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 17th-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. In the 20th 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 18 months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station (and its associated service tunnels that stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River) was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was, at the time, 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 conversation with The New York Times in 1963, 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. Corporate office workers could move directly from trains to their desks 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]
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] With the dawning public awareness that a monument so seemingly expensive and permanent in Neoclassical appearance as Penn Station could one day 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 buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how this station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend toward the erosion and privatization of the commons. The following essay takes the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station as a lens to examine the evolving discourse on property rights, namely: the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. Old Penn Station’s demolition is a good place to start unpacking these tensions, and how they reflect on New York’s built environment. 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, it was soon buried by neighboring skyscrapers. [11]

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Old Penn Station as Public Space in a City of Private Interests

In a city symbolic of capitalism and industry, the design of old Penn Station spoke of an alternative vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The architects McKim, Meade, and White distained New York’s emerging skyscrapers, and they toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. They looked to European models of wide boulevards framing the monumental train station façade, 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 simply 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 types of people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the purely 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, writes 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 a required admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (which demands a certain dress code and level of reverence) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces effectively narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] The big city train station has, in contrast, fewer expectations of users; it is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with effectively no 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 – one of those public and communal spaces created entirely through private initiative where anyone may 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 responsible 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 entirely 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 effectively 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 gradually 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 above ground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to be distributed among the company’s shareholders and creditors. 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 could illuminate 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 beautiful, 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 less to extract the greatest profit with the least investment in New York City. 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]
By late-twentieth-century New York, the discourse on the commons had evolved. 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 few 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 necessarily boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside. 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 effectively has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, or 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 the city’s government to relinquish maintenance of the commons 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 an acceptable question for developers to ask: How could the spaces at Grand Central Terminal be rented more profitably? Or is this current land use financially unsustainable? Such questions could not be asked of comparable monuments that are often just as important to civic life. The land Central Park sits on is most certainly many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that currently 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, New York City’s numerous Carnegie Libraries, or even the New York City subway system. Even something like 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: museums, 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 at 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 or 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 office tower above. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is exactly 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 effectively devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was precisely how 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.

[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, simply 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 relatively 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 merely 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. 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 slightly 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 hundreds of feet above.

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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 largely 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, mostly 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, aptly entitled “Penn Station Palimpsest.” Precedent exists for both proposals. Some post World War II cities rebuilt their monuments and bombed out city centers exactly 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.

Sticky problems with mapping historical New York City

Author’s time-lapse of Lower Manhattan’s street network development from 1609-2020

