Exiting AirSpace

Affection for the unaesthetic

Hello! Welcome to the 73rd issue of Place. Today we’re returning to streets we’ve walked before but haven’t returned to in awhile, taking a closer look at the overlooked buildings, signs and businesses that don’t appeal to conventional design sensibility. While these aren’t buildings that may win architectural awards, they make up the map of nostalgia. 

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It was around 2016 when the Edison bulbs began appearing. First in yellow-lit gentrifying corner cafes of Brooklyn and Berlin; soon the filament popped up in suburban strip mall gastropubs and small town breweries, usually accompanied by raw wood, exposed brick and tumbling pothos plants. It was an aesthetic that spread seemingly organically, but oddly simultaneously in places that wouldn’t usually look the same. But these places shared a presence online, pushed by the invisible hand of the platform algorithms that rewarded the most amenable composite of comfortable visuals. Writer Kyle Chayka dubbed it “AirSpace.”

The appeal is clear: clean lines, refreshing greenery, and raw materials that convey a bit of industrial authenticity. But there’s a loneliness in its references as well. Nostalgia without the pain of intimately knowing what was left behind. 

I thought about this as I returned to the US for the first time in nearly two years. Usually upon return I like to see what new restaurants or bars have popped up, and experience the cities of my past in a new way. I like the idea that these places are growing and changing as I have been, that myself and this place can reunite and catch up on what’s new like old friends. But as I scrolled new openings I found myself less in Chicago, per se, than in AirSpace. I saw the same avant-basic menu lettering and orange wine pairings dotting hip neighborhoods around the world. Love these things as I may, I felt it took away some of the novelty of travel. It was like keeping up with a friend only through their Instagram posts, when the messy stories and textured parts of their lives are why you miss them in the first place. 

It wasn’t that the less glamorous local spots weren’t an important part of my past experiences in the US -- I just feared for what was left. The pandemic has been net bad for these sorts of places, as they tended to hold on through the loyalty or laziness of their neighbors. These are the places that might not have an internet presence and are too pedestrian to go viral, leaving them with little safety net in the event of say, a worldwide pandemic-induced closure. 

As I was stuck overseas, I traded news updates with similarly scattered friends about the state of our old haunts as the lockdown months ticked by. There was the coffee shop below the Sheridan Stop that made drip coffee tremble with the passing Red Line trains; the French cafe in Humboldt Park that I’d sneak off to on quiet afternoons for a happy hour cocktail. When I visited them for the first time I imagined I would return to them in the future; now these are places only my past will know.

Over five weeks I landed in five different cities (plus another country). I retraced my steps along old sidewalks where I stumbled between dark dive bars, walked a 115-pound mastiff mix along the Pacific coast, strolled through a mountain town where it’s the law to decorate buildings in a Bavarian style, wandered Frida Kahlo’s old neighborhood, rode a scooter along a street I’d mostly seen in crisis on the news. There was no mistaking that the places I had left were not the same, that I was returning to cities that had been hurt and traumatized by a deadly pandemic and racial unrest. Trendy coffee shops bustled with homeworkers just blocks away from immigrant-owned restaurants still boarded up with plywood. Help wanted signs hung in darkened storefronts, closed for reduced hours. These places had changed, and unlike when I had returned previously, mostly not for the better. More poignantly than ever, it seemed survival was success.

But as I explored, I found myself further and further from AirSpace and back into the real world. Reconnected to the places unbranded, unaided by platforms and hype. It was a comforting consistency in a life increasingly dominated by trends.

When I was feeling far from home in the last two years I’d spend a few minutes scrolling the Twitter account @ Midwest Modern. It’s run by an architect who wanders around small towns and mid-major Midwestern cities documenting notable architecture and unique signs that wouldn’t usually get picked up by major design publications. The account has over 66,000 followers -- part of its allure is that it doesn’t presuppose a knowledge of architecture, but rather of the context of a place, wrote Jonathan Dale. 

“The images on Midwest Modern can feel familiar, even if you’ve never seen them before, because they are often echoes of places you do know,” he wrote. “They’re as much nostalgic as they are aesthetic.”

After years of loving places for the way they changed, for once I found myself grateful for the small ways they had not.

-Karis Hustad is the co-editor of Place and a magazine reporter based in London.

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Join us next week for another journey.