Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A brief note on "signs of change"

I just looked ahead through the next few miles of Tenth Avenue, that is, from 24th Street on up to 72nd Street, just to sort of get a "preview" of what I'll be looking at more closely in the coming days.

And found myself thinking about the "signs of change" that I'm watching for in this pass along the avenue.

Tenth Avenue & 21st Street, Northwest Corner

Certainly there are obvious signs, signs that you wouldn't miss even if you were from Ulan Bator and just visiting for the afternoon: buildings under construction, or being demolished, scaffolding, safety netting, and other equipment, windows boarded up or papered over, fresh paint or tuckpointing or obviously (?) new facades not in keeping with the character of the obviously (?) older buildings around them.

And as we saw, there was a lot of that in evidence on the Tenth Avenue corners between 13th Street and 23rd Street, though rather less of it as we got closer 23rd Street.

Then the less obvious signs: a chic home furnishings shop in a neighborhood where that is, or until recently was, an anomaly, if not altogether inconceivable; younger people with fashionably upscale dog breeds and an upscale veterinarian to service them in a neighborhood where previously dogs were mutts and took care of themselves without any veterinarian; people in fashionable business or casual attire in a what was for decades a strictly working class neighborhood, and so on.

Or as we might say, the visible signs of gentrification's invisible graces of class, status, power, education, and so on (I may be getting carried away here, but perhaps the exaggeration, if it is one, will get the point across).

Which does raise some questions:

where does a neighborhood begin and end? what are it's boundaries? how fluid are they?

more specifically, what are the visible signs of a neighborhood's being a neighborhood? in architecture, commerce, signage, street life, appearance of people on the street, maintenance and upkeep of the sidewalks and streets — clean or littered, freshly paved or pot-holed?

since neighborhoods change their character as well as their boundaries, what is the temporal extent of a neighborhood's character? (What is now the Upper West Side was initially rural, then a shanty town or series of shanty towns, then was "gentrified" in the 1880s-1890s, then slipped back again into disrepute, becoming a "slum" by mid-century, revived in part by the Lincoln Center "urban renewal" project, and now once again tremendously fashionable (and expensive).

This is a very crude estimator, but one could say, in the roundest of numbers, that each of these phases has covered on the order of 50 years, with the characteristic of each phase centered on, say, the middle twenty or thirty years, the time in between being "transitional."

I'm just shooting in the dark here, playing around with the notions in advance of really finding out what I might be talking about.

This isn't an entirely idle question, if we're concerned not only with how a neighborhood evolves but how people come to identify themselves as being from that neighborhood, and how people know when they've walked from their own neighborhood into another one, just by what they see (and hear and smell).

And if we're interested in how people "on the street" and "in the neighborhood" perceive change, then we would want to know what the time frame is in which the change is perceived.

And that depends on the time scale of memories — and the shared memories — of the people living in or working in or regularly coming to or passing through the neighborhood. Meaning, I suppose, that a neighborhood with high turnover of people is perceived by them "on average" on a shorter time scale than a neighborhood with a relatively stable population.

Of course, there would be, and are, different time scales operating simultaneously.

A bit of personal reminiscence

When I moved back into the city nearly twenty years ago, I lived in a fourth floor walk-up on 15th Street, just off Sixth Avenue, next to the old New York State National Guard Armory. It was a non-neighborhood, situated in between the Flatiron, Union Square, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village neighborhoods, with none of their amenities and none of their character either.

I was there for about nine years. When I moved in, the street, especially in front of the armory, which had a substantial overhang over the sidewalk on the south side of the street, was home to a lot of homeless people. Fourteenth Street, a block to the south, was still pretty sleazy, and Sixth and Seventh Avenues heading north were no great shakes either, at least for the first few blocks.

The renovations began (they'd probably already begun and I didn't know it because I wasn't there then): scaffolding went up around the big building on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street along with signs advertising "luxury condominiums." Down the block on 15th Street going west a few landlords began to spruce up the facades of their buildings. Going east a chic tile shop appeared, and an upscale toy store. Rumor had it that the armory would be torn down for something else, a CostCo or whatever. Some of the old buildings on Sixth Avenue north of me were demolished, and similarly on Seventh Avenue, and new high rises began to go up.

I left when the noise from the demolition of the armory and the construction of the new building made living where I was impossible for me (I lived right next door).

I'm fairly often back in that neighborhood, and sometimes walk past the building where I used to live. No doubt the neighborhood has changed enormously since I moved there. And is still changing, though the pace has slowed since the start of the depression now already nearly two years ago or more.

Now some of these changes were unmistakable: the demolition of the armory took over a year and the building was so large (it faced both 14th Street on the south and 15th on the north and was about half a block long) was the most striking — and then the construction of its replacement took another couple of years.

So: huge, big, long, exceedingly visible (and, alas, audible).

Other changes were faster: repaving Sixth Avenue (overnight), Bed Bath & Beyond opening (months and months of signage before the actual opening), one of the second hand book store on 18th disappearing (with 30 day going out of business sale), and upscale paper shops moving in, and so on and on and on — it's a familiar story.

And no doubt a similar range of time frames when a neighborhood is in decline, which is to say, when it becomes more attractive to poorer people than had previously been its main demographic.


Not sure, as usual, where this is heading, but wanted to spend some time on these thoughts (and experiences, too).

There is a type of musical analysis developed a hundred years or so ago by Heinrich Schenker that, in essence (though I don't remember him ever expressing it this way himself) looks at the structure of a piece of (tonal) music as it works on three different time scales, or so to speak with "moving sonic windows" of different durations:

the actual notes we hear, or their concatenation into recognizable, unitary "figures" — the most immediate and short-term of the sonic "windows," which he called the "foreground";

an intermediate length "window" that more or less corresponds to what we keep in our "active memory" of the piece as we experience it (meaning, perhaps, the previous 10 or 20 measures and what we're predicting or anticipating for the next 5 or 10 — and constantly revising our expectations as the piece goes on) — he called this the "middle ground"; and

the longest window, which is defined by the whole piece itself, which he (notoriously) called the "Urlinie" — the primordial or fundamental line of the piece.

And continuing into a further digression, the wonderful essay from now 50-60 years ago (originally, I believe, a lecture at Darmstadt) by Karlheinz Stockhausen that posits and then explores the idea of a continuum between rhythm and pitch, i.e., the implications of a sliding scale of time frames or metrics.

And a further bit of an afterthought: is a look at "signs of change" actually a look at the overlay of nevertheless distinguishably different time frames? time frames that overlap, moreover, and modulate our shared experience — even our sharing of experience — of change in the city, if not elsewhere or even everywhere?

This evening, or tomorrow morning at the latest, back to the next segment of Tenth Avenue and its concrete signs of change, from 24th Street up to 34th Street.

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