"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City
forty-four. St. Pete's brief.
the photos are temporal in sequence, L to R, T to B.
the first city i’ve been in this trip with such a dominant tourism industry, in certain areas St. Petersburg reads like an outdoor museum. with its ornate Milan-reminiscent buildings (replete with arched gateways), wide canals, densely-foliaged parks, word-class museums, literary and musical heritage, and complex, devastating political history (the city alone lost more citizens during its Hitler-led WWII blockade than the US and UK lost during the entire war, combined), it’s a playground of sights and stories and a stark contrast to Moscow’s unglamorous, over-sized, money-focused frenzy. however, not surprisingly, there seems to be an inverse correlation between a city’s desire to preserve itself and its rise as a metropolitan global powerhouse. St. Pete’s however, didn’t feel frozen in time, due in part to the staggering amount of restoration occurring; a solid 40% of all buildings are draped in the green panty-hose and dust of reconstruction. moreover, even barring the tourists, the social life of the city is vibrant and is most keenly felt at 1:30 a.m. strolling along the Neva River, where the city’s under-40 crowd gather to watch the Neva’s draw bridges rise for the night. these are the only hours during which the freighters and barges can pass from the Baltic Sea inland. everyone who must then scurries home northward to the Petrograd and Vyborg areas before the last bridge rises around 2:30, or else becomes stuck partying in the city until 5am – not a bad option in a 24-hour city. (a fixed-span bridge with high clearance was completed a couple of years ago, but lies upriver to the east). after an evening on the river with my local friend, Nikolay, whom i first met in Moscow, we grabbed an informal ‘taxi’ home. this entailed hailing a regular car, finding out if we were headed in the same direction, and negotiating a price. this efficient system (also used in Moscow) is supposedly safe, but when Nikolay’s female friends hail such cars, he takes down the license plate number.
earlier in the evening Nikolay was also describing a phenomenal series of urban games which started in St. Petersburg, and have now spread to Moscow. called ‘noshnoi dozor’ (not to be confused with the horror flick), they take place all night on sporadic Saturdays and entail using leftover and in-transition spaces -- underpasses, construction sites, etc. -- as sites in an urban scavenger hunt. in one version, called ‘deadline,’ teams of 6 or 7 players drive around the city with interactive online maps on their laptops. using these maps they must find, in sequence, a series of encodings in above-said urban spaces. once a code is found and entered into the map, the next site is revealed, and so-on. the codes aren’t actually puzzles, but rather, markers that indicate that a site has been ‘found’ by the participant. during a game weekend, Nikolay described a street scene: it’s the middle of the night, streets are empty, and at a quiet intersection you might see a huddle of 5 or 6 cars, the interiors glowing with the blue light of laptops screens: "such a strange scene is an indication that a game is on." i feel as if i missed out! the phenomena is still relatively underground, at least outside of St.P’s and Moscow. there are also versions in which participants travel by foot or roller blades, although the scale of Russia’s mother cities is most conducive to the car.
a few more snippets:
the plethora of tour buses. they squeeze through the streets and deposit their contents at the Hermitage where massive groups of spectators make a relaxed appreciation of the work therein something of an Olympian effort. still worth it, if only to deja vue masterpiece bronzeworks (circa 1600BC!) from the Shanghai Museum, which I saw in May, in Shanghai. Shanghai seems to have sent her best pieces here, undoubtedly aware of the global audience that the Hermitage gathers. perhaps more artworthy: outside the Hermitage i saw two public buses which had been converted into public toilets – a witty and portable use of the decommissioned vehicles. unfortunately, the interior configuration was so cramped that using them was gymnastical.
it’s dacha (summer house) season in Russia, which means in St. P’s on any given morning and afternoon babushkas set up tiny stands (overturned buckets, boxes, crates) on which they sell their family produce right off the sidewalk – blueberries, cranberries, lettuce, radish, and of course, the ubiquitous potato.
the metro: actually deeper than Moscow’s, due to a more delicate geomorphology. the ground is less stable here, being closer to the sea (not to mention the double-duty intent of bomb shelter). the system is newer than Moscow’s (1955), less glamorous and less extensive (distances between stations are greater, and make bus-use more of a necessity). but some stations do boast a unique platform configuration not seen in Moscow, in which metal doors keep the railbed completely isolated from waiting passengers. thus, the only part of the train you ever see are the opening doors and the yellow glow of train interior. the drama of a train’s approach, replete with oncoming headlights, rush of turbulent wind, and growing rumble, disappears and the system becomes even more silent than usual.
something about photographing in these two Russian cities: it is magical and surprising to catch the serendipitous, unintentional glances, sometimes accusing, sometimes pleased, always curious, always direct.