Archive

Public Policy

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.

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011. (Fuji X100)

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011.(Fuji X100.)  In the foreground: the characteristic herringbone wood planking of New York City boardwalks and a lone dented trash barrel painted in the signature green of the NYC Dept. of Parks.

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.

America's shoreline: John"s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

America’s shoreline: John”s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

“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

An anchored boat converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy restaurant, Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013.  Note the kitchen topped with jaunty chimney  perched precariously in the after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100)  Click to enlarge.

An one-time small urban ferry converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy (hamsi) restaurant, moored on the shore of the Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013. Note the kitchen and its jaunty chimney perched precariously in an after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Further to a previous post on Gezi Park, Istanbul street vendors, etc.

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.”

Hirschman

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.
Gezi Park, early-June, 2013.  A prime minister's unsubstantiated allegations of desecration of mosques, attacks on pious women, and public drinking and sex (both, alas, missed by this observer) recall an ugly, divisive canard of the Vietnam War era. (Fuji X100). (Click on image to enlarge).

Gezi Park, early-June, 2013. A prime minister’s unsubstantiated allegations of desecration of mosques, attacks on pious women, and public drinking and sex (both, alas, missed by this observer) recall a cheap, divisive canard of the Vietnam War era. (Fuji X100). (Click on image to enlarge).

From Sofia, Bulgaria, a final post on last month’s occupation of Gezi Park and the trajectory of protests in Istanbul and throughout Turkey …

As of this past Wednesday, the Turkish government’s plan to for the “development” of Gezi Park and Taksim Square was put on hold.  A Turkish court, responding to a petition by Istanbul’s Chamber of Architects, held the project in violation of architectural preservation laws, this due to the historical character and functions of Gezi/Taksim.

From afar and in retrospect, an underlying difference between the protestors and the prime minister and his supporters springs to the fore.  On the side of the former there has been a focus on concrete issues and coalition-building;  on the side of the latter, however, there has been a ducking of issues and, instead, a retreat into intimidation, aspersions, and ad hominem attack.   A “scorecard” of sorts — and a cautionary tale of headscarves and Rambo — follow …

Read More

Köfteci. A street vendor of grilled köfte sandwiches, Gezi Park, early-June 2012. (Fuji X100). (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Köfteci. A street vendor preparing and selling  grilled köfte sandwiches, Gezi Park, early-June 2012. (Fuji X100). (Click on photo to enlarge.)

During the weeks it was extant, the Gezi Park encampment was organized and disciplined.  A committee of participating organizations put political differences far enough aside to ensure provision of essential services — sanitary, medical, and emergency.  Volunteers cooked and served in cafeteria-style kitchens well stocked with donated provisions.
Street Vendors
In addition to the means served to those encamped in the Gazi Park, the dense concentration of protestors, well-wishers, and the curious  attracted scores of ordinary street vendors.  Many such vendors were of types traditional to the streets of Istanbul — sellers of köfte, of  rice topped with shredded chicken, of hot boiled corn, and of circular bread rolls dusted with toasted sesame seeds (semit); others represented fast responses to the one-off needs of protesters.  The latter hawked Turkish flags and portraits of Atatürk, t-shirts emblazoned with slogans of protest, and simple painter’s masks and cheap swimming goggles, both passed off as protection against tear gas.  Beverage vendors did brisk businesses selling ice-cold bottled water and — rarely seen on the streets of Istanbul — beer.  Indeed, in the initial days of the occupation and demonstrations, polishing off a bottle of beer, as well as providing refreshment, was a principled statement of opposition to a regime intent furthering a sectarian-driven war to limit alcohol consumption. In the end, Gezi Park occupiers eventually banned beer vendors, this to disprove  the Turkish Prime Minister’s allegations of nightly drunkenness and debauchery in the protestors’ encampment.  According to one report, at least one beer vendor put up violent resistance to such expulsion, stabbing a protester in the process.)
Revolutionary melon slices for a revolutionary market. The slogan scratched onto the watermelon: "Taksim, the people's revolution is coming." But, no matter how progressive, red, and tasty such melon slices may have been, the going price -- five lira per serving -- was counter-revolutionary at best! (Fuji X100) (Click on image to enlarge).

