A Stormy Night

A few more photos from last month’s quick visit to New Orleans.

A wild storm moved in on the last night of my stay. It had been threatening all afternoon, and the winds began for real about the time I was checking out the Old Absinthe House in the Vieux Carre, some time close to 4 pm. This batch of photos starts out with images of some of the old streetcars on Canal Street, the cardo of modern New Orleans; then moves on to some scenes in the historic bar, once immortalized by Aleister Crowley; then continues into the vanishing city streets as the night rain began to fall.

The rain, at first, came gingerly but ominously. Later, in the overnight hours, it escalated to a crescendo of windblown sheets and lightning. At some point after the Absinthe House, I walked to the Algiers Ferry — only to learn (having reached the far side of the Mississippi) that the rest of the night’s service had been canceled, due to the gathering storm. Ah, the joys of exploration. And so I spent a solid 30 minutes waiting for a Lyft in an absolutely desolate Algiers Point, staring out at the inky river and hoping that what souned like distant gunfire was, in fact, something else. Fortunately, the heavy rains held off until I was safely back at the hotel. In fact, I even had time to duck back into the Carousel Bar for a last icy drink.

Stormy Night

For reference, yes, this was the same incredible storm that people in the Northeast may remember — it moved through New York about a day later.

Pandemic Relief

I had my second shot recently, courtesy of the Essex County (NJ) Department of Health. I have to say, the operation they have going is impressive. For my first appointment, back in April, the site was busy — yet it took less than 15 minutes to go from walking through the front door to receiving a shot (followed by the requisite 15-minute wait, to ensure that I wouldn’t have an allergic reaction). The second appointment was even easier. By this point, the crowds were gone, and I breezed through the intake process and received the vaccination in, probably, five minutes or less. Both times, everyone working on site was professional and efficient and knowledgeable. And friendly (!) — not something you can count on in these kinds of public-facing scenarios.

I still have about a week to go before I am considered fully vaccinated. Not sure how much this will change things. I would say my pre-vaccine approach to Covid was cautious, but not extreme. Masks when going into stores, obviously. I also made a homemade hand sanitizer early in the pandemic when the stores had run out: it was a blend of Everclear 75.5 and peppermint or frankincense essential oil, in a glass spray bottle — and used this assiduously after contact with the outside world. (This actually turned out to be a very pleasant alternative to the commercial sanitizers, which are made with denatured alcohol.) But, while I reduced the frequency of outings, I never stopped going to the grocery store, the bank, or outdoor public spaces. And, fortunately, these efforts, combined with some good luck, seem to have kept me well. And to the extent that the use of masks in indoor public settings has become a habit, I may continue — to avoid colds and allergies, if nothing else.

Homemade sanitizer: food-grade grain alcohol, sometimes with essential oils.

Model Train Urbanism

I love this setup at the Roberson Museum in Binghamton, New York. I remember going to see an earlier version of this project at Christmastime when I was growing up in the 1980s. The model of pre-war American urbanism, accurately centered around railroads, is incredibly realistic down to the smallest details — including an old A&P grocery store with a billboard for its Eight O’clock Coffee above the storefront. Now that I think of it, this exhibit had an outsized influence on my early interest in how towns and cities were organized.

A model of American urbanism in its railroad heyday. Credit: Roberson Museum

Train Delay

I have a short essay at Inwood Gazette, an Upper Manhattan photoblog and news site. My piece complements photos by the talented qphotonyc to examine the progress (and the lack of progress) on rail infrastructure in New York City, through the lens of the newly opened (and actually quite beautiful) Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station.

Moynihan Train Hall, New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

New Article: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

Depiction of the room containing the Forma Urbis, as it might have appeared in its own time. Source: Princeton University Press.

My latest piece at TAC’s New Urbs looks at the incredible, two-volume Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Sapienza’s Andrea Carandini. An excerpt:

The detail and precision of the Atlas are extensive and impressive: As in Lanciani’s [19th century] work, every inch of the ancient city’s physical footprint is covered in Carandini’s. Here, this means all of the urban land that was enclosed by the city walls in the third century. Within this context, countless individual monuments, buildings, and outdoor sites are illustrated at higher resolutions in plan-and-section form. All drawings are color-coded to distinguish between extant structures, archaeological records, and scholars’ presumptions; and to date as much of the evidence as possible.

