Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The local downturn

For a while, things were looking great on Valley Road near my house. I thought that the new facade on the set of stores that included the pizza place and the Chinese takeout was a very good sign. And maybe the coming of SevenEleven, which is replacing Delta GAs, was also good. But this fall things have taken a downturn with the loss of the latest iteration of the diner and the closing of Mazzi Dogz topping the list. The street is taking on a slightly desolate air. I am comforted that El Palacio del Pollo, which has magnificent Peruvian roast chicken, is well -- if well is a strong enough word to describe the number of roast birds that are sent out from there on weekend nights. Once 4.2 million hats were made in the Valley every year. Soon it will be 4.3 millions roast chickens.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Car Brain"

Paul Salopek is walking in the path of the human diaspora, starting in the birthplace of homo sapiens and traveling to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Argentina. This is a long walk -- he expects to finish in 2020, after seven continuous years of walking. So far, he has walked 1,700 miles of the 20,000 he will eventually cover. He wrote in the New York Times, on Sunday 11/24/13, that, cars "...keep roaring into my awareness." Cars, he observes, have shifted our consciousness and we have lost track of what they did to us. In sum, comparing peoples in Ethiopia who still walk, to those in Saudi Arabia, who drive in cars, he finds that cars insulate us from each other and from the places we inhabit. We expect speed rather than connection, if I may paraphrase his essay. He writes, "I call it Car Brain." In studies of the psychology of place, "place orientation" emerges repeatedly as a key part of our psychological connection to the world. In fact, if we fall unconscious, when we awake a doctor will ask questions to find out if we are oriented to person, place and time, ie, "Do you know your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is?" In presenting us with his finding of "Car Brain," Salopek is offering us a profound contribution to the literature on place orientation. We may hypothesize that we are not oriented to place by where we are but rather by how we are moving through it. This has everything to do with Main Street. Main Streets in the US emerged before Car Brain. They were places that we walked to and around. They lay comfortably close to home, and made gathering possible, both gathering together and gathering the stuff of life, from vegetables to bed frames. As the car ascended, Main Street became something else -- one of the possible destinations of the car. The mall was another. One of the findings in my MainStreetNJ study is that Main Streets are a set of destinations, as likely as the mall to call us to come see and enjoy and gather stuff. Yet when we whisk away to the mall or to Main Streets not our own, we can lose the gathering that has to do with meeting our neighbors and getting to know strangers. Salopek describes waiting at the edge of a set of huts to be acknowledged before entering. We do not have to ask to stop at a MainStreetMall, but we don't meet anyone either. We are living in a time and place dominated by the car. For reasons of physical and mental health we need to get out and walk, but we don't exactly know how. Paul Salopek has given us a remarkable diagnosis: we have Car Brain.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Laurel+Poet=Brunch with Michael Lally

