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  1. #166
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    Oct 2002


    One Sociologist's Epic Quest: Walk New York City, All 120,000 Blocks

    by Stephanie Garlock


    Sociologist William Helmreich likes to play a game with students in his intro class at the City College of New York. “You’re going to raise your hand and say what neighborhood you’re from,” he tells them, “and I’m going to tell you a story about it.” Though his students hail from all five boroughs, he’s never once been stumped, not by the edges of Brooklyn’s East New York, not by the village-like enclaves of Staten Island.

    Because after 40 years of teaching in and about the city – and after spending nearly all of his 67 years calling it home – Helmreich’s seen it all. Now, this encyclopedic knowledge is quite literal. The ethnographer has spent four years on an epic quest to crisscross the city, walking all five boroughs, all 120,000 city blocks. He compares himself to a marathoner, regularly pulling out the statistic that his research has taken him the distance from New York to L.A. and back, plus another 900 miles, the equivalent of a side jaunt to St. Louis.

    The result is his new book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The expansive sociological study relies on Helmreich’s on-the-ground research, culled from thousands of hours of observation and casual conversations with local residents, to help parse hot-button issues like immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. But more than that, the miles and miles clocked – he wore out nine pairs of shoes in his trek across the city – come through as a sort of extensive love letter to the frenetic energy and diversity of New York.

    Few sociologists were as well-equipped for the task. As a child growing up in Manhattan, Helmreich used to join his father on the weekends for a game they called “Last Stop,” exploring the neighborhoods at the far reaches of the city’s expansive subway system. Since then, he’s spent four decades shuttling students from City College and the CUNY Graduate Center around the city, teaching them to use its neighborhoods as a sort of living laboratory. Just this week, he and his graduate students spent the day walking along 9th Street in lower Manhattan. “Every block can be interesting,” Helmreich says. “It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

    “It’s not just about covering ground, it’s about how you cover ground.”

    In his four years of research, Helmreich averaged more than 30 miles a week, but even this figure obscures the hours he spent on the task, walking up to strangers and asking about how safe the neighborhood is, or what's sold in that interesting store, or whether there are any good parks nearby. This method of ethnography is usually a far narrower process, as a researcher focuses on just a single community, neighborhood, or even block for years at a time. But, Helmreich jokes, “When you decide that you’re going to do the entire city, you can’t do that. You’d be 800 years old.”

    So, with this bold title, what has he found out about New York that we don’t know?

    For non-New Yorkers, the time the book spends on the outer boroughs is a fairly obvious corrective for what Helmreich sees as the tourism-generated, Manhattan-centric view of New York. And for all its diversity – the book spends hundreds of pages on the immigrant communities of the city – New York comes off as an inextricably linked web of groups that constantly must interact, change, and adjust. “It’s almost as if you dropped a hundred towns in Nebraska into the middle of the city,” Helmreich says. But what sets New York apart, he adds, is that "there's this duality to New York that you can be in these places, but you can also be in the city." Even those who live in more isolated pockets, such as the waterfront community of Edgewater Park in the Bronx, have a sense of connectedness.

    The Bronx's Edgewater Park, at left, and Manhattan's Times Square, on the right, have very
    different atmospheres, but both are tied together through their New York identity.
    (Images courtesy Flickr user H.L.I.T., left, and Luciano Mortula/, right.)

    This “New Yorker” identity made for thousands of hours of observation and conversation for Helmreich. “He’s gruff, fancies himself to be knowledgeable, and cannot resist a challenge of answering, on the spot, in a wisecracking type of way, a spontaneous question. That’s a New Yorker,” he says.

    By necessity, given the size of the city, Helmreich calls his book no more than a much-needed "introductory work" to the diversity of New York City. His method is, in some ways, a throw back to a much earlier form of social criticism, when walking was curiously in vogue for the self-styled intellectuals and elites of 19th century Europe. Think of Charles Dickens's night walks through London or the well-dressed flâneurs of Paris. And it's one that anyone can learn from. "If I accomplish anything besides sociology," Helmreich says, "it's to encourage people to walk through what I call the greatest museum in the world."

