Digital Content For A New Urban Experience
Last week, I posted an overview of a new urban digital experience in the streets of Yonkers, New York.
With the ability to project anything you want on a large wall of a highly-trafficked site or on the ground of the historical center square of a city, how do you kick off something like this?
In this post, I’ll outline the approach we took for the first phase. (Next week, I’ll describe the more interesting and engaging future.)
The two main goals of this project are:
- To enhance the street life of the city by offering a new, interesting experience, a new kind of urban design
- To entertain, engage, educate and reinforce the image of Yonkers as an historical center of innovation and to inspire the creativity of its current residents
With that in mind, we looked for certain kinds of content. Because many residents of the city and an even larger percentage of visitors know little of its history, we wanted to give them some background. Here are some examples:
- We worked initially with the public library to obtain the front page of the main city newspaper of a hundred years ago. In addition to projecting the front page on the wall of the Riverfront Library building, we created a kind of old time radio news summary of that front-page news, sandwiched between appropriate sounding news bulletin music from years ago. Even when there was daylight and the front-page graphic couldn’t be seen, people could still hear the news headlines. As it turns out, with a Presidential election and the onset of America’s entry into World War I, the days’ news from a hundred years ago was pretty interesting.
- We also had a variety of short documentaries about the history of the city that were part of a regular weekly program. This included items related to special events. For example, when the annual Yonkers Marathon was run, you could see video of the previous year’s marathon as well as a Pathé news reel about the marathon in the 1930s. There was footage from a drone.
- We also included features about the business of the city, called Made in Yonkers, that enables residents to see inside the buildings that are normally closed to the public and to learn about the interesting things going on. Indeed, this kind of venue allows people to see inside any buildings that are closed — museums that are closed at night can still show their contents. It is also possible to show how a part of the city has changed in the last hundred years or even recently or how it will change in the future — just by overlaying a projection of the past or proposed future.
- We identified the great musical artists and other performers who had lived in Yonkers — from WC Handy (of early blues/ragtime), to Gene Krupa (jazz drummer) to the singers Ella Fitzgerald and Steven Tyler (local high school grad and originally lead singer of Aerosmith) to the famed comedian Sid Caesar, among others — and put together shows that informed the public of their work and their relationship to the city.
- Then we wanted to celebrate the creativity and artistry of current residents. One of the first organizations to cooperate with this project was the Yonkers Philharmonic. On Wednesday nights, you can see them perform if you’re just walking down the street. You can also hear them many mornings, while you wait for your train.
- The relatively new Westchester Center for Jazz and Contemporary Music made an album available.
- Similarly, Friday nights are usually devoted to musical shows from the two local theater companies and performances from the schools. Yonkers also runs its own Idol contest and the most recent edition of that is also shown from time to time.
- Yonkers, like other cities, runs various festivals during the year — from Friday night Jazz on the waterfront in the summer, to Riverfest that features folk music, to Hispanic and other ethnic group events. The best performances from those are also shown periodically.
- As a side note, there is some reassuring about seeing a summer jazz festival or a flower garden when it’s the middle of February and the streets still have snow. It cheers you up!
- Yonkers is also the home of Sarah Lawrence College and an outpost of Purchase College, both of which are especially strong in the arts. The Westchester Community College also has a branch in the city and its Digital Arts program was an early contributor to the content. These local colleges then provided and even created content especially for this project, including animations, documentary videos and new music.
This is only a partial list. If it had to do with Yonkers, if it happened in the city and helps residents appreciate where they live, then it became part of the content library. That library is still growing.
Visual projections on a big concrete wall are pretty straightforward. For the projections on the ground, the same kind of videos won’t quite work all the time and there more emphasis is given to animations, graphics and text.
Obviously, visual projections are limited to nighttime. But the speakers are on all day. So, there is a program for the morning and evening rush hour — usually a sample of what had been played the night before.
And, for a little fun and to liven up the street, during the middle of the day at random times, pedestrians hear little clips of musical sounds or other ambient sounds, like elephants roaring. Huh? I’m walking in Yonkers and I hear an elephant? That will wake up people who have stopped paying attention to their environment.
From some of the examples I’ve given, you also get the sense of how you can transport people mentally. You can show them what’s happening in a different part of the city. You can show them the sunset from yesterday or the flowers of spring when it’s still winter. All of this can uplift the mood of a city.
Clearly the focus of the content I’ve described was on this city — Yonkers — but any city could do the same. People, even city government folks, were surprised at how much content there was about the city. Your city too has much to show. You just need to look and be a bit creative about it.
But even what I’ve described here doesn’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to create new street experiences. More on that next time.
© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved