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9.10.2005

It's Because I Have a Real Job Now.
Oh God. I'm not even sure I should bother posting here anymore, but here is my latest article for the New York Spirit. Enjoy. I suppose it will be on their website in October.

There used to be a mini-golf course at that intersection. I remember because I had my tenth birthday party there and Phil, who’s last name is lost to history, was trying to look like a golf pro and clonked my mom in the head on his backswing. With a putter. I knew even then that it must have hurt, but someone fetched my mom a bag of ice and she soldiered on, making small talk with the mothers of my friends so as not to ruin my birthday. A few years later they built a strip mall. The place is gone.
I remember the Dairy Queen out on the edge of town too. I remember going there for soft serve with my older brother and sister, taken by a babysitter, and waiting while the flies buzzed, landing on my flip-flopped feet. I remember the ugly white linoleum tiles with grey caulk and ice cream smudges. Everyone else swatted and cursed at the flies but in my single-mindedness I couldn’t have cared if the damn things flew up my nose. I was getting a vanilla cone with a chocolate dip and everything else was irrelevant. That place, too, is gone. A pizza parlor last time I checked.
Weirdest of all, my parents don’t even live in that town anymore, that little New England ‘burb and house where I spent my entire childhood. They’re out in San Francisco. My whole family is out in San Francisco, actually, with me as the lone outpost on this hyper-accelerated side of the country. With them gone, I have no excuse to go back to the old home except to visit places that either aren’t there or aren’t quite like I remember them. You can’t go back. They say it for a reason.
I’m not old and I don’t decry the pace of change; that’s just the way it is. When things that I like disappear before I’m ready, I figure it’s the world’s way of telling me to find new places to love. It’s not like there’s a shortage. Besides, what other choice do we have? We can try and slow it down, I suppose – and you might even be successful for a minute or two – but in the end you’re just pissing into the wind, as my dad says. Wasting your time.
And New York is hardly the exception. If on the tourist brochures it’s “The City That Never Sleeps,” then to us, certainly less loudly advertised, it’s “The City That Changes Under Our Feet.” Blink and that corner store you love is gone. Even stranger, blink and that brand new corner store that just opened three months ago is already undergoing renovations. Why? Because New York can’t even keep up with itself. Change, change, change.

So, in the face of the incessant transformation, how do you capture the oomph of the places that have embossed your unwritten biography? Developers will come and leave their indelible marks, I promise. They will build on top of the places that are holy only to you, and the best you can hope for is that in their place they will create something that, in time, will also hold holy memories for you or someone else.
You have to be an urban boyscout, you have to be prepared for the change. How? Pay attention, keep your wits about you, be aware. Be a New York Urbanist.
And so, not unconnected to the fact that the entire city of New Orleans has been inalterably changed by a flood just this week, I offer a list of ways you can remember the places that will disappear before you are ready for them to go.

Learn to Draw. I went to graduate school keenly aware that I was a man who wanted to be an urban designer but didn’t know how to draw. I knew drawing was a language, as much as Spanish, as much as music, as much as math, but I was profoundly illiterate. And so I took classes. It was one of the most frustrating things in my life, to see something in front of me, to ask my hand to make a replica of said thing, and then have my hand steal the pencil and go off on a picnic without inviting me.
But even the process of learning how to draw – forget for the moment becoming proficient – teaches you to be aware of things that you rarely see. Your eyes are in the habit of lying to you. They use shorthand, telling you that lines receding into the distance are long when, in truth, they look very short. To learn how to draw, you have to unlearn the little tricks your eyes have spent a lifetime learning. And to do that, you have to shut yourself up and just look. Spend enough time looking and you’ll remember what you’ve seen.
Sit for half an hour with a glass of wine (always my favorite way to draw) and stare at a flower and patterns will emerge. Or maybe not patterns, but relationships – the length of this relative to the width of that. Now go sit in Columbus Circle, my new favorite public space, and draw 2 Columbus Cirlce, a bizarre building scheduled to be demolished (much to the fury of historic preservationists). It is a weird little thing with no windows but highly detailed frills. It is short and stocky next to the AOL/Time Warner Center. A plain Jane wearing a sun dress. Look at how it sits so heavy while the traffic darts around in front of it.

