This animation reconstructs the exact conditions of the workplace, the locations of each fallen body, and the progress of the 1911 fire minute by minute. It is in an accurate-to-the-inch virtual reality model based on trial records and primary sources.
Audio testimonies from: Pauline Newman letter from May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives. Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives. Louis Waldman eyewitness in Labor Lawyer, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944, pp. 32-33. Anna Gullo in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, December 11, 1911, pp. 362.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – in Manhattan’s West Village on Saturday, March 25, 1911 – was the deadliest fire in New York City history (and one of the deadliest fires in American history) until the terror attacks on the Twin Towers,. The factory was located on floors 8, 9, and 10 of the Asch Building, built in 1901 for various garment sweatshops.
To prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, to reduce theft, and to block union organizers from entering the factory, the exit doors to the stairwells were locked – a common and legal practice at the time. As a result, more than half of the 9th floor workers could not escape the burning building.
As a result of the fire and lack of workplace protections, 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – died by fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping and falling from the 9th floor windows. Most victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23.
After the fire, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were not convicted, were ruled “not guilty.” They “compensated” each victim’s family a mere $75. The fire led to news laws requiring fire sprinklers in factories, safety inspections, and working conditions. The fire also motivated the growing International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that organized sweatshop workers to fight for a living wage and workplace protections.
Virtual Reality Model
– Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives (website)
– The 1,500 page transcript of witness and survivor testimonies (transcript)
– Victim names and causes of death (source and map of victim home addresses)
– Original architectural plans of the building used in the trial (PDF plans and source)
This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.
Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?
1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0
Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner, home, and building demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay. Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.
Harriet Tubman Square has the largest and most impressive collection of old-growth trees in Downtown Newark. The oldest trees are over 100 feet high, four-feet diameter at the trunk, and up to 150 years old. The City of Newark’s current proposal is to cut every single tree in our park. The only historical precedent for this is the 1960s project that killed every tree in Military Park to build the parking garage now buried beneath. Based on details and architectural plans revealed through an Open Public Records Act request, this animation shows what is planned for our park:
We cheer for the historic Harriet Tubman Park for a new, prosperous, and most of all just Newark.
However, nobody should even imagine cutting down these 66 century-old trees, oaks, elms, sycamores, all of which represent our history and particularly African-American experience. In America, trees symbolize both freedom and brutal oppression, should any sensible person forget. Unlike any historic treasures – architectural remnants, shriveled old maps, aged documents, or battled artifacts – these trees are among our most valuable historic icons, standing tall for our children.
Tubman embodied the notion of reclaiming the symbolism of trees and woods as tools of freedom in the black tradition. In the antebellum America, abolitionists always voiced lyrics about glorious trees that bore the fruit of freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plan my apple tree.” Tubman was famous for knowing the terrain of trees, woods, and swamps along her journey to freedom. In Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford, the black Moses said, “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold though the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
On the other hand, Billie Holiday sang about fruits produced by these trees: “Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swing in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/ …Here is a strange and bitter crop.” The blood of black men, women, and children who refused to remain silent, and who deserve justice, life, liberty, and love, over the hate that surround them.
Last year, Rutgers Newark restored the history and voices of Frederick Douglass in the Historic James Street Commons. Let us not forget, Douglas also said, “If Americans wished to partake of the tree of knowledge, they would find its fruit bitter as well as sweet.” It is unimaginable that Tubman will allow these venerable trees of knowledge to be annihilated.
Of all the stories of the greatest Gothic cathedrals, the tale of Beauvais is the most exciting. Construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1225 at a time of bitter turmoil when France was establishing itself as a nation within its familiar modern geographical bounds. Beauvais, the tallest cathedral in France, was never completed, having endured two major collapses and a series of structural crises that continues to this day. Our Sketchup animation follows this dramatic narrative, allowing the viewer to experience and understand the famous collapse that brought down the upper choir in 1284 as well as the underlying design features that led to that disaster. Particularly intriguing is the visualization of the short-lived crossing tower constructed in the mid-sixteenth century and the rivalry between S-Pierre of Beauvais and Saint Peter’s in Rome.
It is hoped that besides appealing to a general audience of cathedral fans, this movie will be useful in the context of the classroom at high-school and university levels.
