Architecture of Endurance in Manhattan Chinatown

As featured in City as Living Laboratory’s May 2021 program for the Municipal Art Society of NY

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Eldridge Street Synagogue and Manhattan Bridge

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Welcome to Chinatown. With a population of ~150,000, this neighborhood is the largest ethnic Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere. Join us on a mile-long walk through space and time.
A few questions to keep in mind during our walk:
+ How has Chinatown changed over two centuries of urban growth? What has not changed?
+ What other cultures and ethnicities lived here before or simultaneously with the Chinese?
+ How are the challenges the Chinese faced imprinted on the built environment of Chinatown?
+ How does Chinatown street life blur the boundary between public and private space?

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Interactive Tour Map

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Thank you to Liza Cucco, Olivia Georgia, and Stephen Fan for co-creating this virtual tour. City as Living Laboratory has been exploring this neighborhood through walks for many years. A recent initiative explored issues of climate, equity, and health in Chinatown’s unique food system.

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Tour Stops

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Route of walking tour superimposed over 1782 map of Manhattan

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1. Bowery & Canal Street

Start at the southwest corner of Canal Street and Bowery, opposite the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. The Bowery was a former Lenape trail turned dirt road linking Lower Manhattan to farms just north of where you are standing. Bowery comes from the word bouwerij in Dutch, or bower in English, meaning “a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood.” Ironically, Lower Manhattan now has less green space per resident than most other parts of New York City.
Walk south on Bowery to our next stop at Pell Street.

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2. Edward Mooney House

Edward Mooney House (top) and Church of the Transfiguration (bottom)

The four-story home built in 1785-89 has a sloped roof and ornamental details in the Federalist style that was popular around the time of the American Revolution. Edward Mooney, a wealthy butcher, built his house at the northern edge of Manhattan’s urban growth and within site of farms and rolling hills. It is the only surviving town house in Manhattan from the period of the American Revolution, and it is a reminder of past generations and land uses in Chinatown.
In 1790, New York City was capital of the United States and consisted only of Manhattan. The town had a population of 33,000, in contrast to 2.3 million in 1910. Chinatown and the Lower East Side ranked in 1910 as one of the densest places on earth with over 300,000 people per square mile. Manhattan’s population has fallen to 1.6 million, but imagine the streets three times as crowded.
With nineteenth-century revolutions in Germany, famines in Ireland, poverty in Italy, and organized massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe (called pogroms in Yiddish), immigrants arrived by the millions; Manhattan’s population swelled. The Chinese began arriving by ship in the 1820s and 1830s. By the 1850s, there were about 150 Chinese sailors in Lower Manhattan – most migrants hoping to make their fortune in America and then return home. Most Chinese immigrants to America spoke Cantonese due to the relative poverty of this region of China. Fleeing from the poverty of China to the promise of California, they found work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Fleeing the white nationalists and death threats of California, they sought refuge in New York. Wealthy merchants in houses like Edward Mooney’s moved north, away from the pestilence and crowded conditions of Lower Manhattan. In a few decades, the area transformed from a neighborhood of English-style townhouses for the middle classes and wealthy into the mass of tenements you now see.

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3. Heading to Doyers Street

Walk down Pell Street to the intersection with Doyers Street. Notice the multi-story vertical signs that hang from the tenements. They are similar to the neon signs that clutter the streets of Hong Kong. Also notice the profusion of almost a dozen barbershops. As each generation of immigrants arrived in Manhattan, they brought with them the aesthetics and traditions of their homeland that were then integrated into the island’s streetscapes.
As you walk down Doyers Street, notice the eccentric curve of the road. Before the 1811 Manhattan grid standardized urban growth, individual landowners decided how best to divide and resell farmland for development. With no standard plan, Lower Manhattan grew organically as a crazy quilt of intersecting streets.

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Pell Street and Doyers Street

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4. Abacus Federal Savings Bank

As you approach Bowery again, notice the Chinese jewelry store to your right, one of many in the area. As immigrants in America, the Chinese were locked out of the financial system, denied home mortgages, and often relied on jewelry to symbolize and preserve wealth. Turn left and walk forty feet back up Bowery. You will see the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded by Chinese immigrants. In a gesture to the preferences of its immigrant customers, Abacus offers thousands of safe deposit boxes in its basement for the storage of jewelry and other valuables. Abacus was the only bank prosecuted after the 2008 financial crisis, and was later cleared of all charges by the jury’s unanimous decision. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is investigating Donald Trump’s taxes, charged Abacus with falsifying loan applications so that borrowers would qualify for home mortgages.

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Chinatown businesses

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5. Kimlau memorial gate

Across the street, you will see the Kimlau memorial gate commemorating Chinese-Americans who served and died in the US military. Behind the gate is a statue of Lin Zexu, a nineteenth-century Chinese scholar and official who fought and failed to stop British and colonial powers from smuggling drugs into China in the name of “free trade” and getting millions of Chinese addicted to opium. Before 1965 reforms to US immigration policy, generations of Asians served in the US military while their friends and family were prohibited from immigrating, marrying, or owning their own homes in the suburbs. Historian Mae Ngai characterizes America’s relationship with the Chinese as simultaneously wanting cheap products and foreign labor without suffering the presence of the people who sacrificed and labored for them.

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6. Church of the Transfiguration / Wing on Wo & Co.

Walk down Bowery until you reach the intersection with Mott Street. Turn right and walk one block up Mott Street to the Church of the Transfiguration. At this site since 1801, it was first an English Lutheran church, and for a brief period in the nineteenth century a largely Irish church with a Cuban pastor. Later still, it became an Italian congregation. As Chinese replaced Italians as the neighborhood’s dominant ethnic group, the congregation became Chinese. Catholic masses are held in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Across the street, you will find Wing on Wo & Co., the oldest continually-run family business in Chinatown. Its fifth-generation owner, Mei Lum, also runs the W.O.W. project, a community-based initiative that reinvents, preserves, and encourages Chinatown’s creative culture and history through arts, culture, and activism. W.O.W. hosted one of CALL’s 2018 workshops with artist Jean Shin.
Continue downhill along Mosco Street.

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Photos of Mulberry Bend by Jacob Riis

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7. Mulberry Street

Notice the several funeral homes along this stretch of Mulberry. As indicated by the century-old Baroque entrance of the Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corp., many funeral homes in Chinatown used to belong to the Italians. Italian brass bands still accompany traditional Chinese funeral rites. Opposite Wah Wing Sang, notice the corner store selling “Hell Bank Notes,” paper dollhouses, and paper versions of luxury products that will be burned at funerals in the hope that the deceased will be wealthier in the next life than he or she was in this life.
The poorest and least-favored immigrants were concentrated in this area known as Five Points. Tenements here were among the most crowded in the city, water was delivered in wooden pipes, and sanitation was difficult due to the marshy soil, causing immigrants to suffer or die here in the thousands. The ~12,200 deaths in the cholera outbreaks of 1832, 1849, 1854, and 1866 were concentrated where you are standing. One Virginia doctor treating cholera victims in Five Points concluded that their living conditions were worse than those of the worst-treated slaves in the American South. The immigrants were, he wrote, like “a flock of sheep swept off suddenly by some distemper.” Charles Dickens, lifelong chronicler of the miseries of the English working class, compared Five Points and the future site of Chinatown as worse than the slums of his native England. In language that parallels the income inequalities that plague present-day New York, Dickens described the experience of seeing wealthy ladies in fancy dresses shopping on Broadway, while thousands were gripped by poverty around the corner. He described in 1842, with surprise and horror, the site of feral pigs roaming the streets, rag pickers, and the constant scent of fever and death.
“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors, have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over.”

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8. Columbus Park & Collect Pond

This neighborhood was once part of a wetland the city filled in, and the spot you are standing on was part of a small marshy body of water known as the Collect Pond.
Eric Sanderson tells us how this place came to be what in his seminal 2013 book Mannahatta:
“In the early days of the nineteenth century, city leaders allowed a tannery to set up shop on the edge of the Collect. Tanneries preserve the skins of animals by soaking their hides in plant chemicals (tannins – the same compounds that give a young red wine its bite) extracted from local trees, especially hemlock and oak, which, when disposed of as waste in the convenient nearby pond, rapidly poisoned the water, spoiling what had been the city’s best and most accessible drinking water. Remember that New York City was built on an island in a tidal (i.e., salty) estuary, with no possibility of drinking from the Hudson and East rivers. The spoilage of the Collect led to plans to bring in water from uptown, orders to dig wells to extract the groundwater downtown, and eventually construction of the Croton water system, which would bring water from Westchester, thirty miles away. (It also led to a bank – Aaron Burr formed the “Manhattan Water Company” in 1808 to bring water from streams uptown, but then used the assets to form a bank, later known as the Chase Manhattan Bank, and now a part of JPMorgan Chase.) In the meantime, city leaders voted to fill in the verdant Collect, by leveling the adjacent hills into the stagnant waters and declining marshes.
“The city advanced rapidly over the site with the construction of tenements, churches, and businesses around the short-lived and quickly forgotten “Paradise Square.” Within a decade the land began to subside, having been incompletely filled; the formerly luxuriant vegetation of the shrub-swamp and coastal-plain-pond shore, now trapped in the soil, began to decompose and release unpleasant vapors. In other words, the landscape, disturbed by the pond being filled, began to adjust, by stinking and collapsing. Those people who could left for more salubrious uptown addresses, while those who couldn’t, mainly immigrant Irish and freed blacks, stayed on in increasingly dangerous and crowded tenements that sank slowly into the mire. The neighborhood became known as Five Points, for the five streets that once met over the northern edge of the Collect Pond; some of its particular charms are recalled in Martin Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York (2002). Charles Dickens visited, and in his American Notes (1842) deplored the slum neighborhood, with its unpaved alleys filled with knee-deep mud, free-roaming pigs, rotting and sinking houses, and children sleeping on the steps. Gangs established their own competitive balance; the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Roach Guards marked out territory as the woodcock and osprey had once done. It wasn’t until Jacob Riis, the journal and reformer, began documenting the conditions in the 1880s with a new invention, the camera, that things began to change. The city bought up and condemned most of the tenements and replaced them with large civic buildings, including the reconstructed Tombs, the city prison, and the New York Courthouse. Now, when accused criminals are arraigned in the gray stone buildings of Foley Square, they face the judge on the shores of the old Collect Pond.”
Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer. “The Old Collect.” In Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York City. Abrams Books, 2013, pp. 167-69.

