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).

A Brief History of Mulberry Bend

At the intersection of history and the immigrant experience

Written for Kenneth Jackson’s Columbia University undergraduate course “History of the City of New York”

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Mulberry Bend c.1896. Buildings on left side of street are now demolished.[1]

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Mulberry Bend, nestled between the New York County Criminal Court and the tenements of Chinatown, is at the geographic crossroads of New York City history. At 500 feet long and 50 feet wide, Mulberry Bend is between Bayard Street to the north and Worth Street to the south. Named after the slight turn the street makes midblock, the Bend has a rich, over 350 year history: marsh, city slum, site of urban renewal, and now heart of the Western Hemisphere’s largest Chinese enclave.[2] Through its rich history, the Bend’s brick and wood-frame tenements hosted waves of immigrant groups: Irish, Italians, freed blacks, and now the Chinese, one of New York’s most resilient immigrant groups whose presence in Chinatown reaches as far back as the 1830s. Consistent to these immigrant groups is their struggle to survive and prosper in America. Many of these immigrants, such as the Irish and Italians, have long left the Five Points neighborhood where the Bend is located, leaving few traces of their presence. But the neighborhood was vital as their first point of contact in the New World, a way station between their country of origin and future prosperity in the Promised Land. As such, the Bend exemplifies some of the trademarks of the immigrant experience: a working-class community populated by an immigrant diaspora that emulates the language and tradition of their country of birth. Though their homeland may be distant, in Italy, Spain, Germany, Ireland, or China, they recreated a familiar world beneath the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Neither fully American nor fully foreign, neither a quiet residential street nor busy commercial thoroughfare, the Bend existed and exists as a community of transient identity.
When the Dutch first settled New York, the area of Mulberry Bend and Chinatown was wooded and marshy land. The Bowery, one block east of what would become Mulberry Bend, was a Lenape Indian trail traveling from the tip of Manhattan to the heights of Harlem, about ten miles distant. The New York County Criminal Courts, one block west of the Bend, was the site of colonial New York’s main source of drinking water, the Collect Pond.[3] Change came when the city’s tanning industry developed at the adjoining Collect Pond because it could carry away their industrial waste. The Ratzer Map of Manhattan, dated 1776, even plots the Bend, which bends to avoid the marshy topography of the Collect Pond. Despite this moderate industrial development and gradual filling in of the pond with soil, the area remained marshy and unfit for living.[4]

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Excerpt from the 1776 Ratzer Map of Lower Manhattan. The area labeled as “Common” is now City Hall Park, the “Fresh Water” body was known as Collect Pond, and the “Tanners Yards” was the center of the future Five Points Slum. Mulberry Bend is the line in bright red. The dotted land pattern indicated low-lying marshes and woods that have yet to be developed. The grid of streets had been laid out, but had yet to be populated with tenements and businesses.[5]

