Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reality intrudes (deleted from 100627) & comment

One of my intentions with this blog has been to document straightforwardly the process of making something out of New York in Plain Sight, including documenting the process of figuring out what that something might be, though with the understanding that it was going to be aimed at something more akin to sociology than to art or photography per se.

And without wanting to conduct the blog in a truly confessional mode, I'd resolved to go ahead and post the ups and downs of the project along with its twists and turns.

Well, now I'm not so sure about that, about documenting the ups and downs, that is, especially the downs. Sunday I posted the following,under the heading "Reality intrudes":

Reality intrudes, and rather decisively at that ….

Since its inception (now over five years ago),
New York in Plain Sight / The Manhattan Street Corners has been a self-financed undertaking, i.e., for all practical purposes nobody has been paying for it except me.

Not that I am ungrateful to the people who have purchased prints along the way, but sales of prints have covered altogether no more than at most a few percent of the expense of the project.

My searches for funders or patrons have come to nought and the reality is that I can no longer afford to go on with it myself.

So, pending some marvelously unforeseen positive cash flow, this is the last blog post for the foreseeable future. I'll leave the posts up — do feel free to browse, of course.

I'm also suspending any and all plans to continue with cleaning up — to say nothing of extending —
New York in Plain Sight itself.

By my count there are still just under 200 corners to photograph or rephotograph in order to complete the set. They'll just have to wait. And at some point I'd still love to work up an entirely new site for it with a wide range of search and display options. For the time being though, it has to be put on hold — and I rather imagine that will be a rather lengthy and indefinite hold.

So — well, that's it for now. Thanks for dropping in now and then, it's been fun.

What can I say? Tired, feeling sorry for myself, and, especially, fed up with rich clients who seem to think it's their privilege not to have to pay their bills in a timely fashion.

Then I began to have doubts — doubts about the post, that is. I mean, it's not news to anyone that projects like this one have their ups and downs, and, more to the point, that artists, photographers, authors, whatever, have their ups and downs, especially since, for that matter, everyone does, absolutely everyone, apparently without exception. Self-pity just isn't on, even if it's become fashionable in some circles, and even a money-maker. (But a friend used to say to me, "go ahead and feel sorry for yourself, after all, no one else is going to.")

So this morning I deleted that post.

And then immediately I had second thoughts about that too. I mean, if I'm going to document this process in the way I set out to, don't I really have to go ahead with such things? I mean, it would be one thing not to write such a post, or to write it and not post it, and there have indeed been several that have been written but not posted (not all of them whiny, either).

A quandary of sorts, which, as you can see, I've resolved, sort of, for the moment at least, via this meta-post.

And this morning I'm not feeling as defeated by, well, everything, as I was on Sunday, so maybe this meta-post will serve me as a stimulus to get back in harness and get on with blog proper, to stir the pot some more around all the questions about neighborhoods and their signs of change.

More soon, though maybe not right away.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Taking a break

Taking a break, back later — not sure how much later.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The invisible structure of a neighborhood

Lest you think I didn't know, or had forgotten, or didn't think it relevant to the purposes of either New York in Plain Sight or even the "Tenth Avenue then & now" sub-project ….

Invisibly but utterly pervasively, penetrating every aspect the visible face of city, from the newest buildings in the oldest neighborhoods and from the grandest prospects to the litter on the sidewalks, there is another infrastructure, one of a purely social kind, the set of interlocking social facts which comprises the relationships of property and rents (incomes derived from real property).

So any serious answer to the question of what makes a neighborhood must at some point at least acknowledge the role that property and rent have to play in the ongoing neighborhood-constitutive process and, with it, the on-going processes of change in the visible aspects of a neighborhood.

And it would be fair to assert, though very difficult, I think, to demonstrate, that the visible changes, possibly all of them, are, among other things, signs of change in the relationships of property values to one another in the block, the neighborhood, the borough, the city, even the country and the world, and the interaction between property values and rents, and the flows of owners, renters, businesses, people — through those properties.

The tenants that can afford to move in and stay for some greater or lesser span of time and the tenants who can afford to leave voluntarily for something "better" or who for whatever reason can no longer afford to stay and so must, involuntarily, go somewhere else (or possibly, in the case of businesses, simply go out of business — which I suppose also happens to human tenants from time to time too, despair at having to move surely motivating, at least in part, some of the city's suicides as well some of its deaths due to malnutrition, disease, heat, cold, etc., that may in part, in some instances, result from preferring the otherwise unaffordable home to an adequate diet, health care, a livable range of temperatures, electricity, a telephone, etc.).

So ultimately the question would be: what do the visible signs of change tell us, however indirectly, about the invisible changes in the structure of property values in the city (and of course, by extension, the legal framework surrounding and supporting those property values), and their consequences for the "demographics" (in the broadest sense) of the flow people and their enterprises through these properties?

A tall order, that question, and with it the possibility that the distances between the signs of change and the underlying changes in property values are, for the most part, too great, too heavily mediated by, well, everything, for the visible world of the street to reflect much else but the largest scale changes over relatively long stretches of time.

Or maybe not, maybe one just has to learn how to read them.

My guess is that we have learned to read them, just by living long enough in the city, without exactly, necessarily, even knowing that we've done so, so that "learning to read" the signs of change is more a matter of making more explicit some of what we already know implicitly than it is a matter of learning something entirely new.

And what of it? What if we knew? What if we could read those signs? What then?

Kant famously introduced the concluding sections of his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of pure Reason) with the three questions: What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope? These questions, Kant says, represent the three principal interests that motivate the different kinds of knowledge that are available to us.

And so we may ask: What can we know about the dynamics of the city? What ought we do about them? What may we hope for them — and for us?

If I knew, I'd tell you. So I think I'll leave it at that for now. But John Logan and Harvey Molotch's Urban Fortunes is a good place to start.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Original shoreline below West 23rd Street revisited

A little while ago (June 12) I posted a look at Tenth Avenue below 26th Street, as seen overlaid on the Commissioners' map of 1807 and the Vielé map of 1865:

Tenth Avenue below 26th Street with shorelines
(green= island in 1807, brown = 1865, heavy black line = 2010)

This morning, for another project, I was browsing in the marvelous maps available at nyc OASIS and found an overlay of the 1609 Manhattan shoreline from the fabulous Manahatta Project which differs substantially from the shoreline drawn by the Commissioners on their 1807 map.

On the Commissioners' map, Tenth Avenue ends at 23rd Street, below which the 1807 shoreline is shown to be east of what a southward continuation of the avenue would be (see above map).

On the Manahatta Project map, the projected 1609 shoreline is west of Tenth Avenue all the way down to 13th Street:

Tenth Avenue below 26th Street with 1609 shoreline
(OASIS map with Manahatta overlay)

Is one right and the other wrong? A simple bias towards current technology inclines me to believe that the Manahatta Project shoreline is correct, and that the Commissioners map shoreline is in error.

But the Manahatta Project shoreline is based on the 1782 British Headquarters map, adjusted to identifiable contemporary features with as estimated error of 40 meters or about half a block, which is about the size of the discrepancy between the two shorelines. (This isn't to fault the Manahatta Project in any way: for Manahatta Project's incredible purposes an error factor of only 40 meters is as good as perfect — the error, if indeed there is one, is only relevant to the very modest aims my Tenth Avenue "then & now" project on this blog and even so, it's only the very close proximity of this stretch of Tenth Avenue to the original shoreline — wherever, exactly, it may have been — that makes this of any interest).

And did the Commissioners undertake a whole new survey of the island, or did they rely, or how much did they rely, on previous cartographers' efforts, e.g., the 1872 map or derivatives of it?

And similarly with Vielé's map — although it represents a new survey of the island, its showing of the original shoreline, pre-landfills, must be derived from earlier, namely pre-landfill sources.

One might say, in favor the Commissioners, that it is unlikely that they would have stopped Tenth Avenue at 23rd Street if the actual shoreline would have permitted its extension down to 13th Street or even lower.

It's possible of course that the Commissioners' shoreline was wrong and that, therefore, their plan for Tenth Avenue was wrong also, insofar as in that case it could have, even then, been extended below 23rd Street. But how likely is this? Even without sophisticated high tech measuring devices, the distance from a known point to the shore could be established to within an inch or so even in 1807.

This argument seems compelling to me, though I'm no expert. So I'll give the nod to the Commissioners 1807 shoreline (as shown on my first map mash-up), while keeping in mind the possibility of error that arises from the British Headquarters / Manhatta shoreline (second map).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Individual's neighborhoods

In the middle of muddling through the immediately preceding post (see below) I got a phone call from my photographer friend Becket Logan and we ended up talking at some length about the subject of what makes a neighborhood. He's bright guy, and I think a few of his observations are worth putting on the table, that is, are worth posting on the blog, so here goes.

Tenth Avenue & 103rd Street, Northwest Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

In line with what I had to say about neighborhoods and neighbors, he said that for him, for his neighborhood, what it amounted to were his neighbors in the sense of the people he saw again and again and recognized and said hello or waived to on the street near him or in the nearby shops where he made his "daily rounds" — the corner grocery, the hardware store, the drugstore, the bank, and so on.

The same people he'd been seeing again and again for years on end, in some cases for decades.

And each of those people had a similar set of relationships that constituted their immediate, individual neighborhood, in turn, some of them also shared with Becket, and some not.

And each of those in turn another set of individual neighborhoods.

Plus the individual neighborhoods of all the people who live or work in close proximity to Becket's individual neighborhood but who aren't recognizably, explicitly, so to speak, by him, as a part of his.

And their individual neighborhoods again, in turn.

And so on.

Very much, I think, on a close, a micro scale, Simmel's Kreisung sozialer Kreise — "intersecting social circles" — but at the same time, much looser than what I remember of Simmel's concept.

And yet woven closely enough together to be recognizable as a kind of higher level entity, a cluster with some however ill-defined and permeable boundaries, that seen or felt to be distinct from another such cluster that may be centered even only a few blocks further away.

For instance, what the cluster in what Becket calls his "campus" up by his studio on 20th Street, a few blocks to the west (but no further than Sixth Avenue), to the north (but 22nd Street is almost the limit), and south (but not below 18th Street), the area where the professional services are concentrated — the "photography district" — and of course the coffee shops, delis, Fedex's, copy shops, and whatnot that go along with any such area.

But not to the east, where Park Avenue represents a very big divide, a strong boundary: once you cross Park, you're in a different world, the world that culminates in Gramercy Park and environments, and then dissipates again east of, say, Second Avenue. And north of 22nd or 23rd Street (north of 23rd for sure, I'd say).

So two neighborhoods, individual neighborhoods for him: the residential one and the professional one (the "campus"). But very similar in the way in which there's a clustering of relationships, though the "campus" is rather more explicit in this regard, owing to its professional focus.

It's like "six degrees of separation," only it's only two or three degrees — or how many is it, actually? (And that's too crude a measure, but it gets the idea across, I think.)

Could we map those? Have people done this already? I don't know. But surely they have.

And again, what are the visible signs of these clusters? Or, somewhat more radically, epistemologically speaking, are the signs visible or not only to the extent that one lives or works within a cluster for which they are meaningful?

Since starting the Tenth Avenue "then & now" sub-project, it's occurred to me more than once, and keeps on re-occurring to me with ever greater frequency, that we — I don't think it's just me — don't really know much, explicitly, about how people live together, how they generate "collective actions," how, for instance, a phenomenon like "neighborhoods" actually works.

That we may not even be at the butterfly collection stage yet, that even the simplest — but there's no such thing — ethnographies are too few and too far between to provide anything much more than an occasional random strobe flash of light on what's happening in society at any level but especially the closest in levels: the street corner, the block, the neighborhood.

Not that there aren't great studies, by brilliantly insightful researchers, but that the phenomenon is so vast and so complex and, well, daunting ….

