Ephemerality and Secret-Code Urbanism on the High Line

Authors: Julian Brash*, Montclair State University
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: Urban, Ephemerality, Public Space, Biopolitical Production
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 10:15 AM / 11:30 AM
Room: Tower Court B, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Second Floor Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Drawing on several years of fieldwork on the High Line in New York City, this paper explores the political-economic implications of urban ephemerality. Much of the park’s programming and design centers on the staging of temporary events like time-limited art installations and brief performance pieces, as well as on the experiences of natural. In this, the High Line calls to mind a number of other phenomena, including pop-ups, flash mobs, protests/marches, and “nomadic architecture,” that urban scholars have found to be increasingly common. Paradoxically, the High Line is a permanent platform for temporary events; as such it lends itself to the theorizing the contours of the so-called “temporary turn” in urban studies. Toward this end, I use the analysis of ethnographic data gathered on the park to argue that ephemerality is a key feature of the “secret code urbanism” emergent in urban contexts in which the economic and political productivity of urban spaces requires a balance between openness and exclusivity. Such contexts are typically sites of biopolitical production. While places and events associated with secret code urbanism are nominally open to all, they require access to esoteric or specialized knowledge to be experienced. Ephemeral events epitomize this phenomenon: anyone can participate, but one must be “in the know” to do so. Such events thus help constitute class distinction and maintain the brand value of urban places and/or businesses even as they allow for the openness that democratic urbanity and biopolitical production require.

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