The question was posed to me in a lecture the other day: is urban revitalization just another way to say gentrification? In order to answer this question, we have to look back to the history of urban deindustrialization, i.e. why cities now need to be revitalized in the first place. Deindustrialization, while it has been etched into the cultural imaginary as an essentially inevitable shift, was a systematic capitalist maneuver. In the 1970s, factory owners began to move production overseas or to the American south. A devastating 600,000 jobs were lost. Working class Black and Latino New Yorkers were hit the hardest. As the city started to spin into decay, ethnic white residents, kicked out of their Bronx communities by the Cross Bronx Expressway, took out loans and fled to the suburbs. Black residents, rejected by banks for these same financial life rafts, were trapped. Federal funds that might have saved New York at this critical juncture were withheld. The Bronx was burning, but Edward Logue, an urban revitalization specialist hired by the city of New York commented: “In a marvelous, sad way, the South Bronx is an enormous success story. Over 750,000 people have left in the past twenty years for middle-class success in the suburbs” (Chang 17).
History should make us skeptical of urban revitalization. Time and time again, its accomplishment is synonymous with the removal of black and brown people. I am cynical about placemaking’s potential for equitable urban change because it transfers the responsibility of urban wellbeing to non-profits. A federal bail out could have saved lives in the South Bronx in the 70s and it could still do that for inner city communities, too—if it wasn’t all being spent on the military. My point is that I don’t think “healthy living” initiatives and outdoor markets will take us far enough. While building Guerrero Park where there was once only ugly concrete is unarguably beautifying an urban space, and City Repair clearly engages Cleveland residents in changing their environment, murals and parks are not enough. When Bronx schools have just the same resources an affluent suburban school, inner city residents have good healthcare, and women of color make the (now far-off) same dollar as a white man, that’s when vibrant living occurs. People don’t need to be told how to build community. They have always forged strong communities, just like the ones in the Bronx that were unceremoniously ripped apart in the 70s. And healthy living isn’t so much about being educated as it is about being able to afford vegetables. Placemaking is a band-aid on a much bigger issue.
Credit for Bronx history:
Chang, Jeff. “Necropolis.” Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.
Rose, Tricia. “All Aboard the Night Train.” Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: U of New England, 1994. Print.
A gated garden might be the more romantic place of refuge from the city’s unrelenting motion, but a good Walgreens works just the same for me. It’s weird how much I love pharmacies. Duane Reade, CVS, Rite Aid… They have their slightly differing signage and products, but all provide the same experience no matter the location.
The pharmacy is a good example of the vernacular landscape because of its indiscriminate patronage and democracy. Everyone uses the drugstore. While it is a retail store, none of the rules of customer service apply. Wandering the drugstore aisles, sterile and standardized, you are left alone. In this over-stimulating city, the constant barrage of not-so-friendly customer service starts to blur into an aggressive chorus. The drugstore is a peaceful oasis compared to the pushy salespeople of everywhere else. There’s a lethargic mood to the drugstore. A few elderly people always occupy the plastic cushioned seats around the pharmacist’s counter, reading coupon books or dozing off—it’s unclear how long they’ve been there. The drugstore slows down time.
The maze of aisles and cool white light keep you awash in just the right kind of mind-numbing consumerist haze. The etiquette of this vernacular space is one of respectful non-interaction. People leave each other alone, apologizing when they need to pass by a tight aisle. People come to the drugstore alone, for the most part; this is not a social atmosphere.
There’s a drugstore on practically every corner in New York, which makes them a communal watering hole of sorts. But minus the community. You’re also unlikely to find a drugstore very populated because there are so many of them. The relative quiet and emptiness of the drugstore, coupled with its standardization makes it a non-place as well as an example of the vernacular landscape.
I was in CVS the other day, scouring the shampoo aisle for nothing in particular, as I am wont to do, when I was suddenly startled out of my product-induced haze by a CVS employee. “Can I help you find anything?” she asked, smiling. I mumbled something to the effect of a ‘no,’ and she was off to ask the lady down the aisle from me the same question. Needless to say, I was horrified. Never before had I heard this question, or any question, from a CVS employee, except for cash or credit. Was this last bastion of solitude nearing its demise? I can only hope that CVS respects the vernacular etiquette of the drugstore, namely its lack of interaction.
