Life on the LES

October 30, 2006


A new book was just delivered to my door, and I am ever so grateful to Princeton Architectural Press, so I’m plugging it here big time!

“Life on The Lower East Side” is a book of photographs taken by Rebecca Lepkoff from the 1930s through the 1950s of the lost neighborhood between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, mostly destroyed to make way for the Alfred A. Smith housing project. A native of the LES, she bought her first camera in 1937 and has been shooting ever since. This collection of absolutely wonderful photographs captures a dignified life despite the obvious poverty and crowding in a neighborhood undergoing radical changes. From the Fulton Fish Market to the infamous Third Avenue El (torn down in 1955) to children playing in the streets to the lively “pushcart market” on Hester, the photographs are a treasure-trove not just because of what they depict — a dynamic community of Italians, Irish, Jews, Greeks, Spaniards, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and African Americans — but the beautiful use of light and shadow. The photos show Ms. Lepkoff to be equally adept at architecture, photo-journalism and portraiture, but most of all, an uncanny ability to capture the symbiotic relationship between a city and its people.

What’s more, there are fun facts sprinkled throughout the monograph: In the 1930s, 15,000 peddlers lined the streets; by 1945 only 1200 remained due to an effort to “clean up” the neighborhood. Knickerbocker Village opened in 1934, replacing the slum on Hamilton Street called the “Lung Block” for having the highest tuberculosis rate in the city. In 1854 at a stop at Park Row, a black woman named Elizabeth Jennings boarded a trolley reserved for whites, which led to her forcible removal. The ensuing uproar led to the desegregation of trolleys — 100 years before Rosa Parks.

It’s A Good Day When…

October 29, 2006

picasso.jpgIt’s a good day when two of New York’s greatest treasures can be combined into one outing. A little background on one of these great treasures: The Teak Fellowship is a program that helps economically disadvantaged but intellectually talented New York City students gain access to and succeed at top public and private schools. In the tradition of New York volunteerism, part of the fellowship is matching these gifted kids with “mentors” in the New York community. It is in this capacity that I am privileged to be getting to know Eva, whose parents are from Bangladesh although she has grown up in Sunnyside, Queens. As for one of New York’s other great treasures, on Saturday we went to see, “Picasso and American Art,” at the Whitney. Not only is the show brilliant (even if the point is hardly revolutionary: Picasso influenced American art), but seeing these works again with the clarity of Eva’s fresh eyes was a delight.

Pictured: Roy Lichtenstein’s Femme au Chapeau (1962), at the Whitney.


October 28, 2006

Wig shopping for Halloween on St. Marks.



Foreigners in Cleveland

October 27, 2006


About once a week, Polis has been straying off the NYC campus, and I guess that’s just going to continue to be the case; not everything fantastic happens here.

The news that caught my eye today is that a hot young architecture firm has been chosen by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland (MOCA) to design the museum’s new building. Foreign Office Architects of London was founded in 1993 by a husband and wife team, Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi, who met at Harvard (he’s Spanish and she is Iranian). The team gained international recognition with the Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan (pictured above). They were short-listed for the Ground Zero master plan competition. But the firm has not built anything in the United States yet, and this will be the team’s first museum. It’s a fantastic selection on the part of MOCA. From an article on the Design Museum’s website about the duo:

If Gehry’s older generation deconstructed the modernist box, FOA’s generation is more interested in reconstructing, from the landscape upwards. Zaera Polo and Moussavi are not interested in flashy gestures designed to sell cities as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum has done for the Spanish city of Bilbao. …

“Each building is like a species grown for a specific ecosystem, an antidote to homogenising globalisation,” notes Zaera Polo. In other words, FOA does not stamp one style wherever, whatever. They take root.

Totally digging this sensibility. Can’t wait to see what they come up with for my hometown, Cleveland.

Bank It.

October 26, 2006


Photo at Fontana’s, an indie music club with a great pool table on the LES, taken by Bank the Nine. To see it in large format, click here.

Whitney at the High Line?

October 25, 2006

The fairytale story of the High Line seems to have a pea under the mattress. The High Line — a rusty elevated railroad that was in danger of being torn down is being transformed into a public greenway supported by the likes of Ed Norton and Hillary Clinton — is losing its anchor cultural institution, The Dia Art Foundation, which was supposed open a gallery space at the entrance at 820 Washington St. at Gansevoort. Is this the start of an unraveling of plans at the High Line? Hardly. The real princess is the Whitney Museum of American Art, according to the Times, which is rumored to be stepping in to save the day. Apparently the museum was already rethinking its expansion plans on the Upper East Side and was looking for satellite space instead, “where the Whitney could have larger-scale spaces for cutting-edge artworks as well as attract the young, hip audience who frequents the art and nightclub scene.” The young and hip are sure to come out in droves to the High Line, a project near and dear to so many hearts for making urban planning sexy.

For a story about the High Line I wrote for Planning Magazine (keeping in mind this is Planning Magazine, so don’t hold the stilted language against me), click here (pdf).

Unsafe House

October 24, 2006

The New Yorker’s financial writer, James Surowiecki, has a really good piece in this week’s issue about the real estate market. The main questions he answers are, if there’s an oversupply of housing, how come the median sale price has not dropped, and is it true that home prices have not fallen for a full year since the depression?

People have been building bigger homes—the typical new home is about twenty-five per cent bigger than it was twenty years ago—and putting money into improvements like central air-conditioning, home theatres, and pools. And the impact of quality adjustments isn’t trivial; a study of home prices between 1977 and 2003 found that adjusting for quality reduced the return to homeowners by forty per cent. As for the much vaunted statistic about housing prices never falling for a full year since the Depression? That’s true only if you forget about inflation.

To read the whole article, click here.