Raising the Bar: 50 Bars. 50 Talks. 5 Recaps.

Shamus Khan speaking at Schapiro’s on Rivington | courtesy of Raising the Bar

If public interest is any indication of the strength of an idea, Raising the Bar has hit on something.

One night two weeks ago, in 50 bars across Manhattan, 50 professors presented their current research to small crowds of curious New Yorkers. Weeks prior, only 25 hours after organizers opened registration for these free talks, over 5,000 individuals had signed up. The participating academics of the “sold out” talks were selected for the strength and diversity of their ideas (from particle physics to cultural anthropology), but also for their reputation as engaging, dynamic speakers. On the whole, Raising the Bar has infused genuinely educational experiences with a more social, informal, and much more democratic ethos (I’ll come back to this).

But what might seem like a fun and casual way to enlighten typical bar conversation is actually part of a larger initiative with rather ambitious goals. Yali Saar, one of the key people behind the Raising the Bar project, told me that its core aspiration was nothing short of “making educational experiences a part of our popular culture.” Originally hatched over six months ago as an independent project by a group of students and young professionals, Raising the Bar eventually marshalled enough interest from professors in the city that Columbia and New York University signed on as more formal (and financial) supporters. Now more than ten people are working on the project full-time in New York, with over a hundred part-time volunteers enlisted to help bring learning to libation.

Several of us at Omnibus were intrigued by the idea and spread out across Manhattan to attend talks — check out recaps of five of the lectures below.


courtesy of Raising the Bar

But this series was only the inaugural event, Yali promises me. There are plans underway to do it again in August, with different speakers in different bars, only this time in Boston, San Francisco, and New York City simultaneously. Interestingly, Raising the Bar also wants to see how the model works in more spontaneous, unexpected places. Impromptu educational experiences on a subway or at an airport — “anywhere you might be bored, using your phone in a public space, we want to pop up there,” Yali tells me. Personally, I am intrigued by the idea that the next time someone shouts “Show time” on my subway commute, it might be to demystify some of the complexities of gender norms or explain the frightening ways in which Big Pharma owns your doctor in place of a dance routine. Raising the Bar’s “pop-up” strategy does significantly lower barriers for entry (time, money, obscure or unwelcoming venues); and as it turned out this week, a reservation really wasn’t necessary: no one asked for my name and undoubtedly there were many people at the venues who just happened to find themselves in the middle of an unexpected lecture by a local prof.

These days, the presentation of “curated” sessions of informal learning and the discovery of new topics succinctly delivered by compelling speakers cannot escape a comparison with TED and its global brand. While Raising the Bar is not, strictly speaking, a TED-style event, something can be learned from considering the ways in which it departs from that multi-million dollar industry. There are two common, and to varying degrees warranted, critiques of TED. One is that the lecture series is for wealthy, curious people who have the time and money to spend thousands of dollars on airfare and conference costs to be near other curious people who have the time and money to spend thousands of dollars. This may be true, but such conferences also produce free online videos through which most people engage with the organization. The second critique cites the content as middlebrow infotainment that waters down important, complex ideas into palatable, marketable sound bites. As it is currently conceived, Raising the Bar resoundingly avoids the former pitfall — the idea of bringing casual, free educational experiences to citizens in their neighborhoods, albeit all in Manhattan in the first round, espouses a commendable, democratic ideal. As for the latter, there is room for debate. On one hand, of course, no idea worthy of academic study will be thoroughly understood and appreciated after a 40-minute talk. At the same time, I found the presentation I attended, by Kwesi Daniels, to be a nuanced, well-argued survey of some causes of, and challenges presented by, housing foreclosure and abandonment in the United States. I did feel like I learned something, and more importantly, I gleaned several ideas worthy of further independent research that I might not have otherwise (more below). While TED shoehorns its speakers into a specific style and format within an 18-minute frame, Raising the Bar’s participants were given a bit more time and a lot more flexibility in how they presented their ideas.