With help from digital and spatial mapping software, urban historians and geographers are examining city growth over time. Time-lapse evolutions are proliferating online of street network development in cities like New York City, Barcelona, London, and Berlin.
In most time-lapse studies, geographers encounter problems with lack of data. The older the city, the less data there exists about pre-modern population densities, demographics, and street networks. This lack of data is a problem when mapping the geographies of older cities.
A way around this problem is to look at street network development as a proxy for population size. The more streets there are built, the more people this city should have, the logic follows. In theory, this seems to work because cities with larger populations require more streets and occupy more built-up area. Knowing how much surface area a city occupies, coupled with knowing the average size and number of occupants in a typical block or building, allows a simple calculation of total population (people/acre x surface area). In addition, more historical data exists about street networks (from maps) than exists about population and demographics (from the census).
The problem with this method of using streets as a proxy for demographics is that cities that occupy more surface area and with more streets do not necessarily have more people. There are several reasons for this:
  • Available land: Some cities are built in harder geographies where acquisition of new land for development is prohibitively difficult to acquire, such as Venice. Manhattan’s high density and land values descend, of course, from a demand for housing that far exceeds supply on an island bordered by water.
    For instance, Oklahoma City covers 621 square miles with a 2018 population of only 650,000. New York City covers 302.6 square miles (half the area of Oklahoma City) and has a 2018 population of 8.4 million (thirteen times the population of Oklahoma City). Despite the major differences between these two cities – in population and surface area – the sum total of all streets if they were lined up end to end to form a continuous road is about the same for both cities. Similarly, the Manhattan grid is identical with the same street widths and block sizes from end to end of the island, even though population density in buildings within this grid varies from zero people per acre to over 200 per acre. Flexible street networks support any variety of housing types and densities, which means that street maps alone cannot reveal all the demographic nuances.
  • Zoning: Some municipalities are stricter than others in enforcing discrete and different land uses for residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use. The legal landscape of Manhattan has evolved significantly since the first zoning laws in 1916 restricted building height and density. Since then, city government has more clearly articulated rules about minimum apartment size, ventilation, fire escapes, and water supply. City government has also pulled industrial (and often more polluting) land uses away from residential areas in the name of health and safety.
    Although few of these legal and zoning changes are explicitly imprinted on the street network, they have a tangible and important impact on the quality of urban life. This zoning has largely resulted in lower population density because of restrictions on landlords cramming hundreds of people into the smallest space possible for the maximum profit. Now, over 40% of all buildings on Manhattan could not be built today for violating NYC’s zoning code for at least one reason. For instance, most buildings in neighborhoods like West Village and Lower East Side have not changed in a century; there is limited demolition and reconstruction every year. However, population density has significantly fallen as apartments grow larger and rooms formerly designed for multiple people in one room now only have one or two occupants. Even if the buildings and streets don’t change, the ways they are occupied can and do. In other words, changing in zoning and land use are not necessarily visibly imprinted on the plan of streets, particularly if those streets are rigid grids.
  • Transportation patterns: This is the biggest factor encouraging extensive and rapid street network development with low population density – i.e. sprawl. Before the nineteenth-century inventions of railways and streetcars, and the twentieth-century’s auto-based suburbanization, transportation and commuting were prohibitively difficult. People needed to live near to where they worked in what was largely a pedestrian and walking city on unpaved streets. Transportation challenges caused urban growth to be dense and built-up near to places of employment. As a result, many cities like Paris and London might appear small on old maps and occupy only a few square miles pre-1800, even though their population and economic importance were far larger than their surface area on maps leads one to assume. Again, less developed street networks and a smaller surface area of urban development does not neccessarily mean the corresponding city is less culturally or economically important.
Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth century, the difficulties of commuting greater distances over land and water drove a denser form of urbanism than today. Manhattan, by 1900, 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. Over the following century, although Manhattan’s population declined by 700,000 people, the street network today is almost identical to a century ago – no smaller and no larger despite major shifts. These shifts in density and demographics simply do not show up on conventional street maps.
My animation below shows the evolution of Manhattan’s built-up area and population density from 1800 to 2010. Notice the steady upward march of street development versus the sudden spike in population density on the Lower East Side in 1910 at over 300,000 people per square mile (in contrast to less than 90,000 in 2010). For every decade after the construction of subways, there has been more urban sprawl, and the island’s population density has fallen. Notice how fluctuations in population density operate semi-independently of street-network development.

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

The animation on the left tells one story of continuous and north-moving development, while the animation on right tells a more nuanced story of population density. The challenge is to find a graphic representation that tells both stories, as neither visualizes all the nuances of urban history.

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Possible Solutions

Discussing this problem of street networks with professor Kenneth Jackson, he suggested looking at building Floor Area Ratio (abbreviated FAR), which is the building height and size relative to the amount of land the building occupies. A skyscraper has high FAR. A trailer park has low FAR.
This method of representing urban growth would, in theory, produce three sets of maps: 1) a map of street network development; 2) a density map of people living per square mile; 3) a map of building height and size. This would complicate things but produce a far more accurate representation of urban growth (how to represent this and if enough data exists is another matter).
These three factors – streets, FAR, and population density – act semi-independently of each other. Different urban typologies will share a different mixture of these three factors. Only through analysis of the relationship between these three factors can one begin to understand the underlying demographic, economic, zoning, and historical differences between neighborhoods. For instance:
  • Downtown commercial district like Lower Manhattan: low population density but high FAR. In this case, FAR operates in inverse proportion to residential population density. Buildings can be dozens of stories but have no residents. There is a high density of tall buildings (i.e. high FAR) but low population density.
  • Slum like South Bronx in the 1980s: extensive (though poorly-maintained) street network development, high density, but low FAR because slum dwellings are typically informal without the construction quality required to build high. Buildings might be fewer than six stories and without elevators, as in the Lower East Side, but can contain hundreds or thousands of residents over the tenement’s lifespan. There is low density of tall buildings (i.e. low FAR) but high population density.
  • Suburb like Forest Hills, Queens: extensive (and well-maintained) street network development, low density, and low FAR. In wealthier suburbs, in particular, FAR is kept prohibitively low. Restrictions on minimum lot size required to build, minimum house size, and legal hurdles on subdividing larger lots into smaller ones all serve to enforce a certain quality and price of residential construction that often prices-out lower-income communities of color. There is low density development with numerous green spaces between free-standing homes (i.e. low FAR) and low population density.

