Reflection on Walking in New York City

Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty for helping my apply to Columbia as an undergraduate. The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York.

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Learn more about my New York walks in this collection of photos and drawings. They are organized into ten urban walks, with each day in a different Manhattan neighborhood.
Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of Harlem. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Further still and I reach the bustle of Wall Street brokers. I stroll and try to identify the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German shoppers in SoHo. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations.
Reading Here is New York by E.B. White, I realizethat  some aspects of New York have changed little in the past seventy years. The streets, cars, and tenements are different, but the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.

Chinatown: a living neighborhood

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Chinatown is both static and dynamic: Static in its resilience against gentrification, dynamic in its cultural interplay between past and present, immigrant and American.
Everywhere in Chinatown, past and present intermingle. Dusty and decrepit Jewish textile stores struggle onward; their elderly owners wait to close up shop and sell out for millions to developers. By Division Street rests a former synagogue with an AT&T outlet on one side and a Chinese-language job agency on the other. Bustling bakeries and bodegas abut reminders of past immigration. Lyricist Ira Gershwin’s birthplace is still inhabited up the street, red paint flaking off its brick walls. Weathered brick tenements, serving successive waves of Germans, Italians, and Irish, still serve elderly Asians and urban “hipsters.” Chinatown is still a living, breathing being in constant flux.
On select corners sprout feeble tendrils of gentrification: a pricey café, a garish painted crêperie, a chic souvenir shop advertising “I love Chinatown” tote bags. This neighborhood is devoid of its youth; little children and wizened elderly remain. The rest have left to work in the America beyond the dense city. Beneath the Manhattan Bridge a sign reads in Mandarin: “Chinese-American special carrier to return infants to China.” The shabby A Train rumbles in the sky.
On the neighborhood’s fringes is the touristed Tenement Museum. The museum’s cycling documentary chronicles life on the Lower East Side. Black and white imagery flickers across the screen: Italians and Irish, Germans, and Jews, the immigrant experience, dreams of coming to America. It is all too convenient to reflect on the past and to conclude: That what was New York no longer is.  That its immigrant travails have now vanished. That overcrowding and grime is no more.
Much has changed. Much has not. The city awaits the next tide of tired, poor, and huddled masses.

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IMG_6173

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This high-density tenement on Eldridge Street is home to a myriad of businesses including:
– Third Brother’s Fuzhou Snack Bar
– Green Forest Internet Bar
– United Express and Lottery Tickets
– Universal Phone Cards
– Everything OK Job Agency
– International Job Agency
– Twinkling Star Job Agency

.Field Chicken

These frogs, marketed as seafood and known as “Field Chicken,” are sold for $5.19 each.

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All Purpose Flower Shop and Funeral Services

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This all purpose establishment advertises the following services:
– Weddings
– Conferences
– Concerts
– Gatherings
– Ceremonies
– Western Chinese Music
– Performing Arts
– Potted Plants
– Floral Arrangements
– Funerary Flowers
– Funerals and Birthdays

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Proposal for a space age house

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Space House is inspired from images of 1950s futurism and from architect Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for the ideal, modern home, the Dymaxion House. This circular model made of paper is three floors tall and fifteen inches in diameter. The house features large, porthole windows to better profit from the view and to evoke the large glass expanses of modern skyscrapers. In the heat of summer, blinds roll down over the windows to protect from the sun’s glare. The open floor plan permits occupants to design a home suited to their specific and evolving needs. The house is painted silver, circular, and domed to evoke the streamlined images of 1950s American cars.

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space house 3

space house 2

The Dymaxion House at night

The Dymaxion House at night

Growing up in Newark

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

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Westinghouse demolition near Newark Broad Street Station