I plan to keep tabs on the project and hope they can find a way to scale up while keeping it free and casual. Now that they’ve pulled off one successful evening, perhaps bars will help defray the program costs in exchange for dozens of additional customers. Stay tuned.

Gabriel Silberblatt


The Recaps

Kwesi Daniels, “Abandoned Housing: the Unsustainable Solution to Urban Neighborhoods”
Covered by Gabriel Silberblatt

I went to The Globe to hear Kwesi Daniels talk about the issue of housing abandonment in urban neighborhoods. Daniels, a professor and “sustainability professional” with a background in architecture, sustainability management, and urban geography, has a unique and multi-faceted perspective on this thorny issue facing cities across the country today. Daniels began his talk by grounding his contemporary work in a short history lesson about the practice of redlining in Newark, one of several racially motivated federal policies in the 1940s that, he argues, not only enabled but also encouraged white suburban migration and disinvestment in the city. The Federal Housing Administration created “credit enhancement” programs that privileged white loan applicants; meanwhile, predatory real estate speculators sold housing to black families that they could not truly afford or maintain. These factors created an environment ripe for abandonment. When the national shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy upended the employment network of middle- and low-income workers, these families fled from jobless post-industrial cities, producing a vast quantity of abandoned property in their wake.

An abandoned building is a problem for everyone. The residents forced to take the extreme step of walking away from their home are only the most obvious concern. Because these properties often become sites of drug use and other criminal activity, city governments have to pay more to police them; since they are often structurally unsound, first responders are at a much greater risk of injury in the event of an emergency. What’s more, abandoned housing has a demonstrable negative impact on the value of surrounding real estate: Daniels quoted one study that found that within 150 feet of an abandoned property, housing prices drop markedly. Abandoned homes make communities unsafe, unpleasant, and unaffordable to those who have not walked away.

But what to do? There are a lot of interesting community development projects and municipal programs currently underway to address the problem. To Daniels, one of the most promising is called housing deconstruction. In essence, housing deconstruction is building in reverse. Instead of mechanically demolishing a home, producing literally tons of waste, deconstruction is a process that trains workers in building trade skills by taking apart a structure piece by piece. As the building comes down, dozens of people can be employed and trained, and the valuable materials of the building recycled or reused. It is a multi-faceted approach to a multi-faceted problem, and one that holds promised for many over-built, under-employed cities across the U.S.

Shamus Khan, “Elite New York”
Covered by Jonathan Tarleton

“The 1% isn’t of that much interest to me,” Shamus Khan, Professor of Sociology at Columbia remarked in his lecture at Schapiro’s. Instead, Khan is all about studying the elite of the elite — the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Astors. Khan told a brief history of New York City through the lives of two members of that latter ruling family in order to describe the way in which inequality is perpetuated in the city and country more widely. He started with John Jacob Astor, a poor immigrant turned millionaire and member of a group of immigrant “founding fathers” that made finance the foundation of New York City after arriving in the States just after the Revolutionary War. This Astor was a land baron, and his expansive real estate holdings have funded the dominant position of his family into the present. Khan then jumped to the mid- to late 1800s and the wife of John Jacob’s grandson. Caroline Astor pursued a different strategy for maintaining elite control. While old wealth like hers paled in comparison to new money in the Gilded Age, this Astor maintained control through cultural capital, founding major institutions that “guarded” art from the rabble and forced the upwardly mobile new-money families into a specific cultural landscape where she held sway.


Attendees at Shamus Khan’s “Elite New York” | courtesy of Raising the Bar

The link between the two Astors, beyond their name and power, is the economic trends of their times. Wage growth was high for elites in both of their eras, and economic mobility for everyone else stayed essentially stagnant or decreased. This countercyclical relationship between how well elites do and how everyone else fares, says Khan, shows that the frequently invoked conservative ideal that “rising tides lift all boats” doesn’t hold water. “Rising tides also sometimes drown people,” said Khan. He points to the 1950s and ‘60s, one of the greatest periods of job growth in the US, when a 91% marginal tax rate on the top tax bracket held sway, as an example of the inverse: when the rest do well, the elite don’t do quite as well. As residents of the most unequal state and the most unequal city of the 25 most populous in the nation, Khan urges us to consider this relationship as we consider our political futures.