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After the Revolutionary War, New York prospered, first as the new nation’s capital and later as the nation’s largest city. With growth came new challenges in the Mulberry Bend. City leaders faced the difficult task of developing the marshy area. Some enterprising officials even proposed turning the area of Collect Pond into the city’s first park, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, chief planner of Washington D.C.’s city plan. After all, the natural lake and rolling hills of the area could have lent themselves to scenic purposes. But in the end, economic and pragmatic concerns won out as the industrial development of the area continued and the Collect was filled in 1808. Maps from the time attest that wood frame tenements, industries, sweatshops, and breweries were built on the Bend.[6]
Draining Mulberry Bend solved neither the area’s pollution nor development problems. The low-lying land remained damp and muddy, a problem compounded in summer by the city’s mostly dirt and wood-plank roads. The area soon attracted some of the city’s marginalized residents, such as Blacks, prostitutes, and later the Irish after the 1840s Potato Famine. By the 1850s, the area had become the city’s disreputable slum named Five Points after the intersection of five city streets at the southern end of the Bend.[7] In his 1843 visit to Five Points, Charles Dickens described the neighborhood as worse than anything he had seen in Britain; it was “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” concluding that “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.”[8]
Evidence is rich of Mulberry Bend’s historic ties to poverty and injustice. One block east of the Bend was the city’s first tenement at 65 Mott Street, a squat eight-story affair with small brick windows and no light wells. One block west of the Bend was the city’s notorious prison, nicknamed The Tombs. Though no longer surviving, The Tombs were designed by architect John Haviland in 1838 in the Egyptian Revival style.[9] Due to the area’s marshy topography and the poorly covered Collect Pond, the Tombs and neighboring tenements were damp and fetid most of the year. In fact, the settling of the lowlands was so pervasive a problem that The Tombs, built of heavy granite, started sinking into the wet ground just five months post-construction. Before the advent of efficient sewer systems and indoor plumbing, the area would have been difficult to live in most of the year. Hence, independent of government intervention, the neighborhood surrounding the Bend continued to attract new waves of the poor and newly arrived who had little choice but to reside in tenements on marginal land.[10]
A new group arrived at Mulberry Bend beginning in the 1830s: Cantonese speaking Chinese, now some 40,000 strong. According to Mae Ngai, a childhood resident of Chinatown and now Columbia University historian of the Chinese in America, “The first Chinese came over in the early to mid 19th century as sailors or crew members in the China trade because, at the time, there was no transpacific trade through San Francisco. All cargo from China went to New York on a six-month journey around the tip of Latin America. Many were sailors and actors who chose to live in Five Points and Mulberry Bend. Many were forced to live there due to exclusionary rental policies in other parts of Manhattan.”[11]
Early Chinese immigrants settled on streets adjacent to Mulberry Bend, such as Mott, Bayard, Pell, and Doyers. According to Mae Ngai: “Due to the absence of Chinese women, many of these predominantly male immigrants married Irish women, who were already an established immigrant group. The Irish owned many of the Bend’s boardinghouses and flophouses frequented by Chinese sailors.” These immigrants also found niche employment in the city’s laundry business, which was an unskilled job in the era before laundry machines. The city’s laundry industry was at one time a majority-Chinese industry spread across the five boroughs and associated with New York’s Chinatown. Numbering less than a thousand at first, the Chinese population would grow in the following century, turning Chinatown into the largest Chinese enclave in the Americas.[12]
The neighborhood remained impoverished and a target of housing reform groups after the Civil War. From its earliest days, Five Points was the subject of significant attention from social reformers and city leaders. On the one hand, Nativists and Know-Nothings would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of the perils of immigrants, Catholics, the rowdy Irish, and the “filthy” Chinese. Many Protestant Americans feared the growing numbers of Catholics and Eastern European immigrants, many of whom settled near or on the Bend. On the other hand, enlightened social reformers, like abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher Stowe, would have pointed to the neighborhood as evidence of social inequity and the need for the slum reform efforts of groups like the Five Points Mission. Even Abraham Lincoln toured the Five Points Slum during his 1860 campaign for President.[13]
The most famous campaigner against the Bend and New York slums in general was Danish immigrant turned documentary photographer in the 1880s, Jacob Riis. Many of his most famous photographs were actually taken in the Bend, at that time occupied by the some of the worst slums in Five Points. From rag pickers to sweatshop workers and inebriated immigrants in Chinese-run Opium dens, Riis documented the deprivations and difficulties of immigrant life in bustling New York. In his now famous report How the Other Half Lives, Riis devoted an entire chapter with accompanying images just to Mulberry Bend.[14]
Nonetheless, Riis’ photos and method of documenting the Bend reveal prejudice against the area’s Catholic, Chinese, and other immigrant groups. As examined in later scholarship, Riis saw the poor he photographed as social menace and tried to frame their community as a criminal infested underworld. His subjects in the Bend avert eye contact with the camera lens, and his subtitles such as Bandit’s Roost and Rag Pickers’ Row sensationalize images of poverty. In his eyewitness account of photographing in an opium den near the Bend, Riis twists the account to depict the Chinese as ignorant and proud of their crimes. Chinese poverty becomes not evidence of society’s injustices against them but instead of the Chinese people’s own moral decay. How the Other Half Lives presents a biased view of Chinatown as violent, dangerous, and crime-infested.[15]
In reality, Five Points and Mulberry Bend were not statistically more dangerous than wealthier neighborhoods in the city. As contemporary analysis of Coroners’ Reports at the city morgue reveal, the murder rate in the Sixth Ward that included the Bend was not higher than the city average.[16] Despite the higher than average numbers of foreign immigrants in this neighborhood than the rest of the city, as the 1850 Census reveals, the Sixth Ward was no more dangerous.[17] But the neighborhood was largely Irish, Catholic, Italian, and Chinese, all ostracized immigrant groups that were depicted in the era’s yellow journalism as dangerous for public health and safety. Kenneth Jackson writes in Empire City: “Chinatown’s reputation had suffered in the late 1870s and early 1880s when sensationalist tabloids depicted the Chinese as opium addicts who were stealing American jobs and corrupting American women.” Considering Riis’ background as a journalist and crime photographer, his conclusions are part of this same tradition of media sensationalism.[18]
This does not serve to discredit Riis’ photos of Mulberry Bend or Charles Dickens’ description of Five Points; Riis’ photographs remain some of the most iconic images of the American immigrant experience. Rather viewers should be cautious when approaching these primary source documents that are not as objective as may first seem. After all, the majority of primary source documents about Mulberry Bend were created by the city’s wealthier class of White Protestant males writing about illiterate and non-native foreigners. Nonetheless, exceptions to the largely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant account of Five Points do exist such as Wong Chin Foo’s article for Puck Magazine, in which he recounts the racial prejudice faced by Chinese immigrants. In his account, he is not the aggressor or criminal on American soil so much as the victim of intolerance. As he writes: “I have been systematically styled a ‘pig-tailed renegade,’ a ‘moon-eyed leper,’ a ‘demon of the Orient,’ a ‘gangrened laundryman,’ a ‘rat-eating Mongol,’ etc.”[19]

