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Archive for the ‘Town Greens’ Category

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

One last thing: if you have a Flickr or Yahoo account, please SIGN IN. Doing so will prevent you from having to occasionally click through distracting ads when navigating my albums. Thanks!

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Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.

Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:

Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.

Spring / West 4th Streets.

Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:

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Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:

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Grand Avenue / 2nd Street. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of Dianne Woods and the George Mann Archives. (Fair use.)

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I took these pictures in October 2015, during a visit that I made to City Hall (1802-12), with Honey, as part of Open House New York. City Hall is located in New York’s historic town green — the topic of a previous LT post. My current office is at 250 Broadway, which is the glass building located just to the right of the Woolworth Building in a couple of the outdoor photos. More about the history and architecture of City Hall can be found here. Images of the Council Chamber, including its incredible ceiling, are at the end of the series.

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GreatStreetsJacobsIn my free time, I’ve been reading Great Streets, the 1995 urban design art book, by Allan Jacobs — and a great birthday present from Honey :). Jacobs dedicates an entire chapter of Great Streets to Venice’s Grand Canal, making the case that certain cities’ urban canals are essentially liquid streets: as thoroughfares, places for public gathering, retail business, the showcasing of architecture, and cross-cutting neighborhood vistas.

Now, Google seems to have taken Jacobs’s position, offering extensive and striking StreetView images of the canals of Venice, treating them as the equivalent of city streets. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge:

Here’s the Campanile di San Marco, seen from the water:

And here is a satellite view of the entire old city, surrounded by the Lagoon.

It’s fitting that the outline of Venice looks like a fish.

Now, in some ways, the canals of Venice are more than just technically streets. One could argue that in light of the role Venice played in the emergence of the modern commercial world the patterns of urbanization that developed there actually served as an early prototype for the growth of modern cities. The traffic flows in the city’s canals were not so different from those of land vehicles in modern or ancient cities. But the liquid nature of these streets presumably allowed for one less break of bulk between the arrival of goods in the city and their delivery to local end users — and this was good for the productive economy. In Roman Ostia, vast warehouses were used to store shipments of olive oil and wine amphorae that had been imported from Africa, Greece, and Spain. Each shipping company had its own branded warehouse, from which it sold goods to merchants one step down the supply chain, or stored them until its own distributors were ready to take them to market. Much smaller quantities were then transported, separately, up the Tiber to the city proper; or over land to other Italian cities and towns. This made for a supply chain with a lot of middle men, barriers to purchasing in bulk, and, presumably, high markups between the seaport and Roman workshops.

In Venice, the innovation would be that these points of delivery could be distributed throughout the city, rather than concentrated in a single seaport. In Venice, the urban fabric and the seaport became one, a development that predicted the more distributed pattern of industrial space in modern cities. Canals and their branches and slips would, of course, continue to be an important part of city-building for years to come, but only a few cities would have both the topography and trading frequency to justify the kind of extensive canal building that took place in Venice. Amsterdam comes to mind. More commonly, the post-Renaissance economy would interpret the lesson from Venice in another way: The most successful cities to be founded after the Renaissance would be those built on sites where natural waterways conveyed an almost Venetian advantage, and allowed for distributed delivery points. Think of New York City, with its miles and miles of natural waterfronts. Likewise, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Sydney. Finally, the pattern of distributed industry would really be broken open, in the 19th century, by the railroads, which would slice through the fabric of every European and American town and city as thoroughly as the canals sliced through Venice.

Another interesting point is that Venice is also arguably more of a direct continuation of the Roman tradition than Byzantium was. That is to say, while the Eastern Empire may have carried on the apparatus of the Roman state from Constantinople until 1453, is was essentially a Greek cultural entity for its entire history; but Venice was founded in the fifth century by Italian Romans who had taken refuge from the fall of the Western Empire in an inaccessible Italian swamp, and who went on to preserve a slice of distinctly Latin culture — eventually building a city that carried on many parts of the Italian Roman tradition, and served as a unique cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the Early Modern age. This is a simplification of Venetian history, but it illustrates the important thread. Because the plan of Venice — and especially its canals — more literally captures the tradition of Western commercial cities growing out of the sea, than almost any other example of European urbanism. From Ostia to Venice, and from Amsterdam to New Orleans, the mercantile tradition in the West has a long tradition of shaping a maritime urbanism in which the riches brought by sea trade have driven extensive urban growth on the land around the ports. And this growth has always been premised on the trading patterns of the merchants within the seaports.

