Battle for Gotham’s author Roberta Gratz in panel discussion w/ Richard Sennett


I went to a discussion of the book Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. The talk took place at the Lang Center at Parsons New School and was a discussion between the author of the book Roberta Brandes Gratz and author/urbanist, Richard Sennett and was moderated by David Brancaccio.

I have set out to gain a fuller understanding of this great city i currently reside in and have been reading two books which in turn led me to attend this lecture, including The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro and The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs,

I noted some of the ideas that rang out from the discussion and thought I would share them here. After introductions form the moderator, Gratz noted that the 1970’s where among New York’s darkest time. She drew a strong corollary to this fact and the fact that it was at this point in time when Moses’ power was greatest and the City was seeing and feeling the crushing results of many of his prior projects. These dark days also seemed to end just as soon as Moses stepped off the scene. She stated that Moses was all about control, top down leadership and, by the end of his career, had become a de facto Czar when it came to any sort physical development within the City and even to some extent throughout the State of New York, The sentiment was carried further to emphasize his misuse of this misappropriated power by pointing out that Moses was, in fact, a racist and, although he was highly educated and was very proficient in Getting Things Done, he did not understand how a city functions. Without any pretense of trying to understand the effect of his projects he simply plowed them through by any means possible.

The point was made that New York City managed to remain prosperous throughout WWII because of it’s diversity and the many different, small industries scattered through the city. New York was not a one smokestack town, like so many other cities at the time that folded in the throes of the war.

Addressing the idea of competing ideologies from the two shapers of New York, Gratz gave the examples of the new Yankee Stadium, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus expansion as a few recent projects that echo the ideology behind Moses’ heavy handed, top down approach to “planning”. Planning in quotes because, these mega-project actually concern themselves little with sound planning principles and process as they are merely “development subsidized by the government and pushed through over local opposition… On the other, initiatives like the DOT’s recent expansion of bike lanes and the creation of Hudson River Park, which reclaimed fallow city land and unused piers, invest in the adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure and allow local neighborhoods to flourish” (quoted from Metropolis Bookshelf review) The recent flourishing activity of urban agriculture was also offered. The prior examples proving that the Moses approach is alive and well with the latter mentioned projects as evidence that the Jacobs mentality also persists to modern day New York.

Two other interesting points made before Gratz yeilded the podium to Sennett was that she believes that there are three key ideas to turning the City back from Moses’ hand. These are Density, Transit and Education. She says that if we can fix these, everything else will fall into place. Another interesting statement, almost a rally cry for cities throught the nation and, in fact, the world. was that, “Regeneration will happen, not by teaing down buildings, but by filling in parking lots.” This was in defiance of all the historic city cores and downtown areas that are currently in the process (or at least where before the economic downturn) of tearing down old “blighted” (more on this term latter) buildings to replace them with modern digs. She also used this moment to decry the AIA and USGBC‘s stance on conservation quoting a LEED sytem where designers are awarded as many points for installing a bike rack as for saving an existing building (this she admitted may be an outdated version) and stating that “the greenest building is the one that is already built.”

Then Mr. Sennett took the podium and dilivered his argument, which only ever so slightly differed from Gratz, Moses as devil Jacobs as savior, stance. He did not specifically attack Jacobs as Gratz did Moses, but he did raise a couple meaningful quibbles with her style and philosophy. In particular he stated that he holds lingering questions about Jane proposed to knit the city together, particularally economically. He said that dumping money in th the economy does not equal generating economy. This comment was addressed at the government subsidies he percieves as proping up Jacobs style development, whereas Mosos style development has the distigushing feature of being backed by larger corparate and developer inteties so it did not need to rely so heavily on the government.

Sennet then introduced a very interesting idea into the conversion, Saying that edge conditions in the urban environment should be of particular interest and hold special significance to the overall worth of the urban fabric. In natural environments a place where to two different plant communities come together is called an ecotone. I have also heard and used the term interstitial spaces to describe places that are left vacant or unused between other areas of higher degrees of use. At any rate, Sennett went into more detail as to how these spaces are important with the assertion that, in nature, these in-between places are usually (but not always) very active and robust. It should be a goal of designers and developers to create similar activated spaces when creating urban environments. “In urban ecology we want more borders (lively intersections) and less boundaries (dead spaces between adjacent land uses and neighborhoods).

Two examples where given of good borders. The first is 14th Street in Manhattan. This street, like many other numbered streets on the island, bisects the entire borough from the East River to the Hudson River. Fourteenth Street is a particularly good example though because in its course it sees a very diverse cross section of Manhattan’s population. “At Broadway, 14th Street forms the southern border of Union Square. It is also considered the northern boundary of Greenwich Village, Alphabet City and the East Village, and the southern boundary of Chelsea, Flatiron/Lower Midtown, and Gramercy.” (quote from Wikipedia entry for 14th St). Even so it never seems to have any “dead zone” while walking, biking or even driving (not that you would notice at that point) through the street. So 14th Street actually knits all these places together and becomes a highly desirable place to be even though at no time while actually on 14th St would you be anywhere near the center, and supposedly more active and virabrant hearts, of any neighborhood or park that borders this Street.

