Archive for the 'cities' Category

European Vacation ’09

…or, what I’ve been up to this summer…

I’ve been neglecting the blog lately, though I am tentatively sketching out big plans for its future… some day, (probably in the fall), I’ll get back to this.

But, in way of an update, Lisa finally posted all of her photos from our little European adventure a couple of weeks ago, see below. 10 days with Jason and Cristen in Paris, Amsterdam, the Rhineland, Bavaria and Berlin.

Berlin is an amazingly weird place — I feel like we only scratched the surface, I must go back.

My iPhone-only photos are on flickr »

The New New Times Square

The New New Times Square

Looking north at 42nd Street, in Times Square.

A few colleagues and I walked over to Times Square at lunch to check out the new Broadway—now shut off to cars, it’s another attempt by the city and the Bloomberg administration to reclaim the streets for pedestrians.

The Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff says:

Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.

This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.

There’s a couple of great slideshows, too. And, don’t miss Michael Crowley’s New York Magazine profile of the woman behind it all, NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

The Mostly True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway

The Mostly True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway:

There is a commonly held belief that Helvetica is the signage typeface of the New York City subway system, a belief reinforced by Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s popular 2007 documentary about the typeface. But it is not true—or rather, it is only somewhat true. Helvetica is the official typeface of the MTA today, but it was not the typeface specified by Unimark International when it created a new signage system at the end of the 1960s.

R-train icon, set in Helvetica and Standard.

I noticed this discrepancy earlier this year – I had to recreate some MTA subway icons for use on a project, and noticed that the R train map icon looked nothing like the Helvetica “R”. The MTA’s own website seems to be confused about the type used in the system icons, let alone its station signage.

Enter typographer Paul Shaw, and his 10,000+ word piece on AIGA’s site. Did you now that Boston’s subway signage system was the first to use Helvetica, without modifications? Ever curious as to the process by which enamel signs are made? Want to just look at pretty pictures of subway signs over the years?

It’s a great history, for fans of typography and the MTA.

What Could Possibly Make Someone Want to Leave New York and Move to Buffalo?

Buffalo #1
Lisa’s tattoo confirms that Buffalo is indeed #1.

New York magazine has an interesting feature on New Yorkers moving to Buffalo, NY, the very city that Lisa and I were raised in and subsequently couldn’t wait to leave from after high school.

Some people will read this as a story of defeat. They will look at Herbeck and Cloyd and think, They came; they couldn’t cut it; good riddance. That’s also a familiar New York narrative, one that’s especially comforting to those of us who stay and stick it out. Because, sure, stained glass and spare bedrooms are nice and all, but no one moves to New York because they think they’re going to get a great bargain on an apartment. You move here because you want to live in New York City.

The writer then goes on to say that this is not a story of defeat, but rather an opportunity:

But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater.

Um, okay… Truth is, I know more former 716 area coders that are now in 212 or 718. But, it’s a provoking premise for a city famous for little more than snow and four consecutive failed Superbowl bids.

Google Earth in 3D

Google Earth now has 3D-buildings, and it’s really fun to play with. Here is the Times Building, where I work:

Times Building

A 3D rendering of the New York Times Building in Midtown, as shown in Google Earth.

If you have Google Earth installed, see it for yourself. Or, try landing on the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, (just zoom in).

There seems to be data for a lot of cities, including my home town of Buffalo, and former home of Boston.

Carroll Gardens Featured on Gridskipper

Gridskipper put together a nice feature on our neighborhood in Brooklyn, including a snarky comparison:

Carroll Gardens featured on Gridskipper
Carroll Gardens is quaint, and for those in love with the West Village but who simply can’t afford to live there, it will do.

I’m not sure that I agree with this – we chose to live in Brooklyn over Manhattan, and I would argue that the neighborhoods to the north (Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill) are probably more fitting equivalents. Also, with few exceptions, Carroll Gardens is still very much a family neighborhood. Sure, it might be changing, but take a walk down our street during the day, and you’re going to see a lot of old men who’ve lived there for 50 years, as well as kids playing on the sidewalk. Err, maybe that is what the West Village is like.

Still, can’t deny that Carroll Gardens is awesome, and relatively affordable, considering the restaurant and bar options – we rarely make it into the city on weekends.


Continue reading ‘Carroll Gardens Featured on Gridskipper’

Buffalo Central Terminal Update

Chuck Maley's Central Terminal picturesA while back, I posted about a piece of architectural wonderment lying vandalized and dormant in Buffalo—the old Central Terminal. It’s a beautiful Deco train station from the 1920s, plopped into an otherwise unexceptional suburban neighborhood.