Harvey Molotch, “Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger”
Covered by Varick Shute

Harvey Molotch spoke at the Turnmill Bar about how anxiety and fear in a post-9/11 world transmutes into security practices that are unpleasant, expensive, and ultimately ineffective. Using the New York City subway system, airports, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site as his primary examples, he outlined some of our most hollow policies and strategies for improving public safety and suggested some potential alternatives. Efforts to monitor activity on the New York subways includes occasional NYPD bag inspection tables at certain stations, but there’s nothing to stop someone from turning around and using a different entrance to avoid being checked. The “See Something, Say Something” campaign encourages us all to heighten our awareness of suspicious behavior, but according to Molotch’s research, not a single one of these citizen reports has prevented an attack. Besides, he pointed out, if every unattended bag or box reported to an MTA worker by a dependable citizen were truly treated as a potential bomb threat, the New York City subway system would come to a grinding halt. Security screening at airports creates stress and anxiety for the traveler but don’t make us demonstrably safer. Furthermore, they create chokepoints and lines in unscreened areas, which provide a much larger target for a potential bomber than any individual plane would. The list of items banned from carry-on luggage and the security processes put in place are the product of politics and reactions to individual events — one person put explosives in his shoes one time, and make sure you’re wearing clean socks when you travel for the foreseeable future. Sometimes inaction takes more courage than reaction, or overreaction, Molotch pointed out. “Don’t just do something,” he quipped, “stand there!” 

We have to stop using fear as a driver of our security programs and admit that our systems aren’t workingSo what should do instead? Molotch’s proposals hinge on the idea of employing strategies that make life better whether there is an attack or not. Implementation of better air circulation and ventilation into the subway system would not only mitigate the effects of a fire, explosion, or some theoretical Sarin gas attack; it would also improve the air quality and comfort of the platforms on a hot August day. Why don’t we engage designers to improve the flows and experience of airport security? Toothbrushes are designed using focus groups and extensive ergonomic studies, and Disney has made a science of getting people from Point A to Point B, but beyond cursory consultations that to Molotch’s knowledge have never been implemented, the TSA does not recruit designers to improve the efficiency and experience of airport security.

But perhaps more importantly, we have to stop using fear as a driver of our security programs and remove the taboo of admitting that our systems aren’t working. Billions of dollars are being fed into measures that create visual pollution and unpleasant experiences while reinforcing a cycle of anxiety and fear. By inserting humanity, dignity, and pleasure into our security practices, we can improve their effectiveness with the side benefit of “making life less miserable.”

Leah Meisterlin and Gergely Baics, “Zoning Before Zoning”
Covered by Cassim Shepard

Leah Meisterlin and Gergely Baics took over the back of Perdition, a pub in Hell’s Kitchen, to deliver a fascinating overview of their recent research into how land uses were organized in 19th century Manhattan. Their stimulating talk, entitled “Zoning Before Zoning,” drills down into previously unavailable (or, at least, undigitized) data to provide a detailed look into the elements of urban life — building, block, street, neighborhood — that we think we understand. Before it even began, the audience had already commandeered the allotted lounge seating and bar stools, but the rest of the large crowd was happy to stand or sit on the floor, beers in hand, to listen keenly to a delightfully nerdy presentation of density, use clusters, and methodologies of urban history.


