One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

January 29, 2007

sullivan450.jpgThe Times has an op-ed today titled, “The City That Never Walks” about how New York is “falling behind” other American cities when it comes to, what, exactly? “Pedestrian issues,” the author writes, whatever that means. But the writer couldn’t possibly be talking about the actual number of steps a New Yorker takes every day compared to all other city residents in the nation. Nor could the writer be talking about the car ownership rate either, which is far lower in New York than any other city. Even though I am in agreement with the sentiment of this op-ed — that walking and biking are better modes of transportation on many levels, and cities should design streets and sidewalks to facilitate those alternatives — this piece is not at all convincing in its main assertion, that New York is “falling behind” other American cities when it comes walkability.

Yes, other cities are improving mass transit and creating walkable downtowns. Great. This is hardly a zero-sum game. I’m also 100 percent supportive of the grassroots efforts here in New York to calm traffic and improve pedestrian life that the author mentions (Gansevoort Plaza for one, which I’ve posted about here). But to say that New York is “falling behind” other American cities without saying what is being measured is rather sloppy, and provides the libertarian crowd ammunition to dismiss planners and planner-friendly advocates as silly. Here’s another bit of silliness:

Boston’s mayor has endorsed converting Hanover Street in the city’s North End into a car-free pedestrian mall. Why don’t we do the same in part or even all of SoHo?

This has been tried before and has failed spectacularly. Car-free, pedestrian-only “malls” were a fad in the 1970s and almost every single street that banned traffic has since been converted back after the pedestrian-only zone not only failed to revitalize street life, but in fact killed what was left of the street-level retail.

First rule of thumb: diversity. Cars don’t have to rule the road, but eliminating any form of transportation to promote another is the surest way to dampen activity and life. The fact is, on a weekend in Soho, when every inch of sidewalk is clogged with shoppers — who often spill onto the cobblestone streets, knocking people over with 7 shopping bags — cars are not the problem. Making life easier for shoppers in Soho would be about the last thing that needs to happen there.

(Not to mention the title, “A City That NEVER Walks?” I won’t get on the author of this article for the headline, because it probably wasn’t his doing; a headline writer on the op-ed desk most likely scanned the article and, not taking it very seriously, reformulated the first cliche that came to mind and stuck it at the top.)

New York ABSOLUTELY needs to re-prioritize away from auto-driven transportation and toward pedestrians, bikers, scooters, etc. Alas, this op-ed does not advance that argument very much. (Illustration by Harry Campbell).

Running of the Bulls

January 29, 2007


Gothamist reports on the annual Idiotarod, a satirical race based on the Iditarod in Alaska (the 1000 mile dog sled race), except this one is run by teams of people dressed in costume who tie themselves to a shopping cart and run through the streets of New York (this year from Greenpoint to Long Island City). The event originated in San Francisco (if I remember correctly) and has spread to other cities, but has not been warmly embraced here by the authorities, as Jake Dobkins reports:

… police were swarming … They actually called in air support– I’ve never seen a police chopper that close before. Before the race began, the Captain at the local precinct read a statement saying that the event didn’t have a permit, so if anyone blocked traffic, they’d immediately be arrested…

Happily, it seems no one got jacked by the cops and fun was had by all. More photos and video on Gothamist.

Light Criticism

January 26, 2007


What is this? Check it out, the Anti-Advertising Agency via LVHRD.

I Am Legend

January 25, 2007


Will Smith is filming I Am Legend, an action/sci-fi thriller, on the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge. The shoot requires a thousand extras, blackhawk helicopters and cargo tanker. New York City photogs have gone berserk. See lots of photos on flickr via Gowanus Lounge (click to enlarge above pic by BlueJoel).

Global Warming: The Final Verdict

January 25, 2007

From an article on the Guardian‘s website:

Global warming is destined to have a far more destructive and earlier impact than previously estimated, the most authoritative report yet produced on climate change will warn next week.

A draft copy of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, obtained by The Observer, shows the frequency of devastating storms … will increase dramatically. Sea levels will rise over the century by around half a metre; snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains; deserts will spread; oceans become acidic, leading to the destruction of coral reefs and atolls; and deadly heatwaves will become more prevalent.

The impact will be catastrophic, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee their devastated homelands, particularly in tropical, low-lying areas, while creating waves of immigrants whose movements will strain the economies of even the most affluent countries.

Read the entire article here, if you can stomach it.

To learn about the carbon tax idea, click here.

Ads of the Times

January 24, 2007


A blogger recently attempted to photograph every ad in Times Square and post them all in one place. I will say this, the real advertecture has far more impact than the virtual ads (advertual?). The above pic is just a sampling. To see every single ad (give or take a few), click here.