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9. New York County Criminal Court

The Art Deco limestone ziggurat of the New York County Criminal Court towers above the park. On a good day, the courthouse windows are left open. The smells of Chinese food and the sounds of Chinese opera drift inside, while everyone from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, to Occupy Wall Street protestors, to South Bronx teenagers charged with petty shoplifting are on trial. It is a strange coincidence that a Chinese community that has suffered from generations of state-sanctioned racism should itself be so physically close to the center of power, and yet so politically distant from making the decisions that effect their fate. Current proposals for a 50-story skyscraper of the new city jail will tower over Columbus Park and the neighborhood.
Walk to the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard Street at the end of the park, and head get back onto Mott Street.

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10. Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association

Walk to the intersection of Mulberry and Bayard Street at the end of the park. Head one block down Bayard Street to Mott Street, and make a left. The city’s first tenement at 65 Mott Street is a seven-story affair in brick; it was built 1824 when surrounding structures were mostly two-story wooden houses. Count the number of floors of surrounding buildings; the average tenement has no more than six floors on account of being built before the widespread use of elevators. At right, you will notice the white brick home of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association founded 1883. Chinatown has proved particularly resistant to gentrification due to the large share of tenements owned by benevolent associations and the Chinese themselves.

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11. Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

At the intersection with Canal Street, notice the Chinese Merchants’ Association Building built 1950 that blends the geometric aesthetic of Art Deco with elements of traditional Chinese architecture. For a community that has lived here for close to 200 years, there are comparatively few buildings in Chinatown that look traditionally Chinese.
Pay attention when crossing Canal Street. The street is continually busy from the sounds and soot of the thousands of cars and trucks that pass through Chinatown to Brooklyn and Long Island suburbs. Claiming that “cities are created by, and for traffic,” Robert Moses proposed in the 1960s to demolish hundreds of buildings in Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo for his Lower Manhattan Expressway. The project would slice through the urban tissue and speed the travel of suburban commuters to their jobs in the city. The project never started, and Canal Street remains as busy as ever with traffic congestion. Chinatown was almost lost.
Canal Street was historically the dividing line between Chinatown to the south and Little Italy to the north. But as second- and third-generation Italians left for better housing in the suburbs, new waves of Chinese immigrants pushed the borders of their community north above Canal Street. Continue one block up Mott to the intersection with Hester Street. Look left, and you will see some of the Italian restaurants and tricolor green, white, and red of the Italian flag.

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Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

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12. Mott Street Markets

As you continue up Mott Street, notice the variety of produce stands, and fish and meat markets that spill out onto the sidewalk. Also notice the variety of food delivery trucks, handcarts, and boxed food waiting on the sidewalk to be unpacked. At some points, the sidewalk becomes so narrow from the food stands that the boundary between public and private dissolves.
Exploring the food systems that make up Chinatown’s markets is a major focus of CALL’s work in this neighborhood. After finishing the walk, you can check out another walk Dr. Valerie Imbruce and Stephen Fan put together exploring the food system.

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13. A Mixed Use Neighborhood

Chinatown preserves a slice of urban life that has long since vanished from all other American cities. Before the modern laws of zoning and land use divided cities into zones of residential, commercial, and industrial, urban neighborhoods had diverse and mixed land uses. Food trucks unload onto the sidewalk while residents watch from tenements above. Bulk manufacturing noodle factories and lumber warehouses co-exist alongside the same restaurants that buy and use their products. The crowded tenements of urban laborers existed alongside the garment and industrial shops where they worked, such as the massive yellow-brick Mietz & Weiss Oil Engine Building on Mott Street that is now a supermarket. In immigrant New York, garment workers brought unfinished goods home with them to complete from crowded tenements like those that now surround you. As Jacob Riis wrote in 1890: “Nowhere in the world are so many people crowded together on a square mile as here.”
As you look up at the tenements on the left side of Mott Street, notice the floor of each tenement has four windows, and a tiny little window in the middle of each floor. These tenements from the mid to late nineteenth century originally contained about twenty apartments per building, often with sixteen people in a two-room apartment, with no running water and with shared latrines in the backyards. Showers and bathing required visits to the nearest public bathhouse or sponge baths from buckets. When later changes required indoor plumbing, bathrooms were carved out of the old tenements and the little rectangular windows were created on the middle of each floor you see today. Living conditions are less crowded and more sanitary than they were a century ago, but Chinese immigrants live in the same rooms that generations of Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, Czechs, and Polish immigrants lived in before them.

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Mott Street tenements

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14. Leaving Mott Street

When you arrive at the intersection of Mott with Grand Street, turn right and walk two blocks to Bowery. After one block, you will spot the imposing limestone façade of the Bowery Savings Bank by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White.

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Old Bowery Savings Bank

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15. Old Bowery Savings Bank

When opened in 1894, it was the largest and most imposing building in the Lower East Side. The marble interior with gilded and paneled high ceilings was a statement of power, and an advertisement to the immigrant masses that the bank was a safe and permanent place to park their money. In late-nineteenth-century New York, immigrants could expect to earn around two dollars a day in sweatshops, construction, and food supply. Think of how many nickels and dimes in immigrant savings it must have taken to build the Bowery Savings Bank, or the dozens of churches and synagogues that line the streets of Chinatown

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Chinatown street scenes

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16. Back at the Bowery

At the intersection with Bowery, turn right. While only two blocks from the commerce of Mott Street, the character of Bowery is visibly different. Notice the range of furniture, lighting, and restaurant supply stores that line Bowery. Lack of storage space is a constant challenge for light industrial and supply businesses in Chinatown. Notice how some the kitchen supplies, stoves, or cookware for sale in some businesses spill out onto the sidewalk. Not only is Chinatown the center of New York City’s Chinese community, it is also the center of food supply and distribution for Chinese restaurants across the New York region. After two blocks, you will be back where you began.
As you watch the traffic edge through the triumphal arch of the Manhattan Bridge and into Chinatown, reflect on how the constant flow of immigrants have shaped and reshaped the city. Surviving in Lower Manhattan for almost 200 years, the Chinese have outlived and outgrown all other immigrant communities in Manhattan that have long since dispersed. Specific cultures and peoples have passed away, but the crowds of vibrant immigrant culture endure. Walt Whitman’s poetry is as alive today as when he wrote Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in 1856.
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me.

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The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

Map created by author in QGIS with planimetric data from NYC Open Data

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More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.

About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1

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New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.

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Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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The street as public space

Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

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1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)

Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.

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The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.

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In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.

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Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area

The site of the World Trade Center complex forms a large hole because the space is owned by a government agency but is managed by corporations. Details of privatized spaces are pulled from map of Privately Owned Public Space and official zoning and land use map.

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2. Public space lost to the private sector (1945 to present)

In addition to reducing the amount of public space, cars empowered the migration of people, industry, and wealth from urban centers to the suburban and rural edge. In the decades after WWII, New York City lost a population of three million white people. Prominent industries relocated, such as Bell Labs that moved from Greenwich Village to new corporate campuses in suburban New Jersey. At the same time, as lower- and middle-class whites drove out of the city on bands of asphalt, minorities and immigrants with lower incomes and less consumer spending moved in. The net population loss increased poverty and made urban neighborhoods less desirable, causing consumer spending and property values to fall.
By the 1970s, the city was challenged with decaying public parks, public schools, city services, and infrastructure. But it did not enough revenue to make improvements. The city took out loans and cut back on public services like graffiti removal, causing a downward spiral with further decay of public spaces, further losses in the values of neighboring properties, and therefore less income from property taxes to pay for public services. With billions in debt and no revenue to pay off this debt, New York City wobbled within hours of bankruptcy in 1975. President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 captured the spirit of economic crisis:
Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children‘s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. [….] In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
Reagan condemned what he saw as the over-expansion of government into all aspects of American life: welfare, taxes, regulations, and civic spaces. During his eight years as president, he supervised the largest rollback of public services in American history. With the belief in “small government,” Reagan cut back on welfare to minorities, government regulation of airlines, and government funding for infrastructure and public space. With the desire to create a “free market” for corporations to compete, Reagan announced in his inaugural address that “it is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden.”
More broadly, Ronald Reagan’s policies in America and Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain gave birth to the political philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism believes that government is too large and that private industry can do a better job than government caring for the public good. Therefore, public services like water, electricity, parks, railroads, highways, and healthcare should all be entrusted to corporations. Following presidents like Bill Clinton followed Reagan’s lead by slashing taxes and de-funding public services, while shifting management of many public services to the private sector. As Noam Chomsky describes: “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”
Neo-liberalism has consequences for public space. Since the 1970s, city government has been surrendering public space to non-government agencies. Since 1980, Central Park has not been maintained by the city’s parks department. Instead, the non-elected and wealthy members of the Central Park Conservancy rely on donations and private funding. The twenty acres of towers, parks, public streets, and memorials of the rebuilt World Trade Center are run by Brookfield, Silverstein Properties, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation on behalf of the Port Authority. Green areas like Bryant Park are managed by the non-profit Bryant Park Corporation, while transit infrastructure like Penn Station is owned by National Railroad Passenger Corporation founded 1971. Similarly, streets in dozens of neighborhoods across the city and in Lower Manhattan are now part of Business Improvement Districts. Sensing that the government was not maintaining public space to adequate standards, business owners petitioned the city to form 76 Business Improvement Districts across the city that spend 167 million annually and can enforce their own preferences for the use of public space. (source)
What neoliberalism means for New York City is not so much a reduction in the actual amount of public space but rather restrictions on its use. Central Park is still open to the public, anyone can still mourn at the World Trade Center, or walk through a Business Improvement District. Many areas of Manhattan still appear to be and function as public spaces, but they are now managed by organizations that can restrict their use without being held accountable the way that city agencies report to elected officials.
More problematic is that neoliberalism has injected a corporate and business ethic for the management of public space. There was something civic and sacred about Central Park when it was built in the mid nineteenth century. Business interests like restaurants and trinket sellers were restricted from using the park, and the park was not expected to make an income for those managing it. Instead, park designer Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. saw the park as an investment by itself in the aesthetic and cultural life of New York City residents.
Public spaces today are expected to pay for themselves through incentives and tradeoffs. A common tradeoff is the public allows a developer to build higher in exchange for the developer setting aside a fraction of his building for public space, in effect sacrificing one public need (light) in exchange for another public need (open space). Old New York Penn Station gave the bulk of its spaces to the public. In the interest of profit and making public space pay for itself, the current Penn Station suffocates the public in dark and narrow caverns beneath the sports arena and office spaces above. Bryant Park hosts dozens of restaurants and dining areas that transform it into more theme park and shopping mall than open space. The new World Trade Center PATH Station opened 2016 devotes almost as much floor space to the movement of people and trains as to the selling of luxury goods at businesses surrounding the main atrium. To reach trains, passengers (or should I call them customers?) must pass through the largest shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. Stores at the PATH shopping mall, like Sephora, Apple, and Victoria’s Secret, pay rent to the real estate corporation Brookfield that values the assets under its control at 600 billion. The shopping mall might allow the magnificent and blinding white atrium that cost four billion dollars to pay for its own upkeep, but at what aesthetic and ethical cost? Why must the sacred land where almost three thousand civilians, police, and firefighters died in a terrorist attack become a site of commercialism and a source of profit?

