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.

Grand Piazza in Meatpacking District

October 24, 2006


Streetsblog is reporting on an urban planning project that seems to have some legs, to wit: turning the chaotic intersection at Gansevoort into a welcoming public space for people, not cars. Sometimes these ideas are such no-brainers, you can’t believe they haven’t happened already.

Flying below the radar for more than a year now, a community-driven initiative to transform the broad, chaotic intersection of Ninth Avenue and Gansevoort Street into a thriving piazza is well underway. In the process, the Greater Gansevoort Urban Improvement Project (GGUIP) is quietly emerging as one of New York City’s most promising Streets Renaissance initiatives. What is, perhaps, most notable about the Gansevoort Project is that it isn’t being put forward by a big real estate developer or Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s Economic Development Corporation. Rather, it is a grassroots, community-driven effort.

For an in-depth look at how this effort is unfolding, click here.

Street Shot of the Day

October 23, 2006


A man spray-painting mannequins (and doing something creepy with dolls) in front of a poster for the movie Turistas on 2nd Ave. For a large-format version, click here.

Bike Sheds

October 23, 2006


Straying off the NYC campus for a moment, The Building Centre in London is presenting new architectural designs for bike sheds. Perhaps Cooper Hewitt or some other New York museum would stage the exhibit here. Just a thought.

Shed Your Preconceptions [Telegraph]

Trolley Follies

October 21, 2006

trolley.jpgThe Brooklyn Papers is reporting (via Curbed) that the planners of Brooklyn Bridge Park have nixed the idea of trolley cars before they’ve even spent $1 million to investigate ways to provide access to the waterfront, which is very isolated. I posted about this back in January (click here) listing it as one of three transportation alternatives that are good ideas but probably not gonna happen. It’s truly a shame.

The man who has rather obsessively been extolling the virtues of trolley cars, Arthur Melnick, says he has access to a dozen historic trolleys of the design that were so ubiquitous in Brooklyn from the ’30s through the ’50s. But no, it seems the geniuses at Downtown Brooklyn Waterfront Development Corporation — caving to pressure from NIMBYs in Brooklyn Hts. who don’t want “outsiders” tramping through their precious neighborhood via trolley car — say at best, there would be a trolley-like jitney bus.

“We could have a jitney [bus] that looks like a trolley, like they have Downtown,” said Hank Gutman, a DBWLDC board member.

For crying out loud, the 85-acre park taking shape along 1.3 miles of the Brooklyn waterfront has been 25 years in the making; it would be nice if people could get there without being insulted by fake trolleys or having to go through a dank underground tunnel from a far away subway station, which is another possibility under consideration.


What’s so irritating, using trolleys to connect to the BBP is actually a realistic proposal, as is pointed out in an editorial by the Brooklyn Papers. A trolley from Borough Hall to DUMBO and on to Brooklyn Bridge Park (which would also serve the Brooklyn Bridge footpath that right now is an ugly and dangerous entrance) is perfectly reasonable and practicable solution to solving access issues to several wonderful but isolated places.

mt03vano4c.jpgThe hugely talented folks at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (click to enlarge pics), in collaboration with ARO, have produced some amazing designs for Brooklyn Bridge Park (to read a great article about it by Andrew Blum inbrooklynpiers.jpg Metropolis magazine, click here), and I’m sure people will get there one way or another. But it’s just ridiculous to me that while cities all over the world are managing to build state of the art infrastructure, we can’t even get people from point A to point B using 19th century technology. It’s just mind boggling.

The Visitor

October 19, 2006


Another day, another movie being filmed on St. Marks Place. Normally I don’t pay much attention, but there were so many movie trucks (at least a half dozen), and the shoot is taking place at one of my favorite St. Marks hang-outs, I had to ask. Turns out, the film is by the writer and director of The Station Agent, one of the best movies of the last few years. Thomas McCarthy (a pretty busy actor as well) is now working on his sophmore directorial project, a comedy/drama called The Visitor, staring Richard Jenkins who plays “a college professor with a mundane life, which is brightened up by a friendship with an illegal immigrant who needs his help.” The scene being shot this afternoon takes place at Jules, the Frenchmovie-jules.JPG bistro with live jazz every night in a Speakeasy atmosphere, plus a lovely outdoor seating area that is situated a few steps down from sidewalk level, providing a very cozy feel (which was shrouded in black fabric for the interior shoot, click pic to enlarge).


Stuy Town/Cooper Village Sold

October 17, 2006

The Times is reporting that Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village have been sold to the highest bidder, Tishman Speyer, for $5.4 billion. With more than half of the apartments rent stabilized, the 110 building complex on First Ave. between 14th and 23rd Streets, is one of the last bastions of middle class housing in Manhattan, where teachers, nurses and police officers have lived for decades. It’s a sad day for affordable housing in New York, and even more troubling that Mayor Bloomberg “stood on the sidelines” while tenants tried to put together a package to buy the complex themselves. The complex was built by MetLife (which is the seller in this transaction) for returning veterans from World War II. There’s simply no question that Tishman Speyer will be doing everything it can to de-regulate the apartments as quickly as possible to recoup its investment.

A Chain, Some Crack and No Smoking Guns

October 16, 2006

scales.gifI recently sat on a jury trial, and this is my account of the experience.


Shortly after 8 pm on November 30, 2005, Terrance Daniels was walking to a deli on 2nd Avenue and 123th Street in Manhattan when he was accosted on the street corner by two black men. While one stood aside, the other told Mr. Daniels he was going to “run” his chain — translation: “steal your necklace” — a long, thick silver-colored piece with an outsized medallion in the shape of a Jesus head.

Mr. Daniels had just finished making payments on it to an East Harlem jewelry store, $500 in total — the first robbery, as we jurors later joked. Struggling with the robber who had grabbed his shirt and the chain, he indignantly refused to give it up – until a gun was brandished.

Whether 21 year-old Michael Johnson committed this robbery was just one of several charges that a Manhattan jury recently decided in a case that was, by any measure, just another sad tale of ordinary street crime, mixed up with drugs, to be resolved by a criminal justice system that is anything but an exact science and chock full of unfortunate clichés.

Stage right was the young prosecuting attorney a little too eager to test his mettle. Stage left was the bumbling middle-aged public defender who kept referring to “nickel bags and dime bags” circa 1979. Holding court was Judge A. Goldberg peering over the top of her reading glasses with a permanent “no fools suffered here” expression. For comic relief was the court reporter, a beautiful black woman with a tangle of braids swept up into clip on the top of her head, which bobbed up and down like a rooster pecking out the courtroom testimony.
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So Long…

October 14, 2006


The famed underground music venue, CBGBs, closes for good this weekend. Photo of the owner, Hilly Kristal, by Spencer Drate.

For a Times slideshow from the last concert, click here.

For a Times video, including snippets from Blondie’s wonderfully understated accoustic set, click here.