  2. #167
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    Hell on Shoe Leather


    Annie Ling for The New York Times
    William B. Helmreich poked his nose into many a storefront and dead-end street while doing
    the legwork for his new book, “The New York Nobody Knows.”

    Annie Ling for The New York Times
    Among Mr. Helmreich's discoveries is the often-overlooked George Hecht Viewing Gardens at the busy
    intersection of Third Avenue and Ninth Street.

    During the golden weeks of autumn, it seemed as if everyone in the world wanted to go for a walk with William B. Helmreich. The journalist from Norway. Students who have lapped up his courses at City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The publicist at Princeton University Press, which just published “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” his doorstop-size account of four years of trekking into every corner of the five boroughs, dead-end streets and desolate industrial areas included.

    “New York is so varied,” said Mr. Helmreich, who has practically made a second career out of explaining so ambitious an undertaking. “But if you don’t walk the streets, you never really understand that. Plus my philosophy is, everything’s interesting.”

    Mr. Helmreich, who is tall and blue-eyed with close-cropped gray hair, likes to call himself a flâneur, in a tip of the hat to the boulevardiers who strolled the streets of 19th-century Paris. This particular flâneur is 68, the child of parents who immigrated to New York from Switzerland in 1946 and settled in a tenement apartment on the decidedly unchic Upper West Side.

    Mr. Helmreich, who also describes himself as the ultimate city kid — “I was a member of the little gang on my block” — stayed put in New York until 1984, the year that he and his wife, Helaine, a writer, moved with their three children to Long Island, albeit to a town just a 15-minute walk from the Queens border.

    Mr. Helmreich’s popularity as a tour guide is hardly surprising, because his 449-page book is a chatty, buoyant and, despite his four decades in academia teaching classes on New York City and sociology, an unstuffy love letter to the delights of street-smart walking. His publisher described the work as “four years plus nine pairs of shoes plus 6,000 miles equals an epic journey,” and judging by the reactions of people who study the city for a living, the approach has much to recommend it.

    “Too many of the current crop of book-length urban analyses rely on statistics, policy, and critiques of earlier theories of city life,” said Cassim Shepard, the editor of Urban Omnibus, an online publication of the Architectural League. “Mr. Helmreich’s book should provoke all urbanists worth their salt to leave their desks and get out into the street.”

    Fran Leadon, a City College architecture professor who is writing a history of Broadway, agreed. “New York is much more complex than people think,” Mr. Leadon said. “But nobody knows the whole story because the city is too big and too complicated. So the discussion about New York gets reduced to a few predictable topics: politics, restaurants, the supposed death of the middle class. That’s the reason Mr. Helmreich’s project is so important.”

    And as an author of the most recent A.I.A. Guide who walked many of these same streets, Mr. Leadon understands the challenges Mr. Helmreich faced. “It takes a lot of courage to walk through all of New York,” he said. “The city is full of surprises, and not all of them are pleasant.”

    Mr. Helmreich doesn’t just walk. A gregarious man who seems hard-wired to strike up conversations with strangers, he pokes his head into one storefront after another, engaging the occupants in chat. As his wife affectionately summed up his approach: “Bill will talk to a stone. What’s more, the stone will answer.”

    A mile-long trek along Ninth Street one recent Friday gave Mr. Helmreich a chance to display his expertise and revisit a few haunts. He ticked off a few famous occupants of the long-defunct Women’s House of Detention — “Dorothy Day, Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis: Can you imagine if they were all under that roof at the same time?”

    Then he ducked into World Class Cleaners, at 66 West Ninth Street. A plaque proclaimed that the business had been honored by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. “Good customer service,” said the woman behind the counter when Mr. Helmreich inquired about the award.

    He asked what it would cost to have a Hermès tie cleaned, and was told it would set him back $21. Hermès might not be Mr. Helmreich’s designer of choice, although he was looking dapper this day in chinos and a natty blue and-white-striped Ralph Lauren shirt. Generally, he said, he avoids bright blues and reds that might be read as gang colors, but attire provocative in this way is hardly an issue in the manicured West Village.

