Architecture of Endurance in Manhattan Chinatown

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

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Eldridge Street Synagogue and Manhattan Bridge

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

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Interactive Tour Map

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

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Tour Stops

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Route of walking tour superimposed over 1782 map of Manhattan

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1. Bowery & Canal Street

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

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2. Edward Mooney House

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

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

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3. Heading to Doyers Street

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

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Pell Street and Doyers Street

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4. Abacus Federal Savings Bank

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

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Chinatown businesses

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5. Kimlau memorial gate

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

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

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

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Photos of Mulberry Bend by Jacob Riis

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7. Mulberry Street

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

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8. Columbus Park & Collect Pond

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

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9. New York County Criminal Court

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

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10. Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association

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

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11. Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

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

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Chinese Merchants’ Association Building

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12. Mott Street Markets

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

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13. A Mixed Use Neighborhood

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

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Mott Street tenements

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14. Leaving Mott Street

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

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Old Bowery Savings Bank

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15. Old Bowery Savings Bank

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

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Chinatown street scenes

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16. Back at the Bowery

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

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The Privatization of Public Space in Lower Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

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The street as public space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How much of our cities belong to We The People?

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

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

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Public spaces in theory vs. in practice

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

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Can democracy survive with eroded public space?

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

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City Hall Park and skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan

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

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Further reading

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

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

  1. * Percentages are rough estimates from author, based on area south of Chambers Street with planimetric data from NYC Open Data. An exact estimate is impossible to arrive at because there is no single definition of public space.
  2. .

Street Grid Development vs. Population Density

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

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

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

Book Review of “Saving America’s Cities”

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

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

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Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time-lapse history of Manhattan in two minutes

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This two minute time-lapse reconstructs the 400 year evolution of Lower Manhattan’s skyline. Watch as the city evolves from a small village into a glistening metropolis.
This is also a film about the history of technology. Changing methods of representing urban space influence our perception of time and the city. When New York City was founded, Dutch settlers captured their town’s appearance through seventeenth-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, photographers started capturing their city from above through aerial photos. For the first time, New Yorkers could view the entire city in a single panoramic photo.
In tribute to this long artistic tradition, this film constructs the city as each generation of New Yorkers would have represented it: through the subsequent technologies of drawing, printing, photography, and film.
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New York City: Past and Present, 1870 and 2017

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Sound effects from Freesound
Water and cloud effects from YouTube

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

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

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

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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

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

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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

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

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

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

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

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Erosion of the commons

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

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Future Penn Station?

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

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

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

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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

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References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excavating Old New York Penn Station

Also published by Viewing NYC in May 2019

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“Through Penn Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
– Vincent Scully

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View of Penn Station from roof of Macy’s department store c.1910

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“Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”
– Kenneth Jackson

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The accompanying audio is accurate to what the place sounds like from the locations shown. The audio for old Penn Station is my imaginative reconstruction of how the original station might have sounded like, based on recordings from MoMA. My project was also inspired by this 2015 New York Times article about the subtle influence of sound on how we experience urban space: “Penn Station’s low ceilings suppress sound, which becomes hard to make out, an audible metaphor for its rat’s maze of architecture.”

 

“You feel that your life is being lost in a room where sound dies. We need reverberation.”
– architect Renzo Piano on the design of the current Penn Station

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When New York Penn Station opened in 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad boasted in advertisements that their vast new station was built of travertine marble from the same ancient Italian quarries as the Coliseum and Pantheon. Old Penn Station was rich in the architectural language of Greece and Rome. The façade comprised a colonnade of massive, Doric columns that stretched almost 450-feet end-to-end; it was inspired from temples on the Greek Acropolis. The main waiting room, at 314-feet-long, 109-feet-wide, and 150-feet-high, was modeled on Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. The project was as much an aesthetic gesture to the emerging City Beautiful Movement as it was a political statement: The Pennsylvania Railroad was here to stay, as permanent as the Penn Station it built.
The finished station, however, was an architectural contradiction. The Neoclassical exterior concealed what was, belowground, an extensive and, at-the-time, hyper-modern system of tunnels, electric trains, and communication systems that conveyed millions of people, baggage, and mail from street-level to each of 21 platforms. Aside from the solid stone columns of the main façade, most of the interior was of thin limestone, marble, and plaster sheets mounted on a metal structural frame. The seeming permanence of the stone walls was a cover for the steel frame and modern technology within on which this Neoclassical stage-set rested.