This morning I had brunch with Michael Lally, author of South Orange Sonnets and 26 other books. "Let's go to The Laurel," Michael said. "Excuse me, could you repeat that word?" "Like the crown you put on someone's head, Laurel." Seemed right -- I'd already named Michael the poet laureate of my neighborhood. South Orange Sonnets opens with the line, "In books it was the Lackawanna Valley." For those who live here that triggers the feeling of the train rolling by, its soothing promise of travel to lull us to sleep. His writing is laden with details that are a particular gift, expanding my place, letting me know it anew and for the first time. "The Laurel is gourmet comfort food for me and owned by a relative," he went on to explain. "Right across the street from the toy store." The toy store in Maplewood Village is a highlight of the Christmas season for my family, but The Laurel is a place I hadn't visited. On the other hand "gourmet comfort food" was irresistible. I was waiting outside, holding two books, a copy of Urban Alchemy to give to Michael and a copy of It's Not Nostalgia for him to sign for me. A man came walking by, and caught sight of Urban Alchemy. He did a doubletake. "Can I see your book?" I showed it to him -- "It is my book," I said. "I wrote it." "So you're Mindy? I'm working on Engage Maplewood, an effort to get more transparency in the city." I had gotten a postcard about their work when I was at Maplewoodstock on Saturday -- they had called a community meeting about the plans to update a major building on the village's Main Street. "Oh, my book is exactly what you need," I said with enthusiasm. "I was drawn to the title because my daughter runs the store Alchemy Hour around the corner." "We shop there a lot!" Michael arrived just then and I introduced him to my new friend, who said, "Where does this happen that you meet people like this, only in Maplewood!" For weeks I had been wondering what would I say, but Michael is a constantly pushing river of conversation. I joined the torrent and started to change, as when he told a story to point out assumptions I hadn't realized were assumptions, or ended with reflections on the true nature of consciousness. But it's not just what he says but the way he puts things. He told me a story about getting to know his brother and he added detail after detail, taking me into the whole event and preparing me to be there with him when he looked his brother in the eye and saw -- not diminishment -- love. The details go to the breath and open it up. We talked for a long time. The people who there having breakfast left. We were the only customers there. "Is it closing time?" Michael asked the waitstaff. "No," they laughed. And a bit later I noticed some other people had arrived and the noise of their conversations was filling the room. Michael was explaining what Hubert Selby, Jr., thought about the nature of consciousness, and said, "Let's go to the bookstore, see if The Willow Tree is in stock. I'll buy it for you." They didn't but we agreed I could buy it on-line. We said good-bye and he promised we'd meet again when he'd read Urban Alchemy. And that was my Main Street morning.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Museum as Main Street

Saying, "High Museum of Art," is a challenge for me. I want to spin off into "Museum of High Art," and "High at the Museum of Art." I don't think the name could survive in the cynicism of New York, and I am sure it's iconic red label pin that simply says "HIGH" would have many many uses. OK, I got that off my chest. What the High Museum of Art has to do with Main Street is that it made me think of museums-as-main-streets. An early flight to Atlanta and late lunch appointment left lots to time, as I reckon these things, to spend at the museum. It happened that it was Toddler Thursday. One little girl went running up to another, grinning form ear-to-ear to see her friend. The parents were not that friendly, so it seemed like this was a "museum friend." I wanted to know why, so I followed the toddlers to "see, read and paint." They were to see a video installation on the fourth floor, where they would hear a story called "Shadow." Then they could go to the lower level children's art center where they could paint, plastic smocks and all. There were a ton of little people, well-equipped with strollers and snacks and whatever else the modern child needs to be away from home for a few hours. I do not pretend to know what that is. Anyway, there was also the crowd of interns on break lounging in sofas and telling very silly jokes. There were kids from the Atlanta Boys and Girls Club, a large group of seniors, another pretty large group in wheelchairs, random single people, lots of retired people in shorts: in fact, all kinds of people roaming through the big wide spaces of the museum. These ample public spaces invited people to move at their leisure in their own way -- by stair, by ramp, by elevator, quickly, slowly, stopping to take photos, going to galleries as one pleased. The analogy of the museum's public space to Main Street was one I surely would have missed if an avid photographer hadn't been bent over the railings of the central atrium taking photos of the geometry of curving ramps and straight walls. I was enchanted by what she saw and copied her. She didn't seem to mind too much. But then, I started to think about the building blocks of Main Street, those things that form the public space by offering entrance from the plaza to Something Different. The High Museum had a gift shop, a coffee shop, a terrace with an installation of massive fruit, a family art center, and many many galleries that took off from the public space, making it rich in variation and satisfactions, including there being three buildings, connected by bridges and sidewalks in intricate ways. The intricate and dense whole is larger than the sum of the parts, challenging, rewarding, welcoming, in other words, a Main Street.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Michel Cantal-Dupart decorated in Paris

