Monday, December 31, 2007

Jane Jacobs at MAS

The Municipal Arts Society's free exhibit, Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York (at 475 Madison Avenue & 51st Street), has been extended through January 26.

I urge you to go see it. No exhibit in the city is as relevant or important to New Yorkers.

It is not an in-depth treatment of Jacobs or her legacy. Rather, it is a summary of her achievement in New York and, most important, a loud and clear call to action.

After highlighting Jacobs' decisive successes in protecting her community from broad government plans that would have destroyed it, the exhibit then focuses on Jacobs' notion of community, culling examples of urban successes and failures from New York today. The argument of the exhibit is transparent: Jacobs identified basic principles conducive to successful urban community life; ordinary people can and must protect their community from the administrative and market forces that hold no regard for those principles.

Go see it.

It's a small exhibit with limited historical background, so it may be useful to consider the broader context of urban planning in the last century:

The twentieth century began with a modernist movement bent on eradicating class differences through functional architecture and rational urban design. Modernists replaced the lavish, opulent, classist Beaux Arts fa├žades of the latter 19th century with plain, unadorned, egalitarian working-class mass residences surrounded by grass. Businesses would be segregated into districts away from the quiet residential districts. If it sounds like projects and malls, that's exactly their utopian idea.

Jacobs wisely caught the flaw in their theoretical approach. Their principles had no empirical basis. If you want to know what kind of urban environment works for people, look at successful neighborhoods.

Jacobs immediately observed the importance of street-life to the vitality of urban community. She identified four principles of successful urban planning: mixed uses (residences with storefronts for small businesses like delis, restaurants, hardware stores, clothing stores, even small manufacturing); varied building types (old buildings with new, tall with short, all on small lots to maximize variety); short blocks to enhance freedom of movement; population density. These foster vital communities in contrast with the monolithism, segregation, sterility and oppression of modernism.

The elements that create community are fragile and depend on preservation -- protecting the old from the new, the small from the large, the mom and pop from the chain. Without preservation, the variety and small scale essential to community are swallowed up by market forces of big money, big businesses, big chains, big developers. And so, Jacobs also came to understand the importance of getting involved in saving urban community: she coordinated the effort to save Greenwich Village from Robert Moses' plan to rip it apart with a highway.

Moses himself belonged to a modernist age of optimistic futurism. He concocted a grand scheme to create a megalopolis of infrastructure linking city to suburb with concourses, parkways and bridges. In his success lay an unanticipated failure. The bridges and highways enabled white flight into the suburbs which eroded the city's tax base leading to municipal abandonment of the inner city, degraded services and programs, more white flight, including industrial and business flight to the suburbs and the eventual bankrupting of the city in 1975.

The city did not fully recover until the boom of the '90's which brought us the rampant gentrification we are living with today. The cure is worse than the disease: where Moses had a plan, our current city administration simply gives swaths of the city over to developers out for the quickest buck, with no plan at all, no infrastructure to support their projects, no thought of community impact, no thought of sustainability, no thought of the future of the city. Just money.

What we most desperately need in this big-money-market free-for-all is a plan -- not the kind of top-down, half-baked, grandiose futurism of a Moses, but the empirically informed, humanist observation of Jane Jacobs.

The exhibit extols Jacobs' battle with Moses and then focuses on her vision of urban community by contrasting "good" streets with "bad" streets in today's New York. "Good" streets have a mix of buildings of varied ages and heights, mostly one-lot in size, full of what I like to call the three st's: storefronts, stoops and street-life. The "bad" streets have one huge street wall with no entry points, just an oppressive wall to keep people out and walking past. The exhibit uses, among others, the Avalon building (Whole Foods on Bowery and Houston) as a paradigmatic example of urban design that fails to meet the basic virtues Jacobs identified for urban community.

Today, Avalon style is everywhere. Look at the Chase Bank on Astor Place. It's as if Jane Jacobs never lived: one long glass wall; nothing to do there, nothing to see. A friend from City Lore/Place Matters says it served the community better when it was a parking lot because then at least you could walk through it.

Let's face it, there is no plan for the future of housing in this city. Since the "triumph" of capitalism, government sees only the developer, and the developer sees only as far as his pocket. Ordinary people's social needs play no role, only their money. And community is not in this picture at all.

I recently came across a brief bio of Julia Richman -- she has a school named after her near Hunter College. Sy Brody writes, "Julia Richman was the first woman district superintendent of schools in the City of New York. Her innovations, leadership and curriculum brought an entire new dimension to public school education at the beginning of the twentieth century." She chose the Lower East Side as her district where "she started ... special schools for delinquents, chronic absentees and above average pupils."

I am struck by her story. She was one of many reformers in an age of social reform -- from Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald to Clara Lemlich and Dorothy Day. But Richman was in government: school district superintendent. A reformer holding a government post? Can you imagine such a reformer in a government post today? Today our commissioners and city administrators are all toadies. "Toad" seems to be one of the qualifications for the job, perhaps the sole qualification.