Directed by Stephen Murray
Produced by Myles Zhang
Special thanks to Étienne Hamon
Further reading: Stephen Murray. Beauvais Cathedral: Architecture of Transcendence. Princeton University Press, 1989. Visit Mapping Gothic for further photos and a panoramic tour of the cathedral interior. Visit this link to download image stills of the cathedral at various stages of completion, for reuse in print publications.
Creating this animation required creating a computer model of the entire cathedral at all stages of construction. This model is shared below; click and drag your cursor to move around this virtual space.
This workshop for designers is paired with an interactive history animation about the construction of Notre-Dame of Paris. You will learn how to create highly detailed but low-polygon-count models of any building you desire. These visually and geometrically complex models will have a small enough file size to load in your web browser. They can be viewed by clients, possible employers, and others online, with no need for them to download files or own specific software. Based on the content delivered in this six-part tutorial, you will be able to create similar models of any other building, real or proposed. You will be able to share these models online in a virtual reality format through Sketchfab.
This map illustrates in three layers some of the impacts of a racist government policy called redlining:
The base map shows the extent of street network development, as well as the locations of important industries, institutions, and urban features in 1940.
The population dot map shows the areas where Black and Whites lived in the segregated city.
The redlining map shows the areas where government and banks chose not to invest, and to therefore deprive people living there of homes.
All three features – the physical city, the urban residents, and the urban policy of redlining – are interlinked. By displaying these three features together, previously invisible aspects of urban history become visible in plain site to the public.
Robert Fishman academic mentor Karl Longstreth from the Clark Map Library at the University of Michigan Gergely Baics and Wright Kennedy from Columbia History Department
whose project about racializing space in New York City inspired this proposal
This digital model and film show, for the first time, the entire Model T being assembled from start to finish in a single time-lapse shot of the Ford factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Numerous photos were taken and some films were made in the 1910s and 1920s, but no film from the time tracks the entire car’s assembly from start to finish. There were many types of Model Ts produced, but the specific car shown here is the 1915 Model T Runabout. Watch the film and see as the various car components are hoisted over and bolted into place. Or walk across the factory floor in the virtual reality computer model.
The film’s audio replicates the sound of Model T production. The accompanying music at start and end is from the 1936 film Modern Times, where comedian Charlie Chaplin parodies Ford’s assembly line production methods.
Henry Ford did not invent the car, nor he did invent the assembly line to produce the car. For years before Ford, cars were being built in small numbers at local workshops. For centuries before Ford, assembly line production was being used to make all manner of goods like pins, fabrics, and steel. At the same time as Ford, others were making cars and building assembly lines.
Ford was not the first, but his car and moving assembly line were certainly the most successful and memorable. After creating his version of the automobile in 1896, Ford moved workshops first to Mack Avenue and later to Piquette Avenue in Detroit. These first two factories were small-scale structures for limited car production. Only in 1913 at Ford’s third factory at Highland Park did mass-production begin on a truly large scale. As shown in this film, here Ford applied assembly line methods throughout the factory to all aspects of car production.
Final Stage of Model T Assembly in Highland Park c.1915, David Kimble’s illustration for National Geographic
Between when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1913 and when the fifteen millionth rolled off in 1927, the car’s appearance did not change significantly. The car chassis, motor, and color-scheme in 1927 were almost identical to 1913. Despite variations in the number of seats and exterior of car, the motor and chassis beneath were consistent and unchanging over time. Henry Ford liked it that way to bring down costs and to produce the greatest variety of car types with as few variations as possible to the car’s internal structure.
However, although Ford resisted changes to his car design, he was always redesigning the factory floor and assembly line to produce the greatest number of cars with the least amount of human labor. In this same period from 1913 to 1927, the Highland Park factory was constantly redesigned and expanded. Few records survive of all changes to the factory. However, the 1915 book Ford Methods and the Ford Shops includes detailed plans and photos of the factory at one point in time. Ford was still tinkering with the assembly line, as Model T production had begun just over a year before this book was printed. Within a few months of these photos, assembly line methods had improved once again as Ford redesigned the factory floor shown in this film. Rather than documenting Ford production for all time, this film captures Ford production the way it looked in the months it started.