At the time the station was built, Buffalo was still an industrial and cultural center, with a population over one-half million. It was second only to Chicago for its tangling rail network. However, by the late 1970s, both the city and the station had seen better days. The station was boarded up, and the trains instead stopped at a new, strip-mall like parking-lot station not far away.

Well, there is some good news… it seems that some people do care about preserving the city’s heritage. Despite its vandalized and trashed interior, the building is drawing crowds—including some Canadian urban explorers.

What I love about structures like the Central Terminal is that they were built for the public to use. It’s absolutely unthinkable to imagine private corporations building such public spaces today—I think those years have passed, (as have the years of ridiculously cheap immigrant labor).

Here’s hoping there is a developer out there with deep pockets and a creative will.

The Central Terminal at a glance:

  • The Central Terminal opened four months before the Wall Street crash of 1929
  • Designed to handle an anticipated Buffalo population of 1.5 million, it cost $14 million to build
  • The 17-story office tower stands 271 feet high
  • The station closed in October 1979 after years of dwindling rail passenger service
  • A 1969 study estimated it would cost $54 million to restore it for office use, and $16.3 million to demolish it

The Hotel Commonwealth

Kenmore Square, Boston, has always had a reputation for being a little bit seedy—much the way Times Square used to be. It boasts a major Subway interchange, the best Ballpark in the American League, if not all of baseball, and it used to be home to a diverse group of small businesses and restaurants.

When I first moved to Kenmore Square, in 1996, there was a Methadone clinic, a punk-rock venue called the Rathskeller, a late-night restaurant called Deli-haus, a gritty coffee house called Fuel, and a bunch of other businesses housed in the cluster of Browstones on the opposite side of the Square. In 2003, chalk these landmarks into a new chapter of Lost Boston.

When Boston University proposed bulldozing much of the south side of the square, and replacing the century-old brownstones with a “European-style” hotel, city and community leaders largely supported the idea… largely, I suspect, because BU was willing to pay generously to relocate affected businesses with neighborhood association ties, such as Cornwall’s Pub. Also, the university is giving millions to upgrade the Subway station and traffic configuration in the Square.

Whether or not you identify with my bemoaning the loss of a funky piece of an otherwise boring city, what is not in question is the public reaction when the workers finally unveiled the facade. For a hotel looking to project Continental luxury and flair, it looks like a reproduction on the back lot at Universal Studios, or, perhaps, Main Street USA, Disneyland. Tacky, cheap, and an insult to a city with truly exceptional architecture.

I am not, I think, and elitist when it comes to architecture… I think classicist ideals of style and materials are preferable to 90% of all avant-garde rubbish of the past 50 years. But, BU and the developers cheated by trying to copy the style of the French Second Empire, while using materials common on a Wal-Mart job site. Instead of limestone, let’s use fiberglass. Brick too expensive? Substitute fiberglass for the real thing. And, the dormers can just be cut-outs—I mean, who looks that closely, right?

The fact is, this hotel would look pretty good from your car on the Interstate at 75 MPH, if it were located out in the sprawl belt of I-495 and 128. It’s cartoon color and features would blur from the highway strip. But, this hotel is in the heart of the city, with thousands of pedestrians walking by each day. And it looks Mickey Mouse, compared with the surrounding buildings.

The photos I took, unfortunately, fail to show how bad the facade really is. Trust me, it looks as if they were trying to save a few bucks… which is precisely not the image you’re going for in a 4-star hotel that wants to charge hundreds of dollars a night. Apparently, BU and the developers are going to spend $2 million to “fix” the facade. Good luck.

Biography of an Architectural Icon

coverI started reading this book, Divided We Stand, a biography of the building of the World Trade Center.

Written before the collapse on September 11, though informed by the earlier bombing in 1993, the author offers context and cultural comment on what was arguably the world’s most famous building (were they one or two buildings?). What is especially shocking is that not only was it one of the last cataclysmic ‘urban-renewal’ mega-schemes held over from the 60s, (it was completed in 1972), that eliminated 16 blocks of low-income (though thriving) commercial space, but also it was the largest government-sponsored real estate speculation in the history of the world.

Managed by the Port Authority of NY & NJ, a dubious organization, it was pitched as a ‘vertical-port’, to replace the decaying shipyards below, (which were traded quid pro quo to NJ for their ‘ok’ to build the WTC). What it became, was a state-sponsored plaything for the Rockefeller brothers, (both Governor Nelson, and Chase Manhattan CEO David). With massive tax breaks for tenants, the city of New York lost millions of dollars in tax revenue, and by the mid-1970s was bankrupt.

President Ford, at first, decided to let NY wallow, but political pressure forced him to organize a bailout. Funny. How could you consider letting America’s first city implode, and expect to get elected as America’s first citizen?

hi! Detroit Sucks. Big Suprise.

hi! Detroit sucks. big suprise. my aunt has one of those black Dells that that dumb blonde kid on TV is always telling people they’re going to get “it”… and she has a cable modem. so hot.

