Last weekend, the Municipal Art Society of New York curated more than 100 guided walks around the city in memory of the urbanist Jane Jacobs. Here's the first of our reports.
The relationship between scale and space is crucial to understanding how we are each invited to interact with the urban environment.
That was one takeaway from a guided walking tour of lower Manhattan led by Margaret Newman, the Municipal Art Society's new executive director, last Sunday. I also found myself reflecting on the extraordinary extent to which the patchwork of New York's downtown neighborhoods reflect -- and wrestle with -- some of the central dilemmas that contemporary cities face.
The tour started outside City Hall, the 200-year-old, landmarked seat of city government. The building's neoclassical cast was clearly designed to impress. On the one hand, it's now dwarfed by adjacent, later buildings. On the other hand, its spacious park setting remains prestigious.
Margaret Newman outside the Municipal Building.
Newman, former chief of staff at the NYC Department of Transportation, is an architect by profession. Her talk prioritized the effects of environmental design over the effects of history. The Tweed Courthouse, for example -- just a block away -- is a bully of a building, not just because it was built on the corrupt funds of Tammany Hall's notorious "Boss" Tweed, but also because of disproportions in its scale.
Not only are the facade pillars and front doors grossly beyond human scale; even the bases of the pillars are as tall, or taller, than an individual standing alongside them. The steep steps up to the entrance threaten to drop visitors into narrow Chambers Street. The building looks capable of crushing the street.
The Tweed Courthouse.
City Hall and the courthouse are just two of the imposing public buildings in the immediate neighborhood. We wandered the base of the Municipal Building, an early "skyscraper" only slightly shorter than its famous contemporary, the Woolworth Building on Broadway.
The sidewalk outside the federal court building is heavily protected by bollards -- double rows at some locations. Duane Street, across the way, was half-heartedly barricaded by government vehicles and a police barrier. Security cameras are stationed on beautifully ornamented vintage streetlights. Skirting the Police Plaza neighborhood on the way to Chinatown, we were conscious of more barriers and blocked streets.
Downtown, for all its historic charm, remains heavily shackled by a mixture of planned and ad hoc security measures. Federal mandates, 9/11, Occupy Wall Street -- there are plenty of pressures encouraging lockdown. The streets around Police Plaza, in particular, are a maze of concrete blocks and checkpoints.
Reaching Chinatown, alongside Columbus Park, is a relief. Suddenly, the buildings are low-rise. Entrances and windows are built to human scale. The streets are narrow but in proportion to the overall development. There is a shock, of course, and it comes from finding these surviving rows of tenements (admittedly not as crowded as in Jacob Riis's day) just a few steps from the seats of municipal government and not much farther from the finance houses of Wall Street.
And so New York continues to exemplify urban experimentation -- economic and ethnic diversity, packed into small neighborhoods; the competing needs of security and access; the battle of scale and space between government and its citizens. Manhattan's lesson is that it's possible to live with the problems, even if 200 years hasn't been long enough to solve them.
But there are enough conundrums here to keep an urban architect or planner engaged for another century.
— Kim Davis , Editor-in-Chief, UBM Future Cities