Reflecting on New York: spaces and community

The Highline ViewThe Highline in New York is one of my favourite urban spaces in the world: originally built to raise dangerous freight trains above the streets of Manhattan, by the 1980’s the rusted iron and concrete structure was largely redundant, made obsolete by trucks and the increasing movement of industry to the suburbs, and fell out of use. Miles of elevated tracks remained untouched, forgotten, recolonised by nature and casting long shadows over the streets of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District as they underwent social upheaval and gentrification.

Today, the Highline is an urban park: reclaimed, landscaped, reinterpreted as a place for leisure and recreation. Vistas that once were confined to railway drivers and freight handlers now owned by the community and, increasingly, a driver for further regeneration as once industrial spaces are taken over by the community. Even in the few short years that it’s been in existence, and i’ve been lucky enough to walk it’s several miles every year, you can see the changes: just as the trees take root and the landscape matures, so too do the hipster cafes and remodelled apartments.

City Skyscrapers New YorkAdapt or die: one landscape amongst many. It’s the fate of buildings to reinterpret themselves for new uses once the old ones fade away. It’s a sense making activity conducted by the community itself: are the spaces we have the spaces we want, or do we need to remodel them for our current needs and desires?

I spent all of last week in New York, a mixture of work and play, exploring, running some workshops, meeting people from all walks of life. As i walked everywhere, i was constantly struck by this mixture of landscapes and sub cultures, the relationship between the place and the people. From the grandest formal architecture of the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station to the warehouse gallery in Brooklyn and the coffee shops of the Upper Westside, communities and the spaces they inhabit are intricately linked and each impacts on the other.

Of course, these spaces aren’t all physical: as well as the visible streets of concrete and glass there are virtual spaces, communities linked through Facebook and Twitter. I spent some time searching for graffiti and street art, the voice of voiceless communities, and was assisted in this by the Twitter community: helping me find examples, helping me make sense of what they meant.

Grand Central StationTake the iconic Grand Central Station: built in stages at the turn of the nineteenth century, it’s one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Made famous through film, it serves both functional and iconic purposes. It’s a spiritual and physical heart of the city and, like all transit hubs, is a place of meeting, greeting, disconnection and wonder. For some, it’s a daily commute, for others, the start of a new life. It’s a place for friends, family and strangers, for love and for loss. The spaces are vast: the main hall rises six stories, it’s main concourse framed by ticket booths and giant windows, chandeliers and marble. But the stories it holds are not monumental: they are small, personal and intimate.

This relationship between the personal and communal is a dichotomy at the heart of all formal spaces. Too large and we feel lost: too small and we are underwhelmed. The purpose and point of a building is both functional and iconic, but it needs to take account of the needs of it’s community or it risks redundancy.

For Grand Central, this connection is played out for me in the relationship between the main Hall and the food court underneath. Descend the stairs and you enter a kind of undercroft: vaulted, low ceilings and dozens of food stalls. From the vast, imposing and impersonal space above, you enter a marketplace of food and ideas. Deeply personal and framed by familiar sights and smells, it’s the perfect contrast to the space above. A community space.

But there’s more: walk out the back of the station and a whole concourse has been colonised by a trendy farmers market. Somehow appropriating the imagery of the old style open market and combining it with hipster New York, the farmers market is a far cry from the markets of old, yet shares imagery and icons with both the old and the new. The marble walls and concourse link it to the station, whilst the open sacks of spices link it to imagery of Moroccan marketplaces, the fish on ice link it to the coast and the early morning traders and the various cheeses and meats tie it into the wider agrarian economy. It’s a place of aspiration and greed, of desire and fulfilment.

One space: multiple interpretations. One space, many communities, many different purposes, some old, some new, some anchored to the past, some directed to the future.

New York Vista

When i wrote about Singapore last year, i wrote about the skyline: who owns the vistas? Stand on top of the Empire State Building and you have 360 degree views around the city: a coherent experience made up of disparate elements. Individuals and organisations own the structures and spaces, but who owns the view?

Skyscraper in New YorkThe chromium Chrysler Building and stark Art Deco Empire State Building competed in the 30s for the prestige and honour of being the tallest, the most imposing structure in New York. As they drove their spires and masts ever higher, they changed the skyline forever, piercing into the clouds and dominating the spaces around them. But no more. Today, they’re tall, but often lost, hidden behind later icons, lost from sight down every street as they compete in a maze of skyscrapers and tower blocks, each taller, more reflective than the last. Lost in plain sight.