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How much of our cities belong to We The People?

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3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)

Hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George Bush reassured a frightened nation:
These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.
The foundation of democracy depends on events of public participation like voting, public meetings, courts of law, peaceful protests, and the inauguration of new leaders. These ceremonies, in turn, require public spaces that are often ceremonial in nature like the National Mall in Washington D.C., courthouses, state capitals, and even the in-glamorous public street. A place like the World Trade Center Memorial is itself a part of democracy: a place to see and be seen, to assemble, and to remember those fallen.
To follow the logic of Bush’s statement that September 11 was “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat,” then the response to anti-democratic acts of terror should be to build more public space, more ceremonial spaces for public participation, not less. Instead, September 11 has frightened the nation into a retreat from civil liberties and public spaces that are now perceived as dangerous. The public has: their internet activity monitored by the likes of Google; their movements in public recorded on camera; their spending recorded by banks and credit card companies; and their use of public space controlled by armed police officers.
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.

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Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2

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Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.

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City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

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“With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared, and the social intercourse that used to be the main characteristic of urban life has vanished.” – Kenneth T. Jackson

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Further reading

Michael Sorkin. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. New York: North Point Press, 2009.
E.B. White. Here is New York. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1949.

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236,250 = total   |   92,934 = water   |   143,316 = land
Non-public before: 55,558 = 38.8% (rounded to 40%)
Non-public after: 90,826 = 63.4% (rounded to 65%)

  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.
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Street Grid Development vs. Population Density

Adapted from Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall’s NYU Stern Urbanization Project,
here and here.

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The animation at left shows street grid development from 1801 to 2011, mapping Manhattan’s gradual expansion north. The animation at right shows the population density over time of each census tract in Manhattan. Notice how Manhattan’s population density rises and peaks around 1900 before falling to present levels. Despite Manhattan’s appearance of being denser and more built up with skyscrapers than ever before, the island actually has a lower population density than a century ago.

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Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth century, the difficulties of commuting distances over land and water drove a denser form of urbanism than today. By 1900, the island of Manhattan had over 2.3 million residents in comparison to only 1.6 million in 2020. These people were crowded into dense blocks with upward of half a million people per square mile. The subways had not yet opened, suburban sprawl had not yet arrived, there were no rail connections under the Hudson River, and Manhattan had few or no road connections with the other boroughs and the mainland. This produced an island of remarkable density with the Lower East Side the densest place on earth, while only a few miles north, Harlem remained almost rural.
In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River linked the Lower East Side with undeveloped Brooklyn. The trolley lines, subways, and roadway that stretched over the Williamsburg accelerated the development of Brooklyn, first in the higher density parts of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan and later to the distant parts of Brooklyn and Queens with suburban population densities. Suburban growth started earlier than the 1950s image of Levittown, and with the movement of people outwards from Manhattan, the centers of immigrant cultural life shifted, too. In every following year, the Lower East Side lost people, arriving at a density in 2020 only a sixth of what it was in 1900.
Over the following decades, improvements in public transportation and the introduction of the car “smoothed” out the population density. At the same time, Manhattan’s street network expanded to cover the whole of the island from end to end. As the subways made commuting easier, people no longer need to live within walking distance of where they worked. As a result, many industries remained in Manhattan while their workers moved to other boroughs, and later still to the more distant suburbs. As a result, the population densities of Manhattan today are more consistent from one end of the island to the other. Unlike in 1900, Harlem today is about as dense of the Lower East Side because transportation has made one part of the island almost as accessible to work as any other part of the island.
This animation illustrates Manhattan specifically, but Manhattan’s growth and population densities were influenced by larger population and technology changes in the New York region.

Book Review of “Saving America’s Cities”

Lizabeth Cohen. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 547 pp.

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The memory of mid-century urban renewal will always evoke images of the bleak brick towers and windswept plazas of crime-ridden public housing. Urban renewal projects airdropped into the city fabric caused demolition and dislocation. This colossal failure has been epitomized by Robert Moses’ automobile-oriented vision of New York City. The Power Broker by Robert Caro described Moses stubbornly going alone to remove 1,500 families and pave the Cross Bronx Expressway through their vibrant neighborhood.[1] By contrast, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs vividly described a sentimental city life with lively streets of safe neighborhoods. Pedestrians stroll along short city blocks while residents watch from brownstone stoops in her quaint Greenwich Village alleys.[2] The two polarized visions of activist Jacobs vs. authoritarian Moses have set the terms of the debate on city design and, by extension, about the government’s role in structuring urban life. Lizabeth Cohen, a Harvard historian of twentieth-century America, critiques the current dichotomy: “The lack of subtlety that I have lamented in current historical understanding of postwar American urbanism stems partly from its frequent framing as a monumental battle between the clashing visions of the villainous Robert Moses and the saintly Jane Jacobs.”[3] Between these two schools of thought, Cohen introduced the largely forgotten “Master Builder” Ed Logue to dispel misconceptions about urban renewal.
Logue serves a curious alternative to the polarity between Jacobs and Moses. Despite her biographical focus, Cohen does not lionize Logue’s dedication, but recounts his lifetime of successes, false starts, and imperfections. Logue came from a Philadelphia working-class family with an Irish Catholic background. Serving as a bombardier during WWII, he first experienced a top-down city vision from the air above Berlin and Dresden. Trained at Yale with a full scholarship, Logue was committed to the New Deal idealism of government serving the public good. His life, however, demonstrated how even the best of planners could not get the ill-conceived legal framework behind urban renewal to work most of the time. One reviewer of Cohen’s book asks in Architect Magazine: “How could such a clear-eyed, honest, and progressive guy, talented at getting lots of money from the federal government, oversee so many disastrous projects?”[4]
Through New Haven, Boston, and New York City, Cohen traces Logue’s city planning career of working against far larger anti-urban political and social forces. During his time in New Haven (1954-60), Logue planned to rescue the falling city by bringing suburban shoppers downtown. He built the Oak Street Connector for shoppers’ automobiles. This highway stub severed the urban fabric with an asphalt band of parking lots and uprooted a largely low-income black community. However, Logue’s Chapel Square Mall in downtown New Haven, with indoor shopping and garage parking, never brought in enough enthusiastic suburbanites to survive against competing forces of anti-urban decentralization. What Logue called a “pluralist democracy” in New Haven planning actually relied more on experts’ work than on input from affected citizens.
Touting his approach of “planning with people,” Logue worked in Boston (1961-67) to break the city’s thirty-year economic stagnation. Unlike in New Haven, Logue created a “negotiated cityscape” of old and new in Boston and preserved some of the oldest architecture, such as Quincy Market. However, his ambitious Brutalist inverted ziggurat of the Government Center, next to a desolate brick-paved plaza, evoked an oppressive aura. His successful housing projects, particularly in the African-American Roxbury neighborhood, defied James Baldwin’s characterization that “Urban Renewal means negro removal.”[5]
Logue’s next career move (1968-75) landed him in New York City to lead the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) for 33,000 residential units, including thousands of affordable housing. After the “long, hot summer of 1967” with riots in 159 cities, President Nixon formulated his “suburban strategy,”[6] by appealing to suburban whites’ fears of the inner city and black insurrection. In a hostile climate, Logue encountered his political match from suburban residents. The wealthy Westchester towns vehemently opposed Logue’s attempt to place middle income and affordable housing in their backyard. The downward spiral of urban America became unstoppable. Neither urban renewal, nor affordable housing, nor highway construction could restrain the core middle urban tax base from driving away to the alluring American dream of “little boxes on the hillside,”[7] with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”[8]
Ousted from UDC, Logue settled for the final stage of his career (1978-85) at the South Bronx Development Organization. To revive the South Bronx with affordable housing, Logue no longer turned to demolition, as the urban fabric had already been devastated by arson, blight, and white flight. Logue recognized that the government had ceased investing in shopping malls, city halls, or intensely designed architecture. Instead, as if admitting the defeat of high-density urban development, Logue worked with residents to rebuild formerly urban Charlotte Street along suburban models of prefab homes with white picket fences. In a thriving nation of suburbs, the suburb had now come to the city.
Logue’s career capstone in the South Bronx was not polished architecture that he preferred, but the development that people desired. Community participations brought all stakeholders to the table, as Logue increasingly practiced. Over time, he realized that the top-down approach taken by urban redevelopment experts had serious limitations. People in the affected neighborhoods deserved to realize their vision of urban communities diversified with respect to income, race, and age. Their voices were the best insurance for equitable services for schools, transportation, retail stores, and affordable housing.
As Cohen asserts, Logue and urban renewal defy fast judgments. Across each decade, and in each of those three cities, Logue’s urban renewal had shifting goalposts, developed at various scales, and involved different levels of community participation. To attribute the flaws of urban renewal to arrogant individuals or to austere designs for “towers in the park” is to ignore the larger picture. As Logue’s battle for affordable housing in suburban Westchester revealed, the problem rests less with urban renewal itself and more with the nation’s social, economic, and political agenda against cities.
Throughout his career, Logue’s honorable goals proved impossible. With the Cold War fever in the ‘50s, the erosion of social tenets in the ‘60s, and post-Watergate suspicions against authority in the ‘70s, American public ceased to believe government had a mandate to bring about a just and equitable society. In his 1981 inauguration address, President Reagan expressed the core of the conservative belief: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”[9] During his final years, Logue watched helplessly as America increasingly turned to private investments for deteriorating infrastructure, eroding affordable housing, and shrinking essential services. Contemporary cities are defined by accumulated wealth, racial disparity, and privileged consumption. Even with Section 8 vouchers and “inclusionary” zoning, affordable housing is largely unavailable to diverse communities.[10]
The intriguing story of Logue’s life suggests that the fate of cities cannot be left solely to top-down developers or government bureaucrats or market forces. A process of negotiation is needed in order to bring all interests to the table. A spirit of experimentation defies an authoritarian way to remake cities. Paradoxically, to respond to a national emergency, Logue, a lifelong New Dealer, believed that the federal government’s pivotal role is essential for successful negotiations and experimentations. This would be the legacy of urban renewal, as Cohen concludes, that “the master builder” would want us to honor.

