The Decline of Chinatown’s Bilingual Street-Name Signs

I’ve always liked New York’s Chinatown, and its unique, bilingual riff on standard street-naming has highlighted the special qualities of this neighborhood for as long as I can remember — distinguishing its corners from those in the surrounding blocks of the Lower East Side and the so-called Civic Center (that cluster of neoclassical courthouses and public buildings centered on Foley Square). So this article at the Times gave me a pang of sadness — zeroing in, as it does, on a small but meaningful detail that I’d also noticed, showing how cities can change slowly, then all at once.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to work in the Municipal Building, on Centre Street, for some time. Being there daily afforded me frequent opportunities to cover the blocks of Chinatown on foot (as well as the various subparts of the Lower East Side and SoHo), block by block, during lunch hours. I noticed then that the center of gravity was moving eastward, with a commercial nexus increasingly focused on East Broadway, far from the old core along Canal, Mott, and Mulberry Streets.

I also noticed that the new street-name signs were rarely subtitled, like the older ones had been:

Bilingual street signs in New York’s Chinatown, circa 2017. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Times essay, linked above, covers the history of these signs in the context of the history of the neighborhood. I do hope their decline is not a harbinger of rapid change. There have been rumors that Chinatown could soon be made a target for more intense gentrification; and some has already begun. But because it has not gone full-scale (yet), Chinatown is one of the few places in Lower Manhattan that retains some of the character of an older New York City — a messy, discordant, multilayered urban universe (photos by your webmaster) whose spirit has largely been tamed and curated into submission, elsewhere in the tangle of narrow downtown blocks that once teemed with so much human variety.

That is to say, Chinatown is still New York City, as it was meant to be. And I, for one, hope it will stay that way for a while longer.

Small Projects, Big Cities: An Abundance of Gems

I have a new essay at City Journal, in which I’ve reviewed Jim Heid’s recent book, Building Small: A Toolkit for Real Estate Entrepreneurs, Civic Leaders, and Great Communities. In this ULI Press publication, Heid, a Bay Area developer, offers a genuinely holistic and comprehensive approach to developing city lots (or combinations thereof) as small urban projects. His approach fits within the tradition by which cities have customarily been built: one small piece at a time.

Heid’s exploration shows how building small urban projects remains possible, and can still yield excellent results; but he also illustrates how the bureaucratic, regulatory, and financial parameters of present-day development culture have taken a timeless, iterative, and once-efficient process, and transformed it into something that is often much more difficult and expensive than the proponents of healthy growth should want it to be. This fits, unfortunately, with much of what we have covered at LegalTowns over the years.

On a practical note, Building Small offers readers a wealth of topical templates (hence, the ‘toolkit’ title), covering development tasks that range from structuring a special-purpose entity, to stacking funding from diverse sources, to working with attorneys (and identifying the qualities of good ones). Heid’s book is recommended, especially for planners and lawyers who value the development of coherent townscapes, and whose contributions to code development would be enriched by a clearer understanding of the small builder’s perspective. Small projects make great towns and cities.

Victorian brownstones on Carroll Street in Brooklyn. Most neighborhoods were traditionally developed lot by lot. This practice continued in American cities through the industrial era. While several adjoining lots were often built in tandem, the inherent potential for diversity on a single block, tempered by consistent spatial dimensions, due to building-lot sizes, fostered a balance between a spontaneous richness and an overarching order. This deepened over time, as individual owners modified their structures, or combined lots to create larger buildings with dimensions that were often neat multiples of the most prevalent, smaller houses. This quality of ordered irregularity is typical of older, traditional urban settings, like Park Slope, seen here; it is often absent from master-planned, strictly-zoned communities.

The Traditional Urbanism of New York’s West Village

I thoroughly enjoyed this pair of online classes from the ICAA. The planner Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro takes us on a grand tour of the urbanism of Greenwich Village, in which he touches on everything from Leon Krier’s elements of good traditional cities to the still-visible remnants of colonial property lines and century-old street extensions. 3.25 credits toward your ICAA Certificate in Classical Architecture if you complete the quiz at the end.

Part of the urban fabric of the West Village, as it stood in 1895, from a Sanborn map of Manhattan. Red is brick; yellow is wood frame; green is a special hazard (with brick or frame construction signified by dots or X’s, respectively). Evidently, the lot that now contains one of the city’s great jazz clubs, 55 Bar, was already numbered 55 Christopher Street in 1895. Next door, the building that would become the landmark Stonewall Inn, stood at 53-51. Source: New York Public Library.

