The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch *

In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:

Credit: SUNY Suffolk

The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."

But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:

Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point.  The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.

We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk.  This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.

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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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Smells From the Past: The Fulton Fish Market

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

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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The Five Points and the Collect Pond: Ripples Through Time [FP3]

Apr 22 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

The story of the Collect Pond is integral to the story of the Five Points itself, and it is a prime example of the how the relationship we have with our landscapes can impact our social order.

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The Five Points Then and Now: Landmarks [FP2]

Apr 21 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

The landmarks of the Five Points were not artistic and architectural triumphs, but rather tenements, prisons, and churches. Using maps found here, I plotted the locations of sites that loomed largest in the history of the Five Points. Stick close—the streets are dark and possibly a little dangerous.

Map showing points of interest.

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Pictures of Our Present

Feb 09 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

Long after New York City is gone—perhaps reclaimed by nature per The World Without Us—I'm certain we've created a record that should survive long and well enough to offer glimpses into life in New York City. I'm talking, of course, about the tiled mosaics that litter the subway system: some show landmarks and cultural scenes concerning the locality above, and others depict daily life. All together, they provide a glimpse into life in this city.

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Fading Landmarks, Fading Memories

Jan 21 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

The Plaza overlooks a snowy Central Park. Photo from New York Architecture Images.

On the heels of the closing of famed New York City restaurant Tavern on the Green comes news that another landmark, the Plaza Hotel, continues to struggle. In my recent post on the demolition and reconstruction of Penn Station, I reached a troubled peace concerning the price of history—acknowledging that despite the best efforts and intentions, we will still lose physical representations of our history. (I'm also currently reading The World Without Us, which has has me thinking a great deal about permanence.) While I clearly tend to get excited about the "incidentals" of history (e.g., an old well, fading commercial signage, the ruins of a hearth, a foundation line, old boundary lines), monuments tend to command public attention. The importance awarded to both "types" of historical artifacts however stems from a connection made with them, which prompts me to question how landmarks come to be—not the official process of designation, but the personal recognition from citizens that award a special status to certain places and monuments. How are these connections formed?

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