Triumphs of engineering and social mobilisation that enabled them to be completed in record time, they are, nonetheless, icons of their time. We can’t escape context, our relevance must be constantly reinvented and reinterpreted if we are to remain relevant. Today, the Empire State Building crows about it’s green credentials, following major rework it stands as one of the greenest building in the world, reinterpreting itself for a modern age. It’s still iconic, but it’s status is now as elder statesman, not provocative upstart.

The vista is the result of disparate construction, not a consequence of planning. The reason, the logic of it, is emergent. The meaning of the city is played out not by governments and city planners, but by conversations and sub cultures, each rooted in different spaces at different times and serving different purposes.

Guggenheim MuseumRising in swirls from the edge of Central Park, the Guggenheim museum is a stark correlation of art and architecture. Almost devoid of corners, the main space is one continuous rising swirl, looping around the central atrium time and again as it rises to the seventh floor. From any point you can look across and see every level, all the floors sloping downwards as they curl. Your journey through the building is on continuous curve: no steps, no corners, nothing to disjoint you.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece from 1959 is both bold and yet comforting: it’s organic form is gentle, fluid, welcoming. Despite it’s height, it’s scale is manageable and welcoming. Wright was a fanatic for detail: the curves of the gallery space are reflected through inlaid brass circles in the polished concrete floors, through the shape of the drinking fountains and even the lift, which is semi circular. There are sacrifices of function to form: toilets are dotted around the building, seemingly built into any vertical pillar space wide enough to hold them, the cafe holds a dozen people (in a beautiful space).

Interior of GuggenheimI love the Guggenheim for it’s bold refusal to conform. What other building in the world asks people to spend their entire visit standing on an angled floor? It’s a storytelling architecture, it literally carries you trough the exhibition space on a continuous journey, linear and smooth. Your choices are not ‘left‘ or ‘right‘, but rather ‘up‘ or ‘down‘. And yet it had surprises too: in several places you can break out, through innocuously small doors, into rectangular and sub divided micro galleries that expand a story further. These spaces are semi hidden, storytelling nooks. Private and intimate.

The experience of the Guggenheim is a complete one: a holistic journey, the function and storytelling form joined as one. I love it for it’s bold assertion of it’s purpose and it’s welcoming style.

Retreating from the Guggenheim, back into Central Park, i passed a racoon rooting around in the bushes. The interpolation of this rural scene onto the urban landscape both stark and surprising.

It’s a principle of architecture that it can have impact through both convention and defiance. You see this in Singapore, where the Marina Bay Sands hotel, with it’s three stark towers is topped off by a wing that traverses all three: a cantilevered structure seemingly impossibly supported hundreds of feet off the ground. It’s power comes from the defiance over natural forces: contrast this with the Guggenheim that rises in slow curls like a fern unfolding. It’s right that buildings can conform or challenge: after all, that’s what communities do. Some communities are conventional, working together to maintain the status quo, whilst others are subversive, seeking to reinvent or redefine the society they inhabit. It’s the premise of cultures to have disparate sub elements, each of which may be united within a common overall set of values, but who each exhibit different desires and behaviours. Coherence and difference both uniting and separating them.

The Metro

I rode the Metro to Brooklyn to meet a friend: emerging from the steps i was confronted with a very new landscape. Manhattan is, to an extent, sanitised: the price of real estate high, the communities often upwardly mobile, graffiti banished to occasional stickers on lampposts and electrical boxes. Emerge into Brooklyn and i found myself in an industrial zone: wire mesh fences separating off backlots with disassembled cars and containers. Pipes, plastic wrapping, crates, all competing for space between concrete and steel shuttered buildings. Opposite the Metro, a large factory building under new ownership: “shared art space” read the sign and through every one of the many tall and multi paned buildings that pierced the side i saw desks, posters, fabric and wood. A shared creative and community space that reminded me of the squatter art spaces back in Bristol or the University enterprise spaces in any of the big cities back home.

It’s original purpose exhausted, this building had, at least temporarily, found a new purpose as home to a disparate and self organising community. Lacking a formal home, gravitating towards like minds, these formerly industrial zones now increasingly penetrated by creative groups searching for creative space.

Brooklyn Street, New York

Our pizza was in a small but crowded restaurant: apparently one of the few that Manhattan denizens will venture off the island to visit. Why? Because it’s magnetic: a combination of the vibe, the community and the amplification of social media. In a community always hungry to discover the ‘next big thing’, sometimes you have to travel to make the discovery. Over the decades, area after area of any big city is bought up to date by this type of pressure: cheap rent, innovative ideas, community building and sharing can lead to upward pressure. It’s part of the process of repurposing. Alongside the pizza restaurant, my friend commented that now you see police out in force, colonising the neighbourhood. Curtailing the liberties of some in service of making the others feel safe, even if that sense is illusory.

