What we talk about when we talk about Urban Renewal

I. The Chicago Plan

I have written before about the relationship between spaces for production and the spaces for consumption which must both exist in cities. It is a slow dance that has been going on for centuries, and it begs the following question: if there is a slow dance, when does the music change?

Imagine it is fall in the year 1909. Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett have just published their grand master plan for the City of Chicago. This plan promises to expand the city in a new way: not outward as in the 19th century, but inward, taking on greater density and improving quality of life. The 50 or so years prior had been defined primarily by the United States’ aggressive westward expansion by railroad, but San Francisco had been reached already around 1870, and the next chapter of the country’s development was underway. As Burnham himself wrote: “The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living?” To answer that question, the plan implemented a strategy which in my mind was key to its success: targeting axes of movement, and making them more efficient. From Ancient Rome to Paris, any city plan worth its salt knows to focus on paths instead of places. Likewise, the 1909 Chicago Plan called for an enlarged network of parks and public spaces, standardized streets which prioritized access to downtown, and critically, consolidated freight and rail lines that supplied goods to & from the city.

This last part is most interesting to me because its results are less tangible. Infrastructure, practically by the subterranean hint in its name, is difficult to see. It may have come to acquire this quality because of the belt-tightening legacy that city plans like Burnham’s imposed on it.

Freight handling plan from Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

A large plot of land close to downtown and on the waterfront was to be granted to the Illinois Central Railroad company. That site would undergo an exemplary transformation 88 years later, when Millennium Park was built on top of the site. The park is now the city’s most popular destination, and most visitors are unaware of the fact that trains are passing under their feet. One can argue that the strongest impetus for the renewal was the symbolic millennium year, but I say that even more important was the 100-year anniversary of Burnham’s and Bennett’s Chicago Plan.

Aerial photograph of the Illinois Central Railroad rail yard along Michigan Avenue, just south of the Chicago River inlet. Image via City of Chicago.
South Water Street Illinois Central Railroad freight terminal, 1943. Image via The Atlantic.
Metra Train passing under East Monroe Street in Millennium Park, Chicago IL. Photo via trainweb.org.

I think Burnham’s proposal was heavily motivated by his rejected proposal for the mega-development of New York Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal just a few years earlier. That terminal, and the strip of real estate known as Park Avenue that stretches from it, is a lasting model of “urban renewal:” cover up your infrastructure, create real estate out of thin air, and capture the value when JP Morgan, The Union Club, or half the city’s pediatricians set up shop.

Some 55 blocks north of Grand Central, a New York Central P-2 electric bursts out of the Park Avenue Tunnel with the Chicago-bound ‘Pacemaker’ in the 1950s. Photo credit Herbert H. Harwood. Via Classic Trains Magazine.

II. Let’s look at some other examples

The Fulton Fish Market, less of a piece of infrastructure but nonetheless an important organ for NYC commerce and industry, did last almost 200 years from the 1820s (coinciding with the opening of the Erie Canal) to 2005 in its South Street location. However, in the 1930s Mayor LaGuardia oversaw the construction of a new steel building to house operations when the previous wooden one collapsed into the East River from rot. Thereafter, The South Street Seaport Museum opened in 1967, the multi-story Pier 17 shopping center and music venue opened in 1983, and finally, the fish market itself relocated to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx in 2005. In retrospect, the site’s history divides into roughly 100 years of active industry, followed by 100 years of “urban renewal,” which was a harbinger for the transformation of waterfronts more generally. Battery Park City (which was paired up in proximity to the World Trade Center), Hunters Point Queens, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and more have all replicated the model, infilling land with recreation space, turning warehouses into shops, and blasting land values through the roof.

South Street Seaport, 1901. Photo via NY Boat Charter.
South Street Seaport, circa 2010. Photo via New York Observer.

Fresh Kills Landfill, meanwhile, had a much faster life cycle. Merely 7 years after opening in 1948 it already became the world’s largest landfill (Go New York!). After management debacles, questions about sanitation’s entanglement with the Mafia, and the gradual outsourcing of garbage disposal to other sites, the City finally closed Fresh Kills down in 2001, just about 50 years after opening. Since then, a slow effort has been underway to transform the site into a public park and natural reserve, mainly by building directly on top of the garbage. Methane is controlledly harvested for domestic heating of nearby residences. The pace was quicker, but again we see an example of a piece of important infrastructure being covered to create land for public use.