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Endnotes

[1] Robert Caro, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: 1974).

[2] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: 1961).

[3] Lizabeth Cohen, “Saving America’s Cities: Re-evaluating the complex history of urban renewal,” Public Seminar, October 1, 2019. https://publicseminar.org/essays/public-seminar-excerpt-and-interview-lizabeth-cohen/

[4] Elizabeth Greenspan, “Ed Logue and the Unexpected Lessons of Urban Renewal: A biography of the forgotten ‘master rebuilder’ challenges established truths about city planning,” Architect Magazine, January 29, 2020. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/ed-logue-and-the-unexpected-lessons-of-urban-renewal_o

[5] James Baldwin interview with Kenneth Clark, 1963. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8Abhj17kYU

[6] Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: 2006).

[7] From the song “Little Boxes” written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, sung by Pete Seeger in 1963

[8] From Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan

[9] “Ronald Reagan Quotes and Speeches,” Ronald Reagan Institute. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/inaugural-address-2/

[10] Kenneth Jackson and Lizabeth Cohen, “Urban Renewal in the Suburban Age: The Struggle to Redefine the American City,” Brooklyn Public Library: Center for Brooklyn History, October 23, 2019. https://www.brooklynhistory.org/events/urban-renewal-in-the-suburban-age-the-struggle-to-redefine-the-american-city/

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

What does old Penn Station’s loss reflect about the evolution of public space in New York City?

With assistance from Evander Price, recent PhD student in American Studies and chronocriticism at Harvard University. Thanks also to Adam Brondheim for his insights about historic preservation in NYC.

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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The old waiting room, [1] once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot. [2]

Demolition crews began hacking away at the limestone walls, stone eagles, and thirty-foot tall Doric columns of old New York Penn Station in October 1963. In a construction industry where architects typically quote projects as lasting eighteen months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. The station’s associated service tunnels stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was the city’s largest internal space. Construction cost $100 million, or $2.7 billion in 2020 adjusted for inflation. By 1963, this was the largest and most expensive structure ever demolished in New York City.[3]
In a 1963 conversation with The New York Times, the developer justified demolition as “putting passengers first” and then clarified: “The outside is the only thing of artistic value as far as I’m concerned. The handling of 200,000 passengers is much more important to me. […] In some areas the land is just too valuable to save anything that doesn’t fully utilize it.”[4] The developer’s aspirations for Penn Station’s replacement, however misguided, were no less monumental in their imagination: to construct a profitable office skyscraper and Manhattan’s largest arena for sporting events and conventions. Office workers and event spectators could move directly from trains to their seats without stepping outside, or engaging with the public space of the city streets.

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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“The fact is that the redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Station into a $90 million building complex will transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large.” – Allen J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President.[6]

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Architects have long positioned the demolition of monumental old Penn Station as a key moment in the discourse on historical preservation. This was, to quote leading New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, the moment when: “Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”[7] The public realized that even a monument as expensive and permanent as Penn Station could vanish with no mechanism for the public to object. Activists pressured the city government to pass New York’s first ever landmarks preservation law in 1965.[8] Some historians, like Anthony Wood, have posited that the movement toward landmarks preservation began years before Penn Station’s demolition, and that this demolition was not critical in motivating landmarks preservation.[9] Nonetheless, in the following decades, the city protected over 120,000 historic buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how Penn Station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend to erode and privatize the commons. The demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station is a lens to examine the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. The demolition and reconstruction of old Penn Station mirrors the larger abandonment of government and corporate responsibility for maintaining and upholding public space.

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Although Midtown’s largest building in this c.1911 photo, skyscrapers soon surrounded Penn Station.[11]

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Old Penn Station as public space in a city of private interests

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In a city symbolic of rational capitalism and industry, old Penn Station spoke of an alternative and idealistic vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The station’s architects McKim, Meade, and White disdained New York’s emerging skyscrapers. They toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. European models of wide and long boulevards framing monumental buildings inspired them, such as the Gare de l’Est in Paris. At the time, the average building in Midtown Manhattan was no higher than six stories, and Penn Station – at over 150 feet tall – would have been among the neighborhood’s highest and largest buildings. For inspiration, the architects copied the main waiting room from Rome’s Baths of Diocletian.[12] This reference is more than aesthetic: Rome’s massive baths were as much functional infrastructure in a city without widespread indoor plumbing as they were civic and social spaces for all people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the functional operations of boarding a train demands – as a civic and social space, an urban stage-set for the drama of commuting. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist turned philanthropist who launched his business career as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, wrote in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth: “Surplus wealth should be considered as a sacred trust, to be administered during the lives of its owners, by them as trustees, for the best good of the community in which and from which it had been acquired.”[13]
Old Penn Station operated as public space that belonged to the city at large. Ingrained in a visit to the museum (with an admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (with a dress code and participation rituals) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] In contrast, the big city train station has fewer expectations of users. It is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with few restrictions. Like the restriction-free spaces of Times Square and the public park, the monumental rooms of old Penn Station seemed to belong to everyone. It was one of those unique spaces created through private initiative, but where anyone could assemble in the shared experience of urban life.[15]
However, there was a crucial difference between normal public space and the “public space” of old Penn Station. The station was privately owned and subject to the whims of its owner who, unlike a government official responsible to the public, was duty bound only to company shareholders and employees. The public could use this station and construct it in the collective imagination as belonging to the city and the people, but the public’s use was at the property owner’s discretion. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was losing rail passengers to the increasing popularity of the automobiles, highways, and airlines. The company was bleeding money on old Penn Station’s upkeep to the sum of $3.3 million a year. Although the station’s appearance and location were a public service and an enhancement to civic life for the thousands of commuters, there was no profit to be made from this form of public service.[16] In other words, with no “business model” for the space to pay for its own upkeep, old Penn Station slipped into decay as the walls grew black from decades of soot and deferred maintenance.