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Just over fifty years later, on October 28, 1963, demolition began. The Pennsylvania Railroad, burdened with debt and aging infrastructure, was selling off its most profitable real estate assets – its land, buildings, and equipment – to stay afloat until it declared bankruptcy by 1970. Through the same two Hudson River tunnels that building materials for the original Penn Station were delivered, some of the same rubble now passed. Much of this rubble was carted off and dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands adjacent the tracks where commuter trains still pass. The Pennsylvania Railroad used, quite literally, the station’s technology to cannibalize itself, and as the foundations for the new, and current, Penn Station.
Searching for remnants of old Penn Station, I found historic photos from the New York Public Library, Historic American Buildings Survey, and Library of Congress. I returned to the same locations in fall 2019 to re-photograph these images from the identical camera angles. The resulting and visible ghost of the lost Penn Station presents a strong-clear vision of what Penn Station used to be, and by extension, what it could return to, given financial commitment and political will.

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Train concourse: past and present from the same location

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The current subterranean warrens represent a clean break from what was here before. As long as Madison Square Garden chokes Penn Station for air and light from above, the current lightless and oppressive Penn Station is here to stay. The current station’s cheap ceilings of corrugated metal, garish electric signage, and exposed concrete floors ironically proved more durable than the Roman marble and limestone of old. The current station is not so fleeting and has, in fact, existed longer on this site than the station before it.
Surprising still is how, for many New Yorkers, it seems inconceivable that the permanent and imposing appearance of the original station could, one day, vanish without a trace. This old station is more dream than reality, and it seems almost impossible to imagine the current arrangement as having anything to do with what came before. So little of the original station – and the pride in civic life and New York City this station stood for – remains visible. Interestingly, more of the original architectural fabric survives belowground than meets the eye aboveground.

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View from corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue in 1962 and 2019. The structure is unrecognizable aboveground.

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32nd Street entrance to waiting room in 1962 and 2019
The southeast corner of the still-standing General Post Office is in both frames, in the far left hand distance.

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In the five years that demolition and rebuilding lasted (from 1963 to 1968), Penn Station remained in active service. While builders demolished the old station above, commuters continued to pass by on the platforms and corridors below. For this brief moment, the two buildings lived side-by-side, until the present building swallowed almost all visible traces of the past. In spite of this loss, the confusing floor plan of the current Penn Station has much to do with remaining traces of the original. Column for column and void for void, the current Penn Station is built within the fabric of the original. The old Penn Station, completed 1910, had 21 tracks on 11 platforms. The new Penn Station has 21 tracks on 11 platforms. In the demolition process, not one track or platform moved. In the five-year re-construction process, none of the tracks and platforms were moved, and most of the stairs between concourse and track-level survived. This similarity enables us to situate parts of the old structure in relation to the new.

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Frame of new Penn Station rises simultaneous to the demolition of the old c.1963-68
Passengers in train concourse as new structural frame divides them from the soon-to-be-demolished glass canopy of the old station.

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Train concourse before and after insertion of the new structural frame, from the same camera angle

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The above cross-section of old Penn Station’s waiting room shows the extent of change. The orange line indicates the elevation at ground-level to which the architectural fabric of the old building was demolished. Above this line, nothing of Penn Station survives. Below this line, most of the original structure, tracks, infrastructure, stairwells, and the general contours of the original rooms survive, except now hidden.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, its architectural monuments to empire and power fell into disuse; many were repurposed for more humble and practical purposes. The Coliseum became a stone quarry, the Roman Senate House a humble church, and the Theatre of Marcellus a medieval fortress. New purposes were developed in the shells of old monuments. When a building is reused and altered but still bears visible traces of its earlier form, architectural historians call this creation a palimpsest. A palimpsest is neither of the present nor of the past; it is a mixture of both. For instance, the two square fountains of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan mirror the locations of the now-vanished Twin Towers. For a modern and young city in world terms, Penn Station is New York City’s largest palimpsest.