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Bandit’s Roost [20]                    59 ½ Mulberry. See below for map.[21]

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Despite their problems, Riis’ damning report and poignant images of Mulberry Bend led to the creation of the Tenement Commission whose aim was the elimination of poverty and the reform of tenement building codes, both of which led to the city’s first slum clearance project at Mulberry Bend Park. After almost a century of relatively unregulated development, the area of Five Points had no public parks for school children and families. City streets, which were growing congested with traffic and hundreds of tons of horse manure per day, were not ideal places for child recreation either. City planners singled out the Bend as one of worst slums, and in a pilot project that would play out in other places across the city, they demolished the neighborhood to build Mulberry Bend Park. The park opened in summer 1897 with public fanfare and the approval of one its main proponents, Jacob Riis. Mulberry Bend Park, now known as Columbus Park, was originally nicknamed “Paradise Park,” a fitting name for what this park must have meant and felt like for people living in such a dense neighborhood deprived of any other outdoor public spaces.[22]

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Mulberry Bend Park in 1906. Mulberry Street is at right. Original caption reads: “Mulberry Bend Park contains two and three-quarters acres of well-kept lawn. Innumerable seats, a rest house and fountains are provided for the comfort and pleasure of the people.” [23]

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Comparative Sanborn fire insurance maps of Columbus Park in 1857 (left) and c.1905 (right). Mulberry Bend is the curved street at right between Bayard and Park. Note the replacement of hundreds of tenements and small sheds with the unified design of Calvert Vaux, one of the fathers of the City Beautiful Movement. The location of Riis’ earlier photo of Bandit’s Roost was at 59 ½ Mulberry Bend, shown in red on the 1857 map (left). A few decades later (right), few walking along Mulberry Street could have known that one of the most iconic photos in New York history was taken at this very spot. [24] Note: Surviving buildings on the other side of Mulberry Street are not shown in the c.1905 map and were not demolished.

