking from the 7th floor at those thousands of people – I was told there was about a million of people praying – in a real communion, doing exactly the same thing at the same moment.”
“During the recent Egyptian revolution my spot at the window was, of course, the place where I spend a lot of time, especially in the moments when it was not always easy or safe to be down in the streets. This window between the 28th of January and the 18th of February gave me a real feeling of being part of Alexandria’s life.”
On “Guerrilla Day”, Corinne went into the streets to look for a colleague. “We could just see the crowd of protesters going towards the riot police with stones and then they were running backwards when tear gas was coming. This gas was incredibly strong, stinging the face, the throat and the eyes. The police continued for hours. Because the colleague had told her family she would watch from my terrace I felt responsible to go down the street as well to check what was happening.”
“As the neighbour had Al Jazeera on, we learned what was happening in Egypt, but there were no images from Alexandria. So, I went on the terrace of the women. There, we saw that the riot police were loosing the battle as they were trapped between a group in Champollion street and a group at the mosque.”
“They were also running out of the tear gas and the demonstrators were progressing and starting to burn cars and trucks. Even if one can understand all the anger people have towards police it was shocking to see the police vans leaving in hurry without several of their guys. Some of the crowd protected the police that were left behind.”
“At some point I realised that on an opposite roof someone was looking at me taking pictures. For a minute I thought taking pictures as a witness may be dangerous. But I could not stop because all those hours I also realised that I had not seen a single journalist. It seemed the few that had stayed, were on the mosque side.”
“The next day I went in the close surroundings with a colleague to see what was happening. There was a feeling of liberation among people. All burned trucks and cars were like trophies where people where taking pictures, asking to be photograph proudly. People were shinning and happy.”
“As soon as I found an internet connection before people got internet back, I took the risk to download all my pictures as soon as possible to share with the outside world.”
“One day I understood that people had really been over their fears when the demonstrations were like floods of people along the Cornish, in all the streets around. It is only the “day of the Victory” that I felt I had to join people, full families with little children well dressed up with red-white-black flags on their faces and in their hands.”
“Since “victory day” the mood is quite nice. My colleagues less afraid to express their opinions, to enter discussions about democracy, civil society, politics and corruption. Immediately after “guerrilla day” people showed they were responsible and took in charge neighbourhood security with traffic, buildings, cleaning.”
“The first 2 weeks were sometimes euphoric with flowering initiatives and ideas from everywhere. Many young people started immediately deep cleaning in the streets and gardens, painting pavements. Many things in the streets are painted with the Egyptian colours. A week ago there was a very nice festival, “Start with yourself” (part of the new album on flickr) in a park with many activities like painting, photo, make up with the Egyptian flag, origami, different kind of bands. Actually the band of my neighbour has been one of the most pro-active playing immediately in different cafés in the city.
“Now the view from the window is like before with many cars on the Cornish. But still and probably this Friday too it is still a spot to look at the size of the demonstrations which continue on Fridays.”
Corinne Grassi has worked with international NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) all over the world, including Europe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the West Bank, Siberia, Burkina Faso, Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon. She has worked with the Council of Europe, UNESCO, UN, and has been in Alexandria since 2009, working with EuroMed, to build dialogue between cultures.
“With the Egyptian revolution, I never felt in danger and did not feel to evacuate. So, it was clear to me that to stay would also be to witness [with my camera], because I could not contribute too much by joining demonstrations, by making posters and so on. Many Egyptians gave me positive feedback on the fact that I was there, that I had my way to show them, others and outside that things were maybe not exactly like on the TV news. I got similar feedback from abroad. Now I feel more in the local life of the city and I feel a responsibility to continue to keep images of what is happening since the 11th of February. My camera has been, in the last month, a way to approach people and start to exchange ideas and experience to improve things.”
Check out Corinne’s contribution to Out My Window/participate through our new showcase, along with 500+ other photos from highrise windows around the world.No Comments »
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Today we are thrilled to introduce a redesign to our site and to launch a new project at HIGHRISE. It’s called PARTICIPATE, and it showcases your photos and stories out highrise windows around the world. It’s a companion to our award-winning 360º documentary OUT MY WINDOW.
The PARTICIPATE project presents pix and stories – some meditative, some personal, some political — but all intimately crafted on the ledge of a highrise window somewhere on the globe. The design of the site allows you to navigate through these images in associative and experiental ways: through a 360º carousel of windows, through clouds of keywords and also through – my favorite – colours.
Out of the flickr pool (500+ images and growing!), every week we’ll be choosing one photo to feature on the front page of highrise.nfb.ca and occcasionally, here at the blog, we will bring you in-depth interviews with some of the photographers behind the images.