Well, it is — as my business friends are wont to say — what it is. But I gotta tell ya, it's humbling.

Neighbors ….

Though I would love to get somewhere analytically with the New York in Plain Sight photographs by working in the best (if romantically  and unrealistically misunderstood) sense of 19th century induction — all those trays of butterflies neatly pinned and labelled! — it's probably no more possible now than it was then, and who knows what those gentleman naturalists of 150± years ago thought they were doing anyway?

So let's try working the other direction for a bit, and see what that turns up.

Earlier (May 30 and June 2) I posted a couple of pieces on the question, "what makes a neighborhood?" in which I rehearsed at some length a variety of by no means mutually exclusive answers, a very crude summary of which might be simply: "neighbors."

"Neighbors," of course, not just in the sense of physical proximity, but "neighbors" in the sense of people who share to one degree or another a mutual and reciprocal sense of neighborliness and whatever goes along with that.

I think this means, this "neighborliness," above all: trust, or degrees of trust — we're "neighborly"in a positive sense to the extent that we trust one another.

And along with that, that we recognize one another, that we have some interests in common, that we're willing to help one another out, within some limits or other (and even if we keep score about it).

And the basis for this trust? Some combination of kinship, ethnicity, race, language, etc., friendship and acquaintanceship — Logan and Molotch's "daily rounds" — together with some homogeneity of socio-economic status (income, life style, professions, trades, occupations).

The connections that constitute "human capital" as communitarians use this word.

And over, under, above, below, beyond, and prior even to these dimensions of commonality, the shared experience of living together in some real proximity, relatively unproblematically.

The sum of all of which, as represented on the street by the local businesses and other institutions and organizations that principally serve the neighborhood, and by the appearance of the residents themselves, and even, to some extent, by the architecture and the traffic, is something we vaguely sense as the "character" of the neighborhood.

Which means that a neighborhood in this sense has to be predominantly a residential area, otherwise it's just a "district," commercial or industrial, with no indigenous life at the end of the day or on the weekends.

Like the financial district (though that seems to be changing a bit), or parts of mid-town, or, to pick an example close to this blog, Tenth Avenue below 14th Street.

So when we sense that the character of a neighborhood is changing, what we must mean, I think, is that the neighbors themselves and their relationships are changing, and changing more rapidly than whatever our sense is of the normal turnover rate that doesn't really change the character of the neighborhood at all, or, if it does, does so slowly enough to be effectively imperceptible, unless you're really on the look-out for it, and possibly not even then.

It's not, I think, just "demographics," not just skin colors or ethnicities or ages. It's also a matter of tenure in the neighborhood: what proportion of the residents have lived there for how long? A neighborhood with a lot of relative newcomers has to have a different sense of itself than a neighborhood that has maintained the same large core group of residents for twenty or thirty years or more.


I'm definitely groping around in the semi-dark here, if not in total darkness altogether, so let me break off at this point and just say that the question lurking somewhere in the midst of these observations is this:

If the neighborhood-constitutive affective relationships change as a result of a changing profile of the residents resulting from the in- and out-flows of residents (but not necessarily only residents), then to what extent, and how, do these changes leave their mark visibly? What changes in what we see are signs of these changes? What can we infer about the trajectory of a neighborhood as affective network from the visible signs of change on its streets?

More soon on this one — it is perhaps the only real topic of interest in this line of work.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What changes?

I've been wrestling with this post for several days, undecided about whether to post it or not. And not being able to get on to anything else until I'd decided, one way or t'other. This morning I decided to go ahead with it, if only to get it behind me — I wasn't going to delete the content, so by not posting it, I was leaving the nagging question open … so let's post it and be done with it.

It's really just a list, a rather simple list — albeit with Burtonian overtones (I've had a melancholy few days here) — and surely an incomplete one as well. You can skip it if it's just too dumb — but then you can do that with any of these posts, can't you?

OK, enough apologies. Here goes: What changes?

Tenth Avenue & 14th Street, Southeast Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)


The island itself

The shoreline, which gets extended by landfills and piers and jetties (though the latter are less often thought of as shoreline extensions and, technically, possibly even legally, I suppose they are not) and sometimes gets pulled back, when piers or jetties are dismantled or even, sometimes, when landfill is (re)excavated. — All of these different kinds of shoreline changes seem to have happened to one extent or another west of Tenth Avenue below 23rd Street since the street plan was first proposed 200+ years ago, and have certainly happened, extensively, elsewhere on the island, especially downtown, of course.

The terrain gets levelled, hills cut down, valleys filled. — This too has happened along the lower stretch of Tenth Avenue, and the upper stretches too, and throughout the island as well.

The street plan and the streets themselves

New streets are laid out, for instance in Battery Park City and Trump Place in recent years, and existing streets are sometimes closed, particularly to create the "superblocks" that were, and are, characteristic of the big "urban renewal" housing projects; streets are also sometimes just partially closed, e.g., closed to regular traffic, but open to service and emergency vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. (I'm not going to include temporary closings for repairs or in connection with construction projects.) — Tenth Avenue below 23rd Street, as already mentioned, and of course the streets west of it, are a prime examples of street plan changes in the area we've been looking at.

Other transportation infrastructure

Bridges and tunnels are built, along with their entrances and exits, and sometimes closed too. Bus depots — just below 42nd Street, Tenth Avenue catches a number of the ramps leading to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. And railroads and their stations: elevated, at street level, subways. And also railroad yards and maintenance facilities. — Both in evidence on Tenth Avenue: the old New York Central yards west of the avenue between 30th Street and 33rd Street; the subway yards and maintenance depot east of the avenue way uptown in Inwood.

Oh yes: heliports and ferry terminals.

Sidewalks, curbs, wheelchair ramps, paving materials for both streets and sidewalks, the delineation of crosswalks and vehicle lanes (both in general as well as special lanes for buses), parking. And designations of traffic as one way or two way.


