A Haunted and Enchanted City

I spent part of last week in New Orleans — my first time in that city. The photos included in this post are mostly of architecture and a few street scenes around the Vieux Carré. I’ll post other batches, including of jazz clubs, houses in the Garden District, and the enchanting light that came over the streets during an impending and fierce storm (including a visit to the again-going Old Absinthe House) in a later post.

A group of young women, dressed as angels (with iridescent haloes), congregate in front of the St. Louis Cathedral to prepare for a Joan of Arc-Twelfth Night parade that also marks the start of the Mardi Gras season. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I hope to spend time in New Orleans, again. It is a fascinating city to explore, and to try to process, on so many levels: its architecture and urbanism, its layered social and cultural history, the surprising way in which its high culture, cheap alcohol, traditional Catholicism, hedonism, classicism, neon, jazz, old money, abject poverty, and all else seem to (mostly) gracefully coexist. It reminds me of no other place in America, yet it could not exist in any other country.

The streets of New Orleans (at least, those in the Vieux Carré) are reminiscent of a Mediterranean city, maybe one in Spain, with low rooflines and floral balconies and breezy palms, and everything organized on a grid around a central plaza (anchored, of course, by a fine old church). Other aspects seem not-quite-American: many people dress more carefully in New Orleans than most Americans do elsewhere (except, perhaps, Boston). Streetcars still operate. Alcohol is everywhere in public. As is live music. And, in stark contrast to the genericism that has now conquered much of the United States, the local culture here struck me as the most vital I’d encountered in the States. That is, people participate in it. (Following the image above, an entire parade, including floats and more costumery, sponsored by a local krewe, would arrive.) Yet, for all its distinctions, it is a distinctly American city, combining influences that have only ever converged in this corner of the Deep South.

There were moments when I felt like I had opened a time capsule and entered a world where the twentieth century hadn’t quite arrived. Instead, this potent preserve of Victoriana and Vaudeville was floating obliviously on the sea of 21st century America. I’m sure such an impression is engineered by the tourism bureau; and pressing beyond the confines of historic neighborhoods would yield plenty of evidence to the contrary. But with such a concentration of historic spaces, inside and out, and so many people still participating in centuries-old traditions, any line between fantasy and living memory, like other contrasts in this strangely familiar city, can seem ephemeral.

Hover over or tap the image below for slideshow.

Vieux Carré

Safety Codes, Politics, and the Crowding of Old Manhattan

‘Old law’ tenements on New York’s Lower East Side. Theo Mackey Pollack.

My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.

A bunch of examples of pre-law, old-law (dumbbell/airshaft), and new-law (courtyard) tenements can be found in my photo galleries of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Spatial and Tactile Urbanism

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

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Late Victorian New Jersey, in 2D

Princeton has a massive archive of Sanborn fire insurance maps of New Jersey, which it has now scanned and placed online. The maps depict the urbanism of the state from the 1880s through the 1920s, showing in fine detail all of the components that made up towns and cities during the heyday of heavy industry and the first great immigration wave.

Here’s an industrial slice of Newark, from 1892:


Here’s Nassau and Witherspoon, in Princeton, from 1885:


Here’s Rutgers College and the New Brunswick train station, from 1892:


All before zoning. Great materials. One thing that strikes me whenever I look at Sanborn maps is the diversity of uses in Victorian neighborhoods, and how the live-work arrangement was so much more accessible to people with small land holdings in the pre-zoning era. If you look around 1892 Newark, you’ll find bakeries and saddle-makers’ shops mixed in among the unnamed row houses. You’ll also find large industrial sites. Clearly, the possibility of having a glue factory open up right next to one’s house was far from ideal, and the onset of increasingly heavy industries necessitated a more formal way of segregating nuisances from peaceful living and working spaces. But I wonder what role comprehensive zoning ultimately played in squashing what still remained of the home-based workshops tradition from the 19th century. There’s a certain democracy to business and industry when one can venture into productivity without a whole lot of overhead. But regulation has a tendency to create moats around marketplaces that protect those with deep pockets: Requiring prospective businesspersons to invest in properly-zoned real estate rather than resourcefully modifying an existing parcel is certainly one way of creating a formidable moat. And with zoning, all goods must be transported to market, because they can’t be made where the markets exist — another moat.

Given that land use regulation has the potential to create moats around all kinds of economic opportunities for individuals — not to mention its potential to stifle other forms of individualism, community-building, and general resourcefulness — I think the fundamental question of land use law is just how much land use regulation is necessary to achieve the objective of nuisance-avoidance, because (ideally) that point should be its limit. Keeping glue factories out of residential neighborhoods is a reasonable goal. But is keeping apartments out of single-family neighborhoods really the business of government? Or keeping retail space and offices away from housing? (And, if these development filters are important to some, why not let them work out common-law private covenants to achieve the same goals?) To their credit, the New Urbanists have raised some of these questions over the last generation. But their responses, to me, seem flawed: Better zoning! Form-based codes! Going from the mish-mosh of postwar Euclidean suburbia to the ultra-planned paradise (or dystopia) of pseudo-urban neighborhoods whose every inch is legally dictated by someone with graduate planning credentials and (in many cases) distorting political considerations.

Nassau Street, Princeton. Winter 2013.