To celebrate Jacobs' success in getting Washington Square closed to all vehicular traffic, a car was burned at the arch. The Times reports that "Mrs. Roosevelt" was present at the burning along with Jane.

Such a celebration seems unimaginable today.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Can't say it better

Reprinted from a letter to the NY Sun, written by local LES resident, Rima Finzi-Strauss:

"I believe that Manhattan dies a little each time middle and working class housing is lost to planned luxury condominium development. Without diversity, which has always made New York special, Manhattan will shortly become a dull sprawling bedroom community for celebrities, Wall Street financiers, rich out-of-towners, and foreign investors. The transformation, unfortunately, seems almost complete."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday news

Friends and neighbors,

Get ready for more development: Streit's Matzohs is selling its four-lot factory on Rivington Street for $25 million. If the buyer digs his foundation before the new zoning of the LES, he can use the community facility bonus to increase the size by over 40%. Fortunately, it's not in the LES commercial zone, so it won't be another huge hotel. But the site is next-door to ABC No Rio and the block is lined with one architectural gem after another, some of the oldest in the city.

Some holiday presents
As we watch history disappear around us, artists have turned to a mode older than scripture: the lament. Photographers publish their work on blogs with names like Lost New York, Vanishing New York, Lost City:

To see the real LES, don't miss the inside, underside photo chronicle

There's a documentary just out too, New York Lost. For a limited time you can view it here:
(Well say, is that developer Sion Misrahi waxing poetic about the inevitability of change? He doesn't mention that change means hundreds of millions in profit for him. Could it be that's why contemplating change moves him so profoundly? I know change is a necessary law of the universe, that change is time itself. I didn't know that glass towers, yuppie invasions, banks and chain stores were a law of the universe or that the end of community and neighborhood were universally necessary. Must all change be for the worse? Misrahi, couldn't you find a way of filling your pockets that doesn't entail destroying neighborhood communities, killing their arts, culture, character and history? What happened to the time when "change" meant approaching a better future for all, not just bulldozing the past for one man's profit?)

New Yorkers seem to have given up on all the cherished utopian dreams that motivated movements and held us to a hopeful future that might someday reflect our deepest and most heartfelt aspirations. We've settled for Whole Foods instead.

For the record, I haven't spent a penny at Whole Foods and I don't see any reason why I would. Its glass wall, extending the entire length of the block, prevents any street life from gathering. The place is an affront to any vision of urban improvement, urban life, urban culture, urban activity, urban taste.

Greatest city in the world? You've got to be kidding. There are dozens of cities in newly industrialized, developing countries all over the world that do the oppressive glass wall just as well or better. New York is becoming just a cold Singapore with chewing gum freckles.

Years ago, Jane Jacobs explained to us what was wrong with modernism: communities need street-life, storefronts, stoops. Community is folks hanging out in their neighborhood. That's what stoops, storefronts and street-life give you -- community.

Yuppies from the suburbs haven't got a clue what a neighborhood community is, never having experienced one outside the window of their SUV. But here they come, imposing the suburban mall on the one place in the world where the cure for mall-aise grows indigenously. Like the rain forest, once you raze the urban neighborhood you lose all the unique species of urban character. And once you replace it with glass and steel, you can't grow it back again. Instead of great corned beef and kielbasa you get banks that smell like stale disinfectant. Stomach that with your Starbucks.

The holidays afford us reflection on the past and a moment looking toward the future -- a briefly hopeful moment, before that future is upon us and we turn again to mourning. Why can't we take that moment to renew our utopian dreams and envision the kind of city we'd like New York to be?

The future doesn't have to be just for Misrahi. It can be about us and for us.

A joyful holiday to you and yours,


Thursday, December 20, 2007

The effects of deregulation

In case you think deregulation of housing will bring rental prices down by a general leveling of the market, here's what's actually happening as a result of deregulation (from Liz Peek, NY Sun, of all places):

"According to a report from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, the stock of what is considered low-cost rentals in America fell by 1.2 million units between 1993 and 2003. For a variety of reasons, "affordable" rental units have been disappearing, causing prices for the remaining properties to rise. In 2005, according to the MacArthur Foundation, almost 9 million middle- and low-income Americans spent more than half of their income on housing, an all-time record.

"According to a study by the Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy, median rents in New York have risen considerably faster than incomes. It says the number of rental units "affordable to low and moderate income households in the city fell significantly" between 2002 and 2005. During that period, the report says, the total number of rental units in New York grew by only 0.4%, while the number of condos and other owned units grew by 3.5%. Adding to the problems of low-income citizens, the new housing stock shifted significantly upmarket, with higher-priced units growing by almost 25%. These trends are also in place across the country."

