Manufacturing the Picturesque at Central Park

Figure 1. Map of completed Central Park in 1873

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Central Park is not only the major recreational facility of Manhattan but also the record of its progress: a taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature. Like the [Manhattan] Grid, it is a colossal leap of faith; the contrast it describes – between the built and the unbuilt – hardly exists at the time of its creation.

– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York1

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Koolhaas presents one of the challenges core to Central Park’s construction: the tension between natural and manmade, urban and rural. What sets this park apart from most other parks is its yearning to seemingly become something that it clearly is not: natural. Many other pocket parks in this city incorporate existing topography and trees into their design – yet they are smaller. And from the confines of their interior, the sights and sounds of the city are hard to escape. Central Park succeeds in permitting its visitor to make-believe, at least momentarily, that they have left the city and are immersed in the countryside. The original park contained, for instance, a sheep pasture and barn, a nature preserve called “The Ramble,” and a dairy for urban mothers to buy fresh milk.

The scale of Central Park and the engineering that went into its creation is not unprecedented – architects and engineers have completed far larger infrastructure projects. The New York City watershed, for instance, catches all the rainfall within a 2,000 square mile area, stores this water in 19 reservoirs, and then transports this water up to 150 miles in underground pipes that serve nine million people.2 Central Park, by comparison, was built by some of the same engineers but is a mere three-square-miles of “improved” wilderness. However, what is surprising is the degree to which Central Park’s landscape features seem natural, as if land speculators and developers had chanced upon the park and left it as untouched as they had found it, except framed on four sides by the city grid (figure 5). So successful is this intervention that there is often the popular misconception that it is natural. This Huffington Post article, for instance: “I know that it may come as a shock to some, but New York’s Central Park is not an act of God. It might seem that way, especially in the woodlands, which appear so authentically, well, natural.”3

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Figure 2. Earthworks projects in 1858, most likely in the vicinity of 72nd Street

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In the 1857 text entitled “The Plan for the Park,” the project’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (b.1822-d.1903), writes that it “seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.”4 Olmsted’s claim is a good place to start because it expresses a paradox central to the design. Olmsted’s project “interferes” with the landscape “as little as possible” simultaneously with large-scale efforts to move soil, blast rock, and plant trees that employed – at the height of work – some 4,000 men.5 Around five million cubic feet of rock and soil were blasted and removed from the park. Rem Koolhaas interprets this quote from Olmsted as follows: “If Central Park can be read as an operation of preservation, it is, even more, a series of manipulations and transformations performed on the nature ‘saved’ by its designers.”6

How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies in Central Park – natural vs. manmade – when almost all manmade features are disguised as natural? I propose that we can better understand the park by dispensing with the pretense that it is in any way natural.

Central Park presents an unusually refined interpretation of nature. Of the approximately 20,000 trees of 175 species, solidly 60% are non-native to New York.7 Of the seven lakes contained within the park, none are natural to the terrain and are mostly the result of damning existing streams. Of the paths, trails, and roads winding through the park – with curves to match the contours of hills and valleys – none are original, nor do they correspond to pre-development dirt roads and Lenape Indian trails.8

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Figure 3. Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1857 drawing of the park before and after the planned “improvements.”
The style and content of this image evokes the work of English landscape architects and Humphry Repton.

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Before work began in 1857, the pre-development topography was insufficient for use as a public park. The Manhattan grid – comprising some 2,000 plus city blocks each measuring exactly 200 feet wide – implies a flat terrain and originally made no accommodations for interfering rivers, hills, or marshes. Looking at a street map of the island, one might be surprised to learn that the terrain rises and falls the length of the island from zero feet at sea level to ~250 feet at its highest peak (figures 4 and 16).9 The name “Manhattan” is a Lenape Indian word that means “Island of Many Hills.”10 Yet, despite the variety of sites planners could have chosen from, the park’s rectangular boundaries were not determined by the availability of topographic features appropriate for a park.

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Figure 4. British Headquarters Map of Manhattan Island from c.1789. Only the shaded pink section at top of island is developed at city-level density. The rest consists of rolling hills, forest, and farmland that inspired Henry Hudson, the first European who “discovered” the island in 1609, to remark that: “The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.”11

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Instead of topography, three main factors determined the location: First, planners needed to choose a site close to the expanding city yet far enough away that the land could be acquired cheaply and without displacing large numbers of residents. Second, the city’s population had grown 160% in the twenty years from 1840 to 1860,12 and the city’s existing Croton reservoir (then located in the exact center of the proposed park) was insufficient. The city needed an expanded reservoir; the most convenient location on Manhattan Island for this reservoir was next to the existing one. The otherwise purely practical infrastructure of water supply could thus become a landscape feature.13 Third, the city planned to offset the approximately five-million-dollar price tag of land acquisition and construction through corresponding increases in the taxable property values of land adjacent the park. The architects also went so far as to suggest “a toll of three cents on visitors coming on foot, and six cents for all others” collected on visitors to fund park maintenance and offset construction costs. (This was never implemented.)14 Olmsted also writes:

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Land immediately about the Park, the frontage on it being seven miles in length, instead of taking the course anticipated by those opposed to the policy of the Commission, has advanced in value at the rate of two hundred per cent per annum. […] It is universally admitted, however, that the cost, including that of the original off-hand common sense blunders, has been long since much more than compensated by the additional capital drawn to the city through the influence of the Park.15

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The park’s location might be strengthened by the simple fact that a linear or smaller park along the waterfront would have fewer miles of frontage of taxable properties adjacent to the park. For instance, locating just one side Central Park along the Hudson and East River (instead of the island’s center) would result in 2.5 miles fewer of abutting properties. Within the following decades, the properties in the Upper East and Upper West Side that overlook the park became (and remain) among the most expensive in the city. This method of development – sacrificing a fraction of the land for park use so as to increase the monetary value of the adjoining lands – was common in New York City (e.g., Gramercy Park) and particularly in London’s fashionable West End and Hyde Park neighborhoods.16 What makes Central Park different, though, is the unprecedented scale of this investment to boost civic pride and to increase property taxes.

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Figure 5. A c.1836 engraved map of mid-Manhattan with the outline of the future park drawn in orange ink c.1858. The incongruity between the park’s outline and the topography is also illustrated by the fact that the park’s northern boundary (originally at 106th street) would require blasting through a one hundred foot high solid-rock mountain to make way for the perimeter street.