Fresh Kills Park. Gas wells that penetrate down to the methane-emitting garbage below provide a glimpse of the infrastructure that once was. Photo via freshkillspark.org.

Lately, I’ve noticed all the rage shift back to rail yards. Truckee, CA, Sioux Falls, SD, Norfolk, VA, Sacramento, CA, Hoboken, NJ, Charlotte, NC, Philadelphia, PA, and Santa Fe, NM, are just a few of the cities around the country that are throwing development dollars at their centenarian rail yards, having witnessed the massive impact of projects like Hudson Yards. At this point, it seems all you have to do is add the word “Yard” to a project to make it sell.

Charlotte, NC’s South End redevelopment features a building called The RailYard. “Companies like coworking giant WeWork and consulting firm Slalom have since settled in, and employees are already working at The RailYard, a two-building project that includes about 300,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of retail.”
Image via Charlotte Business Journal.
Coal Drops Yard, London, 2018. The former coal transfer depot has transformed into a retail park, crowned by a swooping new roof by Thomas Heatherwick, Arup, and BAM Construct. Image via Lonelyplanet.

III. Symbiosis

If this symbiosis is inherent to cities, then what will its next evolution look like? To answer that question one simply needs to ask: what type of infrastructure is currently a) occupying a lot of territory, and b) vital to the economy? The most obvious answer, to me, is automobiles.

Now, I’m not saying that cars will disappear, just like trains and ships haven’t disappeared despite the redevelopment they’ve absorbed. What I am suggesting is that pressure is increasing on cars to share the vast swaths of territory that they have captured over the past hundred years or so. The United States Congress passed The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in June 1933, kicking off the New Deal. The NIRA in turn created the Public Works Administration, which oversaw the construction of over 10,000 road-building projects across the country and spent approximately 5% of US GDP that year ($3.3 billion budget over $60 billion GDP). Nowadays, cars have entangled themselves into our lives, from highways cutting through neighborhoods to Amazon trucks making our on-demand deliveries to our lingering oil addiction. This entanglement also sprouts all manner of auxiliary infrastructure, like parking spaces, gas stations, and auto body shops. So what will happen to these territories as cars slowly get pushed out of dense city centers? We are already seeing early hints of human-scale uses infiltrating highways and parking garages. The 100-year mark will be 2033. Let’s revisit then.

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, 2012. Photo via Wikipedia.
1111 Lincoln Road by Herzog & de Meuron. A parking garage doubles as retail, office, and event space. Infrastructure Week Lite. Image via New York Times.

The thought of redesigning a highway into a pedestrian boulevard or a parking building into a hotel would make any architect or planner salivate. But why stop there? Let’s look further into the future. What’s another piece of public work that we are dependent on? Airplanes.

The explosion of commercial air travel began in the 1950s, not far behind automobiles. Airports are still getting built and expanded the world over, so it’s hard to tell if we are at a peak or not, but what will happen when oil stops being our main source of energy? Or when flight shaming becomes a generational pandemic? Suddenly those airports that are encroaching over sensitive wetlands and quiet residential neighborhoods will start to look much more wasteful. There are already examples of their takeover in Berlin and New York City.

Tempelhof, Berlin. Once a commercial airport like any other, it closed down in 2008 and has since become a yawning public park. Image via Amusing Planet.
Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, JFK Airport. Now repurposed as a luxury hotel and event space. Image via totalfood.com.

This isn’t just about Infrastructure Week; the first half of the 21st century may prove to be an Infrastructure Era. Many urban centers in the West were rocketed to prominence by building booms centered around transportation and manufacturing in the 19th century, while in the 20th century and in the early 21st century, building booms have mostly been fueled by service economies and speculation. That is: moving white-collar desk workers from place to place, creating spaces for them to live happily as consumers, and outsourcing the production of that which is consumed. Notice: the inhabitation of revitalized areas of former industry is largely done by a consumer, service-based economy: marketers, designers, and managers eating at Time Out Markets, buying Coach bags, and opening bank accounts. What we talk about when we talk about “development” seldom includes bridges and factories anymore. To wit: manufacturing zoning districts have all but disappeared from Manhattan, so even a brewery has to find space in Queens, the Bronx, or Brooklyn.

