Saturday, April 11, 2020

Before and After: Learning About Urbanism in a post 9/11 New York

photo credit: Suzanne Vlamis

My New York story takes up exactly half of my life - I moved here 19 years ago and next month I turn 38. So in this moment, the before and after periods are mirrors of each other, equal amounts of time on either side. And there is a parallel to this- before I moved to New York and after I moved to New York - before 9/11 and after 9/11. I came here at the end of August (2001) as a transfer student to NYU, to study urbanism in an actual urban environment. The first dorm I lived in was on Water Street in the Financial District. At the time it felt isolating, the area was more business than residential and the streets seemed pretty vacant after 6pm. It was the tail end of the Giuliani era and a precursor to the twelve years of Bloomberg that would reshape the City both physically and economically, through extensive rezonings and development. My time in the Financial District would be short lived - 3 weeks after moving there came 9/11. That day I remember being on an NYU bus heading to my 9am class. My parents called my cell phone and told me about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. My bus was traveling close by but on the opposite side of the initial impact, so all I saw was smoke. The gravity of what was happening wasn’t clear. I went to class and was shielded from witnessing the towers fall unlike many of my fellow students. My class was in a building by Cooper Union and not on the main campus near Washington Square Park. My professor and classmates and I were oblivious to the reality of it until it was over. The period that followed involved temporary housing in a hotel near Times Square and then a brief return to my dorm when residents were allowed to come back to the area. I think I lasted a few days and then switched to a dorm by Union Square - my memories are hazy but I know it didn’t feel right to be there anymore. That semester I got my first taste of the prominent scholars of urbanism like Neil Smith (1998) [“In the vacuum created by the dismantling of liberal urban policy since the 1980s, New York City has increasingly been governed by a vicious revanchism synonymous with “Giuliani Time”. Revanchism blends revenge with action.”] and David Harvey (1989) [“I argue that the very existence of money as a mediator of commodity exchange radically transforms and fixes the meaning of space and time in social life and defines limits and imposes necessities upon the shape and form of urbanization.”] Thinking back, it seems surreal that the beginning of my education started with this before and after. My classes began to frame concepts around the World Trade Center - Was the “central business district” now over given globalization? Would building a new tower no longer fit in with what was left of the economy? Where did memorial belong in all of this? Challenging questions without clear answers in an environment ruled by “patriotism” (WTC = the Freedom Tower). My clearest longstanding memory of that time is of the pictures friends and families posted of the 9/11 missing on the walls of the Union Square subway station. As the weeks went on, the pictures remained on those walls and became a physical memorial that I saw almost everyday- it was heartbreaking. This was the time before smartphones and social media and it’s another example of how collective memory, my life in New York, and the built environment are intertwined.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Skateboarding in New York: Between Public Space and Private Realm (Part II)

There are many interesting aspects to the story of the rebuilding of the LES Skatepark, but years later two elements stand out. One is how the project was structured and two was the role of the urban planner to fulfill the specific needs of the user (skater).

While in the final throes of my masters thesis at Columbia - having written 50+ pages about skateboarding and skate stopping and skateparks and the role the City played in it all (Blocking? Planning? Facilitating? Supporting? Just getting out of the way?) - I contemplated what to do next, what was I going to do with all of this? I had a feeling there would be something but that it wouldn’t be a typical urban planning job, because all I knew for sure was that I was graduating in the middle of a recession (2009).

I had built relationships in skateboarding through my social life, my research, and a few other related projects. In 2011 Architecture for Humanity (AfH) and Nike awarded a grant to redesign and rebuild the LES Skatepark through GAMECHANGERS, a revolving grants program to fund the design and construction of “innovative, sustainable, and safe places to play.” The intention was to develop these spaces in communities that were disenfranchised or typically overlooked for this type of funding. The LES Skatepark (located in Chinatown/Lower East Side) was plagued with issues including prefabricated equipment that was difficult to maintain and an asphalt surface that left black dust all over those than landed upon it.

