Empire Drive-In: A Novel Perspective on Car Culture

Photo by Tod Seelie

Empire Drive-In is a temporary outdoor cinema designed by artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark and built of junked cars slumped into concentric rows around a projection screen. Each night’s program is vastly different and seemingly no genre of film has been left out. The 40-foot projection screen will showcase everything from Bollywood imports to silent films until its last show this Saturday, October 20th. Since opening on October 4th at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Empire Drive-In has sought to examine car culture, planned obsolescence, and the distinction between public and private space. The series is well curated, challenging moviegoers to make connections between the venue, films, and music presented each night.

When I visited last Saturday, October 12th, the theme was suburban dystopia. The crowd outnumbered the cars 4 to 1, so we stashed ourselves behind dashboards, mounted roofs, and leaned against front-end fenders. Vehicles that normally symbolize independence became vessels for small, informal communities.

As we waited for the first movie to play, we enjoyed images from Stephen Mallon’s “American Reclamation” series. Mallon’s portrayal of a process in which old subway cars are used to create artificial reefs seemed like a fitting mirror to our own repurposed landscape. On deck were two coming-of-age films, Over the Edge (1979) and Suburbia (1983), that illustrated some of the darkest moments in our suburban, car-centric heritage. These movies captured not only the intense and unsettling trials of living in a suburban community, but also the energy and creativity that can emerge from angst and ennui.


Photo by Tod Seelie

As we watched both films and the punk band, RVIVR, that played during intermission, the venue seemed to morph from a drive-in theater into a concrete cemetery. The corpses of yesteryear’s car stock stood like massive tombstones announcing the death of the suburban lifestyle. The feeling was slightly funereal, but what were we mourning?

While there are a number of well-documented arguments that the suburban landscape is an unsustainable, unsupportive form of human organization, one can’t help but feel that it is in many ways an integral part of our national identity. Contained within the ideal of suburbia is the lexicon and iconography of the American dream — without the many cultural indicators contained in the suburbs, how are we to evaluate ourselves as Americans? Equally important, who are the countercultural figures that would reject those dreams and identities if they were suddenly made irrelevant?

As we sat there in the cold October night, dreaming up a new, less car-intensive world, Empire Drive-In provided a venue to look forward to a new American landscape and dream. As teens take longer to get behind the wheel, we may begin to see a new set of symbols and benchmarks take hold in the lives of America’s youth, disaffected and otherwise. As we design our new cities and leave behind the suburbs, we will have to find a way to replace the car not only as a means of transportation, but also as a societal indicator of independence and maturation.


Photo by Tod Seelie

Photo by Tod Seelie

Empire Drive-In Queens
October 4-20, 2013
New York Hall of Science
47-01 111th Street
Corona, New York 11368
Tickets are $15, $10 for NYSCI members, unless otherwise noted. See the event calendar to purchase.

Wyatt Cmar is the Program Administrator at the Neighborhood Preservation Center and Co-Founder of Young City Coalition. His background is in economics and sociology, and he currently lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.