Attendees at Gergely Baics & Leah Meisterlin’s talk “Zoning Before Zoning” | photo: Cassim Shepard

Zoning, one of the primary instruments urban planners utilize to guide city development, is a 20th century phenomenon. But the ways that commerce, housing, and manufacturing located themselves prior to New York City’s 1916 zoning ordinance (the first in the nation) was by no means arbitrary or haphazard. The traditional research material of urban history — newspapers, photographs, narratives — has already painted a picture of where the rich and poor lived in relation to one another, and where industry concentrated in 19th century New York. But we don’t necessarily have a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms that produced those spatial patterns. Enter Meisterlin, a planner, and Baics, a historian. The two professors at Columbia and Barnard base their research on a Fire Insurance Atlas, produced by William Perris in the early 1850s. These comprehensive maps chart the use — commercial, industrial, or residential — of each building in Manhattan south of 42nd Street. And while they have been available in library collections for some time, only in the last six years has the New York Public Library’s archive been digitized, opening up exciting new avenues of scholarship. Meisterlin and Baics delve deeply into these new research opportunities, aggregating the building-level data to the block, calculating the percentage of each type of land use on any given block, and then mapping their findings in beautiful cartographic diagrams. They performed a parallel analysis by aggregating the data to the street as opposed to the block, and the results are fascinating. Some are to be expected, and some are surprising. But the aspect of their research that has profound implications for urban studies going forward is their finding that the system that determines blocks and streets — Manhattan’s grid — can be read as an algorithm that incentivizes particular uses for land in particular ways. Speculation on how New York would be different with another geometry of streets and avenues — such as those of Savannah, Philadelphia, or Barcelona — is, I must admit, exactly what I’d like to be pondering over a beer on a rainy Manhattan evening, looking out over 10th Avenue and wondering how it got to be that way.

Joseph Stiglitz, “The Price of Inequality”
Covered by Daniel Rojo

Several dozen intrigued urbanites, drinks and shared appetizers in hand, squeezed into The Ellington on the Upper West Side to hear Columbia University Professor and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz discuss some of the ideas in his book, The Price of Inequality. Since its 2012 publication in the wake of the Occupy Movement’s heyday, awareness of income inequality in the post-Great Recession landscape has continued to grow. Inequality has always existed in American society despite a proud national narrative promoting equal opportunity for all, but this narrative has come under increasing fire as the country’s income divide widens. Stiglitz argues that the majority of Americans are losing ground as a result of a multitude of policy decisions implemented over decades. To roll these back will require an equal number of new policies, though Stiglitz pointed out the great potential that cities have to experiment with and apply solutions in the face of this national challenge.

Given political gridlock at the federal level, Stiglitz notes that smaller bodies, like cities, are uniquely positioned to take the lead in addressing this problem. They are politically nimble enough to enact meaningful policy reform and large enough for those reforms to have a real impact. The most powerful visuals of inequality have historically been depictions of urban conditions — early 20th century tenements on the Lower East Side versus the robber baron mansions of Fifth Avenue, public housing in Brownsville versus luxury condos on 57th Street. But solutions to the roots of the inequality often grew out of the urban as well. Progressive housing policies and public education systems were initially implemented in the nation’s cities. The implementation of Mayor de Blasio’s recently released housing plan, though decidedly ambitious, is more viable than changes to the federal mortgage income tax deduction, which disproportionately favors rich homeowners. Experiments in improving public education, affordable housing, and equitable access to resources can have profound effects to be studied and then applied nationally. Additionally, scholarship increasingly shows that urban density cuts down on waste and promotes discourse and innovation that translates into economic (not to mention cultural) growth. Cities provide opportunities both to increase economic growth and to figure out how to share that growth more equitably.

Concern about rising economic inequality and agreement on the advantages of cities taking the lead are, independently, gaining strength. As both conversations move forward, merging these dialogues will allow cities to serve as testing grounds for solutions that can then be applied nationally. Therefore, while federal policymaking remains stagnant and polarized, Stiglitz argues that “another path is possible.”


Adam Brandenburger speaking at Sweet Water Social on Broadway | courtesy of Raising the Bar

Gabriel Silberblatt and Jonathan Tarleton are assistant editors of The Architectural League. Varick Shute is the digital editorial director of The Architectural League. Cassim Shepard is editor of Urban Omnibus. Daniel Rojo is a former project manager of The Architectural League.

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


Mal May 16, 2014

For years after leaving school, this was what I went to bars for – intellectual conversation about all manner of things, accompanied by a good buzz, and my college buddies. Evolving that experience to this level is fantastic, I hope it becomes the norm…smart bars!