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Left: NYC population by day in 2015. Right: NYC population by night in 2015. The population doubles by day.

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The two density maps above are one illustration of FAR and help nuance Manhattan’s historical development. Areas with the highest FAR tend to be commercial areas with daytime office workers and commuters. The left map shows the daytime population density of the over two million commuters. The areas with highest worker density neatly map onto the same areas of Lower Manhattan and Midtown with skyscraper clusters (i.e. high FAR). The right map shows nighttime population density of residential areas, which also neatly map onto areas with generally lower building height and density (i.e. low FAR). Notice the gray-colored zones in Lower Manhattan and Midtown with an almost zero nighttime population density, which are incidentally the areas with the highest daytime population density and the tallest buildings.
In twenty-first-century New York City, it is quite easy to examine the relationship between these three factors – street network, population density, and FAR – as the datasets are readily available from NYC Open Data. Yet, this all becomes more difficult – perhaps prohibitively difficult – for historical mapping. Calculating FAR for historical Manhattan is certainly possible through scrutinizing digitized historical Sanborn fire insurance maps that go so far as to specify building footprint, materials, and height. However, at the moment, this data is not easily accessible. Historical building footprints and FAR must be calculated through manually scanning, tracing, and inputting data from the New York Public Library’s collection. This must be done for thousands (even millions of buildings) over hundreds of years.
As technology improves, it may be possible in a few decades to translate historical maps into data files that reveal FAR. If historical maps could be scanned and immediately transformed from image files to geospatial data files, the possibilities of using historical maps to inform contemporary research are endless. If and when there is the data on historical FAR, it may be possible to create a new paradigm for studying urban history.

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New York City Population Density in 1900

Author’s illustration based on population per municipal ward from 1900 Federal census

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 completely 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, largely 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 publicly-available 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 surprisingly 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 above. 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 above ground 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. But 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 possibly 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. And 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.

A History of Historic Preservation in New York City

Data analysis of NYC landmarks since 1965 reveals trends and biases in the landmarks preservation movement.

Developed with urban historian Kenneth Jackson at the Columbia University History Department

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A visual history of landmarks preservation in NYC. Data from NYC Open Data. Music from Freesound.

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Introduction

There is an ongoing debate between in NYC between developers seeking to rebuild the city in the image of global capitalism and preservationists seeking to slow the rate of change and protect the appearance of the city’s many and distinct neighborhoods. Several factors drive preservation: fear of losing heritage, fear of change, historians, public servants, and well-intentioned activists in the spirit of Jane Jacobs. This debate has played out every year since 1965 through the hundreds of structures that are added to (or rejected from) the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s running list of landmarks (LPC). Once added, landmarked buildings cannot be modified without first seeking approval from the city. Landmarks preservation is particularly contentious for developers because the protections of preservation law are permanent and affect all current and future owners. Preservation law further restricts significant rebuilding, even if demolition and rebuilding are lucrative for the property owner.
Historians decide the future of the city’s built environment. The sites they preserve will become the architectural lens through which future generations will appreciate the past. The sites they protect (or not) from demolition will be lost to history. Preservation is a response to larger historical questions: Which aspects of the past are worth preserving? How should the city balance the need for economic development with the cultural need for history?
This paper will assess the landscape of historic preservation through analysis of publicly-available landmark records from NYC Open Data. We identified two datasets, both containing ~130,000 spreadsheet entries for every single LPC listing from 1965 to 2019. The first dataset is titled “Individual Landmarks” 1 and includes the structure’s address, lot-size, and date landmarked. The second dataset is titled “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” 2  and includes the construction date, original use, style, and address of all structures. We downloaded both datasets as .csv files, imported them into mapping software (Tableau), merged them into a single map, and then analyzed the data. The results of inform the conclusions presented here. This analysis is broken into four case studies:
  1. Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs
    Assesses where landmarks preservation is densest or least dense by neighborhood.
  2. Contextual Preservation?
    Analyzes how protecting a landmark might limit redevelopment of neighboring properties of less aesthetic value
  3. How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?
    – Factor affecting the preservation of city-owned structures
    – Factors affecting the preservation of residential structures
    – Relationship of preservation and gentrification?
  4. Keeping up to pace?
    Questions the degree to which landmarks preservation succeeds (or falls short of) protecting recently built landmarks
From this data, normally hidden trends and biases in historic preservation become visible. Firstly, we identify an unusually higher-density of landmarks in certain (and usually higher income) neighborhoods. Secondly, we identify a marked preference among historians for protecting structures pre-1945. (Is there so little in the city’s recent architectural history that is worth preserving?) And thirdly, our analysis hints at the strength of market forces and developers in shaping the scope and definition of preservation.

