Category: new york
She was the lead counsel for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1975 through 1994, and was a key force in the successful Supreme Court case to save Grand Central Terminal. As noted by her New York Times obituary, she was innovative and relentless in her creative approach to preservation; under her guidance even the street grid of lower Manhattan was designated as a landmark.
Dorothy was my thesis adviser for my M.S. in Historic Preservation, and I have her to thank for developing my random passions into a thoughtful and analytical approach to urban preservation. She challenged my conclusions incessantly and without mercy, and guided me to an understanding of how to defend and promote preservation ideas within a regulatory and bureaucratic system all too often hostile to our finest buildings. She was also kind enough to write me a letter of recommendation for architecture school, and even more importantly, lectured me that “landmark” should never be used as a verb!
Her legacy is the beautiful and historic American cities that survive today, a rich history of case law and legal precedent, and her many thousands of grateful students and contemporaries who will continue to do good work.
If you’ve never had the chance to tour the famous home of our third president (and architect), I’ll certainly recommend it to you. It is a fascinating compendium of experimentation and tradition, and a required stop (along with the nearby University of Virginia) for fans of early American architecture. But be sure to visit in the warm months, so you can devote some attention to the garden: the subject of today’s post.
Originally tended by the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, today the garden has been restored and is beautifully stocked with heirloom flowers and vegetables (seeds are available for purchase nearby). Monticello’s vegetable garden is a production space, really a miniature farm, and separate from the more formal landscaped garden directly adjacent to the main house. The annual produce yield is divided among the various employees of Monticello, which sounds like a great benefit in our current times. Of course in no way can Monticello be considered an urban location; when it was built, it was on the very western frontier of America. Today it is still resolutely rural. But it certainly got me thinking about the joys of gardening in even the smallest plots.
Detroit, as some readers might know, was once an urban anomaly for the large proportion of single-family homes in comparison to its working population. While laborers in New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore dreamed of escaping dense urban districts, their cousins in Detroit were able to buy their own homes on small lots. This means that for those lucky enough to live in Detroit today, there is a fair chance you’ll have room for a garden in your own yard.
But hope is not lost for those apartment dwellers in denser areas with scant access to private, sun-splashed yards. As cities suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, spawning vacant lots in the wake of demolished buildings, a few hardy souls dared to pull out weeds and plant seeds on the newly open land. Soon the concept of a community garden emerged out of this urban context; a space owned by none but shared by all. In many cities these gardens were started without permission on land owned by the city or absentee landlords; as a result there has been confrontation and even legal action when the land’s value suddenly recovers. But in other cases cities have recognized the community value of these impromptu plots, and “legalized” their status by accepting them into the municipal park system. There’s one right by my place in Santa Monica…
Typically the lots are divided into dozens of small plots, often with long waiting lists among community members. You can grow vegetables, or flowers, or both; you can even install a bench or two and simply create a pleasant social space without getting your hands dirty. In almost all cases the gardens are open to the general public for viewing, conversation, and picnics.
New York City residents have been, and continue to be, pioneers in the development and operation of community gardens. Initially envisioned as a short-term use of abandoned spaces, many community gardens have become legalized and absorbed into the city’s park system, thereby allowing them to resist intense demands for land in Manhattan’s densest and most desirable districts. The 6th and B Garden in the heart of New York’s East Village is well known to me from my years of roaming that neighborhood, and provides a significant community benefit in terms of light, air, open space and greenery. It even hosts small events on a stage in the corner. Its apparent proximity to Tompkins Square Park does not limit its necessity.
With summer not quite here, there is still time to plant. If you’re interested in getting involved in Detroit gardening, check out Detroit’s own Garden Resources Program Collaborative, which is a resource for urban gardeners. Trees can be gotten from these folks, who are helping green the city. There are some rumors about a community garden under development at MoCAD. And here’s a link to the American Community Garden Association, which has an excellent list of hints for starting a garden on a vacant lot near you.
The many pleasures and unexpected delights of urban living are a recurring theme for this blog. Unfortunately, today we must examine one of the rare downsides of city life, the risk of fire in dense urban districts.
