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Dreams of the Agora, Nightmares of a Mall: Critical Impressions of the World Trade Center Transit Hub

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View of the WTC Transit Hub
The World Trade Center Transit Hub—New York's new, $4.5 billion transit terminal—clearly has grand ambitions. It isn't merely self-consciously monumental; it also sets out to be a transformative public space—one that will bring the spark of urban life to a neighborhood that so desperately needs it. Crafting a deeply functional public space, however, is a difficult task even in the best of times, and building a node for urban life—an agora for the modern city—is a taller task, still. Can the Hub actually fulfill its architect’s grandiose promises and craft a truly urban environment from scratch?

A critical examination of the station reveals a space that is maddeningly ambivalent. On the one hand, it is a place that consciously echoes the designs of other successful, urban stations—a space which not only possesses an awe-inspiring center, but which could act as an urban refuge from the commodified, tourist-centric memorial above. On the other hand, however, it is also a complex riddled with troublesome decisions, led by problematic management, and plagued by unanswered questions—a space not only dominated by omnipresent security, but seemingly on the fast track towards becoming a shopping mall in the guise of a privatized "public" space. In other words, the Transit Hub has a lot of potential. It also has the potential to be a monumental disaster.

The Stage

It was only with a great deal of trepidation that I made my way to lower Manhattan to visit the newly opened World Trade Center Transit Hub—the $4.5 billion station that now serves as the southern Manhattan terminus for PATH trains. Some of my reticence undoubtedly stemmed from the cloud of negative buzz that currently envelopes the project. After all, the station is already arguably more famous for its slipped schedules, ballooned budgets, and astronomical price tag than it is for any of its own architectural or urban merits. That makes it a challenging space to analyze without preconception, particularly for those of us in the New York region. At the same time, for better or for worse, the Transit Hub will be one of the largest single investments in public space infrastructure that New York City will see for some time. It will also undoubtedly be one of the most expensive.

And yet, for all of that, I knew that my trepidation was actually rooted in something far deeper than the structure itself, or the controversies surrounding it. It stemmed instead from the proverbial elephant in the room: to engage with the Transit Hub, one must confront the reality of its location.

Brief Thoughts On: New York City's Proposed, Urban-Focused Streetcar

Author's Note: This is the first of a new type of article on The Fox and the City, a "Brief Thoughts On..." piece. These articles are meant to be shorter, less polished, and perhaps a bit less considered than the usual fare here. Hopefully however, the shorter length will allow for more articles on timely issues as well as for more freedom to explore esoteric ideas. Whether this turns into more articles or not is an open question, as these have a habit of evolving into larger pieces. But enough with behind the curtain ramblings...
The Portland Streetcar at the OHSU Station The Portland Streetcar at Ohio State Health University1.

For those of you who haven't heard, last week, in his State of the City address, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio officially threw his weight behind a proposal to build a streetcar line along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront2. With a planned length of around 16 miles, and an estimated cost of two and a half billion dollars, this (at least partially) mixed-traffic streetcar would be New York's first major investment in crosstown travel since the Independent Subway's Crosstown Line (today's G train) was constructed in the early 1930s.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this proposal, like that of many initial reactions I've seen, was quite skeptical. Rumors have been circulating about a waterfront streetcar project in Brooklyn since at least the early 2000s, coming to a head with the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association's oft-maligned plan to connect downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook3. At the same time, real estate developers and parts of the city's government have been pushing hard for large-scale residential redevelopment along Brooklyn's East River and harbor-facing coasts. Given New York's transit needs, it is tempting to write this project off as frivolous at best, and cargo-cult thinking at worst—that is, other cities have successfully built streetcars which have supported residential development, so we should as well. But the longer I've studied the proposal and ruminated on its merits and its meaning, the more and more I've warmed to it, and indeed, the more and more I've come to support it.

Stolzenbach, Jacobs, JFK, and the (Re)Emergence of American Urbanity

Cover of The Washington Metro and the Fall and Rise of American Urbanity
The following is an excerpt from the Master's thesis, The Washington Metro and the Fall and Rise of American Urbanity, presented and © 2014. It is part of Chapter 4: Stolzenbach, Jacobs, JFK, and the (Re)Emergence of American Urbanity. Enjoy!
 
No urban critic was more effective than Jane Jacobs. Her book ... became an immediate bestseller. ... Jacob's manifesto found a sympathetic audience in many urban residents at a key time in American history.
-Frederick Gutheim, official historian of the National Capital Planning Commission. [1]

Rosalyn Deutsche, an art historian, critic, and urbanist, has written at length on the problematic nature of public art and public space. All too often, in Deutsche's opinion, art and space are neutered of their individual discursive qualities by existing power structures, a desire to serve the lowest common denominator, or both. For her, if space, art, or to extend her work to the case in hand, infrastructure, is to be truly democratic, truly public, it must embody ongoing contestation. Unlike Habermas, Deutsche has no preconceptions of a singular popular opinion that can be reached through rational dialogue. The ideas at hand are too powerful, the splits in opinion too great, and the balance of power too unequal for that ever to be the case. To this point, the story of Metro has encompassed a few contestations: Should transportation planning work to (re)concentrate urban life, or should it push towards dispersal? Is the automobile the way of the future, or does rail still have a role to play? What is the role of the 'expert' vis-à-vis the role of the public at large? What is the role of the government? These issues were highly contested by planners, politicians, and academics. But in becoming reality, they would by necessity affect far more than the select few in positions of relative power[2].

The Question of the Urban

Frustratingly, it can sometimes seem that, to paraphrase a famous decision of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, urbanity is like pornography: we can't define it, but we know it when we see it.

Urban environments are hot right now in America. From coast to coast, traditional urban cores are being filled—not only by young professionals, but also by all manners of families, individuals, and households. For the first time in over fifty years, as the 2010 census dramatically demonstrated, cities grew faster than their suburbs. Neighborhoods which for more than a generation could not buy the attention of developers are now sprouting newly constructed luxury condominiums, high-value office space, and uncountable numbers of boutique retailers and eateries. Famous so-called "starchitects," people with names like Gehry, Calatrava, and Piano, tour the world, selling and sharing their perceived abilities to transform moribund environments. Urban property values are skyrocketing, and concerns over gentrification—and its concomitant displacement of the less well-off—dominate the political discourse of many a large city. Indeed, in the leading cities of this urban renaissance—places like Boston, New York, and San Francisco—demand is driving prices so high there is real concern that soon, none but the very wealthy will be able to afford most of the urban environment.[1]

An Introduction: The Complexity of Cities

Logo of The Fox and The City

Allow me, for a moment, to take the role of a philosophy professor and ask a confoundingly difficult, yet simple-seeming question: what is a city?

Everyone has some conception of what a city is—from the rural farmer who has never left her home county, to the cosmopolitan world traveler who hops from place to place each and every day; and from residents of the world's most technologically advanced countries to those who make their homes in the furthest reaches of the developing world. In each of us, the word "city" itself conjures strong but wildly divergent images. Many visions can be embodied in it: skyscrapers and apartment houses as well as smoke belching factories and dirty hovels; the most complex corporations and cultural institutions along with small social circles of but a few friends; dark political machines and peaceful communes. All of these images, and everything else not only in-between but encompassing an almost infinite number of concepts, structures, and visions, are encompassed in the word city. Common intuition leads us to believe that we are all referring to the same concept or concepts, but at times the sheer diversity of experience and insight can make us question even such a basic assumption. To say the very least, attempting to unify these different views into a coherent definition and understanding is hardly a trivial task.

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