Thursday, January 09, 2014

Jane Jacobs strikes again

As Sam Roberts notes in today's New York Times, the ghost of Jane Jacobs seems to be thwarting grand development plans in Greenwich Village. At issue are grand expansion plans by New York University, which a judge has put a hold on because of three strips of land that are technically still considered public streets, but for decades have been used as parkland and playground space, along La Guardia Place just south of Washington Square Park. Master builder Robert Moses schemed to make that north-south thoroughfare, previously known as 5th Avenue South and before that Lorenzo Street, a feeder arterial for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated highway that would have roared down Broome Street in SoHo, connecting the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges vaulting the East River. Jacobs helped put a stop to that proposal -- one of four cross-town expressways Moses envisioned, with the Cross Bronx being the one he successfully executed -- and was famously arrested after one raucous public hearing in April of 1968, after the stenotype record was ripped to shreds and thrown in the air like confetti. So the feeder route was never built, the parks and playgrounds emerged on the strips of land eyed for roadways, and thus a judge decreed they were de facto parks that couldn't be messed with, as part of NYU's plans. History is getting a bit blurred here. Robert Moses first proposed in the mid-50s a roadway through Washington Square Park -- one lane would have gone right under the iconic Washington Square arch -- as an extension of 5th Avenue, as a local traffic congestion solution, and to give his superblock project, Washington Square Park, a 5th Avenue address. Lomex, as it came to be known, came along a bit later, in earnest beginning around 1960. The proposed corridor, of course, ran east-west, and was nearly six blocks south of Washington Square Park. Thus the extension of 5th Avenue through the park and across Houston Street to an interchange at Broome Street would have been a road on the way to Lomex, but not technically Lomex. The park roadway and reconstruction of Lorenzo Street could have happened without Lomex, and indeed it was initially proposed as such. Jane's opposition to this initial proposal was the first of three major battles described in my book Wrestling with Moses (by the way you won't find this in Robert Caro's The Power Broker, great as it is; Jane Jacobs is nowhere mentioned therein). But all this is mere details for true Jane Jacobs champions. The denizens of Greenwich Village are thrilled to have beaten back NYU, although as former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe points out, two of the strips of land would be formally made into enhanced parks at NYU's expense, as part of the expansion plans. Bloomberg's James Russell has an equally nuanced take on this latest Village kerfuffle (one of Jane's favorite terms).

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Staying up late in Bellagio

I'm a tiny bit sheepish about my latest contribution to The Boston Globe Travel section. The Lido nightclub splashed on the scene in Bellagio, and seemed to be changing the nature of the place as a day-tripper destination. The untold story is that it has also been driving the locals a bit loco. The thumpa-thumpa of the music rattles around the peninsula on Lake Como, particularly at The Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center at Villa Serbelloni. I was honored to be a fellow there this summer, working on my book on Le Corbusier. I only spent one indulgent night on the town. So here it is, appearing in today's editions of The Boston Globe in the Travel section: BELLAGIO, Italy — The latest addition to the scene here is a feisty, flashy, and thumping one: The Lido (, a beach club by day and a fabulous and groovy Euro-trash convening place into the wee hours. The parade of impossibly stylish Italians starts marching over from the ferry dock on Lake Como at 1 a.m., when the party is just getting started. A typical cover is about $26, a justifiable splurge to watch the class of people stepping off the big power boats tied up just a few steps from the dance floor. Midweek nights feature delightfully cheesy cover bands of Pink Floyd and the like. If you have the stamina, bracket a visit with a stroll through the Villa Melzi gardens ( to the adjacent hamlet of Loppia for dinner at Ristorante Alle d’Arsenne (, a favorite of nearby resident George Clooney ( no, really). Then crash at the exquisitely restored Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (, where a dive in the lakeside pool is just the thing for the morning after.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Quiet and chaos