On April 13, 2013, Michel Cantal-Dupart, who inspired my new book Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Cities, was elevated in the Legion of Honor. The medal was awarded by the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. The Prime Minister gave a long address, outlining many of Cantal's projects, especially those in Nantes, where Ayrault was Mayor for many years. Cantal, in his remarks, highlighted four phases of his life. The fourth started in 1993, when he met Bob Fullilove and me at Colloque Triville. In the course of travels and adventures in France and the US, I became convinced that Cantal's ideas were essential for the rebuilding of the American city. He related this conviction of mine to the Prime Minister and handed him a copy of the book (my book!). "This book has 302 pages, and my name is on 200 of them," Cantal joked, while encouraging the Prime Minister to read it. On his way out, after the ceremony, the Prime Minister stopped to say hello -- we have met a number of times in Nantes -- and to take a photo with Bob and me. The ceremony was held on the peniche Le Corbusier, which has been designated an historic monument for multiple reasons: it was one of the first barges to be made of concrete, later it was converted by Le Corbusier to house homeless men, and most recently it is being renovated as a free university of solidarity. The barge is huge, roomy enough for the hundreds of people who came to the ceremony and to seat, in one room, the 120 who stayed to dinner. I am so proud of Cantal and all that he has helped us understand about creating fun, equitable, sustainable cities!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Wall and Will: Broadway after 5 visits

After five visits to Broadway, Hirofumi Minami, David Chapin and I sat down to reflect on what we had seen and felt. An article by Michael Kimmelman about Columbia's new building at Baker Field. It included a remarkable photo of the Broadway side of the complex, viewed from an elevation to the east. In that photo, you can see the bleak wall that we experienced walking. Hiro brought to our meeting several books, including a children's book about New York. That book contained the stark explanation that the wall which became Wall Street was built by the Dutch to keep out the Indians. I had never thought about the wall of Wall Street, but I had thought a lot about bleak walls Columbia turns to the neighborhoods in which its building sits. This feature of the university was brought to my attention by having an office just opposite such a wall. I felt mooned by the university -- not attractive, I can tell you. Anyway, our psychoanalysis thus started with walls, and continued to Indians, as we had visited the Museum of the American Indian at the southern tip of Manhattan, well inside where the wall used to be -- ironies of history that outsiders are now insiders. Of course there is another kind of wall, this one the wall of security and the old Customs House, making it project -- a terribly worthwhile project -- to get in to see the exhibits. I was struck by the irony of putting the National Museum of the American Indian in the old Customs House. We talked about the purchase of Manhattan for $24, which David pointed out is often seen as "steal." And this led us to think about Times Square and hucksterism as an enduring theme in the visual landscape of New York. Broadway runs more or less north until Zabar's, and we chuckled to think of that store as the inflection point of this great road. At Dyckman Farm House, we had quite a different reality--a step back in time--yet the continuity of every day we saw in Broadway in the 80s, as a sense of time and a sense of streets. Hiro heads back home to Japan this week and David and I will miss him. But the work goes on! A new exhibit on Broadway has opened at the Center for Architecture and we're off to see it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ron Shiffman, Jane Jacob's Medal Winner

