BROWSE ALL BY DATE
Displays all 150+ publications on a single page in reverse chronological order
Draft of project in progress, abstract, and two chapters:
On public housing
On highway construction
HERE GROWS NEW YORK
The first data visualization to show NYC's urban growth from 1609 to 2020 View on Wikipedia
MANHATTAN IN TEN DAYS
Walking and painting in vibrant New York City
VISIONS OF GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE
Three time-lapse construction sequences show the centuries-long building process at:
1. Amiens Cathedral
2. Notre-Dame of Paris
3. Beauvais Cathedral
Documenting changes to Newark's built environment through photography
Lost Newark Street View
OLD ESSEX COUNTY JAIL
An exhibit and case study about the social history of a nineteenth-century jail
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
Master's thesis about history of solitary confinement
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1913 to 2023
A century later, the mills of Paterson sitting abandoned, their machines silent
Exactly 110 years ago today – on July 28, 1913 – Paterson silk mill workers voted to end their strike. Their strike had failed. But what has changed (or not) since then frames their historical struggle in the context of ongoing labor battles. The motivations of the strikers are as relevant in 2023 as they were in 1913: the fight for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, and – ultimately – for the right to work that feels meaningful.
The silk looms of Paterson required a high level of skill to operate: to draw the thin threads into delicate patterns, to weave the silk without breaking it, to never pull the threads too tightly that embroidered patterns curled up into themselves. Machines kept the rooms humid all year round – hot in summer, cold in winter – so that the silk threads remained damp, malleable, and less likely to tear from dryness. Workers suffered in the moisture; cases of asthma and lung diseases were common. Management was threatening to replace their skilled labor with machines. Whatever creativity and skill was still required to operate the looms was gradually being lost. Thousands in Paterson went on strike for five months from February to July 1913. They ultimately failed when management refused to concede to their demands and when workers in other mills refused to join in solidarity.
The machines in Paterson were powered first by water and wood, then coal, and finally electricity. The inventors of mill machines were scattered across the New York region. Factory machines needed to be close to the men who invented them and repaired them when, inevitably, these new inventions broke down. The investors in silk were on Wall Street and Lower Manhattan. The markets selling silk were department stores on Manhattan’s Ladies Mile, better known as Sixth Avenue. (Sixth Avenue was still largely residential.) A popular saying ran: 8th Street down the men are making it; 8th Street up the women are spending it.
The distance between markets and manufacturers was once measured in miles, the distance by train from Paterson to New York City or the distance by foot from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to Ladies Mile. This distance is now measured in thousands of miles. In the 19th century, Jacob Riis shocked the city’s elite with photos of Lower East Side tenements and factories located less than a mile from their Fifth Avenue homes. On June 7, 1913, the Paterson strikers brought the strike to the city. They boarded trains to Madison Square Garden and re-enacted their strike on stage for an audience in the thousands. Some strikers played on stage as police, others as management, and others as themselves. It was one of the the first times in American history that labor was transformed into a public pageant, into a public spectacle that hoped to make visible their struggle to New York City consumers. Pageants were traditionally military and state affairs that celebrated events like battle victories, elections, and fancy dress balls in theaters. To put on as large a public spectacle to celebrate striking and strikers was something new.
Fearful for their property and of socialists on their doorstep, Upper East Side residents organized their own unit of the National Guard based in a custom-built Park Avenue Avenue castle. Nicknamed the Silk Stocking Regiment for the wealth of its members, they paraded annually down Fifth Avenue in a display of wealth and force.
Over the 20th century, mill workers in Paterson, Lowell, and across New England fought and won union rights. In each instance, within years of their victories, the factories picked up shop and moved elsewhere. First to the American South in states with labor laws that favored the mill owners. Then to China and finally to India. In the 21st century, manufacturers move machines to wherever labor is cheapest. Transport by container ship is now cheaper, labor laws in America are now stronger than they were in the 1900s (but weaker than they were in the 1950s), and borders are no longer a problem for owners in a world woven together on strings of ocean-spanning fiber optic cables.
Today, that distance between sites of exploitation and places of profit is greater. The factories of management and the homes of laborers are no longer in walking distance of each other. On April 24, 2013 – on the centennial of the Paterson silk strike – the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. The mill was making fast fashion for Primark, Walmart, and other western brands, paying its workers cents on the hour for 10-hour days. Vibrations from the machinery caused the poorly built factory to collapse and kill 1,134 workers. Most victims were women and mothers. One hundred years earlier in 1913, most New Yorkers could have seen firsthand the strike, the violent response of factory owners to suppress it, and the damages of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But in 2013, the violence of Rana Plaza was half a world away. After the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 killed 146 mostly women and children, management paid the family of each victim $75. After the Rana factory collapse, Primark paid each victim’s family $200. In neither disaster was any corporation punished. But while the Triangle fire was a key moment in labor history that galvanized public support for unions, the Rana factory collapse is a footnote.