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Study One:

Distribution of Landmarks over the Five Boroughs

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The tree below shows the distribution of all 128,594 landmarks across the city. This includes both buildings and non-buildings like street lamps, parks, statues, and bridges. Each rectangle is scaled to reflect the number of landmarks within that borough’s historic district – the larger the box, the more buildings. The largest rectangle for each borough represents the number of individual landmarks that fall outside any historic district. Boxes are grouped and colored by borough: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island.

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125,594 records above

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Several trends are visible. For instance, Manhattan, with a population only 19.3% of the citywide total, 3 has 30.46% of the landmarks. By comparison, Staten Island, with only 5.55% of the population, has 16.24% of landmarks, which is the greatest number of landmarks relative to the smallest population. By contrast, the Bronx with 17.06% of the population has only 5.36%, which is the least number of landmarks relative to the population size and density.
Given that the Bronx’s land area (42.47 mi²) is comparable to Staten Island (58.69 mi²), and given that their histories are equally rich, then does the Bronx objectively have fewer landmarks worth preserving? Or do preservation trends follow patterns of economics and race – with economically advantaged neighborhoods having stronger legal and political leverage to preserve their built environment?

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Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

% of NYC population in this borough

(8.623 million total)

19.30% 30.72 27.36 17.06 5.55
% of NYC landmarks in this borough 30.46% 25.65 21.98 5.36 16.24

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Historic preservation does not operate off of a tabula rasa with objective standards and processes. There is an undeniably spatial pattern to urban growth and income inequality; privilege (or the lack of privilege) is concentrated in specific neighborhoods. The geography of historic preservation may follow similar patterns.

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128,212 records above

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Study Two:

Contextual Preservation?

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A common criticism is that preservation stifles economic development. Preservation prevents demolishing and replacing older structures with larger and more profitable new ones. A lengthy (and expensive) approvals process is also required to modify old buildings. A city committee reviews applications and suggests revisions to ensure that new development is “contextually” respectful of its neighbors and/or preserves as much of the historic building’s fabric as possible. 4
Developers often claim historic preservation discourages development and reduces their profit. Our data does not support this claim. Developers will concede that some structures are worth preserving. But legally protecting one building might limit the redevelopment of neighboring buildings. This criticism applies mostly to vacant parcels within historic districts. This critique also applies to the newer (but less aesthetically significant) modern buildings in historic districts, which are subject to some legal protections due to their location and status as “contributing structures.”
Within the city’s unequal fabric with pockets of concentrated wealth, poverty, and history, there are three general categories of protected buildings.
Firstly, there are individual landmarks, such as bridges, train stations, statues, and street furniture. While aesthetically and historically important, these sites are usually stand-alone pieces. New development can occur nearby with few restrictions. Historical review is not required; only construction permits are needed. The case for protecting individual landmarks is strong; the nomination was individually written and approved on a case-by-case basis. Grand Central Station and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral are two examples. The size, beauty, and appearance of these buildings often make them into symbols of the city or defining features of a neighborhood’s identity.
Secondly, there are historic districts. Unlike individual landmarks of singular aesthetic value, historic districts are valuable because they form streetscapes. For instance, while individual structures in the Greenwich Village might be unremarkable, together they form a unique streetscape worth preserving. A streetscrape usually includes structures of various age, use, function, and size. In these districts, new development must not be significantly taller than and must not employ different materials from neighboring historic buildings. From the 2018 city-wide ordinance, zoning aims “to protect the character of certain designated areas of historic and architectural interest, where the scale of building development is important, by limitations on the height of buildings.” 5

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Thirdly, there are, however, many non-historic and vacant parcels within historic districts. Many of the protections applied to historic buildings are extended to neighboring sites. Development on these less important sites can enhance or destroy the streetscape. For instance, most buildings in a neighborhood may retain their original appearance, but a few interspersed between were built later in a different style, or they were in some way destroyed before the area was landmarked. These structures are preserved not because of what they look like, but because of where they are located. Above are two examples.
In the case against historic preservation, contextual preservation seems the most flawed. For instance, there are numerous vacant lots within historic districts. The red tape of preservation law might disincentive needed investment in these non-contributing structures. However, fewer than 15% of all structures within historic districts are listed as non-contributing. The data is broken down below, by borough and for the city at large:

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Borough Manhattan Brooklyn Queens Bronx Staten Island

NYC

Totals

Designated structures

(individual and districts)

32,376 28,680 25,560

17,325

 

5,344 109,285
Non-contributing structures within historic districts 6,465 3,783 2,626 3,118

1,512

 

17,504
Number of vacant parcels within historic districts 40 457 74 444 29 1,044
Percentage of buildings in historic districts that are non-contributing and/or vacant 16.731% 13.713% 9.5541% 17.054% 22.38% 14.74%
Borough totals 38,881 30,920 28,260 20,887 6,885 127,833
(all five boroughs)
Landmarks outside of any borough 761 128,594
(total)

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This yields 128,594 6 protected structures city-wide. There are 857,271 structures total in the city. 7 which means that landmarked buildings comprise slightly less than 14% of all structures in the city. In addition, the non-contributing buildings and vacant parcels within historic districts comprise less than 2.16% of the city’s built environment. New York City contrasts with comparable world cities like Paris and London, which are millennia older and protect a far greater percentage of their historic fabric. Below, for instance, are maps of the conservation areas in Westminster, London 8 versus those in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. 9 In other words, preservation law is limited to certain buildings and certain areas; it is too small a factor to drag down the larger city’s growth.

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Study Three:

How might the preservation movement reflect economic patterns?

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This section is divided in three parts. We first describe why civic structures are the easiest and most likely to be preserved. We then describe the economic factors why commercial structures (3.56% of all landmarks) are less likely to be preserved than residential structures (>27.66% of all landmarks). And finally, we hint at possible correlations between landmarks preservation and gentrification.

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3.1 Civic Buildings

Civic structures also tend to be better preserved. New York City owns at least 14,000 properties 10 across the five boroughs. However, there are 16,920 landmarks that serve “civic” functions, including 11,726 landmarked buildings relating to public health and 571 related to armories. In fact, among all 440 types of landmarks, civic-related structures and institutions have the highest rates of landmark status and preservation.
What explains this? One explanation could be that civic sites, particularly neoclassical buildings from the Gilded Age, tend to be high-quality, well-built, and aesthetically pleasing, so as to evoke the power of government through architecture. Therefore, these buildings seem more likely to be deemed worthy of preservation.
An alternative explanation could be that civic and residential structures are easier to landmark than commercial. Elected officials are responsible for maintaining city property, and they must respond to voter and community pressure. The public can threaten to vote out officials who neglect historic, city-owned properties. Additionally, there are few reasons for developers and residents to object to preserving civic buildings.
Still yet, there are stronger factors influencing preservation. Civic structures are not subject to market pressures, and city-owned buildings do not have to help their occupants make a profit. For instance, the cost of renovating a historic public school might be more expensive. Fortunately, the city is not a profit-driven corporation with limited funds. By contrast, a developer is always looking to extract the greatest profit possible from the land he owns.
Commercial structures are subject to strong market pressures favoring demolition. An old factory that has outlived its designed lifespan will be abandoned or demolished if it cannot be re-used. Converting an old factory to new uses might be cost-prohibitive, requiring environmental remediation, and lengthy approvals. If renovation cannot generate enough profit, there will be pressure to demolish. City-owned libraries and hospitals do not face this kind of pressure. This drives developers to demolish their properties at a higher rate, as illustrated by how few commercial structures are preserved (only 3.56% of the total).

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3.2: Residential vs. Commercial

With increasing land values, newer buildings are less likely to be low-density single-family homes and more likely to be high-density commercial and mixed use. However, the city seems to prefer landmarking residential over commercial structures. The table below show the building types preserved, their quantity, and the percentage of the total number of preserved buildings each building type represents. Structures are categorized by their original functions. So a building designed as a factory but more recently converted to residential is still listed as “industrial.”