Listen to Music. My first year out college, I worked at a small planning firm in Boston with offices in an old industrial district. The office had interior brick walls, wide, wooden floorboards, and no heat after 5pm in the winter. To this day, when I listen to Morphine’s Cure for Pain album, I remember the December sunlight slinking past the cranes of the Big Dig, over the map table, and onto my desk. I remember the heavy clonk of the pile drivers (a sound entirely unlike the clonk of Phil’s golf club on my mother’s head, thank God) and the taste of Juicy Fruit, which I was strangely enamored with at the time. I remember that I only had two pairs of pants nice enough to wear to work and one had a stain on the right heel that I hid with a cuff. I remember wearing a winter hat in the office. Every time I listen to that album, I remember those things. You have albums that do the same, I’m sure.
So this one is easy. It involves your IPod, which I know that you have because you are a New Yorker. How to make use of the ubiquitous Apple music toy? Next time you are walking in the park, or on your commute, or anyplace you visit often and want to be sure to remember, pick an album off your IPod and listen to that album every time you are in that place or on that journey. In ten years it will remind you of the smell of that deli and that one London Plane Tree on the corner with brighter leaves than the rest. Change the album with the season, or in accordance with a major life change. Maybe you hate your job now and the album you listen to on your commute will yield bittersweet memories, but when you get that promotion you will have new songs and new memories even though you are walking in the same places. You will see the same things and they will look different.

Seek Out New Views. I recently moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I hired a “Guy with a Truck,” threw my boxes into the back, and sat up front with him while we drove across the city. He was a little bit crazy. The view from seat next to him confused me. We were still driving in New York, I knew, but everything about it was irrefutably different – but only slightly. By riding just three feet above where I usually do when in a cab, I got an entirely new perspective on the city. I was above it all but still stuck in the muck, a strange combination.
So where do you go to get this new perspective? Everywhere. It’s New York. Go up, up with the tourists to the tops of the buildings. There’s a reason they pay dearly for those views. Pay particular attention when exiting underground subway stations and arriving at street level. Revel in the discombobulation – it will give you that other-dimensional view of the city that tastes strangely like the first view you had of this place. Take the Staten Island Ferry, the water taxi, those double-decker tourist buses, or the Roosevelt Island Tram (especially if it’s going to get stuck for an hour). Sit still in a place where everyone else is moving or run as fast as you can through a place where everyone else is sitting still.

New York will be different tomorrow.

8.19.2005

Urban Field Trip
The latest New York Spirit article is up. Check it out.

7.19.2005

Linguistics
When I was in college trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life professionally, I tried to navigate a course that would touch on my major interests: architecture, politics, religion, writing, and, strangely, linguistics. I'm not sure how I ended up being so interested in linguistics, especially since I never even took a course on it. Undoubtedly it's related to being a writer. I love knowing how words in different languages are related, how concepts travel from one ethnic group to another and the trail of clues is left in bits of letters that are still used to communicate hundreds of years later.
The connection to urban design is tenuous. The only reflection I see is that in both, fragments of functioning objects (letters in words, shapes in buildings) surround us so pervasively that we become entirely desensitized to their existence, yet each holds answers about where we came from and what has been deemed important in our history.
When I chose urban design as a career, I steered myself towards architecture and politics, keeping writing and linguistics as hobbies and religion as an extracurricular. But today an article in The New York Times links linguistics, religion, and politics, forming a personal trifecta. The piece discusses the cataloging of languages done by Christian missionaries, how their standard for a language is if it requires a separate translation of the Bible, and the political ramifications of having your dialect grouped with other languages. Interesting stuff.

7.07.2005

On Broadway
The latest installment of the New York Urbanism series is up on the New York Spirit website. Check it out.