Historians describe the Vietnam War as America’s first “television war,” images flashed across the screen of napalm attacks, carpet bombings, and the nine-year-old girl running toward the film cameras from her burning village. The violence feels distant: workers thousands of miles away, a separate lived reality, violence transformed into a product as passive to consume as the evening news. The violence of textile production also feels intimate: as intimate as the clothes we wear and as intimate as seeing violence from the intimacy of the bedroom television. But, intimate or distant, labor struggle is a reality millions of middle class Americans can now choose to see or ignore.
The technologies of surveillance have changed the face of labor. Laborers are now not only more physically distant from the markets their products are sold. They are also distant from the homes of their corporate bosses. They are more physically distant from each other. Algorithms guide Amazon workers on the paths they must navigate through the fulfillment center to retrieve items. The software allegedly guides them on paths that limit face-to-face contact and thus reduces the chances to socialize and organize themselves at the workplace.
The geography of the American city has also changed. In the early 20th century, most mill workers walked to work, travelled by trolley, or assembled in the public street. Main streets and public parks were open spaces for labor to assemble, protest, and make their voices heard. Immigrant laborers clustered in tight-knit and physically dense communities united along lines of race, religion, and language. The geography of the city invited social interaction and the human relations essential to any organized movement.
Today, more New Jersey residents live in suburbs than in cities, and more travel to work on private cars than on public transit. Highways isolate each commuter in their own car; a public good is privatized. The fabric of daily life has turned inward. What was once a culture of public spectacles and public entertainment – in theaters, in city streets, at church, and on public transportation – has been replaced with the television, internet streaming, and each person’s private communion with the phone screen. If the falling number of Americans who attend church, go to live performances, and participate in local elections is any indication, human needs that once required social interaction in public are now met through communion with technology in private. The ease of driving in a privatized suburban environment isolates us from each other and from the kind of urban environments conducive to organized protest.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, philosopher Michel Foucault described in 1971 earlier society as the “culture of spectacle” and modern society as a “carceral culture.” Public space has become privatized: from shopping malls on private property patrolled by mall cops, to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse as a virtual town square, to Amazon as a virtual marketplace that replaces the activities of a physical Main Street America. In each private space, the user is tracked, monitored, and marketed. Revolution is averted.
The nature of labor also is different. The image of a 19th century factory is the assembly line, industrial labor in physically demanding jobs. Today, those jobs have either been automated or largely exiled beyond American borders. The trend since mid-century has moved the sites of work – factories, offices, and logistics centers – from cities to suburban areas, to office parks and industrial parks where the employer has more control. The gig economy of delivery drivers, truckers, restaurants, and service workers has largely replaced an urban industrial economy of blue-collar laborers. Labor is not less demanding or demeaning, but it is different – more atomized, more isolated, more suburban, and more closely monitored.
For all the ways the suburban built environment makes labor organizing more difficult, one thing has improved in the past century: the access of laborers to consumer goods. Paterson strikers largely lived in tenements, in boarding houses, and homes usually without hot running water and electricity. Most could afford only a few pairs of clothes. Bread riots were frequent in 19th-century cities, for the simple fact that most workers lived paycheck to paycheck; bread was a staple food and a large percentage of a family’s weekly budget. Today, the American working class is not usually lacking for material goods: fast fashion, fast food, cell phones, and low-cost products made by laborers in foreign lands paid even less than them. Even the homeless, thanks to government programs, have access to the internet on their low-cost smart phones. Henry Ford advocated for the cheap mass-produced car as tool of social stability. The moment the laborer becomes car owner and later homeowner, Ford claimed in newsletters to employees, he would no longer advocate for revolution. Consumerism will pacify revolution. Revolution is averted.
In the 1910s, economists and socialists predicted that American society would be so wealthy, so thoroughly mechanized, and so rich in affordable consumer products that most people would no longer have to work. Laborers would be free to live a meaningful life surrounded by high quality machine-made goods. However rich modern western society is in consumer products, it is still lacking in the cultural fabric of families and the social fabric of anti-poverty institutions. The cruel irony is that the average American worker can afford a six-foot wide flat screen TV but not the home to put it in or health insurance. That century-old dream of industrial utopia now feels more attainable than anytime in human history, and yet somehow more distant. Perhaps, if the Paterson silk mills were still in operation and their workers again on strike, management could offer to buy them televisions and a subscription to Amazon Prime.
This animation reconstructs the exact conditions of the workplace, the locations of each fallen body, and the progress of the 1911 fire minute by minute. It is in an accurate-to-the-inch virtual reality model based on trial records and primary sources.
Audio testimonies from:
Pauline Newman letter from May 1951, 6036/008, International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives. Cornell University, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives.