This week, our front page selection is the stunning photograph of Graeme Nicol, taken out his 19th floor window in Dalian, China on Chinese Lunar New Year.
Graeme tells us: “This photo was taken during 2009 Chinese New Year. As usual, I’d arranged to meet up with friends to watch the fireworks, except this year I’d broken an ankle two months previously and was hobbling around on crutches, unable to travel much more than a hundred metres from the front of my high-rise without using taxis. I lived beside a busy shopping centre, and normally I’d only have to wait a minute for a taxi to drive by, but on this night, nothing. I was stuck. I could have waited several hours for a taxi company to send a cab for me, but my frustration at being so immobile had left me under a cloud, and I hobbled back into the warmth of the building to spend the evening watching the fireworks from my the window of my apartment, on my own.
During those three months I spent on crutches, the previous sense of freedom and space I had got from living up on the 19th floor had now turned into a feeling of being trapped. The pleasure of looking out of my window onto a view filled with familiar places, which only months previously had connected me with this adopted city, now began to act as reminders of how set adrift I really was, both as an invalid and as a foreigner. The view out of my window began to feel less like a three-dimensional place that I could go outside and interact with, and more like an old photo; part of my past, but not my present. As soon as I began walking again, the need for a fresh start was overwhelming, and after five years, I said goodbye to Dalian, moving to Shanghai to begin the next chapter of my life.”
Huge kudos to Paramita Nath, our HIGHRISE colleague extraordinaire, who has been working for many, many months on PARTICIPATE, and to all the talented people at the design house DESIGN AXIOM for the crazy-cool site. Also a big shout out to HELIOS for the awesome redesign.
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Embarrassing Bodies: Live
Maverick Television / Channel 4
Globo Amazônia: The Geoglyphs
X Factor BEASTAR
Fremantle / TV2 Norway
There’s three categories for Digital Emmys, Children/Youth, Fiction and Non-Fiction. A strong global year at the International Digital Emmys: countries with first-time nominations in the digital categories include Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey. (hey, all three countries are represented in OMW!)
This is the first time the NFB has been nominated for an International Digital Emmy.No Comments »
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Elevator design by the German engineer Konrad Kyeser (1405)
Last post, I mentioned the dire condition of elevators in Toronto’s aging highrises. (The United Way, a non-profit agency, is urging the city to create a Taskforce to address elevators.)
This got me thinking about the relationship between elevators and highrises.
“Tall buildings became possible in the 19th century, when American innovators solved the twin problems of safely moving people up and down and creating tall buildings without enormously thick lower walls,” according to Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, excerpted in the March 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
But actually, the first mention of elevators in recorded history goes back over 2,000 years, when Roman architect Vitruvius, who reported that Archimedes built his first elevator probably in 236 BC. There are reports of elevators throughout the medieval ages, but the inventor of the modern elevator was American Elisha Otis, as he invented the safety brake for presented it in 1854 at New York’s Crystal Palace Exposition.
So “good highrises” rely on good elevators, and according to Glaeser, good cities rely on good highrises, as he argues that the “skyscaper can save the city”.
“Besides making cities more affordable and architecturally interesting, tall buildings are greener than sprawl, and they foster social capital and creativity.” he asserts in the Atlantic Monthly. “Yet some urban planners and preservationists seem to have a misplaced fear of heights that yields damaging restrictions on how tall a building can be. From New York to Paris to Mumbai, there’s a powerful case for building up, not out.”
And we take this argument further, along the lines of Doug Saunder’s phenomenal book Arrival City, that “good cities” can make a better planet. “Successful arrival cities create prosperous middle classes; failed arrival cities create poverty and social problems,” and Saunders urges us “to see the opportunity of these arrival cities. By providing citizenship, a chance to own property, education, transportation links, and good security, cities like Sao Paulo in Brazil, or Parla in Spain, local and national governments have succeeded in successfully integrating their migrants.”
It’s an argument for fixing the elevators.No Comments »
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Toronto’s poverty is increasingly vertical according to a landmark United Way study, published last week.
(In the context of the report’s release, I am interviewed about HIGHRISE in this week’s issue of Eye Weekly.)
The United Way report says “Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty presents new data on the growing concentration of poverty in the City of Toronto and the role that high-rise housing is playing in this trend. The report tracks the continued growth in the spatial concentration of poverty in Toronto neighbourhoods, and in high-rise buildings within neighbourhoods. It then examines the quality of life that high-rise buildings are providing to tenants today. Its primary focus is on privately owned building stock in Toronto’s inner suburbs.” The report is downloadable here.