And not to forget all the different, and changing, kinds of traffic itself: pedestrian, vehicular; cars, trucks, buses, emergency vehicles, but earlier in the city's history trolleys, horses, carriages …. (And yes, I did almost forget: this paragraph is a late insert, in the middle of proofreading the others.)

And also not to forget traffic signage: street name signs, one way and two way traffic signs, other traffic management signs (stop, do not enter, no commercial vehicles, no parking, no standing); traffic lights, informational and directional signs (West Side Highway this way); bus stop markers, bus schedules and routes, subway signs, line and entrance markers.

Other infrastructure, n.e.c. ("not elsewhere classified")

And a whole host of other infrastructure visible on the street, or having visible access from the street: manholes and their covers, sewer grates, fire hydrants, sub-sidewalk ventilation grids, street lights, trash cans, surveillance cameras.

To say nothing of trees, planters, gardens, mini-parks, little bits of lawn, "weeds."

And the odd bits of street furniture: those colorful plastic boxes for the free newspapers, ads, and so on. And at the other extreme of size: billboards and their support structures (not counting the more recent large scale ads on canvas hung from the sides of buildings that are made possible by the technology of inkjet printing on wide-carriage printers).

Major parks

Or does this category belong under changes to the island itself? Well, somewhere in between, perhaps. In any event, trees, lawns, gardens, plantings, roads, walks, paths, ponds, streams, pools, special facilities like toilets, snack bars, restaurants, zoos, outdoor theaters, boat sheds ….


Which get built, demolished, renovated, get facelifts, new paint, tuckpointing and other clean-ups, new window frames, awnings, canopies, doors, window treatments.


Businesses, residents, new or not to the neighborhood, the city, time (no cellphone stores opening in the 1870s). Storefronts are vacated, new tenants move in, the same business or a different business, new owners, same owners, new or different management.

And the related property signage: ID signs for businesses, but also for sale, for rent, property owner or manager.

And all the stuff of construction: fencing, plywood or chain link, scaffolding, safety netting, cranes both tower and portable, temporary elevators, concrete, plumbing, electrical, glass, and other supplies and related installation equipment.


Worthy of a whole study in itself  (I mean a sociological study) — surely someone has done it? Trash cans, litter, paper trash including bundled magazines, newspapers, books; also recyclables, but also discarded furnishings, rugs, chairs, sofas, chests of drawers, beds, mattresses, tables, lamps, appliances, decorations (posters, prints, paintings, photos — I once bought one of my own paintings from a street vendor who had retrieved it from the trash where I thought it belonged — paid too much for it too), clothing of all kinds, bedding, pots and pans, dishes, cutlery, mirrors, garbage in the sense of discarded food, bottles — the list seems endless.


But this is a whole post unto itself, and no doubt more than one, many more than one.


As is this one, the changes in what one sees depending on time of day: it's a very different city early in the morning, in the AM rush hour, at midday, in the PM rush hour, in the evening, the late evening, the wee hours.


To say nothing of the seasons — and the weather: rain, sun, snow, hot, cold: you don't see them, but you see their signs: overcoats, shorts, steamy breath, umbrellas ….


— OK, yes, trivial, everybody knows this, whether they know it or not. But — and this is the impossible assertion — all this and more is constitutive of the visual experience of the city, and in many ways, directly and indirectly, all these things, which are things that, like all things, either change or don't, or, to be more precise, change at different rates and at different times, with different degrees of consequence for everything else (also changing …).

Sometimes, for me at least, lists like this are helpful, not as "checklists" per se — is everything really covered? no, of course not, why else all those "and not to forget's?" — but on the one hand to begin to take the measure of a problem, and on the other to jostle the mind just by bringing so much to the foreground or surface, if only for a moment, in a simple list.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Signs of change — for whom?

I prefaced yesterday’s post on “Tenth Avenue: signs of change below 14th Street” with a brief potted history of this part of the street — actually “potted history” is too generous a term: “crude mash-up of mostly Wikipedia entries” would be more like it, though I’d like to believe that the entries I drew from are reasonably accurate (but I can’t say that I know that they are).

I did this out of the belief that the historical context is meaningful for understanding the changes I’m looking at — or, for that matter, for understanding any changes anywhere.

But aside from the questions of whether my sources are as reliable as I’d like them to be, and whether my reading of them hasn’t introduced errors of its own, there is another question, perhaps more relevant to the enterprise of reading and understanding the signs of change from a sociological perspective (however informally).

Tenth Avenue & 14th Street, Southeast Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

That is the question of how much of this history, or even more of it, would be known to someone — anyone — who might happen to walk these few blocks south from 14th Street intending, say, to cross over West Street into the new Hudson River Park at West 11th Street?

Of course that’s an impossible question to answer without getting more specific about who, about what sort of someone, that person walking those blocks might be.

A quite elderly woman, a lifelong resident of the area, who remembers the excitement she felt as a young child watching the elevated highway and then the High Line go up, the one to the west, the other to the east of this part of Tenth Avenue? And who remembers when that section of the elevated highway collapsed in 1973? And who remembers when Manhattan was still a thriving seaport and the piers a hive of activity day and night?

Or a gay man nearing sixty who remembers, ruefully or wistfully, some good times and even some harrowing ones in the piers a little further to the south on West Street, long since abandoned even in the 1970s?

Or the woman in her forties who moved into the Westbeth complex for artists twenty-some years ago and remembers the failure of the Westway plans (which she opposed) and the beginnings of the reconstruction of West Street and the Hudson River Park and, what seems in retrospect to have happened so suddenly, the influx of all the galleries from SoHo to Chelsea, no more than a mile to north?

Or the young couple in their early thirties who just moved into the renovated apartment building at the corner of West 12th Street, which they took with fond memories of having met in a bar in the newly hip scene centered around Washington Street a scant ten years ago?

Or the couple from Omaha who just moved into the same building last year after they both contrived to get transfers to New York and whose knowledge of the city and its history is mostly their memories of watching the Ric Burns’ documentary not long after 9/11 and who don’t find it at all astonishing that their building — in this neighborhood! — has a uniformed doorman standing under the canopy over the sidewalk?

