Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.