As Long As It Functions

In Utopias, A Sense of Place by Alexandra G5 Comments

Functionality > Order

I like variety. Everyone likes variety. The variety, individuality, and creativity gives places, specifically downtowns, their essence and identity. Each individual contributes to what this essence or identity is with what piece of themselves or their interests they add to it. People very often define a place. Specifically in Manhattan, New Yorkers are what make downtown downtown.

During the 1960s, Jane Jacobs felt this way in the midst of great urban planning by the “master-builder” of NYC, Robert Moses. She opposed the expressways running through downtown, she opposed the creation of massive culture or government projects, and she opposed super-blocks. In her piece Downtown is for the People she wrote “From city to city the architects’ sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.” She talks about how architects of that time were obsessed with order and scale models and birds-eye-views. The problem with this obsession would be that although these orderly areas and neighborhoods may be aesthetically pleasing, who says they would be functional? Although change is sometimes good, the change envisioned by Moses would’ve been extremely disruptive.

I am currently living in Chinatown—a conundrum of vendors, tourists, fast food chains, markets, restaurants, fitness gyms, traffic, and so one. It is madness. But this madness is what makes it Chinatown. It’s what attracts outsiders to come see it. It’s what causes uptown-ers to come and spectacle at just how perfectly this intricate web of people and establishments function. I’m a very organized person and at first, this area just gave me headaches. It was too messy. But after time, I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ve learned to embrace the madness and add my own self to it. Sometimes I don’t use the cross walks. Sometimes I give tourists directions. Sometimes I get really angry and grunt at people. Anything goes in these parts, and that’s the beauty of it.

I wasn’t really able to understand the past uproar about urban planning downtown until I came across the daunting image Jacobs presented—the new projects “will be spacious, parklike, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly. They will be clean, impressive, and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.” What would happen if something of this sort replaced what is currently in Chinatown? It would simply cease to exist.

Walking through this area of downtown, particularly on Canal Street, is fun, amusing, and exciting. The pedestrian, just as Jacobs says, has all the power of these streets, as they are the users of the downtown. There are lights and smells and decorations and music and shouts and honks. There is difference, not one block the same. It is loud, louder than many parts of New York. It is local and foreign. It is young and old. It is a disorganized, variety of sorts, but is completely and intricately functional.


(Image: ; Source: )


  1. It’s arguable that Chinatown is not functional–it has the one of the highest incidence of traffic crashes in Manhattan (and all of NYC), and before recent NYPD crackdowns on organized crime, crime was rampant. By Jane Jacobs’s standards, Chinatown is not two-shift: there are relatively few bars and evening/late-night venues, and the row of gift shops connecting Chinatown and Tribeca is spooky even in the day time.

    But you’re right. This nonfunctioning is what makes Chinatown *Chinatown*. This is the Chinatown for which organizers fought for decades.

    1. Author

      Do you think that the traffic crashing incidences has to do with the influx of people coming from the Holland Tunnel and Brooklyn Bridge on either side, or maybe just the way the downtown area is set up? Just curious, thanks for the comment! P.S. The gift-shops are definitely spooky, night and day

      1. The crashes definitely have to do with the sheer volume of vehicle traffic (more cars = more chance of impact). I think Chinatown is interesting: it sees so much use consistently throughout the day, but a few hours after sundown the streets go dark. There are eyes on the street, as residents are still living over street-level stores, but I’m not sure if it feels safe. The parts designed to handle the heaviest peak traffic (the gift shop area) are the least functional of all, overused during the day and wholly underused at night.

  2. As a fellow resident of Chinatown, I admire your description of the area in vivid detail. I also really enjoyed the analysis of human interaction and presence. The area is truly a multi-tiered amalgamation of generations of foreigners and locals. It may not act as a two-shift neighborhood deep into the night, as most other New York areas, but it does provide a substantial amount of restaurants and small shops open until about 10 or 11 pm. Past that Chinatown goes to sleep and gets ready for tomorrow.

    It is an exciting place to live, and there are areas of solitude where the locals collect their thoughts. Smaller streets are the key to a friendly space in Chinatown. Parks usually become over-crowded with music, card games, and group workouts.

    1. Author

      I have yet to spend any time in parks in the area, but you’ve sparked my interest! An over-crowded park only fits the over-crowded Chinatown. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

Leave a Comment