    A reminder that this neighborhood once served as an epicenter of Japanese culture stood at Third Avenue. A nondescript doorway led to a second-floor emporium overflowing with everything from Japanese-language editions of Golf Digest to packages of mascara emblazoned with bold Japanese lettering.

    At Whiskers Holistic Pet Care, 235 East Ninth Street, where sales clerks remembered Mr. Helmreich from a visit five years ago, he leafed through a binder bulging with handwritten tributes to the store’s remedies and employees. “Phil has rejuvenated my 5-year-old English setter,” one grateful customer wrote.

    Once in a while the streetscape offers up flashes of Mr. Helmreich’s personal history, as it did at Mud, a cafe at 307 East Ninth Street. A beatnik brother-in-law of Mr. Helmreich’s lived for a time in an apartment in the rear, and a portrait of his bearded face gazed out from a mural near the front door. A few steps down, another local boy, named Jimi Hendrix, was memorialized by a sign that urged passers-by to write him letters and place them in an orange mailbox nearby, promising that they’d go “directly to heaven.”

    At Veselka, the Ukrainian restaurant at Second Avenue, Mr. Helmreich took time to trace the roots of his passion for urban walking. His father, who died recently at 101, had been a prodigious walker, helping him to come to know and love the city early on. “I feel at home on any street in New York,” he said. “East New York, South Jamaica, the West Bronx. You name it.” Over the decades he has walked in cities and countries around the world, even clocking 500 miles in car-obsessed Los Angeles.

    This book, Mr. Helmreich’s 14th, grew out of a suggestion by his department chairman, Philip Kasinitz, and an early plan was to focus on 20 iconic streets, like Myrtle Avenue and Broadway. Then came second thoughts: “I asked myself, what’s iconic in a city of 120,000 blocks?”

    So he began walking, his tape recorder and pedometer in a pocket along with little maps annotated like tick-tack-toe games, a line drawn through each street after he completed it. He walked in the heat, in the cold, in the rain, covering at least two miles a day. “People thought I was crazy,” he said cheerfully.

    And although he had walked the city’s streets many times before, this time he approached the task systematically, sometimes joined by his wife (800 miles) or by his second most reliable companion, Heidi, who appropriately is part Swiss mountain dog (400 miles).

    He also did more than walk. He danced the bachata in a club in the South Bronx. He attended community meetings. He conducted formal interviews with mayors past and present. “And I have to admit that I cheated a little,” Mr. Helmreich said. He skipped 300 miles, mostly in homogeneous residential neighborhoods like Marine Park, Brooklyn.

    But such lapses were rare, and by the end he had covered 6,048 miles and come away with vivid observations about everything from the transcendent impact of immigration on the city to the clues that a neighborhood was poised for gentrification.

    “In East Williamsburg, for example, you see half-million-dollar apartments in a tower across the street from a city-run shelter, and people don’t mind,” Mr. Helmreich said. Friends in the real estate business ask him to recommend areas where it’s still possible to buy property and make a killing. His answers include the Lower Grand Concourse in the Bronx and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn.

    Although New York is far safer than in years past, Mr. Helmreich admitted to an occasional close call, notably the time he found himself unexpectedly surrounded by a knot of young toughs. “I suddenly realized that I was in the middle of a drug deal that was going down, and they clearly thought I was a cop,” he said. “Believe me, I walked out of there fast.”

  3. #168
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    8 Long Lost Islands That Used To Be Part of New York City

    Everyone knows the big islands of New York City, some people know the smaller ones, but what about those that are no more? The area has always been an archipelago, but some landmasses went the way of Atlantis or were subsumed into the five boroughs we know today. In their book The Other Islands of New York City, Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller catalogue the lesser-known and lost islands of our city, from sandy beaches that were washed away to manmade forts consumed by landfill. Here, we remember eight of those forgotten.

    Present day Locust Point, at left, with the Throg's Neck Bridge, via Wikipedia.

    Wrights/Locust Island:

    Originally an island of the South Bronx, this chunk of land was privately owned and named for Captain J.T. Wright, but it was later renamed Locust Island. The small waterway which isolated it from the mainland Bronx was eventually filled in, and it lost its island designation and became Locust Point, a residential community with a yacht club and lots of Irish people.