Or the very young Mexican working as a dishwasher in one of the area's trendy new restaurants?

Of course, some of the signs of change anyone might recognize, even a first time visitor.

A vacant lot with a new plywood construction fence around it, newly painted blue and stuck all over with building permits and ads for the new “luxury” condos.

A tower crane set up to the side of the street, or scaffolding in front of an older building.

Freshly tuckpointed brickwork, new metal sash windows, and a new front door with just one doorbell in a midblock townhouse on Jane Street while its neighbors still have a slightly tatty look about them, with eight or ten separate doorbells screwed right onto the door frame over its peeling paint.

But after even only a year, or less, a newcomer to the area, even from out of town, would notice that that restaurant on the corner has closed, that somebody is remodelling the storefront next door, that the “for rent” signs in the second floor windows are gone, that a high-end realtor has a "for sale" sign up again on that renovated townhouse on Jane Street already, that there seem to be more, or fewer, young couples pushing MacLaren double strollers down the sidewalk now than there were even last fall.

How long does it take for a newcomer to become a New Yorker? Five years? Ten? Twenty? — Twenty seems like a good number to me, perhaps because that’s about how long I’ve been here myself (even though I was born here, I spent nearly 40 years away from the city). And twenty also, again with a “perhaps,” as being long enough to develop some intuitive sense of the way things change in Manhattan, and especially what the signs of change are — the ones that matter, that is.

But let’s be generous and say ten years — what does such a person see, recognize, as “signs of change” after living here for ten years?

For instance, walking north this time, starting at the corner of West Street and West 12th Street, my “zero” level “Tenth Avenue” corner in the preceding post: anyone will recognize the scaffolding on the southeast corner as a sign of change, if only of a building facelift or renovation, while anyone who has walked past the northeast corner with any frequency over the past few years surely couldn’t help noticing that the building on the corner has been torn down and that whatever is going to replace it hasn’t gone up yet.

And a block north, at Jane Street, they might note with interest the appearance of the porta-potty on the southeast corner and wonder what that implies for the future of the parking lot there. They wouldn’t necessarily see the barrier posts as indicative of a time when the street still connected to West Street here (though they might make the inference). They surely wouldn’t miss the Riverview Hotel facelift on the northeast corner.

Another block to the north they would have noted that the scaffolding came down on the building on the southeast corner, the facelift or renovation now complete, while the building on the northeast corner looks the same as ever. And again (though they might make the inference), they wouldn’t automatically read the barrier posts as a sign that the street once went through here too.

They wouldn’t see any change on either corner at Gansevoort Street, though anyone would recognize the construction visible down the block towards Washington Street and Greenwich Street as a sign of change, though of what significance might not be obvious. And it would be impossible to miss the new building, taller than most in the area, that is visible to north, up on West 13th Street.

They might note that the Gansevoort Meat Center on the southeast corner of Little West 12th Street has been cleaned up some, along with the High Line behind it too.

And they’d surely notice that the building long under construction  — well, it seemed long — on the south side of West 13th Street is finished, even if the rather derelict building on the northeast corner is about the same as always — yes, the overhead conveyor structure was dismantled, in part, a while ago, but that’s about as far as that one's progressed.

Arriving at last at 14th Street, they’d see that the vacant lot is still vacant, but the plywood construction fence has been repainted, the overhead conveyor structure is gone here too, and a chic not to say very “designy” new elevator is in place to carry visitors up to the new High Line Park. And when, exactly, did Sabrett start sending hot dog vendors to this formerly godforsaken corner? (A first time visitor wouldn't notice that.)

If they were very observant, they might notice some new traffic signs here and there as well (a first time visitor of course wouldn't notice these either). But not much else — mostly because there isn’t much else to notice: in this area, this part of Tenth Avenue, one doesn’t see the more finely grained, relatively ephemeral signs of change — new signage, awnings, paint jobs, portable street furniture — that are so densely visible, say, a couple of miles to north, in the forties.

Possibly, probably even, this is because Tenth Avenue down here isn’t a residential street, nor even, really a commercial street, at least not retail commercial. Which means that whatever changes are taking place, they’re relatively large scale, and only large scale.

Which leads me to a sort of obvious conjecture: small scale changes are apparent at street level in the city only where residential and retail pedestrian traffic is relatively dense — conversely, when small scale signs of change begin to appear for the first time (or for the first time in a long while), it’s an indication that the area is changing in the direction of increasing residential and retail density.

Is this always a move upscale? If such small scale signs of change begin to disappear, does this mean the neighborhood is going downhill?

And what about the appearance (or disappearance) of hot dog vendors? Surely that tells us something about what’s happening in a neighborhood.

One last remark: the above recitation of changes is very nearly the same as the one in yesterday’s post — is that because I fit, if not the ten year, then the twenty profile I sketched out above? Or is it more objective, at least in the sense of more intersubjective, shared, than that? Might have to go out and actually ask people about that in order to get an answer.

Something to think about as we go on up Tenth Avenue, starting at Fourteenth Street.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tenth Avenue: signs of change below 14th Street

Tenth Avenue begins, or, from the point of view of vehicular traffic flow, ends (owing to its being one-way southbound below 14th Street) with the entrances to West Street, more or less level with Horatio Street, about a quarter of a mile below 14th Street. (It is one-way northbound above 14th Street on up to 110th Street, above which it is two-way all the way up to its northern end at Broadway/218th Street.)

Earlier in its history, Tenth Avenue ended where it flowed directly into West Street in a sort of "dog's leg" between Gansevoort Street and what is now Little West 12th Street — my large scale Manhattan land-use map, which still shows the Miller Elevated Highway (see below) suggests that this was so on up to the reconstruction of West Street.

For a pedestrian, the barrier to vehicular traffic continuing on into loop connecting Horatio Street with Jane Street a block further south is scarcely noticeable, and the footed eye should be forgiven for seeing this as a continuation of Tenth Avenue, and even — perhaps — for imagining that the avenue continues, as a wide sidewalk apron (but closed to traffic), for yet another block south, to West 12th Street, below which all sense, real or imagined, of Tenth Avenue or its ghosts lies to the walker’s back.

