The photo above shows a curiously Italianate-looking church in Poduyane, a suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria, annexed to the city late in the 19th century.
A Careless Assumption
When I took the photo, fifteen or so years ago, I assumed that the church dated from the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, a time when the newly-formed nation-state of Bulgaria was inventing “national styles” of its own. It was not until last winter that I returned to the church to take a closer look. My initial assumption turned out to be far from correct. According to a dedicatory plaque in the vestibule of the church, the edifice was built in the 1950s on the site of a church of the same name that had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. The plaque in the present-day church, however, neglected to say why the site had been bombed or by whom. During the 1930s and up to 1944, when it switched sides following occupation by the Soviet Union, Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany. The country gave the Nazis access to its gold reserves and an overland route through which to solidify the occupation of Greece and, with it, an opening to the Mediterranean — this in return for support of Bulgaria’s irredentist land-grabs at the expenses of Greece, Romania, and that part of Yugoslavia that is now Macedonia. For good measure, Bulgaria also glibly adopted German “racial” policies and passed and enforced a “Law for the Protection of the Nation” that was even more stringent than the Nazi’s own anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws.
A Careless Bombardment
Poduyane, as the etymology of its name suggests, is a high, plateau-like area. Tracks leading from Sofia’s main rail-head eastward towards Thrace and on to Istanbul beyond have, since the rise of the railroad, traced the borderline between Poduyane and Sofia proper. My assumption is that one or more planes tasked with destroying the rail-head released their bombs moments too soon, flattening the original Church of St. James the Martyr and its surroundings in the process. But, as shown above, my assumptions are, as often as not, equally off-target.
Photographic Footnote: A Once-Strong Back
Years ago, when my back was stronger and time seemed more plentiful, I regularly took to the streets with a metal tripod slung over one shoulder and a heavy bag containing field camera, lenses, and roll-film backs over the other. The photo above was taken with such a rig on a freezing mid-winter Sunday. Technical limitations of my field camera, together with the effects of the cold on my un-gloved fingertips, led me to adjust the camera less rigorously than I might have done otherwise … thus the oval-shaped “yaw” distortion deforming the crow’s nest atop the church’s bell-tower.
As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …
Unlike my native New York, which — despite falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”
The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.
In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer new arrivals to the city.
Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.
At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus. From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.
Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics
Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.
Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views
Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception. Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11″ museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).
It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics. What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views. Views, however, can be ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined. Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.
In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air. I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.
I took the photo almost 15 years ago. Where is the the street vendor today? I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul. I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma, a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality. Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level. Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.
The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul. The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.
The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned. Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul. (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)
An infrastructural question: Will seaside boardwalks survive the 21st century?
A look at the New York region suggests that they might not. The resurgence of nature over urban artifice during last year’s Hurricane Sandy revealed anew the importance of regeneration and/or conservancy of natural coastlines. The flooding that devastated nearby Long Beach on the south shore of Long Island, for example, would have been avoided or minimized had natural sand dunes still been in place that were removed early in the twentieth century to clear the way for apartments with oceanside frontage and the construction of a magnificent miles-long boardwalk promenade. This year’s fire to the south of New York City on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore owed its rapid spread to the very materials that give boardwalks their name: wood-plank paving. And, yet, boardwalks remain urban necessities.
From fashion to survival
Boardwalks are products of the interstice of 19th-century romanticism and 19th-century urbanity, in which nature was a picturesque backdrop to be seen but not touched, to be witnessed — but with dry and unsoiled shoes — from the safety and elegance of seaside promenades and beach-front hotels and restaurants. In the context of the lives of millions of ordinary New Yorkers — this writer and two generations of his forebears included — the boardwalk at Coney Island was and remains central to urban survival. Like Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Coney Island boardwalk from Brighton Beach past Coney Island to Seagate gives New Yorkers who lack the means to vacation or to travel afar access to fresh air and a refuge from urban congestion and searing summer heat.
Outlets to the sea
The Coney Island boardwalk was built ninety years ago, a time when the farmlands of Brooklyn were being paved over en masse for the construction of seemingly endless expanses of working- and lower-middle-class apartments for immigrants and their children fleeing cramped, degrading housing conditions in lower Manhattan. Their flight followed the paths of newly built subways lines, trajectories that gave also gave shape to the schemes of real estate speculators. The continuation of subway lines to the seaside, and thus to Coney Island, afforded the urban working poor an easy outlet to the beach and to walks and leisurely socializing on surfaces less oppressive than urban concrete, and to sounds less intrusive than the ever-present rattling of horse carts and, later, the roar of automobiles.