The second example of a border is the areas that lie between Black Harlem and Spanish Harlem in Northern Manhattan. I have little experience within these areas so I rely on trust when the lecturer points out that although this area in Harlem is nowhere near the hearts of the two communities being referenced, it remains an extremely vibrant and well used area that serves a purpose of bringing these two communities together, not separating them.

Although some detail was gone into about boundaries, there where no specific places given as examples. So I will take the liberty to give some examples, although not specific ones. The first example would deal with similar adjacent land uses that are separated as is the case with large planned communities. Often times this suburban product is walled off on all sides, isolating the residents of one community from another. To build upon this example, people within these walled off neighborhoods may be very near to grocery stores, school and other necessary shops, in fact they could be immediately adjacent to these. But if the wall around the community separates the two, the physical separation is a barrier.

In retrospect, that may not have been the best example because it has not dealt with an urban environment. So I will give a more specific example. I currently live in Flushing, Queens near Met’s Stadium (Citi Field). From my apartment I would go into downtown Flushing (Queens Chinatown) which is a tightly dense and richly mixed use area. As I travel West, away from the core of Chinatown  and towards the neighboring Latin communities of East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, I come to a series of big box stores including Target, Home Depot and BJ’s, which effectively put an end to the richly diverse, pedestrian friendly areas to the East, continuing my route I come into Willets Point (which still baffles me so I will not comment on it here) and Citi Field, surrounded by huge parking lots and MTA bus fleet management facilities. Finally I emerge on the other side of the gauntlet (and it really does feel like a suicide mission if when I ride my bicycle through this area) to the more hospitable, regular block formation, streets, sidewalks and business facades of East Elmhurst. There is no possible way for business owners in the “adjacent” communities to communicate. No way for children to safely visit friend who they may well go to the same school with or for that fact elderly to visit friends whom they may attend church with, other than the car. Even taking the subway from Flushing to Willets Point would be self defeating as the station there is in the middle of the gauntlet. This, in my opinion, is an excellent (if not horrendous) example of two communities that share a boundary as opposed to a border.

This definition and explanation of borders knitting the city together and boundaries tearing them apart really illuminated Sennett’s statement that, “How we rebuild cities should be dynamic on local levels but more than the sum of all its parts.”

At this point both presenters took their seat and the moderator steered a discussion between the two then questions gathered from the audience where addressed. I’m not gonna go point by point here but instead I’ll just extrapolate some of the things that caught my ear.

Gratz, a friend of Jane Jacobs before her death in the early 90’s gave this as Jacobs’ comment to people who love cars – If you chose to live with cars that’s fine. But live with the consequences. Don’t try to change the city with the car. The city is for the people.

Sennett commented on development of the Barcelona & Athens Olympics facilities stating that, “The Barcelona Olympics bid “made time visible”. The planners made sure there was transportation out to the bigger event spaces that where created for the Olympics. All the athlete and media housing was created in infill and reuse areas.  This was placed in contrast to the Athens Olympic City where everything was built outside the city and the locals never accepted the addition as a part of the ancient city or incorporated it into that rich heritage. The argument suggests that the outpouring of this money may have helped lead to the current economic crisis that Greece is facing currently.

Sennett: “Things need to be addressed in cities with a much more definite and deeper since of the environment.

Gratz, in response to the Athens example: Roosevelt Island was  built from scratch in one fell swoop. It doesn’t deal with the fact that it is on an island (lacks environmental sensitivity) and was developed at the rate of over $300 million per year. All this in the 1970’s while the Bronx where being left to burn.

Gratz: “The term “blight” in the US is nothing more than an excuse to condemn and demolish buildings to make way for Moses style development.”

Gratz: “Small businesses are the development engines of the future.. Small urban manufacturing is the greatest generator of jobs per dollar invested not funding big business, as the recent economic bailout (spending) plan did.

Investing in small business cannot be done by the government. This funding will only happen by redefining economics overall.

Another interesting idea that was dwelled upon by both speakers is the difference between the jobs created by small industry and business as opposed to large industry and business. While smaller businesses tend to come in and out of existence they cater to an upwardly mobile workforce and, more important than the permanence of the jobs, is the business and professional networks that are created as different people work with one another at different places creating a community around the particular industry or business in question that is stronger and more whole than the sum of all its parts (which is a theme at this point).

At the very end of the discussion an interesting point of contention was discovered between the two speakers but not deeply elaborated on due to time constraints. The source of the disagreement lie in what Sennett described as the fact that much of the “no-growth” and NIMBY mindset is based upon ideas set forth initially by Jane Jacobs. Roberta rebutted that this may have some grounds of truth but most of the time communities that are in opposition to a proposed development are not opposed to development outright and in fact more times than not have an equally viable alternative to the developers plans that the community would find fitting and appropriate.


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