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Shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019

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View from 7th Avenue shopping arcade into the waiting room in 1911 and 2019

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“Cutaway illustrating the principle of adaptive reuse.” Drawing by architectural children’s book illustrator, David Macaulay, proposes to discard the “non- functional” spaces of the medieval cathedral by erecting a Styrofoam drop ceiling just above the floor. Everything above – light, soundscape, and ornament is “superfluous” to the cathedral’s function.

The oppressively low ceilings of the current station are the structural division between the public areas belowground and the now private (formerly public) areas aboveground. These ceilings also align to the border between the infrastructure of the original station that survives and the architectural fabric that was lost.
The Pennsylvania Railroad made the decision that made the most economic sense: to keep the infrastructure beneath and decapitate the “non-functional” aesthetics of the soaring ceilings and open spaces aboveground. This was valuable land that could be put to more profitable use. Into these empty “air rights,” the corporation could insert Penn Station’s new functions of Madison Square Garden and office towers that would, at last, generate additional income. While exploring the station, I discovered this palimpsest valued the practical and made absolute economic sense: Who needs to enter the city on the scale of a titanic-sized god when humans require spaces no higher than 8-feet-high to pass through?

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A cathedral with a drop ceiling

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The shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019
Statue of Samuel Rea is in the shadows.

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President Samuel Rea

The nuances of this palimpsest become clearer from inside the building. Passengers entering the old station proceeded down a long shopping arcade to the waiting room and platforms. What was once public space is now the private lobby of the commercial offices aboveground. On the right hand side, in the shadows of the private lobby, stands a statue of Samuel Rea, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A century ago, Rea stood at the entrance and welcomed passengers and the public; he now stands and watches the corporate clients and office workers. In old Penn Station, an inscription beneath announced his name and title. In the current location, Rea is out of place and has no relationship with his surroundings; the once prominent inscription is almost invisible on the new tablet behind him.

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Statue of Samuel Rea is in the left hand niche.
Almost stone for stone, the location of the current waiting room escalator mirrors the location of the original.

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Main entrance to waiting room: The left hand niche contains the statue of Alexander Cassatt, Pennsylvania Railroad president during construction.

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

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From the street-level arcade, passengers descended into the cavernous waiting room, sunken a few feet belowground. While the room itself is gone, the contours of this room survive in the general footprint of the sunken parking lot that now occupies the site. What was once public space is now private and patrolled by Madison Square Garden security guards who forbade me from standing at this location with my camera.

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

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Train Concourse

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Train concourse, past and present.
White cutouts on the drop ceiling mirror the former locations of the demolished skylights.

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This part of the train concourse is now the VIP entrance for spectators at Madison Square Garden.

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The design problems with the current Penn Station are similar to those of old Penn Station: too few tracks, too many passengers, confusing circulation, and outdated infrastructure. After all, it is not the engineering and infrastructure that set these two buildings apart, as brick-for-brick and beam-for-beam, the 1960s rebuilding did not generally alter the areas belowground. This early-twentieth-century infrastructure was, after all, designed to handle no more than 200,000 passengers-per-day, and yet now struggles under the burden of 650,000-per-day. Instead, it is the envelope around this infrastructure that was rebuilt in the 1960s, and whose loss the public and historians now mourn.

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At track-level, the railroad ties, location of the third rail, and support columns are original to 1910. The columns in the foreground were added in the 1960s to support the weight of Madison Square Garden. The columns in the distance are original to 1910. The 1960s modernist buildings above conceal below what is, in essence, early-twentieth-century infrastructure.