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Given these priorities – real estate and infrastructure interests over aesthetics – the choice of location was not ideal (figure 5). The rough terrain was mostly barren of trees and was a mosquito-laden wetland. (More readily converted and forested terrain was originally proposed along the East River in the vicinity of Roosevelt University.) Before beginning the architect’s work of planting trees and building scenic garden features, the first major task was to prepare the land and make it suitable for public use. To that effect, Olmsted contracted the engineer (and later military coronel) George E. Waring to drain the swamp. Waring directed 400 men to construct some 105,000 linear feet (32 kilometers) of drainpipes over two years (figure 8).17 His military-style approach toward clearing the park followed him into later life when he became New York City’s sanitation commissioner. As commissioner, he required all his street cleaners to wear white pith helmets (identical to those worn by European colonists in Africa) and then declared the war on filth. Given his interest in sanitation and dislike of dirt, his answer to the park commissioners’ question is revealing:

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Commission’s Question: “To what degree shall the park be drained?”
Waring’s Answer: “Totally.”
Q: “By what form of drains?”
A: “Earthenware, of varying calibers.”
Q: “At what depth?”
A: “Three feet in open glades, four feet in forested areas.”
Q: “For best economy, by contract or days’ work?”
A: By days’ work because of the endlessly varied conditions requiring uncommon on-site super vision.”18

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Figure 6. Buried Pipes in Connection with the New Reservoir, c.1862.

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Figure 7. General View of North Reservoir from 102nd Street, 23 October 1862.
All the land visible here is now buried beneath the reservoir.

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Another requirement asked of the planners was to incorporate a new reservoir into the park (figures 6-7 show terrain now flooded beneath reservoir). The existing stone reservoir and Croton Aqueduct, completed 1842, were no longer sufficient19 despite Walt Whitman’s claim that: “Ages after ages these Croton works will last, for they are most substantial than the old Roman aqueducts.”20 To augment the Croton’s capacity, the new reservoirs combined covered approximately 20% of the park’s surface area over terrain that otherwise would have become parkland. Before Olmsted had even submitted his plan in 1857, the engineer Egbert L. Viele, who had been surveying the parkland since 1853,21 had decided on placing this reservoir on a natural depression in the land, to be augmented by an earthen embankment around the perimeter. Olmsted’s final proposal follows the contours of Viele’s proposed reservoir exactly – illustrating the degree to which engineering needs dictated the landscape architect’s choices.

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Figure 8. Map of drainage system on lower part of the Central Park as far as completed up to 31 December 1858. On the left is 59th Street, 5th Avenue is at bottom, and 8th Avenue (i.e. Central Park West) is at top. This map only illustrates the paths of future carriage roads within the park – that is, the thick white lines that wind through the landscape. Red lines indicate the buried clay pipes that drain water from the marshy soil – and many continue to do so today. Shaded gray areas correspond to areas to be raised with dirt fill. The shaded blotches are for preserved boulders protruding above ground. The slightly off-kilter rectangle in center is for the area drained to create the Central Park Mall – the only geometrically symmetrical part of the park.

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Although the park was extensively surveyed and re-landscaped there was, nonetheless, an attempt to appear rustic and unkempt. The architect, Calvert Vaux, blanketed the park in little pavilions and bridges made from unpolished and rustic wood with bark still on the beams – a nineteenth century re-reading of the primitive hut.22 The passage from the southern to the northern reaches of the park was also a parable in the march of civilization and progress. By this time, the city was advancing northward up the island from its historic center in Lower Manhattan (figure 9). Within forty years, the island would be completely built-up. With this recognition of urban sprawl, Olmsted possibly named the park’s 16 original entrances to reflect the city’s movement and types of people living in New York. In order from south to north, the names are as follows: Artisan’s Gate, Merchant’s Gate, Scholar’s Gate, Woman’s Gate, Inventor’s Gate, Miner’s Gate, Mariner’s Gate, Engineer’s Gate, Gate of All Saints, Woodman’s Gate, Boy’s Gate, Girl’s Gate, Stranger’s Gate, Warrior’s Gate, Farmer’s Gate and Pioneer’s Gate. This list almost reads as a list of social classes in increasing order of proximity to raw nature.23 The design features also evolve over distance. The southern reaches (also the busiest section due to the proximity to the city center) was built first and included more pruned botanic features, rectangular parterres of trees, and the proposed flower garden. Olmsted thought it appropriate to leave the northern reaches of the park as wooded as possible with a c.1812 fortress left standing atop a mountain as a picturesque ruin in the style of English garden follies. The northern reaches (also surrounded mostly by farmland at this time) were intentionally more heavily forested, had fewer of the park’s signature bridges, retained the park’s largest rock escarpment, and for the first few decades of its life contained no statues, monuments, or plaques commemorating important people. By contrast, about two dozen monuments to Western Civilization’s great cultural and political leaders (all male) were concentrated in the south: William Shakespeare (installed 1872), Thomas Moore (1879), Alexander Hamilton (1880), Beethoven (1884), Columbus (1894), etc.24 Paradoxically, while the south may appear more refined and cultivated than the north, the pre- development terrains in both sections were equally crafted and manipulated. There is, here, the illusion of moving north toward nature, instead of the reality.

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Figure 9. The extent of northward marching urban development by 1857, with the park beyond the developed city. Notice how large the park is relative to the city’s surface area, and how the city becomes rural travelling north. View this animation online.

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At this stage, we might arrive at a better understanding by shifting the descriptive language. Perhaps we should describe the park not in terms of nature or landscape – given that considerations of the natural were not foremost in the design. We might do better to describe the park in terms of infrastructure, engineering, movement, and social class. Indeed, one of the strengths of Olmsted’s proposal – and one of the reasons he won out of the 33 designs submitted – was his decision to separate the park by four different social classes and speeds of movement (figures 10 and 11), each of which corresponded to a width of road and minimum permitted vehicle turning radius (color-coded in figure 12).25 This detailed plan for road separation and drainage were finished before the architects had even begun working on planting diagrams or selecting which species of trees would make for the most varied landscape composition. There were four classes of segregated roads. First, because of the park’s length, size, and location, there would be many vehicles passing through the park, not for leisure, but simply to pass from one side of the park to the other as fast as possible. For these vehicles, the engineers planned four buried transverse roads with entirely separate right-of-way. These straight and wide roads at no point intersected other types of traffic and were entirely below grade level. Second, there were carriage roads for slightly slower carriage traffic within the park. While the relatively straight transverse roads were for practical through-traffic, these carriage roads were for leisure. Third, the next highest speed consisted of a narrower and more curving path than the carriage roads, gravel paths for horseback riders. Horseback riding was a popular leisure and sporting activity – these roads are now largely used for joggers who move faster than pedestrians but slower than vehicles. Fourth, the most ubiquitous road type of all consisted of unpaved footpaths for pedestrians on foot only. With the help of bridges and tunnels (figure 11), at no point did these four systems of conveyance intersect, leading Olmsted to claim: “By this means it was made possible, even for the most timid and nervous, to go on foot to any district of the Park designed to be visited, without crossing a line of wheels on the same level, and consequently, without occasion for anxiety and hesitation.”26

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Figure 10. Author’s diagram of road types

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Figure 11. 1862 cross-section of transverse road. Notice how the trees above the road are drawn small, as if to exaggerate the tunnel’s monumentality.