Louis Waldman eyewitness in Labor Lawyer, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944, pp. 32-33.
Anna Gullo in the case of The People of the State of New York v. Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, December 11, 1911, pp. 362.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – in Manhattan’s West Village on Saturday, March 25, 1911 – was the deadliest fire in New York City history (and one of the deadliest fires in American history) until the terror attacks on the Twin Towers,. The factory was located on floors 8, 9, and 10 of the Asch Building, built in 1901 for various garment sweatshops.
To prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks, to reduce theft, and to block union organizers from entering the factory, the exit doors to the stairwells were locked – a common and legal practice at the time. As a result, more than half of the 9th floor workers could not escape the burning building.
As a result of the fire and lack of workplace protections, 146 garment workers – 123 women and girls and 23 men – died by fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping and falling from the 9th floor windows. Most victims were recent Italian or Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23.
After the fire, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were not convicted, were ruled “not guilty.” They “compensated” each victim’s family a mere $75. The fire led to news laws requiring fire sprinklers in factories, safety inspections, and working conditions. The fire also motivated the growing International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that organized sweatshop workers to fight for a living wage and workplace protections.
Virtual Reality Model
– Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives (website)
– The 1,500 page transcript of witness and survivor testimonies (transcript)
– Victim names and causes of death (source and map of victim home addresses)
– Original architectural plans of the building used in the trial (PDF plans and source)
– Horse drawn carriage
– Power loom
– Workplace bell
– Large crowd
– Small fire
– Large fire
– Fire truck bell
– Fire hose
– Dull thud
– Closing song: Solidarity Forever by Pete Seeger, 1998
– Closing song: Solidarity Forever by Twin Cities Labor Chorus, 2009
Performing winter 2022 at The Shed in Hudson Yards is Straight Line Crazy, a two-act play about Robert Moses. He was New York City’s leading planner from the 1930s through 1960s, responsible for 35 highways, 12 bridges, 658 playgrounds and over 2 million acres of parks. Since the publication of Robert Moses’s 1974 biography The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Moses has been variously remembered for the thousands of projects he completed, admired for those public parks that brought communities together, hated for his proposal to carve an expressway through Lower Manhattan, and despised for those infrastructure projects that divided non-White communities.
Act one builds up Robert Moses as the Oxford-Columbia educated planner but with slight populist tendencies in his construction of Jones Beach and hundreds of playgrounds. This script for public consumption is of course incomplete without the mandatory repetition – originating from The Power Broker – that bridges over the access roads to public beaches were too short for buses of Black people to pass under.
Act two takes down Moses by trotting through the usual history with mentions of the 1960s Cross Bronx Expressway. Out of 250,000 people displaced citywide for “slum clearance” and “urban renewal” projects, that highway alone displaced some 40,000 people – mostly tenements of working-class immigrants. In the final scene, a young Black architect employed in Moses’s office repeats James Baldwin’s 1963 claim that “urban renewal means … Negro removal” and confronts Moses saying that her family and everyone she knows was displaced for the Cross Bronx.
Animation of the path of the Cross Bronx Expressway before and after
That a city planner should be the subject of an off-Broadway play speaks to the enduring power of Robert Moses in the public imagination. Robert Moses succeeded in a profession now weighed down by paperwork and bureaucracy. In his complete vision of a city and ability to execute projects in face of the odds, Robert Moses represents the total power many planners and architects today secretly – or not so secretly – wished they had. Like him or hate him, we cannot seem to forget him.
Since the 1960s civil rights movement, the public judgement on Robert Moses has become clear. The public is now deeply and rightly skeptical of designing cities around cars, highways, and public housing towers. For me to say I am theoretically from “The Projects” immediately brings to the public’s mind images of poor Black and non-White neighbors confined to decaying brick towers set in barren landscapes of poverty and incarceration. Under Robert Moses, New York City completed upwards of 100,000 units of public housing set in near identical towers.
In the play’s closing minutes, activist urbanist Jane Jacobs turns to the audience and announces: “Robert Moses’s plans to demolish Greenwich Village were stopped. But visit that neighborhood today and you will see gentrification has exiled from the community the very artists and small businesses that had fought to save their homes. We activists succeeded, but not in the way we had hoped.”
Stepping out from The Shed after the play, the towers and shopping malls of Hudson Yards surrounded me, acres of glass and luxury shops for handbags, watches, and clothes with not a bodega or homeless person in sight. Hudson Yards is, after all, publicly accessible but privately owned public space. Who can and cannot use it depends on the whims of Vornado, the company that owns the complex. A project like Hudson Yards – and the thousands of soulless skyscrapers like it that now appear in Manhattan and every major world city – is a direct product of the 1960s resistance to Robert Moses that began on the human-scale streets of the Greenwich Village.