The cigarrette smoke here can be cut with a wedding cake knife. In fact, i’m doing that now… waving, and waving a knife around so as to breathe.

UPDATE: I don’t appreciate the rascist comments, so I am filtering them now.

I will allow negative or disrespective comments, but certain kinds of language are out-of-bounds.

Play nice & thanks,

Giving Back

Ani DiFranco recently donated $40,000 to her alma matter, Visual and Performing Arts High School in Buffalo, and to other Buffalo public school arts programs.

Trains are better than Cars

Central Station, Buffalo, NY, circa 1930.

Presley’s sister Kelly was in town this past weekend, and she left yesterday on the Amtrak train from Back Bay Station, which got me thinking about train stations and trains in general. Everyone in these New Urbanist books that I read can’t fathom how America ended up wedded to the automobile, while the Europeans remain contented with trains.

I think it’s a simple answer: after the war, we just could. It was the thing to do, and we had the resources. But, isn’t there something wonderful about trains? And more importantly, big city train stations? Grand Central in Manhattan is gorgeous. Moderinists moan on about how style should be down-played because it is the taste of economic elites, but I don’t care if putting a building like that up was a capitalist show of wealth and power—it had beauty, craftmanship and it was a place where people of all races and incomes passed through. They destroyed Penn Station in the sixties to put up Madison Square Garden. big whoop. If anything, MSG is more capitalist-minded than the building it replaced.

So, it brings me around to Buffalo and Kelly’s departure… Earlier in this century, Buffalo actually was in the top 5 for most railroad track—Buffalo had industry, and it was located on the important route between new york and chicago. The city built some beautiful train stations (subsequently demolished), who’s architecture seems wonderfully as grand as Grand Central itself. The last remaining station, Central Terminal, still stands on the East Side, though it’s falling apart. I wish to God the city could find some new use for the facility—problem is, it is located in the most economically depressed area of the city.

Boston as a Blueprint

The new Planning news feed at the right of this page is already reaping interesting rewards—among the interesting links, an article that discusses Boston and it’s neighborhoods. Mayor Menino has made neighborhood-based commercial development a priority over the past decade or so, and it’s just the kind of thing that makes economic sense. In awarding grants to individual small business owners, (most of which is federal money anyway), for little improvements such as new store facades, Boston has cultivated a neighborhood approach to development. Occasionally, big “urban-renewal” projects, such as the new Ritz-Carlton monstrosity in Chinatown, do get built, but usually they include some kind of mixed-use, (even if that mixed-use is upscale in this very working-class neighborhood).

It’s never been a very sexy thing to talk about, but the successes of this program can’t be ignored, and many cities are starting to emulate Menino. Buffalo is trying to cultivate this, through the creation and encouragement of city neighborhoods such as the “Pan-Am District” around Elmwood Ave in North Buffalo. Even private college campuses such as Canisius are contributing to the quality of their surrounding neighborhoods by providing low-interest mortgages to professors and staff, to encourage them to live near the schools. Now, answer me this: Why is the major state school, SUNY at Buffalo, located in Amherst (not buffalo)?

What Buffalo Was, and What it Should Be

If you’ve talked with me in the last few months, you know that I’ve taken an interest in Urban Planning, and more specifically those characteristics that make a good neighborhood and city. I don’t know why this subject has peaked my interest, considering I used to be in awe of places like Epcot and I grew up not far from strip-malls. But, I am deeply concerned about that place where I grew up, because the city of Buffalo is rotting at it’s core, while the endless development of pharmacy mini-malls, parking lots, and cul-de-sacs pushes farther out into the countryside.

It used to be that Transit Road was a marker or sorts—suburban development fell off notably in the town of Clarence. But now, Clarence and Lancaster are becoming the newest sprawl suburbs. Housing development is getting less and less dense, taking up more and more land, and as a result, weakening community ties. The goal in the Buffalo area these days, is to earn enough to “get yours”—which means a big house in the middle of nowhere, with lousy architecture, a big front yard, and curving streets that don’t connect to other developments. You can’t walk to a corner store, much less to work or school.

This, of course, means that cars must be used for anything and everything in Buffalo’s suburbs, and increasingly so in these new suburbs. Growing up, I could walk or ride my bike to a corner store, a supermarket, a pizzeria, a k-mart and a bagel shop. For kids growing up in Loch Lea and other developments further out, this is simply not an option—a ride from mom or dad is required, and an (unhealthy) dependence is born. Also, you spend much of your early teenage years looking for older friends, or pining for that 16th birthday, when mom and dad will provide you with a car. There is a sense of entitlement that comes in such a place.