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WALK          RIDE          DRIVE          TRANSVERSE

Figure 12.

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Incidentally, these separate and unequal paths also corresponded to different social classes. The wealthiest individuals – those who could afford a carriage, horse, and driver – would implicitly have exclusive use of the carriage roads, while horseback riders had their separate right of way, and service vehicles were segregated below grade. The rest of the public and working classes were restricted to the footpaths, where security guards patrolled the park and prohibited them from loitering, picking flowers, picnicking, or forming large groups. Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rozenzweig write: “In the decade after the opening, more than half of those visiting the park arrived in carriages (which less than 5 percent of the city’s population could afford to own, and each day there were elaborate carriage parades in the late afternoon.”27 Yet, disproportionate design considerations and park surface area seems to be given to this minority of users on carriages. We should return here to the fact that city leaders intended this park to boost property values and taxes on the wealthy residents who lived adjacent to the park. It is only natural, then, that the park design should reflect their interests and preferences.

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Figure 15. Map of middle section of the park between the 79th Street and 97th Street transverse roads, the empty area at lower left hand corner is the future site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The blue road corresponds to the horseback trail, now jogging path. After starting at the 59th Street entrance and passing through manmade forests, valleys, and tunnels, horseback riders’ visual experience culminated as they circled this manmade reservoir.

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These maps of the park – color coded by road type – can help us begin to unravel the degree to which the current landscape is manmade. At first glance, the smooth passage of roads and their organic contours may seem effortless, as if they were laid out along existing roads with regards to existing topography. By separating the different grades of traffic by color (figure 14) and upon closer examination, there is a complex and extensive hidden infrastructure beneath these natural appearances (figure 13).

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Figure 16. 1811 Commissioners’ Plan

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These maps also reveal a park that is not separate from or opposite to the city, but instead a continuation of the city. A glance at a map of Manhattan reveals two seemingly different philosophies of urbanism, as imprinted through the laying of road networks. Most of the island is covered in the orthogonal 1811 grid (figure 16). This grid gives no consideration to topography, nature, or aesthetics. And then, there is the three square mile area of Central Park with winding and seemingly organic roads. The absence of symmetry and straight lines might lead one to conclude that the park reflects an attempt to harmonize with nature. Existing popular literature commonly situates this park as a reaction to the grid’s perceived faults and excesses. Upon closer examination, this park’s near obsessive attention to detail, its concern with segregated movement, and its reliance on complex (but hidden) infrastructure reveal the park to be a continuation of the 1811 grid’s interest in real estate, property values, and engineering, more than it is a prosaic and romantic reaction to excessive urban growth. This infrastructure is also wrapped up in a coded message about the progress of civilization. The passage from cultivated south to rugged north can read as a condensed representation of the passage from the center of civilization to its undeveloped edges. One should also keep in mind that simultaneous to the construction of Central Park, engineers and developers were at work on the other side of the country clearing the American West for development. Within the following decades, the extent of farmed land would creep westwards on former Indian soil, generally following the paths of railroads toward California. Does the design of Central Park mirror 1860s American society’s belief in the civilizing power of science and technology to tame the wilderness? Alternatively, is Central Park’s design just a matter-of-fact effort to boost the city’s tax revenues, with no moral agenda intentionally encoded in the park design? Such questions might be impossible to answer, given the lack of conclusive evidence.

But, now is the time to return to the question we started with: How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies – natural vs. manmade? I posit that by describing Central Park in the language of infrastructure and real estate – instead of nature and aesthetics – we can arrive at a more accurate assessment of the park’s origins, objectives, and construction process. Seemingly, the only way to adapt this ill-suited site into a park that fulfilled the nineteenth century definition of the picturesque was through public works that, upon their completion, effaced almost all traces of the people, trees, and landscape that existed before. The engineering here succeeds insofar as it is invisible and functions as if no manmade intervention had ever occurred. While at work, Olmsted made this prediction on the future of Manhattan Island:

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The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied rock formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park.28

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The park is an architectural contradiction. On the one hand, its rock formations, hills, and valleys look to a pre-developed and rugged Manhattan in the public imagination, a landscape more fictive than real. On the other hand, the park’s very presence is a testament to the power of real estate interests, engineers, and the water supply board in shaping the city. This tension underlies the landscape features now almost universally praised for their vision, beauty, and harmony.

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To read or circulate this paper in print copy, please download as a PDF at this link.

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Acknowledgements:

I am thankful to Zeynep Çelik Alexander for reading and commenting on drafts of this paper in the architectural history major’s colloquium course. I am also thankful to Elizabeth Blackmar for her inspiring lectures on urban development and Central Park.

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List of Figures:

  1. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, “Map of the Central Park” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/4e6a6080- 3569-0134-549e-00505686a51c (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  2. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library, “View in Central Park, Promenade, June 1858,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1- 0fb6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  3. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers); Calvert Vaux (artist), Greensward Plan presentation board with “Present Outlines” (above) and “Effect Proposed” (below): No. 1. From Point A (view at Fifth Avenue entrance), 1858, graphite, wash and white lead on paper, New York Municipal Archives.
  4. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Map of New York City and of Manhattan Island with the American defences in 1776,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ee2f1060-d488-0135-3577-67321a8090bc (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  5. David H. Burr (cartographer), Topographical Map of the City and County of New-York and the Adjacent Country (proof impression of center sheet), published by J.H. Colton and Co., New York, 1836, engraving, ca. 1836, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  6. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “Pipes in Connection with the New Reservoir,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6289- a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  7. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “General View of N. Reservoir from 102nd St. October 23, 1862,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6288-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  8. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library, “Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park as far as completed up to December 31st, 1858,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7fe3e680-0c6a-0132-bc3c- 58d385a7bbd0 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  9. Author’s illustration from Here Grows New York animation, https://youtu.be/f6U7YFPrz6Y?t=226 (retrieved 5 May 2019).
  10. Author’s diagram of road types
  11. Calvert Vaux (architect), W.B. Swan (delineator), and Sarony, Major, and Knapp (lithographers), Bridge “E” over Transverse Road No. 2, 1861, lithograph, from Fifth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, January 1862, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  12. “Map of the Central Park” New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1873, modified by author with blue, red, and green color-coding.
  13. “Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park as far as completed up to December 31st, 1858.”
  14. 1873 map of Central Park, color-coded by author to indicate types and widths of roads
  15. Ibid.
  16. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “Plan of Manhattan Island,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/26e27e80-be8a-0131- bf1a-58d385a7bbd0 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  17. Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library, “Central Park Tunnel,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a44288b4-9bdc-b31f-e040-e00a18060314 (retrieved 5 May 2019).
  18. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, “Men standing on Willowdell Arch,” New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/94b7acd9-dc81-74f7-e040- e00a18063585 (retrieved 5 May 2019).

