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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Programmed Out

Not long ago, I was at an event where a wealthy developer spoke for a few minutes to a group responsible for making public improvements in a local community. He proudly described how he had worked to "program every linear foot to make sure there was no space available for street vendors." This was expressed as though it was a self-evident truth that vendors along the curb would be a blight on the neighborhood.

I was horrified. The prospect of such complete design that it admitted no emergent activities sounded rigid and dull. Worse, it expressed a disdain toward the lower-income entrepreneurs whose daily labor anchor a vibrant street life in busy neighborhoods. While it is true that poorly regulated street vendors do sometimes contribute to sidewalk congestion in the densest areas, they also meet needs for cost and convenience that will surely be lacking in this man's new development.

I had little doubt that the intent of the design is to keep out both the working class businesses and the customers who would be attracted by their cost and convenience. This developer also mentioned racing his sail boat, and he was clearly building a neighborhood for the sort of people who go out sailing.

It is a vision of luxury that relies on exclusion for its sense of validation. It is a vision we should reject for New York City.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Who Do You Live With?

We were trying to explain the Census to our 7-year-old son. They want to make sure they count everybody, we said, so they send a questionnaire to every home. We have to fill it out and send it back.

"So they want to know everyone in our family?" he asked. We said yes. "Cheddar too?" Cheddar is our dog. No, the Census does not ask about pets... but shouldn't it?

Just the day before, I had gone to see a new doctor. They sent me an online form to complete in advance, and they wanted to know if I lived with any pets. On an individual level, there was a clear medical interest in pets. The data would also be invaluable on the larger scale of the Census.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Chronicles of Stolen Space - Pedestrianized Pine Street

This is a designated pedestrian street in Lower Manhattan

The quality of our public spaces in New York City is so much worse than they should be. By all appearances, this is due to a negligent municipal government that has failed to shoulder its responsibilities to safeguard these spaces for public use.

Take for example the case of a pedestrianized block of Pine Street between South and Front Streets. This street was pedestrianized in 1978, yet in recent memory, it has increasingly been used for car parking. It seems that the permission for "service vehicles," clearly intended originally to allow for garbage pickup, provided a foothold for parcel services to use the street for their parking needs. Gradually, others followed suit until the whole space has now become filled with cars.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Changing Colors

The subway can lull you to sleep if you're fortunate enough to get a seat after a long day at work.  The movement of the train, that rhythmic clack-clack clack-clack..... clack-clack clack-clack of the wheels on the tracks, and the warmth from so many bodies packed together can draw the shades over your eyes for a while. Then when you wake up... where are you?! Did you miss your stop?!

Looking out of the train, to the extent you can even get a glimpse past the bodies crowded between you and the windows, often does not provide any clear view of a station name. What you can almost always see in the old IND subway stations are the columns and possibly the band of colored tiles. Fortunately, they are... no... until recently they were color coded to help identify the station. If I wake up and see green columns, I know I've reached 125th Street. If the columns are yellow, that means I'm at 145th Street. At Tremont, the columns are red.

This easy identification by classifying sets of stations by color was a key design element by Squire Vickers. It was both functional and esthetic. The color banding provides a clean, modern artistic statement that maintains a sense of movement through the station. The transition along the color wheel as the stations change from green to blue to yellow provides a sense of progress as passengers traverse the system. Maintaining a feeling of movement when you are closed inside a crowded metal box can break up the banality of longer subway trips.

Unfortunately, Cuomo's MTA is destroying this historic design in its rush to look like they're doing something to address the subway crisis. Some of the new information display systems appear helpful, but elevators for people with disabilities or strollers are being left out while they inconvenience passengers with months-long full closures for gut rehabs. These station upgrades are essentially cosmetic, and yet the generic contemporary design is reopening indistinguishable, monochromatic gray stations.

If this program is allowed to continue, the stations will become a dreary subterranean Groundhog Day. Every time you open your eyes, it will look like the same station again.