The first part of the study looks at the last 25 years of census data to track the concentration of poverty in the inner suburbs, and in particular, highrise buildings. The study shows that while incomes have declined, rents have increased since 1981. ”
“As a result of this “squeeze” on incomes and rents, close to half of the tenants surveyed say they worry about paying the rent each month. Another third say their families do without necessities, including food. Highrises also became more densely populated during this time with the percentage of units housing more than one person per room doubling.”
According to a front page story in The Toronto Star, “The report, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada… calls on the public, private and charitable sectors to properly maintain highrise housing and provide community space and programs for tenants. With demand for rental housing in Toronto predicted to grow by another 20 per cent by 2031, action is urgently needed, the report warns.”
The second part of the study gives a snapshot of current housing conditions in the 1,000+ highrises in Toronto. United Way surveyed 2,803 highrise tenants in the city’s inner suburbs, and conducted a series of focus groups.
The results do not surprise anyone who has spent any time recently in a Toronto suburban highrise. One key finding of special note to us at HIGHRISE relates to elevators.
“[T]heir elevators are so unreliable that a United Way report … calls for a task force specifically targeting their repair. Thousands of interviews with residents indicate these buildings have grown notorious for vermin and vandalism,” notes The Globe and Mail.
Elevators were the focus of one of Jamal’s stories in our own HIGHRISE documentary last year, called THE THOUSANDTH TOWER. This is what Jamal had to say about his highrise experience with elevators:
JAMAL: “Growing up in Rexdale has been a challenge. I saw a lot at the age of 7, my first year living here. From what I can remember, the building has always been decrepit. The elevator would skip floors, jumping and jolting, moving up and down. I used to wonder if we would survive if the elevator dropped from the 13th floor to B2. I was so terrified when my family went in there. I had disturbing thoughts that they wouldn’t come out. To this day, I’m scared of the elevator.”
The United Way Report makes 26 recommendations, including:
* The City of Toronto continue to take a dedicated program approach to revitalizing the social and physical conditions of aging high-rise apartment buildings across the city, and sustaining this important housing resource for the city’s lower income and newcomer populations.
* The provincial government make its Community Opportunities Fund accessible to private-sector tenant groups for the purpose of engaging tenants and building their capacity to be active participants in the revitalization of their tower communities.
* The federal government to establish a National Housing Strategy which sets out standards for adequate, accessible and affordable housing.No Comments »
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Three thrilling things on the theme of EDUCATION today.
01 Thrilled to announce a new addition to the Out My Window Universe: a set of education tools for teachers, specifically aimed at the 14-17 age set. It’s called Inside OUT MY WINDOW – Global Education Lab. Our colleagues in the NFB education department have done an awesome job pulling this together (that’s you: Kathy Sperberg, Tey Cottingham with HIGHRISE researcher extra-ordinaire Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam, along with HIGHRISE’s house band designers, Helios.) This is how the team describes it:
Inside OUT MY WINDOW – Global Education Lab
We’re thrilled to launch our newly developed educational space entitled Inside Out My Window – Global Education Lab. It’s an educational extension to the NFB’s interactive project. Out My Window: Views From the Global Highrise is an award-winning immersive exploration of vertical living. It’s all about the people living in highrises and the global issues they face. IOMW targets high school students aged 14–17 and is a great tool for educators interested in creatively integrating global education into their lessons. Have your students explore Out My Window first, and then continue their learning experience through Inside OUT MY WINDOW’s four interactive screens about the project’s 13 featured cities. Download the Educator’s guide for ideas on how to go deeper into issues of urbanization and global suburbanisms.
02 Thrilled to announce our nomination for a BAKA FORUM Award 2011. Because of the amazing educational tools described above, Out My Window has been nominated for a prestigious award in Switzerland for the Cross-Media in School and Youth Education Category.
03 Thrilled to discover a high school in Korea has not waited for the education guide to come out, as they have already created an elaborate, fantastic class project inspired by Out My Window! Check out this OUT OUR WINDOWS, a thoughtful group blog from a whole class as they discover the stories of Out My Window. What a great teacher Mr.Garrioch must be.No Comments »
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Using census data from 1970-2000, Hulchanski concluded that, despite its claim to being one of the most diverse cities in the world, Toronto was no longer a city of one, but had become a city of 3 neighbourhoods, divided by income, race and other factors. He showed that City 1 is 84% white, average household income $173,000/year. City 2 is 65% white, average household income $72,000/year. City 3 is 34% white, average household income $59,000/year.
Hulchanski proved that the city’s poverty had drifted to the peripheries of the city.
Now, just last week, he has released a new important update that concludes “If current trends continue, the City of Toronto will eventually be sharply divided into a city of wealthy neighbourhoods and poor neighbourhoods with very few middle- income neighbourhoods.”