If government is the problem and Robert Moses the racial symbol of what happens when government goes too far, then government cannot be counted on and cannot be trusted to provide the solutions for our time. Affordable housing, healthcare, internet, water, parks, even prisons, all these services and more are now provided by private markets. Affordable housing policies, too, require that new developers of luxury units set aside a fraction as affordable housing. In the trickle-down philosophy that “a rising tides lifts all boats,” the construction of affordable housing hinges on the success of luxury housing. To propose that only the state should be empowered to provide these services is – to follow the logic of Fox, CNN, and similar mainstream commentators – Socialism.
In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan summed up the new political philosophy he planned for the nation: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. [….] The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”
Yet, for Reagan to condemn the likes of Robert Moses as “an elite group,” society has come to rely on a new set of masters in private markets and private equity – un-elected forces more powerful than Robert Moses. Global charities shuddered when Bill and Melinda Gates divorced, for fear that their divorce would spell the end of their non-profit that donates billions to charity. The mainstream media shuddered again when Elon Musk bought Twitter, for fear that new ownership would empower conservatives, Donald Trump, and liberals alike to spread misinformation. The retreat of government from public life mirrors growing income inequality, a worsening climate crisis, rising cost of living, and critical infrastructure projects that can never quite seem to get off the ground.
Planners, politicians, and activists now comfort themselves in the belief that we have “learned from history.” In an attempt to reconnect communities, efforts in Detroit, Seattle, Rochester, Boston, and across the country are demolishing the very highway projects from the likes of Robert Moses that once divided communities. Progress has been slow and funding hard to unlock in an age of austerity. In abandoning the philosophy of Robert Moses, we have also abandoned the very tools of government through which to keep people like Robert Moses in check. This is the key problem with modern liberalism, particularly the variety endemic to liberal college campuses and the State of California: It condemns public housing projects and state-driven urban renewal projects; it also condemns gentrification and private control of public space, public water, and public goods. And yet, the solution to corporate gentrification is an aggressive set of government polices that defends and builds more public housing. We need modern day policies to stitch communities back together that are as powerful and as aggressive as those policies that divided them.
The lesson to learn from Robert Moses is not that he was a bad planner, a “racist,” or a car enthusiast. The lesson to learn is that there will be inevitable power asymmetries in society, but that we have the power to choose our masters. In the end, Robert Moses was pushed out of power in 1968 by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller; the political winds had changed and with it the power brokers. In the end, Robert Moses died in 1981 with only $50,000 in assets to his name; Reagan had just been elected president, and Trump Tower was under construction. Six years later, Donald Trump would write in The Art of the Deal where, among many topics and real estate advice, he described his power to serve the public good through private enterprise. As Robert Moses rebuilt Central Park’s dozens of playgrounds and public spaces in the 1930s, Trump would rebuild the park’s Wollman Rink in the 1980s as publicly subsidized but privately owned “public” space. Trump assessed his work and the “public” spaces he created with taxpayer subsidies: “It was a simple, accessible drama about the contrast between governmental incompetence and the power of effective private enterprise. [….] During most of the construction, the city stayed out of our way – in large part because I instructed my men to keep park officials off the site. When they did try to interfere, it inevitably turned into disaster.” (link) The reach of today’s corporate power brokers in un-elected office is more powerful than Robert Moses ever was, and the public’s mechanisms to control them remains unclear. Nothing less than the future of democracy is in the balance.
Created with architect and urbanist Stephen Fan for City as Living Lab
Funded by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship
Chinatown’s Public Realm
Along Mott Street, boxes of fruits and vegetables from the US, Latin America, and China flow from the private open storefronts and onto the public sidewalks and curbs. Forklifts navigate around crates and delivery trucks as vendors, residents, tourists, and shoppers–from regional Asian restaurant owners to West-African immigrants–animate the narrow walkways. After business hours, private produce stands become public places to sit, chat, people-watch, or nap as a sidewalk masseuse sets up two chairs on the public sidewalk to provide his private services.
Away from the commercial corridors, teenagers sit in circles sipping on bubble tea on the Pace High School track while senior citizens slap playing cards on a makeshift table along the track perimeter. Inside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, teachers begin their Chinese language class while protesters in Columbus Park call for ending violence against Asian Americans.
In creating this map, we hope to stimulate conversations about how public space can be better used, designed, managed, and reimagined: to inspire action in shaping a more resilient and inclusive public realm.
This map illustrates the public/private uses/spaces of Manhattan Chinatown’s pedestrian life. The map is divided into two sections: the upper depicts public spaces, and the lower section private spaces. From left to right are a spectrum of private to public uses.
