Friday, January 22, 2016

New series: The Tenement Puzzle, a social, cultural, economic and architectural history

Why are some tenements -- built in the ghetto for poor, immigrant labor -- so elaborate, covered with expensive terra cotta and glazes, stone and tinted brick while others are simple and plain?

Over the years I've heard several speculative explanations, often ingenious, but always wrong, always misled by a simple deception of the streetscape. Unlike an archeological site arranged in chronological layers each earlier than the one above, the street shuffles the history together in one jumble. Each style of tenement belongs to a structure of a particular moment in the city, not to its neighbor on the street.

Why is the city streetscape so varied with big and small, plain and ornate, dull and colorful? Why are some old neighborhoods lined with narrow buildings, others with only expansive, stately buildings? Why are corner buildings in those narrow-lined neighborhoods typically more grandiose than the midblock buildings?

The real estate of New York is a direct reflection of the social and economic growth of the city, including the government and cultural ideological response to that growth. Unlike any other aspect of the history of New York, the architectural history is in plain view -- if you can read it. This series intends to show how to read it, and to show where the documentary record misleads: the only way to read the history is through experiencing the history itself, and the buildings are that faithful historical remnant. Architecture does not lie -- it's history presented in brick and stone. The subtext of this series is "don't believe everything you read." Look -- with informed eyes.

I'll start with two speculations about why some tenements look so lavish. one, landlords looking for better tenants; the other, landlords accommodating illiterate tenants. The actuality reveals a much deeper cultural relation between rich and poor.

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