Bob's World Travels

New York City

May 17, 2017

New York City

On May 6, I attended the national conference of the American Planning Association. At the opening of the conference, futurist Peter Leyden told those assembled that we are in an historic time similar to the beginning of the industrial revolution or the period after World War II. There are three key economic drivers: the digitization and computerization of everything, globalization, and climate change. The shift to renewable energy, which is already underway, will play a critical role in the global economy. At the same time, 47% of jobs are vulnerable to automation, since any work that is routine will soon be automated. The focus of human endeavor will be creative problem solving.

Cities in the United States will be the centers of global innovation, and millennials will dominate the century.  The millennial generation is ethnically diverse in the United States, which will be minority/majority by 2050.  At the same time, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that, although American cities are safer than ever, centers of innovation and economic growth, and culturally rich, they are also expensive, exclusionary, segregated and elitist. Peter Leyden told us that change is difficult and times of transformation often start with political polarization and paralysis.

I next attended a session on creative urban place making with presenters from Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, and Oakland. They agreed that the process for creating new great places should be inclusionary, artistic and participatory. New great places should be designed using the cultural assets and characteristics of the community and using local artistic resources.

Greenwich Village

In the afternoon, I went on a walking tour of Greenwich Village. Our tour guide was an elderly, slim, energetic New York women who had lived all her life in the village and who knew everybody and everything in the community.  She was colorfully dressed and quite entertaining.  Greenwich Village's history dates back to colonial times, and we stopped to see various landmark buildings and public spaces including St. Mark's Church, the Cooper Union Foundation Building, and Washington Square.  Greenwich Village is best known as the center of the bohemian and counter cultures of the twentieth century.  Jack Kerouac was there and later Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and others were there.  Also, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand were there along with a long history of painters and sculptors.  The Village's mid-level building scale certainly makes for a more comfortable environment than Midtown, but. like Midtown, it is also a place of perpetual activity. Like much of New York City, the Village is full of art. New York University has dominated real estate activity in the village and in recent years the neighborhood has gentrified to the extreme.  You can pick up a townhome there for a cool seven million dollars.


The second day, I walked a tour all over Midtown Manhattan. We walked from the Javits Conference Center on a number of the primary streets, visited Bryant Park, and admired several historic buildings including Grand Central Station, the Library, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Rockefeller Center. Near Macy's, we watched a mass bike ride of thousands pass. I enjoyed the elegant large spaces in Grand Central Station and the art deco of Rockefeller Plaza. On some streets, it certainly felt like being in a canyon, although the skyline above varied in height and dimension. Often, the Chrysler building or the Empire State building loomed behind and above the surrounding buildings. The much newer, taller, and much thinner, 432 Park Avenue building was tallest of all. Midtown is a premiere mix of both historic and post-modern architecture. Despite being under clouds, Bryant Park was both spacious and intimate next to the classical Central Library building with its sculpture, columns and stone lions.  The park's lovely curved London Plane Trees carried spring green leaves above the very green lawn. We finished the tour back in the crazy chaos of Times Square.

The Highline

Early on the third morning, I walked the Highline, the north end of which is next to the Javits Center. The Highline is a new walking path located on an old, elevated railroad trestle on the lower west side of Manhattan. I started amid the major construction projects of the Hudson Yards redevelopment project and walked the 1.5 mile trail through the Meat Packing District to Chelsea. The trail is elevated between twenty and thirty feet above street level and is nicely landscaped, providing a green walking corridor between the buildings close to the sides of the corridor. This linear environment travels through a futuristic and unique mix of historic and post-modern buildings.

Brooklyn - Los Sures

In the afternoon, I experienced a cleverly designed walking tour in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. After leaving the subway, we walked through a neighborhood commercial area which still had a Puerto Rican feel with small bodegas with signs in Spanish. The tour was entitled Living Los Sures. The tour was described as being about community change and gentrification, and Los Sures was the name given to the neighborhood by the Puerto Rican residents. It was called Los Sures (the souths) because many of the street names began with the word "South" (like South First Street). After walking a bit and viewing a community garden, we entered a building occupied by the UnionDocs organization, a non-profit group dedicated to helping local people make documentaries about their community. Inside, the director of the group told us about their discovery and restoration of a film from the 1980s entitled Living Los Sures, which is available on YouTube. We watched the film which told the story of the Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood.  The film described the struggles of real residents with poverty, crime and disinvestment.  The film showed buildings that were not being maintained, graffiti, and trash on the streets. In a discussion after the film, a panel told us that the neighborhood has changed with redevelopment and reinvestment.  It has become culturally diverse and an expensive place to live. But, the story is not simple; of the 80,000 residents of the neighborhood, 30,000 are still Puerto Rican.  Many of the long-time renters in the community have been forced to move elsewhere, but UnionDocs undertook a project to find the people interviewed in Living Los Sures and most still live in the neighborhood. At least, some of those people have had improved lives.

In 2005, the city rezoned 184 blocks of the neighborhood to permit a mix of land uses and more housing.  The rezoning plan included new inclusionary housing provisions to provide more affordable housing, a plan for a 27.8 acre river front park, and provisions to ensure that the scale of buildings fit with the existing structures. After the film and discussion, we walked out into the area where Living Los Sures had been filmed.  One of the first things we saw was the new Whole Foods store.  There were new condo buildings scattered among the revitalized older buildings. I walked down and admired the new riverfront with its mid-rise, post modern condo buildings and its expansive views of Manhattan. I walked to the subway station on busy streets with locally-run, hip restaurants and shops. It was a very different place from the neighborhood depicted in the 1980s documentary.

New York City

The next morning, I attended a session on collaborative climate action with speakers from New York City, Atlanta, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The speaker from Atlanta had been the climate change person for Coca Cola before moving to the Mayor's office.  We heard about New York Mayor De Blasio's Built to Last program. The program calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 50 years and a 30 percent reduction during the next decade. The program focuses on building efficiency, which makes sense in New York City where buildings dominate energy usage. The program sets energy efficiency goals for existing and new public buildings.  It will address privately owned buildings through regulations and voluntary collaboration.

New York City is composed of many different types of places all linked by the intricate subway system. It is the east coast headquarters of American culture and innovation and of economic power.  It is the very expensive home of the elites, and in its outer portions, it is the home of working people. Creative arts are intensely scattered throughout the city.


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