This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
As early as 2002, ornithologists reported sightings of a bird hitherto unknown in New York City: Aegolius verizon. The reports swelled with each passing year, until, at last, Aegolius verizon joined the pigeon on the top shelf of the city aviary, and sightings were no longer worth seeing. Today, Aegolius verizon perches on every other rooftop, hooks its talons into the eaves, and keeps watch. Experts have given up counting—fourteen thousand, at last estimate. More are on their way.
Aegolius verizon is better known by its common name: the rooftop cell site. Like the owl (Aegolius) whence it descends—which to the early Indians and Greeks symbolized powers of prophecy, but by the Middle Ages was known as the associate of witches—the cell site carries on one wing the promise of wisdom and on the other the portent of death.
The rooftop cell site is the infrastructure of our information age. The rails to our road. The pony express to our postal service. It makes possible our every call, stream, Venmo, and Google. Without it, the city would be suffocated by a tangle of ten thousand wires like it was in the nineteenth century—when the only texts were telegrams, and refrigerators, not to mention the smart kind, were but a pipe-dream to those who puffed opium in Chinatown dens. The invisibility of this network, however, keeps the system out of view and, so too, the powers that operate it, the power required to keep it operating, and the regime that profits from its operation. The physical offers as choice its erasure from the public imagination; the invisible assures it.
Overhead, a corporate war is being waged on the rooftops. Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T build aeries on the black tar to improve their reception. They cut deals with developers, fracking every last drop of real estate for profit. They colonize urban space which could otherwise be used for gardens or playgrounds or solar panels. They go unpoliced by the city. The city, in fact, knows not how many rooftop cell sites exist, nor where they are located.
One can locate themselves in the city by simply staring back. Like so many utilities—public and private—the rooftop cell site has an affinity for money. To map its migration patterns, then, is to chart wealth and its accomplices. The topography is uneven. In Midtown you can casually stretch your neck and see a flock. In Sunnyside your neck will go limp before spotting an abandoned nest.
In Chelsea, the Google building is home to Aegolius verizon’s Darwinian exemplars. Muscular, towering, proud. On the Hudson-Elliot projects across the street live the Malthusian sacrifices. Wings too small to set flight.
A species is still invasive if you can’t tell it’s there. I prefer Columba livia: the ordinary pigeon.