The sea has always been a saturating element in trading cultures. Look at the Odyssey. Look at its haunting omnipresence in this Roman wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, found in Boscotrecase, near Pompeii:

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Perseus and Andromeda, from the Villa at Boscotrecase. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amidst its clear references to religion and fantasy, it is the sea, and not Vesuvius, which might consume all. I thought of this painting recently at work, where I’m writing decision letters for a post-Sandy recovery project here in New York City. Three years after that storm, the conflict between the city and the ocean is still being sorted out, block by block, house by house. Some people are selling their land back to the state; some are elevating their homes, with or without public subsidies; many are keeping their fingers crossed and going on as if nothing had happened in 2012.

The same forces of commerce, greed, politics, and ambition that built the world’s port cities are now driving the global climate change that threatens them. New Orleans was nearly wiped out in 2005; Venice now deals with flooding on a regular basis; in New York, Manhattan seems mostly oblivious, but the sprawling coastal neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are not looking very healthy. The paradox of mercantile cities, the wealth that they draw from maritime trade, and the ever-present danger of the sea, will not go away. It is only getting stronger.

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Today’s City Hall Park sits on the oldest part of the New Amsterdam and New York Commons — a public site in the planning tradition of the northern European town green. The Commons dates from the 1600s, and its checkered past has included workhouses for the poor, a burial ground for the colonial town’s African slaves, and many public executions — as well as the civic and religious buildings and military parade grounds that have historically been located at town centers.

Here are some photos I recently took in City Hall Park:

I think it’s interesting that, after almost four centuries, this park continues to function as a living gathering place in the city’s center. I recently ate lunch in the park. I listened to a man play the saxophone, beside the fountain; I noticed others spending their lunch hours there, reading the paper, tapping at a cell phone, or having a smoke. Tourists passed through and took pictures; poor people asked strangers for money; a man napped on the grass in the shade.

What draws everyone in, day after day? Is it the patch of nature? Views of the surrounding architecture? The buzz of human activity? The respite from car exhaust and street noise? How many of them realize that they’re not just passing through one of the city’s hundreds of small parks, but taking part in a 400-year-old tradition? That they are standing in what was once the only town green of a strange and distant colonial outpost of Western Europe?

Meanwhile, the city’s largest cluster of courthouses and public office buildings sits around Foley Square, a few blocks north along Centre Street. (Note that the English spelling is still used.) This is roughly where the northern end of the Commons once was, and its intensity of public uses represents the centuries-long persistence of the tradition of siting your community’s civic buildings near the town green:

Here’s a map of the Commons from about 1754:

NY Commons

And an overlay with today’s landmarks:

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And some thoughts:

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Pompeii

The New York Review of Books has a bleak piece by Ingrid Rowland about the neglect of Pompeii, and how the layers of political malfeasance are beginning to take their toll on the ancient site. Buried for about 16 centuries, Pompeii remains one of the best-preserved examples of classical planning — right down to the unique stepping stones built into its streets; and its open forum, situated squarely at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanus maximus. For a refresher on the city, its development, and its date with destiny, here is Diana Kleiner’s lecture. For a look around the present-day site (which doesn’t look too far gone), here’s the Google Street View of the Pompeiian Forum:

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Anthony Flint, writing in The Atlantic Cities, has a nice piece about sustainability — especially its environmental aspect — as a new way of branding mid-sized European cities for tourism and investment. Nantes, a mid-sized city in Brittany, has made radical changes to its transportation model and is actively pursuing an avant garde identity as the greenest city in France.

In tangentially related news (at least, on the topic of green cities), I finally had a chance to upload some photos that I took of the High Line this summer. For people who don’t know its story: the High Line began with an aging, elevated freight train trestle that runs down the West Side of Manhattan. The structure had been built by New York Central in the 1930s as a viaduct between the rail infrastructure surrounding Penn Station and the West Side Piers. It replaced Death Avenue, a surface right-of-way, dating from the 19th century, that had previously carried freight trains at street level through Chelsea and the West Village. The High Line was abandoned for most of the late 20th century, after the rise of containerized cargo caused the West Side Piers to be de-emphasized in the Port of New York and New Jersey. For years, the structure languished, overgrown with weeds and scraggly trees; there was a general consensus in the New York real estate community that it was an eyesore whose presence was a significant obstacle to redeveloping the Far West Side. Its images were used to add an element of city grit to movies and TV shows.

But a few people dissented from the crowd, noting the oasis that the High Line’s unplanned nature provided from the concrete jungle of the city. And in the late 1990s, activist planners began to study the High Line’s redevelopment potential. The dissenters turned out to be prescient, and the thoroughly landscaped and hardscaped park-in-the-sky is now a major attraction that has increased property values and created a major new green space while preserving an important part of the city’s industrial history. It is without question one of the great planning successes of the last decade. For a kid who grew up in this region during the 1980s and 90s — when the city was synonymous with too much concrete, too many steel doors, and an almost defiant hostility to nature — it’s been incredible to witness the greening of Manhattan over the last several years.

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