    Fort Lafayette:

    An island coastal fortification known for a time as the "American Bastille," Fort Lafayette was built atop Hendrick's Reef, a natural island in the Narrows of New York Harbor. Construction of the fort began during the War of 1812, but it wasn't finished until 1818. Later, it was used as a Civil War Prison, ammunition storage, and as a transfer site during World War II. It was destroyed in the 1960s, replaced by one of the Brooklyn-side pillars of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

    An 1873 map with two Hog Islands. Via Wikimedia Commons.

    Hog Island:

    The history of Hog Island is a bit convoluted—it may have actually been two islands—but it was definitely located near Rockaway. Wikipedia says its name comes from the fact that Native Americans used to raise pigs here, but the New York Times believes it was because "its shape resembled a pig's back." It was about a mile-long, and likely destroyed in the 1893 New York hurricane. But before it met its fate, it became a popular seaside getaway for Tammany Hall big shots. It is outlived by nearby Barnum Island, which survived the hurricane and is still inhabited today.

    Approximate location of where Codling Island was located.

    Codling Island:

    In 1880, part of the Hutchinson River in the Bronx, near where the New England Thruway crosses in Eastchester, was straightened and a tiny hunk o' mainland was severed, creating Codling Island. Owned by George F. Codling, Codling Island rejoined the mainland around 1900 after the channel silted up so thoroughly it became reconnected. This island has truly been forgotten (at least by the digital world), as Seitz and Miller's book has the only mention of it on the internet.

    An 1896 ad for an amusement park to rival Coney Island. Via Lost Amusement Parks.

    Bergen Island:

    In the early 1900s, a small island off Canarsie's coast, known as Bergen Island, was connected to the mainland using landfill and was transformed into the neighborhood of Bergen Beach. The Wall Street Journal stands in awe of how remote and suburban it still is—a part of Brooklyn that's not trendy yet, how strange!

    Dead Horse Bay in 2013. Photo by Hannah Frishberg.

    Barren Island:

    Existing for years as a dumping ground, Barren Island was a horrid, trash-filled nightmare in Jamaica Bay during its time apart from mainland Brooklyn, housing a glue plant and the garbage that has since created Dead Horse Bay. Like many other islands on this list, landfill eventually connected it to the rest of the borough in 1930, and in 1936, it was condemned by Robert Moses. Residents—yes, people lived here—were given 30 days to leave, and the land now holds the Marine Park Bridge.

    Via Historic Pelham.

    Blizzard Island:

    Another former landmass of the Bronx, Blizzard Island has also been joined to the mainland with landfill, making it part of Pelham Bay Park. According to The Other Islands of New York City, when Blizzard Island was still an island, a man named David Blizzard would sell tackle and rent boats across from it on Tallapoosa Point. The island also supported the eastern arch of the original Pelham Bridge, the second incarnation of which is shown in the sketch above. The original bridge was destroyed by a storm only a year after it was built in 1815.

    Castle Clinton on the 1811 Commissioner's Plan, via Untapped. Castle Clinton today, via NYC Architecture.

    Castle Clinton:

    Currently enjoying a peaceful retirement in Battery Park, Castle Clinton was built in 1808 on an artificial island off Manhattan's southern shore to protect New York from British forces; only a drawbridge connected it to the mainland. The second half of the 19th century saw Castle Clinton transformed into an entertainment complex complete with opera house and theater. From 1855-1890 it was an immigration complex, then an aquarium, and today it is a restored historic site. What a life.

    —Hannah Frishberg

    The Other Islands of New York City by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller [Amazon]

  4. #169
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    Wonderful book.

    Review> Tempered by Restraint

    Paul Gunther reads New York Transformed: The Architecture of Cross & Cross.

    by Paul Gunther

    Jonathan Wallen

    New York Transformed: The Architecture of Cross & Cross
    By Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker
    Monacelli Press, $60

    Towards the end of his foreshortened career, the late, colorful art historian Henry Geldzahler organized a painting show at PS 1 in Queens called The Underknown: Twelve Artists Re-Seen in 1984.

