Urban Criticism

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.

Urban Fragments in a Sea of Suburbs: Critical Impressions of Three Neighborhoods in Indianapolis

Read later: PDF Download
Author's note: This is a collection of three articles already published, now in one place!

Overview and Broad Ripple Village

Indianapolis had, for quite some time, been one of those cities which stuck in the back of my mind: a place I had an interest in exploring, but could never quite pin a reason on why—a feeling I think may be very familiar to those who study cities. Over this past summer, thanks to a new local friend, I finally had the opportunity to indulge that interest, and visit parts of the city and its environs. My timing was far from perfect: not only was my trip brief, but it came only a little more than a month before the opening of the city's new bus rapid transit Red Line. Still, the city has a lot going for it, and hopefully someday soon I will have to opportunity to return and do some more in-depth study.

In physical terms, Indianapolis is a predominantly suburban, auto-focused city—even more so than many of its similar Midwestern siblings. Of course, like almost every older American city, it did once have a large, thriving streetcar network, but much of the region's physical growth seems to have come at the tail end of the streetcar era and at the dawn of the age of auto-dominance. As such, outside of the downtown—most of which I sadly did not have time to explore on this trip—there is sadly little traditional urban fabric. Worse still, outside of downtown's famous Mile Square, much of what once did exist has been razed, either for urban expressways or in the name of progress. Even in outlying neighborhoods that developed before the car, the rigid separation of commercial and residential buildings and the reification of the detached, single family home are paramount. As you research the city, you are told that, thanks to the absence of natural boundaries and ethnic enclaves, most neighborhoods have fuzzy boundaries—if they exist in more than name, at all. The city can seem a uniform tapestry of large roads and suburban houses, sprawling in every direction.

Urban Impressions: Zionsville, IN (Indianapolis Part 3)

Part 3 of Urban Impressions: Indianapolis. See also Part One and Part Two.

To be honest, Zionsville, IN is not the type of place I would normally explore, let alone analyze in depth. In fact, had I not been staying in this small, rural-turned-suburban town just northwest of Indianapolis, I might not have paid it a second thought. Sitting right outside Interstate 465—the gigantic, square beltway that surrounds the city—Zionsville is one of the epicenters of suburban growth in greater Indianapolis. Its population has been exploding, nearly doubling in the past ten years alone. But while the town is mainly suburban, what makes it truly unique—not to mention economically successful—is its quasi urban core. Zionsville is centered on a quaint, compact downtown full of quirky shops—all of which are supported by acre after acre of nigh-exurban single family housing developments and big box stores. It should, by all rights, be a place I loathe, one that sells itself on its small-town-America charm, its driving proximity to central Indianapolis, and its tourist friendly nature. And yet, as with anything related to cities—even small ones—nothing is so simple, nor so clear cut.

Of course, some of this may well be Stockholm syndrome. After a few days of suburban Indiana, downtown Zionsville's urban nature—no matter how kitschy or artificial—offered a welcome respite. Having somewhat likened parts of Indianapolis's Fountain Square neighborhood to a theme park, I am painfully aware of my own potential hypocrisy. After all, no matter how troubling I find some of that neighborhood's development trends, it is still a long-struggling urban neighborhood striving to be more—and that is something that should be commended. In contrast, a place like Zionsville exists upon far more artifice: a cynical mind would not be entirely wrong to see its cute downtown as little more than an artisanal mall for rich, white suburbanites. And yet, just as a large part of me was uncomfortable with a cynical characterization of Fountain Square, I cannot bring myself to be fully smug and dismissive of this town, either. Zionsville is a far harder circle to square than it may appear at first glance. On the one hand, it is a surprisingly functional, delightfully gorgeous, nearly urban place, full of interesting shops and interacting people. The town stands as a shining example of the quasi-urban desires of the suburban class: of just how many otherwise proud suburban- and exurbanites still often seek out urban-like forms, at least on their own terms. On the other hand, however, the town is also a place founded upon rural and suburban fantasies of town life, on boutique consumption, and exclusion. In other words, Zionsville is a product of inseparable contradictions—and that, perhaps more than anything else, makes it quintessentially American.

Urban Impressions: Fountain Square (Indianapolis Part 2)

Continued from Part One.

The other urban neighborhood in Indianapolis proper that I had chance to explore during my brief visit was Fountain Square. Like Broad Ripple, it is another newly thriving urban fragment firmly lodged in a predominantly suburban city. Unlike its northern sibling, however, it is, in typological terms, a far more traditionally urban-looking place—and given the neighborhood's location and history, perhaps that should not be surprising. Fountain Square is an inner-ring urban neighborhood that lies a mere mile and half southeast of the city's center. One of the earliest satellite neighborhoods of downtown, it sits at the end of Virginia Avenue, a major commercial street that carves a straight line across the city's grid and into its core. That link has defined Fountain Square, for better or for worse, for its entire history. Indeed, this urban fragment is a fascinating place, as it seems to have embodied the entire Midwestern urban experience of the last 150 years.

It is almost impossible to discuss today's neighborhood without discussing how it came to be. The history of Fountain Square as an urban place essentially begins in 1864, when a horse-drawn street railway line out of downtown opened along Virginia Avenue. As was so often the case in 19th Century American cities, new transportation infrastructure enabled physical expansion, pushing the city's built up area southwards. All along its path, the railway spurred commercial and residential development, and nowhere was this more true than at its terminus, a loop built into the irregular intersection at the very end of Virginia Avenue. The terminal made the area an early transportation node, and locals soon found a fitting nickname for the nascent neighborhood: "The End." The name would stick around for decades—at least until a fountain opened at the foot of Virginia Avenue in 1889.

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

Read later: PDF Download
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.

Subscribe to RSS - Urban Criticism