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Type of Building Number of Buildings of this Type Percent of Total
(rounded to .01)
Residential 35,575 27.66%
Civic 16,920 13.16%
Street Furniture 13,943 10.84%
Commercial 4,574 3.56%
Infrastructure 2,490 1.94%
Transportation 2,145 1.67%
Institutional 2,026 1.58%
Religious 1,509 1.17%
Mixed Use 1,324 1.03%
Vacant 1,178 0.92%
Military 759 0.59%
Industrial 436 0.34%
Outbuildings 11 32,391 25.19%
All other uses 14,970 11.64%
Totals 128,594 100%

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The most important figure above is the disproportionate representation of residential and civic buildings that are landmarked. For instance, as of 2018, Manhattan has 39,172 landmarks. Of these, 35% (= 13,816) are for residential use, 9% (= 3,443) are commercial, and 1.5% (= 650) are mixed-use. Mixed use usually means commercial at ground level and residential above. For instance, even though more people work in Manhattan than live there, the city has preserved many more residential than commercial structures on the island. On weekdays, 3.1 million people work in Manhattan, while only 1.6 million live here. In other words, residential buildings seem more likely to be preserved than commercial.
Our data also reveals a spatial concentration of residential buildings in historic districts. For instance, most of Manhattan’s residential landmarks are concentrated within historic districts in the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and the skyscraper valley between Midtown and Downtown. Residential sites are more likely to be collectively landmarked as part of historic districts and streetscapes. As illustrated below, 94.93% of residential landmarks citywide fall within historic districts, and only 5.07% are outside these districts:

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Residential All Other Types
Within historic districts 35,029 = 94.93% 61,124 = 66.66%
Individual landmarks outside historic districts 1,872 = 5.07% 30,569 = 33.34%
Total 36,901 91,693

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What explains the disproportionate protection of residential structures? One factor could be higher income-levels in historic neighborhoods and associated protectionism (i.e. NIMBYism). The map below shows the correlation between the locations of historic districts and 2018 data on income levels and length of residence. There is an overlap between historic districts and areas with higher incomes and longer-term residents. For instance, most residents in the Brooklyn Heights historic district have lived there for between 17.1 and 48 years, and their annual incomes range between $51,500 and $289,000. People in the rest of Brooklyn have lived at their current address for only between 10.3 and 12.8 years, and their annual income is $51,500. Similar patterns play out in the historic districts of the Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. In other words, residents in historic neighborhoods seem more likely to stay-put.
Length of residency and percentage of home ownership may mirror the degree to which residents are invested in maintaining and improving their immediate built environment. The relationship between historic preservation and length of residency is too strong and too consistent across all five boroughs to be a mere accident. There may be causative factors at play between income, emotional investment in one’s community, and the willingness to fight for historic preservation. This needs to be further analyzed and confirmed with future data.

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Launch interactive feature (opens in new tab)

Individual landmarks outside historic districts tend to be commercial structures.
There is no visible relationship between the siting of individual commercial landmarks
and the income levels of their adjacent community.

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3.3 Gentrification?

The spatial relationship illustrated above is surprising for another reason: gentrification. Gentrification is often linked to rising living costs and the displacement of existing residents. The physical appearance of historic neighborhoods would seem to make them more desirable for gentrification. However, the average length of residency is longer in historic than in non-historic districts, even though income (and presumably rent, too) are higher in historic districts. In other words, neighborhoods that fall within historic districts more often have high or rising incomes and longer length of residency than residents from non-historic districts. This seems contradictory because one would think that high-income areas would be more likely to displace existing residents, and therefore would be less likely to have long-term residents from the pre-gentrification era.
In contrast, neighborhoods without the benefit of historic preservation more often have more short-term residents and a high annual turnover rate. The Williamsburg neighborhood is one example with incomes over $51,500 (similar to Brooklyn Heights) but length of residency under 10.3 years. Additional research should examine if rent-stabilized apartments are more likely to be concentrated in historic districts. The legal barriers of preservation might make it more difficult for developers to push out existing residents, gut an old building, and then rebuild it to charge higher rents. Building height restrictions in these old neighborhoods might also reduce the motivation to even demolish a structure to begin with because any new structure built there would not be significantly larger or more profitable. Unfortunately, NYC Open Data has no information on the spread or geographical clustering of rent stabilized apartments in older buildings.
The possible relationship between historic preservation and gentrification needs to be confirmed through further analysis. The results of this study would indicate if historic preservation is an effective tool to stabilize neighborhoods and slow gentrification.

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Study Four:

Keeping up to Pace?