    After leaving his successive posts as first-time curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as New York’s just-hatched commissioner of cultural affairs in 1978, he turned much of his critical attention to the work of older artists once widely recognized and collected (including by leading museums), but then relegated indefinitely to unseen storage. It was like taking a 30-year-old Whitney Biennial catalog and restaging its content as a way of recalling the once recognized and now ignored, far outnumbering as they do those withstanding the fullest measure of time’s passage.

    In a world focused evermore on the young, emerging, and diverse, it was a refreshing curatorial impulse and a sobering reminder of how few era-shapers end up gaining a lasting hold on our collective attention.

    An elegant, curved staircase by Cross & Cross at the Links Club in New York (left, center). The crown of the RCA Victor building in New York (right).

    Ironically, with architecture, despite its status as the most social and publicly accessible of the arts by dint of formal intent and (excepting secluded private houses) exterior visibility, such credit-giving is stingier still for past and present practitioners alike.

    In the history of the United States Postal Service, for example, there has been a single stamp commemorating an architect and in case you have not guessed already it was in 1966 for Frank Lloyd Wright, who also got one for Falling Water, the original Guggenheim Museum, and the Robie House among the measly total of seven stamps that have had anything to do whatsoever with those who shape the built environment. Maybe some of the internationally branded stars anointed more recently and redundantly by critics, like the late Herbert Muschamp, will hold up to long-term scrutiny but it is too soon to tell.

    Such lack of attribution and the according anonymity of practitioners, whose contributions are thus hidden in plain sight, helps underscore the important joint contribution of the authors Peter Pennoyer, an architect, and Anne Walker, a historian, with their ongoing series about important “Underknowns” from the first half of the last century. And they come at a time when much of their subject examples still stand in moot contrast to the frenzy of up-zoning and air-rights laden exuberances now taking root across the five boroughs and their surrounding region.

    Cross & Cross' Brick House.

    There is no justification for the accomplishments and business practices of these masters to be lost to history, especially if and when the constructed results are overlooked, demolished, or at risk. Yet this backward glance is not a nostalgic yearning for better days past, nor a disguised plea for preservation. On the contrary, by always adding analysis of what building their subjects’ work replaced, they acknowledge the changing social dynamics and economic circumstances imposed on the profession by varying clients. At the same time, however, they refuse
    to ignore such precedents and look instead for ways it can inform this inevitable continuum, especially given the sometimes blinding juggernaut of Modernism.

    New York Transformed: The Architecture of Cross & Cross (aka brothers John Walter (1878–1951) and Eliot Cross (1883–1949)) arrives as the series’ fourth, following Delano & Aldrich, Warren & Wetmore, and Grosvenor Atterbury. All subject architects are united by success in terms of both design and client engagement in the shadow of the “progressive torpedo,” as foreword writer Robert A. M. Stern puts it, of Modernism’s inexorable concurrent rise so accelerated as it was by the advent of worldwide war. The record of these labors is twice confounded: by their polemical peers as well as by the profession’s relative anonymity in general.

    The 35-year duration of the fraternal partnership ranged from the Colonial Revival, which was under way as the Crosses launched their firm (e.g. the Flemish-bonded simple Georgian symmetry of the American Foundation for the Blind, 15 East 16th Street), to the sky-scraping proto-modern art deco of their late career (RCA Victor Building at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street) with its tacit acceptance of new technologies as well as the budgetary trimming born of depression and warfare. There was always a client- and architect-shared tie to the past and an acknowledgement of its best lessons cast anew. Like Peter Pennoyer Architects today, Cross & Cross deployed a broad and varied vocabulary, yet one descending from a rigorous classical point of departure and manifesting in continuously innovative ways.

    Bayberry Land gardens and living room. Courtesy Monacelli Press

    Enlivening the text are ample blueprints and illustrations, especially in an occasional photographic essay contributed by Jonathan Wallen, of a surviving example of each building typology that defines the volume’s thematic chapters. The Lee, Higginson & Co. tower at 41 Broad Street stands out for its instructive glimpse of structure and ornament in vital symbiosis.