"Tenth Avenue" (actually Jane/Horatio loop) & Jane Street, Southwest Corner (2010)

This stretch of Tenth Avenue below 14th Street is all on land-fill, dating back before the Civil War, and indeed, the same can be said of Tenth Avenue even from 23rd Street, where it ended at the Hudson River shoreline when it was first drawn the Commissioners’ map in 1807.

The area south of 16th Street, mostly between 14th Street and Gansevoort Street, was Manhattan’s meatpacking district for over a century, home at its peak to as many as 250 slaughterhouses, of which perhaps 35 remain. In 2003, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) established the Gansevoort Market Historic District, and since 2007, the entire district has been listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historical Places.

Tenth Avenue was the route of the street-level tracks of the Hudson River Railroad, completed in 1851, and continuing down West Street below what is now Little West 12th Street. These tracks — which led to Tenth Avenue’s being dubbed “Death Avenue” — were replaced by the “High Line” elevated railroad in 1934, running just west of Tenth Avenue from 34th Street down to around 17th Street and just east of Tenth Avenue below 16th Street. The High Line was closed around 1980 and after decades of neglect was reopened as a city park from 20th Street down to Gansevoort Street in 2009.

From 1931 to 1989 Tenth Avenue in this stretch below 14th Street was also hemmed in on the west by the Miller elevated highway above West Street, which opened (after two years of construction) in January, 1933, and closed nearly 41 years later, following the collapse of the section between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street in December, 1973, though demolition of the derelict structure was not completed until 1989.

Beyond West Street, the Hudson River piers, abandoned starting in the 1950s with the move to container shipping, are remembered fondly or notoriously as cruising places for anonymous gay sex in the pre-AIDS era. These piers have since either been demolished or rebuilt as adjuncts of the Hudson River Greenway, though the Sanitation Department’s rendering plant across from the old Gansevoort Market still stands.

Over the past ten years or so the area east of Tenth Avenue below 14th Street, especially Washington Street but also Greenwich Street, has gentrified to an extraordinary extent, but this stretch of Tenth Avenue retains something of its original industrial character, in part perhaps because of its tangency to West Street: together, the two together form a concrete and asphalt barrier — heavily trafficked on West Street — nearly 200 feet wide with no viable pedestrian crossing to the Greenway/Hudson River Park and the river itself between Horatio Street and 14th Street.

Even so, even here, there are signs of change. Let’s take a look, starting at the “zero” end of Tenth Avenue, i.e., at West 12th Street.

(Note: click on images to see them rendered larger.)

West 12th Street

Tenth Avenue & West 12th Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & West 12th Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & West 12th Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: Scaffolding, renovation nearing completion; 2010: neighborhood now upscale (building has uniformed doorman now!); gray plywood construction fence still up with signs “sidewalk closed”; “Financing provided by Hypo Real Estate”; building permits; ads for “PLAZA”; old style trash can still there

NE2006: blue plywood construction fence one lot in; 2010: corner building down 2010, vacant lot with blue plywood construction fence old style trash can; building closer to Jane has had facelift

Jane Street

Tenth Avenue & Jane Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & Jane Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & Jane Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: no signs of change; 2010: porta-potty and structure next to it (mobile office?) suggests construction starting or imminent

NE2006: no signs of change; 2010: minor facelift to Hotel Riverview facade on corner (paint stripped off brick and belting, tuckpointing resurfacing, “cornerstone” now prominent & legible), also beyond entrance, the sidewalk doors to basement on Jane now out of sight; planter boxes wrap corner

Horatio Street

Tenth Avenue & Horatio Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & Horatio Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & Horatio Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: scaffolding; 2010: scaffolding down, facelift/renovation apparently complete

NE2006: possible vacancy or new tenant suggested by raw plywood sheet in front of first storefront window; 2010: no change

Gansevoort Street

Tenth Avenue & Gansevoort Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & Gansevoort Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & Gansevoort Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: no signs of change on corner, construction visible at back between Washington Street and Greenwich Street; 2010: Weichsel beef unchanged except for busted parking sign (2006) gone (2010), also “do not enter” sign facing Tenth — is the octagonal stop sign still there, behind it? (probably)

NE2006: no signs of change; 2010: building down at back between Washington & Greenwich north of Gansevoort — "do not enter" sign facing Tenth (octagonal stop sign still behind it? looks a little like it) — new building visible in back right, also in far back left

Little West 12th Street

Tenth Avenue & Little West 12th Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & Little West 12th Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & Little West 12th Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: no signs of change on corner, but High Line restoration visible; 2010: Gansevoort Meat Center has been cleaned up (“facelift” might be an exaggeration)

NE2006: scaffolding center left; 2010: new scaffolding on right side of tavern — new building visible in back and another one in far back (both left)

West 13th Street

Tenth Avenue & West 13th Street, Northeast & Southeast Corners (2006)

Tenth Avenue & West 13th Street, Southeast Corner (2010)

Tenth Avenue & West 13th Street, Northeast Corner (2010)

SE2006: construction behind parking lot; 2010: new building finished, parking lot still there; new stop sign, also another sign (faces into 13th, can’t see what it says)

NE2006: building appears vacant; 2010: overhead conveyor structure partly down

What do these visible signs of change mean? Especially in an area — not to say "neighborhood" — like this one, a kind of "no man's land," a rump, a remnant of many things simultaneously, left over from the heyday of the meatpacking industry, the elevated West Side Highway, the High Line (and before it the street level tracks), the piers — even for New York, even for Manhattan, this is a lot of change, much of it in a relatively short span of time.

This is enough for one post, but I'll return to the "what does it mean" question very shortly.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tenth Avenue extension below 23rd Street with changes in Manhattan shoreline

I couldn't resist putting the map below together to show both 1) the extension of Tenth Avenue south from its original, 1807, terminus at 23rd Street, and 2) the changes in the Manhattan shoreline since 1807.

