Palimpsests

As a lifelong Brooklynite, I have a deep and abiding fascination with complex public dynamics. The ubiquity of hidden infrastructure, the psychology of traffic calming measures, the ambiguity of publicly-owned private spaces, the inequity of invisible boundaries between “good” and “bad” streets and neighborhoods, the tragedy of the commons, the scars and palimpsests of aging structures… all incredibly dynamic structural components of a chaotic, living system.

Prior to arriving at SVA, I’d finally conquered my fear of gigantic tomes and read both Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about the life of Robert Moses (the mercurial architect of so many of New York’s beaches, parks, and highways), as well as Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (the activist’s master critique of often-destructive midcentury urban planning initiatives). These two make a fascinating pair. The builder, the preserver. The eminent domain abuser, the protestor. The big thinker, the advocate for the small.

Of course, it never was such a clear-cut dichotomy. Robert Moses was an unsentimental change agent, yet some of his more heroic public works (like several of the surviving structures from the ’64 New York World’s Fair) have been landmarked. Similarly, Jane Jacobs wasn’t entirely a preservationist, emphasizing the importance of mixed use and new development to maximize safety and diversity in neighborhoods — yet her work led to the passing of NYC’s landmark preservation laws in 1965, which has led to the ossification of certain historic neighborhoods (such as Park Slope) where any new development is all but impossible.

All this is to note that we’re living in a particularly bizarre moment, here in New York. We’re surrounded by swaths of unchanging, inaccessible landmarked neighborhoods — as well as ever-changing, inaccessible glass-cladded high-rises, such as the so-called “Billionaires’ Row” going up on West 57th Street. Not much is happening in between, aside from the unceasing sprawl of Duane Reade pharmacies and Chase banks.

And to complicate things further? “Once you sink that first stake,” as Robert Moses said, “they’ll never make you pull it up.” Our street grid is established. There are no raw spaces left. Aside from the development of Roosevelt Island or Battery Park City, urban planners don’t have a lot of tabula rasas to work with. Just little blocks and lots, a certain floor-area ratio, and whatever zoning regulations are in place. The rest is fixed.

So, what now? First, we identify the problem with developing inviting urban spaces. Jane Jacobs wrote about the importance of “eyes on the street” — of encouraging a diverse set of use cases that would lead to different people walking through the same neighborhood at different times of day, such that we’d never see a business-zoned neighborhood turn into a ghost town at 5pm every evening or a fully residential neighborhood do the same at 9am every morning.

But if we can’t alter zoning or the street grid, well, perhaps this is where a technological intervention can have the greatest impact. This is the goal of my thesis.

Foreword | Mise-en-scène