John J. Harvey in New York Harbor, 2004.
There was news yesterday from Lawrence, Massachusetts, that 14 historic downtown buildings were destroyed in an overnight fire. Lawrence was the setting for the historic 1912 ‘Bread and Roses’ strike, a signature event during the labor turmoil of the progressive era. Lawrence is additionally home to the Downtown Lawrence Historic District, composed of 26 buildings and listed on the National Register since 1979. The historic district is north of the burned block, across the Merrimack River, and was not affected by the blaze.
Last week here in Los Angeles, we watched from the ninth floor of our office building as a nearby two-story apartment building burned for nearly two hours. In New York City, where multi-family living is the rule, an apartment fire nearby is a dreaded event.
Ladder Company 108 in Brooklyn, 2003.
With its preponderance of detached single-family dwellings, Detroit is actually less subject to the ravages of firestorms spreading from one residence to the next. Of course, Detroit has its share of tragedy due to fire. While the plague of arson has largely dissipated in recent years, the bitter cold of winter and resultant use of dangerous heating devices continue to cause loss and heartbreak.
As the city reinvents itself in coming decades, updated building codes, and especially the use of automatic sprinkler systems, will help limit fire damage. However, as curators and keepers of historic buildings, we must make every effort to guard against the sudden and irreversible consequences of fire.
Today I’d like to highlight this NYT piece about urban infrastructure funding. In it, the financial role of Yale University in keeping up parts of New Haven is discussed.
On Sunday, the Free Press reported that street names in Pleasant Ridge are being considered for sale, which is not an altogether unrelated issue.
And in New York, there continues to be concern about the riches showered on Central Park while other public recreation areas in the city are neglected.
Boston has tried this, and a New York preservationist supports the idea. Of course there is more than a hint of political theory wound up in this private/public funding debate; but to my eyes advocates of private funding for public infrastructure are neglecting the long term implications of this trend. Specifically, private donors are able to ’support’ infrastructure of their own choosing, while bureaucracies (love ‘em or hate ‘em) at least have to pay lip service to the idea that tax revenue is being distributed equitably among different needs: needs that have presumably been analyzed and studied by professionals like yours truly. It is hard to imagine donors fighting for the naming rights of subway stations in struggling East New York, or corporations underwriting the renovation of obscure playgrounds in south Los Angeles. Are they just left behind in this new financing calculus?
Cortelyou Road subway station, Brooklyn.
There’s a lot to think about here, but I’ll be touching on many of these issues in the months ahead. As a thought for today, and as a launching point for bringing this discussion into our Detroit-centric world, it is sobering to consider the prospects for desperately-needed infrastructure funding in cities largely devoid of magnificently rich institutions and peopled by residents not in certain target-marketing demographics.
Know of any?
Your faithful blogger spent New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, attending the Rose Parade. Growing up in Detroit, many of us have watched the parade on television, marveling at the sunny skies and crowds of people. Here's the view from our spot on Colorado Boulevard a few miles east of the network cameras:
Although I'd been to the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day parade along Woodward Avenue half a dozen times, I really did not understand parades until I lived in New York City. There you will find parades (almost every week in the warmer months) celebrating nearly any group or holiday. Here's a shot of the German-American parade along Fifth Avenue in 2002, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the background:
But parades in New York, importantly, are not limited to a particular main boulevard. You will find parades on the east side, on the west side, on 125th Street in Harlem, downtown, and in Greenwich Village, like the locally-broadcast Village Halloween parade in 2004, at which I took this sadly blurred shot:
And you won't find parades only in Manhattan. All the boroughs feature parades as well. Living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in 2001, I was awakened one morning by noise and music from the Bronx Gay Pride parade:
And of course, some of the most heavily attended urban parades are the one-time-only parade events, be they the ticker tape parades down Broadway or this 2004 parade for the champion Boston Red Sox (certainly not in NYC):
Parades are a fixture of healthy urban environments, and a fantastic cultivator of street life and urban community. Let's hear about your experiences with parades around Detroit and elsewhere.