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When the first group of 2,312 buildings were landmarked in 1965, their average year of construction was 1882 – representing an 83-year gap during which these structures were not protected. In 2018, the average construction year of newly landmarked structures is 1908, representing a 110-year gap. Thus, in the 53 year life of the landmarks movement from1965 to 2018, the average age of a building when landmarked has increased by 37 years.
The more recent inclusion of modernist skyscrapers, like the Lever House (completed 1952 and landmarked 1982) and Seagram Building (completed 1958 and landmarked 1989), may give the impression that the criteria for what qualifies as aesthetically important and worth preserving has expanded. Our data does not support this conclusion, because while recent years have seen some newer buildings granted landmark status, the rate of designation has not kept up with the rate of construction and, in fact, has fallen behind.
The graph below illustrates – for a sample size of 5,451 structures – the date a structure was landmarked on the horizontal axis measured against its construction date on the vertical axis. Structures are plotted on this graph by color. Individual dots represent individual sites. The black trend line indicates how between 1965 and 2018, the average age of new landmarks has only slightly increased. The buildings the city is protecting today are only slightly newer than the kinds of buildings being protected in the 1960s.

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5,451 records above

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Is the scope of historic preservation falling behind, even though the rate of construction and population has increased? Or is the city no longer building the kinds of structures deemed worthy of preservation?
To qualify for landmark status in NYC, a building must be older than 30 years (or older than 50 if added to the National Register of Historic Places). From a publication by the The Trust for Architectural Easements: “LPC property must be at least 30 years old – no exceptions – whereas a National Register property must be at least 50 years old, unless it is found to be of exceptional significance, in which case there is no age limit at all.”  12
When the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965, none of the buildings from 1935 to 1965 qualified for protection. Today, as of 2018, any building built before 1988 can qualify. However, less than 5% of all listed structures date from the 53 years from 1935 to 1988. This was a significant and long time in this metropolis’ history, but the architectural record from this time is not well landmarked.
The graph below illustrates – for a sample size of 5,451 structures – the distribution of landmarks by year built. On the horizontal axis are the years built from the 1600s to the present-day. On the vertical axis are the estimated number of landmarks built in each year, and which are now protected. Most buildings fall within the ninety year span from 1850 to 1940, peaking in 1895. Few landmarks fall outside this time period.
The rise and falls on this graph may also correspond to the roughly twenty year cycles of boom and bust recessions, along with corresponding halts in new construction. The shortage of pre-1850 sites is easily explained by how the city was significantly smaller before 1850, and therefore had fewer landmarks to begin with. However, the shortage post-1940 landmarks may hint at a larger historical oversight on the part of city government.

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93,691 records above

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The 1965 landmarks law was part of the city’s response to the demolition of old New York Penn Station in 1963. Countless aesthetically significant buildings had been lost to urban renewal in the name of progress. Activists wanted to prevent continued destruction. By the 1960s, urban renewal was winding down. New York was entering the prolonged recession of the 1970s and 80s, during which urban renewal and new construction ground to a halt. In this light, landmarks law originated as a post-facto response to demolition that had been going on for decades.
Despite the history as a response to demolition almost after the fact, must landmarking occur after destruction has begun? There are doubtless hundreds of post-war significant buildings that have not yet been identified or deemed worthy of preservation. The question is not: Should we list these buildings? Rather, the question should be: Why are we not listing these buildings before they are threatened? The Museum of Modern Art’s 2014 decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum is one example of a recent building that could, or should have, been landmarked so as to prevent demolition. 13

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Conclusion:

The Future of Historic Preservation

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This data can only reveal so much. These statistics do not speak of specific historic sites or the unique identity of each. This data can, however, reveal big picture trends, biases, and possible problems with historic preservation. These trends are invisible from street-level or at individual sites; they are only visible through the lens of data. From this data-driven analysis, we can draw four main conclusions:
Firstly, preservation law is subject to political pressure. The geography of historic preservation seems to preference some neighborhoods (usually higher incomes ones) over other neighborhoods. Preserving and restoring old buildings takes effort and money.
Secondly, many developers accuse historic preservation of slowing new construction and economic growth. Yet, landmarked buildings comprise only 14% of the city’s buildings, while non-contributing structures within historic districts comprise only 2% of all buildings. There is ample room for new development outside historic districts; development pressures on landmarked areas can be channeled toward these neighborhoods.
Thirdly, residential properties seem to be preserved in disproportionately greater numbers than commercial and industrial structures. The community and economic pressures to redevelop might be different for different types of buildings. Most residential landmarks also fall within historic districts, and are therefore parts of the urban streetscape. This may indicate residents can protect their streetscape from new development through preservation law. Neighborhoods of lower-density old buildings, like the West Village, retain their popularity, charm, and high property values thanks to strong legal barriers against new development. Absent these protections and legal guarantees, property values could depreciate.
Linked to this third observation, the market pressures to demolish civic structures are weaker than the market pressures to demolish commercial and residential. As a result, a disproportionately high percentage of city-owned or institutional buildings are preserved, and a disproportionately low percentage of commercial and industrial.
Fourthly and finally, historic preservationists prefer to protect pre-WWII buildings, even though numerous post-war examples may qualify. As a result, there are a disproportionately high number of prewar buildings with landmark status, and comparably fewer postwar landmarks. Similarly, the rate at which landmarks are designated has not kept up with the pace of new construction.
The economic success of New York on a global scale and its continuing construction boom caused the demolition of many non-residential commercial landmarks that might have otherwise qualified for landmark status had New York not been as economically successful. In the words of leading NYC historian, Kenneth Jackson:
History is for losers. By that I mean, cities which have chosen to preserve all their historical monuments and locations usually do so because no one else wants the land to develop. Modern progress has passed them by. New York’s history doesn’t litter the streets visually, it can be hard to find sometimes, but that is because the city is an economic winner on a global scale. 14
New York is indeed a winner “on a global scale.” While Wall Street symbolizes America’s economic power, the United Nations symbolizes America’s political power. The city’s over three million foreign born shape the city’s identity as a diverse metropolis.
Nonetheless, progress often has an aesthetic cost, as reflected in the countless lost landmarks and in Midtown’s dark and monotone skyscraper canyons. Fifth Avenue’s Gilded Age mansions and old Penn Station are gone; so, too, are the picturesque skylines and distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s photographs. New York is different today. While streets and subways grow more crowded, climate, flooding, and tropical storms threaten the city’s fragile ecology and outdated infrastructure.
It might be too early to judge whether the city is architecturally poorer or richer for progress. Although historians discourage speculation about the past or alternative histories, how would the political or cultural landscape of New York be like today without the landmarks law? However, data cannot help us answer this kind of question.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

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Further Reading

Anthony Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

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Endnotes

  1. “Individual Landmarks,” NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Individual-Landmarks/ch5p-r223 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  2. “LPC Individual Landmark and Historic District Building Database” NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/LPC-Individual-Landmark-and-Historic-District-Buil/7mgd-s57w (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  3. NYC’s 2017 population is an estimated 8.623 million.
  4. More on this topic: Rachel Mollie Levy, “Contextual Zoning as a Preservation Planning Tool in New York City,” (Master’s diss., Columbia University: Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, & Preservation, 2015) https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8HD7TVM (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  5. “General Purposes of Residence Districts,” in The Zoning Resolution: Web Version, (published by NYC Zoning Department, 2018), pp.252-53. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/zoning/zoning-text/allarticles.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  6. The total for all five boroughs is 127,833. Including landmarks not registered in any borough, like Ellis Island, the total is 128,954.
  7. NYC Planning Department, “Spatial Data Properties and Metadata,” from MapPLUTO, (published to the web, 2018), pp.5 https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/open-data/meta_mappluto.pdf?v=18v1 (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  8. “Conservation Areas,” City of Westminster, https://www.westminster.gov.uk/conservation-areas (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  9. Published by NYC Zoning Department, “NYC_Historic_Districts_2016,” ArcGIS 9geographic information system), https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Housing-Development/Historic-Districts/xbvj-gfnw (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  10. “New York City owns or leases 14,000 properties around the five boroughs—a public asset roughly the size of Brooklyn.” From: “Public Assets: Mapping the Sixth Borough of New York,” The Municipal Art Society of New York, https://www.mas.org/initiatives/public-assets/ (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  11. “Outbuildings” mostly include garages, stables, street furniture, and accessory structures, generally small. This category skews our results. Since many accessory structures were turned into residential structures, the actual percentage of current residential dwellings is higher than 27.66%.
  12. Anthony W. Robins, “Differences between Landmarks Commission Designations and National Register Listing,” in Similarities and Differences between Landmarks Preservation Commission Regulation and Donation of a Preservation Easements, (Prepared for The Trust for Architectural Easements, 2009), pp.10, http://architecturaltrust.org/~architec/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/1a-2009-0512-Robins-Report.pdf (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  13. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times, January 14, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/arts/design/momas-plan-to-demolish-folk-art-museum-lacks-vision.html (retrieved 5 November 2018).
  14. “Quotes from Kenneth Jackson,” CULPA, http://culpa.info/quotes?professor_id=97 (retrieved 5 November 2018).