Reflections on Year 1 in New York City [3]

A new city, a new home, a new place to explore.

The alarm clock song we woke up to the day of our flight from Portland to New York:

It was a strange time to move to New York. We arrived on April 1st, 2020, flying on an empty plane between empty airports, at the peak of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. At the time we were unsure if we made the right decision, but looking back in many ways it worked out for the best. Shortly after our arrival, cases plummeted in NYC as the pandemic surged in other parts of the country. Most of the people here took it seriously and the local government worked hard to educate people and implement new rules to help limit the impact of the disease. Masks were prevalent everywhere we went, and we changed our lifestyle to stay as safe as possible. Our days meant working from home, cooking from home, and long masked walks through our new home city, exploring new neighborhoods.

Rather than the hectic energy of the big city - the rushing crowds, honking cars, street vendors, and rumble of subways - we were greeted with empty streets, closed stores, and a shortage of toilet paper. It was surreal to wander through the streets of Manhattan, literally walking in the road to avoid people on the narrow sidewalks thanks to the lack of cars. The city was quiet - one of the things that struck us the most. We could hear birds singing in the morning. There were more pedestrians and bikers than cars and it had a dramatic impact on the sounds of the city.

The absence of cars was striking. It made urban spaces incredibly pleasant. Streets were calm and safe. Parks were dominated by the sounds of nature rather than the traffic surrounding them. Walking and Biking became the primary form of transportation as people stayed away from the subway and most stuck close to home. We saw adults learning to ride a bike for the first time using the Citibike bike share system on the streets of Brooklyn. Sidewalks became less cramped because people could safely spill out into the streets.

Parks became centers of community life until the Mayor finally agreed to close some select neighborhood streets for cars so people had more space. Socially distanced neighborhood events started popping up with masked bands and DJs playing impromptu concerts. Restaurants could finally put tables out in the street to stay in business, and families would show up with picnics and games and set up where once there was just 4 lanes of traffic. As the weather warmed up and spring turned to Summer the city started feeling more like a city again, as fear subsided and people started to venture out and use urban spaces.

Every weekend they would block off Vanderbilt Ave to cars and it would become an open street for people, bikes, restaurants, and music. Hopefully this transformation outlasts the pandemic.

It has been a fascinating time to be here. Watching the city rapidly evolve and adjust as new information about the virus was balanced with the needs of millions of people demonstrated how flexible we could be and how quickly we can make changes to the built environment. We don’t need to waste years in committees, running lengthy and fruitless community engagement workshops, and haggling with politicians. We don’t need to invest millions of dollars to build new infrastructure. We need to be nimble. Experimentation should be celebrated. Failure should be tolerated as it becomes lessons learned to make the next projects better. Change doesn’t need to cost millions when some paint, planters, and barricades can make a traffic clogged street into a linear park for a few hundred dollars.

I hope some of the great changes we saw in the city this year aren’t fleeting responses to the pandemic and instead stick around long after the vaccine makes it safe to gather again. I hope people saw how great it was to have safe streets for walking and biking. I hope most people realized that birdsongs sound better than car horns when waking up. I hope people saw that Vanderbilt (or their local closed streets) on the weekends could be a celebration of community and that is a better use of space than as a thoroughfare for automobiles.

Ultimately, I hope that the sacrifices we made as individuals, as a community, as a city, and as a country to get through the pandemic can lead to positive changes to the places and spaces we call home.

A Thing I Made (or at least started)

  1. A Pre-COVID NYC wish list
    As we were preparing for our move to New York city at the start of 2020, I started building a custom map to add places we were excited to visit. Heavily focused on food (inspired by the food travel shows - Taste The Nation, Ugly Delicious, Parts Unknown, No Reservations - both the amazing ethnic options NYC has to offer as well as some high end fine dining places) with some tourist attractions, museums, and architecture thrown in for good measure, the map was to be our starting point to explore the city. 9 months later and we have only been to a few of what we had hoped. We ate at restaurants a grand total of 8 times since moving here and of that 8 only 3 were dining at the restaurant (outdoor seating). We’ve been to three museums. We have ridden the subway three times. Alas, the map is here waiting for post COVID exploring, and I hope most of the restaurants make it through to the other side.

    Of course this map is by no means comprehensive and there are tons of amazing places I just haven’t been able to add yet. For those of you who are familiar with New York, have lived here or currently live here, please offer suggestions on places to add to this evolving tool. We are always looking for new destinations as we explore our new home.

    Leave a comment

Weekly Design Inspiration

Little House on the Ferry by OPAL
A wonderful residential project that is simple, elegant, and beautifully integrated into the site. Plus it is built out of CLT (cross laminated timber) which is unique for a project of this scale. I would love to have a retreat from the city on such a beautiful site with architecture that is so connected to the landscape. This year it was clear that many people has a similar desire as they looked for space in the Hudson Valley, The Catskills, or out on Long Island since working remotely became the norm, and congested city life became potentially hazardous.

