Sunday, September 27, 2015

Barricading Sidewalks

This week, the Pope came to New York City, and the NYPD worked hard to keep him safe, along with all those who came to see him. They planned ahead for the challenging logistics of moving perhaps the most high-profile person in the world through one of the world's densest cities, along with all the UN dignitaries who gathered to hear him, together with thousands of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse.

When the NYPD puts effort into something, it gets the job done. There is no question of hard work or commitment to results. The question is the priorities that get the NYPD's attention. While Christian love and police dedication were both on prominent display, the Pope's visit also demonstrated some of the important things the NYPD does not focus on enough. In the face of recurring traffic congestion in New York City, the NYPD is surprisingly nimble at closing entire roadways to keep motorcades secure while avoiding extensive delays for other motorists. As they describe it, they have it "down to a science." What they don't do well, despite decades of increasing attention by the engineering profession, is planning for pedestrians. In fact, most of the people who are affected in every corner of the city are really treated as an afterthought by the NYPD.

For the NYPD, when it comes to major events, pedestrians often seem like little more than obstacles to the motorcades. When the NYPD does turn its attention to the people trying to walk around, they seem to be taken into consideration only as crowds to be "controlled," or as "security threats" to be surveilled or excluded. If only a fraction of the attention paid to moving concrete blocks for cars and placing snipers on roofs was applied to maintaining appropriate sidewalk widths, the city would probably be safer. It would certainly be more orderly and comfortable.

Let's consider how NYPD leadership discussed its preparations. Posing for photos in front of a vast lot filled with parked police cars, the Police Commissioner bragged about "1,173 police cars, 818 tons of concrete barriers and 39 miles of metal and wood barricades" that were prepared for the Pope's visit to New York City. The department's twitter account followed up, highlighting the massive amounts of material they stockpiled around town. This neatly summarizes the NYPD's priorities: setting up barriers and moving motor vehicles.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Below the Roadway

In recent months, I have frequented very different places tucked underneath some of New York City's elevated roadways. It is a startling juxtaposition between the invisibly marginalized and the thoroughly gentrified.

Sometimes it amazes me that in one of the world's largest cities and the densest in North America, there are still places so isolated and hidden they seem like private places for the most dispossessed in society. Recently, I returned to one of these places for the first time in nearly a decade. It remained virtually unchanged.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Imaginary Cities

I have seen many imaginary cities.
I live with a three-year-old.

Between bursts of "Daddy! DADDY! Look at my wall!" and "Daddy, I have surprise for you," I found time to read Darran Anderson's fascinating book Imaginary Cities.

Don't let the voluminous endnotes fool you; Imaginary Cities is not an academic book. It's more like the delirium of an academic. Just as imaginations are limitless, so is the potential material for this ambitious project. Anderson jumps from reference to reference, none ever fully described or explained. Rather than imposing a linear narrative, instead of situating works and expounding on their significance, Anderson drifts from one vision to the next. It is surprising, and somewhat daring on the part of both the author and the publisher Influx Press to print a book dedicated to material of such visual nature without a single image. The images are supplied by the reader's imagination. Reading this book can feel in turn dizzying, frustrating, exhilarating, incomplete, and ultimately inspiring.

Gotham City
The discussion of Batman's Gotham City is Imaginary Cities at its height. Consider the way Anderson introduces the story and locale that have been retold many times in the making of a modern mythology:
In a dank alleyway, far beneath the metropolitan skyscrapers, there exists a temporal loop. A rich couple, having taken an ill-advised shortcut from the theatre to reality, are shot dead over and over, each time in slightly different variations but always with the same outcome.
p. 374
Rendering by Ferris

"Gotham is Ferris gone wrong,
or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan."
This is an excellent writing style. It is both clever and appealing to frame the constant retelling and adaptation of the story as a temporal loop. Yet this is a point where I wish Anderson had delved a little deeper. The variations differ because our cities have changed over time. The unchanging outcome becomes a fixed point for navigating a shifting world.

There is meaning in the dark spaces of Gotham City. Anderson recognizes they are more than mere backdrop, they are a fundamental part of the story:
"Batman is a critique of failed urban planning and empathy. Alleyways have dead-ends as traps for the unwary. Abandoned buildings are warrens for criminals. A dark sanctimonious fear of rookeries and today's housing estates, projects and slums as inhuman breeding grounds, prevails." (p. 377)
Again, following the variations through versions over time would show differences in what lurks in the dark as some of our boogiemen have come and gone.

Referring to architectural illustrator Hugh Ferris, Anderson suggests, "Gotham is Ferris gone wrong, or perhaps Ferris gone according to plan." (p. 379) Batman has traditionally been grounded in a dark Victorian esthetic overlaid precisely with a Ferris image of the metropolis. Personally, I find this darkness fascinating and appealing; that is the Gotham City I prefer. I am more drawn to scenes filmed on Lower Wacker in Chicago in "Batman Begins" (2005) than to the increasingly glass-clad Manhattan of "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). Neither have the palpable anxiety of getting mugged on an urban street that "Batman" (1989) held in common with its audiences own experiences during the 1980s. As street crime still continues to drop, cities increasingly gentrify with glossy new buildings, and the police militarize, Ferris may continue to fade in the image of Gotham City. This leaves the question of what fixed points remain from the Batman saga as landmarks for our collective consciousness.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tear Down This Fence

40th Street at Bryant Park

A couple weeks ago, I noticed something while walking by Bryant Park. There were people hanging out on 40th Street. That was different. It took a moment to realize what had changed. The fence was gone.

