What I’ve been writing about the last 2 days…
I know that I haven’t been around my adoring fans (Eli), but here’s what I’ve been writing about the last two days:
What is the city but the people?
For those born in the digital age, the grid calls to mind the digital architecture that makes computers and the virtual space possible. A Google search on the term “The Grid” turns up sixteen different results before a Wikipedia entry discusses the phenomenon that is grid architecture throughout history. In a society where strong linear thinkers are judged to be the most logical and concise, it is fascinating that there is so little on the grid system as the model on which cities have been built. A well-conceived, planned, and executed grid is a powerful tool and artifact, no matter its size or application. In fact, the grid, logic, and linear thinking are judged to be so potent that even popular culture has found a way to make the concept popular:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFXYuw96d0c (This is an audio clip. Stop the video at 0:40 seconds)
In this fantasy, the grid is seen as a realm of endless possibility, where new and infinite opportunity exists to bind chaos through order. Interestingly, we base even our fantasies on our reality. Freeways on which motorcycles, or bundles of information, shuttle from point A to B describe a perfect system. The excitement the character must have felt, delving into the ‘new digital frontier’, must have been similar to the emotions felt two hundred years ago when, in 1811, New York City planners, including Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt and John Rutherfurd, proposed a grid stretching northward from roughly Houston Street to 155th Street in Harlem. Here were a group of men who had planned out the next two centuries of growth. This was government sanctioned private growth where anything was possible. For over sixty years, Simeon De Witt oversaw the construction of a whole island.
In and of itself, the grid is not revolutionary; city’s built on the model of the grid have existed in one form or other since Ancient Grecian times, though it is certainly the case that the city of New York houses more people than any other in history utilizing this system. Indeed, the plan itself was ruthless - twelve North-South avenues and one hundred and fifty-five East-West streets with no thought given to any public space. The notable exception of Central Park came after the Commissioner’s Plan was in full swing, in 1858, when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won a design competition. However, one of the beautiful things about the Commissioner’s Plan that no one expected (least of all in 1811), is that it remains one of the most remarkably adaptable city plans to date. New York City continues to evolve, both as a social experiment, an architectural one, and an artistic one. A small example of this is the transition from horse-drawn carriage to cars, trucks, and public transport, which was simple enough for the roads to accommodate. Another example is Columbus Circle; New York City was never meant to have an arrondissement in the same way that Parisian cities tend to, but the original Plan was flexible enough to be able to fix the “bow-tie” effect where Broadway and 8th Avenue meet at 59th Street. This is the brick and mortar that is what the city is made of, but is not necessarily what the city is.
We often think that the buildings are the skeleton of the city, while the people are its lifeblood. Who are the people though? I do not mean to plunge this paper into a philosophical monologue; I am asking who are, and what type of, people make this city what it is? What is it about the city that makes it so adaptable and change-friendly? At least, there used to be political will around change efforts where the landscape was concerned; perhaps, then a better question is what happened to make slow it all down?
As I wandered through The Greatest Grid exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, I noticed only one small corner dedicated to the immigrant population that lived in the slums around the downtown core. Wealthy land owners developed the land into what is now one of largest grid cities in the world, the poor were perpetually pushed farther and farther away from the city centre. Where did all the poor people go? In the name of progress, slums were decimated and the land carved, so that huge tenements could spring up in their place. The sheer amount of industry was nothing short of remarkable. Clearly, when the poor inhabited the city, growth and change was easily achieved.
The famous quote which opened this paper is uttered by a representative of the people on the Roman Senate. This makes him wealthy, which in turn gives him a voice, and while he is of the people he is not from among them. Is he the what makes the city what it is? Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) articulated her ideas in such a powerful way that she was able to preserve her neighborhood and successfully voice opposition to urban renewal projects in the 1950s, preventing other kinds of growth. While she may have been incredibly vocal in her ideas, and persuasive enough to ensure their staying power, Jacobs argued for the status quo. Is she a good representation of the type of individual who gives the city its character and adaptability? Up until the 1970s, the political will to change the urban landscape was ambitious and nothing short of spectacular. Individuals such as Jane Jacobs were loud and clever in their opposition to such sweeping change. Ultimately, it is absurd to try and point to any single individual as being representative New York City’s adaptive grid system. However, several disturbing trends begin to emerge when we look at how a city transforms over time at the level of the human being.
Essentially, the poor immigrant population to whom New York was home in the early 1800s was disposable and made change possible by being voiceless. Not only were they disposable, but they also kept the cost of physically building the city cheap. This also meant that any change to the original plans was easy enough to change in reality. Thus, as the poor continued to displace themselves with the city they were building, those who could afford to live in the city centre were taking the stage. Aristocracy and a burgeoning upper-middle class could not be displaced so easily. As the city evolved and more people with voice lived there, physical change became harder and harder to come by. Preservation legislation came into effect, especially after several terrible miscalculations that cost the city some beautiful landmarks (such as the original Penn Station), which caused uproar in those that care about the aesthetics of the city, and in turn this created a kind of stasis around what can now be done in this city.
Another issue is that cities attract many, many individuals who, in an effort to change their lives, go through state education systems. In families where an education is non-traditional, this can cause a fracture between family members that contributes to the individualism that we see in today’s culture, which undermines change in a city. Often people go into higher education systems to find out new ways and to attain new tools to help fix the problems that existed in their communities back home. Unlike the remittance system, however, when one family member leaves home to try and elevate his/her status by getting a higher education so that he/she can do more systemic good, that person is often displaced and, in a sense, homeless. They will always have a family, this is true, but often there are tremendous communication breakdowns between the family and the person who has a higher education degree. This framework causes a perpetual disconnect among those who are living on the ground, in broken homes, and those who try to elevate themselves out of that situation in order to accomplish some greater good around fixing the situation. Those in higher education believe that they can help their communities by getting a higher education, but their communities see them as having gone in search of a brighter future which means they are out-of-touch with the day-to-day reality of what is happening on the ground. This breeds a certain degree of reluctance in accepting urban change even if it is of benefit to the community. It is a challenge with no obvious solution except time.
The Commissioner’s Plan, which has been so adaptable over the years, has to do with the input of many individuals who have been connected to the heart of the city and its landscape. Walking through the exhibition allowed me to see what I imagine was a fraction of all the different iterations and processes that exist when something as momentous as a city is built. It also made me reflect on how many different moving parts a city planner, architect, and engineer really needs to focus on when building out a plan. A building, while it may be a concrete use of capital and investment, is really the provision of a service. Thinking through the questions of who the service is for, who benefits, and who loses out are all important policy questions that have to be considered now; when New York City was first being built, however, this was not the case. I focused on the city’s adaptability from a human perspective, but this is really only one aspect of what makes a city adaptable and capable of transformation. The grid as a digital information superhighway that is a world we can enter into is fantasy; the New York City grid system, as a place of infinite possibility and adaptability is not so far-fetched. The two hundredth anniversary of the Commissioner’s Plan helped show me how it all came to pass and that timing, space, and atmosphere are everything.dm.