Limited Equity: Stable Communities, Affordable Housing

The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.

I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.

Spotlight: Cities Service Building Update

Cities Service Building
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My favorite of the city’s Art Deco skyscrapers, this soaring Pine Street tower was built as the headquarters of the Cities Service Company, predecessor of Citgo. The Cities Service logo — a pyramid within a cloverleaf, usually black or green in trade dress — can be found pervasively worked into the concrete and metal exterior details, and the interior details, as well. Designed by architects at Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, the 952-foot tower opened in 1932.

Last year, I posted a batch of pictures that I had taken of the exterior details at ground level; and of the tower within the skyline of Wall Street. It is a striking tower, sleek and tapered at the top. But given the dense cluster of tall buildings that now characterize the neighborhood, it is a challenge to find a clear shot of more than its very top. Fortunately, an outside detail (above) provides a scale model of the complete tower in clean, white concrete — like the building itself.

A residential conversion was recently completed, which includes a beautiful top-to-bottom restoration of the landmark skyscraper. I doubt the building could have looked much sharper in 1932, when it opened amid the Great Depression, having been on the drawing board before the fortunes of Wall Street turned dark. The redeveloper, Rose Associates, has really done an incredible job.

Here, I include a number of new pictures of the grand lobby, the basement, and various stairwells and corridors.

Hope you enjoy. I love this building, and think you will, too.

Spotlight: Rockaway Blues and Coney Island Rain

Rockaway Blues & Coney Island Rain

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Just some pictures from a couple of trips to New York City beaches this summer. Honey and I made it to Rockaway Beach on an absolutely beautiful day, in early August. The ocean was about as blue as you could imagine, and the beach has been completely remade with white sand and a new boardwalk, replacing the one that was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. The little things in the photos that look like pebbles are actually tiny clams, coming in by the thousands that day with each wave, then burrowing their way into the sand when the water went out. It was really something to see.

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About a week later, I wound up on a work-related field trip to the coastal parts of Brooklyn, to observe the progress that my program has made in rebuilding private homes in Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Coney Island. We were supposed to have a happy hour afterwards on the Coney Island Boardwalk, but it was cancelled because of the intermittent (but occasionally heavy) rain. The neighborhood was eerie and abandoned, with wet streets and empty sidewalks. I thought it was photogenic. It’s interesting to me how many of the individual artifacts of the Coney Island my grandparents would have visited are still there — Nathan’s, Luna Park, the Cyclone; and even more interesting, from a planner’s perspective, that this famous seaside spot has never been redeveloped.

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At the end, I included just a few pictures of the work that our program is getting done in the Sandy-affected parts of Brooklyn. It has been a long process getting to a point where physical progress can been seen in these places. Everyone who has been involved in since 2013 should be proud of what he or she has done, especially the homeowners and tenants who have stuck with it for the long haul.

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Spotlight: The 1913 Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building
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My office is just across Park Place from the landmark Woolworth Building. Once the world’s tallest skyscraper, the whimsically Gothic tower still dominates the western edge of New York’s town green. Back in the fall, I took a guided tour of the lobby — which is otherwise off limits — which turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Here are some pictures.

Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.

Spotlight: 2013 Mount Laurel Exhibit at Rutgers

mtlaurel
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Here are some pictures I took of a special exhibit at the Rutgers Law Library in 2013, focused on the Mount Laurel doctrine, its history, and its legacy. I just discovered them while I was going through old photos, and thought they might be of interest to some readers. Incidentally, I was in John Payne’s Con Law class during his last semester of teaching at Rutgers. His untimely death was jarring for those of us who were in his class. Interesting fact: he and his wife lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, in Glen Ridge.

Spotlight: South Walkway, Manhattan Bridge


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Was up on the walkway of the Manhattan Bridge. The view is really incredible, especially of the rooftops of Chinatown, and the lower stretch of the East River. The walkway sways a little bit in the wind, and — there are subway tracks right beside it — it really shakes when a subway goes by. It’s much less touristy than the Brooklyn Bridge, and still reminds me a little bit of how the city was in the 80s and early 90s: lots of graffiti, neglected infrastructure, homeless people. I saw three street people getting high, and another lying flat on the walkway.

Spotlight: George Inness in Montclair

George Inness

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Just some pictures from a recent visit to the Montclair Art Museum, which has a nice collection of George Inness paintings and personal effects. Inness was one of the best artists of 19th century America, specifically, the Northeast. A native of the Hudson Valley, he was sometimes associated with the Hudson River School, but he maintained a distinct approach that defies classification. His palette reminds me a little bit of Van Gogh’s, but his subject matter is much more realist. He spent a bunch of time in Montclair, taking the countryside around Newark as inspiration for a number of his paintings.