Second Coming of Moses

January 24, 2007


Befitting uber New York builder Robert Moses and his unparalleled impact on the built environment, no less than three retrospective shows about his career are opening next month, reports the Times. You can read the piece for yourself, but here’s the money quote from deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff:

“Can there be another time when you can get big projects done all over the city?” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I think the answer is yes, and we’re in one now. Could you ever have one person who with imperiousness, with concentrated power, with lack of community input, could get things done? The answer is no.”

A lesson Mr. Doctoroff learned firsthand, no doubt (ahem…westside stadium…cough cough).

When Jane Jacobs passed away last year, I noted here on Polis that it has become the contrarian fashion to say that Robert Moses wasn’t so bad after all. Now it seems we’ll have three exhibits to assess that viewpoint.

Click here for a slideshow (including the above pic of Astoria pool).

Welcome New Readers!

January 23, 2007


I hardly ever check my blog stats because frankly, I don’t want to know how many people are actually reading Polis, but holy cow, it seems that New York, 2106 has gotten some major play due to links from Curbed, UnBeige and another well-read blog that I was previously unfamiliar with, kottke (written by Jason Kottke, a fellow New Yorker transplanted from the Midwest who also once lived in San Francisco). As a result, Polis was listed as a top blog on WordPress.

So, welcome new readers! And please, feel free to roam around the site, check out my photo essays, see what I’ve been up to lately on Xlist (Now Playing…), and read about the book I’m (ostensibly) writing. Speaking of book, here is one amusing entry from kottke:

  • Jargon watch: “book” as a synonym for “cool”. Sample usage: “That YouTube video is so book.” As books are decidedly uncool, you might wonder how this usage came about. Book is a T9onym of cool…both words require pressing 2665 on the keypad of a mobile phone but book comes up before cool in the T9 dictionary, leading to inadvertent uses of the former for the latter.

I stuck a gapingvoid blogcard at the top just for fun, only tangentially related to this post.

E.Vil., How Do I Love Thee…

January 23, 2007


I have a tendency to come to these things a little late, but better late than never. For more than three years, I’ve been living in the the East Village — hands down, the coolest neighborhood in the world (okay, I haven’t been to every nabe in the world, but a little hyperbole never hurt anyone). And yet, I still find myself walking past any number of cool things without hardly taking note, only to one day stop in my tracks and say, “Hey, what’s that?” This happened at a tiny storefront on First Avenue (near Houston) called East Village Radio, where I would glance at the DJ spinning records behind the glass and think, “I need to check that out.” So I finally did:

Based out of a store-front studio on First Avenue, embedded in the heart of the East Village, EVR is an Internet radio station … with a wide array of musical genres … Over 60 DJs and hosts provide 16 hours of LIVE programming a day, broken up into 2 hour show blocks, 7 days a week.EVR’s store-front street level studio helps maintain its independent artistic sensibility. According to [a] study of pedestrian traffic in New York City, almost 1,000 (1,800 during peak travel times) pedestrians pass by the sound booth per hour.

1000-1800 pedestrians PER HOUR! That just boggles the mind, and yet it isn’t even the main point here. The point is, check out East Village Radio — with its eclectic schedule and now of course everything is podcast — and revel in the creativity that could only acculturate in the agar of the East Village. The storefront was renovated last summer, which was covered by Fader (where I got the above photo). BTW: The Fader show on Fridays is it.

Counter Intel

January 22, 2007


I’ve been enjoying New York mag’s newish online feature, Daily Intel. NYM shuns the term, but let’s call a spade a spade: it’s a blog, albeit, a well-crafted, content-rich blog, but a blog nonetheless. The focus is all things New York, which is edited by Jesse Oxfeld. He used to be one of the main writers for Gawker back when that media gossip blog was clever (why he was let go is beyond me, but Gawker’s loss has been New York mag’s gain…). My favorite regular item is of course Neighborhood Watch, which culls short, snappy snippets from the world of local minutiae. To wit, today’s nabe watch:


A new fitness center for Coney Island’s beach.
Photo: Kinetic Carnival

Carroll Gardens: Starting in February, you can find Smith and Vine at its new location, 268 Smith Street. [A Brooklyn Life]
Chelsea: How should the lovely General Theological Seminary develop its property at 175 Ninth Avenue? Comment at the community-board meeting tonight. [Living With Legends]
Clinton Hill: Want to open a wine shop? Cheese shop? Coffee shop? Bookshop? There’s some retail space available on Greene Avenue. [Clinton Hill Blog]
Coney Island: It’s nice to see new stuff on the beach (above), but why is it always fitness related? [Kinetic Carnival]
Union Square: It doesn’t matter that she can’t really sing. When Neysa belts out old Madonna songs on the L-train platform, people bob their heads and smile. [Gridskipper]
Williamsburg: Hipster music mecca McCarren Pool among roster of city pools to be considered next week at public hearing for landmark status. Beirut and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, step up and testify! [Gowanus Lounge]

The Tram

January 22, 2007


I took this photo from the Roosevelt Island Tram recently (click to enlarge).