Revolutionary melon slices for a revolutionary market. The slogan scratched onto the watermelon: “Taksim, the people’s revolution is on.” But, no matter how red and tasty such melon slices may have been, the going price — five lira per serving — was counter-revolutionary at best! (Fuji X100) (Click on image to enlarge).

Read More
Atatürk Cultural Center, Taksim Square, Istanbul, occupied and bedecked with banners of left wing groups, early-June 2013. (Canon G10) (Click on photo for larger image.)

Atatürk Cultural Center, Taksim Square, Istanbul,  bedecked with banners of left wing groups, Gezi Park occupation, early-June 2013. (Canon G10) (Click on photo to enlarge image.)

This past Saturday night, police once again ran amok in Taksim Square, Istanbul, using tear gas and high-pressure streams of chemically tainted water to drive away protesters.  The attack was minor, however, in comparison with the police’s violent ejection of occupiers and visitors to Gezi Park the Saturday before and their night-long violent siege of Taksim five days earlier.

A Change of Banners

During the two-week-long occupation of Gezi Park, adjacent Taksim Square was a locus of protest for left-wing demonstrators, many of them representatives of fragmented parties driven   ideologies more than  constituencies. As part of the Gezi occupation, a group of protesters took over the long-abandoned Atatürk Cultural Center building, a 1960s structure fronting on Taksim.  The steel-lattice-covered facade of the Atatürk Center made a perfect multistory bulletin-board for the banners of revolutionary sub-sects.  The first act of the Police upon clearing the Center of occupiers was to remove their banners and replace them with a triptych of a giant prim portrait of Atatürk flanked by two equally immense Turkish flags.  This ensemble conspicuously lacked the immense portrait of Turkey’s Prime Minister that is usually hung alongside that of Atatürk at the his outdoor rallies and as a backdrop to his lengthy television addresses).

 

Atatürk Curlutral Center, the morning after a brutal siege by police a week and a half ago.  Immediately after the siege, the police removed banners hung by left-wing groups and replaced them with a portrait of Atatürk flanked by two Turkish flags.  In an uncharacteristic departure from the usual iconography of of the present regime, a portrait of Prime Minister Erdoğan is conspicuous in its absence. (Fuji X100).  (To magnify image, click on photo)

Atatürk Cultural Center, the morning after a brutal siege by police a week and a half ago. Immediately after the siege, the police removed banners hung by left-wing groups and replaced them with a portrait of Atatürk flanked by two Turkish flags. In an uncharacteristic departure from the usual iconography of of the present regime, a portrait of Prime Minister Erdoğan is conspicuous by its absence. (Fuji X100). (To magnify image, click on photo)

Issues Crystallize Discontents

The occupation, demonstrations,  vigils, and battles around Gezi Park and Taksim Square this month provided a political and physical rallying point for overall discontent with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Erdogan regime and with its aggressive contempt for that half of the Turkish polity who do not support it.  Underlying this broader discontent were several sets of concrete issues that kicked-off the protests in the first place, including the relationship of policy-makers and profit-makers in the urban sphere, and the nature, ownership, and future of the urban landscape (more on this in a subsequent post).

Iconography of Urban Space

A subset of these issues involves the iconography of urban space and urban constructs.  For decades, Taksim has been destination and site for political marches, celebrations, and (all too often violently repressed) protests. Taksim, thus is  a  symbol of both the political cohesion and the political and social conflicts of the Turkish Republic.  The present plans of the Erdogan government to replace this meaning-charged open space with a full-sized replica of a late-Ottoman-Empire military barracks razed a century ago speaks volumes about the political, social, and cultural attitudes and intents of the present government, as does the government’s plan to demolish the Atatürk Center, once venue for concerts, opera, and theater, and named after the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic.  The reconstructed barracks, by the way, is slated to be one element of of a giant shopping-center and mosque complex planned to obliterate the footprint of what are now Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and the Atatürk Center.

Read More