Things worth reading

  1. A Decade of Urban Transformation, As Seen From Above
    Incredible visualizations of just how much we change the environment around us. From farm fields to suburbs, from vacant lots to new urban development, this article does a great job at showing how quickly change happens.

  2. When Manhattan was Mannahata: A Stroll Through the Centuries"
    The New York Times has been publishing a great series of articles - “Virtual Walking Tours” - by Michael Kimmelman about different parts of New York. This one was particularly fascinating as it focused on how the city has evolved from the natural environment prior to Europeans settling the island of Manhattan, to the concrete jungle we find today. Steams are now roads, ponds have been filled in for new development, the shoreline has been expanded to increase real estate to build on. A really great read.

  3. Long-Overdue Dredging Of Gowanus Canal Turns Up 'Black Mayonnaise,' Sunken Cars, Evil Stench
    I first read about efforts to clean the Gowanus Canal a decade ago and now I live a short walk away. With the work actually underway I’m excited to watch as this rebirth of urban infrastructure transforms the surrounding neighborhoods. Like the Highline, where abandoned infrastructure was viewed as a stain on the city only to be transformed into one of the best parks in the world, the Gowanus canal has an incredible opportunity to become something spectacular. To get there it first means dredging up sludge, chemicals, sewage and the occasional sunken car. Despite the naysayers who are afraid of change that rezoning will bring, I think this is a great effort and already appreciate some of the new developments along the shores, including the Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation, an art center designed by Herzog and de Meuron currently under construction.

  4. How New Yorkers Want to Change the Streetscape for Good
    The starting point of this great graphic article is about a mile from our new apartment, and a few blocks from the apartment we rented for our first five months in New York. We spent many of our summer weekend evenings strolling up Vanderbilt, listening to music, people watching, and sharing a glass of wine with friends (safely distanced of course) on the median. Kids were running around playing laser tag. Families were having picnics. Bikers were slowly weaving through the crowd. Restaurants were serving outdoor tables and to-go orders. Hundreds of people were enjoying a new linear park in their neighborhood, urban space that was off limits just weeks before. I hope that the silver lining of the pandemic is that we reassess what our cities should be and reconfigure streets to be focused on people rather than traffic. With thousands of miles of streets in our cities we can easily dedicate a few of them to spaces for people, community building, extended retail and restaurant space, and transform the concrete into greenery.

Sharing the love.

a person/organization that deserves more attention

I first heard Majora Carter speak over 10 years ago on one of the TED Talk videos. I saw her in person a few years later when I attended the 25th Congress for the New Urbanism held in Seattle, WA. Although she has garnered a lot of coverage of her work over the years, I want to highlight her again here for a few reasons. First, she is based in the South Bronx and this newsletter has a bit of New York City theme tying things together. Second, she is working at the crossroads of a lot of issues I’m passionate about: sustainability, community building, real estate development, urban revitalization. Third, she is someone that everyone should know. She has a unique voice in a real estate world dominated by old, wealthy, white, men, and is implementing projects that are making underserved communities better places to live. This quote is a great summary of why her work is important:

"Nobody should have to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one”
- Majora Carter

Look her up. Read about her work. Watch her famous TED Talk. Invite her to speak to your community. And if the right opportunity presents itself, get her involved in a project and find a way to collaborate.

Shameless Self Promotion:

This week I’d like to highlight two programs I help run through my volunteer work with the AIA Small Project Design Knowledge Community. Both are open to submissions and I encourage you all to apply yourself or share these opportunities with others who should enter.

  1. Small Project Design 2021 Grant Program Call for Submissions
    Community-based projects often struggle to find funding, especially funds needed to hire professional design teams to help solve design challenges. Too often non-profits feel they can’t afford to pay for design services even though architects would provide immense value and can make the project more successful. To help demonstrate the value architects can bring to a project, this grant helps cover some of the design fees associated with hiring a professional design team.

    • The grant funds are to be used to hire an architecture firm to assist with the design and/or feasibility studies for a community-based project.

    • The architecture team must include an AIA or Associate AIA member.

    • The grant application must identify the 501(c)3 Non-Profit Organization and the selected architecture firm. (Either the architecture firm or the 501(c)3 may be the primary applicant.)

    • Preference will be given to small projects with the potential for a big impact.

  2. Small Project Awards Program
    A small project can make a big impact. These awards highlight projects modest in budget and size that create a large positive impact on communities and individuals. Submissions are welcome in three categories:

    • Category one: small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design element up to $150,000 in construction cost

    • Category two: small project construction up to $1.5 million in construction cost

    • Category three: small project construction, object, work of environmental art or architectural design under 5,000 square feet.

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