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Saturday, November 2, 2019

An Alleyway and the Joker Stairs

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.
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

On Halloween, I watched the new Joker movie at a cinema in The Bronx. There has been a lot of discussion locally about the influx of tourists to "the Joker stairs," but as an urban planner, I would have been scrutinizing the details of the newest version of Gotham City anyway. As I noted in a review of Imaginary Citiesthe variations of Gotham over time show changes in the fears lurking in the dark places of our collective consciousness.

Joker almost entirely abandons any effort at developing a fictional Gotham City. With almost no alterations, it is unmistakably New York City. More precisely, it is the mythos of the "bad old days" of New York in the 1970s and 80s, complete with the 1981 garbage strike. Stylistically, it draws visual and acting cues from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a reference that is directly reinforced by Robert De Niro's character in the film. The details in the streetscape that were altered to recreate the appearance of New York in 1981, and even those that were missed, can be informative. The tagging on the subway and the porn titles on the theater marquees (channeling the Times Square's era of infamy) keep the sense of disorder palpable. Choosing this period was an effective way to capture the grit that has always defined Gotham in the comics and movies, something that has become more difficult as cities have been largely rebuilt into glossier places that are much safer. More importantly, it captures current anxieties about going back to the "bad old days."

The only significant real fictional change to New York's built form in this movie was the insertion of an alley into the old Deuce. Although it appears much of this may actually have been filmed at locations in Jersey City and Newark (places where commercial strips have not been as extensively redeveloped), there is no doubt this was a recreation of 42nd Street in the Time Square area. New York is not a city of alleyways, but the filmmakers revised the infamous streetscape of porn theaters to include one. As usual in dark urban fiction, an alley is a residual space where garbage collects and the retreating effects of society no longer reach. The opening sequence of the movie concludes in this lawless Gotham locale; we see the violent nature of this city as we get to know Arthur Fleck as a helpless victim before he transforms into the Joker. It is this attack that sets in motion the series of events that send Arthur spiraling out of control.
Arthur Fleck lying in the alley after he was attacked

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Priority Sign Repair

On September 17th, the New York Post ran a story about an overhead bus lane sign that was covered in chewing gum. The sign had gradually been accumulating gum for years, but the media attention soon brought this to an end (at least for the moment).

Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about the sign two days later. Then, sometime before the morning of September 23rd, a new sign was already installed.

Depending on whether DOT started processing a work order for the sign on the day of the initial news story, or the day the when the Mayor was asked about it, the replacement took a total of only 3-5 calendar days. With the weekend, that was a 1-3 business day response.

That is faster than stop signs are replaced in my neighborhood when somebody reports that a car knocked them down.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Barriers Against What?

There have been dire warnings recently that car manufacturers might try to exert their influence to take over city streets at the expense of pedestrians (again). A recent flare up followed the suggestion that some executives were considering the installation of gates at intersections to keep pedestrians from crossing against the light and interfering with autonomous vehicles. The backlash from urbanists was immediate: We should not repeat the mistakes of the past when cars were first introduced into cities. People should not be penned in on the sidewalks like cattle. Etc.

A couple of examples:

Caution is warranted, of course. The ability of autonomous cars to successfully navigate dense pedestrian areas is dubious, and some of the materials released by the auto industry have been outright frightening (see below). I agree with the need to be vigilant about the policies that may redesign our cities very quickly, setting new patterns that may hold for generations to come. In this case, though, it seems like a knee jerk response of the "if it's good for cars, it must be bad for pedestrians" variety. The idea surfaced, after all, as a solution to the potential problem of pedestrians interfering with the automated vehicles, which might become paralyzed if people deliberately walk in front of them, knowing that safety procedures designed to avoid injuring people will make them stop.

Nonetheless, I am fairly optimistic that automated vehicles can be leveraged to transform the places we live for the better, and I see crossing gates as an acceptable tradeoff. Likely enough, they could become a welcome addition to our streetscape.

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 anchors 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 can afford a yacht to go out sailing like him.

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.