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The construction of a park at Mulberry Bend was the beginning of larger scale social change as New York’s government reassessed and expanded its role in civic life. In following decades, much of Five Points was demolished to construct the city’s civic center. Around 1904, the tenements southwest of Mulberry Bend were cleared to build the imposing hexagonal New York County Courthouse, built of granite to emulate a Roman temple. Similar civic and institutional structures were added in subsequent decades, such as the present New York City Hall of Records, the imposing 1930s Criminal Courts with ziggurat-like roofs, and the 1980s Metropolitan Correction Center on the site of the demolished Tombs.[25]
The era of Robert Moses in the 1940s and 50s brought more change to the neighborhood when tenements south of Mulberry Bend were demolished and replaced with Brutalist style government-subsidized housing. Despite the dawn of the automobile and the gradual suburbanization of American cities, Mulberry Bend remained a high-density and low-income neighborhood, occupied by growing numbers of Chinese, peaking in the year 2000 at 60,000 people. Today, the Bend remains Chinese with sounds of Chinese opera emanating from musicians in the park and the sight of the elderly playing Mahjong, a game similar to Dominoes.[26] The Chinese feel of the Bend is as visible as ever.
Mulberry Bend is also notable for its several Italian funeral homes now affiliated with the Chinese. The dwindling presence of funeral bands in the area is evidence of demographic change. As of 2000, the funeral bands of the Bend were composed of Chinese and elderly Italians, a vestige of when Italians were the majority of residents in Mafia days. Of equal note is the Church of the Transfiguration around the corner, which was built for European immigrants but now serves the Chinese Christian community. The name Chinatown is a misnomer for a neighborhood that is not fully Chinese and is in many regards influenced by western culture and the footprints of past immigrant groups.[27]
A walk north up Mulberry Bend reveals a contrast between two visions of New York from across time. At left are Columbus Park and the imposing towers of New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies. At left is the somber wall of civic power and authority that replaced Five Points. Meanwhile, at right is the edge of Chinatown and the small five- and six-story tenements, representative of Five Points and the structures demolished to construct Columbus Park. At right is the opposite of the civic power seen at left: the living and breathing wall of an immigrant community. The Bend thus represents the physical and cultural division between two distinct New York neighborhoods, each of which embodies a different era in New York history. On one side of the park, the rundown buildings of old New York. On the other side, the oppressive and sterile towers of Lower Manhattan and a modern vision of the American city.
Chinatown illustrates the tension inherent to the immigrant experience. The immigrant to America is tied between the familiarity of their culture and language vs. the remoteness of an unfamiliar city. The immigrant finds and remains in her enclave, surrounded by fellow immigrants who speak her language, eat her food, and share her values. In the unfamiliarity of a foreign city, she finds her own community in which she attempts, however imperfectly, to replicate the values and lifestyle of the old world. Yet the foreign city of Americans and Uncle Sam is never far away. At Mulberry Bend, the towers of foreign New York City both physically and symbolically loom over immigrant Chinatown. The nearby Metropolitan Correctional Facility, city jails, and courthouses are a symbol and implicit threat that the government is gatekeeper to the opportunities of life in America. The immigrant community of Chinatown and Mulberry Street struggles onward encircled by a gentrifying city and beneath the watchful stare of the New York’s courthouses and bureaucracies.
Mulberry Bend has passed through many forms in its storied history from marshy forest on Lenape territory, to site of the city’s first drinking water and tanneries, to New York’s first and arguably worst slum, to the birth of the city’s slum clearance movement under Jacob Riis’ mixed intentions, and finally to the vibrant Chinese community visible today. For a street so small, it has witnessed so much. As gentrification displaces some residents and as younger generation Chinese choose to move away in search of better housing in the suburbs, Chinatown will continue to change. Change has been a constant in this neighborhood for three centuries. As Mae Ngai confirms: “Chinatown has never been a static place. It has always had different characteristics depending on the nature of the community.”[28]
Will the Bend evolve for the better or for the worse? Thousands of tourists frequent the neighborhood in search of Dim Sum and “Chinese” culture. Future changes to the demographic landscape of Chinatown should preserve the complexity of culture and the richness of history that hides just below the surface of this unassuming street and just behind the colorful facades of the walk-up tenements. Only time will tell what changes will be next.

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Ink and watercolor drawing of Chinatown by Myles Zhang.
The band of green trees is Mulberry Bend Park.

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Endnotes

[1] Jacob A. Riis, “Mulberry Bend in 1896,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mulberry_Bend-Jacob_Riis.jpg#filehistory.

[2] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[3] Hilary Ballon, “The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811–Now,” in The Greatest Grid, Museum of the City of New York, April 15, 2012, http://thegreatestgrid.mcny.org/greatest-grid/.

[4] Hillary Ballon, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[5] Bernard Ratzer, “The Ratzer Map of 1776,” digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 1, 2011, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1c/NYC1776.jpg.

[6] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Collect Pond,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 250.

[7] Ibid., 414-15, “Five Points.”

[8] Ibid., 186-94, “American Notes for General Circulation by Charles Dickens.”

[9] Historical marker in vicinity of the Church of the Transfiguration at 29 Mott Street, “A Century of Chinese in Five Points,” October 23, 2016. In the 1830s and 1840s, many cities chose to build American civic structures in the style of Egyptian tombs and temples. The colonization of Egypt and East Asia provoked intense interest in all things “foreign” and “oriental” in both Western Europe and America.

[10] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “The Tombs,” in The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 1190.

[11] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang, Office Hours Visit at Columbia University, November 1, 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Tyler Anbinder, “The Most Appalling Scenes of Destitution,” in Five Points: The nineteenth century New York neighborhood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 235.

[14] Jacob Riis, “Chapter VI: The Bend,” in How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922) 59.

[15] Sally Stein, “Making Connections with the Camera: Photography and Social Mobility in the Career of Jacob Riis.” Afterimage 10, no. 10 (May 1983): 9-16.

[16] Sarah Paxton, “The Bloody Ould [sic] Sixth Ward: Crime and Society in Five Points, New York,” research thesis, Ohio State, 2012, https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/52011/3/Bloody-Ould_Sixth-Ward.pdf.

[17] U.S. Census Bureau, “1850 Census,” Table II Population by Subdivisions of Counties [and City Wards], https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.

[18] Kenneth Jackson, “Experience of a Chinese Journalist, from Puck Magazine by Wong Chin Foo,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 329.