Effectively, by 2025 , City 2 will shrink down to make up only 10% of the city, City 3 will take over 60%, leaving 30% to City 1, according to the new report.
A city of three distinct types of neighbourhoods, will become a city of two. The rich and the poor.
A front page story about the report in Canada’s leading newpaper, The Globe and Mail, says “Toronto, a predominantly middle-class metropolis just three decades ago, is increasingly dominated by two opposite populations – one with an average income of $88,400, and another of $26,900. These two groups live in different neighbourhoods, work in different sectors, send their children to different schools and have divergent and unequal access to city services and public transit.”
But Hulchanski also argues that these changes are not inevitable.
The solution? Tower Renewal.
According to the report, “The segregation of the city by income is not inevitable or irreversible. These trends could be slowed or reversed by public policies that would make housing more affordable to low-income households, by efforts to expand access to transit and services in neighbourhoods where the need is greatest, and by renewing the aging high-rise neighbourhoods scattered throughout City #3.”
Via email, Hulchanski told me “It is in the 40% of the city where neighbourhoods have been steadily declining in average individual income and socio-economic status that half of all rental housing is in the now 40 and 50 year old towers. The research by our team adds a huge amount of evidence supporting the conclusion that a major tower renewal initiative is the most important way to not only improve the lives of so many lower income renters but to improve the quality of their neighbourhoods. The Three Cities Within Toronto report draws attention to the steady decline in 40% of the city’s neighbourhoods. There are many large and small actions that will reverse the negative trends leading to an increasingly divided city but tower renewal is the most important.“
I also asked him about how his research fits into global predictions of a shrinking middle class. He said “Though many people still call themselves “middle class,” all evidence about growing inequality, the ever widening income and wealth gap between rich and poor, a process that began in the 1980s, points out that the “middle” has virtually disappeared. The middle income group can be defined, as it is in our report. We show how this group was indeed a majority in the 1970s (66% of the City’s neighbourhoods) but is now a minority (29%) and only a small and declining plurality in the outer suburbs (from 86% to 61%). This is a trend that is most pronounced in Anglo-American countries, where the income gap is much larger than in most of the Western European countries. There is a great deal of populist resentment because the majority believes they are “middle class” yet they cannot live a middle class life style. They cannot afford the expected or assumed middle class package of goods and services because they are, on average, much lower income in real terms than ten and twenty years ago. In addition, many of the goods and services provided by or subsidized by the state have been cut back or eliminated.”
It’s a stark picture for Canada’s largest city and it’s remarkable research, the kind that should be done in urban areas around the world, to address our (mis)understandings of the places we live.No Comments »
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I want to give you a quick taste of what we’ve got going at HIGHRISE. Last post I mentioned our new production THE 2,000th TOWER, a new work stemming from, you guessed it, THE 1,000th TOWER: Stories from Inside a Toronto Suburban Highrise documentary, which we created last spring. In our new project, the highrise residents of the same Toronto Suburb re-imagine their dilapitated buildings and neighborhoods, with world-class architects by their side; animators bring their sketches to life. Here’s some images from the charette, on which we will be basing the story.
Many, many hands have pitched in to craft 2000th Tower.
And I also want to give a shout out to three Out-My-Windowers, who are on their own new productions and personal cinematic journeys… all connected to India.
[Chennai] Last weekend, I attended a fundraiser for HIGHRISE colleague Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam’s new film project that will take her to India at the end of the month. She is creating an experimental documentary to tell the story of her uncle, an artist and a huge inspiration to her when she was a child. He died by suicide at the age of 35, and Maria is seeking cinematically to understand his life and his legacy. At her fundraiser, Maria was surrounded by her family and loved ones, as she showed her previous film, Pretty Little Bits, and excerpts from Out My Window. Her mom also pitched in for the evening with her choir, singing Venezualen songs.
[Kolkata] Meanwhile, another HIGHRISE colleague, Paramita Nath, has just returned from India, having completed her shoot for her short experimental documentary about violence against women, set against the backdrop of Durga, a festival in Kolkata.
[Dharamsala] And this weekend, Amchok Gompo, the star in the Toronto section of Out My Window, held a very moving, private screening in Toronto of his new feature-length feature film, entitled UNPREDICTABLE LIFE, which he shot, wrote and directed within the Tibetan community in India last spring. The film is visually stunning, and tells a moral tale of Tibetan values: how urban modernity bumps up against rural tradition. (Some of the urban scenes did happen inside a highrise, btw) UNPREDICTABLE LIFE could possibly be one of first DIY, self-made Tibetan fiction feature film made by a Tibetan. A huge congrats to Amchok, his family and his friends for this enormous achievement.
Amchok, Thanglo and family receive congratulations for the film, UNPREDICTABLE LIFENo Comments »
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