The budding 21st century is a good time for citydwellers to come to terms with this symbiosis. We have to be deliberate about the winners and losers of urban renewal, acknowledge what is displaced when a warehouse becomes a restaurant, and anticipate where the city will transform next. The fact is that as long as humans stream to cities in large volumes in search of the good life, they will continue to need equally large volumes of space dedicated to the production of the good life’s ingredients. What will the next dance between public space and industry look like? When will the music change? And will the song be a remix of a old hit, or something new entirely?

Tom Cruise, alone, in Times Square. Still from Vanilla Sky, 2001. Image via Boston by Bike.

A Semi In A Strange Land

I: A Semi In A Strange Land

These days, Charlotte and I hardly need alarm clocks to wake up in time for our morning walks. Around 7:30 in the morning, three things come to life in the neighborhood which rouse us: first, the robins and mockingbirds ramp up their chatter which flows in through our bedroom windows; second, our upstairs neighbor’s daughter commences her own morning exercises of sprinting back and forth along the apartment’s 40 feet of hallway, thumping along the aging floor planks; and third, the trucks arrive at Key Food Supermarket across the street and begin their mechanized chorus, idling baritones, car horn tenors, and back-up beeper sopranos. Drowsy but optimistic, we exit onto Montague Street. Morning walks fulfill multiple objectives: upholding triscuit-thin but vital relations with the local shopkeepers (Ali at the Corner Deli and Sam at the Pet Emporium); reminding our eyes of the awesome skyline across the East River; kick-starting the flow of blood to our extremities; coaxing the kind of morning hunger which makes the stomach feel like a stretched rubber band; and giving us the lay of the land, the state of the streets, like barons atop a hill surveying faraway vales.

These walks carry a consistent mood: the sense that things are under control, that the untamed darkness is giving way to the rhythms of daylight. It is like the giddy feeling when the house lights dim before a concert, only here the lights are coming on. Every object in the neighborhood is in harmony and on schedule.

But, once in a rare while, we happen upon scenes whose parts do not quite belong together, where the rhythm is syncopated or totally irrational. Even in a city as up-for-anything as New York, these scenes stand out. Some of them are amusing (a homeless person giving directions to a drag queen at a Gray’s Papaya), some are saddening (an entire set of discarded bedroom furniture, made-up bed and all, on the sidewalk), some are disgusting (a pigeon eating a chicken wing outside KFC), and some of them are infuriating because they obviously stem from poor planning. This latter is exactly what we experienced one morning.

At the intersection of Montague Street and Henry Street, a 50-odd-foot-long semi-trailer truck with a Western Express logo was idling at a 45-degree angle. It was obviously in the middle of a turn from Henry onto Montague. Traffic stretched one block back along both streets. Part of the trailer was overlapping the sidewalk corner. Pedestrians were congregating at the intersection to watch the driver make his maneuvers. We stopped to watch too. The turn required about 10 points, each back-and-forth requiring an adjacent parked car to move out of the way. Miraculously, the only property that it damaged was a knocked-over plastic Gay City newspaper box. Once the truck cleared the last car and straightened out onto Montague, everyone sighed in relief. Someone applauded. Charlotte and I walked on, muttering in awe.

We the living respond intuitively to mismatches of scale, like when such high-capacity machines borne of warehouses and highways enter low-capacity residential spaces borne of flowerbeds and baby strollers. The tension is palpable. The inquiries of passers-by, even those muttered to oneself out of curiosity, take on the legal tone of a concerned citizen, or the existential hopelessness of a war refugee.

How did that semi end up there?

Presumably, it was there to make a delivery. But aren’t local logistics usually restricted to much smaller trucks, like the ones that normally wake us up in the morning? Semis, such as this one from Western Express, deliver large volumes of goods from storage point to storage point, inhabiting almost exclusively the exurban landscape of warehouses, parking lots, and major arterial roadways (there’s a reason those places don’t have sidewalks). If it were in front of the Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, then I’d understand. Something was amiss in the complex grocery supply chain.

Top image search results of “Western Express.” The semi in its natural environment.
Western Express’ locations in the Northeast USA.

One force which may be behind this unusual incident is demand-side pressure on the market. Since Amazon Prime, we consumers have gotten accustomed to near-instant, on-demand delivery of goods, no matter what the cost. Those costs are often borne by the delivery and logistics companies such as Amazon itself and Western Express, who use up extra cardboard and bubble wrap and gasoline in order to fulfill our orders as soon as possible. One common side effect of this, which has snuck up on us, is piles of cardboard boxes cluttering apartment building lobbies. It’s possible that the Key Food on Montague was missing a critical item after the morning delivery, and demanded to be made whole. It’s possible that the Bossert Hotel (undergoing condo renovation) or the new Cat Cafe (further down the block) is being managed by a novice who placed a separate order for a few pieces of furniture. It’s easy for city dwellers to scoff at truck drivers. But they are just messengers. It may be that city dwellers themselves are asking for too much too quickly.