‘Safe! Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor nobody.’
Harlem’s sense of place is a crucial and reoccurring motif in James Baldwin’s writing. He developed a signature spirit of place for Harlem of the mid-twentieth century, in which he set, among other novels, the short story Sonny’s Blues. Baldwin uses the geography of Harlem to express a dark mood of dreams deferred in the nexus of black life in New York. In Sonny’s Blues, a reserved math teacher and his estranged, drug-addicted brother drive through their old neighborhood, together for the first time in years:
“…Houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap” (81).
Baldwin’s Harlem is a disaster zone. The resilience of the people who live there is not lost on him, but his emphasis is primarily on the devastation and disrepair of the neighborhood. In the novel Another Country, he describes the “beautiful children in the street, black-blue, brown, and copper” and observes black women who laugh and caress, trudge and shout, but calls Lenox Avenue a “prison.” He writes Harlem as a toxic environment. Here, home is no longer a place of solace but a place of peril. Baldwin envisages this toxicity of place projected onto the faces of Harlem’s young boys, who he worries turn “hard” in the ghetto’s claustrophobic borders. The narrator of Sonny’s Blues, once a Harlem boy himself, takes us directly into the innermost psyche of those he sees on the streets in the present day:
“These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies” (76).
The narrator tactfully captures the brutal physicality of confinement. Images of heads bumped up against the “ceiling,” whether literal or figurative, elicit a visceral feeling of discomfort. Limbs, or minds, kept cramped in this unnatural environment will surely become maimed eventually. Oppression is coded here as darkness, as stunted growth. These boys live in darkness because they are held down by a systematic mechanism of racism, a ceiling that is just as much economic as it is educational, and on the other side of which is presumably the light of non-Harlem, of boys who grow and stretch with ease.
Baldwin, James. Another Country. New York: Vintage International, 1993. Print.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Introduction to Literature:
Portable Tenth Edition. Ed. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. 75-101. Print.
The beautiful city, the city of hurried and sparkling waters! the city of spires and masts!
The city nested in bays! my city!
I fell in love with New York before I got here. I daydreamt about reaching Didion’s mirage, about eating a peach on Lexington Avenue and, like Elizabeth Bishop did, watching the sun rise on the brownstones “like a glistening field of wheat.” New York would be where I wrote my first novel, glancing out the window onto the Brooklyn Bridge for a moment, turning back wistfully to my… Typewriter?
Walking down Broadway the other day, I looked up to see a hulking man, his face full of blood, stumbling toward me. I leapt to the edge of the sidewalk and continued on my way with a slight shudder, thankful for the ever-present opt-out function of New York’s choose your own adventure.
I’m a big believer in New York etiquette. When I’m out in the city I keep my bag close to my body, enter the turnstile line only when I have my metrocard ready to go, and never, ever lean on the pole. I don’t feel bad about dodging the bloody man, and I definitely don’t think we need to start smiling at strangers and chatting in the elevator. Still, I think I’ve been “opting out” too often lately.
Zadie Smith wrote an essay last year called “Find Your Beach” in which she muses on a Corona billboard that, for a few months, watched over her SoHo building like the eyes of The Great Gatsby. The tagline, so quintessentially New York, encourages, in fact, demands us to carve out our own little sublime island in an uncooperative, messy, dirty city. “Find your beach in the middle of the city,” Smith writes, trumpeting the ad’s covert messaging, “Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.” She talks about the “stark individualism” of this ethos and its followers — the soulcycling moms finding their souls, the commercial developers finding their happy: “Each man and woman in this town is in pursuit of his or her beach and God help you if you get in their way.” How stubborn and unforgiving this attitude is, tinged with neoliberalism and coated in sugar.
The city of such women, I am mad to be with them! I will return after death to be with them!
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!