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Works Cited:

  1. Rem Koolhaas, “Prehistory,” in Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994), p.21.
  2. Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al., “Water Supply,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p.1381-86.
  3. Charles A. Birnbaum, “The Big Task of Managing Nature at New York’s Central Park,” The Huffington Post, 12 September 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/an-unlimited-range-of-rur_b_1870450? (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  4. Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar (editors), “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p.279. This anthology of urban history assembles various primary sources from across NYC history into a single book.
  5. Ibid., “Central Park,” p.222-24.
  6. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, p.23.
  7. Robert Demcker, “Central Park Plant List and Map Index of 1873,” published by the Frederick Law Olmsted Association and The Central Park Community Fund, 1979.
  8. Concluded from comparing maps of the park pre and post construction.
  9. Hilary Ballon, “Introduction,” in The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p.13-15.
  10. Eric Sanderson et al., The Welikia Project, https://welikia.org/about/how-it-all-began/ (retrieved 15 May 2019). – Sanderson created the most detailed visualization of Manhattan’s pre-development topography.
  11. “Early Descriptions of New Netherland,” New Netherland Institute: Exploring America’s Dutch Heritage, https://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/history-and-heritage/additional-resources/dutch-treats/early-impressions-of- new-netherland/ (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  12. “NYC Total and Foreign-born Population 1790 – 2000,” NYC Planning Department, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/historical-population.page (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  13. The old rectangular shaped Croton Reservoir covered 8% of the park’s area. The new reservoir covered about 12%. Combined they covered 20%. Values calculated by author using Google MyMaps.
  14. Frederick Law Olmsted and American Social Science Association, Public Parks And the Enlargement of Towns: Read Before the American Social Science Association At the Lowell Institute, Boston, Feb. 25, 1870, (Cambridge: Printed for the American Social Science Association, at the Riverside Press, 1870), p.35. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008726621 (retrieved 4 May 2019).
  15. Ibid., p.35.
  16. Jon Campbell and Christopher Robbins, “The Origin Story Of Gramercy Park Is A Classic NYC Tale Of Real Estate Hucksterism, Cronyism, And Gate Crashing,” The Gothamist, 28 June 2018, http://gothamist.com/2018/06/28/gramercy_park_history_amazing.php (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  17. Morrison H Heckscher, “Creating Central Park,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 65, no. 3 (2008): p.40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25434142 (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  18. Ibid.
  19. A mere 94 years after opening, the old Croton reservoir was deemed inadequate, drained of water, and filled with debris from subway excavations.
  20. “Murray Hill Reservoir, November 25, 1849, Walt Whitman,” in Empire City, p.207.
  21. “Creating Central Park,” p.18.
  22. Patricia Heintzelman for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Central Park Nomination Form for NRHP, 1966, https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/66000538 (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  23. To my knowledge, the claim that Olmsted named the gates in 1862 to mirror the transition from civilization to nature has never been made before. However, Olmsted describes in writing how the terrain should evolve from smooth to rough during the passage north; it follows for naming conventions to reflect this shift.
  24. Wikipedia assembles lists of monuments, parks, streets, etc. organized as metadata with lat-long coordinates. Plotting these coordinates on a map and eliminating recently added monuments reveals a clear spatial concentration of artwork and sculpture in the south. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sculptures_in_Central_Park (retrieved 16 May 2019). Identical list also found from NYC Parks Department: https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/central- park/monuments (retrieved 16 May 2019).
  25. Landmarks Preservation Commission, Central Park Designation Report for the NYC Planning Department, 1974, http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/0851.pdf (retrieved 15 May 2019).
  26. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City, p.281.
  27. “Central Park,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, p.223.
  28. “Selected Writings on Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted (1858, 1870),” in Empire City, p.279.

Exhibition Design

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To hear my interview about this jail and exhibit, please listen to this podcast from Pod & Market.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built beginning in 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.
In Spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s architecture school documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this historical analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal for museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing 11 alternatives for a site long abandoned, the project symbolically transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of freedom.
Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Zemin Zhang, Myles Zhang, and Newark Landmarks proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, the curators and a dozen collaborators translated Columbia’s work into exhibition. We enriched this exhibit with primary sources and an oral history project, recording the experiences of former guards and people who witnessed this site’s trauma.

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Our curatorial work required translating a strictly academic project into an exhibit with language, graphics, and content accessible to the public. Columbia examined the jail’s architecture and produced numerous measured drawings of this site. While some of these drawings and all eleven reuse proposals are included in the exhibit, the focus shifted away from examining the jail as a work of architecture. Instead, we shifted focus toward the jail’s social history – to use the jail as a tool through which to examine Newark’s history of incarceration. As a result, much of the work required supplementing Columbia’s content with additional primary sources – newspaper clippings, prison records, and an oral history project – that tell the human story behind these bars. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail. As a youth in Newark, I frequently explored and painted this jail – I am therefore hoping for its reuse.
The finished exhibit will be on display from May 15 through September 27, 2019. We are making the case for preserving the buildings on this site and integrating them into the redevelopment of the surrounding – and largely blighted – neighborhood. The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, we can build support for its preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.

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Launch Virtual Exhibit Website

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Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

 

 

 

Canal & Mott Streets

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the US, prohibited Chinese females from immigrating on grounds of prostitution, and revoked the citizenship of any US citizen who married a Chinese male. The consequences of this xenophobic legislation led Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around 50 thousand (2010 US Census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Doyers Street – Barbershop Row

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the 1800s: Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern Europeans. What makes the Chinese different, though, is the survival and resilience of the immigrant community they created. Other immigrant groups – namely the Germans and Irish – converged around large neighborhoods and surrounded themselves with familiar language and businesses. Of these 1800s enclaves, all have since disappeared as the children of these first-generation immigrants successfully assimilated into American society, earned higher incomes than their parents, and therefore chose to disperse to non-immigrant neighborhoods with better housing stock and schools. Yet, the Chinese remained.