Walking through downtown Boston today, I was struck once again by the quiet. No honking horns, not even a revving engine, nobody hawking anything, no construction noise. No animals bleating, either. I had the same sensation the night I got back from India: the deafening silence of Brookline. It's ringing in my ears. I traveled to India Jan. 10-16, presenting at a Thane College conference called The Geography of Change. I walked through Darahvi and soaked up Mumbai, before flying to Chandigarh to get a first-hand look at the city Le Corbusier designed from scratch. I wrote this essay about the ratio of men and women in the country of over 1 billion at The Atlantic Cities. I had been to India before, in the 1990s, traveling to Delhi and trekking in Ladakh. This time, overall, India kicked my butt. I was overwhelmed by traffic-clogged, sprawling Mumbai, and couldn't help thinking, if this is the way things are with 20 million people, how in the world is this place not going to implode with 20 million more people by 2050? I also found Chandigarh less than inspiring -- it was doubtless a big deal at the time, but today resembles nothing so much as a bad 70s Maryland suburb. The grid requires a car dependence that seems out of step with a post-carbon future. The informal settlement was not outrageous -- Darahvi was full of industry and a thriving local economy. Even the kids seemed relatively happy. But it all seemed so tenuous, or untenable, like it couldn't possibly last. At the Lincoln Institute we try to assess efforts of regularization and slum upgrading. Yet the conditions on the ground are so overwhelming -- it's like helping Haiti or trying to mitigate climate change. One can make the effort but it's so obviously just a drop in the bucket. Similarly, it's hard to know how to be useful in advising India how to plan her cities going forward. The coda was I got gravely ill, hitting me on the way back, and all that free booze on British Airways went to waste. Sobering all around.

Friday, July 27, 2012

When it comes to sprawl, it's meet the new boss

I'm at the Starbucks in Acton while my son plays in a tennis tournament here. The last time I was out this way was 10 years ago, when I wrote a story for The Boston Globe datelined Groton about a pilot transfer-of-development-rights program. A little environmental militia at the time was trying to scale back at least some of the subdivision sprawl overtaking the area framed by the Route 128, the Mass Pike, and I-495, northwest of Boston. The piece is kindly being re-broadcast, without the Globe's knowledge I suspect, at a site here. So what's changed in 10 years? From a brief look around, very little. The air is filled with the sounds of leafblowers and carpenter's hammers, and the same old subdivisions are sprouting up once again. The 2008 financial and housing crisis surely slowed things down, but instead of a major redirection and moment of soul-searching, around here it was just a pause. This is a key question I raise in the revised introduction to the softcover edition of This Land, being published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. Surely with all those zombie subdivisions dotting the country, the reasoning goes, towns and builders and planning boards might rethink the 3,000-square-foot single-family-home, solo-driver-commute, must-drive-to-everything layout. Not around here. The homes may be crowded in together with a little more net density, with a little more "conservation land," typically in the form of a retention pond surrounded by chemically treated lawn, reserved for nature. Out from the cul-de-sacs and down the secondary roads, there are more freshly minted could-be-anywhere strip malls, where I currently reside. Foreclosures, energy costs, climate change -- whatever. The last time state government did anything to guide towns like Acton towards smarter, more sustainable growth, a guy named Mitt Romney was governor. Acton, rock on.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This Land, in softcover

This morning I received in the mail a copy of The Johns Hopkins University Press fall catalog, and on page 78, there is my first book, "This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America," being published in paperback. I updated the introduction to include the implications of the 2008 housing crisis and recession, given the ways that "drive to qualify" areas were hit particularly hard with plummeting values and foreclosures. The nation seems to be at a turning point -- whether to continue in the patterns of sprawl, or embrace more compact, mixed-use development that is more efficient and holds its long-term value better.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Off the grid