    And who knew? Far from their Federally inspired clubs and Cotswold Cottage-inflected homes on Long Island’s North Shore, Cross & Cross landed in 1940 at the stripped down swank of Tiffany & Co. at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with what was then the largest column-free merchandising hall in the country. Here the window dressers have enjoyed more attribution than those who created the beguiling vitrines of irrepressible yet concentrated attention on the goods for sale: bling for the masses as much as for the potential customer, overall, however, tempered by restraint of the stylistic commission.

    Another narrative drive found here, lacking in most contemporary architectural narratives, are lively and unapologetic accounts of the Cross & Cross clients, who, like them, grew up in the small world of interconnected families at the center of wealth and power which, without knowing it, were witnessing the end of this age of birthright privilege. All the Pennoyer/Walker books do so not as gossipy peeks at the rich and discreetly renowned, but as measures of doing business—that can still instruct even as a WASPy upper class hegemony depicted in these pages has long ago yielded to the finance and real estate meritocrats and foreign oligarchs who prove more elusive as illuminating ingredients in the complex business of getting things built.

    Ironically, despite their well set place at the exclusive elite table, Cross & Cross, and in particular Eliot, also worked as speculative developers with the associated firm of Webb and Knapp that has evolved into today’s Zeckendorf Development, thriving as never before. While benefitting from the decorous rules of Social Register propriety, Eliot and his profit-minded cohorts simultaneously contributed to its ultimate dismantling by the tools of investment, marketing, and the general free-for-all of accumulated wealth alone as the real drivers of growth.

    In this way too, the invisible impact of forgotten trailblazers emerges from the historical shadows as with the authors’ earlier series’ subjects. The profession, like an evermore design savvy public, gains as a result of these insights. Its creative intent is worth sharing for the sake of drawing back a curtain blocking the artistry we inhabit daily whether, frankly, we want to or not.

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  7. #172
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    Just got this today. Stunning black and white street view photography.

  8. #173
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    Review> Paul Gunther on preservation and the ongoing exhibit, Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks

    Monday, October 5, 2015
    by Paul Gunther

    Grand Central Terminal, 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks

    An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York and Catalog edited by Donald Albrecht, Andrew Dolkart, and Seri Worden
    Through January 3, 2016

    Since the first trace of the species homo sapiens, human evolution only represents four one hundred thousandths of one percent of the earth’s age. In proportion to an 80-year life span, that means just 31 hours—less than a day and a half of the 701,280 hours lived.

    With the existential threat of climate change and ecological ruination gaining traction in collective consciousness—combined with the outsized expectations of breath-holding fundamentalists for whom earth’s rapturous end can’t come soon enough—our sense of what permanence means has begun to shift. If all human culture to date is just four-dozen millennia and we’ve wreaked so much havoc already, “forever” strikes a dubious chord.

    TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport, Queens, c. 1978. (Edmund V. Gillon, Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

    This temporal dynamic is one prism through which Saving Place and the anniversary it examines can be seen. Another is the end of the post-World War II order and with it a sense that history hasn’t ended after all, including the survival of world monuments (especially amidst the tribal strife in the Middle East) that a united (albeit Western-centric) world had deemed essentially imperishable. It turns out historic places of exceptional human accomplishment can disappear as readily as an endangered species can; the risk of disorientation resulting from the obliteration of common orthodoxies is always high.

    Irving Underwood, New York Post Office, 1902. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

    Such sobering reflection informs this worthy stock-taking anniversary enterprise, which focuses more on the role of the preservation movement as part of the plodding, existential course of civic engagement, rather than some celebratory juggernaut tied only to the singular examples of past excellence like Grand Central Terminal or the Guggenheim Museum. Among the most valued places saved are those of daily routine that most identify as the common bonds of a vibrant community. Only with such coherence can change occur in ways that succeed—and that hold value.

    Jefferson Market Branch, New York Public Library (originally Jefferson Market Courthouse), 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    Fifty years ago, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner signed into law the first landmarks designation statute in the nation with the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. With its advent came new public authority and civic duty to adjudge the aesthetic and historic value of elements of the built environment, including privately owned or nonprofit properties, whose future disposition affects the commonwealth of all citizens.