Myself, i found the landscape challenging when i emerged from the Metro: it’s not what i’m used to, it’s not my home. For me, these semi industrial zones, these edgelands, are associated with dereliction and decay. Every aspect of them ties into my learnt and latent fears: empty streets, a car parked on the corner with two men in it, engine off, just staring, the rubbish uncleared.

Brooklyn Gallery, New YorkWe visited a gallery: contrast this to the Guggenheim though. A repurposed urban industrial space, a unit converted, painted white throughout, accessed off those same strange streets and full of artwork and life.

No collection of established artists here, but rather a hub for a creative community. Run by three guys who use the space as both gallery and home, it’s a flexible and fluid space, a semi formal space within a district searching for identity as it evolves.

Whilst the Guggenheim is all about storytelling through structure, here the space is simple, unified. A single giant rectangle with a raised sleeping/working/living space at one end. In the day, the guys work on their day jobs, WiFi connecting them to the wider world. At weekend and in the rest of their time they are curators, nodes within a network, hosts to emergent stories told by disparate artists.

Their world squats in a formal space in transition, but there are layers even within this community. Walk through the back door into the yard space behind and you find Frank, who inhabits the gallery he’s built at the end. Still a curator, but here his work lies close to air-conditioning units piled high. Here we are, right at the other end of the spectrum: fashioned from old reclaimed windows, baulks of timber and borrowed corrugated sheet roofing, it’s relationship with the environment is itself fluid: the distinction between ‘indoor‘ and ‘outdoor‘ tenuous at best. Whilst i chatted to Frank next to the campfire lit in the yard, other artists and friends offered to help him with the building of an extension, the piles of wood and steel sheets for which were piled up next to us.

Community forming community spaces and quite literally building them.

Apple, New YorkYet even here there was a juxtaposition: behind us, late at night, i could see into the building behind: no disused warehouse here, but rather a newly built studio space, a creative agency encroaching into this industrial landscape. It was a newcomer, but even as i looked in the back i saw trendy youngsters glued to their Macs, skateboards and BMXs propped against the wall. Picture my journey: standing on the industrial street, up stairs into a residential and informal gallery space, inhabited by artists and a vibrant creative community, through to the back yard where Frank runs his retail space, still curating but even less formally and finally, through the chain link fence, through to the newcomers, the upstarts, the fully formal and weathertight creative agency. In the space of a hundred metres i walk from one extreme to the other.

Communities shape spaces and those spaces must be fluid to accommodate them. Some spaces are so grand that they bend us to their will: others so fluid we can shape them, literally build them up with our hands and hope that they keep the rain out. And if they leak? “There’s always the tarpaulin to throw on top” says Frank, the pragmatist.

The City, New York

Back in Manhattan, i sat in Bryant Park, sipping a glass of wine as the sun went down. An old man, maybe homeless, was slumped on a chair, sleeping. At the next table two more elderly men played chess whilst a small crowd watched. A few days earlier i’d been in this space when a salsa band had kicked off a dance event. Today it was quieter, the trees dripping after the rain, the tulips starting to fade as their heyday passed. Parks are inherently community spaces, set aside by common consent to retain our link to our open fields and forests. Semi formal spaces stolen back from the city.

Quite literally, in the case of Central Park, whose wide swathe was carved out through a series of land grabs and community relocations. A giant space, subdivided to suit the needs of multitude communities. Sports spaces, eateries, places to walk, to read, to sleep and to kiss. Fountains and bridges, wild areas and paths drowning in thick blossom. Parks provide views of the changing vistas of the city whilst themselves being in constant flux as the seasons pass.

From the park i could see the city, ranging around me, encircling me: the skyline an emergent property of the ever changing needs and desires of multiple communities. Ever changing, always owned. A product of conflicts and consensus, of planning and reuse. Formal and subversive pressures competing to define the city, to own the spaces.

Community and spaces are intricately linked, be they formal or social ones. We can learn a lot from just looking around us and reflecting on the spaces we shape and inhabit.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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29 Responses to Reflecting on New York: spaces and community

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on New York: spaces and community @j...

  2. susipet says:

    Loved reading this and looking at the images. I’ve had lots if happy times in the past in New York for work with time to wander and look and be amazed. So thank you!

  3. cedbo says:

    thanks for the nice postcard Julian – never been to NY – looks fascinating!
    like your views on coherence vs difference – do you mean difference can also be uniting force?

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