While it must have been tempting to never leave Fire island, returning to the city isn’t exactly painful when it’s New York City.
Editor-in-Chief Gordon Price has now had a few days on the island formerly known as New Amsterdam, which will mark 400 years as a colonial settlement in 2024. It was purchased from the indigenous locals by the Dutch for 60 guilders; in today’s dollars, that’s about the cost of three nights in a 1-bedroom Airbnb near Central Park.
There’s so much to explore in Manhattan, but despite the obvious charms of this island nation, exploring is not always the same as seeing, or understanding. Background reading for historical context helps, as does an eye for detail, and always, the spark of a discussion from someone who’s been there before and knows where to look (and what it all means).
Enjoy this little tour of Gordon’s first few days, and be sure to check out the rest of the posts on the PT Instagram feed.
No doubt of it- this era in NYC (architecturally at least) will be associated with the super-thin, super-tall condo towers rising above the historic skyline (defined by the tallest towers of each successive period, going back to the late-19th-century emergence of the skyscraper). The current ones seem appropriate for the Age of Trump: spectacularly expensive condos for the world’s oligarchs, rising over everything else even if they remain mostly empty.
Down below, competition for the remaining ‘luxury’ housing – at least in price. The difference between NYC and YVR is, of course, that their incomes are commensurately higher, as New York still attracts the best and brightest from America and the world. That poster is not just the compulsory requirement in advertising for a diverse portrait of the city’s people. It reflects the reality you see on the street, where the whites are a visible minority (as in Vancouver), there’s a very visible black professional class, and so many, many different Hispanics and Asians.
When I teach urban design, I always emphasis the importance of the first survey – the layout of the streets, the dimensions of the lots, the size of the blocks … and whether there are lanes (or alleys) that divide them, as there are almost universally in Vancouver. They provide a right-of-way for utilities, rear access to lots, and a place for garbage storage and pick-up. Lanes mean giving up profitable real estate, however, which is perhaps why the Commissioners Plan of 1811 which divided up Manhattan between Houston and 155 Streets omitted them. Consequently garbage must be piled up on the narrow sidewalks waiting for trucks to pick it up and block the narrow streets. And don’t even begin to think about what it means to dig up and service utilities for water, sewer, electricity and cable on the congested rights-of-way. Omitting lanes was one of the worst decisions ever made in NYC.
This is nuts. The construction scaffolding looks temporary but it’s effectively permanent – ever since Local Law 10 in 1980 required sidewalk protection from falling masonry (two people had been killed) until repairs are done. To avoid the cost, building owners erected these sidewalk sheds, but there seems to be no deadline for repair and removal. Valuable ped space is taken up as a consequence. They do provide rain protection, but at the cost of crowding. Anyone have an update?
Madison Square and plazas are the focus for the Flatiron District, named for what was the world’s tallest building at the time. Now one of the city’s hottest district, a realtor friend says new residential construction is going for $5-6,000 a square foot, even as the high-end market has been dropping for a couple of years (and seems to be flattening and going down in other market segments as more stock comes on and buyers move out to the boroughs).
Generalization: Any architectural style works better when there’s not so much of it that it homogenizes the urban fabric. Better that it has neighbours from other periods to play off with – like the New School on 5th seen here. The best example: the Seagram Building on Park when first built in the mid-1950s, before it was surrounded with other modernist boxes. See Union Carbide.
Washington Square. Are there any other public spaces so loaded with cultural associations and experiences than these few acres? Not just in NYC, but America and maybe, in the 20th century, the world? Another example of why New York is ‘The Great City of the past century’. And now feels more like an historic place than a city which will define this century. I welcome arguments suggesting otherwise.
I’m looking for a plaque that describes the great battle of Washington Square, when Robert Moses wanted to push a connection for Fifth Avenue through the park. Often described as a battle royal between Jane Jacobs and Moses, it was more complicated than that. Regardless, it symbolizes one of the great defeats of motordom and marked the beginning of a new era in how we think about cities, streets and public places. And who the city is for. Today, it would be noted that it was also the beginning of the gentrification of the Villages.
How space is used in Washington Square has been described many times (in theses, documentaries, reports, anecdotes) – and its always been changing, along with many design interventions. No designer or time has ever got it right, certainly never an agreement from all the users, past, present or potential. Doesn’t matter. It’s alive. The comparable space I’d point to in Vancouver is Emery Barnes Park in Downtown South/Yaletown. Another similar park to come further north.
The south side of the square, where every building tries to make an architectural statement, which, except for the church, they do poorly and controversially. Good intentions, I suppose, by New York University, the major landowner in this party of the city. NYUs relationship to its neighbourhood has been a fractious one – and yet it is one of the defining institutions of New York as a world centre for learning and education. Every great city needs a great university or two in its centre, and Vancouver has always suffered from the lack of one on the peninsula. SFU tried to make up for the void with its presence in about seven different buildings along Granville and Hastings – modelled very much after NYU, which has no single iconic building to define its presence. Just millions of square feet.
So do the people – look healthy that is. A lot look spectacular – the actor/ model/waiter crowd. I’d like to know what the actual studies say about the health and fitness of the average New Yorker, if there is such a thing. People walk a lot, there are more gyms per capita than anywhere I’ve seen, they seem to eat well and the water is terrific. Medical care is world class for those who can afford it. But then there’s the stress. Research, people, what does the research say?
Is this the most significant new piece of public art (at least in North America) in a generation? It will for sure be a landmark, given its location, size and attraction – like climbing up an Escher. ‘The Vessel’ by Thomas Heatherwick is a 15-storey set of interlocking staircases and 2,500 steps – the centrepiece for the massive Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s west side. It will act as the northern anchor for the High Line, with the same kind of physical engagement, only this time vertically. We’ll know how successful it will be in about a year.