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Erosion of the commons

By the 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reasons for maintaining old Penn Station started shifting when they argued that they could only support the commons so long as they did lose anything financially. The now aging and indebted railroad no longer had the “surplus wealth” to think of the public interest and the “good of the community” to borrow Carnegie’s words. In demolition proposals, the developer clarified that new Penn Station would be financially self-sufficient. Revenue generated from the new offices and arena aboveground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to pay off the railroad’s debt. This is a frequent and often repeated claim among New York City developers: The creation and maintenance of public space must generate some profit. Or if no profit is to be made, the public should compensate the corporation for its gift. Hence, the lead redeveloper is quoted as saying about old Penn Station: “If anybody seriously considered it art, they would have put up some money to save it.”[17]
Old Penn Station had tall ceilings and, with no buildings above, ample natural light illuminated the interior. When the public saw this kind of space, they read it as open and public. When the owners of Penn Station saw this space in the 1960s, they read all this “empty” space as unused air rights. (Air rights refer to the space above a parcel of land that belongs to the property owner.) City law might limit building height to, say, fifteen stories. If the developer only builds a ten story building on a site, he will have five stories of undeveloped air rights. The discourse on air rights presents undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sites as not extracting the full height allowed, and therefore reducing the income that could be generated from the most profitable land use.[18] Thus in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opinion, a vast and open station, although elegant, represented undeveloped air rights and a financial loss. In 1910, the powerful railroad was wealthy enough to sacrifice million of dollars on a monument and its annual upkeep. The railroad’s objective in 1910 was more about making a statement about their wealth and importance in shaping New York’s urban landscape. However, when 1960s developers measured the value of Penn Station heritage by its precise cash value instead of its intangible cultural value, preserving heritage started to look unrealistically expensive – not just an annual loss of $3.3 million but a loss of several hundred million dollars over several decades in unrealized profits that could have been pulled “out of thin air” so to speak.[19]
Beyond Penn Station, the larger discourse on the commons was also evolving. In previous decades, buildings like Rockefeller Center devoted almost half of the ground-level areas and many rooftops for public use, even though developers in 1930s New York received no tax benefits or compensation from the city for doing so. Other examples include the numerous early Manhattan skyscrapers whose ornamental appearance and decorative silhouettes enliven the urban landscape, even though more ornament outside does not boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside the tower. However, with ever-rising land values, corporations were no longer willing by the 1950s to cede increasingly-valuable private land for public use (or even lower-density development) unless compelled to or compensated for doing so. In response, starting in 1961, New York City developed an increasingly complicated system of tax and building incentives for developers to be “civic” and invest in the commons. Examples include corporate green spaces and plazas. In exchange for setting aside a fraction of their land for public use, the developer is allowed to build higher or larger than the laws would otherwise permit. These resulting spaces are in some ways like the interior of old Penn Station, private space that has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and often prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, and street music performances. Incidentally, city government approved the greatest number of these privately owned public spaces during the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, when declining budgets motivated city government to surrender power to the private sector.[20] Politicians today speak of contracting the management of public services to for-profit corporations. Privatized services in many states now include water supply, electricity, highways, immigration services, the military, space exploration (through public-private partnerships), and prisons with companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded “Core Civic” in an Orwellian twist). Capitalism and the profit-driven management of the commons is still seen as somehow purifying, making government more efficient, innovative, and flexible.[21] Penn Station’s demolition is an architectural symbol of the limits of historic preservation law, in particular, and the corporate erosion of the commons, in general.
The state and property owners’ expectations of monumental buildings seem fundamentally different from their expectations of traditional monuments like statues and parks. For instance, it is acceptable for the owner of Grand Central Terminal to think of rentable floor space, or for the redevelopers of the World Trade Center memorial to judge proposals based on how much or little land is set-aside for profitable office towers. By contrast, the land Central Park sits on is many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that occupies the land, but that is beside the point because society does not measure the success or failure of the commons by the income it generates. There was a time a century ago when private investment in shaping civic spaces looked something like old Penn Station, Andrew Carnegie’s donated libraries, or even the New York City subway system’s ornamental mosaics. Even ornate nineteenth-century bank lobbies with imposing neoclassical facades have something “civic” about them and share much in common aesthetically with libraries and museums from the time. If only this kind of benevolent attitude toward the commons could be applied today to all manner of other civic institutions: streets, public markets, subways, or the rebuilt future Penn Station.

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Future Penn Station?

The demolition and replacement of Penn Station sits at an inflection point in the evolving definition of “public space.” Despite public outcry about the demolition of old Penn Station at the hands of powerful private interests, the current station is not publicly owned or managed. The semi-government entity that acquired all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s assets after the railroad’s 1970 bankruptcy is Amtrak. At least on paper, and although it has never once turned a profit in its over fifty year existence, Amtrak is listed as a corporation with a CEO, stock, and earnings reports. Disgruntled citizens and preservationists cannot speak to or hold them accountable in the same way they can vote out elected officials. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak are both quasi-private “public-benefit corporations,” their executives are all unelected and political appointees. This creates several degrees of separation between those who manage public space and those who use it. What this means for the public is that the spaces the public might see as being public and shared by all – in this case our national rail network and places like the current Penn Station – are effectively private.[22]

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Proposal for rebuilding Penn Station across the street as the Moynihan Train Hall [23]

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There seems to be an innate discomfort among city leaders with the idea of investing in the commons without the intention to make some kind of measurable return on investment. New Penn Station’s current owners collect rent from this station’s commercial tenants, the arena at Madison Square Garden, and companies in the above office tower. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is as the builders who demolished old Penn Station intended.[24] Following this trend, the half-dozen (and counting) proposals over the years to rebuild Penn Station always included a major element of retail shopping and offices. The rebuilt Moynihan Station next door to Penn Station devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was that the design did not consider retail profit. In the interest of aesthetic effect and having impressively large interior spaces, old Penn Station’s retail was segregated to a half-dozen shallow storefronts in the shopping arcade. The architecture was front and center. Rebuilding new Penn Station would require more than money. More importantly, rebuilding would require rethinking the long-held American assumption that extracting profit is compatible with the commons.

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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 Perhaps beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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References

[1] Photo credit: Cervin Robinson and Edward Popko (for the Historic American Buildings Survey). Pennsylvania Station, New York County, NY. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, www.loc.gov/item/ny0411/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[2] Photo credit: Myles Zhang. “Excavating Old New York Penn Station.” Myles Zhang, July 9, 2020, https://www.myleszhang.org/2020/07/09/penn-station/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[3] Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al. “Penn Station.” In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. 987-88.

[4] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[5] Tom Fletcher. “Penn Station.” New York Architecture, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm. Accessed 26 July 2020.

[6] Allen J. Greenough. “Redeveloping Penn Station.” The New York Times (letter). August 23, 1962.

[7] Hilary Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

[8] George Siedel. “Landmarks Preservation after Penn Central.” Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. Vol. 17, no. 2. 1982. Pp. 340-356.

[9] Anthony Wood. “Chapter One: The Myth of Penn Station.” In Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

[10] Myles Zhang. “A History of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Myles Zhang, November 4, 2018, https://www.myleszhang.org/2018/11/04/historic-preservation-and-new-york-city/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[11] Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Company. “Bird’s-eye view, Penn Station, New York City.” Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016812231/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[12] Ballon. “The Interior Procession.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 60-73.

[13] Andrew Carnegie. “The Gospel of Wealth.” New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York. 2017. (Originally published in the North American Review in 1889.)

[14] Nikolaus Pevsner. “Railway stations.” In A History of Buildings Types. Princeton University Press. 1976. Pp. 225-34.

[15] Carroll Meeks. The Railroad Station. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1964.

[16] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 93-101.

[17] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[18] Philip Weinberg. “Critical Areas: Landmarks, Wetlands, Coastline, Flood Plains, and Takings.” In Environmental Law: Cases and Materials Revised 3rd Edition. Lanham, Maryland. University Press of America. 2006. Pp. 98-108.

Personally, I believe the assumption that “air” is a commercial asset to be bought and sold fundamentally undermines the idea in the commons that air, water, and light are owned collectively by society.

[19] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 95-96.

[20] “New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” NYC: Department of City Planning, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/pops/pops.page. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[21] Brett Heinz. “The Politics of Privatization: How Neoliberalism Took Over US Politics.” United for Fair Economy, September 8, 2017, http://www.faireconomy.org/the_politics_of_privatization. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[22] Fawn Johnson, Rachel Roubein, and National Journal. “Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress: Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/amtrak-has-a-trust-problem-in-congress/456042/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[23] Photo credit: Dana Schulz. “Cuomo releases new renderings of Moynihan Station as major construction gets underway.” 6sqft, August 17, 2017, https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-releases-new-renderings-of-moynihan-station-as-major-construction-gets-underway/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[24] Ballon. “The New Pennsylvania Station.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 153-175.

[25] Justin Davidson. “Every Plan to Fix Penn Station Ranked.” New York Magazine: Intelligencer, January 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/every-plan-to-fix-penn-station-ranked.html. Accessed July 26, 2020.

New York: subway city of immigrants

Golden Rectangles SuperimposedAs northbound Broadway dips down to the valley of 125th Street, the subway soars over the street. The subway viaduct is a jumble of steel slicing through the orthogonal city grid. The 125th Street viaduct is a massive arch, 250 feet from end to end, two hundred tons of mass channeled into four concrete pylons, resting on the solid bedrock of Manhattan schist. The subway is the intersection, where the underground and aboveground worlds of New York City converge.
New York City is now home to a peculiar race of people. Every day, New Yorkers step to the tune of the stoplight. Every day, they ride in sardine can subways. Like smoked ham on the butcher’s hook, they hang from subway straps. At their respective stops, they scramble on to work, home, and family. All New York is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances as subway doors slide open, and they time their exits to the familiar recording of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please.” 1
The subway’s alphabet lines snake their way beneath the city and above the boulevards. Take the to Brighton Beach, the to Jamaica, or the to Forest Hills. From the towers of Midtown, to the factories of Flatbush, to the shouts of Shea Stadium, the subway is a panoply of color, motion, and people. For the price of $2.75, the world is within reach. Chinatown, Poland, Russia, Greece, India, and Italy are all neighborhoods joined by the subway’s umbilical cord. New York is a world unto herself, knit together by bands of black asphalt and steel arteries subway track.
Voice of the City - Joseph Stella, 1922

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

Once wooded island of the Lenape Indians, Mannahatta,2 is now a city of immigrants and refugees: the Irish fleeing famine in 1845, the Germans fleeing Revolution in 1848, the Italians in 1871, and now waves of Czech and Chinese, Dominicans and Mexicans. As the metropolis pulsates in motion, the spirit of the city evolves with each wave of newcomers, who ride her subways, inhabit her humid tenements, and dream of home, family, and future.
In 1856, Walt Whitman published Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He writes of immigrants and bourgeois businessmen alike, all part of “the simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.” Immigrants are the scheme of the city, the cogs of capitalism, and the human machinery of the metropolis. To each immigrant belongs her place, to each worker his seat, and to each vagabond a place in the breadline. Together they form the metropolis. Whitman also writes:
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide. 3
Rome is nicknamed the “Eternal City” for its ancient architecture and generations of development. New York, too, is an “Eternal City” of sorts. Its skyscrapers may rise and fall with changing tastes and a growing economy. Yet, in the face of all change to the built environment, immigrants remain the eternal constant that marks time and life in this city: a city with over three million foreign born from all corners of the world; a city whose functioning depends on the legions of immigrant window washers, janitors, and taxi drivers without whom this urban machine would screech to a halt. In 1856, Whitman wrote of a fluid and dynamic city of people in many ways like the New York of today.