The written parts of the Atlas are thorough and serious. A collection of scholarly essays provides narratives of the ancient city’s infrastructure networks, building methods, natural environment, and demographic trends. Chapters on each of the 14 Augustan regiones—essentially, its political wards—are methodically organized, beginning with notes about urban planning, and proceeding to histories of urban change across the span of classical antiquity. The methodology used to collect and organize the information contained in the Atlas is also discussed at length—creating a degree of transparency between the editor and his readers that is refreshingly candid.

The Broken Diamond of Washington, D.C.

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Here’s an interesting bit of American urban and legal history. In 1791 and 1792, a team led by Andrew Ellicott (including the famous Benjamin Banneker) surveyed the boundaries of the original District of Columbia.

In its first iteration, the District was shaped like a diamond, each side ten miles in length. It comprised the limits of the present city of Washington, whose lands were donated by Maryland, and a somewhat smaller area on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

In 1849, Virginia recovered its portion of the federal district, leaving only Maryland’s former portion as the federal district. So, today, a map of the City of Washington, D.C., looks like this:

Meanwhile, most of the land that Virginia reclaimed became today’s Arlington County, which retains the corresponding geometry of the original diamond for much of its boundary. The remainder is now in the independent city of Alexandria.

Today, the boundary stones set out by Ellicott, Banneker, et al., still, for the most part, exist — including those defining Virginia’s former portion of the District, which, in an alternate history, might also have remained legally a part of the nation’s capital.

You can learn more, and see all of the remaining D.C. markers, by visiting boundarystones.org.

Courtyards, Alleys, and Apartments


Source: NYPL Digital Archive

I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas just published my article about the land-use efficiency of New York’s turn-of-the-century apartment houses. My piece focuses on the period before zoning — although building safety codes did impose some limits on construction — with an eye to the simple, practical measures such as courtyards and alleyways that builders of the time used to make efficient use of small parcels — and to make room for more people to live comfortably in New York City. Hope you enjoy.


Source: NYPL Digital Archive

Spotlight: Museum at Eldridge Street

Eldridge Street Synagogue
Incredible. The Museum at Eldridge Street, located near the base of the Manhattan Bridge is a restored 1887 synagogue — the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in New York City. The block on which it is located is now very much Chinatown, but in the late 19th century it was at the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side.

The synagogue was almost lost to abandonment in the 1970s, but has now been meticulously restored. I walked in on a lunch break last week, expecting just to look around and take some pictures. Instead, I was lucky to coincide with a scheduled tour with an incredibly knowledgeable docent, Ester, who told the story of the congregation from its founding in the late Victorian period through the neighborhood’s transition, the synagogue’s decline, and finally the building’s beautiful restoration.

The blue stained-glass window is recent; the rest of the details are original. Most of what looks like marble or masonry is actually wood. Very much worth a visit.

New Jersey Law Update: Mount Laurel

Scales and Lamp USSCA good decision was handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court today on an important Mount Laurel controversy. In its unanimous ruling (responding to an interlocutory appeal from the Appellate Division), the Justices found that New Jersey municipalities must address the housing need that formed while the so-called Third Round numbers were in flux, between 1999 and 2015, in addition to the current need. This means the state’s towns and cities will be required to facilitate a larger number of affordable housing units.

Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, writing for the Court:

As to the fundamental disagreement — whether the gap period must be addressed — we waste no time in settling that issue. There is no fair reading of this Court’s prior decisions that supports disregarding the constitutional obligation to address pent-up affordable housing need for low- and moderate income households that formed during the years in which COAH was unable to promulgate valid Third Round rules.

Right on. The persistence of Mount Laurel cases highlights the virulent opposition from New Jersey municipalities to a 1970s finding that municipal zoning may not be used to exclude housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families in entire municipalities. For more than 40 years, certain towns have perennially fought to prevent this law from being carried out in a meaningful way. Their main complaint — though they rarely concede this in public — is the ‘fiscal impact’ of households whose children add to the public school rolls without contributing enough in property taxes to cover their costs. (Incidentally, the same stupid approach to school funding is one of the chief reasons New Jersey has become a paradise for strip mall development: more ratables, no kids.)

Credit goes to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which has maintained its jurisprudence on Mount Laurel for more than four decades. This has been done in the face of constant political pressure from those who would rather allow exclusionary, market-distorting zoning laws to go unchecked, allowing towns to become more exclusive, while pricing out more and more long-time residents.