My generation is unrelentingly self-conscious and sardonic. If the 90s had Rent, we have the Girls punchline where Marnie announces earnestly, “I practically moved to New York because of Rent.” And of course, we laugh, because New York is such a worked-over destination that it is no longer one at all. I used to take Didion’s bit about the peach as a goal of sorts– a wish. Something that I could conceivably realize. But I’m beginning to see this sort of romantic New York as more of an illusion every day and to take Didion at her word when she calls her beloved city a mirage. It’s a most seductive hallucination.
Mannahatta, Walt Whitman. http://www.bartleby.com/142/161.html
Find Your Beach, Zadie Smith. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/oct/23/find-your-beach/
I visited Disneyworld at the tender age of twelve for the first and only time. Confined in the hotel room with my mom and brother after seven o’clock, I spent lots of time sulking on the white plaster balcony. Our room, at the back of the hotel, was suspiciously on the very edge of the “town.” It might as well have been at the end of the world. When I looked out, it was short little fern trees as far as the eye could see. They started right at the stucco wall of the hotel and went on into the horizon, dropping off into some sort of greenish marsh. It felt as though we were surrounded by a moat. One had the eerie sensation that a trap door back to reality lay just out of reach– as if, had I waded through the muck long enough, I might’ve come upon a false wall, Truman Show style.
Disney’s placelessness terrified me. It really felt like we were nowhere– as if we had departed any semblance of the “lived-world,” as Edward Relph might say, and landed in this otherworldly, deranged funhouse. I think Disney tries to mediate this bizarro world of anywhere by offering a sense of familiarity in its employee script, but it only made the experience scarier for me. On the Disney cruise, which in my angsty and unappreciative pre-adolescent state, was the height of horrors, the same waiter followed our group from night to night as we traversed the global culinary landscape the boat had to offer. Chinese one night, Mexican the next– the same waiter was there, preemptively bringing my red faced uncle an Amstel light after he ordered it on the first night.
Cultural production on suburbia has long displayed a host of anxieties about the inauthenticity, instantaneous faux-geography, and commercialization that Relph details in Place and Placelessness. Movies like The Truman Show and Pleasantville showcase this preoccupation with the potentiality that in subtopia, the subhuman may arise. The artificiality of the Warner Brothers studio type set town is thought to just barely conceal great malevolence behind its manicured lawns and bright white smiles. What is driving the characterization of the non-place as somehow morally dangerous? While it may at first seem to be a stretch, I would argue that this revolt against the artificial is entangled with a nostalgic wish to “go back” to nature, and that this sentimental wish has as much to do with the recapture of a lost masculinity as it does with a lost wilderness. I am thinking of William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature where he denaturalizes the cultural logic of wilderness as the last refuge from humanity– as separate and pure– and re-inscribes it as, instead, a construction based on the new Christian pastoral of the eighteenth century coupled with national and racial anxieties that compelled white Americans to seek out the frontier life and escape the “uncivilized” cities full of immigrants. Cronon includes a passage authored by Theodore Roosevelt in which he describes the “heroically masculine” frontier man:
”There he passes his days, there he does his life-work, there, when he meets death, he faces it as he has faced many other evils, with quiet, uncomplaining fortitude. Brave, hospitable, hardy, and adventurous, he is the grim pioneer of our race; he prepares the way for the civilization from before whose face he must himself disappear. Hard and dangerous though his existence is, it has yet a wild attraction that strongly draws to it his bold, free spirit (21).”
In the wilderness, “a man could be a real man,” says Cronon. While this post has been quite expansive in nature, I bring up this concern for masculinity because I am interested in this strain of hostility toward the artifical, or what might be the tame, feminized geography of the non-place. In other words, I think there’s a reason why it was Mrs. Panther who showed us around her inane glass box home. In “Living Outdoors,” J.B. Jackson projects these same aforementioned cultural anxieties about the loss of “hardy” living and expressing grave concern at its pathetic mimcry, in the form of the glass house. Jackson’s critique of city folk who “purport to ‘live simply'” is clearly invested in questions of class, yet grafts these concerns onto a critique of the feminized, sanitized sphere. The point being that we should remain critical of the covert meanings behind these male theorists’ objections to current iterations of made geography, and what exactly it is they propose a return to.