Besim Hakim on Traditional Urban Growth

The historic center of Tunis, as it appeared circa 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring, I mentioned the work of Besim Hakim in an article at TAC about the traditional urbanism of the Mediterranean. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to speak with Hakim (an incredibly kind and knowledgeable man); and also to read an earlier book of his, Arabic-Islamic Cities, in which he laid out his findings about traditional urban planning rules from the Islamic world. Here’s an excerpt from a review that I offered:

Excellent research and analysis. The author provides an in-depth study of the traditional rules and urban forms that shaped urban growth in the Islamic west (i.e., the Maghreb and Andalucía). Much of what he uncovers and writes about (including treatises by medieval jurists and observations of repeating patterns) adds significant depth to the conventional present-day, Western understanding of urban genesis.

The author’s primary case study is the old city of Tunis, which sits near the Mediterranean coast, close to the site of ancient Carthage. For more than a thousand years, Tunis grew according to a bundle of simple and flexible traditions. The author’s maps and diagrams illuminate these visually — and an accompanying narrative provides context and explanation. Topics range from the small (e.g., party walls, windows, houses, and cul-de-sacs) to the large (e.g., marketplaces, religious sites, defensive walls, and citywide patterns).

Many unique elements of Islamic and Mediterranean urbanism (e.g., covered markets, privacy measures shaped by religious traditions, and arcades over public streets) are treated carefully. Citations to the Quran and Hadith illuminate the cultural aspects of the Islamic components (or justifications) of the urban form. (A later book by the same author, Mediterranean Urbanism, traces a variety of similar urban phenomena from ancient times down through the Byzantine Empire to the building practices of Christian Europe.)

This is a valuable piece of scholarship that is focused on the traditional, sustainable building patterns of vernacular urbanism. Urban planners, lawyers, builders, and architects should read this (as well as Hakim’s Mediterranean Urbanism) for a deeper understanding of how towns and cities were traditionally formed. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in urbanism, history, property law, or the dynamic between customs and the built environment.

I’m gradually making progress on an essay that I think will be of interest to general readers, that will examine some of this history, including what Hakim has uncovered. In the meantime, I highly recommend Hakim’s work to readers with an interest in the nuts and bolts of more traditional approaches to urban growth. His writing is incredibly interesting, well researched and documented, and relevant to the challenges towns and cities face today.

The Story Behind Erie RR Co. v. Tompkins

This 2019 law review article by Brian L. Frye, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” is more than an excellent piece of legal history scholarship. It is also a riveting tale of ambitious lawyers, the dangers of freight trains, hoboes during the Great Depression, life in Pennsylvania’s coal country, and a how a host of terrible American class attitudes crossed paths in the aftermath of one poor man’s grievous injuries.

To be honest, I couldn’t stop reading. A taste:

At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 1934, William Colwell of Hughestown, Pennsylvania was awakened by two young men banging on his front door. When he went downstairs, they told him that someone had been run over by a train. Colwell looked out his side window. In the moonlight, he saw someone lying on the ground near the railroad tracks. He went back upstairs and told his wife that there had been an accident. She told him “not to go out, that them fellows was crazy,” but he dressed and went out to help anyway.

Colwell’s house was at the stub-end of Hughes Street, where it ran into the railroad tracks. When he reached the tracks, he discovered his neighbor Harry James Tompkins, about 6 or 10 feet south of Hughes Street. Tompkins had a deep gash on his right temple, and his severed right arm was in between the tracks. Colwell told the young men to go to Mrs. Rentford’s house down the street and call an ambulance. After calling the ambulance, they disappeared.

Here is a direct link to the whole article, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” at the Akron Law Review.

Elsewhere, Frye gives fascinating accounts of the legal theories, interests, and found-facts that helped shape the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case that resulted, Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) (“There is no federal general common law.”), raising the strong possibility that there was a bit more to the story than what made it into Justice Brandeis’s written opinion.

My own small contribution to preserving the history of the Erie case: I added a marker to Google Maps near the abandoned railroad crossing where Mr. Tompkins was hurt in 1934.

Urban Forms of the Mediterranean

My latest piece is up at TAC‘s New Urbs — an essay reflecting on how nature and culture have shaped the urban patterns of the Mediterranean region, and what we might learn from the wisdom of this particular Old World approach. Not surprisingly, the writings of Camillo Sitte (about Italian towns, in particular) figured heavily in this piece — as did a fascinating scholarly book: Mediterranean Urbanism, by Besim Hakim, which identifies, translates (!), and analyzes many of the written laws that historically shaped the towns and cities of Southern Europe and the Near East. Hakim’s book, which examines influences from Greece and Rome through Byzantium and Islam, is an incredible resource for understanding one of the world’s richest cultures of traditional urbanism.

A street in Rome.

Can Dense Cities Survive the Coronavirus?

A street in Greenwich Village. Theo Mackey Pollack.

