The Minneapolitan Urban Studies Nerd, Now In New York City
The day before Hurricane Sandy made landfall I did a bit of research. Walking down Lexington, I took note of what people were buying. I went into stores to survey what types of products were sold out and listened to people’s theories about what type of damage the impending storm would do. Reactions ran the gamut from casual dismissal to extreme apprehension. I fell in the middle. Growing up in Minnesota exposed me to some very severe storms, but this was my first hurricane.
I admittedly filled up every bottle in my house with water the night before, stocked up on canned soup and invested in some candles. Luckily, my neighborhood suffered not much more than trees and power lines down and I did not need my inventory of supplies. But many other people in the region were not as lucky.
Breezy Point, Queens not only suffered immense flooding, but a massive fire that destroyed many homes.
In lower Manhattan a ConEdison sub-station exploded, leaving thousands in the dark. All seven subway tunnels flooded and the city is limping along, hopefully with some limited subway service beginning today. Obviously, this is just a small example of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy and many other cities in the region have suffered a great deal.
Though many staunchly (I personally feel the proper word is ignorantly) deny climate change, extreme weather and the damage it does to infrastructure will never stop. Going forward, thought needs to be put into planning for resiliency.
Wether or not the climate change scale has tipped too far I don’t personally know, I am not a climate scientist. I do know that changing our habits is one way that we can attempt to tip the scale back and make our cities and environment more resilient and robust.
Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist researcher at Columbia University told Public Radio International that,
“While we had one wakeup call last year under the name of Irene, we got away with less than we will most likely incur from Sandy. The question is, “How many wakeup calls do we need in order to get out of our snoozing, sleeping, dreaming warning attitude?” We have to get into action. We have to set priorities and spend money. For every one dollar invested in protection, you get a return of four dollars of not-incurred losses.”
To put it mildly, I’ve been busy. But what this means is that I have been participating in many very interesting events in New York. This city is full of them - even if that means a simple walk down the street.
No doubt you have seen or heard about this San Fransisco based day of street reclamation and this year I was finally able to participate. Park(ing) Day seeks to demonstrate exactly how much space is devoted to cars typically through transforming a parking space into a public space.
Park(ing) Day began in 2005 when Rebar redesigned a metered parking space into a public park, kicking off the international conversation about who exactly the streets are for; be it cars, pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, wheelchairs or dog sleds. And how large is a typical parking space? Bigger than you realize - in North America a parallel parking space is usually at least twenty feet long and nine feet wide. That’s quite a bit of storage space for a big hunk of metal in my opinion.
Some classmates and I set up our Park(ing) Day space on Lexington and 68th street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where there is little public space or seating. We made benches from repurposed shipping pallets and invited passers by to write down what they wish there was more (or less) of in the neighborhood. We also had a huge bag of found objects that doubled as a fantasy planning charrette. Many people stopped to ask us what we were doing and participated. I met a few really interesting people and had a great time. Even the blog Inhabitat stopped by and added us to their Park(ing) Day 2012 story.
No doubt you’ve seen them jutting out from the Cedar/Riverside neighborhood - Riverside Plaza, the little cluster of high rises with those infamous colored exterior panels. When I first moved to Minneapolis people called them the “Crack Stacks” and the “Ghetto in the Sky”. Those nicknames may have been somewhat applicable years ago, but having visited them several times, I would say they are currently anything but.
After years of “urban renewal” in the 1960’s Minneapolis was left with blocks and blocks of vacant land, especially downtown. During those years Minneapolis lost many beautiful buildings that historic preservationists like Larry Millett have lamented, first through his books and later television series called Lost Twin Cities.
I cannot really wrap my mind around demolishing the heart of an entire city, but I think that the idea was that if the buildings filled with trouble were gone, the urban poverty, people and behaviors would also disappear. Sadly for those displaced people, we now know this theory to be untrue. This series of events gives way to the discussion of public housing policy which is seems to be in a perpetual process of trial and error. But that is a whole new post altogether.
The dilapidated housing that was home to a large immigrant population in the Cedar/Riverside area would not be salvaged by the City of Minneapolis and much of it was torn down to make way for the ever expanding University of Minnesota and other institutions. (A great detailed history of this can be found here if you’d like to know more.)
Some saw blocks of vacant space as an opportunity to start over just as t hey had downtown. New buildings, new neighborhoods, vitality, people co-existing in diverse socioeconomic harmony in the sky. The HUD pilot project, “New Towns-In-Town” was supposed to create 100 acres of futuristic high rises that would become home to a wide variety of people including everyone from Cedar/Riverside’s low income residents to more wealthy 9 to 5 office types. Modern and chic, it was to embody a new way of life where once stood poverty.
Designed by Ralph Rapson, a Bauhaus schooled architect, he desired to emulate the work of Le Corbusier , specifically his Unité d’Habitation (translates in French as “habitation unit”) in Berlin.
In a marketing brochure called Cedar Riverside: Alive and Aware, life in the new development was described as such: “Cedar-Riverside has awakened to a new day. A new dream. A new meaning. In its midst a new kind of urban life is emerging. A life filled with involvement. Filled with a vitality that can only be measured by the breadth and depth of experience. Cedar-Riverside is Colleges and the University. It’s shops and theaters and cafes. And downtown just twelve blocks away. Cedar-Riverside is lofty, new apartments. And a marvelous potpourri of people. In a casual, unpretentious neighborhood. Cedar-Riverside is a delightful blend of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Come, let it touch you. It’s alive and aware. So you can be, too.”
Sadly, the modernist utopia lost funding for the last few phases of construction and building management gave up on the market-rate and subsidized mixture of tenants in favor of acquiring more funding for low income housing from the government. Years later in the Murderapolis days crime went through the neighborhood as it did many others. The building deteriorated inside and most famously on the outside as the once bright facade panels faded to a strange pastel. But in 2010, Riverside Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places and began to receive major renovations . In addition to improving its structure and facade, the renovations seemed to bring attention and curiosity to the quality of life and current residents of Riverside Plaza.
This area of Minneapolis has historically been an ethnic enclave, beginning with Scandinavians in the 1800’s, Vietnamese in the 1960’s and most recently many immigrants and refugees from East Africa and Somalia. On one of my many visits to Riverside Plaza in college I was able to see the thriving Riverside Community School and meet people who lived in the building. Some of my classmates lived there, taught English there and made many valuable connections there. From what I could see, there was a close knit community.
Ironically, Riverside Plaza seems to have reverted into a modern version of its previous identity, leaving behind the dreams of a working class utopia as it’s engineers had hoped.The story of this building and neighborhood raises innumerable questions and conversations. How do we build healthy communities? How do we use architecture in a way that benefits everyone? How do we undo the damage done to communities in the past? How do we constructively learn from mistakes? Better understanding our urban history sheds more light on the feeling of a neighborhood. I know that as I learned more and more about the Cedar/Riverside, I saw it less as ‘the neighborhood with those ugly buildings’ and more as ‘the really interesting neighborhood where exists some strange examples of vintage utopia’.