Hired as the project’s Design Fellow to manage things on the ground, it was thrilling to be able to use my skills and knowledge to build a park- something tangible that would be part of the built environment of the City. The project was structured through an Adopt a Park agreement. This meant that a public park (managed by the NYC Dept of Parks & Rec) would be constructed with funds from a private entity (Nike/AfH). This was an interesting hybrid of public and private. A “public space” is meant to be a place where anyone can go. However these spaces are also designed and managed to control the behavior of the user. Where you can sit, where you can play, where you can people watch- all of these choices are influenced and controlled by the design and configuration of spaces like the placement of benches and gravel and turf and grass. Skateboarders in New York disrupted this by utilizing public spaces designed for other passive uses. The redesign of the LES Skatepark aimed to balance the priorities of both the user, by safely recreating parts of the urban fabric that skaters enjoyed through custom concrete elements, but also the City, by placing those elements within the confines of a controlled space.

But there exists an additional layer over this- that while the park could be not branded with any corporate signage (no swooshes) - it could be branded through activating the park with free skate events and contests. These marketing opportunities allowed for Nike to have some unofficIal cultural ownership of the park and to connect directly with their consumers, a large portion of which in the Lower East Side are black and latino youth. Not that I think it’s a bad model- as someone who would later be in a position of trying to use public money to build cultural space- the ability to cut through red tape and bureaucracy that private funds allow is great, as time is often a killer of public projects.

My role was to keep all the moving pieces together, including the complicated public approvals process. Navigating a civil society and its bureaucracy is delicate and complex- there are various stakeholders and constituencies with competing desires and priorities and values. Elderly citizens were concerned that the park would attract more traffic to the area, including the danger of skateboarders racing down the sidewalks. The City’s Public Design Commission wanted to know if the park’s apple skate obstacle was actually a sculpture that needed their approval. The Dept of Transportation wanted to know if digging up tens of thousands of square feet of asphalt would disrupt the bridge the skatepark was under. Why did we want no fences (a non starter) - what if homeless people started taking refuge there at night?  Why did we want to move a dog run (that was essentially asphalt with a chain link fence around it)? Why did it need to happen so fast?

Even within my own team there were questions about why I wanted to host planning and design sessions with local youth when we had seasoned skatepark designers and builders on board. This was before I knew about concepts like equity-based social impact design. What I did know was that young people were often left out of the urban planning process, that they had expertise as users, that their participation could hopefully invoke a sense of ownership and responsibility, that teaching them about what it took to build the park was something we could also leave behind. It was a challenging experience but ultimately the park was built after a year and half of planning and design. Looking back, the experience cemented one of my most important values as a planner- the community knows its own needs best.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Skateboarding in New York: Between Public Space and Private Realm (Part I)

“Surely it is the supreme illusion to defer to architects, urbanists or planners as being experts or ultimate authorities in matters relating to space.” (Henri Lefebvre, as quoted by Iain Borden)

My relationship with skateboarding began in graduate school. In my second year in Columbia’s urban planning program (2009), we were tasked with writing a thesis on a contemporary topic. To me it was really important to write about the real world, something people would relate to and could demonstrate how urban planning mechanisms shape everyday urban life. One day laying on my bed in my old apartment on 2nd Street, the window was open and I heard the wheels of a skateboard roll across the pavement (a common sound). Something clicked in my mind and I started my research. I was tentative at first - I didn’t skate and I am a woman - but my intellectual curiosity was piqued and I was soon excited by what I found.

I quickly learned that there is a complexity to skateboarding. As Iain Borden notes in his book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” (1998), skateboarding, although not a crime, can be seen to threaten the status quo in cities but in different ways than activities like graffiti or homelessness. It “is neither explicit protest nor quiet conformism, game nor sport, public nor private, adult nor childish, and above all, precisely because it is a spatially and temporally diffused and dispersed activity.” The geography of skateboarding in New York is vast. Skateboarders’ use of public space is often contested and can involve an appropriation or takeover of spaces, while transcending how architects, urban designers, planners, and governments typically conceptualize public spaces to be used.