When James Kunstler talks about Lebanon, New Hampshire, he could just as well be talking about Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is a suburb in the sense that it is removed from the city. It’s a Very Nice New England Town in the sense that upper middle class anywhere else is lower middle class here. My friends used to joke that the air literally purified around you as you crossed a single block over from gritty Allston, with its futon stores and seedy bars, into kid-friendly Brookline, where we grew up. It’s true, the smell is different. That’s the thing about Brookline; it’s definitely not city, but it’s surrounded by city. North Brookline is wedged between Allston, Brighton, Fenway, and Mission Hill. You can get anywhere you need to go on foot. The green line will take you from Coolidge Corner, North Brookline’s commercial hub and informal stomping grounds of Boston University, to downtown Boston in 15 minutes. Alternatively, a walk down Beacon street, lined with row houses, will get you there in about 25 minutes. Anyone from a real city would scoff at the characterization of Brookline as “urban,” but these features of walkability, transportation, and ample apartment housing resist the suburb category.
Brookline does not belong to the geography of nowhere. Its history saves it: over 200 years old when the Levittowns of the country started to pop up, Brookline’s paths are irregular and winding. The design is hard to discern from an aerial shot. This is because, like Boston, it was not planned so much as thrown together over cowpaths, as the legend goes.
South Brookline provides a striking contrast to its northern counterpart. What was mostly farmland and stately mansions is now mostly mansions and developments. The commercial centers are artificial collections of stores around cul-de-sacs. The lawns are wide and the sidewalks are meant only for jogging. While the population density of north Brookline is equal to that of the surrounding city, families in the south are spread out (the overall population is 60,0000.
Brookline residents are proud Bostonians, and silently judge people from Shrewsbury and other far out suburbs who say they are from Boston. Brookline is known for its excellent public schools, which are causing an exponential population overflow, and its abundance of PhDs. It has a distinctly self-satisfied air, and like Kunstler’s Lebanon, an “aura of stability and consequence” (13).
In middle school, my Hebrew school class went on a field trip to an old estate in New Hampshire. I don’t really know what was special about it at all other than that it was probably a good deal. The place had fallen into slight disrepair. Peeling white paint exposed the wooden shingles, most of the bathrooms were unusable, and the lawn was a Gray Gardens style mess. Still, the mansion’s former dignity was not lost on us pre-teens. Or was not lost on me, I should say. I wasn’t the most popular girl in Ms. Weiner’s sixth grade class. Actually, to be more accurate, I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me, which I only mention because it turned out to be tragically relevant in my very public wayfinding demise.
The thing about the inside of this mansion I was so unhappily stranded in for a seemingly never-ending weekend was that all the rooms looked alike. The girls’ wing had a long and narrow hallway that seemed to stretch out forever, with what must have been a dozen doors on each side. You could try four different doors before you found the bedroom you were looking for. Unfortunately for me, once we were all sound asleep, tucked into our little plastic mattresses (I got the one deemed unusable because of something scrawled in sharpie on it indicating the date and time of a certain virginity lost), the fire alarm went off. Maybe they hadn’t really been so sound asleep, because when I groggily rose to a blinking red light and the distant blare of an alarm, everyone was gone. I went out into the hallway and promptly ran the wrong way. When I got the end of the hallway and furiously shook the doorknob, it didn’t open. I tried more doors. All closets or more identical bedrooms. At this point I was panicking. Even when I managed to get the right end of the hallway, my troubles weren’t over. It took me so long to get out of that house that when I finally burst through the screen door onto the grand porch, the teacher was just about to lead the rest of the kids back inside. In a totally cool and logical move, I spent every second of my free time the next day counting doors. The number of doors from my room to the stairway, the number of doors from the first floor landing to the exit, and so on. I was a fun kid.