New York, 2106

January 17, 2007


The History Channel held a contest recently entitled Designing the City of the Future. Three finalists were chosen, one each from Los Angeles, Chicago and of course New York, by a panel that included notables such as Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker. But the final winner will be decided by a public online vote, so listen up.

ARO, one of my favorite architecture firms, won the New York entry, beating out ten entrants including big names such as Rogers Marvel (among others). In a previous Polis post, I dubbed ARO (Architecture Research Office) “smarchitects” as opposed to “starchitects,” a moniker they manage to exceed with a vision of New York in 2106.

Contestants had only seven days to come up with a model of the future, and what Adam Yarinsky and his team developed is a vision of New York recovering from massive flooding in low lying areas of New York as a result of global warming. In order to co-exist with fluctuating sea levels, ARO proposed a new building type called a “vane.” Part skyscraper, part viaduct, “vanes” are built in, on, and over flooded streets, reconnecting to the classic street grid and making up for lost square footage. The concept is mixed-use in a physical as well as philosophical sense, as both a throwback and a look forward, somehow imagining both a dystopian and utopian city of tomorrow, and reconnecting New York with its history as an archipelago.

The winning entry from Chicago also has a water theme; “eco-boulevards” will treat the city’s waste-water naturally via microorganisms. Interestingly, the city that arguably has the biggest water problem, i.e. lack thereof, is Los Angeles, yet that entry mostly avoided the water issue, focusing on massive public works projects.

To see a flickr page with tons of images of the ARO entry, click here, and then cast your vote on the History Channel’s website here.

Whole Paycheck

January 16, 2007


With Whole Foods’ stock tanking, I was beginning to wonder if the long-promised store on the Bowery was ever going to open. That is, until I encountered a Whole Foods employee on St. Marks Pl. gathering signatures on letters that will be sent to the New York State liquor control board, urging it to approve a license so the grocery chain can sell booze next door to its Bowery store (state law prohibits grocery stores from selling anything other than beer, an asinine law if there ever was one). The employee, pictured above, said the store is still on track to open in April.

A few fun facts about the Bowery: The street was originally an Indian trail, then a cow path to Peter Stuyvesant’s farm (“bouwerij” is the Dutch word for farm). It was the first street in America with a trolley car. It was New York’s theater district before Broadway became Broadway. At the turn of the last century, there were an estimated 25,000 Bowery bums who lived in flophouses and on the street. Read more about the street at Forgotten New York.

Planning v. Designing

January 15, 2007


New York City planning commissioner Amanda Burden gets the close-up treatment from the Times, and the consensus seems to be that her meticulous attention to detail has created some good public spaces, but has come at the expense of 1. larger planning issues, and 2. pissing off real estate developers who feel micromanaged. The reality is, however, the planning commissioner doesn’t have a lot of power over larger planning issues such as transportation, and what’s more, if a planning commissioner doesn’t piss off real estate interests, she’s not doing her job.

I think a more salient point was missed entirely: Her rigid application of William H. Whyte/Jane Jacobsian principals has resulted in the law of unintended consequences. I noted this in a recent post about the Astor Place condo building, Sculpture for Living, which created a dead block in the heart of the East Village because Ms. Burden’s zoning laws mandated that the building address the street in a largely uniform manner, squandering a great opportunity to remake the surrounding public space. What is the point of meticulous attention to detail if rules are going to be rigidly applied? Adaptability is the key to vibrant street life, which Ms. Burden clearly holds in high regard.

The fundamental disconnect is that Ms. Burden’s job is urban planner, but what she practices is urban design. This is not entirely her fault, as the job of planning in NYC is constrained to zoning. She is exerting her influence in the only way that she realistically can: By wielding the power of approval, she extracts detailed design elements like pounds of flesh from developers, who are the city’s real urban planners by virtue of weak government oversight in the face of strong private property laws. For better or worse, that is the New York way.

Burnt Sugar

January 13, 2007


The Brooklyn Paper has a piece on the dismantling of the Revere Sugar refinery in Red Hook by developer Joe Sitt, who plans to erect six buildings on the site and isn’t saying whether any of the sugar refinery will be saved (same developer for Coney Island). The refinery, including its iconic dome on Brooklyn’s southern waterfront, closed in 1985 and later suffered a fire. The above photo is taken from a flickr set posted by Soupflowers (via Gowanus Lounge).