    Mayor Robert F. Wagner signing the landmarks law, 1965. (Margot Gayle, Courtesy New York Preservation Archive Project)

    It was as controversial then as it continues today, whether held as the basis for NIMBY battles by the privileged few or the evergreen bane to developer dreams clipped by what they sometimes assert are its onerous and subjective restrictions blocking the growth and change endemic to sustained livability.

    St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    That is not an easy distinction for a metropolitan region. Since first launched by the colonizing Dutch, the bonanza of real estate development has been the golden egg of the regional economy.

    It is the essential cornerstone of New York commerce and the obsession of dwellers from those born and bred to those beckoned by its promise of opportunity and fresh beginnings.

    Astor Place, 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    This relatively recent chapter of local land use policy and its record of impact are the inspirations for Saving Place, delivered with a welcome sobriety of tone and presentation calmly sharing its results along with the means and personalities that made it happen. An underlying intent born of civic pride stays in lively focus.

    Aaron Rose, Demolition of Pennsylvania Station, 1964-65. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

    Like any thorough history show, gray wins out over black and white: The movement started far before the generally shared crucible of the 1963 demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s uplifting Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station (giving way to the peerless bathos of Penn Plaza by designer and businessman, Charles Luckman, whose clients took the train users of 1968 to be some dying breed of rodents) and has learned as much from its failures and occasional compromises as from its best known victories.

    St. John’s Chapel being demolished, 1918. (Courtesy American Scenic & Historic Preservation Society/Metropolitan History)

    The movement’s roots took hold not so much against change, but against failed progress when the exchange of present conditions for some promised social gain fell short and urban well-being emerged impoverished.

    Like the l965 law, the 1978 majority ruling by the United Sates Supreme Court, written by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (upholding the City’s designation of Grand Central Terminal and thus laying to rest once and for all any lingering assertions that landmark designation was unconstitutional), is far more nuanced than its friends and foes would have New Yorkers believe.

    Wurts Brothers, Dyckman House after restoration, 1942. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

    The preservation work done, like the battles to come, are perpetually a collective work in progress. The places and leading players presented in such a context emerge more as dynamic case studies than as fixed heroics.

    The commissioned photographs by Iwan Baan (whose work is characterized as usual by the vehicles, people, and quotidian activity of such places, so often absent in studies of planning and architectural design). Like the exhibit installation by Wendy Evans Joseph and her firm Studio Joseph, record individual designations are not just bright beacons of superior significance but indispensable, stabilizing place holders that bind community even when hidden in plain sight.

    Sylvan Terrace, 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    Saving Place respects the value of landmarks by gently reminding its audience of what we take for granted and by offering (without insisting) on a greater depth of meaning for sites both individual and district-wide.

    And yet its overwhelmingly beneficial impact on all corners of today’s five boroughs, not to mention the quality and measure of visitor appeal (like it or not, tourism means jobs), cannot be denied or scoffed away as a Luddite blockade to change.

    Whatever else New York may risk in 2015, a dearth or loss of dynamic change is not one of them. Saving Place shows instead how traces of the past can at best stand alongside the new for at least the relatively small measure of time that our present civilization can endure. Like the natural world, today we know that the built world also demands balance as a basis of sustenance.

    Washington Street with Manhattan Bridge, 2014. (Iwan Baan)

    The exhibit’s iconic original architectural models and array of primary artifacts are brought to the fore as the landmark’s legacy of material sensuality in historic terms both material and artisanal. The society we keep is well served by some record of past beauty that for all kinds of reasons simply cannot be replicated, and how that should be done.

    These strands tie a knot of quiet reflection for the Saving Place initiative that bodes well for a landmarks movement pausing only briefly to recall the reasons its work will never end in the messy marketplace of a healthy city. Coexistence is the key; landmarking works best as one part of the overall planning process, not the bejeweled hobbyhorse of some nostalgic elite.

    In a world with a foreshortened sense of permanence, the longer we can maintain this democratic equilibrium the better off we all will be.

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