Ron Shiffman is one of the extraordinary urbanists of our time. He was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation's 2012 Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership. Few people have done in the lifetime what Ron has done to fight for cities that are responsive to all their citizens. Ron's work for equity and respect have made a profound difference in the lives of all New Yorkers. He has affected the development of communities, the careers of students, and the direction of the planning, architecture and community development fields. His remarks were posted along with a video of Ron and other materials, on Norman Oder's blog, Atlantic Yards Report. Ron's remarks, slightly shorted for the presentation were as follows: I am truly honored to be this year’s Jane Jacobs awardee. Jane played a pivotal role in forging the way we think about people, cities and the economy. The position I filled at Pratt 50 years ago was ironically created because of Jane’s advocacy against a Pratt planning proposal for an area of Brooklyn now known as Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill– an action I will forever be grateful for. Brooklyn benefitted because a well intentioned but misguided plan was defeated and I benefitted because I got the job opportunity of a lifetime - for that I would like to thank my mentor, George Raymond. I had the honor to meet Jane a few times, almost always with my good friend Roberta Gratz. In the early 70’s, Roberta and I took Jane on a tour of the South Bronx where my colleagues and I were working with community residents committed to rebuilding their communities - the Peoples Development Corporation and Banana Kelly. Jane immediately sensed that this -- not planned shrinkage as proposed by some --was the way to rebuild our vulnerable communities. One of Jane’s greatest attributes was to give voice to those who struggled to preserve and revitalize their community, an effort which many others were engaged in -- Elsie Richardson, Don Benjamin and Judge Jones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ramon Reguiera in South Brooklyn, Elizabeth Yeampierre in Sunset Park, Yolanda Garcia and Kelly Terry-Sepulveda in the South Bronx, Fran Goldin in Cooper Square, Chino Garcia, Rabbit and Ruthie Nazario and Demaris Reyes in the Lower East Side, Ellen Lurie and Roger Katan in East Harlem, Luis Garden Acosta, Frances Lucerna in Williamsburg, and Pat Simon and Jeanne DuPont in the Rockaways, and many others. Jane understood the struggle of groups like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, where Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant whose opposition to the misuse of eminent domain and the abuse of power by some in the development community pitted them against the some of the city’s most powerful entities. She inspired journalists like Norm Oder to put voice to their struggles. She set the stage for community organizers like Eddie Bautista to mobilize communities to speak out against environmental injustices. This award must be shared with them and many others in and outside of this this room. I would be remiss not to mention that Jane’s influence was enhanced by knowing and working with advocates like Paul and Linda Davidoff, Chester Hartman, and Walter Thabit, Jon Kest and the rest of the activists at ACORN as well as folks like Richard Kahan, Joe McNeely, and Mayor David Dinkins. I also want acknowledge my wife and partner of close to 54 years, Yvette –whose influence and support has been immeasurable. This award is as much hers as it is mine. I want to acknowledge my kids and their respective spouses, and my brother and sister–in-law –all have been a source of motivation and support. My grandkids motivate every action I engage in. I will always be indebted to those that worked with me at the Pratt Center – Rudy Bryant, Brian Sullivan, Cathy Herman, Naomi Johnson, Eva Alligood, Rex Curry, Frank DeGiovanni, Mercedes Rodriguez, Mannix Gordon, Eve Baron and Joan Byron, and many others too numerous to mention, for they all sacrificed and contributed mightily to the work we engaged in collectively. I’d like to acknowledge my successors at the Pratt Center -- Councilman Brad Lander and Adam Friedman and to the Pratt administration that supported our efforts – President Thomas Schutte and Richardson Pratt before him and trustees Mitchell Pratt and Gary Hattem. My thanks go especially to to the students of Pratt that kept us focused on innovation and true to the principles we espoused, and to my colleagues on the Pratt Planning faculty –Eve Baron, Eva Hanhardt, John Shapiro, Ayse Yonder, Carlton Brown, Jaime Stein, Eddie Bautista and Stuart Pertz ably led by John Shapiro. Most importantly, I want to thank the people we worked with that taught me to build upon their assets to help them overcome their problems—problems often spawned by public policies that fostered displacement and allowed poverty to fester in many corners of our city. We have accomplished much over the years that I am proud of, but we have left yet undone a plethora of problems that the next generation of planners, community activists and organizers must continue to address: * the social, economic and environmental injustices that make us all weaker, * the privatization of public space and public functions, * the growing economic segregation of our city or, as Mindy Fullilove, my friend calls it, the “sorting” of the city, and* the challenges of climate change – which we must aggressively and creatively confront. On behalf of my grandkids and their generation, I fervently pray that all of us in this room are ready to tackle these problems with renewed vigor. As an unapologetic optimist, I do believe that we will overcome these challenges with vision, commitment and an ever-abiding trust in our neighbors and that we will prevail.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Walking Broadway 5