As a counterpoint, Princeton was built without any of that, and it remains a great town — largely because it hasn’t changed very much. Look at the Sanborn map from 1885, and you’ll find liquor stores, a billiards club, bookstores, a pool hall, and hotels. It’s so well planned! But nobody governmentally authorized those businesses to be there. There was no years-long process of planning-board meetings; no formulaic response by applicants to mind-numbing RFPs; no political sycophancy to become an approved tenant of the borough’s official redeveloper. These businesses were on Nassau Street in 1885 because there was a university across the street; because it was logical for them to set up shop there, and so they did. And looking around the 1885 neighborhood, you’ll also find tenements, “work shops”, a sausage-making plant, watchmakers, a cabinet maker, and a bookbinder. Presumably, the attaching plates all have similar uses — none of which would ever make it past the planning board in such a neighborhood today. But, really, what harm did they do? And what is the cost in terms of the richness of our neighborhoods and the spirit of our culture when we accept the canceling of so many opportunities for people to work from or near home, in their chosen trades?

DC to Relax its Height Limits?

The Independent has a piece about recent efforts to revise the DC building height limit of 130 feet (39.6 m). As Washington grows, its century-old height limit becomes a natural experiment in massing regulations and their impact on metropolitan land markets. After providing a brief history of the (aesthetics-driven) massing regulation, the author, Rupert Cornwell, notes:

[T]he price of a European feel is not only to be measured in commuter misery. The ban on tall buildings curbs the supply of space when demand is soaring; the result, naturally, is higher prices, across the board. DC has a chronic hotel shortage, while the cost of office space has hit Manhattan levels, and Washington’s [poor] residents find it ever tougher to make ends meet as . . . gentrification pushes rents remorselessly higher. The city, meanwhile, loses much potential tax revenue.

Washington is an unusually beautiful American city, in the sense that it actually has a classically-proportioned plan. And part of its proportioning lies in the scale of its buildings, which complement the city’s layout. L’Enfant’s 1791 plan predated tall buildings by a century, and in that sense it was silent about building heights. But it was also the blueprint for an airy city of wide boulevards, open spaces, and preeminent public buildings. The 130-foot building limit, imposed in 1899, has been consistent with the original blueprint and its Enlightenment-era political symbolism for America’s capital.

It would be a shame to see L’Enfant’s aesthetic suddenly disrupted; it would also be a loss to market-driven planning innovation to end the city’s role as one of the last American places where old-fashioned land-use efficiency (including the use of courtyards and alleys) is a serious consideration for individual projects. But there are certainly both practical and equitable arguments for relaxing the current height limits. Washington’s recent experience illustrates, starkly (I think), the costs of strictly regulating the massing of buildings in growing real estate markets. Even in cities without such purposive policies, the aggregation of land use regulations is presumably having similar impacts.

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, DC.

The Balance of Common Law Urbanism

One topic I’ve addressed here several times is the more participatory development process that shaped the urban fabric of the pre-Euclid era.  For lack of a better term, this process could be described as organic urbanism– but such a description would ignore the role of specific legal devices from the English tradition that helped to shape the process.  So common-law urbanism might be a more accurate term.  The point is two-fold: First, to describe a specific phenomenon– the slow and broad-based process by which towns and cities grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  And, second, to distinguish that phenomenon from the ultra-planned New Urbanism of today.  I venture to say that one of the essentials of common-law urbanism was the centrality of a simple paradox: regular, large-scale patterns, filled in by the very individualized use of parcels.  Here’s a graphic that illustrates:

Brooklyn Hts. Map: Google.

The setting is a few square blocks in Brooklyn Heights– as good an example as any of a well-loved city neighborhood.  Some of the blocks were laid out centuries ago, but most of the buildings date from the mid-19th century.  Note that the blocks, themselves (outlined in blue), are near perfect rectangles.  Yet the building footprints (outlined in violet) show countless variations.  Each structure has a different shape.  Setbacks are varied.  Depths are varied.  Heights, too.  The presence of bounding alleys and courtyards has clearly been decided on some kind of ad hoc basis.  Side-by-side lots are combined to accommodate larger buildings.  The larger pattern holds together neatly because it circumscribes the prerogatives of each of the subordinate individual participants.  At the same time, the individual contributions are as rich and varied as those who built them, giving the neighborhood a granular variety that tempers the severity of its overriding geometric order.

The common-law approach to urban land use did not arise in a vacuum: It reflected a larger legal approach that predominated in the common-law era of the English-speaking world: Individuals were given a good amount of latitude, up to a well-known threshold at which the law spoke with a certain clanging finality.  In a world with fewer people, fewer still autonomous people, and far fewer methods of omnipresent social control, this balance was probably a necessary element of legitimate rule-making.

The ‘Champs-Élysées of the Bronx’

A Deco doorway on the Concourse. Source: NYC Landmarks Comm.

Let’s hear it for the Grand Concourse, one of America’s greatest concentrations of Art Deco and Late Victorian apartment buildings.  Truly, some of New York City’s most amazing apartments are located there.  The Concourse, itself, also has the potential to become a great public space.  (At present, it has largely been paved over and is very underutilized.)  A large swath of the southern Concourse (between East 153rd and 167th Streets) has just been designated as a new historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

And, yes, it’s true: There’s been a lot of the Bronx on this page.

NYC Pre-War Apartment Lithos


The Alclyde. West 94th/CPW. Source: NYPL


This is a great archive from the New York Public Library: floor plans, footprints, drawings, and details of classic New York City apartment buildings, all in original, color lithographs from the turn of the 20th century.  The bulk of the buildings are in Harlem, Washington Heights, and on the Upper West Side, but the collection goes as far downtown as the twenties, and as far up as the Grand Concourse.   Note the parlors and chambers, rather than living rooms and bedrooms, in these units; and the fact that even modest apartments were designed to have living space for domestic help.  I found this cache during research for a paper about efficient land use in Late-Victorian New York City.