The resilience of this community results from a confluence of factors: cultural, geographic, and (most of all) racial. Of innumerable immigrant groups to the US, the Chinese were among the only to have the most restrictive laws placed on their immigration. This stigma drove them toward three types of low-skilled manual labor – with which white Americans still deeply associate with the Chinese – laundries, restaurants, and garment manufacturing. Like the Chinese, other groups – particularly Irish-immigrant females – began working in these professions, but they soon climbed the social ladder.

Mosco & Mulberry All

As an architectural historian, I am fascinated about how this political and racial agenda of exclusion is imprinted in the built environment of Chinatown. To present this neighborhood’s geography: For most of its history, Chinatown was bordered to the north by Canal Street, to the east by Bowery, and to the South and West by the city’s federal courthouse and jail. The center of this community lies on the low wetland above a filled-in and polluted lake, called the Collect Pond. Historically, this area contained the city’s worst housing stock, was home to the city’s first tenement building (65 Mott Street), and was the epicenter for waterborne cholera during the epidemics of 1832 (~3,000 deaths) and again in 1866 (1,137 deaths). The city’s first slum clearance project was also in Chinatown, at the present-day Columbus Park.

Race-based policies of exclusion can take different forms in the built-environment. The quality of street cleaning and the frequency of street closures are a place to start. Some of the city’s dirtiest sidewalks and streets are consistently located within Chinatown – as well as some of the most crowded with street vendors (particularly Mulberry and Mott Street). Yet, as these streets continue northward above Canal Street, their character markedly changes. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are unkempt and always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

The street sections immediately north (in the enclave of Little Italy) are frequently cleaned and closed for traffic most of the year to create a car -free pedestrian mall bordered by Italian restaurants. These policies continue when examining the proximity of Chinatown to centers of political power and criminal justice. Since 1838, the city’s central prison (named the Tombs because of its foreboding appearance) is located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street.

Bayard & Mulberry Grocery

Yet, although this neighborhood was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a below-average crime rate, the incarceration rate of 449 per 100,000 people is higher than the city average. NYC Open Data also reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Or, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank – on allegations of mortgage fraud later found false in court by a 12-0 jury decision in favor of Abacus.

When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the hand, there is a proclaimed love of Chinese cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Chinese-themed restaurants for tourists in Chinatown, or as evidenced by the phenomenon in art history for western artists (and particularly French Impressionists) to incorporate decorative motifs from East Asian woodcuts and ceramics into their work. There is simultaneously exclusion of the people – from the society who created this food and art – from political power and social mobility. Still today, Americans seem to want competitively priced Chinese products without suffering the presence of the foreigners who produced these products.

Forsyth & Delancey Grocery

Let us clarify one thing: the division in Chinatown is by no means “apartheid.” It is perhaps a division more subtle and difficult to notice. It expresses the kind of unequal treatment – antiquated housing, crowded conditions, and municipal apathy – that face many immigrant groups in the US. What we see in Chinatown is something altogether more complicated – as this neighborhood is also active in the process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Chinese businesses. If and when Chinese immigrants become fully integrated into American society, to what extent should the architectural fabric of this Chinese enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is possibly a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

This essay originally appeared in the spring 2019 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Click here to read this essay in its original format.

The Church of Saint-Denis and Gothic Architecture
A Case Study

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The following presentation, given on 8 May 2019, accompanies my undergraduate thesis in the History & Theory of Architecture. The paper was written under the direction of Columbia faculty advisers Stephen Murray and Barry Bergdoll in the art history department. This work is a continuation of my computer animations and visualizations of Amiens Cathedral for Professor Murray, published here.

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The full thesis is available here to read online. Scroll down for powerpoint presentation and model.
The abstract is copied below:

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Around the year 1140 CE, a new style of architecture and way of thinking about how to construct buildings developed in Northern France. This way of building soon spread across Europe, seeding cathedrals, monasteries, abbeys, and churches wherever masons traveled. Centuries later – long after masons ceased building in this style – Renaissance architectural theorists began calling this style the “Gothic.”

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The one church traditionally associated with this 1140s stylistic shift from the earlier Romanesque style to the newer Gothic style is a small building just north of Paris: the Abbey Church of S-Denis. However, although the popular narrative of architectural history assumes this building to be the world’s first Gothic building, little structural evidence to this effect survives. This thesis follows two strains of inquiry: 1) why this church is deeply associated with the origins of Gothic and 2) how surviving fragments of the 1140s S-Denis fail to support claims of the structure’s primacy.

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Why does this matter? S-Denis reveals a tendency to tell history – particularly architectural history – in terms of individual structures when, in fact, the origins of the Gothic style might be more complex. By abandoning a Paris and S-Denis centric origins story, we might be able to better appreciate the diverse array of local sources from which medieval masons found inspiration to build.

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Computer Model

Central to the argument that the Gothic style originated at S-Denis is a misunderstanding and debate about the church’s original appearance. Very little survives of the church that is claimed to have inspired the Gothic style. The computer model below illustrates architectural fabric original to the 1100s in red and later additions in white. This should lead us to question: Why and how did historians assert this structure as the first on the basis of relatively limited physical evidence?

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Abbey Church of Saint-Denis by Myles Zhang on Sketchfab

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Strangely enough, despite the widely accepted fact that S-Denis’ architecture was significantly rebuilt, numerous scholarly and non-scholarly sources continue to assume this church to be the first. Copied below is a quote from S-Denis’ official website:

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The birth of Gothic art. The church, designed by Abbot Suger, kings’ advisor from 1135 to 1144, was completed in the 13th century during the reign of Saint Louis. A major work of Gothic art, this church was the first to place a great importance on light, a symbol of divinity, in religious architecture.

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Or this quote from medievalist Dieter Kimpel:

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Suger, abbot of the most important of all the royal abbeys, that of Saint-Denis, and sponsor of the western part and the sanctuary of the abbey church, works considered rightly as a milestone in the history of the birth of Gothic architecture, left us a detailed account of his activity as abbot.

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This misconception pervades scholarly and popular sources alike, including this church’s Wikipedia entry:

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The building is of singular importance historically and architecturally as its choir, completed in 1144, shows the first use of all of the elements of Gothic architecture.

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An appendix of selected sources claiming S-Denis to be the first accompany pages 46-48 of the written thesis.

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Slide Deck

Embedded below are the slides from this presentation.