6.28.2005

Robert Moses, the Middle-American Traditional Father
From no posts to a glut of posts, I know. It must be something in the water.
Reading the Times' article on the vanquishing of the light-industrial/arts uses from Williamsburg & Greenpoint in the face of the oncoming redevelopment plan, the following sentence caught my eye:
The last thing someone living in a luxury loft wants to hear is the
high-pitched shriek of buzz saws or rumble of delivery trucks that are part of
the daily rhythms for the area's industrial ancestors.
Quickly, the following thought crossed my mind: These people don't even know what they want. On the one hand, it's true, richfolk aren't going to be too pleased by rumbling trucks. But on the other hand, you tell them this is edgy TriBeCa style living, and the small annoyances are part of the price you pay for living in a "thriving artist community" and you can charge extra for the inconvenience of rumbling trucks.
But that puts me on a slippery slope, presuming to railroad my ideas over the city, claiming to know what others want for their own benefit. It simultaneously makes me resemble Robert Moses, who, above all, got projects done regardless of whether they were wanted, and traditional American fathers, who claim to always know what's best for their children. Strange combination.
What's Your Name Again?
It happens to me more often than I'd like. I'm standing there making smalltalk with someone at a wedding or a cocktail party and it occurs to me: I haven't the slightest idea what this person's name is. And then, while they're talking to me, I start to do the math. I start to think, "how long have I been standing here talking to this person and am I past the point when I can interject, pointing out that I've forgotten their name already and would they mind telling me again?"
Sometimes I just forfeit, go on with the conversation, and try and avoid them the rest of the night so I don't have to introduce them to anyone.
And that's about where I stand with the blog.
When was the last time I posted? Eeeesh.
Anyway, I'll just soldier on and pretend that I know it's name.

Nicolai Ouroussoff writes a review in today's Times of the East River Park and, while not having seen the drawings, I have to agree with the tone of the critique if not the actual opinion. He pretty much had me with the opening paragraph:
Few people reminisce longingly about the New York waterfront of the 1970's,
with its decrepit piers, graffiti-covered warehouses and tetchy drag queens. But
you can say this for it: it had a gritty integrity. The typical riverfront
developments of today, with their traditional lampposts and quaint park benches,
drip with nostalgia for a city that never was. They have all the charm of an
open-air suburban mall.
He then goes on to discuss how the designers, faced with the challenge of dealing with the elevated FDR expressway that lies between the neighborhoods and the seedy waterfront, decided to use the inherent energy of the highway to give the site an unpolished personality. And that's what I love about the idea, that the designers are playing the hand they were dealt. If they had an unlimited budget would they bury the highway Big Dig style? Probably. Would the final result be any better? I'm not so sure.
A project that completely buries the flaws or idiosyncracies of its site and uses and unlimited budget to build on a blank slate washes away any character that the city might have accrued. It would be like a cocktail party where everyone made up a new name every five minutes. There'd be no point in talking to anyone.

4.19.2005

The Stranger's Opinion
Hanging out in the park yesterday with my friend, we were talking about the value of raising children in the city as opposed to pitching tent in the 'burbs. Planner types like myself get all up in arms about the evils of the suburbs: the cars, the lack of community, the lack of diversity, and so on and so forth. But I do notice that the planners that rail against the suburbs are generally planners without children, which is to say people who aren't desperate for some peace and quiet at the end of the day and who aren't overwhelmed by their children on a daily basis. Nor are they people who generally consider the quality of a school system when looking at real estate.
But there we were in Sheep Meadow in Central Park enjoying the springtime sun, and my friend says, "Do you think it's worth it to spend all that money to raise children in New York, where you have to pay for private school and worry about security? Do you think it pays off culturally for the child?"
And before I could answer, this white guy on the next towel, responding to a question posed by someone else and completely unaware of our discussion, says, "for shizzle."
And Now for Something Completely Different
Well, it doesn't have much to do with urban culture, but I wrote it and I'm proud of it so I'm posting the link to it. What is it? It's an essay explaining Jewish Weddings that my brother asked me to write for his upcoming wedding.

4.11.2005

The Second Alternative
The second installment of the "Alternate Side of the Street" column for The New York Spirit is up online. It's already been posted on this blog, but now you know I wasn't lying - the magazine really exists.

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