Yes, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities, and one of the most well-known progressive proponents of a more urban urban fabric in America. Here’s a link to an interview that Chakrabarti gave last week to Gregory Wessner of Open House New York (which, as an aside, is a wonderful organization that facilitates things like public visits to the Tiffany stained glass at the Neustadt Collection, New York City Hall, and Edward Hopper’s art studio). A quick registration is required, but no fee.

The sprawling conversation between Wessner and Chakrabarti touches on everything from the resilience of urbanism to the pitfalls of ‘exceptionalism’ (e.g., the American variety). The conversation also delves into an aspect of the density discussion that does not get enough attention (in my opinion), namely, the potential to achieve traditional urban densities through low- and mid-rise development patterns; and the fallacy of equating urbanism with an inhumane, impersonal scale.

I’ve seen Chakrabarti speak at Columbia, the Newman Institute, and the AIA’s Center for Architecture. Apart from his flair for urban design, he is a persuasive proponent of the humane aspects of urban density. This timely conversation also reaches difficult questions that have been raised in the context of the coronavirus about the continued viability of large, dense cities. Chakrabarti’s thoughts are fundamentally optimistic, but also — not surprisingly — a challenge to the planning status quo.

Work at Notre-Dame

Nine months after the devastating fire, Architectural Digest has an update by Tim Nelson on the project to restore Notre-Dame. A big part of the challenge — before any actual restoration work can be done — will be the painstaking process of minimizing damage to the actual cathedral from melted construction scaffolding (which must be removed):

At the time of the blaze, the storied church was nearing the end of a $6.8M renovation, and metal scaffolding had been put up to protect the 19th-century spire. The high temperatures generated by the flames engulfed the church’s wooden roof, fusing the scaffolding. As it stands, the most pressing obstacle is removing the warped metal. 

The Riddle of Seaports, Trade, and Finance

Detail of Venice mural from the AmEx Building.

If you’ve ever been inside the lobby of the American Express Building in Lower Manhattan, you can’t have missed Craig McPherson’s haunting, beautiful murals. What I find interesting about the cityscape murals at the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) is that they allude to the somewhat mysterious history of modern finance; even their colors and angles present a sense of mystery — like there is a secret to be discovered, or a riddle.

Detail of Istanbul mural from the AmEx Building.

The cities depicted are key seaports of the world. Two (Venice and Istanbul) represent trading capitals of the Old World, while the others (New York City, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Rio) might be said to illustrate the global growth that was driven by the sudden expansion of Old World trade that took place after the Renaissance. What facilitated that expansion? Stock corporations and insurance companies. Both had their origins in the pooling of capital and risk to facilitate the shipping industry of that time. The capital they raised and the assets they protected drove the expansion of Western trade beyond the traditional routes of Europe and the Mediterranean. In this sense, the murals at the World Financial Center are very much part of long tradition in public-facing art: they present a romanticized narrative of a bigger (and potentially obscure) story behind the walls they adorn, and they remind of us the day-to-day work that went into that story.

On another note, the murals all survived September 11th relatively unscathed, even though the American Express Building suffered severe damage.

The Singer’s Sisters

Although New York’s Singer Building (149 Broadway, New York City) was lost in the late 1960s, at least two other buildings remain today with strong claims of sisterhood. One is in New York City, just about a mile north of where the lost Singer Building once stood. The other is halfway around the world.

The Little Singer Building (561 Broadway, New York City) was built in 1903. Like the (Big) Singer Building, it designed by the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg for the Singer Manufacturing company. The Little Singer is an attached, zero-lot-line building, in keeping with traditional urban forms. But, unlike Flagg’s next project, it does not have a freestanding tower. Although it was sandwiched between two other buildings, the architect found ways to make it stand out, including the use of cast-iron, arches, and a recessed bay that gives shape to its distinctive color scheme (red brick and green), which presaged the palette of the Singer Tower. Today, it has a clothing store on the ground floor, with residential units above. Here it is, today:


Singer House (28 Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg) is located on one of pre-Soviet Russia’s grandest commercial strips — the Nevsky Prospekt. Designed by Pavel Suzor, and completed in 1904, the Singer House is more playful in its Art Nouveau design than either of its Beaux-Arts, New York sisters. Yet, in a less formal way, it expresses a similar tendency to combine solid materials and ornate flourishes in a way that defined the visual themes of the company. The Singer House couldn’t have a tower, because the Czar wouldn’t allow anything to exceed the height of his nearby Winter Palace. Here it is, today:

I never find a site on Google Maps without doing some virtual wandering. Roaming around Saint Petersburg on StreetView makes me want to visit. It’s a beautiful and complex city. I’m often taken aback by the incredible richness and refinement of Russia, and its contrast with the country’s seemingly interminable political harshness. It’s a mystery — which makes it interesting.