Archive for: August, 2010

Change in a New York Minute

Rendering of updated NYC skyline. Credit: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects.

So there's been some fuss recently over proposed new additions to the New York City skyline. A developer has set his sights on 15 Penn Plaza, which has upset the owners of the Empire State Building. One of them, Anthony Malkin, is particularly upset by the plans:

"Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic Landmark and beacon?"

He has also said that the proposed building will "ruin" the skyline and it will be a "black eye."

Hah.

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Greening the Big Apple

The Manhattan skyline is unmistakable. And it's a fan favorite—search Google "best skylines" and it will consistently be ranked in the top favorites. It has become a symbol of the city itself—sold on coffee mugs, in snow globes, on t-shirts. But what if the straight edges of the buildings and roofs were softened? If the roofs didn't pierce the sky but melded urban and natural a bit more easily? Imagine a skyline that could shift seasonally, and not simply as a result of new construction. It would be a subtler change that might confer a more real sense of the vitality of the cityscape. The icing on the cake? It would be good for us too.

Our recent discussion about infrastructure is definitely very much on my mind—particularly as my commute has now become longer and more congested as a result of shortsighted planning. The fire at the switching station on the LIRR has been a reminder of the vulnerabilities that lurk below the surface of our constructions. And provocations, stress on the system, can come from anywhere, including nature—something that New York City already knows: A thunderstorm on August 8, 2007 caused 7,000 kilograms (about 15,000 pounds) of dirt and debris to flood the subway system during the morning rush hour forcing New Yorkers and city officials to acknowledge that our subway drainage system is ill equipped to handle suddenly water surges. But this should not have come as news to anyone—we've been through this at least once before in recent memory: Lower Manhattan was flooded in December 1992 as a result of a storm.

Nature seems to be our biggest threat at the moment, and it's time we started planning and building with this in mind. A article from Scientific American earlier this year, reports the ways poor infrastructure can compound the effects of climate change. For example, a rise in temperature means it will get hotter underground as well. New Yorkers, you think it's hot in the subway during the summer months now? A 2 - 4 degree increase (predicted by 2100) may not sound like much, but you'll likely feel differently as the sweat pools at the base of your spine. One solution would be more vents to help push the hot air out of the subway, but more vents means that more water can get it—so we're back to dealing with flooding.

But it's not just planning below ground. What we choose to do with our open space is also an issue. We construct buildings. Fine. We all need places to live and work—I'm definitely not going to be the one to say we need to live in mud huts or caves or gather around an open campfire. But many of our buildings are capped off by black tar roofs. In the summer, they become infernos and add to the sweltering effect felt in the city.

One idea that is slowly gaining popularity is the suggestion that we can reclaim these spaces, these miniature hells, as National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg referred to them last August, saying that the urban roof is "a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water." This doesn't need to be the case. But it will require changing the way we think about our landscapes—and our skylines. Green roofs reintroduce plants, supported by shale and clay to allow for drainage, and as an added bonus, they attract birds and insects, who may have been displaced by urban development. They can a more natural feeling to the concrete jungle.

A local, public green rooftop space on Water Street in Downtown Manhattan.

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The Frustrations of Commuting

Aug 24 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], Transit

My commute this morning was more chaotic than normal due to a fire that destroyed a switching station at a major hub on the Long Island Rail Road. The fire happened around midday yesterday and brought the commuter rail system to a screeching halt—with no service into or out of Manhattan except on one line for most of the day. I was fortunate to have missed the mayhem of yesterday's evening commute because I wasn't feeling well, and spent my day huddled on the sofa watching bad television, but the residual effects were strong today. Still, it was an opportunity to see how commuters adapt in these circumstances.

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Exploring Urban Foraging Stations

Are you wearing comfortable walking shoes? If not, best go grab a pair of sneakers—we're going foraging! Well, it's not quite foraging because we actually have to pay for our finds, but I figured that telling you that we were off to forage might pique your interest more than if I were to admit that we're actually going to the supermarket.

Well, we are going to the supermarket, and I still think you'll need those shoes because I tend to wander the aisles when I'm there even if it's just for one thing—if I don't have a list, I tend to wind up with more than I intended to buy (which happens sometimes even with a list, I admit). Anyway, over at AiP one of my early posts explored an ethnic supermarket and considered the ways food can help immigrants retain a connection to their native countries. I have some plans to continue this series—it's really a matter of writing the posts—but in the meantime, I've been thinking more about how people obtain groceries in urban centers, and how their experiences are shaped by the services they use.

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Smells From the Past: The Fulton Fish Market

Aug 12 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science], Community, History, Landscapes

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIt's been a very hot summer here in New York City. And the city smells. It's more than the smell of baking asphalt, exhaust fumes, and lack of deodorant—these smells are around all year. The heat has awakened older smells.

Around midday, if you happen to stroll down by the South Street Seaport you can pick up on the smell of fish in the air. If you can manage to follow your nose—which really isn't all that hard to do—it will lead you right to the old site of the Fulton Fish Market. It has been closed since 2005, but if you close your eyes while you stand outside the gates of the old market building you can smell the day's catch and just hear the bustle of fishmongers at their trade.

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Evaluating the Power of Social Cues in Public Encounters

Are we losing our sense of social appropriateness? Or are transgressions more exaggerated now that we interact more frequently in the digital space where important social cues tend to be missing? Read on below the jump for an ethnographic account of my my run-in with an older man who just needed someone to talk to.

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When the Lights Go Down in the City

As the sun sinks over the Hudson River, New York City doesn’t power down. Lights flicker on and soon the famous skyline is lit in a blaze that defies the natural clock. But few stop to consider where and how that electricity comes from and what it means when it isn’t there. That is such a frightening consideration that we prefer to pretend it isn’t a possibility.

New York City owes a debt of thanks to Thomas Edison for the brilliance that the skyline projects at night. He is the reason that we have the power to be the city that never sleeps. And it’s not because he invented the light bulb—he  didn’t. Rather, it is because Edison gave us the grid that serves as the basis for powering the city, even today. He saw the big picture. But when was the last time we really considered the grid’s potential to support our growing needs? Are we capable of seeing the big picture now?

Times Square on a summer night.

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Meeting Montauk: The Summer Trade [MTK 1]

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

Let's leave the city today and head east--to the point where the sun rises. We're going to stand on what feels like the edge of the world, away from the skyscrapers and the horns of impatient cab drivers. We're going to Montauk, a small fishing hamlet and tourist destination set well away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday.

Summer visitors stroll by shops on a sunny day.

It's a  Saturday morning in July and the hamlet is just beginning to stir. The sun comes up early here--after all, we're at the eastern most point in New York State. Still, it's Saturday morning during the summer months and the folks who are up are mostly armed with fishing gear. Fishing has long been a part of life here at the very edge of East Hampton, but we'll follow the fishermen to the marina and out to sea another day. We'll leave them to chase the monsters who populate the waters nearby. Let's cast our eyes back on the slowly waking village. We're interested in those who are passing through--those who will come: the day-trippers, the weekenders, these sorts of  transients. At the moment, the staff at MTK Cafe and The Gigshack are prepping: There are no clouds in the sky, the day promises to be bright and welcoming, and soon Route 27 will be filled with cars bringing the summer trade.

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