David Chapin, Hirofumi Minami and I are carrying out a psychoanalysis of Broadway in five sessions. Session 5 on March 1, 2013, took us to the Dyckman Farmhouse, a Dutch colonial farmhouse built about 1784. It sits on a small hill, just above Broadway, surrounded by stone retaining walls topped with an iron fence. It is a place that takes us from colonial times to the present, in the life of New York City. It was the home of family that ran a working farm until development in the early 1900s ate up the land and changed the area's way of life. The farmhouse was saved from destruction and made into a museum, helping us get a sense of the story of Manhattan. Some of it is marvel at: cooking over an open fireplace, sleeping in the big open attic or in small rooms with no heat! The presence of slavery in New York State reminds us of the long struggle for abolition, which we celebrate this year, with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Looking out the windows or strolling the garden, the apartment buildings that took over the farmlands are all around. Once the farmhouse had a view to the Harlem River, but no glimpse can be had at this point. After learning about Colonial era cooking and sleeping, we went out to lunch in the neighborhood at Chacapas on Dyckman Street, named for the family that owned the farm. The leap forward into our own intensely inhabited, multi-ethnic world was eased by yummy yummy food.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Walking B'way 4

Hirofumi Minami, David Chapin and I are doing a psychoanalysis of Broadway in five sessions. We chose to start our fourth visit at Zabar's, the iconic store on Broadway. Zabar's website proclaims, "New York is Zabar's...Zabar's is New York." While admittedly smaller than Times Square, I think it might rival it in its iconic status -- at least to insiders, most of whom don't go to Times Square and do go to Zabar's. We resisted the siren call of croissants, coffee, cheese from every nation on earth and a huge selection of cookware. Instead, we strolled up Broadway. As we were on the subject of icons, we got into a deep discussion -- which continues -- about the possibility that there is ONE iconic photo of Broadway. We all tried to imagine what it might be, and then to take that photo. I asserted that the iconic photo of Broadway was a crowd of people. That section of the Upper West Side is just full of people, bustling along and enjoying The City. In the spirit of eternal flow of people, I really enjoyed the McDonald's Walk Up Service, largely advertised on banners that you can see from far away, and pleasantly just there when you actually are parallel to it. A walk-up service is not something McDonald's offers at all locations--in other places, like Orange Main Street, McDonald's alters the pace of the street by inserting parking and drive-through service. To be part of Broadway, McDonald's turns toward the walker. Broadway more powerful than McDonald's!!!! Perhaps my photo is the iconic picture of Broadway. Somehow, I managed to convince my dear friends that Pain Quotidien deserved our patronage again! I love that chain, and its store, also carefully inserted in Broadway, was packed with people enjoying good lunch. I had warming and satisfying black bean soup and yummy bread. David shared quiche with us. I was grateful for my friends's indulgence. Since B'way 4, Hiro worked out an ingenious tool for studying our materials. He invented the "scroll," a series of powerpoint slides, like a roll of 35 mm film, that unfurls the walk and is accompanied by ideas stimulated by the experience. He invited all of us to join him in this activity, adding pictures and words to his file. It is profoundly satisfying as a way to assemble what we saw into something manageable. We have settled on this "start with an icon" thesis and so B'way 5 will start with the Dyckman Farm House in Inwood.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Walking Broadway 3