Last week experienced an interesting one-two punch in New York: first the exhibit Foreclosed and symposium "Shifting Suburbia" at the Museum of Modern Art, a conversation put on by the Forum for Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute. Teams of architects, economists, and artists re-imagined five areas devastated in one way or the other from the 2008 housing crisis. In some ways the landscapes were easy reinventions -- compared to zombie subdivisions miles from anywhere in places like Idaho and Florida. Those single-family subdivisions, platted but empty save for PVC and the occasional streetlamp, are unlikely to be occupied, ever. They never should have been built.
Better planning for growth was thus on my mind at The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan 1811-2011, the equally well-done exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, where I journeyed uptown after a too short comfortable night's rest at The Chambers (highly recommended). The planners had to make a bunch of calculations: radiating streets, location of squares and parks, the big intervention of Central Park, the dyanmics of the fledgling real estate market, even informal settlement (there were shantytowns of Irish and Italian immigrants all over, at places like 105th Street and 5th Avenue). The commissioners planned the grid up to 155th Street, judging the rocky and hilly terrain to be inhospitable, and perhaps satisfied they were adequately planning ahead; how otherwise to imagine filling up every hectare of Manhattan.
My next book subject, Le Corbusier, makes his cameo, urging superblocks and more light and air, and implicitly, husbanding more urban land to the horizon. I was reminded of Solly Angel's work in Making Room for a Planet of Cities. Planning at the scale of Manhattan's master plan will doubtless be needed in the megacities in the developing world. But how far is too far? Probably safe to say, 100 miles outside Phoenix or Boise.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Confessions of a former Giants fan

I've been reading a lot lately about where the equator, or the Mason-Dixon line, lies, separating New England Patriots and New York Football Giants fans. Somewhere outside of Brookline and Cambridge, Worcester and Providence, beyond Hartford and Connecticut's Tea Party country and on down towards the Big Apple. Newsroom editors assign stories in their own banal way. But the mapping of allegiances has been haunting me.
I grew up in Fairfield County and New York City. We used to walk to Gimbel's and check out the sports equipment, the Woolworth's on Lexington Avenue for the terrapins and guinea pigs, the corner newsstand for the Richie Rich comic books. Grand Central and Metro North defined our childhood -- Darien, next stop. My first ballgame was Yankee Stadium, the theatrical entrance from the interior a flash of vivid green through a portal. I could not understand why my younger brother could possibly want to leave in the 7th inning. My second game was where I first had my first beer, a Michelob. In 1986, I drove down from Torrington, Connecticut, where I worked at the Register Citizen, and scalped $200 tickets to the sixth game of the World Series, where the balled rolled through Buckner's legs and we all hugged each other like it was V-J Day. Then we went to Giants stadium and they flashed the New York score on what today would be considered a very crude Jumbotron. Yes, those Giants, the same I cheered a few years later on the field goal attempt by Buffalo, and on and on. A tradition began of partaking in he Giants-Eagles game every year in the Meadowlands, the tailgating thick with accents equivalent to a Saturday Night Live parody, the crowd noise on opponents' third downs deafening.
And so yes, I am descipable. I was a New York sports fan -- the Mets, the Knicks, the Giants, the Islanders. Even when I moved to Boston, I was clinging, defiantly, to that loyalty. As a Boston Globe reporter I interviewed Ray Flynn in Dorchester in a hideous blue and orange Mets jacket. His look of disdain was palpable. I mocked my roommate in Kendall Square for tuning in to his beloved C's. And then it all changed. And the New England Patriots were the first to turn the tide.
I started to learn the players. I read the Globe Sports section like I was studying for an algebra test. The embrace of place started rising up all around me -- New England, Massachusetts, Boston. The New England Patriots. Inevitably, inexorably, the others followed. The Red Sox. The Celtics. The Boston Bruins. I've been wanting to put the sticker of the old Patriots logo on my bumper for some time now.
I go to New York all the time; I am serene when the Acela pulls into Penn Station; I wrote a book where the action all takes place in New York. But when I settle in front of the widescreen tomorrow, Ich bin ein Bostonian. If I ever met Tom Brady my knees would wobble. I'd like for just one moment to be inside Bill Belichick's head, to see the wheels turning, the gameplan, the backup game plan, the adjustments after that. The team's victory will make history, avenge the curse of the perfect season, and secure the dynasty. But it will be, once again, like playing an old girlfriend. I'm all knots and pins and needles for all kinds of reasons. You know I used to love you. But that's all over now.