[19] Ibid 230-31. The greater intolerance Chinese immigrants faced vs. the comparatively lesser intolerance faced by Irish and Italians can explain why the Chinese chose to remain in Chinatown for so long. The existence of immigrant enclaves is evidence for difficulties with social cohesion.

[20] Jacob A. Riis, “59 1/2 Baxter Street,” digital image, Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/collection/works/50859?locale=en.

[21] Jacob A. Riss, “59 1/2 Baxter Street.” digital image, Museum Syndicate, http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=42895.

[22] “Columbus Park,” NYC Parks Department, https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/columbus-park-m015/history.

[23] Jacob A. Riis, “Scenes of Modern New York,” Digital image, Wikimedia Commons, April 17, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scenes_of_modern_New_York._(1906)_(14589480310).jpg.

[24] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1857 and c.1905,” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1857: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-8021-d471-e040-e00a180654d7. 1905: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/96e7ad32-1e9e-5c64-e040-e00a18064991. This map was incorrectly dated as 1884 in the NYPL’s database. Mulberry Bend Park was completed in 1897 and renamed Columbus Park in 1911. The actual date of this map is therefore between 1897 and 1911.

[25] Kenneth Jackson and David Dunbar, “Chinese and Chinatown,” in Empire City: New York through the Centuries, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002) 215-18.

[26] Jimy M. Sanders, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave,” review of Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. American Journal of Sociology, July 18, 1993, 215-1, April 10, 2010, http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=socy_facpub.

[27] Min Zhou, “Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[28] Mae Ngai, interview by Myles Zhang.

Love and Longing in New York

Selected from undergraduate college application essay to Columbia University. Read more.

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Walking is my form of enlightenment.
I live in Newark.  My city is generally ten degrees hotter than its neighboring environment.  The airport.  The port.  The downtown.  All are blanketed in asphalt that turns my city into a hot desert.
Tens of thousands of cars, and one of the largest garbage incinerators in the country, spew their fumes into my city.  Returning home, the smell of burning garbage often greets me.  As a child, I had asthma.
At night, I am alone.  Nobody my age lives in my neighborhood. From my front window, I see a parking lot for corporate commuters. From my back window, I see a vast parking lot for university students.  Both are desolate after dusk. As an infant, my first words were “demolition” and “truck.”  As a child, I never had play dates; my suburban “friends” feared my city.  As an adult, I hope to see my city’s vacant lots developed.  I keep on dreaming.
The streets of my city are not made for walking.  They are made for driving.  I walk.  I stop.  I wait.  Speeding traffic and interminable stoplights hinder my progress.
But I love walking in New York City.
When I walk, I am free to choose.  Each street guides me forward.  Each intersection is a choice.  Each destination is irrelevant.  When I walk, I sometimes choose a random order of directions, left, right, left, right, right, left, left, straight.  I see where they lead me.  I know not where.
When I walk, I am free to move.  I love walking on the High Line.  I float above the cars that prevent the city from realizing itself as a community.  I see the crowded streets twenty feet below.  I see the gardens on either side of me.  I let the verdantly landscaped path channel me forward.
When I walk, I am no longer alone.  I walk in the footsteps of the millions who passed before me.  I am one among millions, all of us on our separate voyages.  Lawyers.  Butchers.  Tourists.  Homeless.  We all walk alone.  Yet, we are together in walking alone.
When I walk, I see the world.  In Spanish Harlem, street fairs sell traditional Mexican foods.  In college town Columbia, well-dressed university students amble on their way to class.  In the Upper West Side, the shabby chic push their grocery prams.  In Times Square, tourists lug their large shopping bags from theater to theater, store to store.  Finally, after many neighborhoods, I reach the ceaseless bustle of Wall Street.  Tired after many miles of walking, I descend the subway steps.
When I walk, I achieve tranquility. I am happy.
One of my recent projects is painting New York City, neighborhood by neighborhood.  Each day, I choose a new district to stroll through.  Then, equipped with my miniature watercolor palette and notepad, I walk and paint.  I discover the city block by block.  I aim to capture a fragment of what I see through painting.
Like a pianist who memorizes music by heart, the flâneur (or urban pedestrian) embraces the street symphony with his soul and feet.  People’s voices and buildings serve different, but equally important, clefs in the symphony.  As le Corbusier wrote, “… first to look, and then to observe, and finally to discover.”  My countless urban walks enhance my passion for cities, their architecture, their history, and their planning.
Living in Newark inspires me to dream.  Walking in New York City enlightens me to walk.  I am ready to walk my next journey.

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