Tenth Avenue extension below 23rd Street
with changes to Manhattan shoreline

Green is the original, natural (no land-fill) island of Manhattan.

Brown is the land-fill as shown on the 1865 Vielé map. (I'm not altogether certain that all the blocks shown on Vielé's map in the land-fill area were real rather than prospective.)

Blue is the Hudson River as of Vielé's map of 1865.

The heavy irregular line to the left is the current, 2010, shoreline with piers.

The street plan is modified from a current tax block map.

The original Tenth Avenue, as planned in 1807, is the deeper yellow line running north from 23rd street.

The subsequent extension of Tenth Avenue south to Horatio Street is indicated by the lighter yellow line.

(The initial extension was to West Street, between what is now Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street, probably by 1836, possibly already by 1831; I am not sure when the further extension down not quite to Horatio Street took place — before or after the erection or the demolition of the elevated West Side Highway?)

The yellow dots from Horatio Street to Jane Street indicate the apparent (but not official) extension of Tenth Avenue as experienced by a pedestrian.

Pictures and discussion of Tenth Avenue below 14th Street coming soon!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tenth Avenue Delis

After all that heavy lifting on the foot of Tenth Avenue yesterday — yes, I admit it, I got carried away by my love of maps — let's take a look at something simpler: delis.

Or is this any simpler?

Tenth Avenue & 88th Street, Southwest Corner
(2006 above, 2010 below)

One of the hazards of taking any closer look at almost anything in the city is that everything is so richly connected to so many other things in so many different ways as to make a mockery of the idea of "simple" or even "simpler."

Take, for instance, delis, not in the original, literal sense, from the German, delikatessen, "delicate food," "delicacies," but rather in the more contemporary sense of a small grocery store, often, though not always, on a corner, and often, but also not always, with some facilities to provide hot and cold take out, however limited the menu may be.

The first one of these you encounter walking up Tenth Avenue is on the southwest corner of 28th Street — this surely says something about how little the stretch of the avenue up to there has been residential or even commercial (as opposed to industrial) for many decades now.

The last deli before 110th Street is just above the northwest corner of 109th Street.

In between there are another 34 delis, for a grand total of 36 on Tenth Avenue up to 110th Street.

Or a bit over two per block above 28th Street.

Of these 36 deli enterprises, 16, or 44% were either new to the location (just a couple) or showed some combination of new awnings or new signage, usually with a new name for the business, 2010 vs. 2006.

44%! Nearly half, in fact!

That's a little over 5 per year, 15% annually, meaning, on the math alone, that these changes happen about seven years on average. (Yes, the sample is too small to say this with any certainty, but still, it gives a rough picture and, better yet, raises some questions.)

The first question is this: do the new awnings, new signage, new names indicate new ownership, or at least new management? Meaning, per the numbers, that delis change hands on average once every seven years?

Or are the visible changes just the result of the same owners or managers dressing up the business to keep pace with other changes, especially, no doubt, demographic changes, in their immediate locale? In which case, the question is whether the rate of neighborhood change is such as to motivate such changes every seven years?

Or both, of course.

In short, do changing deli facades, awnings, names, signage give us a kind of neighborhood-intrinsic "clock" against which to measure relative rates of change in the characters of neighborhoods?

These are not questions to be answered by looking at pictures, or if they are, I don't know how to read the answers from the pictures.

Would it be worth going back and asking?

Maybe ….

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tenth Avenue beginnings ….

In effort to get some of the past few weeks' work to congeal into something beyond simple counting on the one hand and "ooh, look at that!" on the other, I've started work on an informal essay on the "signs of change" on Tenth Avenue from its southernmost corner on up to — well, I'm not sure how far on up to, at this point, but let's say on up to 110th Street, though that may prove to be too much.

Foot of Tenth Avenue at 23rd Street
Commissioners' Plan of 1807 (north is towards the right)

Though the planned essay is meant to be informal, it's not meant to be as informal as the posts on this blog, and as seems always to be the case, the result even of intending to tighten the screws a bit brings unexpected as well as expected results.

What I expected was that it would be seductively easier to start researching and writing about the content or subjects of the photographs beyond what one can actually see in them.

But then some of that is surely desirable, especially for a conjectural readership who may not know the avenue in the way that long term residents do.

And also, the "signs of change" I'm looking at are of interest because they, or their meanings, are shared at least by people for whom the avenue is a regular part of their lives, and, more broadly, by people for whom such signs in any large scale urban setting would be meaningful. So what I can bring to bear of my own experience, not specifically personally, but as a member of the community defined by those who know something of the avenue and its signs — or of such avenues and such signs — is no more or less essential than the knowledge and experience of any reader of a text is essential to its understanding.

What was unexpected was a difficulty I discovered in determining the southernmost corner of Tenth Avenue, which, as it turns out, has a history all its own, stretching back over 200 years!

I'll tell you a little bit about it (possibly more than either you or I ever wanted to know).

Most of the story is disclosed by maps, even though they often, especially in the earlier part of the 19th century, before the Civil War, tend to contradict one another — the result, I imagine, of some map makers and printers copying earlier maps by others, either outright or with only partial updates, and then dating them with their current date of publication, even if their content was already well out of date and superseded by other, more recent maps.

Let us begin just before the beginning, with William Bridges' 1807 "Plan of the City of New York with Recent and Intended Improvements." This is a good place to start because it is the last map to be produced prior to the appearance of the famous "Commissioners" map of 1807. The significance for our purposes of Bridges' map is simple: there is no Tenth Avenue, actual or planned, to be found on it.

The Commissioners' map and plan has its own fascination, especially in its details, but that's another story for another post, so I won't allow myself that digression here. The map of 1807 itself, which defined Manhattan's characteristic "grid," shows Tenth Avenue starting just below 23rd Street (and just above 22nd Street), that is, right where the avenue is terminated by the Manhattan shoreline as it was at that time, before a series of landfills extended the island out into the Hudson, first to Eleventh Avenue, later to Twelfth, and even, briefly, to a nominal "Thirteenth" Avenue.

