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.
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.
Counter to the neoliberal tautology that gentrification is inevitable — a claim that justifies all manner of violence against vulnerable urban communities — Stein argues that there indeed is an alternative to land value planning and capitalist land markets. Shining through Stein’s history of imperialist expansion, mass displacements and enclosure, and bipartisan commitment to prioritizing real estate profits over people are stories of tenants, workers, and radical planners who successfully fought back against the commodification of urban space. Hilary Wilson — PhD student in Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center — recently interviewed Stein to learn more about his motivations for writing the book and the social, political, and economic struggles that have constituted the real estate state.
By Scott M. Larson
Wins by left-leaning candidates in 2018 midterm elections have led many to suggest a progressive revolution is under way in Democratic — if not American — politics. With each successive victory progressive candidates have staked out bold positions on hot-button issues from Medicare-for-all to a $15 federal minimum wage and free college education.
But what isn’t so clear is what this insurgent wave and its progressive mantle mean for the shaping and planning of our cities.
That question took on added significance just a week after the midterm elections when Amazon announced plans to build one of two new headquarters in Long Island City. Details of the plan, which involved more than a billion dollars in publicly funded incentives from New York City and New York State, drew swift criticism from many on the left, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the progressive movement’s rising stars.
“Amazon is a billion-dollar company,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, who in November was elected to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District, which borders the district that includes Long Island City. “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”
While opposition from Ocasio-Cortez and other local politicians, along with fierce resistance from community residents, ultimately led Amazon to back out of the plan, the larger question remains: what is progressive urban policy, and how does it hope to address the myriad problems facing America’s cities?
Walking around New York, Macaulay-Lewis says she “was struck by how many classical-looking buildings there were.” Indeed, references to the myths, gods, motifs and structures of the ancient world are seemingly everywhere: in courthouses, museums and libraries, in arches and columns, in Latin inscriptions and sculptures.
But these classical references aren’t just about aesthetics or engineering. They also symbolize the aspirations of a city that saw itself as a capital of learning, culture, and civic life, on par with the finest institutions of the ancient world.
[The Manhattan Street Grid Plan: Misconceptions and Corrections] Myth#9: A System of Block and Lot Divisions
By Gergely Baics and Leah Meisterlin
The New York City grid is often understood as a foundational system of land subdivision and cadastral allotment. Accordingly, the grid divides Manhattan into a highly regularized system of rectangular shaped blocks, subdivided into lots, making standard (and stackable) units of real estate available for urban development. The grid accomplishes the city’s apportionment through its collection of more frequently spaced and narrower east-west cross-streets and less frequently spaced and wider north-south avenues — each serving as partition and demarcation between the blocks with their nested lots. Indeed, conceptualizing the grid as a system of subdivided blocks highlights its underlying cadastral logic. Previous posts (#4 and #6) have addressed two myths following from this line of reasoning, specifically the extent to which block sizes determined lot sizes, and how the relentless regularity of blocks and lots contributed to rampant real estate speculation.
By Molly Rosner
Molly Rosner works at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College. The piece below, and any opinions expressed within, do not represent the Archives or the College’s point of view.
On November 13, 2018, Amazon announced that Long Island City would become the site for its new headquarters “HQ2” along with a site in Crystal City, Virginia. Since then, New Yorkers have greeted this announcement with both applause and outrage. Throughout the year, Amazon has received bids from cities and towns across the country trying to entice the trillion-dollar company to their area. But after the gimmicks and tax incentives have all been weighed, it feels clear that New York was always high on the list of places the company was considering.
Reactions have been swift and dramatic. LaGuardia Community College, in Long Island City, added a note to its website that reads, “We’re very proud that LaGuardia was a key player in the proposal process to bring Amazon here, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that LaGuardia’s diverse and talented students were a big plus for LIC.” The President of LaGuardia Community College, Gail Mellow, posted an open letter on the college website welcoming the company and saying, “we’re ready for Amazon to make a commitment to education and workforce training in Long Island City, and are ready to support Amazon in Queens as its educational partner.”At the same time others, including professors at the college, have expressed concern about how Amazon’s presence in the area will impact the already burdened infrastructure and transportation system.
New York City Has the Country’s Most Elaborate Zoning Code. Why Isn’t It Protecting Us From Luxury Overgrowth?
By Samuel Stein
Construction is booming in New York City, and, as the real-time construction map recently released by the New York City Department of Buildings shows, a lot of the new development is wildly out of context with the surrounding neighborhoods. While scale is not sacred, many of these buildings pose quite specific problems for their neighbors, as in the case of a proposed string of towers on Franklin Avenue that would cast looming shadows over the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. A luxury development whose size and shape would make a public garden obsolete is exactly the kind of development that city planners should be working overtime to prevent.
The main tool city planners use for such regulation is zoning — the set of rules that regulate what can be built where, and at what size. New York City has one of the world’s most elaborate zoning codes, with nearly 4,000 pages of maps and text delineating over 150 different zoning types. Given the code’s power and complexity, one might think that the city would use zoning to prevent property owners from running roughshod over neighborhoods and communities. Instead, however, contemporary planners and politicians use zoning to protect the real estate industry from the people, rather than to protect the people from the real estate industry.
Isn’t this precisely the opposite of what zoning is supposed to do? Isn’t the whole point of zoning to prevent market chaos and create a more orderly, predictable, healthy and harmonious urban landscape? To answer these questions, we must return to the roots of the city’s zoning code.
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