Spotlight: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Federal Reserve Bank of New York
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The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is a truly incredible landmark. Completed in 1922 in the style of a Florentine palazzo, this stone fortress was built to house the most important regional branch of the Fed. Its design served the secondary purpose of communicating the solidity of American banking under the Federal Reserve System. The smooth-faced, rusticated masonry alternates between blocks of gray and tan, conveying something that cannot be moved, while hinting at the silver and gold that still backed up American currency at the time.

Tours of the interior are available, but tickets can be hard to come by. Once there, the Fed requires that you take part in a guided tour, which runs about an hour. Honey and I went one day last summer. Although such tours are not my favorite approach to exploration, I found this one incredibly interesting. The guide provided a short history of the Federal Reserve System; the construction and architecture of the building, itself; and a tour of the active gold vault, deep below Liberty Street. Unfortunately, the Fed has a very strict prohibition on photography within the building (under penalty of camera confiscation).

Spotlight: Around the Hoboken Rail Yards

Around the Hoboken Rail Yard

Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)

As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:

new_york_city_railroads_ca_1900

Spotlight: The Surrogate’s Courthouse of New York County

Surrogates Court
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.

The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

Pierpont Morgan: Rome and the Romantics

Rome and the Romantics
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An excellent exhibit at The Morgan illustrates the study of Rome by 19th-century visual artists and writers; the influence of the Grand Tour on artists of the time; and the maps and guidebooks that visitors followed. I think the images speak for themselves. My Flickr gallery has a lot more images, some of which are very close, for detail. Not too many exhibits combine ancient urban planning, Romantic-era art and writing, and 19th century cartography. We really enjoyed this one!

Preserving New Jersey’s Palisades

A nice partial history of the Palisades Interstate Park, beginning in the late 19th century, when the cliffs were being blasted to make concrete for Manhattan’s early skyscrapers, and continuing through its heyday during the New Deal. (I didn’t know that so many people used to swim in the Hudson!)

This park is still one of my favorite spots. I worked there when I was a teenager, in the summers of 1998 and 1999. I read most of the Beat generation’s greatest hits while manning the ticket booths — at the Englewood and Alpine Boat Basins, the Undercliff Picnic Area, and Ross Dock — selling tickets to visitors who had come to picnic, launch boats, or just explore the woods and cliffs. It remains one of the most pleasant employment experiences I’ve had.

Nice footage of cars and fedoras. The narrative begins around 2:43.

Spatial and Tactile Urbanism

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

One last thing: if you have a Flickr or Yahoo account, please SIGN IN. Doing so will prevent you from having to occasionally click through distracting ads when navigating my albums. Thanks!

Spotlight: Castle Clinton & Hudson River Twilight

Battery Park & Castle Clinton
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Out for a walk one evening in June, while Honey was attending a class, I wound up at Castle Clinton, near the tip of Manhattan. It is a national landmark that I had heard of, but whose claim to fame I did not know, so I read one of the NPS guides that was posted on site. Apparently, Castle Clinton was an unused military facility after the War of Independence; then a public amphitheater in the mid-19th century; an intake center for European immigrants, before Ellis Island was established; and, finally, the original NYC Aquarium. Today, it’s back to being a presentation space. That night in June, I walked into an incredibly well acted performance of Romeo and Juliet, just in time to catch the last few dramatic scenes. Afterwards, I walked back along the Hudson River.

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Spotlight: Pierpont Morgan

Pierpont Morgan
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The main building on this campus was J. Pierpont Morgan’s private house, and included an incredible private library, complete with mezzanines and bookshelves that turn to reveal hidden, spiral staircases. The architectural detail of this property, alone, makes it worth a visit. The displayed collection currently includes a Gutenberg Bible, an original manuscript by Mozart, and a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci’s teacher. J.P. Morgan was also an avid collector of cylinder seals from the ancient world (little spools of lapis lazuli, obsidian, or other hard materials, that were carved with a unique image and pressed into hot wax in order to verify the authenticity of a document or packaged good). Morgan became something of an expert on these, and many items from his collection are displayed. Fascinating stuff.

Spotlight: New York’s City Hall

I took these pictures in October 2015, during a visit that I made to City Hall (1802-12), with Honey, as part of Open House New York. City Hall is located in New York’s historic town green — the topic of a previous LT post. My current office is at 250 Broadway, which is the glass building located just to the right of the Woolworth Building in a couple of the outdoor photos. More about the history and architecture of City Hall can be found here. Images of the Council Chamber, including its incredible ceiling, are at the end of the series.