In consultation with Chinatown residents and based on a series of walking tours and community forums, we developed the themes and activities shown on this map. We were inspired from reading Jane Jacobs and Michael Sorkin’s descriptions of street life and the delicate balance of public vs. private uses that play out on the city sidewalks. We hope this map will be a classroom and community resource to equip the public with a language and questions to interrogate their own built environments.
Below are scenes from a community event we held in summer 2021. Chinatown residents were invited to annotate an early draft of our map with their experiences and memories of the community.
Chinese music: Feng Yang (The Flower Drum)
The best definition of a university is, to my mind, a city from which the universe can be surveyed. It is the universe compressed into a city the size of Morningside Heights.
Aesthetically ancient but technologically advanced, Low Library rose to this challenge in the 1890s. Buried within hundreds of tons of Milford granite, Indiana limestone, and the unchanging architecture of antiquity were the latest technologies: electricity, steam heating, Corliss steam engines, and internal plumbing in a time when hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still used outhouses and made less than five dollars a day. Flushing toilets – also known as crappers after Thomas Crapper who perfected their flush mechanism – were also a relatively new consumer product. It has always surprised me how the bathroom stalls at Low Library are divided by marble partitions of the highest quality that must weigh several hundred pounds each. Low Library was indeed built at a time when toilets were something to celebrate, in addition to books of course.
The goal of a great library was to collapse the universe into the size of a room. From the dome’s center was suspended a seven-foot-diameter white ball, which Scientific American described in 1898 as “Columbia’s artificial moon.” So that students could read by moonlight under a canopy of stars, this moon was illuminated against a dome painted dark to resemble the night sky. So in awe was Scientific American that they devoted as much page space to describing Low Library as to documenting the mechanics of this moon with mathematical formulas. With no other point of reference except candles, scientists calculated Columbia’s moon as equivalent in power to 3,972 candles.
The only trouble was the lightbulbs’ carbon filament could only burn for 2.5 hours before “Columbia’s artificial moon” went dark. Scientists had not yet perfected the technologies of light. As a result, Columbia needed to replace the carbon filaments daily and could only illuminate the universe between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. And yet, in line with Columbia’s Latin motto “In lumine tuo videbimis lumen” (In your light we see the light), Low Library was flanked by the emerging research departments of the global research university: physics, chemistry, mathematics, mining, engineering, and architecture. Then as now, these fields were seen as the frontiers of human knowledge.
For all the university’s focus on science, its core is built on the art and literature of antiquity. Low Library’s walls are several feet thick, thicker than was necessary in 1890s America that had moved on from heavy stone construction to steel-frame skeletal structures for skyscrapers and railroad stations. From Scientific American: “The imposing pile which forms the home of the college library looks down upon the great metropolis of the New World with something surely of the same pride with which the Parthenon of old surveyed the ancient Athenian city.” America – flush with wealth after conquering indigenous peoples in the American west – saw itself as inheriting the values of ancient Greece and Rome. New York, the American empire’s economic capital, needed cultural and intellectual symbols of power to match. Low Library was this symbol.
Civilization at left: Harper’s Weekly: The Journal of Civilization featured Low Library on its front cover
Colonialism at right: Scientific American described Low Library’s construction on the same page as an article about tree stump removal in the American west
Part of the ambition – and also hubris – of Low Library was the desire to bring all knowledge under one roof. From the reference desk in the dome’s center, librarians could, in the sweep of the eye, survey the entire collection. Curved reading desks were arranged in rings around this centerpiece, like the orbits of planets that circled the sun. From the reference desk beneath the dome’s “starry firmament on high” came the source of all knowledge and all power, as if the library were a planetarium of Biblical proportions.
Rather than the church altar as visual centerpiece, like the altar in the Roman Pantheon on which Low Library was modeled, the mechanical moon and the quiet, methodical work of librarians were the visual centers of attention. Low Library’s architectural form – historically associated with religion – was adapted to new uses as a temple of reason. By contrast, Columbia University’s chapel was only an afterthought, built years later and barely visible from the College Walk. While the Gothic university chapel was the visual centerpiece of traditional universities, the library was the symbolic center of Columbia’s campus. This was a campus “made in the image of” the modern research university. The pursuit of truth was given architectural form and made its home in the university campus.
Columbia had fewer than one million books in the 1890s, in contrast to over 13 million books today shelved across dozens of libraries. As industrialization in the image of Henry Ford’s moving assembly line spread to other fields like publishing, the printing and selling of books became cheaper. The market was flooded with books, and Columbia’s Low Library – built for a rarified time when books were more expensive – became too small. The collections soon outgrew their intended home, prompting the construction of Butler Library. The Butler stacks – lined with thousands of metal shelves, accessible by only one entrance behind a security desk, and organized by the Dewey Decimal System – symbolize the mechanization of knowledge. If Low Library resembles a temple of reason, the fireproof stacks of Butler Library resemble a bank vault. By the 1920s, many of the same technologies employed in the design of bank vaults were also employed in the design of libraries. The names of dozens of Columbia spaces named after wealthy donors also attest to the fact that architectural form follows finance. Columbia’s campus, although built in the eternal image of ancient Rome, was funded with New York fortunes made and lost in the speculative bubbles of Wall Street.
