Are YOU A Luna(tic)?

This morning we learned about the controversy surrounding the development of Coney Island, particularly the contemporary economic, political, and social-cultural battles that have informed this prime piece of NYC beach.  Most welcome in this discussion was our turn to the consumption activities that drive this development (thanks to Geoff Zylstra), both historically and today, as well as the classed analysis of development use/aesthetics that Richard Hanley initiated.

After consideration – both theoretical and in-person – of Stillwell Avenue Terminal, we walked the neighborhood of Coney Island.  As this was not my first trip to the area, I was not surprised by the organic beauty and need that exists, concurrently, in this space.  Unfortunately, from what we have learned about the development of the NYC waterfront, both may not be able to continue to exist, concurrently

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Narrating “On” the Heights


Today’s focus was on the nature and processes of “historic districting,” with a focus on the district of Brooklyn Heights.  We began with a discussion of the thinking, planning, and negotiating that grounds such zoning, and some role-playing around the new efforts to “preserve” the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.   Fascinating to me was the list of historic districts in Queens (and the opportunities these sites might provide for future work in my neighborhood {}) and the processual argument for districting (i.e., create a historic district if/when you can capture a historical process of architectural development in a neighborhood).  Given this new info, I wonder if Rego Park – with its pre-wars and big box stores – should be districted?  In other words, such logic begs a logical question: at what historical point do we locate the beginning of preservation efforts, and at what historical point do we locate the ending of them?

Our day then took us through Brooklyn Heights, where we paid attention to the architectural details that drove the districting.  While yesterday’s Brooklynites  could be felt in the styles and substances of their row houses, the poignant and important stories of a neighborhood (Plymouth) church, and the letters displayed in a library,  missing from our focus were the people of today’s Brooklyn Heights, who were present only in the trash and pets they leave behind every day.  Who are these people today?  What do the demographics of Brooklyn Heights (87% caucasian; $104K median income) – not to mention disparaging remarks made about the ethno-cultural minorities and working class folks of other NYC-metro area neighborhoods – indicate to us about the the culture, racial, and class projects that are tied in to historic districting?  (See for more).

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Bridge (No Tunnel)


Our focus today was the Brooklyn Bridge – a magnificent “monument” built by people and of stories.  We began with an introduction to the Bridge’s architectural history and structure, and then we segued – under the direction of Richard Haw (whose book, “Art of the Brooklyn Bridge,” is truly stunning: – into a discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge as a historical, cultural icon.   This was followed by a viewing of Rudy Burckhardt’s 1953 film, “Under the Brooklyn Bridge.”  The images of the boys at play at the foot of the Bridge, the men laboring to destroy/re-build the area around the Bridge, and the “office girls” who populated the buildings by the Bridge were spell-binding – much more so, for me, than the structure’s now-familiar, gorgeous stills.

Walking the Bridge was exciting (even more, in hindsight, with news of Canada’s 5.5 aftershocks, which hit as we strolled on top).  Although Robert Zagaroli had informed us that the Bridge’s physical structure contained few of the project’s original materials, it’s founders – their ideas, labor, hopes/dreams for a city – could be felt in its expanse.

Meanwhile, landing  and lunching in Chinatown reminded me that the bridge is more than just a global, cultural icon; it is a reflection of, a passage to, and a backdrop for waves of immigrant lives.  That is, however, on one side of the bridge; more on that other side, tomorrow.

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Waterfront Stories


This morning we spent time thinking about the contemporary use of the waterfront, including the ways in which the Brooklyn maritime economy is still one of significance, how the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s architecture lends itself to new ways of viewing, understanding, and using “old” economic structures, and how the design of the Brooklyn Bridge Park aims to integrate old space with new urban missions (i.e., green development; reintegration).

In the afternoon, we visited some of these sites and phenomena.  Most interesting, again, was evidence of the people who inform the history and contemporary nature of both.  For example, the Hospital at the Navy Yard begged a late night visit; one that would seemingly “connect” us to memories (hauntings) of that space.   Similarly thought-provoking  were the records or markings, present in the Navy Yard “warehouses,” of the people/labor helping to make the space(s) anew.  Consistent in this was what was, for me, most exciting about our visit to the Mary Whelan – evidence of the life lived on her today, and the stories that inform her current resurrection.

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The Aesthetics of Use


Daniel Campo’s presentation on the narratives of space was a fantastic addition to my thinking on the cultural significance of sites.  I really appreciated his focus on the alternative narratives that compete with and/or complement top-down development projects, as well as his discussion of the dialectical relationship between creativity and social space.  Also enlightening was his processual perspective on material reality – how freeing to look at space (and “blight,” “development,” etc.) as moments in a story rather than concrete, stable entities!  What might such thinking allow?  What kind of flexibility – of perspective, use, aesthetics – might this permit? And how might framing of space in terms of the aesthetics of use, or, to borrow Daniel’s phrase, the “recreation” of recreational space, change the way we see and value that space?

So depressing, however, are my photos from the walk and boat tour that followed this exciting presentation.  Not a person in them!  Where is my evidence of the people, the social activities, the use of the waterfront?  And what does this absence indicate about the waterfront?  Granted, as we walked around Greenpoint, I was shy to capture the people of the neighborhood … but the lack of people on the waterfront (and the abundance of material “storage,” as Jack Eichenbaum repeatedly pointed out) tells a remarkable story, as well.

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What (is) History?


Today we met at the Brooklyn Historical society to learn a bit about Brooklyn’s history, and to think about what constitutes a landmark.   Paying attention to the different sites of record in Brooklyn, I realized that there were many I had yet to visit, like the Wyckoff Farmhouse (, Gravesend Cemetary (, and the Peter Lefferts House (

I also found it really interesting to think about the different social forces that need to align for landmarking to happen – community support, preservation advocacy, and creative thinking around adaptive use.

Most new – and fascinating – to me was information presented on the active designations made within historic preservation movements: Is something to be preserved because of the beauty of its architecture?  Is something to be preserved because of the unique nature, influence, or importance of its history/story?  Is something to be preserved because of its cultural significance, meaning, or symbolic value?  Most specifically, I was struck by the decision-making that must ground the designation of aculturally significant landmark.

This week I’d like to think about the cultures (i.e., social people) that make sites and stories meaningful and worthy of preservation, as well as the ways in which sites and stories work back on their creators and inhabitants.

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