Changing numbers, changing faces
Over the last century, usage of the Coney Island boardwalk has fluctuated in parallel with the fortunes and changing demographics of its immediate hinterland. (A lengthy subject that I will save for future posts.) The apogee of the boardwalk’s crowds and popularity was in the 1930s and early 1940s. A decline set in after the Second World War and continued through 1970s. A revival was sparked in the late-1970s, in part by the settlement in Brighton Beach of tens of thousands of mostly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. Over the past decades, the faces seen, and accents and languages heard, along the boardwalk have changed from those of Jews, Irish, and Italians — once amongst the dominant ethnic groups in New York — to those of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Russians, Central Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Chinese. What has remained constant is the precarious place of boardwalk denizens towards the lower rungs of New York City’s housing and economy.
From infrastructure to serendipity
During the 1930s and early-40s, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mayor-ship of Fiorello LaGuardia, investment in and maintenance of public infrastructure, both physical and social, was seen as a core task of government – – a means for collectively facilitating the lives and advancement of all individuals comprising our society and, not least, ensuring social peace in the process. Parks, beaches, and boardwalks included, were parts of the mix.
“Fast forward” to the years of New York as financial center and the Bloomberg years, the age of a real-estate-development-driven economy, increasing unequal distribution of wealth, and “Manhattanization” (a new phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of a economically and demographically variegated city or part thereof suddenly turning into a preserve of those at the upper income levels, this a la the fate of much of Manhattan since the start of the millennium).
Over the last decade, social and physical infrastructure and their maintenance are increasingly surrendered to private enterprises or left to the serendipitous voluntarism of “public private partnerships.” One of the results has been the filleting of the public funds for parks maintenance and the establishment in place thereof of “public-private partnerships” in the form of “conservancies” linked to individual properties. The outcome has been predictable. Manhattan’s Central Park, the city’s highest profile park facility, flanked by three of New York’s wealthiest district is governed and funded by a conservation with an immense endowment and budget. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Conservancy struggles to cover costs and many of the parks facilities still dependent on filleted public funds languish.
“Let them walk on concrete:”
Wood paved boardwalks splinter, warp, and rot, they are maintenance intensive and require periodic resurfacing. In the spirit of Marie Antoinette advising the bread-starved poor of pre-revolutionary Paris “… let them eat cake,” the Bloomberg era’s prescription for the patrons of the Brighton Beach-Coney Island boardwalk appeared to be: “… let them walk on concrete.” A couple of years ago, large sections of the boardwalk surface were stripped of their wood and replaced by prefabricated modular sections of light-colored concrete with surfaces crudely textured to give the impression of wood grain. The modular sections were poorly leveled and sloppily abutted.
The immediate reaction? Small crowds of boardwalk denizens gathered in amazement and Read More
One of the concepts that has stuck with me from my long-ago graduate training is in the form of a concisely worded dictum that continues to prove its veracity over and again in scores of cities worldwide. I’ve forgotten the precise wording and source, but the paraphrase that follows is faithful to original: “The economy of a city is dependent on a continuous supply of declining housing stock.”
The concept, it turns out, comes from the works of economist Albert 0. Hirschman. There has been a recent revival of interests in Hirschman’s life, professional accomplishments, and thought. The publication earlier this year of a biography of Hirschman brought in its wake articles and reviews in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. The course of Hirschman’s life — childhood in Berlin, anti-Nazi activist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, smuggler of Jewish refugees out of Vichy France, victim of the McCarthy era in the US, specialist in international development, resident scholar at Princeton — is as fascinating as his economics, the latter a non-ideological pragmatism, literary rather than econometric in method, that side-steps master plans to find opportunities in seeming negativities and value in seeming dysfunctions.
The Power of Decline
Declining housing (and commercial) stock provides shelter for those on the way up and those on the way down. It enables the solvency of those who do heavy-lifting and work at the edges of economies, those very people without whom neither industrial not service economies can function. It provides affordable locales for cultural renewal and technological innovation. It provides space for new sectors and enables older sectors — and the employment they provide and skills they preserve — to survive. It contributes to the social interaction and proximity to others who are different than one’s self that is central to democracy. For generations, the agglomerations of flexible, high value-added, small enterprises that grew around the entrepot functions of cities such as New York had been dependent on re-purposed inexpensive physical plant.
Afterthoughts: From Istanbul to Harlem
- Apropos of the recent protests in Istanbul, as treated in a number of past posts below, opportunities for incremental reuse contribute far more to social and political cohesion than do the seizing of public space and the razing of viable structures and neighborhoods to make way for massive development projects driven by political cronyism and the financial self-interests of investors and design-driven megalomania of architects.
- As we see from the photo above, ample supplies of underutilized urban coastline also contribute to the mix of seeming negatives that Hirschman would encourage looking at afresh — likewise with ample supplies of declining boat stock!
- Last, for a few words on the negative impact of sudden “upscaling” of a a viable and creative neighborhood many of the strengths of which was rooted in its state of perpetual decline, click here for a piece I wrote some years ago mourning the closing of the old Reliable’s Cafeteria and its upscale sister, Copeland’s Restaurant, on West 145th St. in New York City’s Harlem.