Buffalo, however, wasn’t always so bleak. The Buffalo of my Grandmother’s youth was a vibrant and busy city. Look at some of these photographs… Streetcars zipped up and down major avenues, automobiles co-existed with pedestrians, commercial streets had first-floor storefronts with apartments above, and you knew your neighbor, butcher and neighborhood cop. I don’t want to sentimentalize what was, but I think people understood that there was an art to building neighborhoods—an art that seems to have been lost in post-war, post-industrial Buffalo. The powerful suburban developers like Ciminelli, don’t build permanent places to live. They think that there is no money to be made in traditional (that is to say, mixed-use) neighborhoods. Everything is this set-back-from-the-street, bastardized modernist, flat-roof, single-floor, horizontal monstrosity, with 5 parking spots out front for every 1 customer.

I know I’m taking hyperbolic license here, but I do it only because the prevailing assumptions are so ingrained and accepted that you almost need to shock people to wake them up.

We’ve been living in the age of the automobile. Traffic engineers say we need to widen roads and intersections to decrease traffic and increase traffic volume. Every major study of roadway “improvements” shows that more lanes = more cars. By widening a road like Transit, you are actually creating more traffic in the long-run. Even Robert Moses realized this in 1939, when traffic congestion cropped up on his highways where there was previously no problem. You induce traffic, by building more lanes. And, these wide intersections you see on Transit and other roads, are less safe than narrower, more traditional intersections. Here in Boston, despite our reputation for crazy driving, there are rarely any accidents at all, due to our small blocks, odd intersections and lack of sprawl.

Still, there is hope. I think the economic pressures that 50 years of this kind of development has wrought on Buffalo is starting to change people’s minds about living and working in close proximity. I hope environmental, and economic realities force the city and it’s county of suburbs to draw a line in the sand (and the geography), and say enough is enough. It’s not about Growth vs. anti-Growth. It’s about Smart Growth. Banks, developers and city & town officials need to be shown that it is preferable to ditch this fast-decaying suburban strip-mall way of doing things. If we are going to do this, the state needs to step in and set up stronger regional government. Many people fear this, as being ‘more government’, when in actuality it could save money by eliminating redundant services.

But there is powerful resistance to any kind of regional planning.

Jane Jacobs Changed My Life… or, Modernists Should Die

What makes a good neighborhood? I’ve started reading everything I can get my hands on regarding urban planning and issues surrounding sprawl, and I think it’s so inspiring that Jane Jacobs had it all figured out in 1961. I think it would not be magnanimous to say that she saved Greenwich Village from becoming another Robert Moses highway. Check out this discussion about Jane’s life and the state of urban planning. (Real Audio)

As a designer, I’ve always loved modernist design — it’s big, it’s humanist in the sense that it is utopian and egalitarian, and it shows off our wonderful technology. Look at Empire Plaza in Albany, NY, and you can’t help but think that we are capable of amazing things. However, this HUGE plaza is mostly useless, except on sunny days during noon and 1pm, when workers might stroll outside for fresh air. Nevermind that there aren’t any delis or convenience stores within a 5 minute walk. Also, think of a place like this in the evening, or at night. Dead. I’ve been there! Probably unsafe. But the 19th century State Capitol is wonderful, and human-scaled. One might imagine shops or restaurants on the surrounding streets. It’s dignified, and worthy of a civic building. I think our post-60s mistrust of government makes us think that spending the money and time to build lasting monuments to public life is somehow wasteful or bad. Albany Dan’s own neighborhood (not far from Empire Plaza) is a testament to How We Used to Do Things. It’s a mishmash of income levels and uses. It’s wonderful too.

Urban renewal is a fucking sham. No news there. Look at Boston’s own place of civic activity, city hall. Modernist architects can argue all they want about the ‘greatness’ of buildings and plazas like this, but I doubt anyone but a few intellectuals actually appreciate it as such. (Myself included) It flies in the face of hundreds of years of precedent and expertise, and yet we call it ‘brilliant’. Listen to the architect’s own words:

“Kallmann: ‘We distrust and have reacted against an architecture that is absolute, uninvolved and abstract. We have moved towards an architecture that is specific and concrete, involving itself with the social and geographic context, the program, and methods of construction, in order to produce a building that exists strongly and irrevocably, rather than an uncommitted abstract structure that could be any place and, therefore, like modern man’ without identity or presence.”

Does the building and plaza create a good urban space? nope. The language itself is specifically crafted to sound unintelligible, and to elevate the architect to the status of some Ayn Randian demi-God. Even the weird geometry of the plaza is psychologically unsettling, not to mention what I feel from the building itself. There is something profoundly anti-social in a building that is set back from the street so far with that much brick. The ‘style’, (if the modernists let you call it that), is Brutalist Modern, for christ’s sake.