My thesis “The City is a Skatepark: How Can Planning Best Address Skateboarding in New York City?” ultimately focused on an analysis of negative and positive planning, for example, skate stopping stair rails and benches (negative- to prevent) and the building of skateparks (positive- to promote). I explored how New York City might be able to plan for skateboarders in more diverse ways, such as designing parks with shared spaces that are integrated into the fabric of the City, without being segregated by fences. Mainly, I argued that there is no better expert than the user and that the City’s attempts to build skateparks with prefabricated equipment and designed by in-house landscape architects, inexperienced with the nuances of how skateboarders use space, could not be expected to be successful. It was best to engage youth, to use the techniques of participatory planning that were reinforced to me constantly since the first day of planning school. Little did I know that only a few years later, I would be tasked with putting this into practice by managing the rebuilding of a skatepark- the LES skatepark. (Part II- the (new) LES Skatepark- a public/private partnership, coming tomorrow).

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Culture, Memory, and the East Village

As a suburban teenager in New Jersey my first connection to New York City was culture- more specifically music. As I now walk the same East Village blocks I did back then, although the landscape has changed, the built environment still holds history, holds memory. I don’t know why I first took the train and headed to St. Marks Place or how I knew to go there. I did know that I could buy cds from Sounds for $9.99- which was helpful given my parents reluctance to help me purchase music (an unnecessary extravagance in their eyes) and my own limited money. But that was my obsession as a teenager- music. I wanted my own copies of Blondie and all the other bands that had come from this neighborhood. I would buy my cds and then sit on the stoop of the store and watch people go down the block.

Diagonally across the street was Coney Island High, a popular punk rock club that inhabited 15 St. Marks Place for four years and closed in 1999. I wasn’t old enough to go to clubs, but I remember sitting on the stoop one day seeing police and the venue’s crowd emptied onto the street. During this era, “quality of life” was a primary concern of the Giuliani Administration. The City’s Social Club Task Force, including representatives from the Police and Fire Departments, the State Liquor Authority and other state and city agencies, conducted surprise inspections, including at Coney Island High.  At the time the Mayor’s Office stated, ''The task force targets social clubs in response to complaints from club customers and neighborhood residents as well as from intelligence developed from the New York City Police Department. Public safety is the paramount concern in these enforcement efforts.'' At the heart of this was a battle over what was considered a valuable element of urban life. The president of the New York Nightlife Association said that he did not think that the task force had timed recent Saturday night inspections to disrupt business but that while ''the nightlife industry is a $3 billion industry, it is unfortunately not seen as a component of the social and economic fabric of New York.'' (NY Times- NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: VILLAGES EAST AND WEST; The Cafe Police Pop In for a Raid, July 5, 1998). The City also aggressively enforced a requirement from the Prohibition era that any nightlife establishment that might have dancing require a cabaret license (the regulation was eventually repealed in 2017). Coney Island High had trouble obtaining the license because it was situated in a residential neighborhood and the club closed as its business was affected.

As an adult who now works as an urban planner I am well versed in the complexities of culture and economic growth and how governance and culture interact in NYC.  But as a teenager all I knew was that I wanted to be where my favorite bands came from. This was in the 90’s before Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) encouraged cities to use culture to spur economic development (not foreshadowing or acknowledging the potential displacement to come). This was before Elizabeth Currid’s somewhat obvious characterization of the importance of the cultural or “Warhol Economy” (2007). This was before I had ever heard the word gentrification. Again, at the time I was not thinking of these dynamics that I have since spent my career focusing on. I was just sad that the culture I was attracted to was disappearing. 15 St. Marks Place was eventually knocked down and a condo building was erected in its place. Sounds also recently closed but the building and its front steps are still there. Yesterday I walked past and stopped to look at the steps and could still remember what it was like to sit there twenty years ago. And now an even bigger new building rises right down the block.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Project Row Houses, Houston, Texas. November 2019. (digital)

I spent six years working with an arts oriented community development non profit in NYC, focusing on creating low cost workspace for artists across disciplines. In this work I came to realize that the while the physical construction of space was primary, the crucial work was done within community, to amplify the efforts of local residents so that culture can continue to thrive.  Since leaving my job, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how the development of space intersects with the unique culture of a place and how ultimately the ownership of land by community members is a fundamental element of combating threats of cultural erasure. This was reinforced this past November, when I had the opportunity to visit Project Row Houses (PRH) @projectrowhouses, located in Houston's historic Third Ward, one of the city's oldest African-American neighborhoods. PRH activates "the intersections between art, enrichment, history, preservation, and community development." Encompassing 5 city blocks and housing 39 structures that are activated thru artist residencies, installations and sustainable economic opportunities for local residents- the history and culture and legacy of the community is reflected and preserved within PRH's built environment.