Initially, I thought it was a deliberate decision to activate the edge of the park. The Parks Commissioner had spoken about integrating parks better with their surrounding streets:

It turns out the fence was only temporarily removed while it is being restored:

This seems unfortunate. Each time I walk by the park, I see people using the walls as an enjoyable space that improves the sociability of the streets. On 40th Street, which has typically looked more like a service alley than an enjoyable place, the open park makes the sidewalk a much more enjoyable place. Meanwhile, on busy 42nd Street, the walls are providing a more comfortable place for people to stop for a moment or wait while meeting their friends.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Only Place Where New York Is Still New York

There is a quiet, residual space tucked under some of the city's infrastructure that I visit from time to time. It is a forgotten place, sometimes inhabited by a few of the city's dispossessed and occasionally transited by a curiosity seeker. The gradually deteriorating infrastructure above forms an interesting architectural space. Social commentary has been tagged onto the base of its structures.

Social commentary was written on this space over a decade ago:

The same graffiti is still there today, with little change in the space over the years

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"The Great Garage Rescue"

The other morning, I was watching an episode of Handy Manny with my favorite three-year-old. It occurred to me that maybe planners should watch more kids' cartoons.

Handy Manny is a Disney Junior show about a handyman and his talking tools, who always help the residents in their diverse urban neighborhood. The episode that caught my attention was a special titled "The Great Garage Rescue." In it, Manny's older brother has an auto repair garage, which is being threatened with an urban renewal scheme. The City is going to build a "mini-mall" in the name of progress, destroying a family business that is part of the local community in the process. Community members rally around the garage and save it in the end.

The storyline about local businesses standing in the way of urban renewal bulldozers has been well worn for decades. It is easy to use the notion of a modern "mini-mall" as a convenient foil, too. What is interesting, though, is the idea that an auto repair garage would be a valued part of a community worth saving. It's an idea that does not occur to urban planners often enough.

Far too often, these types of businesses are labeled as "nuisances," and targeted in rezoning efforts. Affordable housing or mixed-use development is a more likely candidate to displace the repair shop in current schemes by planners and public officials, but the lack of understanding and sensitivity to the needs of the workers and patrons of these businesses is the same. It takes a change in perspective; instead of seeing places with auto repair shops as leftover areas passed over by development, planners need to learn to recognize the valuable community assets that are there and create solutions that embrace them.

Shows like Handy Manny that recognize and celebrate the value of these places of work can help. And hopefully more planners will catch the message when they're home watching cartoons with the family on their day off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Do Nuisances Go?

This weekend, I walked by a home in a residential district that has been illegally converted into a security system business. The side yard is now a poorly designed parking lot for commercial vehicles. As far as non-conforming uses go, it is relatively benign. It's visually obtrusive, and contributes a little extra noise, but otherwise has little tangible impact. Its illegal status contributes to a sense of disorder, though, and this would never be allowed in "better" neighborhoods.

Although this particular business has relatively little impact, many other uses encroaching on residential neighborhoods are greater nuisances. A couple weeks ago, I passed a vacant lot that has been used as a junk yard for an auto shop for decades.

When repair businesses are forced out of manufacturing areas that are rezoned to open them up for residential development, the activity often finds new illicit locations in disadvantaged communities. There is a certain irony in efforts to provide more affordable housing as part of a progressive agenda focused on social equity resulting in environmental impacts in disadvantaged communities.

With the longtime trend of declining urban manufacturing, areas zoned for industrial uses have been coming under pressure for conversion for residential development as city populations have started increasing again. As light-industrial businesses are cleared out, there are ever fewer places for them to relocate. Pressure mounts for the support services that underpin the city's economy to crowd into working-class and low-income neighborhoods. Illegal commercial uses gain a foothold for two reasons: they have less influence and they're somewhat sympathetic toward the workers. These are communities that do not have the influence and power to ensure a Department of Buildings that is not fully competent (and questionably honest) actually address problems in their neighborhoods. And the residents aren't always so sure they want the codes enforced. Their friends or neighbors may depend on the jobs, or they may simply feel that the interest of the workers to earn a living is more important than the problems the businesses bring with them.

These outcomes are not inevitable. Increasing the supply of housing is critical, but it is also important to accommodate the support functions that keep the city running in a manner that is efficient, sustainable, and equitable. As we continue to ignore these marginalized jobs and fail to provide for them intelligently and with dignity, they are forced into marginalized communities, along with their impacts.

What we have now is the gentrification of blue collar job sites and passive environmental injustice by turning a blind eye toward the displacement of nuisances into less affluent neighborhoods. What we need is progressive, comprehensive planning that looks at more than numerical housing targets.