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Anyone is welcome to reuse, re-quote, or borrow the text, photos, animations, and drawings contained in this thesis for non-commercial purposes and with attribution to the author, in accordance with this creative commons license.

24 Hours in the London Underground

This animation visualizes the number of riders in the London Underground over two weeks in 2010. Each dot corresponds to one station. Dot size corresponds to the number of riders passing through each station. Big dots for busy stations. Small dots for less busy stations. Dot color represents the lines serving each station. White dots are for stations where three or more lines intersect. Each dot pulsates twice in a day. Once during the morning commute. And again during the evening commute.
If you like this, please watch my animation of weekday vs. weekend commuting patterns in the NYC subway.

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This animation does not pretend to be scientific. This is the representation of movement – a way to visualize the rhythmic pulsing of people through the London Underground as analogous to the breathing human body. The passage of red blood cells through the body’s veins is analogous to the movement of people through trains. The red blood cells bring oxygen and remove waste from the cells. Each semi-autonomous cell (with nucleus, membrane, etc.) is analogous to a workplace or home (with kitchen, walls, etc). Much like the cars and trains that move people and distribute their wealth from places of work to places of leisure, the red blood cells are the vehicles that link the heart and lungs (i.e. Central London) to the rest of the body (i.e. the London Metropolitan Region). This analogy of human form to city plan is a longstanding theme in urban studies.

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Methodology:

No algorithm or dataset could capture the true complexity of London’s rhythmic breathing during the daily commute. Stations like King’s Cross St. Pancras, Waterloo, and Victoria rank among the busiest because they are multimodal transfer points between long distance trains, taxis, cars, and buses. So, although this animation visualizes these busiest stations with the largest dot size, this does not necessarily mean more people work or live in the vicinity of these stations. Admittedly, aspects of dot size are determined by immeasurable external factors – namely transfers from other transport modes to the London Underground.

This animation is based off of open-access data collected in November 2010. According to transport for London: “Passenger counts collect information about passenger numbers entering and exiting London Underground stations, largely based on the Underground ticketing system gate data.” Excluding London Overground, the Docklands Light Railways, National Rail, and other transport providers, there are 265 London Underground stations surveyed in this data set. For data collection purposes, stations where two or more lines intersect are counted as a single data entry. This is because at complex interchanges of multiple lines (e.g. Paddington), it is difficult to track which of the lines (e.g. Bakerloo, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City) a passenger is boarding. To complicate matters, passengers are often granted free transfers between lines at interchanges.

Every fifteen minutes, the numbers of passengers are counted from gate entry data, that is, four times per hour. This yields 96 time intervals over each 24 hour period. Multiplying the number of time intervals (96) by the number of stations (265), we get the number of data points represented in this animation: 25,440. Each of the stations was also assigned its corresponding latitude and longitude coordinate, so as to appear on the map in its appropriate spatial location. In the data analysis software (Tableau), we assigned each station:

  • A spatial location → derived from latitude and longitude coordinates coordinates
  • A color → according to the lines extant in 2010: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, Victoria, Waterloo & City.
  • A size → scaled to reflect the passenger count in each 15 minute interval. The smallest dot corresponds to the rate of: zero passengers per 15-minute interval. The largest dot corresponds to the rate of about 7,500 passengers per 15-minute interval. This is the range applied to dot size: 0<X<7,500 where X represents “passengers/time.”
  • A time of day → each time interval represents one frame in the animation. We exported each frame from Tableau, conducted slight edits to background map opacity and texture, and then stitched the frames back together again – to create a flip book of sorts. With a rate of 12 frames per 1 second, or 96 frames per 8 seconds, a single day with 25,440 data points is compressed into 8 seconds of animation. This 8 second sequence is then looped.

By syncing the audio volume and background color with the data and time of day, the animation becomes more visually legible. The audio volume rises and falls to mirror the growth and contraction of each colored dot. The background color also shifts from black to gray to mirror the time of day. This was achieved by manually adjusting the background opacity in Adobe Illustrator from 100% to 50% for each of the 96 frames – as modeled with a cosine formula. The visualization was created in Tableau with post-production audiovisual editing in Final Cut Pro.

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The eight second sequence played on a loop as a .gif file.

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The Data:


View this infographic in Tableau Public.

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Powered by TfL Open Data. Contains OS data© Crown copyright and database rights 2016.

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Sources:

Lat Long Coordinates for Stations: Bell, Chris. “London Stations.” doogal.co.uk. doogal.co.uk/london_stations.php (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Ridership Statistics: “Our Open Data.” Transport for London. tfl.gov.uk/info-for/open-data-users/our-open-data (retrieved 21 April 2019). To access data, scroll down to the section entitled “Network Statistics,” then click where it reads “London Underground passenger counts data.”
“List of Busiest London Underground Stations.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_busiest_London_Underground_stations (retrieved 21 April 2019).
“London Connections Map.” Transport for London. tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/london-connections-map (retrieved 21 April 2019).
Audio effects for animation: “Heartbeat.” Freesound. https://freesound.org/search/?q=heartbeat (retrieved 23 April 2019).

NJ Transit Ridership Patterns

The NJ Transit railroad carries nearly 90,000 passengers per day to and from New York Penn Station – the busiest rail station in North America. The majority of these passengers are commuters, who live in bedroom communities dotting northern New Jersey. The construction of these railroads – mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reveals patterns of urban growth centered around New York City. Like spokes on a wheel, these rail lines converge around Midtown Manhattan. As with many urban rail networks, this growth pattern makes it easier to travel from center to periphery than between towns on the periphery.

Hover over individual dots to reveal corresponding station statistics. Dot color corresponds to train line. White dots are for stations where multiple lines intersect. Dot size corresponds to number of riders per day. Large dots for busy stations, and small dots for less busy stations. For each station, the average number of riders is listed. This average should control for any aberrations in ridership, such as a particularly busy weekend, line closure, or major event in New York. These visualizations are derived from data NJ Transit provided me, here and here.

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The map above shows weekday ridership patterns. Clearly, the movement patterns are New York City and Newark centric – where the jobs are. The next two busiest stations are Secaucus Junction and Hoboken – but these stations are not primary commuter destinations. Rather, they operate as transfer points. Weekday commuters collected from stations along the Pascack Valley, Bergen County, and Main Line are mostly headed to destinations in New York City. And because no trains on these lines arrive in New York City, they must transfer at Secaucus (to another NJT train) or at Hoboken (to PATH / the Hudson River ferries).