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New York, you, too, are home to the injustices and inequalities urban life nurtures. Hart Island, New York’s pauper’s cemetery since 1869, is the final resting place of over a million mostly unknown corpses over 150 years, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of immigrant New York. Over a quarter million infants are buried here, each one in an unmarked coffin made of pine, the size of a shoe box. Mass graves are three coffins deep and are buried twenty-five in a row. Nearby Riker’s Island, America’s largest jail, imprisons 10,000 a night awaiting trial in the city’s many courthouses. The South Bronx, with a per capita income $12,500, is a mere mile away from the Upper East Side, with a per capita income over $85,000. The glassy condos of Manhattan are priced at a million plus per piece, but these homes are only made possible by the immigrant workers and janitors paid $10 an hour to sweep the hallways of dust and wipe the windows of grit. Every night, these laborers, too, return to their homes in the gritty outer boroughs. They, too, ride the subway that burrows underground, as generations have before them.
In the 1880s, social reformer Jacob Riis was working on How the Other Half Lives. Through photography, he captured the squalor, darkness, and misery of New York’s impoverished immigrant community. He showed children at work in sweatshops, vagabonds at work collecting the refuse of those more fortunate. He exposed the darkness of another world a few steps from Wall Street and a few miles from the opulent mansions and department stores of Fifth Avenue and Ladies’ Mile. 4 That very same year, on March 26th 1883, the Vanderbilt Family of railroad fortune hosted the largest and most expensive costume ball in New York history, costing six million adjusted for inflation. While the idle rich came dressed as the “Count of Monte Cristo” and “Otho the Barbarian,” the poor slept in squalor a carriage ride away in the Lower East Side. As the New York Sun reported three days later, “[This] festivity represents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of the many.” 5

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Though a century has passed since Riis, New York still is a city of social contrasts and economic disparities. Ironically, Jacob Riis’ Lower East Side is now a fashionable community for the upper middle class. All the same, the eternal New York City of immigrants endures in the outer boroughs of Flushing, Queens, Jackson Heights, South Bronx, and Bedfort Stuyvesant. In many regards, their social condition is not too different from Riis’ era. His images of New York testify both to how much and to how little New York has changed. America’s Eternal City still is a place of great injustices, but it is also the place where many of these injustices were first confronted and solved by the city’s activists and artists.
George Tooker depicts the alienation of urban life in his 1950 painting "Subway."

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

As E.B. White wrote in 1949: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain illusive.” 6 Over 400 years since New York’s founding in 1609 by the Dutch, these words remain true as each generation of Men and Women creates the City in their own image. 7
New York, you have not the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the tradition and pomp of London, or the antiquity of Rome. However, in your diversity of people, cuisine, and culture, you are something far greater. You are home to a city of strangers, a city of neighborhoods, a city of sound, a city of subways, taxis, and buses flowing from the canyons of Midtown to the quiet bedrooms of Westchester and Park Slope, like rivulets of water. Flow on city, flow with the tide, and glide through the eras. Flow on Isle of Mannahatta for “a hundred years hence,” like a ship anchored on bedrock between two proud rivers.

https://mcnyblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/sun-mar-29-1883-critical.pdf

Endnotes

  1. Adapted from “All the World’s a Stage” by William Shakespeare
  2. Before Manhattan was settled by Dutch explorers in 1609, it was known by the local Lenape Indians as Mannahatta.
  3. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1856.
  4. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, 1890.
  5. The New York Sun, March 29, 1883.
  6. Quoted from Here is New York by E.B. White in 1949.
  7. “So God created mankind in his own image.” Genesis 1:27.

Manufacturing the Picturesque at Central Park

Written with Zeynep Çelik Alexander, historian at Columbia University
Inspired by Elizabeth Blackmar’s inspiring lectures on urban development and Central Park

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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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:
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
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:
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 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. 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.
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:
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
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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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.

Architecture of Exclusion in Manhattan Chinatown

Originally published in the 2018-19 edition of the Asia Pacific Affairs Council journal with help from Seeun Yim at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, pages 18-20

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Canal and Mott Street

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 motivated Chinese immigrants to flee racial violence in the American West and to settle in Manhattan’s Chinatown. With a population now of around fifty thousand (2010 census), this remains the largest ethnically Chinese enclave in the Western Hemisphere.

Barbershop Row on Doyers Street

Thanks to New York’s geographic location as a port city with high industrial employment and easy connections to the American interior, this city became the primary point of entry for waves of immigrant groups in the nineteenth century: 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 languages and businesses. Of these enclaves, all have since disappeared. 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 political. 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-paid 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 Street and Mulberry Bend

As an architectural historian, I see that the 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 to create what is now 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 changes. 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 upscale Italian restaurants for tourists. The sections of Mulberry Street in Chinatown are always open to traffic and truck deliveries.

Grocery Store at Bayard and Mulberry Streets

Unequal treatment continues 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 and damp interior) was located just adjacent to Chinatown. The Fifth Police Precinct is also located at the center of this community at 19 Elizabeth Street. Although Chinatown was ranked 58th safest out of the city’s 69 patrol areas and has a crime rate well below the city average, the incarceration rate of 449 inmates per 100,000 people is slightly higher than the city average of 443 per 100,000. This incarceration rate is also significantly higher than adjacent neighborhoods like SoHo that have a rate well below 100 per 100,000. NYC Open Data reveals this neighborhood to be targeted for certain – perhaps race-specific and generally non-violent crimes – like gambling and forgery. Over half of all NYPD arrests related to gambling are in Manhattan Chinatown. Similarly, the only financial institution to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis was Chinatown’s 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. Abacus provided mortgages and unconventional financial services to the kinds of immigrants traditionally locked out of the banking system, and therefore denied the means to climb the social ladder. The mistreatment of the Chinese in America both past and present is part of a larger anti-China agenda.
When it comes to tourism, Americans seem to have a paradoxical relationship with Chinatown’s “oriental” culture and cuisine. On the one hand, there is a proclaimed love of East Asian cuisine and art, as evidenced by the profusion of Asian-themed restaurants for tourists, 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. On the other hand, there is simultaneously exclusion of the people who created this Chinese 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 and Delancey Street

Let us clarify one thing: The division in Chinatown is not “apartheid” in the strict sense. 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 America. The built environment of Chinatown is something altogether more complicated and layered with other ethnic groups, too. For instance, the Church of the Transfiguration in the center of Chinatown now has a majority Asian congregation, even though it was founded in 1815 as a German and Lutheran church. Similarly, some of the funeral parlors on Mulberry Bend have Italian origins and old Italian men in the funeral bands.  This neighborhood is also in the active process of gentrification with rising rents pushing out older Asian businesses.
If and when the Chinese become fully integrated into American society, how should the architectural fabric of this immigrant enclave be preserved, considering that its very existence is a marker of race-based exclusion and the century-long challenge of the Chinese in America?

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This time-lapse of Manhattan Chinatown took sixty hours to complete and measures 26 by 40 inches. Chinatown’s tenements are in the foreground, while the skyscraper canyons of Lower Manhattan rise on top. This shows the area of Chinatown bordered by Bowery, Canal Street, and Columbus Park.

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Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)

Geography of Marijuana Arrests

Update March 2021: Marijuana is now legal in NY state.

 

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The New York Police Department (NYPD) made 102,992 arrests in 2017 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, 90% marijuana arrests are male, even though only 65% marijuana users are male. 2 Males more than females and Blacks more than others are arrested for marijuana in disproportionate numbers.

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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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2017 data

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Click table to view in detail

NYPD marijuana arrests are disproportionately of Black males between the ages of 18 and 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 taxpayers. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the city spends $75 million on marijuana arrests and prosecution per year. 4 This is money that could have gone to education, parks, and community programs. Marijuana policy targets our country’s poorest people of color.
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 becoming a “gateway crime” to the legal system. With a prison record from a marijuana arrest, a person of color may have more difficulty finding employment and re-entering society – ironically pushing them to desperation and possibly new and greater crimes than their initial arrest.

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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 income. The 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.
Marijuana arrests tend to happen 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 Street, 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 and likely comparable rates of marijuana use. 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 Method

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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 LaGuardia Airport. Controlling for population density, marijuana arrests still target communities of color.
This project was assembled from public data. I downloaded anonymized microdata on the race, crime, gender, and approximate 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 data set, 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 here. Arrest data is from NYC Open Data here.

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Endnotes

  1. Marijuana arrests represent 5.98% of all NYPD arrests in 2017.
  2. From “Statista,” accessed 15 January 2019, link.
  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.

A History of Historic Preservation in New York City

Data analysis of NYC landmarks since 1965 reveals trends and biases in the landmarks preservation movement.

Developed with urban historian Kenneth Jackson at Columbia University’s Department of History

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A visual history of landmarks preservation in NYC. Data from NYC Open Data. Music from Freesound.

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Introduction

There is ongoing debate between in NYC between developers seeking to rebuild the city in the image of global capitalism and preservationists seeking to slow the rate of change and protect the appearance of the city’s many and distinct neighborhoods. Several factors drive historic preservation: fear of losing heritage; fear of change; historians, public servants, and well-intentioned activists in the spirit of Jane Jacobs. This debate has played out every year since 1965 through the hundreds of structures that are added to (or rejected from) the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s running list of landmarks (LPC). Once added, landmarked buildings cannot be modified without first seeking approval from the city. Landmarks preservation is contentious for developers because the protections of preservation law are permanent and affect all current and future owners. Preservation law further restricts significant rebuilding, even if demolition and rebuilding are lucrative for the property owner.
Historians decide the future of the city’s built environment. The sites they preserve will become the architectural lens through which future generations will appreciate the past. The sites they approve for demolition will be lost to history. Preservation is a response to larger historical questions: Which aspects of the past are worth preserving? How should the city balance the economic need for development with the cultural need for history?
This paper will assess the landscape of historic preservation through analysis of publicly-available landmark records from NYC Open Data. We identified two datasets, both containing ~130,000 spreadsheet entries for every single LPC listing from 1965 to 2019. The first dataset is titled “Individual Landmarks” 1 and includes the structure’s address, lot-size, and date landmarked. The second dataset is titled “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” 2  and includes the construction date, original use, style, and address of all structures. We downloaded both datasets as .csv files, imported them into a visualization software called Tableau, merged them into a single map, and then analyzed the data. The results of inform the conclusions presented here. This analysis is broken into four case studies:
  1. Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs
    Assesses where landmarks preservation is densest or least dense by neighborhood.
  2. Contextual Preservation?
    Analyzes how protecting a landmark limits redevelopment of neighboring properties of less aesthetic value
  3. How does the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?
    – Factor affecting the preservation of city-owned structures
    – Factors affecting the preservation of residential structures
    – Relationship between preservation and gentrification?
  4. Keeping up to pace?
    Questions the degree to which landmarks preservation succeeds in protecting recently-built landmarks
From this data, hidden trends and biases in historic preservation become visible. Firstly, we identify a higher-density of landmarks in certain (and usually higher income) neighborhoods. Secondly, we identify a marked preference among historians for protecting structures pre-1945. (Is there so little in the city’s recent architectural history that is worth preserving?) And thirdly, our analysis hints at the strength of market forces and developers in shaping the scope and definition of preservation.