Except as an event space, Low Library’s rotunda has remained empty for decades. But the unmet challenge of adapting an ancient library to new uses should not be read as a failure. Architecture must serve the university’s vision. Architecture must make the university’s ideals of tolerance, diversity, and free speech visible in stone, metal, and wood. As much as Low Library represented one way of thinking, its monumental emptiness symbolizes a university that has moved on to include new voices in an expanded definition of the universe, such as women and other groups excluded from higher education for most of American history. The Core Curriculum, too, once limited to the literature of Greece and Rome now lives across departments and includes global voices. In ways both technological and metaphorical, the university has advanced beyond a vision of the universe illuminated for only two hours per day.
The university Columbia has become is radically different from President Seth Low’s time. It is culturally richer for these changes and for the 1968 protests occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall. Low Library – the symbolic and visual center of Columbia’s campus – might have taken a few years to build, but the goal of building a university requires the labor of generations of scholars, administrators, and activist students. Like the universe, the university was not built in a day.
Eldridge Street Synagogue and Manhattan Bridge
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?
Interactive Tour Map
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.
Route of walking tour superimposed over 1782 map of Manhattan
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.
2. Edward Mooney House
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.
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.
Pell Street and Doyers Street
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.
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.
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.
Photos of Mulberry Bend by Jacob Riis
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chinese Merchants’ Association Building
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.
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.
Mott Street tenements
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.
Old Bowery Savings Bank
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
Chinatown street scenes
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.
More than a specific threat to New York City, the decades-long erosion of public space is an existential threat to democracy.
About 60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area is listed as being public in some way, but only about 25% is totally unrestricted to the public in practice.*1
New York City – and the world’s wealthiest corporations headquartered in Lower Manhattan – had much to do with inventing and spreading new technologies that influenced the urban form. Construction companies like US Steel at 165 Broadway supplied materials for the highways that sliced through cities. Car companies like Chrysler in Midtown encouraged America’s affair with gasoline. Groups like Chase Bank at 28 Liberty Street supplied home loans for whites-only suburbs. Stores like Woolworth at 233 Broadway helped replace small businesses on main street with one-stop department stories and suburban shopping malls. Above them all, the New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street supervised the twentieth-century migration of wealth and capital from American industrial cities to foreign countries with cheaper labor. These changes might have started with the “titans of industry” perched in Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers, but highways, cars, home mortgages, shopping malls, and de-industrialization all had consequences for the rest of us. This makes Manhattan the ground zero – and in more ways than just September 11 – to understand the forces shaping the loss of public space.
Over the past century, three forces in Lower Manhattan have been chipping away at the quantity and quality of public space: the car, the corporation, and the police state. Each of these three forces effected Lower Manhattan in particular and the nation at large. Each of these three forces, prompted by changes in technology, reshaped the urban form: 1) the invention of the affordable and mass-produced car that substituted for public transit; 2) the abandonment of cities for suburbs that was enabled by the car and encouraged by corporations; and 3) the invention of surveillance technologies to collect, store, and analyze data collected from public spaces. Each of these three technologies were, in turn, weaponized against the urban form to chip away at spaces that once belonged to society at large but which now belong to a select few. Each force will be analyzed in turn – the car, the corporation, and the police state – to reflect on the impact of each on Lower Manhattan’s urban form.
Public spaces in theory:
~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
The street as public space
Pedestrians in American cities are confined to sidewalks. Most of the street is for cars. For instance, Manhattan avenues are ~100 feet wide with the middle 70 feet for cars and ~15 feet on either side for pedestrians. Pedestrians walking in the street risk possible death. After a century of the automobile, pedestrians are hard-wired that they must use only the sidewalk.
However, city streets before cars had a more democratic role in urban life. Old films of Lower Manhattan streets in 1911 show pedestrians walking wherever with little concern for the hard edge between sidewalk and street. Before the car, there were no one way streets in Manhattan, no traffic lights, no speeds limits, no road markings, and no crosswalks. There was no need for these features either. Nor was there a need for traffic engineers to optimize the timing of lights and direction of streets. Instead, the street without traffic laws was for everyone: horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, omnibuses, and pedestrians. With residents in dense tenement areas unable to access public parks and playgrounds, the street doubled as recreational space and as an extension of the sidewalk. With lower traffic speeds (horses move ~10 miles per hour), there was little risk of traffic accidents and pedestrian injuries. Fewer vehicles to begin with further allowed streets to serve multiple purposes with large avenues cluttered with pedestrians and traffic, while less busy side streets were alternative sidewalks.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars:
~35% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
1. Public space lost to cars (1900 to 1945)
Introducing mass-produced cars had consequences for street life. Firstly, traffic accidents increased year on year and pushed pedestrians to the sidewalk. New York City traffic deaths went from 332 in 1910 to 1,360 in 1929 (source, p.73). Crossing the street against moving traffic became dangerous, and using the street was governed by specific rules about speed limits and parking zones. Expanding the police state was needed to enforce these rules – that is, traffic cops. Not only were drivers punished with traffic laws, pedestrians could no longer use the street with the same freedom they had before the car.