Image via Boing Boing.

II: A Zero-Sum Game

Vehicles and pedestrians have been at odds since the first civilizations. Cities, from Sumer to New York, are places of congregation, where many people and many resources come together to increase wealth and prosperity. Those people and resources are brought in from outside in large volumes. Once they arrive, though, the idea is to disperse them as quickly as possible to make room for the aforementioned prosperity. This makes sense: a city needs space for office buildings, parks, sidewalks, housing, and all of the other stuff that transform the steel, produce, water, and tourists that it receives into economic activity, leisure, consumption, et cetera.

As cities continue to densify, and available territory becomes squeezed, this conflict between vehicles and pedestrians has become a zero-sum game: one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. This is illustrated with geometric clarity in the distinctive chamfered corners of Barcelona’s city blocks. Ildefons Cerdà, the engineer behind the 1850s master plan, foresaw a city in which even small neighborhood streets are boulevard-like, with grandiose intersections and freely-flowing traffic. Cutting off the corners of sidewalks and buildings as Cerdà did makes it easier for traffic to turn, a critical detail given how the mobility landscape was about to change. Horse-drawn carriages were still the prime method of medium-distance traveling in cities in the mid-19th century, but a working adult at the time would have lived long enough to witness the advent of the motor vehicle. Ironically, those corners are nowadays mostly occupied by parked cars and scooters, so the sensation of freely-flowing traffic has been dampened. Nevertheless, those 125-square foot triangles are real estate that was taken from pedestrians and given to automobiles. 

Arc de Triomf & Palau de Justicia, Barcelona. Circa 1890s. The late 19th century was a transformative time for the mobility landscape of cities. Here, you can see pedestrians, horses, and streetcars sharing the public space. Although there are sidewalks, clearly-marked territories for each mobility mode have not yet been drawn. Image via monovisions.com.
Ildefons Cerda’s plan of a typical block in the Eixample, Barcelona. 1859. Image via Wikimedia.
A typical intersection in the Eixample today. Taken from Google Earth.

The next great automobile expansion after World War II, spearheaded by Robert Moses and the public works projects of the post-Great Depression years, was fueled by the same vision as was Cerdà 80 years before: that boulevard-like streets, grandiose intersections, and freely-flowing traffic are indicators of a healthy city. Of course, we have learned quickly that being in cars all day is not the end-all be-all of desirable lifestyles, and that all of the space that highways occupy is space that is taken away from pedestrians and smaller-scale neighborhoods. This problem is especially acute along waterfronts, where people are streaming to nowadays, but which in many cities are blockaded by motorways. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade was created specifically to combat that inaccessibility.

The BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking south. Image via patch.com.

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is a pedestrian path overhanging a two-tiered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a service road at grade, all cantilevered out of the rock underpinning Brooklyn Heights itself, and overlooking Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. This stack is like the Big Mac of mobility infrastructure, and it continues to be a fan favorite for both cars and for pedestrians. However, that piece of infrastructure is now nearing the end of its life, and serious steps need to be taken to fix the motorway, preserve the promenade, or rethink the entire setup. Whatever the outcome, the spaces and flows currently enjoyed by both pedestrians and cars will be disrupted. The debate rages, the tug-of-war is on.

Section of the BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking north.

One of the points frequently made by enemies of the BQE in general is that any long-term construction on the highway would forcibly divert traffic onto local streets. And while traffic engineers have yet to confirm that this will actually happen (for similar but inverse reasons why building wider roads does NOT relieve congestion), it follows the zero-sum-game narrative, and residents respond strongly to it. The thought of a semi huffing and puffing through the 50-foot-wide streets of Brooklyn Heights gives many people nightmares. Interestingly, the Western Express incident was most likely caused by entirely different forces. But its coincidence with the BQE debate may, entirely by accident, give people a sneak peek of a false future.

Truck turn diagrams for an architectural project.


Charlotte and I returned from our walk 20 minutes later, and we saw the same truck heading east on Pierrepont & Henry. So it had made three right turns on three consecutive intersections! What was it doing? I emailed Western Express to find out. No response yet. This investigation will have to be revisited.