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Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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The tree map below shows the distribution of all 128,594 landmarks across the city. This includes both buildings and non-buildings like street lamps, parks, statues, and bridges. Each rectangle is scaled to reflect the number of landmarks within that borough’s historic district – the larger the box, the more buildings. The largest rectangle for each borough represents the number of individual landmarks that fall outside any historic district. Boxes are grouped and colored by borough: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island.

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125,594 records above

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Several trends are visible. For instance, Manhattan, with a population 19.3% of the citywide total, 3 has 30.46% of the landmarks. By comparison, Staten Island, with 5.55% of the population, has 16.24% of landmarks, which is the greatest number of landmarks relative to the smallest population. By contrast, the Bronx with 17.06% of the population has only 5.36% of landmarks, which is the least number of landmarks relative to population size and density.
Given that the Bronx’s land area (42.47 mi²) is comparable to Staten Island (58.69 mi²), and given that their histories are both rich, then does the Bronx objectively have fewer landmarks worth preserving? Or do preservation trends follow patterns of economics and race – with wealthy neighborhoods having stronger legal and political leverage to preserve their built environment?

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Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

% of NYC population in this borough

(8.623 million total)

19.30% 30.72 27.36 17.06 5.55
% of NYC landmarks in this borough 30.46% 25.65 21.98 5.36 16.24
Surface area 22.82 miles2 69.50 108.10 42.47 58.69

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Historic preservation does not operate off of a tabula rasa with objective standards and processes. There are spatial patterns to urban growth and income inequality; privilege (or the lack of privilege) is concentrated in specific neighborhoods. The geography of historic preservation follows similar patterns.

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128,212 records above

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Study Two:

Contextual Preservation?

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A common criticism is that preservation stifles economic development. Preservation prevents demolishing and replacing older structures with larger and more profitable new ones. A lengthy (and expensive) approvals process is also required to modify old buildings. A city committee reviews applications and suggests revisions to ensure that new development is “contextually” respectful of its neighbors and/or preserves as much of the historic building’s fabric as possible. 4
Developers often claim historic preservation discourages development and reduces profits. Our data does not support this claim. Developers claim that protecting one building can limit the redevelopment of neighboring buildings. This criticism applies to vacant parcels within historic districts. This critique also applies to non-historic and non-landmarked buildings that fall within historic districts, but whose redevelopment might weaken neighboring landmarks. Construction vibrations and foundation vibrations on non-historic properties often destabilize and damage nearby landmarks, which is something developers need to address when seeking approvals from the city.
Within the city’s unequal fabric with pockets of concentrated wealth, poverty, and history, there are three general categories of protected buildings.
Firstly, there are individual landmarks, such as bridges, train stations, statues, and street furniture. While aesthetically and historically important, these sites are stand-alone pieces. New development can occur nearby with few restrictions. Historical review is not required for neighboring properties; only construction permits are needed. The case for protecting individual landmarks is strong; the nomination was written and approved on a case-by-case basis. Grand Central Station and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are two examples. The size, beauty, and appearance of these buildings often make them into symbols of the city and defining features of a neighborhood’s identity.
Secondly, there are historic districts. Unlike individual landmarks of singular aesthetic value, historic districts are valuable because they form streetscapes. For instance, while individual structures in the Greenwich Village are unremarkable, together they form a unique streetscape worth preserving. A vibrant streetscrape includes structures of various ages, uses, functions, and sizes. In these districts, new development must not be much taller than and must not employ different materials from neighboring historic buildings. From the 2018 city-wide ordinance, zoning aims “to protect the character of certain designated areas of historic and architectural interest, where the scale of building development is important, by limitations on the height of buildings.” 5

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Thirdly, there are, however, many non-historic and vacant parcels within historic districts. Many of the protections applied to historic buildings are extended to neighboring sites. Development on these less important sites can enhance or destroy the streetscape. For instance, most buildings in a neighborhood may retain their original appearance, but a few interspersed between were built later in a different style, or they were in some way destroyed before the area was landmarked. These structures are preserved not because of what they look like, but because of where they are located. Above are two examples.
In the case against historic preservation, contextual preservation seems the most flawed. The red tape of preservation law might disincentive needed investment in these non-contributing structures. However, fewer than 15% of all structures within historic districts are listed as non-contributing. The data is broken down below, by borough and for the city at large:

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Borough Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

5,344 109,285
Non-contributing structures within historic districts 6,465 3,783 2,626 3,118

1,512

 

17,504
Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-contributing and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885 127,833
(all five boroughs)
Landmarks outside of any borough 761 128,594
(total)

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This yields 128,594 6 protected structures city-wide. There are 857,271 structures total in the city. 7 which means that landmarked buildings comprise less than 14% of all structures in the city. In addition, the non-contributing buildings and vacant parcels within historic districts comprise less than 2.16% of the city’s built environment. New York City contrasts with comparable world cities like Paris and London, which are millennia older and protect a far greater percentage of their historic fabric. Below, for instance, are maps of the conservation areas in Westminster, London 8 versus Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. 9 In other words, preservation law is limited to certain buildings and certain areas; it is too small a factor to drag down the larger city’s growth.

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Study Three:

How does the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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This section is divided in three parts. We first describe why civic structures are the easiest and most likely to be preserved. We then describe the economic factors why commercial structures (3.56% of all landmarks) are less likely to be preserved than residential structures (27.66% of all landmarks). Finally, we hint at possible correlations between landmarks preservation and gentrification.

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3.1 Civic Buildings

Civic structures tend to be better preserved. New York City owns at least 14,000 properties 10 across the five boroughs. However, there are 16,920 landmarks that serve “civic” functions, including 11,726 landmarked buildings relating to public health and 571 related to armories. In fact, among all 440 types of landmarks, civic-related structures and institutions have the highest rates of landmark status and preservation.
What explains this? One explanation could be that civic sites, particularly neoclassical buildings from the Gilded Age, tend to be high-quality, well-built, and aesthetically pleasing, so as to evoke the power of government through architecture. Therefore, these buildings seem more likely to be deemed worthy of preservation.
An alternative explanation could be that civic and residential structures are easier to landmark than commercial. Elected officials are responsible for maintaining city property, and they must respond to voter and community pressure. The public can threaten to vote out officials who neglect historic, city-owned properties. Additionally, there are few reasons for developers and residents to object to preserving civic buildings.
Still yet, there are stronger factors influencing preservation. Civic structures are not subject to market pressures, and city-owned buildings do not have to help their occupants make a profit. For instance, the cost of renovating a historic public school might be more expensive. Fortunately, the city is not a profit-driven corporation. By contrast, a developer is always looking to extract the greatest profit possible from the land he owns.
Commercial structures are subject to strong market pressures favoring demolition. An old factory that has outlived its designed lifespan will be abandoned or demolished if it cannot be re-used. Converting an old factory to new uses is often cost-prohibitive, requiring environmental remediation, and lengthy approvals. If renovation cannot generate enough profit, there will be pressure to demolish. City-owned libraries and hospitals do not face this kind of pressure. This drives private developers to demolish their properties at a higher rate than public institutions, as illustrated by how few commercial structures are preserved (3.56% of all landmarks).

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3.2: Residential vs. Commercial

With increasing land values, newer buildings are less likely to be low-density single-family homes and more likely to be high-density commercial and mixed use. However, the city seems to prefer landmarking residential over commercial structures. The table below show the building types preserved, their quantity, and the percentage of the total number of preserved buildings each building type represents. Structures are categorized by their original functions. So a building designed as a factory but later converted to residential is still listed as “industrial.”

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Type of Building Number of Buildings of this Type Percent of Total
(rounded to .01)
Residential 35,575 27.66%
Civic 16,920 13.16%
Street Furniture 13,943 10.84%
Commercial 4,574 3.56%
Infrastructure 2,490 1.94%
Transportation 2,145 1.67%
Institutional 2,026 1.58%
Religious 1,509 1.17%
Mixed Use 1,324 1.03%
Vacant 1,178 0.92%
Military 759 0.59%
Industrial 436 0.34%
Outbuildings 11 32,391 25.19%
All other uses 14,970 11.64%
Totals 128,594 100%

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The most important figure above is the disproportionate representation of residential and civic buildings that are landmarked. For instance, as of 2018, Manhattan has 39,172 landmarks. Of these, 35% (= 13,816) are for residential use, 9% (= 3,443) are commercial, and 1.5% (= 650) are mixed-use. Mixed use usually means commercial at ground level and residential on top. Even though more people work in Manhattan than live there, the city has preserved four times more residential than commercial structures on the island. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here. In other words, residential buildings seem more likely to be preserved than commercial.
Our data also reveals a spatial concentration of residential buildings in historic districts. For instance, most of Manhattan’s residential landmarks are concentrated within historic districts in the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and the skyscraper valley between Midtown and Downtown. Residential sites are more likely to be collectively landmarked as part of historic districts and streetscapes. As illustrated below, 94.93% of residential landmarks citywide fall within historic districts, and only 5.07% are outside these districts:

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Residential All Other Types
Within historic districts 35,029 = 94.93% 61,124 = 66.66%
Individual landmarks outside historic districts 1,872 = 5.07% 30,569 = 33.34%
Total 36,901 91,693

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What explains the disproportionate protection of residential structures? One factor could be higher income-levels in historic neighborhoods and associated protectionism (i.e. NIMBYism). The map below shows the correlation between the locations of historic districts and 2018 data on income levels and length of residence. Historic districts overlap with neighborhoods of higher incomes and longer-term residents. For instance, most residents in the Brooklyn Heights historic district have lived there for between 17.1 and 48 years, and their annual incomes range between $51,500 and $289,000. People in the rest of Brooklyn have lived at their current address for between 10.3 and 12.8 years, and their annual income is $51,500. Similar patterns play out in the historic districts of the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. In other words, residents in historic neighborhoods are more likely to stay-put.
Length of residency and percentage of home ownership may mirror the degree to which residents are invested in maintaining and improving their immediate built environment. The relationship between historic preservation and length of residency is too strong and too consistent across all five boroughs to be a mere accident. There may be causative factors at play between income, emotional investment in one’s community, and the willingness to fight for historic preservation. This needs to be further analyzed and confirmed with future data.

