New York City

InstaBlog: Boro Park

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Last month, I took a trip out to central Brooklyn to explore the urbanism of Boro Park, a neighborhood primarily centered along 13th & New Utrecht Avenues.

If the pictures don't make it obvious, it is immediately clear on the street just how Jewish a neighborhood this is. The vast majority of people wear traditional, conservative dress, and most stores cater to them in one way or another.

Borough Park (it is spelled both ways—a potentially contentious issue in this city) has seen significant Jewish immigration since the turn of the 20th Century—primarily Modern Orthodox. However, in the early 1980s, the neighborhood population began to transition from a mixed ethnic heritage to a now predominately Haredi (& especially Hasidic) one. (As a goy, forgive me for any nomenclatural mistakes!). This conservative population has made the neighborhood the baby boom capital of New York, something you can *feel* on the street: baby strollers, young children, and teenagers abound.

This all leads to a kind of unique urbanism: this is a neighborhood of extremely mixed incomes (few follow orthodox religion for financial gain), with very specific requirements, all of which creates a level of demand for traditional retail that is disappearing in other neighborhoods. There are bakeries and food stores (and kosher pizza!?), of course, but also books stores—need a Hebrew comic book?—toy stores, and clothing stores every which way. Between income and the particular demands of the clientele, this can almost feel like a world that online retail has passed by.

The clothing stores are particular notable: it feels like there are numerous examples on every block, which is more than a bit of a throwback to an earlier era. One presumes there is not a huge market for inexpensive, modest (tzniut) clothing that meets strict fabric requirements—especially for children—which allows these niche retailers to thrive.

Between shops, shoppers, children, and a population living out in the city, the result is a lively, active streetscape, any way you look at it.

Based on an Instagram post.
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InstaBlog: Hunter's Point Park South

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

As the weather has been getting nicer, and the days longer, I've finally been finding time to get out and explore more, and last week, I finally got to Hunter's Point Park South, in Long Island City, Queens.

Part of the ongoing redevelopment of Long Island City's formerly industrial waterfront, the beautiful northern part of the park had opened in 2013, bringing with it a spate of new luxury apartment buildings and a ferry service to serve them. The southern extension, nearer to the Midtown Tunnel entrance and further from the existing residential neighborhood, opened last year.

Insta(Photo)Blog: Harlem is Changing

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Harlem is changing.

I rarely post just single photos, but this juxtaposition of old and new Harlem couldn't be better. The classic community insititution of one community—the barbershop—sits right next door to the social institution of another, the relatively new Harlelm Coffee Co coffeeshop.

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InstaBlog: A Humble Rock

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Seen while walking on New York's Lower East Side: a rock.

All too often, we can get lost in the complexities of urbanism: inequality, over- (and under-) investment, aging infrastructure, the climate, the complex interplay of urban design and human behavior, the list goes on and on and on.

InstaBlog: "The Apartments"

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These buildings, metonymically known as "The Apartments," are locally infamous to New York drivers. Located above the Trans Manhattan Expressway (I-95) on the approach to the George Washington Bridge, they are a perfect visual marker to mark the pace of the interminable traffic to and from New Jersey.

InstaBlog: Sometimes, you just have to admit you were wrong.

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Sometimes, you just have to admit you were wrong.

For the past few years, I've watched this hotel—a Holiday Inn—being built in the Garment District, at 39th & 8th Ave. The developers clearly received a height bonus for including a public plaza, one of New York City's many so-called privately-owned public places (or POPS). POPS have a sad history: not only have they more often than not been dead, lifeless afterthoughts, but developers had an incentive to make them that way—after all, they had no desire for non-tenants to hang out on their property.

InstaBlog: Avenue U Odds & Ends

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There are just some odds and ends left to finish out my Avenue U walk. My original plan had been to continue all to Marine Park (the actual park, that is, not simply the neighborhood). But with daylight quickly fading (damn axial tilt) and my energy running low, I cut my trip short just shy of my destination. And yet, it seemed appropriate, as the walking neighborhood had already started to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric one.

Leaving Sheepshead Bay's Chinatown, the streets continued to be very active: full of shops, people, and buildings of different ages. You can feel the cultural mix: a Russian shipping store advertises in Spanish near a Banco Popular, all near a plethora of other local stores. The differing building ages, from late 19th Century storefront homes through 1950s & 60s faux tower-in-the-park apartments (with appropriately street-deadening ground levels), create an interesting and varied walk. A newly reopened cobbler’s caught my eye with its classic sign: it had not been redone at all, making the shop feel like it had been there forever. Side-streets were equally of mixed architecture, generally composed of row houses and tightly packed suburban homes, mainly from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.

The further I got from the Brighton Line & Q train, however, the more the neighborhood streetscape began to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric landscape. Stores became further and farther in-between. Pedestrians became fewer and fewer, making the sidewalks seem huge. Parking lots—something blissfully absent elsewhere on the avenue—became common. Abandoned stores also became more numerous, although never dominating the environment, and included a particularly striking old video rental business. It was clear the further I got from the subway, the more auto-focused the environment became.

This all culminated at Gerritsen Avenue, a car-centric road with little positive to say about it. Deciding to head home, I found myself waiting over 20 minutes for a B31 bus, an acceptable wait for transit in such a dense area—no wonder cars are the norm. Interestingly, the population of Avenue U itself seems to use buses extensively. Every ten or so minutes a bus full of people trundle up or down the street, palpably connecting the neighborhood. Here, however, I felt as if I might have been in a suburban county.

It may have been an ignoble end to my Avenue U walk, but all in all it was still a great look at another rarely visited part of urban Brooklyn.

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InstaBlog: Avenue U's Chinatown

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Continuing down Avenue U further into the northern reaches of Sheepshead Bay, as you approach the Brighton Line Q station, you run into one of New York City's newest (and Brooklyn's second) Chinatown. As often happens in tightly packed urban communities, the fade-in of Asian groceries, convenience stores, and the like is incredibly quick; one moment you are in outer Brooklyn, the next, you could mistake for Canal Street in Manhattan. That is an appropriate comparison: like New York's original Chinatown, this one is primarily made up of Cantonese speakers and others from the South of China. Some have hypothesized that the reason this neighborhood has sprung up here—instead of equally affordable areas—is that it is a one seat ride on the Q to Canal Street.

InstaBlog: Unacceptable Sidewalk

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No one should have to put up with this: the sidewalk on Avenue U just past Ocean Parkway is a mess. It's bad enough that the construction fence has taken up a good chunk of the sidewalk, but the concrete itself is completely unmaintained and falling apart.

InstaBlog: Avenue U, Sheepshead Bay

Author's note: Warning—this is a blog-style post based on a social media post. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

When I think of Sheepshead Bay, I tend to think of the area around the bay itself, with its docks, restaurants, and the like. If pushed, my mind then goes to the streets and neighborhood north of the Belt Parkway, surrounding the Sheepshead Bay station on the B & Q trains. On a map, however, the neighborhood continues well north and inland, encompassing (just) this stretch of Avenue U west of Ocean Parkway. Places like this, to me, highlight the difficulties of labeling neighborhoods—not only how arbitrary boundaries can be, but how our mental maps leave many hazy, hard-to-describe lands between them.

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