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View from Track Six

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Generations of New Yorkers hoped Penn Station would one day be restored with an architectural monument befitting New York City and the Western hemisphere’s busiest train station. In addition to rebuilding the General Post Office next door, other proposals over the years have called for rebuilding Penn Station exactly as it appeared before, or imagining a futuristic Penn Station emerging from the structural shell of the current Madison Square Garden, entitled “Penn Station Palimpsest.” Precedent exists for both proposals. Some post World War II cities rebuilt their monuments and bombed out city centers as they appeared before (such as Dresden and Warsaw), while others incorporated the rubble of the lost buildings into a modern building (such as Coventry Cathedral in England and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin). What we miss about old Penn Station was not the infrastructure, operations, or even the building itself, but rather the way this architecture made us feel dignified, and which we feel no longer.

New York City Water Supply: animated history

Developed with Gergely Baics, urban historian at Barnard College

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New York City has some of the world’s cleanest drinking water. It is one of only a few American cities (and among those cities the largest) to supply unfiltered drinking water to nine million people. This system collects water from around 2,000 square miles of forest and farms in Upstate New York, transports this water in up to 125 miles of buried aqueducts, and delivers one billion gallons per day, enough to fill a cube ~300 feet to a side, or the volume of the Empire State Building. This is one of America’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects. It remains, however, invisible and taken for granted. When they drink a glass of water or wash their hands, few New Yorkers remind themselves of this marvel in civil engineering they benefit from.
This animated map illustrates the visual history of this important American infrastructure.

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Sound of water and ambient music from Freesound

New York City is surrounded by saltwater and has few sources of natural freshwater. From the early days, settlers dug wells and used local streams. As the population grew, these sources became polluted. Water shortages allowed disease and fire to threaten the city’s future. In response, city leaders looked north, to the undeveloped forests and rivers of Upstate New York. This began the 200-year-long search for clean water for the growing city.

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Credits

Gergely Baics – advice on GIS skills and animating water history
Kenneth T. Jackson – infrastructure history
Juan F. Martinez and Wright Kennedy – data

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Interactive Map

I created this animation with information from New York City Open Data about the construction and location of water supply infrastructure. Aqueduct routes are traced from public satellite imagery and old maps in NYPL map archives. Thanks is also due to Juan F. Martinez, who created this visualization.
Explore water features in the interactive map below. Click color-coded features to reveal detail.

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Watersheds   Subsurface Aqueducts   Surface Aqueducts   Water Distribution Tunnels   City Limits

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▼ For map legend, press arrow key below.

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Sources

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For such an important and public infrastructure, the data about this water supply, aqueduct routes, and pumping stations is kept secret in a post 9/11 world. However, the data presented here is extracted from publicly-available sources online, and through analysis of visible infrastructure features on satellite imagery when actual vector file data or raster maps are unavailable from NYC government.
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Contemporary Maps
NYC System and Shapefiles – Juan F. Martinez
Watershed Recreation Areas – NYC Department of Environment Protection (DEP)
General System Map – NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
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Historic Maps
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Texts
Water Supply Fast Facts – NY State DEC
Encyclopedia of the City of New York – Kenneth T. Jackson
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Animation music – Freesound
Audio narration – Myles Zhang

New York: subway city of immigrants

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

Voice of the City by Joseph Stella, 1922.

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

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

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

Subway by George Tooker, 1950.

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

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

Endnotes

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

Manufacturing the Picturesque at Central Park

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

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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Figure 1. Map of completed Central Park in 1873

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Central Park is not only the major recreational facility of Manhattan but also the record of its progress: a taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature. Like the [Manhattan] Grid, it is a colossal leap of faith; the contrast it describes – between the built and the unbuilt – hardly exists at the time of its creation.
– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York1