Secondly, specific and class-based rules developed for using public space. The car was a measure of social class: The car owner would, by necessity, need to have enough income to buy a car and enough space to park it. This, in turn, restricted most urban residents from owning cars and using the public space given to car owners.
By the 1930s, Robert Moses was adding hundreds of new parks, pools, and public spaces to the city. But this expansion of public space in some areas must be measured against the contraction of public space in other areas. At the same time, Moses was clearing dozens of neighborhoods for urban renewal projects and highways. “Cities are created by and for traffic; a city without traffic is a ghost town,” he said. The value of public space must also be assessed by the rules that govern it. The city was taking away the free-form public space of city streets and was adding public space subject to new rules: Park closed from sunset to sunrise. Do not walk on the grass. No dogs allowed. No skateboarding. Children must be supervised.
Before the auto age, Lower East Side immigrant children played on streets within sight and sound of parents in tenements. Think of the 1969 advertisement for Prince Spaghetti that illustrates an immigrant culture of active and car-free street life. Today, play means a trip to the park with parents for supervised play in a gated enclosure. The car (among other causes) was the technology in urban life that transformed play from an independent activity in the public street to a regulated activity in designated playgrounds.
The “Anthony! Anthony!” commercial for Prince Spaghetti shows a boy running home from play in the streets. The ad invokes nostalgia to encourage consumer spending on processed food. Ironically, it was this consumer spending at suburban supermarkets that was eroding the urban street life and small businesses represented in the ad. By abandoning the street and theater culture of cities for suburban living rooms with entertainment on TV, the American public was turning away from the very traditions represented in this ad.
In 2008, 66% of New Yorkers (~5.5 million) commuted by walking or public transit. By contrast, 27% of residents in peer cities like Boston and San Francisco used walking or public transit for work. (source, p.72)
Of Manhattan’s 20 square miles, 36% is for public streets (source). An average Manhattan street gives two thirds of its surface area for cars and one third for pedestrians. So, of the 36% of Manhattan that is public streets, about one third of that is for pedestrians: 12% of available land.
Why are two thirds of all streets in Manhattan for cars when only 22% of Manhattan residents own cars? (source) Should the division of public space in streets be proportionate to the percentage of residents who own cars? Why are the majority of residents confined to the sidewalks that represent the minority of available space?
Taxes on New York City residents pay for paving the ~6,000 miles of roads and salaries for thousands of traffic police. Yet, most residents do not own cars. And most cars are either commercial vehicles on business or the private vehicles of non-New Yorkers commuting to work. In effect, urban residents are taxed for public space they do not use. At the same time, the non-New York commuters who use these streets do not pay for their upkeep. In other words, giving most public space to cars and taxing urban residents for its upkeep is a subsidy for suburban and business interests. Manhattan is the world’s most valuable real estate; there is no reason that the fraction of public spaces that remain should be given to private interests, too.
The city needs a redistribution so that the percentage of public space that is given to cars is similar to the percentage of New Yorkers who own cars. As designer and architectural critic Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, a 2009 book about his experiences walking:
There is not exactly a biblical injunction that specifies the proportional division of the cross section of the block, nothing that requires that cars be given three times the space of pedestrians. Of the four lanes reserved for vehicular traffic, two are parking lanes. On our block – as with most blocks in New York – there are no meters, and parking is available on a first-come, first-served basis. The city, in effect, provides half the area of the public space on my block for the storage of private cars, and approximately forty will fit when all the spaces are occupied. The diversion of public space – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – to the private interests of the least efficient and most dangerous and dirty means of movement in the city is a fundamental affront to the real needs and habits of New York’s citizens, the majority of whom do not own automobiles.
Public spaces, not counting areas for cars, not counting semi-restricted or privatized public spaces: ~25% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area
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.
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.”
How much of our cities belong to We The People?