When spending extensive sums of money and disrupting passengers' regular commutes for lengthy periods of time, it is important to understand the original design and how people use the system now, how they experience it. Instead, a simplistic esthetic is being rolled on in a misguided attempt to make the stations look more fresh.

Fortunately, the color of the columns is just paint. Hopefully the original, superior design will be restored the next time the columns need a new coat. Until then, maybe try not to doze off on the train.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Two Sides of the Same Woods

On one side of the road, you have tourists reading plaques about trees. On the other, gay men circle the woods looking for potential hookups. The Bronx River Forest is one of the few remaining sections of the great woodland that once covered the New York region. While we tend to consider the plants and animals that populate wooded areas like this as "wild," this landscape is highly shaped by the physical interventions and social activities of humans. It is easy to overlook how much human action can shape the "natural" environment, but the differences created by separate jurisdictional control over trails winding through the woods along the Bronx River on each side of Allerton Avenue create a stark contrast.

People duck under a fallen tree (covered in poison ivy) on the Blue Trail north of 204th Street in the Bronx Forest managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation
Tourists stop along the trail in the Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden to read facts about the trees 

South of Allerton Avenue, the Bronx River flows through the New York Botanical Garden. Since the 1890s, this land has been City parkland, part of Bronx Park, which is administered by a private institution specifically charged with the development and maintenance of a great living museum. To the north, the parkland is under conventional control of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

There are some physical differences in terrain between the two sections. To the north, the river passes through a floodplain. After flowing into the garden, it quickly drops into a ravine with some moderately steep slopes down to the river. Nonetheless, the main distinctions between these two sections is how the land is managed and access is controlled.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Rain Garden That Wouldn't Grow

Recently, my wife and I were out on a date and taking a stroll through Harlem before dinner when we stumbled on a dog relief area at the corner of Manhattan Avenue and East 122nd Street. I was excited and my wife was, well, glad to see me enjoying myself.

A few years ago while musing about planning for pets, I came across the French canisites. Now I had stumbled on one in my own town, and I hadn't even heard about it!

It is a wonderful little example of the transformation of a residual space. Initially it was a hatched area in the roadway where northbound traffic is diverted as Manhattan Avenue becomes a southbound one-way street. It was just the sort of dead space that was long common on our paved streets. In 2012, it was converted into a rain garden to improve storm water management and probably contribute a few count toward the Million Trees program, but the plants just wouldn't grow on the street side of the triangle. After a few years of the vegetation struggling and consistently dying off, it appears somebody had the genius to stop fighting the inevitable and repurpose the space to address the dog poop problem that is chronic on sidewalks throughout New York City.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Performance on a Dirty Corner

There was no lack of spectators for the performance down on the corner. Many even returned to watch the show on its second and third days. "I've lived here for 30 years," or "I've lived here for 40 years," several of them stopped to say, "and I'm so glad you're doing this."

Creating a mural is a public performance. Of course, the finished artwork is a permanent installation, but the process of transforming a space in the middle of daily street life becomes performance art in its own right.

East 207th Street and Bainbridge Avenue has always been an unremarkable and rather dirty corner.  The side of the bodega is a blank wall that consistently attracted juvenile tagging, which local anti-graffiti group Norwood Against Graffiti (NAG) routinely rolled over with fresh paint, seemingly refreshing the canvas for the next set of tags. Meanwhile, the sidewalk and tree pits had long accumulated trash. A couple local characters spend their afternoons sitting on the corner with a drink in hand. It was the leftover backside of a small commercial building, a little place that had mostly been abandoned for decades. It was a place that people shuffled through, dulled by the mundane ugliness.

While most people were resigned to walking by the griminess on this corner as an immutable fact of life, something they had effectively tuned out, Elisabeth von Uhl saw the possibility of creating a place that had more to contribute to the community. It took a few years of effort and a couple false starts, but with some perseverance and persuasion, she eventually partnered with ArtBridge and secured funding from Councilmember Andrew Cohen. ArtBridge brought in artist Laura Alvarez who designed and painted the mural.