David Chapin, Hirofumi Minami and I walked a third segment of Broadway on January 7, 2013. We were joined by Scoot Lizama, a graduate student at CUNY, with years of experience looking at and photographing the urban landscape including the entire length of Broadway. Hiro had said that the image of New York, for people from other countries, is the image of Times Square, so we went to see that part of Broadway. We started at 47th Street, which is just above the square, and walked south, into the blare of lights. It was a cold morning, so it was not packed with people as it had been on New Year's Eve or as it would be on any warm day. The new open spaces made it possible to stand and examine the Square. There was much to see.
We watched people on the tkts stairs who were looking at themselves on television -- it was a car commercial and at the end, all the people were in the car driving away (notice the girl in the yellow jacket on the stairs and on the screen). David proposed that all the women on all the ads were lightly clad, young and beautiful. This lead to a careful examination of the giant signs. One stood out as having very normal women of many ages, and in clothes. That sign asked, "What will you do in 2013?" and then showed people who had given various answers like, "Forgive," "Be home to read bedtime stories to my children." As these were all things I thought I would do in 2013, I liked it a lot. We learned, by watching the whole thing, that this, too, was a commercial, this one for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As it hovered over the statue of Father Francis P. Duffy, who tended to the poor and destitute in Times Square, I argued that it represented a continuity of ministry. We enjoyed debating both these topics -- the use of women in advertising and ministry in Times Square, but we were getting cold and hungry for lunch, so we strolled on. We stopped to look at another billboard, apparently from a China trade mission, that give the history of silk over many millennia. I was telling David about how different this billboard was when it switched to young, scantily-clad, beautiful women in silk. It was a relief to walk south of 41st Street and enter "normal" New York. I don't think I'd ever considered Broadway in the 30s quiet, but by comparison to the assault of Times Square, it's wonderfully peaceful. Lots of people had settled into various seats in open spaces, and especially where there was a bit of sun. I saw two unconnected people who were next to each other, both, I thought, on their phones. As this has become an iconic image of our time, I was watching them. I realized that the guy was not on his phone, he was scratching a lottery ticket. I wished him well and reminded myself to guard against cliches and assumptions. We had lunch in a Korean restaurant. Hot soup hit the spot, as we'd been very cold. We reflected on all that we'd seen, and appreciated the quiet and spacious restaurant as respite from New York's Main Street and its neon heart.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Walking Broadway Two

David Chapin, Hirofumi Minami and I have dubbed our project "A Psychoanalysis of Broadway in Five Sessions." Hiro started the project of the psychoanalysis of cities on his visit to New York in 2002. We are looking at the intersection of that with my project of Main Street, by walking parts of Broadway. Having explored the Northern Manhattan end of Broadway on our last outing, this week we went to the Southern end and found two origins: the physical origin of the street and the the historic origin, at least metphorically, in the National Museum of the American Indian. This is a spectacular museum which has the particular quality of being free and open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas). We explored the exhibits, which display the remarkable cultural treasures that George Gustav Heye assembled in the first part of the 20th century. The diversity and the beauty of the collections help us see how many different ways people had invented to live in the Americas, long before European contact. I walked out onto Broadway almost expecting to see the old Indian Trail, just as Tony did when he went through the door in Howard Fast's novel. Instead there was a vista of great beauty, the opening onto the Canyon of Heroes, where New York City holds its ticker tape parades (see the photo of the view from the stairs of the museum). The sidewalks are lined with granite markers commemorating the parades, held for war victories, heroic deeds, and athletic accomplishments. Just there, in Bowling Green Park -- the first park on Broadway and the first to be established in New York City -- is the bronze bull, swarmed by tourists. A few blocks up we came to Zuccotti Park, made famous by Occupy Wall Street. Just past the park to the west are the emerging buildings of the World Trade Center. Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel remind us how historic this small bit of New York really is. We had directed our trip to City Hall, which is the end of the Canyon of Heroes. I felt heroic myself, having been in the presence of so much history. But I was also really really cold. We decided to have lunch at Pain Quotidien, over by the river, across from the Irish Hunger Memorial. It was curious to see it, as a few days before Christmas a friend told me about the great effort Americans made to send food to Ireland. Among those involved in this effort, he said, was Frederick Douglass, the great Abolitionist. To be in the presence of the memorial, and then to sit at the communal table with friends and strangers was a profound experience. I was cold, I got warm. I connected a story with memorial. I had soup, and felt better. Was that what Alain Coumont had in mind when he started?