Powerhouse Arts (in construction), Brooklyn, New York. August 2019. (digital)

Jobs, time, and space to build work. That is what many voiced as being needed during roundtables with artists, fabricators, curators, educators, and conservators for the now in construction future home of Powerhouse Arts in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The former power station, initially constructed in 1902 to serve the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, was decommissioned in the 1950s, before being abandoned altogether in the 1980s.

When you step into building now,  you can feel its history. The scale and brick invoke the historical industrial past of the neighborhood, while the graffiti that covers its walls by artists such as @hugogyrl tell of its days as a squat known as the “Batcave" (squatters were evicted in 2006). The building was purchased in 2012 and will involve an extensive renovation, leading to a 170K SF facility designed by @HerzogdeMeuron that will allow for fabrication in different materials as well as spaces for exhibition and public programming. Projected completion: 2021.

Coffee Printing Building/Tin Man Studio, Selma Alabama. Pic taken August 2018/revisited April 2019. ⁣⁣

"Space, Place, and Context" Back to Selma. And back to the building that keeps bringing me back to Selma. Five days into my 3rd visit since August. I keep asking myself "What am I doing here?" What's the role of an urban planner in a community that is not their own? Preserving history? Helping to prevent cultural erasure? Throwing around terms like community development, creative placemaking, racial justice, and technical assistance? So far, it's mostly listening. Hearing sentiments like "History is a stepping stone to the past" "If the building's gone, the history will be gone" "People come here to study us and don't leave anything behind."⁣

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama. August 2018.

When I travelled to Selma I did what all visitors do, I went across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and turned around and looked behind me. It's a piece of infrastructure that serves a practical purpose but also holds so much history.  It's a monument, a memorial- a bridge metaphorically and in reality. I returned a few months later and did what I hope more and more people do - explore the city beyond this view. Seeing pictures from the Bridge Crossing Jubilee this weekend made me think of my first visit - the assumptions I had made about a place and how my perception evolved as I got to know the community who lives in this view everyday.

Arco della Pace, Milan. October 2018.

The "Arch of Peace" is located near the Piazza Sempione gate to the City. In close proximity to the Sforza Castle, it's a neoclassical landmark in Italy's capital of modernity. A public space enveloped by history.

Michigan Central Station, Detroit. September 2013.

After visiting Detroit twice a week apart, I thought back to my first visit 5 years ago. So much has changed and much stays the same. 

Recently, Michigan Central Station was purchased by Ford and will be a part of an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to create an innovation hub. In the past week I returned here to attend two conferences that  provided unique views on cities and urbanism and community. @citylab focused on a theme of revival through a global lens of innovation, smart cities, development, and data. @raceforward #facingrace centered the fight for racial justice, starting the gathering acknowledging that we were standing on the sacred land of first nations people, discussed the investment of a half million dollars in obtaining services from local black and brown businesses as conference vendors, supported the @unitehere Local 26 striking Marriott workers by bringing them to the conference stage to discuss their recent struggles and successes, and referenced community benefit agreements throughout.  I learned from both, while I continue to figure out how to support communities in shaping their built environments. Values first is the start.

Downtown Selma, Alabama. August 2018.

The inspiration for Downtown Planning Lab came after a trip to Alabama in August 2018, where I visited the cities of Montogomery, Birmingham, and Selma. I wanted to learn more about the civil rights history of the United States, I felt like I couldn't talk more about racial oppression and equity in my life or work, without visiting the places that shaped this history. During this trip, I focused my eyes through my camera to document the physical representations of history in the built environment, landmarks, memorials, and city blocks.  The images produced (shot on film)  helped me to frame my ideas and lay the foundation for my future work. More to come!

Lucky Strike: Saying Goodbye (from afar)

photo credit: A few weeks ago when Keith McNally announced that Lucky Strike, his restaurant in SoHo ...