Physicality

InstaBlog: Coney Island Avenue

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!

Coney Island Avenue is one of the major north-south streets of Brooklyn, and looking at a map, you would expect it to be a bustling hub of urbanism, like nearby Flatbush or Nostrand Aves. But while it is busy in parts, and is certainly a vital part of the neighborhoods it runs through, it could also use a lot of love.

InstaBlog: Cortleyou Road, Ditmas Park

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!

A look at the bustling urbanism, attractive architecture, and all-around beautiful streetscape of Cortleyou Road, one of the main streets of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

The Newly Renovated George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal—Brief Thoughts (Draft)

Author's note: This is a draft/outline of a more thoughtful piece coming soon! Keep your eyes peeled!

Some background: originally opened in 1963 as part of the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, the newly renovated George Washington Bridge Bus Station is a significant fixture in New York City's regional transportation. The original bare-bones terminal was closed in its entirety in 2013, with plans for a 2015 reopening. It didn’t reopen until 2017.

Now, there are many ways to judge the physical shape of a transit facility. Is it comfortable? Safe? Attractive? Easy to use? Does it promote urbanism and/or provide public space? Does it support the community? Help the local streetscape? Etc, etc...

Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that, on the inside, the new terminal is relatively comfortable, attractive, and easy at, at least on the upper, bus-boarding level. It has a pleasant enough waiting room, clear signage, restrooms, seats, and ticket machines (is two enough, however?). It has gorgeous views, and feels very open, taking tremendous advantage of its location next to the bridge and Pier Luigi Nervi's architecture. Even the boarding area is nice, with clear signs helping people get where they want to go.

For all that, however, it is bare-bones. The waiting room offers seats... and nothing else. A wonderful opportunity to mix some retail and community space for (and, in turn, taking advantage of) travelers has been missed. I'm also not quite sure the space and facilities are significant enough for the amount of travelers (although on that I admit I could be wrong).

The rest of the structure, however? The lower levels will be a cramped, sterile shopping mall. If the one current tenant—Marshalls—is any indication, there will be no local businesses inside. Worse, the interior mall space doesn't interface with the street at all. It is a structure which will do next to nothing for the community or its urban fabric.

The worst is the exterior. The terminal is over an expressway, is surrounded by far-too-busy roads, and is composed of dehumanizing, bare concrete which soars over the street. It’s street interface is terrible. And nothing has been done blank, dehumanizing sides of the structure, something which should have been job one.

I don't want to be entirely negative: as a transportation space, it is pleasant enough, and hopefully it will encourage more to use its buses to travel between New Jersey and New York. However, as has been the case with almost every structure the Port Authority has ever built, no effort has been made to craft an important, urban space, the type of space such nodes should be.

And that's just sad.

Originally posted on Instagram and Facebook.

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.

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]

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