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Koolhaas presents one of the challenges core to Central Park’s construction: the tension between natural and manmade, urban and rural. What sets this park apart from most other parks is its yearning to seemingly become something that it clearly is not: natural. Many other pocket parks in this city incorporate existing topography and trees into their design – yet they are smaller. And from the confines of their interior, the sights and sounds of the city are hard to escape. Central Park succeeds in permitting its visitor to make-believe, at least momentarily, that they have left the city and are immersed in the countryside. The original park contained, for instance, a sheep pasture and barn, a nature preserve called “The Ramble,” and a dairy for urban mothers to buy fresh milk.
The scale of Central Park and the engineering that went into its creation is not unprecedented – architects and engineers have completed far larger infrastructure projects. The New York City watershed, for instance, catches all the rainfall within a 2,000 square mile area, stores this water in 19 reservoirs, and then transports this water up to 150 miles in underground pipes that serve nine million people.2 Central Park, by comparison, was built by some of the same engineers but is a mere three-square-miles of “improved” wilderness. However, what is surprising is the degree to which Central Park’s landscape features seem natural, as if land speculators and developers had chanced upon the park and left it as untouched as they had found it, except framed on four sides by the city grid (figure 5). So successful is this intervention that there is often the popular misconception that it is natural. This Huffington Post article, for instance: “I know that it may come as a shock to some, but New York’s Central Park is not an act of God. It might seem that way, especially in the woodlands, which appear so authentically, well, natural.”3

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

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In the 1857 text entitled “The Plan for the Park,” the project’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted (b.1822-d.1903), writes that it “seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky scenery as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.”4 Olmsted’s claim is a good place to start because it expresses a paradox central to the design. Olmsted’s project “interferes” with the landscape “as little as possible” simultaneously with large-scale efforts to move soil, blast rock, and plant trees that employed – at the height of work – some 4,000 men.5 Around five million cubic feet of rock and soil were blasted and removed from the park. Rem Koolhaas interprets this quote from Olmsted as follows: “If Central Park can be read as an operation of preservation, it is, even more, a series of manipulations and transformations performed on the nature ‘saved’ by its designers.”6
How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies in Central Park – natural vs. manmade – when almost all manmade features are disguised as natural? I propose that we can better understand the park by dispensing with the pretense that it is in any way natural.
Central Park presents an unusually refined interpretation of nature. Of the approximately 20,000 trees of 175 species, solidly 60% are non-native to New York.7 Of the seven lakes contained within the park, none are natural to the terrain and are mostly the result of damning existing streams. Of the paths, trails, and roads winding through the park – with curves to match the contours of hills and valleys – none are original, nor do they correspond to pre-development dirt roads and Lenape Indian trails.8

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

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

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

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Instead of topography, three main factors determined the location: First, planners needed to choose a site close to the expanding city yet far enough away that the land could be acquired cheaply and without displacing large numbers of residents. Second, the city’s population had grown 160% in the twenty years from 1840 to 1860,12 and the city’s existing Croton reservoir (then located in the exact center of the proposed park) was insufficient. The city needed an expanded reservoir; the most convenient location on Manhattan Island for this reservoir was next to the existing one. The otherwise purely practical infrastructure of water supply could thus become a landscape feature.13 Third, the city planned to offset the approximately five-million-dollar price tag of land acquisition and construction through corresponding increases in the taxable property values of land adjacent the park. The architects also went so far as to suggest “a toll of three cents on visitors coming on foot, and six cents for all others” collected on visitors to fund park maintenance and offset construction costs. (This was never implemented.)14 Olmsted also writes:
Land immediately about the Park, the frontage on it being seven miles in length, instead of taking the course anticipated by those opposed to the policy of the Commission, has advanced in value at the rate of two hundred per cent per annum. […] It is universally admitted, however, that the cost, including that of the original off-hand common sense blunders, has been long since much more than compensated by the additional capital drawn to the city through the influence of the Park.15
The park’s location might be strengthened by the simple fact that a linear or smaller park along the waterfront would have fewer miles of frontage of taxable properties adjacent to the park. For instance, locating just one side Central Park along the Hudson and East River (instead of the island’s center) would result in 2.5 miles fewer of abutting properties. Within the following decades, the properties in the Upper East and Upper West Side that overlook the park became (and remain) among the most expensive in the city. This method of development – sacrificing a fraction of the land for park use so as to increase the monetary value of the adjoining lands – was common in New York City (e.g., Gramercy Park) and particularly in London’s fashionable West End and Hyde Park neighborhoods.16 What makes Central Park different, though, is the unprecedented scale of this investment to boost civic pride and to increase property taxes.