I know someone who has developmental topographical disorientation, and I know that I don’t have it. But I am heavily reliant on landmarks to a fault. I don’t like to take new shortcuts or stray from the routes I am familiar with because of my weak mental maps. Relying on google maps for every trip I take in New York, no matter how small, has probably only made things worse. If I get even a little bit off of the main streets I am familiar with, it can seem impossible for me to find my way back. This can be very embarrassing. Once, driving a U-Haul home from the pickup center in Somerville, an easy 20 minute drive, my friend and I had to pull over and re-think our route back to my home in Brookline—we had not anticipated the no trucks rule on Storrow Drive, or across the BU bridge, the most straightforward paths that I was familiar with. We were pulled over next to Mass General when Henry pointed to the map on his phone. The GPS isn’t working, but where are we on this map? He asked me. I was blank. What side of the river are we on, at least? I can figure out a way back to Brookline if I know that, he reasoned. I looked at the river. None of my landmarks were in sight. I panicked. Cambridge, I blurted. This, of course, was wrong. We were on the Boston side. It was Henry from Michigan who found our way home.
Why does it matter that an urban landscape is “psychologically satisfying?” I’m only thinking about this question because I’m convinced that it does matter. A city’s legibility is suspiciously correlated with its affluence. Lynch uses Boston for its exemplary landmarks, paths, and edges. The Charles River is a naturally strong boundary. The gold dome of the State House is highly memorable. The distinct character of Comm Ave versus Boylston creates differentiation. These varied components of city space make Boston highly imageable.
I’ve lived in Bushwick for almost a year now, and I can definitely say it scores very low on the imageability scale, perhaps more noticeably so being that I am from Boston. Bushwick is undeniably ugly. This is not only an aesthetic failure, but also a utilitarian one. Stockholm Street looks exactly the same as Stanhope. Apartment buildings are all the same height—three stories tall, brick or with dirty vinyl siding. There is such an incredible lack of architectural diversity in my neighborhood that the one old, dingy pharmacy building with a small spire and out of order clock stands out to me in a way that it never would in Manhattan. Nodes are sparse and arguably limited to subway stations. But perhaps worst for Bushwick is its lack of orientation to the city. In lower Manhattan, the Chrysler Building is a steady guidepost, not so much for specific directions but just for the mental ease immediately knowing north and south. The Citgo sign is easy point of reference on the Boston skyline. Bushwick has no equivalent. Legible urban spaces all have a north star of sorts, an unchanging point of orientation. It must be the most basic and primal of cognitive necessities when forging a mental map. I think you could say, then, that the inner city is inherently disadvantaged when it comes to Kevin Lynch’s standards for successful urban planning. Inner city areas don’t get the prime resources of natural edges like affluent parts of the city do.
The total lack of design in Bushwick signals patterns of inequality in urban development. Paths, edges, and nodes, instead of being neutral, static scenery, are predictors of an urban area’s well being that directly reflect its resources. If I walk west toward more quickly gentrifying areas around the Jefferson and Morgan stops, the difference is startling. The imageability starts to improve rapidly in just a matter of blocks. Apparently, with development and money comes more varied and memorable urban terrain.
Bushwick is in a state of transition. Real estate prices have jumped unreasonably in the past couple of years. With so much upheaval on the horizon, I wonder how the legibility of this part of New York City could be improved for the working class people who live there now. What kinds of solutions can we find that honor these residents instead of contributing to their eventual displacement?
I probably would’ve never found North Point Park if I hadn’t been on a bike. That’s one of the main problems with this beautiful green space: its largely inaccessible. Wedged between two highways, the park is a sort of peninsula, extending out into the Charles River. Located on the Cambridge side of the river, specifically East Cambridge, the park faces Boston. This section of East Cambridge is currently experiencing a process of development that promises to reform its once industrial character.