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This map shows Sunday ridership. Unsurprisingly, the riders per station are correspondingly less because NJ Transit is mostly a commuter railroad. Stations are on average 66% to 75% less busy on weekends. The thirteen stations along the Montclair-Boonton Line – between Bay Street and Denville – are also entirely closed on weekends and serve no riders. The one line, however, that seems to be only slightly less busy on weekends is the Atlantic City Line – possibly because this line is popular on weekends for people traveling to the casinos and beaches there.

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The infographic above lists weekday ridership by station. Notice the large gap between the first four stations and all the others listed. Keep in mind that a lot of this data implicitly involves double-counting a single passenger. For instance, someone riding from their home near Bay Street (Montclair) to Penn Station (New York) will be counted once in the morning when they clock-in at Bay Street, and then again once they return through New York Penn the same evening.

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Writing Here Is New York in 1949, E.B. White has the following to say about the suburban commuter:

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The commuter is the queerest bird of all. The suburb he inhabits … is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare cases, the man [or woman] who lives in Mamaroneck or Little New or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing much about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch…. About 400,000 men and women come charging onto the Island each week-day morning, out of the mouths of tubes and tunnels…. The commuter dies with tremendous mileage to his credit, but he is no rover…. The Long Island Rail Road alone carried forty million commuters last year, but many of them were the same fellow retracing his steps. (p.18-21)

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View a similar data visualization project for the New York City subway and for the London Underground.
View this project or download the data from Tableau Public.
Also of interest might be this set of 60 photos comparing New York Penn Station past and present.

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Northeast Corridor Drone Flight

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The Northeast Corridor is the busiest railroad in North America by passenger traffic. This drone flight follows a high-speed Acela train making this 456 mile journey from Washington D.C. to Boston via Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York City, Stamford, New Haven, and Providence.

This animation was created using the Google Earth Pro desktop application. We began by tracing the full route of the Northeast Corridor onto three-dimensional satellite imagery of the world. We then programmed our computer to follow this route while running a screen-recording to capture the progress. Finishing edits were then made in Final Cut Pro, including the addition of the inset map at bottom, the speedometer and clock at upper left, and edits to the pacing and sound effects. The time and distance markers are calculated using Google Maps.

The above animation is annotated, click here to view the uncut 28 minute drone flight.

Audio effects are courtesy of Freesound.org.
Piano accompaniment is Metamorphosis by Philip Glass
performed by YouTube user: “Coversart”

Geography of Incarceration

 

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Between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2017, the New York Police Department (NYPD) made 102,992 arrests for the possession, sale, and/or use of marijuana. 1 While only 25.5% of New Yorkers are Black, 67.5% of marijuana arrests are of Blacks. Similarly, 18 out of 20 marijuana arrests are of male individuals, even though only 13 out of 20 marijuana users are male. 2 Males more than females and Blacks more than others are arrested for marijuana. While these two aspects of the “War on Drugs” are widely known, less discussed is the clustering of marijuana arrests in specific hotspots.

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Race

Percentage of New Yorkers who identify as this race 3

Percentage of marijuana arrests of individuals belonging to this race

White

44.0%

11.2%

Black

25.5%

67.5%

Asian/Pacific Islander

12.8%

4.2%

Other

17.7%

17.1%

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These arrests are disproportionately of Black males between the ages of 18-44 from low-income communities, even though this demographic represents less than 10% of the city’s population. Why should this matter? Arresting individuals for using a relatively harmless and non-addictive drug is expensive for the taxpayer. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the city spent $75 million on marijuana arrests and prosecution per year 4 – money that could have been put to more effective use on education, awareness, etc. This policy also unfairly targets the individuals to whom the consequences of arrest, incarceration, and bail are highest.
The common argument, and the grounds on which marijuana was initially made illegal, is that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Marijuana supposedly introduces and later encourages individuals to experiment with more dangerous and addictive substances. Whether or not this is true, the arrest and punishment of individuals for marijuana may incur the equal risk of serving as a “gateway crime” to the legal system.

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Click here to view this pie chart in more detail.

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Below are three maps of neighborhood “hotspots” for marijuana arrests. The income of every block is indicated on a red to green color scale from low to high. Population of Latinos and Blacks per square mile is also indicated; unsurprisingly, these groups cluster in low-income neighborhoods. On this base map is the geo-referenced address of every arrest for marijuana possession or sale from 2013 to 2017. Of particular note is the tendency for marijuana arrests to occur in low-income neighborhoods. For instance, Manhattan’s 96th Street represents an income divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and the comparatively poorer Harlem. Drawing a “thin blue line” down 96th, we also identify an unspoken policing boundary. Marijuana arrests are significantly less likely to happen in the majority white neighborhood south of 96th than in the majority black neighborhood north, even though both neighborhoods are of comparable population density. According to the UCLA: “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.” 5 Similarly, the wealthy and majority white neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx has few arrests in comparison to the poorer and majority black West Bronx, even though these two neighborhoods are less than mile apart.

 

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Research Methodology and Sources

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Note that on the above map, there are numerous low-income neighborhoods without any drug arrests. This is largely because these areas have little to no population, such as Central Park or La Guardia Airport.

This project was assembled entirely publicly-available data. I began by downloading anonymized microdata on the race, crime, gender, and age of every individual arrested by NYPD, as well as the address where this individual was arrested. Of the approximately 1.7 million arrests in this spreadsheet, I filtered out the marijuana crimes. The colored basemap indicating per capita income and race by city block is extracted from Tableau Public, the mapping software I use. The infographics presented above can be explored or downloaded at this link. Arrest data is from NYC Open Data at this link.

  1. Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all arrests made during this time period.
  2. From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link to statistic.
  3. From the United States Census Bureau, 2010 statistics on NYC demographics, link to report, link to database.
  4. From the Drug Policy Alliance, accessed 15 January 2019, link to press release, link to report.
  5. From the American Civil Liberties Union, accessed 18 January 2019, link to article.

New York City Subway Ridership

Could the movement of people in the New York City subway system be visualized as rhythmic breathing?
Linguistically, we often describe cities in relation to the human body. Major roads are described as “arteries” in reference to blood flow. The sewers are the city’s “bowels.” Central Park is the “city’s lungs.” At various times in history, key industries like textiles or finance, were described as the “backbone” of this city’s economy. Cities are complex organisms. But, this wordplay makes the giant metropolis somehow more human and familiar.
The 424 subway stations and 665 miles of track are analogous to the human circulatory system. Every weekday, the subway carries 5.4 million people, mostly to and from work (c.2018).  This movement during the daily commute is highly ordered, structured, and rhythmic – as Manhattan’s population swells during the daily commute and then contracts by night. Each passenger symbolizes the movement of a single blood cell, operating as one cellular unit in a complex system. With each paycheck, the oxygen of capitalism flows from the heart of Manhattan to the cellular homes in the outer boroughs.
Commuting patterns are analogous to the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the human body while breathing. By contrasting weekday and weekend ridership patterns, we detect the city’s respiratory system.