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

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Given these priorities – real estate and infrastructure interests over aesthetics – the choice of location was not ideal (figure 5). The rough terrain was mostly barren of trees and was a mosquito-laden wetland. (More readily converted and forested terrain was originally proposed along the East River in the vicinity of Roosevelt University.) Before beginning the architect’s work of planting trees and building scenic garden features, the first major task was to prepare the land and make it suitable for public use. To that effect, Olmsted contracted the engineer (and later military coronel) George E. Waring to drain the swamp. Waring directed 400 men to construct some 105,000 linear feet (32 kilometers) of drainpipes over two years (figure 8).17 His military-style approach toward clearing the park followed him into later life when he became New York City’s sanitation commissioner. As commissioner, he required all his street cleaners to wear white pith helmets (identical to those worn by European colonists in Africa) and then declared the war on filth. Given his interest in sanitation and dislike of dirt, his answer to the park commissioners’ question is revealing:
Commission’s Question: “To what degree shall the park be drained?”
Waring’s Answer: “Totally.”
Q: “By what form of drains?”
A: “Earthenware, of varying calibers.”
Q: “At what depth?”
A: “Three feet in open glades, four feet in forested areas.”
Q: “For best economy, by contract or days’ work?”
A: By days’ work because of the endlessly varied conditions requiring uncommon on-site super vision.”18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Figure 10. Author’s diagram of road types

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

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WALK          RIDE          DRIVE          TRANSVERSE

Figure 12.

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

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

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

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Figure 16. 1811 Commissioners’ Plan

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These maps also reveal a park that is not separate from or opposite to the city, but instead a continuation of the city. A glance at a map of Manhattan reveals two seemingly different philosophies of urbanism, as imprinted through the laying of road networks. Most of the island is covered in the orthogonal 1811 grid (figure 16). This grid gives no consideration to topography, nature, or aesthetics. Then, there is the three square mile area of Central Park with winding and seemingly organic roads. The absence of symmetry and straight lines might lead one to conclude that the park reflects an attempt to harmonize with nature. Existing popular literature commonly situates this park as a reaction to the grid’s perceived faults and excesses. Upon closer examination, this park’s near obsessive attention to detail, its concern with segregated movement, and its reliance on complex (but hidden) infrastructure reveal the park to be a continuation of the 1811 grid’s interest in real estate, property values, and engineering, more than it is a prosaic and romantic reaction to excessive urban growth. This infrastructure is also wrapped up in a coded message about the progress of civilization. The passage from cultivated south to rugged north can read as a condensed representation of the passage from the center of civilization to its undeveloped edges. One should also keep in mind that simultaneous to the construction of Central Park, engineers and developers were at work on the other side of the country clearing the American West for development. Within the following decades, the extent of farmed land would creep westwards on former Indian soil, generally following the paths of railroads toward California. Does the design of Central Park mirror 1860s American society’s belief in the civilizing power of science and technology to tame the wilderness? Alternatively, is Central Park’s design just a matter-of-fact effort to boost the city’s tax revenues, with no moral agenda intentionally encoded in the park design? Such questions might be impossible to answer, given the lack of conclusive evidence.
Now is the time to return to the question we started with: How can we reconcile these two seemingly opposed tendencies – natural vs. manmade? I posit that by describing Central Park in the language of infrastructure and real estate – instead of nature and aesthetics – we can arrive at a more accurate assessment of the park’s origins, objectives, and construction process. Seemingly, the only way to adapt this ill-suited site into a park that fulfilled the nineteenth-century definition of the picturesque was through public works that, upon their completion, effaced almost all traces of the people, trees, and landscape that existed before. The engineering here succeeds insofar as it is invisible and functions as if no manmade intervention had ever occurred. While at work, Olmsted made this prediction on the future of Manhattan Island:
The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied rock formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park.28
The park is an architectural contradiction. On the one hand, its rock formations, hills, and valleys look to a pre-developed and rugged Manhattan in the public imagination, a landscape more fictive than real. On the other hand, the park’s very presence is a testament to the power of real estate interests, engineers, and the water supply board in shaping the city. This tension underlies the landscape features now almost universally praised for their vision, beauty, and harmony.

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List of figures

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

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Works cited

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