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Archive for August, 2013

One Less Year

President Obama, visiting Binghamton, weighed in on the length of law school today. He indicated that he supports efforts to transform the 3L year into something more practical and less costly. It’s an interesting idea, and one that will likely gain steam with this endorsement.

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Maps that Explain the World

The Washington Post has a collection.

Writing Systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Writing Systems. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Multifamily development was up sharply in July. The National Association of Home Builders has the report. Multifamily is a construction sector that is often volatile from month to month — it had been down sharply in June. Still, it’s kind of remarkable that new apartment and condo construction turned an otherwise down month for housing starts into an up month. On a related point, the Times has a really detailed multimedia presentation today that models the massing and zoning changes in New York City during the Bloomberg years.

Williamsburg

New multifamily development along the East River in Williamsburg.
Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s fulfilling to see all of the new urbanism (literally) that’s happening now, especially in Williamsburg and Long Island City. More units equals a better response to market conditions — a good thing in a city where zoning laws and a scarcity of vacant land led to a chronic housing crisis for the working and middle classes. In addition to the potential relief (over time) to upward pressure on housing costs, the new development is also just really inspiring because of the scale of the transformations that are happening. There’s something satisfying about seeing the imprints of our own time being made on the fabric of the city.

Speaking of which, I had my first grand tour of the new Williamsburg about a month ago, from an old friend who now lives in a condo overlooking the East River on Kent Avenue. We went out to Radegast Hall and Brooklyn Bowl, and walked around the blocks near the waterfront. I’d been to Bedford Avenue a few times over the last decade, but I’d never really explored far beyond the subway station. There’s still some grittiness left in the area, but it’s amazing how thorough the changes to that neighborhood have been since the early 2000s. There has been a ton of new infill development in that part of Brooklyn since it was rezoned in 2005. At night, the streets are full of young people, heading out for drinks or dinner or a live show, or heading home with boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s really very alive, in a way that’s less corporate and managed than much of Manhattan now is. One important point about infrastructure, though: I don’t know how long that part of Brooklyn can keep mimicking the city proper without serious improvements to its sub-par subway service. The whole central part of the neighborhood seems to rely on the Bedford Avenue stop to get into the city. We ended the night around 11:45, and I wound up waiting for more than half an hour, in the Lorimer Street station, for an L train back to Manhattan.

In the short term, it seems like a given that changes like those underway in Williamsburg will have a net inequitable impact on certain residents at the neighborhood level — that is, luxury developments bring wealthier people into a previously undiscovered section, and drive up housing costs for the non-luxury surrounding units. Even with NYC rent regulations, this trend displaces less affluent residents over time — people whose deep reliance on local social bonds makes their displacement that much more painful. In the long term, though, it seems to me, housing costs are determined more regionally than they are at a granular level, and a larger housing stock across a region should temper the upward climb of prices in all but a few places within that region. Historically, since construction of the worst kind of tenements was outlawed, the US urban land market hasn’t produced much new housing for the poor; and it has only produced housing for the middle class sporadically, and with a lot of subsidies. But there are plenty of examples of housing whose occupants became less affluent as neighborhood footprints shifted and regional demand ebbed (e.g., in New York, the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century; and Harlem until even more recently); this is one way, historically, that very solid urban housing stocks have come into the possession of less affluent residents.

But as it becomes more popular, Williamsburg represents a trend in the opposite direction. That is to say, it’s a neighborhood whose fabric was largely shaped by the housing patterns of poor people, in the first place, in the era before comprehensive land use regulation took hold. Betty Smith described a scene from the 1912 neighborhood in the first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

The [tree] grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.

Basically, a lot of the 19th-century building stock in Williamsburg goes back to the general period that Smith described, when the neighborhood was a classic Victorian city slum. And yet, like the Lower East Side, the East End in London, and the nearer blocks of South Philadelphia, this dense, haphazardly built neighborhood is becoming increasingly affluent, and its gravity is now spawning the development of much more well-appointed new buildings, as well as widespread upgrades to the existing building stock, within its modest and crowded historical fabric.

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A Super Map Freak

Ian Silva’s work is amazing. I used to do things like this when I was a kid. I had a whole country that sprawled over an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean … but mine were all pencil and paper.

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The above video shows the subway line from Union Square to Grand Central, in 1905. This would be the route taken by the 4, 5, and 6 trains, today; the Lexington Avenue IRT. According to the Library of Congress:

The camera platform was on the front of a New York subway train following another train on the same track. Lighting is provided by a specially constructed work car on a parallel track. At the time of filming, the subway was only seven months old, having opened on October 27, 1904. The ride begins at 14th Street (Union Square) following the route of today’s east side IRT, and ends at the old Grand Central Station, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1869. The Grand Central Station in use today was not completed until 1913.

The clothing at the end is incredible. After the route covered by the video, the train would have turned west, and followed the shuttle tracks to the West Side, where it would have continued north along the tracks now used by the 1, 2, and 3 into Harlem and Washington Heights, and eventually the Bronx. This was before there were tunnels under the rivers to Brooklyn, Queens, or Jersey City. As the subway grew northward, it would include architecturally unique stations like the one at 168th Street, whose design echoed the tepidarium of the Pompeiian baths:

DSC00308

The deepest, oldest level of the 168th Street IRT station in Manhattan.

(It’s interesting how much more front-and-center the references to the Classical world once were in American city planning.) In spite of being the only subway, the first line existed in the context of an established and extensive elevated system, which had provided above-ground urban rail to New Yorkers since the mid-Victorian period; and also electric streetcars. The NYC video is kind of like a subterranean version of the below movie, which was filmed from a San Francisco streetcar, on Market Street, traveling towards the Embarcadero, just days before the infamous earthquake in 1906:

This is the route now followed by the underground BART. Great stuff.

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Natalie de Blois

David Dunlap has a retrospective on the work of the architect Natalie de Blois, who died last week in Chicago, at the age of 92. Ms. de Blois was one of the first women to make it into the competitive upper echelons of American commercial architecture, during the mid-20th century. I walked past Lever House a few weeks ago, and was unaware of her role in designing it. I did notice that it was part of a really interesting cluster of green-tinted, curtain-wall type buildings in the blocks north of Grand Central along Park Avenue. It’s an interesting pocket that seems to capture the modernity of post-war New York City, while also offering an interesting contrast with the older buildings in the neighborhood. One can get a good sense of the aesthetics by periscoping around in Google Street View from this location.

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