In other words, the effect of deregulation is not a leveling of the market. The effect is more upscale housing in the city, more of the labor force moving out of the city. No leveling, just up or out.

Same thing happened in Boston when they deregulated housing there: no leveling, just more upscaling and gentrification. Even the conservative Manhattan Institute's study couldn't find any beneficial effect on rents in Boston's deregulation.

Why do you think regulations were created in the first place?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Testify on landlord harassment!

City Council Hearing on a Landlord Harassment Bill
City Council Chambers, City Hall
Monday Dec. 17, 10am
(Arrive early -- the line will be long -- or late in the afternoon, after many have left.)

This Monday, the City Council will hold a hearing on legislation to protect tenants from landlord harassment. This hearing affords tenants the opportunity to testify
on the increasing problem of landlord harassment,
on the difficulty of bringing harassment charges against a landlord under current law,
on the lack of anti-harassment enforcement and investigation by government agencies charged with tenant protection,
and on the ineffectiveness of fines against large corporate landlords.

Under current law, "harassment" does not include landlords repeatedly filing baseless law suits against tenants, and all harassment charges against a landlord must be initiated by the tenant and filed not in housing court but through the state by a difficult and often ineffective process. The Council is considering a bill which will allow tenants who are being taken to court by a landlord on a baseless, frivolous suit, to charge the landlord in housing court with harassment.

Unfortunately, the bill's penalties for harassment are meager fines -- only up to $5,000, an insignificant sum, especially for large corporate landlords. No jail sentences are being considered, nor surrender of premises, even for repeat offenders.

Of course, the ideal solution would be for city agencies to investigate and prosecute landlords themselves, rather than rely on harassed tenants to file charges. But while the Bloomberg administration continues to defund the agencies responsible for protecting tenants, this bill is a needed protection.

(The Council is also considering a bill that would allow landlords to sue tenants who file frivolous suits against the landlord, but this pro-landlord bill appears to be dead. It was introduced under the pretense of "fairness," but when you consider that tenants have no economic incentive to harass landlords (a bankrupted landlord can't provide services), while landlords have strong economic incentive to harass and bankrupt tenants out of stabilized apartments, it's quite clear that the "fairness" argument is misapplied and disguises a subversive strategy: to prevent tenants from filing any kind of suit against a landlord who could retaliate with a corporate legal team charging the tenant with harassing the landlord. The sponsors of this pro-landlord bill, Maria Baez and Joel Rivera, have been appropriately exposed and excoriated in the press.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Rally Monday

The statement below impressed on me the scale of the destructive impact the Cooper Square Hotel will have. The rally: this Monday, 6pm, 5th & Bowery.

I'm Stuart Zamsky, a longtime resident of East Fifth Street between 2-3rd Aves., and a retail merchant on Fifth Street between 1-2nd Aves. I am writing to entreat you to attend a Rally Against the Cooper Square Hotel this Monday, December 10th at the Corner of 5th Street & The Bowery, and to attend the subsequent Community Board 3's SLA Meeting at the same location.

You may or may not be inclined towards community meetings and rallies. I have never been, but when I heard about the plans the hotel had for it's outdoor spaces; Large areas (some just 30 inches from existing resident's windows!), Open Late with huge capacities, a Door to this Beer Garden exiting directly on to Quiet Fifth Street, I realized that if ever there was a time to act, to help rouse neighbors, and get the Cooper Square Hotel to behave as a reasonable, considerate neighbor, it was now. This hotel has the potential to impact our neighborhood in the manner that the Maritime Hotel,the Gansevort, or the Hotel Rivington has forever changed their neighborhoods, turning them into the loudest of scenes, Bourbon Street Theme Parks.

And so, I beseech you to consider your schedule Monday night, and put your body where it will really make a difference...a strong show of neighborhood support and passion is our biggest asset, if you have kids BRING THEM, TELL a neighbor or Friend, Forward this e to someone who might be interested, and if you ARE active in the Bowery Political Scene and are affiliated with a group PLEASE let them know...The Cooper Square Neighborhood needs their support.

All the best,
Stuart Zamsky, 5th Street Block Association, CSH Task Force


Los Angeles luxury developers Peck/Moss want to turn the Bowery into Bourbon Street with the Cooper Square Hotel.

Peck/Moss demands that the state liquor authority give them everything they want and ignore their neighbors.

Peck/Moss demands approval for 3 indoor bars plus an outdoor bar/restaurant that abuts 10 apartments and is feet from about 50 others.

Peck/Moss demands a door on 5th Street that will disturb the JASA Home for the Elderly and Disabled.





200 EAST 5th Street (5th & Bowery)
PLEASE attend the subsequent Community Board 3 State Liquor Authority Committee Meeting afterwards and speak out.

"Dubai on the Bowery"--New York Magazine

“We’re going to put Cooper Square on the map.” —Developer Gregory Peck