By Joseph Alexiou
Writer and photographer Mitch Waxman is the leading authority on the history of Newtown Creek, a toxically polluted industrial waterway on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. In addition to his reporting and documentation, Waxman leads regular tours on land and by boat while spreading the unique stories of New York’s most centrally located contaminated coastline to the community.
You are considered New York City’s foremost authority on Newtown Creek. What was the journey to becoming an expert on a federal Superfund site?
Famously how I ended up at Newtown is that I got sick with heart “stuff,” and my doctor told me to start running. The quote I always give everyone is that in the part of Brooklyn I’m from, you only run if someone is chasing you. So I walked. I walked around with camera and discovered Newtown Creek and discovered this wild thing in the center New York City.
Reviewed by Kara Murphy Schlichting
What metaphor captures the relationship between the Hudson River, the cities that line its shores, and the people who plie its waters? Is the river a touchstone by which thinkers trace American ideas about nature? Is it an allegory, teaching those humbled in the face of ecological change to repent humanity's role? Is it the exemplar of the declension narrative present in American environmental storytelling? Or is the river more like a battle cry, rallying those committed to environmental activism and resiliency? Hudson Rising, the new exhibit at the New York Historical Society, contends it is all of these things. This deeply researched, thoughtfully presented, and satisfyingly interdisciplinary exhibit introduces the visitor to myriad people who have used and shaped the river, confronted ecological ruin, and turned towards preservation to mitigate degradation.
Hudson Rising, New York Historical Society. March 1 – August 4, 2019.
By Nina E. Harkrader
Upper and middle-class New Yorkers quickly grew alarmed by the number of young, single women living in cities apart from their families—alone, unprotected, and unsupervised. The practical question of finding decent accommodation for single working women thus also became a moral one of preserving the purity, dignity, and femininity of future wives and mothers. These tensions between the increasing numbers of working women and societal expectations would continue for decades. As a result, during the period from about 1860 to 1930, urban housing for single working women—its location, design, and even its furnishings—became central to the struggle for women to be accepted as independent citizens.
Reviewed by Leslie Day
In the late nineteenth century, municipal officials and boosters of a regionally-scaled New York City endeavored to reshape the material nature of the cityscape. Debates about the physical nature of the urban fringe demonstrate how the city’s coastal edge was both an ecological system and a cultural and political landscape. The harbor environment included both sides of the high-tide line — riparian land and lands underwater. Developers looked to control the material characteristics of the coast through infrastructure. Landscape architects, engineers, and street commissioners approached the urban edge as a laboratory for regional planning. These city builders focused on regional environmental boundaries in contradistinction to laissez-faire urbanization and development that overlooked the conditions of environment and topography. Parks, channelized rivers, and street systems expanded the urban fabric into rural hinterlands.
Reprinted with permission from New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore, by Kara Murphy Schlichting, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
Reviewed by Emily Brooks
The Girl on the Velvet Swing is an engaging and fast-paced presentation of this story that will prove compelling to popular and academic audiences interested in New York City history or histories of the gilded age. Despite these strengths, Baatz’s analysis is weakened by a problematic interpretation of Nesbit’s narrative of her own assault, included in the book’s afterword, which may unsettle readers.
The Manhattan Street Grid Plan: Misconceptions and Corrections [Expansion] Myth #10: Example of Laissez-Faire Planning
By Gergely Baics & Leah Meisterlin
Not until 1916 did New York City acquire its comprehensive zoning resolution, the first in the nation. Through the 19th Century, the city’s land-use restrictions comprised a patchwork of fragmented and locally scaled public and private regulatory interventions, including nuisance laws, fire zones, building codes, and deed restrictions in the form of restrictive covenants. Although with this patchwork of caveats, it is fair to describe this early land-use regime as largely unregulated, at least by our contemporary standards. The Commissioners’ Plan was laid out within this historical context: even as it strictly defines the geometry of blocks and streets — and, consequently, a geometry of intersections — the plan remains silent on land use, save the location of a few public spaces. In fact, the 1811 Plan preceded the conceptualization of distinct categories of use. Such categorization arguably first appeared decades later in William Perris’s landmark 1852-54 Fire Insurance Atlas, which catalogued and systematically organized each building in Manhattan by its function, establishing our still familiar taxonomy of residential, commercial, and industrial uses.
Recovering New York’s Entangled Dutch, Native American, and African Histories: An Interview with Jennifer Tosch
By Andrea Mosterman
The tour, which she describes as “a pilgrimage,” addresses the difficult histories of slavery practiced by the region’s Dutch descendants. In 2017, Jennifer and her colleagues of the Mapping Slavery Project, a public history project based in the Netherlands that focuses on the Dutch history of slavery, published Dutch New York Histories: Connecting African, Native America and Slavery Heritage, a collection of New York sites that in some way are linked to the interconnected histories of the area’s Dutch, Indigenous, and African American peoples. The tour and publication highlight many important New York City sites. I talked to Jennifer about the tour, the book, and her motivations to start this project.
By Andrew Urban
In November, 2018, the Public Historian published a review that I wrote of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s newest tour: Under One Roof. The tour interprets the lives of three families who lived in the tenement at 103 Orchard Street — which was acquired by the museum in 2007 — from the 1940s up until the recent past. Addressing post-World War II immigration and migration to the Lower East Side, the educators leading the tours that I took did an excellent job highlighting how Americans have frequently been reluctant to welcome the world’s “huddled masses,” national myths notwithstanding. For instance, visitors are introduced to surveys conducted with Americans in 1946, in which a majority of respondents rejected proposals that would have suspended quota restrictions in order to permit Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and other Displaced Persons from Europe to enter the United States. One of the Under One Roof tours I took occurred in January 2018, a few days after President Trump expressed a desire for the United States to receive immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole countries” such as Haiti. In 1946, the educator explained, Scandinavian countries also scored favorably with the American public as the most desirable sources of immigration. Through framings such as this, the Under One Roof tour rightly insists that the United States will only be able to come to terms with the controversies and debates that surround immigration policy today if it honestly evaluates its own history — racist attitudes included.
Samantha Grace Lewis, “Occupy the MoMA January 13, 2012.” Occupy Museums, an activist movement that originated as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, has been a leading critic of the relationship between art museums and capitalism. Recent actions have included a 2017 protest at MoMA calling for the removal of board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock Inc., whose “investment management company” has used campaign donations and the political appointments of former employees to attack and weaken regulations directed at the finance industry.
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