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One of my first intelligible words was, oddly enough, “demolition.” My Newark childhood was immersed in countless scenes of urban destruction. Only years later have I come to appreciate this irony. Newark is the undoing of two things I love: urbanism and construction. Yet, my own city intellectually inspires me to appreciate my urban environment.
Growing up in Newark has not been easy. 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 spew their fumes into my city. As a child, I had asthma. 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.
At age eight, I discovered a powerful photo book, The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara. More than thirty percent of the photos are of my city. Sturdy structures one day become piles of rubble the next. In turn, the rubble becomes gravel for another ubiquitous parking lot. Time passes and my recollection of the former structure slithers away. Over time, swaths of my neighborhood gradually dissipate into an urban desert.
At age ten, I innocently presented a City Plan to Mayor Cory Booker. I removed all surface parking and buried I-280 beneath a bucolic park, which healed my neighborhood’s brutal highway-born split. The mayor smiled and murmured, “Oh yeah, that’ll only cost $35!”
At age thirteen, I joined Columbia University economist Dan O’Flaherty to oppose my city’s water privatization scheme. We spoke before the Local Public Finance Board in Trenton. I also helped organize over 700 pages of city legal documents scanned into my laptop. Based on these files, a local advocacy group produced a damning report on the corrupt scheme, leading to State and Federal investigations. During that roasting summer, in front of my city’s supermarket, we collected hundreds of signatures for a public referendum to derail water privatization.
In retrospect, my transient city inspired my quest for permanence and stability. The mundane features of normal communities, such as street and sewer repairs, could not be taken for granted here. If permanence were not a reality, art would have to suffice for my childhood imagination. My earliest whimsical creations – miniature buildings, factories, and bridges – mixed my perception of Newark’s bleak past and hopeful future. I hid slips of paper in my creations that read, “This will last forever.” I feverishly preserved my environment through drawing and painting. In a transient and decayed city, I needed something eternal and malleable.
From my back window, I see Mies van der Rohe’s sleek 1960s high-rise. From my front window, I see the Newark Museum designed by Michael Graves. Motivated to improve my imperfect urban environment, I spoke at many public hearings on the museum’s expansion. Later, Mr. Graves generously invited me to his Princeton studio, where we discussed Italian architecture and the importance of hand drawing. His tranquil home, a former warehouse, inspired me to dream of retooling my city’s “ruins.”
Desiring to see cities beyond my own, I was fortunate enough to voyage with my family to Istanbul, Barcelona, Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Toronto, Montréal, Chicago, Detroit, Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned that most people cultivated their cities with pride, love, and gentle creativity. However, every time, I could not wait to rush back to my city, despite its defects and scars. This fertile place is the source of my intellectual strength and the cornerstone of my sense of justice and hope. My father often quotes Schopenhauer: “One can do what he wants to do, but not think what he wants to think.” My city, however, frees me “to think what I want to think.”

Proposal for a pop-up park near the Flatiron Building

In front of Manhattan’s Flatiron Building is an unused, triangular spit of land bordered by three major streets: Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. Every day, thousands of pedestrians pass and cars through this central intersection. This underutilized space with traffic on all sides could become a vibrant, public square. This park should reflect and respond to the dynamic and energetic neighborhood.
Pop-up Park creates a mixed-use public space that responds to users. Narrow metal panels measuring three by five meters roll out of a wedge-shaped storage container. Each panel serves a different function: bleachers, benches, bookshelf, public mural, basketball hoop, etc. When in use, the panels are alternated to adapt to multiple uses. When not in use, the panels slide back into their container, leaving an open communal space. The dimensions of each panel correspond to the perfect shape of the golden rectangle. This permits a functional yet aesthetic geometric composition to be incorporated into each panel. The park’s periphery is planted with trees to shade the communal area and to act as a visual buffer from the hectic city.

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urban park 1

urban park 2

South Bronx

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Strolling in the Bronx, I am arrested by the inner-city grid that stretches mile after mile. Block after block, street after street, a never ending treadmill of bodegas, tenements, hair salons, C-TOWN supermarkets, strip malls, and laundries. In the treadmill of the city grid, I become an explorer lost wandering. I retrace my footsteps.
And then, there is the ceaseless cacophony of Spanish speakers, buses, and car. The chaotic maze of streets leads me to fantasize walking through one of M.C. Escher’s drawings of a geometric maze. The blaring signage for SHOES, SHIRTS, PIZZA, and ICE CREAM hints at shabby decadence. The never-too-distant fast-food joint hints at obesity in a relative food desert. The din of distant cars on the Cross Bronx or Major Deegan hint at the childhood asthma that I, too, had. I immerse myself in the urban grid.
After many hours, I spy an elevated subway stop in the distance. I take the next southbound train back to Manhattan. I must return to the Bronx soon. The outer boroughs beckon.

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