Assembly line flowchart of River Rouge c.1941, showing Ford’s production methods applied to the design of an entire complex. The ideas in embryo at Highland Park become fully visible at River Rouge.
After Ford stopped producing Model Ts in 1927, newer models started production at the new and larger factory at River Rouge, where Ford makes cars to this day. The Highland Park factory switched to producing other goods like tractors and later tanks for WWII. Within a few years, production methods had so quickly improved under Ford that Highland Park became too small and obsolete. The factory was largely demolished, and with its demolition the initial appearance of Ford’s first and greatest invention was lost for all time: the moving assembly line.
Some of the factory buildings still stand, and the specific part of the factory shown in this film still exists. But the buildings were all cleared of their original machinery, and the most impressive part of Ford’s invention was not the factory itself but instead the equipment and processes within that factory that are no longer visible. The buildings themselves were simply functional warehouses designed with large open spaces to allow the easy movement of machinery.
The entire complex covered many acres, and the other factories that supplied the Highland Park factory with materials and components created a web of trade that spanned the globe. Instead of filming the entire process, this film focuses on the final and most important stage of production where finished parts from all over the world and factory complex came together for final testing and assembly.
Main reference text: Fay Leone Faurote and Horace Lucian Arnold. Ford Methods and the Ford Shops. New York, Engineering Magazine Company: 1915. See esp. Chapter V on “Chassis-Assembling Lines” that includes factory floor plan and photos from pages 131-57. Also see pages 142-150 that describe the 45 steps required for chassis assembly. Link.
Main reference photo: David Kimble. “Exploring the Model T Factory.” Motor1.com. September 1, 2017. Link. Kimble’s image originally published in June 1987 National Geographic centerfold.
Animation opening image: Postcard of Highland Park in 1917. Link.
Animation opening music: Factory Scene from Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. Link.
Model T shown in film can be downloaded as a computer model at this link.
Navigate this interactive history map of Newark’s Branch Brook Park. Click on map features to learn about park amenities, recreational spaces, and historic features. Map annotations are paired with explanatory texts and comparative photos of past and present. Beneath each annotation is the Google Maps link that will display directions to that point in the park from wherever you are standing.
Map created by Myles Zhang
Map texts by Linda Morgan, Curtis Kline, Myles Zhang, Maeher Khosla, and Jack Barron
Contemporary photos by Curtis Kline with Mouli Luo
Scenes of Branch Brook Park Past and Present
The park’s change over time becomes visible in this series of past vs. present photo comparisons. The once meticulously landscaped gardens and flowerbeds of the old park mature into the large trees and dense foliage of today. At the same time, many architectural follies and ornamental buildings have decayed to the point that no traces remain of their former existence. Old postcard views date from c.1900, while contemporary views were taken by Curtis Kline in summer 2021.
Southern Division Buildings
After original structure fell into decay, the current structure replaced it.
After original structure fell into decay, the current structure replaced it.
Lover’s Lane Bridge
Lover’s Lane Bridge
Arched bridge looking toward Branch Brook Lake
Foliage now covers the distant view of city buildings on opposite side of park
Sand Court near Clifton Avenue
Former Sand Court near Clifton Avenue
Branch Brook Park Bandstand
Now the Prudential Concert Grove
Southern Division Landscapes
Cyprus Tree Promenade
Cyprus tree promenade framed views of Sacred Heart Cathedral
The cathedral is still there, but the cypress trees are long gone.
Branch Brook Park’s Reservoir once supplied the entire city with water.
All the remains today is the perimeter wall and bowl-shaped depression in the ground.
Landscaped flower beds
When the gardens became too expensive and costly to maintain, they were replaced with lawn grass.
Landscaped flower beds
Only the staircase and landscaped earth contour remain.
Lost Wisteria Walk near Barringer High School
Lost Wisteria Walk near Barringer High School
Lost Wisteria Walk near Barringer High School
Branch Brook Lake
Octagon Shelter (right) and Barringer High School (left)
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
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.
Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
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.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
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.
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.
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.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
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?
How much of our cities belong to We The People?
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.
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
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.
City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan
“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
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%)
* 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. ↩