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sounds of breathingheartbeat, and subway are from freesound.org

In this animation based on subway ridership statistics by station:
● Dots are color-coded according to the subway lines they serve.
● White dots are for junctions between two or more lines of different color.
● Dot size corresponds to the number of riders entering each station within a 24-hour period.
● Larger dots are for busier stations. Smaller dots are for less busy stations.
Maybe the visual language of data can address this deeper need to humanize and soften the concrete jungle.

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Also published by the Gothamist on 22 January 2019.
If you like this, please see my animation of ridership patterns over 24 hours in the London Underground.

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Where in the world is modernism?

What if the nationality of every artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s collections could be mapped to illustrate the Museum’s geographic diversity through time? Watch the data visualization below of 121,823 artworks at MoMA.

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Introduction

“The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, the Museum’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

“MoMA is committed to helping everyone understand, enjoy, and use our collection. The Museum’s website features 79,870 artworks from 26,215 artists. This research dataset contains 135,804 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date made, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum. Some of these records have incomplete information and are noted as ‘not Curator Approved.’

“The Artists dataset contains 15,757 records, representing all the artists who have work in MoMA’s collection and have been cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each artist, including name, nationality, gender, birth year, death year, Wiki QID, and Getty ULAN ID.” – from MoMA’s website.

I have downloaded this dataset as a spreadsheet, imported the data into a visualization software called Tableau Public, and then proceeded to dissect this data to answer the following question:

What can big data reveal about the history of curating and the growth of museum collections?

The results are presented below in three case studies with accompanying infographics. Hover over the graph or toggle the buttons to explore the data in depth.

If you liked this analysis, please see my animation about the collecting history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Case Study One:

Geographic and Gender Diversity

The map below visualizes the nationalities of ~15,757 artists whose work is displayed at MoMA. There are 121,823 data points below. The data can be browsed by year or by department. This illustrates the constantly evolving geographic breadth of collections. Beginning in the 1930s, over 80% of artworks were from the four key countries of the US, UK, France, and Germany. Beginning the 1960s, the museum acquired some of its first works from Latin America and Japan. And, post-1991, the museum acquired the bulk of its collections from Russia and China. Recent years have seen a slight growth in African art.

An important distinction: This map does not show where each artwork was made. Rather, it shows where each artist is from. Nationality and national identity are, depending on the artist, an important influence shaping the unique perspective artists bring to their work.

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The bar chart below shows the gender distribution of artworks by date. On the horizontal axis: the date acquired. On the vertical axis: the number of artworks acquired in this year. Each bar is divided into three colors: Blue for artwork by a male artist. Pink for art by a female artist. Grey for art where the gender of the artist is not known.

This data can be explored by year and by department. Across departments, male artists comprise the large majority of holdings. The departments with the greatest number of works by female artists: Photography and Drawings. The department with the least female representation: Prints & Illustrated Books. The department with greatest number of works where the artists’ gender is unknown: Architecture & Design. However, across departments, the representation of female artists has slightly increased over the past few decades from around 0% to somewhere closer to 20%.

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Case Study Two:

Do newer acquisitions tend to be smaller?

The two graphs below plot the relationship between year produced, year acquired by MoMA, and the dimensions of each artwork (width in cm). I’ve plotted 12,250 points. They are color coded with the same blue, pink, and grey system as the previous chart.

In the first graph, we see how new artworks are becoming progressively larger and larger. In 1929, the year of MoMA’s founding, the width of the average work being produced was less than 100cm. Today, the average width of newly produced works in the collection is around 400cm – and is steadily increasing.

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In the second graph, we see how MoMA’s new acquisitions are becoming progressively smaller, even though newly produced artworks are larger than before. In 1929, the average width of a new acquisition was over 300 cm. Today, the width is less than 150cm.

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Contemporary artists seem to be working in ever larger dimensions – at least the contemporary artists whose work MoMA acquires. But, newer acquisitions tend to be smaller. Does this reverse correlation indicate that the growing costs of buying and storing art have priced MoMA out of larger artworks? What is the relationship between size and the decision whether or not to acquire a work?

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Case Study Three:

Is the scope and definition of modernism expanding to include older artworks?

The challenge facing any museum dedicated to modern art is: keeping up-to-date. Modern art is constantly being produced. Like any leading museum, MoMA is:

  • growing its collection of newly-produced contemporary works

  • while also enhancing its collection of older works

  • and expanding the geographic and national representations of artists and artworks

The graph below compares the relationship between production year and acquisition year for 7,797 items. The red trend line is the average of the acquisition (horizontal) and production (vertical) axes. Dot color indicates gender. Dot size indicates the number of works by this artist acquired in this year.

In 1929, most new acquisitions were produced in the 1920s – modernism was a new movement and a new idea. Today, new acquisitions range in date from the late 1800s to the early 2000s – the definition of modernism has grown to encompass both newer and older works. But, the average date of new acquisitions is between 1950 and 1960. There is modern art recently produced, and then there is modern art that is not as new but can reveal the history and birth of “modernism.” This is, so to speak, the history of the present.

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Modernism is not a geographically limited phenomenon. With globalization and the march of capitalism, the area effected by modernity is growing. And as new regions of the world come into contact with modern technology, materials, and ideas, the qualities of their respective art and the practices of their artists will change. Cultural institutions, particularly museums dedicated to modern art, are positioned to curate these global trends through the kinds of works they acquire and display in their galleries. More broadly speaking, the kinds of stories museums and curators can tell about history may reflect the geographic, gender, and temporal strengths (or weaknesses) of their collections.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

  • MoMA’s dataset from GitHub is free to download here. It is published with the following license: Creative Commons Public Domain (CC0). The information presented above reflects this dataset as of 17 October 2018. New entries after this date are not included as these infographics are not updated in real-time.
  • The dataset, derived from MoMA’s, is also free to download here from Tableau Public.
  • These infographics are not affiliated with MoMA. MoMA does not endorse the conclusions of the authors, who themselves take sole responsibility. The conclusions presented below are limited by the scope of MoMA’s published metadata.
  • This author is aware that, according to some definitions, gender is not a binary. Yet, the colors pink and blue code for traditional gender norms. This color palette is for visual clarity; it does not represent an endorsement or rejection of this gender binary.
  • I have created similar data visualisations analysing:

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