3. Public space lost to the police state (2001 to present)
The previous two assaults on public space by cars and corporations could be combated through reason and policy. Cars threaten pedestrians and control too much of the street? Add a speed limit and traffic calming measures. Corporations control too much public space? Pass laws restricting them from, say, harassing protestors and closing public spaces by night. The alliance of corporations and state have too much surveillance? This is a more difficult threat to fight. Corporations and the state resist public demands through the language of “free choice.” This street has cameras on it, but you can choose to walk somewhere else. This airport searches all passengers and steals their “contraband” possessions like shampoo, wine, and food, but you can choose other means of transport. This social media platform monitors your activity to give you advertisements that will make you insecure, angry, or depressed – whichever emotional response will bring the advertiser profit. But you chose to use social media. The rhetoric of “free choice” suppresses criticism of surveillance in public space. Besides, surveillance is for “our your own safety,” so we are told. And if we are not doing anything bad in public spaces, then we should have nothing to fear, so we are told.
However, in Manhattan specifically, constant surveillance erodes the most important feature of urban life: privacy. As E.B. White described in Here is New York, his 1949 reflection on walking in Manhattan: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population.” Anonymity is one of the greatest joys of walking, the joy of blending into the urban crowd while remaining anonymous to everyone, to see without being seen. By forcing knowability and tracking the exact location and actions of every individual, the surveillance state erodes the anonymity that has drawn generations of artists, activists, and social outcasts to world cities like New York. From Occupy Wall Street protestors, to undocumented immigrants, to generations of Blacks and Hispanics that are targeted by law enforcement, surveillance denies them the anonymity that their work and use of public space require. In the past year, the murder of Blacks by law enforcement while shopping, driving, walking, and even sleeping has highlighted the dangers minorities face when using public space. While the car and corporation eroded the physical amount of public space, surveillance erodes the quality of public spaces that remain.
Public spaces in theory vs. in practice
Of the public space that occupies ~60% of Lower Manhattan’s surface area:
~25% is for cars; ~10% is semi-restricted or privately-owned; ~10 is for green space in parks; ~15% is for paths in parks and sidewalks along streets *2
Can democracy survive with eroded public space?
The past thirty years have seen the return of large numbers of middle class young people to New York City, as well as the gentrification they brought. For a few years, there seemed to be a resurgence and reinvestment in public space with new bike lanes, parks, and traffic calming measures in Lower Manhattan. But just over a century since the car arrived in Lower Manhattan streets, the future of public space is again in doubt.
Coronavirus represents both an opportunity and a challenge for public space. Since the virus prohibited indoor dining, thousands of restaurants have expanded onto sidewalks. Entire lanes of parking have been transformed into dining areas, a change that will likely be permanent. While using a parking space requires several thousand dollars to participate in the club of car owners, using a restaurant built on a public space costs only as much as lunch or dinner.
At the same time, the political uses of public space have migrated online. The activities of courtrooms, classrooms, cultural events, and ways people express their dissatisfaction with government have all migrated to online forums and social media. The internet might substitute for some public spaces, but it is not owned by the public. The US Bill of Rights promises that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” during a “public trial.” For generations, a public trial has meant a real space where witnesses voice their accusations in the physical presence of the accused. But can a digital space owned by private company still be considered public? Can the proprietary technology of social media and the video camera substitute for actual public space? Is the World Trade Center Path Station still public space if most Americans are priced out of shopping in nearby stores? Is the High Line still public space if the only people who can afford apartment views of it are the super rich?
E.B. White would cite that diversity and democracy cannot exist without public space. In his stroll across dozens of Manhattan neighborhoods, he observed that urban life forces people of diverse identities into the same crowded public spaces and therefore requires them to coexist and be tolerant of each other:
The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. If the people were to depart even briefly from the peace of cosmopolitan intercourse, the town would blow up higher than a kite. In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Time and again, researchers and writers observe that social media and the digital world allow people to self select the communities they are part of and the political views they are exposed to. The rise in both political parties of polarized identity politics and intolerance of anyone who disagrees with one’s views on gender and race are largely the products of a social media world that isolates and radicalizes people.
Public spaces like the city street and subway car mix people of all identities and incomes in a single space and are a lesson in tolerance. It is easy to hate foreigners and people of color when one’s views of these groups are filtered through the polarizing lens of social media, Fox News, and the mainstream media. But prejudice is a good deal harder to feel when one views these groups every day in public spaces going about the same routine as everyone else. While social media highlights the identity politics that make us different, public space highlights the qualities we share in common.
The loss of Lower Manhattan’s public spaces is not just a threat to urban culture. The loss of public space is an existential threat to democracy. More than ever before, this fractured country needs public space.
“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
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.
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%)
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.” 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?”
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.”
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,” 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,” with “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”
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.” 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.
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.
 Robert Caro, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: 1974).
 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: 1961).
 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/
 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
 Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: 2006).
 From the song “Little Boxes” written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962, sung by Pete Seeger in 1963
 From Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign slogan
 “Ronald Reagan Quotes and Speeches,” Ronald Reagan Institute. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/inaugural-address-2/
 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/