Sunday, October 11, 2009

Visions of a Division

I went with a friend to the Museum of the City of New York two weeks back. The museum is located in a beautiful building facing Central Park at 5th & 103rd. After enjoying an exhibit on Manhattan before 1609, we left the museum and walked one block over to Madison Avenue to look for a place to eat and to head for the subway at 96th & Park.

What met us as we walked south on Madison Avenue was a startling transition. No matter how many times I looked at a map of Manhattan in my life (there's even one on the wall across from my bed at home), it never once clicked in my mind that the Upper East Side and Harlem are right next to each other. That's right - the toniest neighborhood and the most notorious neighborhood sit side by side. I was curious. What divided these two distinct zones? Would there be some sort of 'ragged', blended edge, or would there be a clear marker?

The answer, as with any question of this type, is multi-layered. First and foremost, Harlem is characterized by the misled "slum clearance" movement of the 1960s, in which blocks of mixed-use walk-up buildings were replaced by midrise towers in parks. Anyone familiar with Le Corbusier understands this type of planning, but to see the contrast in street vitality and urban life is striking:
This first photo is taken facing north on Madison Avenue midblock between 98th and 99th, looking toward Harlem.

This second photo is taken in the exact same spot as the first photo, except facing southbound on Madison toward 98th and the Upper East Side.

Locator map. Without even drawing the Nolli, you can see from the air how slum clearance rewrote the face of Harlem while leaving the Upper East Side untouched.

Four factors contribute to the abrupt shift, and the same four factors have prevented any portion of Harlem from slowly becoming the Upper East Side, or vice versa:
  1. The Corbusian "projects" - they exist only in Harlem. South of 96th Street, the street grid is virtually uninterrupted. The fabric was almost never violated and looks the same as it was originally platted. North of 96th, the opposite is true: it is rare to see even 6 to 8 blocks of historic fabric along any one avenue without it being interrupted by towers in a park.
  2. Street grid interruptions - created by the towers in a park parks.
  3. An elevated train line - south of 97th, the principal rail artery leading to Grand Central Terminal is underground. North of 97th, the rails are elevated, and to make matters worse, they are elevated on a stone-walled embankment instead of a permeable structure. If the towers in a park parks and the hospitals weren't bad enough for creating divisions, this effectively cuts the Harlem community into two isolated parts*.
  4. Two large hospital complexes - Mount Sinai Medical Center (which is between 98th and 99th where I'm standing) and Metropolitan Hospital (which fills out two blocks further east) act as giant roadblocks and dividers. They create single-use blocks with monolithic, and frequently uninviting buildings, with hardly any street-level interest.
Area map. Pictures taken from yellow mark. Mount Sinai Medical Center is the left red complex and Metropolitan is the right. Cross streets in blue (with 97th in purple). Notice how few cross streets there are north of 97th. From 97th south, not a single cross street is interrupted.

What lessons can we learn from this? Firstly, and the most obvious, is don't do towers in a park. Secondly, don't interrupt the street grid, and thirdly, if you have to have an elevated train, make sure its structure is permeable.

But I think one issue that even good urban planners might miss in their grand schemes is the problem created by the hospital complexes. Urban, governmental, and education projects have increasingly become fortified entities through which people (and cars) cannot pass. These impenetrable islands drain life out of their immediate surroundings. And here, they have helped to bitterly and uncompromisingly divide two different neighborhoods. There is no chance for that nice-looking intact urban block north of Mount Sinai to become part of the Upper East Side. The hospital is a veritable barrier to the natural ebb and flow that might have occurred in this area.

Even if the population as a whole is beginning to understand walkability as a concept, government leaders, religious leaders, hospital CEOs and school superintendents might still be under the impression that a hermetically sealed place is best. Going forward, we'll have to look for good examples of permeable or semi-permeable institutions. We need to show how "liner retail" can be applied to places like hospitals, as both good for the city and as a moneymaker for the hospital. Most of all, we must be ready to fight what is now a prevailing mentality about how places like these "should" be designed.

*Note: In case you're wondering, the change in the train line from tunnel to elevated is not a deliberate backhand to Harlem's collective face. North of 96th Street, Manhattan's topography quickly drops off into what was formerly a tidal swamp and creek. This area was filled in as the city grew northward to create more developable area, so it is considerably lower than areas directly to the south. Hence the change - Park Avenue falls while the rails stay at relatively the same elevation and become an elevated line.

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