Urban Alchemy: Starlight Park and the Nature of the Central Bronx

Starlight Park

"Bucolic" usually isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the Bronx. Sure, those of us who know the borough well can easily summon to mind verdant images, but those are usually limited to specific locations, such as the tony neighborhood of Riverdale, or the massive Van Cortlandt or Pelham Bay Parks. The central Bronx, in contrast, would seem to most to be the exact opposite. Like most people's image of the borough as a whole, the central Bronx is incredibly and indelibly urban. And yet it is here, amongst a seemingly endless sea of highways, elevated trains, and densely-packed, slightly-worse-for-wear apartment buildings, that one can find one of the most serenely beautiful new spots in the entire city: Starlight Park.

Of course, Starlight Park isn't actually all that new: the first section of the rehabbed rounds opened a full ten years ago, in 2013. The park, however, is still just as astonishing now as it was the day it opened, a stunning oasis smack dab in the middle of somewhere that rarely sees such dramatic investments in the public realm. And yet, for all its grandeur, the existing Starlight Park was only ever supposed to be the first phase of a larger project, one which would wind up ultimately taking the better part of a decade to come to fruition. Just recently, however, in May of 2023, Starlight Park was finally completed, opening a new extension to the far shore of the Bronx River. This not only added new acreage and amenities, but worked to connect the park to more neighborhoods in more ways, most dramatically by helping to fashion a new, multipurpose green corridor through the heart of the urban Bronx. As anyone who works with cities will tell you, urban transformation can be a tricky thing to do right. Starlight Park and its new extension, however, demonstrate just what can be accomplished when cities invest in their public realm, especially in the neighborhoods—and for the people—that need it the most.

Riding the Red Line: Why Indianapolis May Now Be America's New Gold Standard for Bus Rapid Transit

Taking a Critical Dive into Indianapolis's New Bus Rapid Transit Line
A red line bus arrives at Broad Ripple station A red line bus arrives at Broad Ripple station

Bus Rapid Transit tends to get a bad rap in the United States. In theory, BRT—that is, a bus system that operates like a train, with clear stations, off-board fare payment, (preferably) dedicated lanes, signal priority, and the like—seems like an ideal technology. It should not only allow cities to build high-quality transit, but allow them to do so quickly and inexpensively, leveraging their existing road space, expertise in road construction, and familiarity with bus operations. In actual practice, however, BRT in the United States has largely been disappointing. All too often, American BRT projects have suffered something of a death by a thousand cuts. Slowly but surely, conflict-adverse politicians and locals hostile to change chisel away at once-grand plans, removing a bus lane here, reducing the size of stations there, reducing service everywhere, and so on. As a result, the final systems are frequently a double compromise: transit that is not only a step down in capacity and comfort from rail, but which has been so thoroughly diluted as to seem like little more than an extravagantly branded local bus line. In American transportation circles, this phenomenon is so sadly common that it even has a name: BRT creep.

Nothing about this process, however, needs to be endemic to bus rapid transit. While it may be surprisingly easy to implement BRT poorly, when it is implemented well—that is, when it offers a quality service that travels to and from the places that people want and need to go—it is a powerful transportation tool, one especially suited to less dense cities and/or less busy routes. To illustrate that point, perhaps no American city to date has implemented BRT better than Indianapolis, IN. While this mid-sized, Midwestern city may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of quality of public transportation, its new Red Line—the first of its three planned BRT routes—is actually a sterling example of how to do transit investment right. Indianapolis has demonstrated that, even in the face of a hostile political environment and physical landscape, it is possible to build effective, high-quality transit—transit that is legible, fast, frequent, easy to use, and which supports a diversity of ridership. As the Red Line shows, while the path to BRT success is not necessarily easy, the route itself is not particularly complex: all it takes is the institutional attention to detail—and the local political will—to put riders at the fore. Of course, no system is perfect, and the Red Line does still have some kinks to work out. On the whole, however, it stands as an object lesson in how to implement truly high-quality transit in a low-density city on a tight budget. It may well be this country's new gold standard for bus rapid transit.

Silent and Surreal: Inside the Old Croton Aqueduct

Critical—and admittedly romantic—urban impressions of the Old Croton Aqueduct, present and past, outside and in.
One of the most important pieces of infrastructure in New York's history, the famous channel now exists as a strange, glorious ruin, nearly hidden in plain sight. Travel inside, and you submerge into a landscape that is at once alien and oddly human—urban history writ on a monumental scale.

More than thirty miles north of Midtown Manhattan, deep in New York State's Westchester County, the Sing Sing Kill cuts a jagged, rocky ravine into the steep, riverine countryside. A small creek, it winds its way through the equally small town of Ossining, its waters carving out a succession of scenic vistas as they make their way down to the Hudson River. Its name alone is arresting. A dramatic juxtaposition, it combines the anglicized name of a Native American tribe—before it was appropriated, this land belonged to the Sintsink, part of the larger Algonquin-speaking Wappinger—with kill, an old Dutch word for creek. What has truly made the name infamous, however, is the metonymic prison which still stands near the stream's mouth. Indeed, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, the idiom "to be sent up the river"—that is, to be sentenced to Sing Sing Prison—had become so ubiquitous that the village itself decided to change its name to Ossining, just to avoid the association.

Unusual nomenclature, however, is only a part of what makes the small waterway worthy of note. A larger piece comes in the form of the towering, wall-like monolith which just so happens to intersect its course right in the middle of town. Built of well-weathered stone, the structure bursts from the ravine's rocky walls and soars across the creek's valley with an unmistakable human straightness. But while the crossing is clearly a product of engineering skill, its rough-hewn stone walls and rugged, aged demeanor also grant it an air of natural permanence, as if it has stood here since time immemorial. The grand viaduct bridges the kill itself by way of an impressive masonry arch—a spot known to locals as the Double Arch, thanks to the later stone arch bridge built underneath the original, larger one. By any measure, it is an impressive sight.

Left: The Double Arch as seen in a 1907 postcard. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Right:The arches today, seen from above and behind.

What truly makes this spot unique, however, is what that monolith contains. As you may have already surmised from the title of this piece, the crossing carries within its walls the former channel of the Old Croton Aqueduct, one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in New York City's history. More than that, however, this viaduct also offers the only place that a visitor can actually set foot inside this remarkable (and remarkably intact) structure. For anyone with even the slightest inkling of romanticism for either urban infrastructure or urban history, the trip is a surreal and affecting experience, one well worthy of the journey upstate.

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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