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Launch interactive feature (opens in new tab)

Individual landmarks outside historic districts tend to be commercial structures.
There is no visible relationship between the siting of individual commercial landmarks
and the income levels of their adjacent community.

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3.3 Gentrification?

The spatial relationship illustrated above is surprising for another reason: gentrification. Gentrification is often linked to rising living costs and the displacement of existing residents. The physical appearance of historic neighborhoods would seem to make them more desirable for gentrification. However, the average length of residency is longer in historic than in non-historic districts, even though income (and rent, too) are higher in historic districts. In other words, neighborhoods that fall within historic districts more often have high or rising incomes and longer length of residency than residents from non-historic districts. This seems contradictory because one would think that high-income areas would be more likely to displace existing residents, and therefore would be less likely to have long-term residents from the pre-gentrification era.
In contrast, neighborhoods without the benefit of historic preservation more often have more short-term residents and a high annual turnover rate. The Williamsburg neighborhood is one example with incomes over $51,500 (similar to Brooklyn Heights) but length of residency under 10.3 years. Additional research should examine if rent-stabilized apartments are more likely to be concentrated in historic districts. The legal barriers of preservation might make it more difficult for developers to push out existing residents, gut an old building, and then rebuild it to charge higher rents. Building height restrictions in these old neighborhoods also reduce the motivation to even demolish a structure to begin with because any new structure built there would not be larger and more profitable. Unfortunately, NYC Open Data has no information on the spread or geographical clustering of rent stabilized apartments in older buildings.
The possible relationship between historic preservation and gentrification needs to be confirmed through further analysis. The results of this study would indicate if historic preservation is an effective tool to stabilize neighborhoods and slow gentrification.

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Study Four:

Keeping up to Pace?

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When the first group of 2,312 buildings were landmarked in 1965, their average year of construction was 1882 – representing an 83-year gap between construction and landmarking. In 2018, the average construction year of newly landmarked structures is 1908, representing a 110-year gap. Thus, in the 53 year life of the landmarks movement from1965 to 2018, the average age of a building when landmarked has increased by 37 years.
The more recent inclusion of modernist skyscrapers, like the Lever House (completed 1952 and landmarked 1982) and Seagram Building (completed 1958 and landmarked 1989), may give the impression that the criteria for what qualifies as important and worth preserving has expanded. Our data does not support this conclusion, because while recent years have seen some newer buildings granted landmark status, the rate of designation has not kept up with the rate of construction and, in fact, has fallen behind.
The graph below illustrates – for a sample size of 5,451 structures – the date a structure was landmarked on the horizontal axis measured against its construction date on the vertical axis. Structures are plotted on this graph by color. Individual dots represent individual sites. The black trend line indicates that between 1965 and 2018, the average age of new landmarks has only slightly increased. The buildings the city is protecting today are only slightly newer than the kinds of buildings being protected in the 1960s.

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5,451 records above

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Is the scope of historic preservation limited to the ninteenth-century? Since 1965, thousands more buildings have become eligible for landmark status, but they are not often protected. Is the city no longer building the kinds of structures deemed worthy of preservation?
To qualify for landmark status in NYC, a building must be older than 30 years (or older than 50 if added to the National Register of Historic Places). From a publication by the The Trust for Architectural Easements: “LPC property must be at least 30 years old – no exceptions – whereas a National Register property must be at least 50 years old, unless it is found to be of exceptional significance, in which case there is no age limit at all.”  12
When the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965, none of the buildings from 1935 to 1965 qualified for protection. Today, as of 2018, any building built before 1988 can qualify. However, less than 5% of all listed structures date from the 53 years from 1935 to 1988. This was a significant and long time in this metropolis’ history, but the architectural record from this time is not well landmarked.
The graph below illustrates – for a sample size of 5,451 structures – the distribution of landmarks by year built. On the horizontal axis are the years built from the 1600s to the present-day. On the vertical axis are the estimated number of landmarks built in each year, and which are now protected. Most buildings fall within the ninety year span from 1850 to 1940, peaking in 1895. Few landmarks fall outside this time period.
The rise and falls on this graph may also correspond to the roughly twenty year cycles of boom and bust recessions, along with corresponding halts in new construction. The shortage of pre-1850 sites is explained by how the city was smaller before 1850, and therefore had fewer landmarks to begin with. However, the shortage post-1940 landmarks may hint at a larger historical oversight on the part of historians and city government.

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93,691 records above

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The 1965 landmarks law was part of the city’s response to the demolition of old New York Penn Station in 1963. Countless significant buildings had been lost to urban renewal in the name of progress. Activists wanted to prevent continued destruction. By the 1960s, urban renewal was winding down. New York was entering the prolonged recession of the 1970s and 80s, during which urban renewal and new construction ground to a halt. In this light, landmarks law originated as a post-facto response to demolition that had been going on for decades.
Must landmarking occur after destruction of newer landmarks has already begun? There are doubtless hundreds of post-war significant buildings that have not yet been identified or deemed worthy of preservation. The question is not: Should we list these buildings? Rather, the question should be: Why are we not listing these buildings before they are threatened? The Museum of Modern Art’s 2014 decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum is one example of a recent building that could, or should have, been landmarked so as to prevent demolition. 13

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Conclusion:

The Future of Historic Preservation

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Data can only reveal so much. These statistics do not speak of specific historic sites or the unique identity of each. This data, however, reveals big picture trends, biases, and possible problems with historic preservation. These trends are invisible from street level or at individual sites; they are only visible through the lens of data. From this data-driven analysis, we draw four main conclusions:
Firstly, preservation law is subject to political pressure. The geography of historic preservation seems to preference some neighborhoods (usually higher incomes ones) over other neighborhoods with lower incomes. Preserving and restoring old buildings takes effort and money.
Secondly, many developers accuse historic preservation of slowing new construction and economic growth. Yet, landmarked buildings comprise only 14% of the city’s buildings, while non-contributing structures within historic districts comprise only 2% of all buildings. There is ample room for new development outside historic districts; development pressures on landmarked areas can be directed elsewhere.
Thirdly, residential properties are preserved in disproportionately greater numbers than commercial and industrial structures. The community and economic pressures to redevelop are different for different types of buildings. Most residential landmarks also fall within historic districts, and are therefore parts of the urban streetscape. Residents often use preservation law to protect their streetscape and the homes they own from new development that would weaken property values. Neighborhoods of lower-density old buildings, like the West Village, retain their popularity, charm, and high property values thanks to strong legal barriers against new development. Absent these protections and legal guarantees, property values could depreciate.
Linked to this third observation, the market pressures to demolish civic structures are weaker than the market pressures to demolish commercial and residential. As a result, a higher percentage of city-owned or institutional buildings are preserved, and a lower percentage of commercial and industrial.
Fourthly , historic preservationists prefer to protect pre-WWII buildings, even though numerous post-war examples qualify. As a result, there are a high number of prewar buildings with landmark status, and comparably fewer postwar landmarks. Similarly, the rate at which landmarks are designated has not kept up with the pace of new construction.
The economic success of New York on a global scale and its continuing construction boom caused the demolition of many non-residential commercial landmarks that would have otherwise qualified for landmark status had there been fewer pressures for economic development. In the words of leading NYC historian, Kenneth Jackson:
History is for losers. By that I mean, cities which have chosen to preserve all their historical monuments and locations usually do so because no one else wants the land to develop. Modern progress has passed them by. New York’s history doesn’t litter the streets visually, it can be hard to find sometimes, but that is because the city is an economic winner on a global scale. 14
New York is indeed a winner “on a global scale.” While Wall Street symbolizes America’s economic power, the United Nations symbolizes America’s political power. The city’s over three million foreign born shape the city’s identity as an interconnected and diverse metropolis.
Nonetheless, progress has an aesthetic cost, as reflected in the countless lost landmarks and in Midtown’s dark and monotone skyscraper canyons. Fifth Avenue’s Gilded Age mansions and old Penn Station are gone; so, too, are the picturesque skylines and distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s photographs. New York is different today. While streets and subways grow more crowded, climate, flooding, and tropical storms threaten the city’s fragile ecology and outdated infrastructure.
It is too early to judge whether the city is architecturally poorer or richer for progress. Although historians discourage speculation about the past or alternative histories, how would the political or cultural landscape of New York be like today without landmarks law? This, however, is a question data cannot answer.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Further Reading

Anthony Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

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Endnotes

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. NYC’s 2017 population is an estimated 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by NYC Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. NYC Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset with the cumulative surface area of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. “Outbuildings” include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures. This category skews the data table. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of current residential dwellings is higher than 27.66%.
  12. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  13. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  14. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).