Boston is proud of its Olmstead designed parks, from Jamaica Pond to the Arboretum to the Common. These spaces are very successful from a design perspective—secluded, lush, and with varied terrain. North Point Park, though, does not belong to this old school aesthetic. It is more reminiscent of the Highline, or the Brooklyn Bridge Park. When I happened upon it after a bike ride along the river, I was shocked at how empty it was, given the quality of the park. On a summer day, you can stretch out on the carefully manicured lawn, with a perfect view of the Zakim Bridge. There’s willow trees and lush plant life. Benches line the walkway along the river. It feels clean and well maintained. But North Point’s real piece de resistance is its kayaking canal. Kayakers glide right through the middle of the park, on narrow waterways that diverge from the river. On my first visit, a July afternoon, it was practically empty.
In a cramped city like Boston, the underuse of such a wide, idyllic space is troubling. It seems that perhaps the problem at this point is funding. The project was made possible through the Big Dig mitigation, which mandated the construction of public space as a sort of environmental restitution for the massive construction that plagued the city for more than a decade. Several steps of the plan have not yet been carried out, including a plaza meant for the unused space under the bridge. While the pedestrian bridge over the river connecting the park with Charleston (Boston) encourages the flow of a diverse population through the space, North Point could is in need of a more concerted effort to enliven the park through arts projects or as a concert space so that it doesn’t just become a private backyard for the upscale developments that are sprouting up all along it. North Point’s awkward geographical placement requires a little extra work to get people to use it. Its location violates Whyte’s principle of a porous relationship to the street. At the same time, its unique island-like structure does make it all the more compelling. For reasons of traffic and adequate use, though, an additional plaza might make the space more of a destination.
Lastly, I think North Point Park is inviting and comfortable to both single individuals and groups or families because of its wide fields, flowerbeds with seating-appropriate ledges, and river facing benches. The lush vegetation provides a nice buffer for those who wish to be left alone, and the broad, open spaces allow for a picnicking family with children to spread out.
The place I love is the north shore of Chicago. That’s probably a little strange, like saying mashed potatoes are your favorite food, but what can I say… Mashed potatoes are always good. My mom left Chicago for scholarly Boston and that’s where I was raised. I don’t think I knew an adult growing up who didn’t have a Masters degree. It’s lots of psychiatrists and flax tunics in Boston. The Chicago that filtered through my mother’s memory and down to me is golden hued and warm and seriously unpretentious. Skokie in 1968 had card tables set up at the end of every driveway in summer and a curious minority of non-Yiddish speakers. I imagine a lot of brown polyester pants in that scene.
I do actually visit the place myself– have visited the place at least once a year since I can remember. Here’s where I like to start: Winnetka. My mom and I sneak away with some sleeping relative’s car for one of our favorite pastimes: house sightseeing. The north shore is known for its architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright originals and copies. Winnetka doesn’t have that so much as just garish, palatial mansions. We turn off lakeside Sheridan Road and onto the side streets, slow to a crawl to assess the quality of what chandeliers are visible. We move on. Kenilworth is next up, and so is the stern, forboding voice reserved for the interlude at which we remind whoever might be in the car at that moment that Kenilworth does not allow Jews (did not? Irrelevant). More mansions. My mom points out the one that belongs to the man who invented the paperclip, or the post-it, or something. Soon we are in the leafy green of Evanston, with its thick oaks and beautiful lakeside homes, the most dignified ones earth toned, low-lying stucco. Beth Emet’s free form silver Star of David statue flashes by in the window. Semi-sidewalks are newly popping up in this, the least suburban of the north shore suburbs. We swing out onto Lake Shore Drive. Everything opens up and the city is hazy in the distance. I remember driving on I-90 with my uncle’s fiancée in her red convertible when I was 10 years old, how she shouted, “I love you Chicago!” when the city came into view, her blonde hair in the wind. She was deaf and wanted to be an actress.
The glitz and glass of Lincoln Park frame the old glamour of the pink Drake Hotel building, where my grandparents were married. Now, when we see jazz under the Frank Gehry bandshell in Millenium Park, I like to wander to the dark side street off of Michigan Avenue where my grandfather’s jewelry store used to be. As much as I love the city, I don’t like staying the night that much in my uncle’s apartment on gritty West Grand Avenue. Part of the whole thing for me is going north at the end of the day. That’s the way I’ve always done it.