I will mention that the Commissioners' Tenth Avenue extended unbroken all the way from this starting point northwards to just west of the old Kings Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

Maps by City Surveyor Thomas Poppleton in 1817 and derivative maps by William Hooker in 1817 and 1821 don't extend far enough north to reach Tenth Avenue's starting point at 22nd/23rd Street, but do show that the shoreline build-out, already underway lower on the island, did not yet extend above Greenwich Lane, which is now (I believe) Little West 12th Street.

J. F. Morin's map of 1828, William Chapin's of 1831, and the "Fireman's" map of 1834 also show no shoreline build-out here, but do show Tenth Avenue now extended (in concept or reality?) down to a point between Greenwich Lane and 12th Street.

J. H. Colton's topographic map of 1836 definitely (?) shows the shoreline built-out above 14th Street, and also shows the extension of the avenue down to just below 12th Street.

The British Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge's map of 1844 shows the shoreline built out below as well as above 14th Street, but D. H. Burr's map of 1846, Dogget's map of 1848, and Atwood's map of 1849 fail to show any shoreline build-out below 14th Street, though they do show the extension of Tenth Avenue down to below 12th Street.

Hayward's 1850 map shows the shoreline built-out to Eleventh Avenue, as does Vielé's very famous topographical map — still used to locate the natural watercourses below today's artificially raised ground level in Manhattan.

Subsequent maps of the city's wards (1870), railroads (1885), and streets (1886) show the same situation for Tenth Avenue as Vielé's, though the 1886 map shows West Street extended diagonally past Tenth Avenue and on up to Eleventh.

Maps of 1902 and 1903 show West Street extended up to 29th or (probably) 30th Street, and a 1911 map by the People's Publishing Company (Chicago) shows this extension as "Thirteenth Avenue" between 23rd Street and 30th Street.

Thirteenth Avenue appears again on a Rand McNally street map of 1934, but thereafter, at least by the time of the Gousha road map of 1941, shows West Street — actually the elevated West Side Highway by this time — extended up to its present position, with no further shoreline build-outs.

This would seem to take us far afield of the southern terminus of Tenth Avenue, then or now, were it not for the interlude represented by the West Side Elevated Highway, begun in 1929 and opened from Canal Street up to 22nd Street in November, 1930. As a result, Tenth Avenue, though extended, as before, down to Little West 12th Street or just below, flowed into the remains of West Street below the elevated but with no local access to the elevated highway itself.

Forty-some years later, in 1973, the elevated highway just above Tenth Avenue's terminus between Little West 12th Street and Gansevoort Street collapsed. The subsequent demolition of the elevated highway, and the long process of rehabilitating West Street — the long-running "Westway" controversy I must leave to another post if indeed I get to it all — led eventually to Tenth Avenue running side by side with the new West Street from 13th Street down to Horatio Street.

And for the pedestrian, it is not at all obvious that it isn't Tenth Avenue for yet another block south, down to Jane Street.

So where Tenth Avenue begins is a whole history in itself, and even today there is ambiguity to footed eye, if not to the cartographer.

I'll start, however illegitimately, with "Tenth" Avenue and Jane Street — inclusiveness may not always be a better principle but it's often a more interesting one, especially since, in this instance, the changes in neighborhood character around the foot of Tenth Avenue — perhaps I should call it the "extended foot" of Tenth Avenue, from 13th Street down to Jane Street — are so extreme that a look at "signs of change" and actual change on Tenth Avenue that ignored them would be highly remiss, to say the least.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tenth Avenue 13th Street — 110th Street: changes 2010 vs. 2006

Summary stats for the signs of change on Tenth (Amsterdam) Avenue from 73rd Street on up to 110th Street (done a little more systematically than those for 14th Street — 72nd Street, which means I'll have to go back and reconcile the two, though they're not far apart):

Number of corners: 361

Total signs of change: 278

Corners with no change: 178 (49%)

Corners with changes: 183 (51%)

Newly vacant lots: 4

Major construction or demolition: 16

New buildings: 23

Renovations: 8

Face lifts: 22

Scaffolding up: 38

Scaffolding down: 15

New signage and/or awnings: 76

New tenants: 63

Newly vacant storefronts: 13

This amounts to 0.77 changes per corner overall; 1.52 changes per corner with change(s). This principally due, I think, to the high correlation between new tenancies and new signage and awnings.

Tenth Avenue 16th Street — 108th Street: average changes per corner
centered in moving five block window

The chart shows the average number of changes per corner, from 16th Street to 108th Street, centered within a 21 corner moving window (usually 2.5 blocks each way from the given street, for a total interval of about a quarter of a mile). The numbers in between on the x-axis are the major east-west streets (23rd, 34th, 42nd, etc.).

As the chart makes evident, there are five peak centers of change: the highest centered around 92nd Street, the second highest around 54th Street, the third around 75th Street, the fourth around 16th Street, and the fifth around 108th Street. There are three troughs of relatively low change density: the lowest around 61st Street, the next two, about equal, centered around 34th Street and around 99th Street.

A few conjectures: the 16th Street peak represents northward movement of gentrification from the former Meatpacking District, together with the emergence of Chelsea as the new art gallery district. The 54th Street peak represents a westward expansion of Midtown; the 75th Street peak may be a kind of second order "renewal" of this oldest part of the Upper West Side; the 92nd Street peak may, again, be a kind of second order renewal (perhaps due to an increased population density?); while the 108th Street peak is likely, in part, to be a southward and eastward expansion of the more upscale population drawn to Columbia University.

The 34th Street trough is explainable in part by the MTA railroad yards on the west side of the avenue below 33rd Street, the 61st Street trough by the public housing on the west side of the avenue and the Lincoln Center complex on its east side. The uptown trough may similarly be explained, at least in part, by the public housing there.

(These conjectures are very "off the top of my head" and, even if in some measure correct, do not pretend to address the underlying drivers of change in the city.)