Sunday, March 29, 2015

NYCHA and the fetishized green space

Today the Daily News published a hyperbolic "EXCLUSIVE: NYCHA selling off green space to developers!" As one person remarked on Twitter, this was a bait-and-switch: the headline now says "NYCHA quietly selling off parking lots, green space, playgrounds to help ease budget woes." In the diagrams accompanying the article, it looks like mostly parking lots.

The "selling to developers!" framing suggests that these developers would build for-profit "luxury" housing on these parking lots in between the projects, but if you read deeper, it's quite a bit less sensational. The article says that since 2013 the Housing Authority "has sold vacant or what it deems 'underutilized' land to developers to build affordable or senior housing." The News asked the NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye about future sales, and she said that they would be announced in May, "promising to sell land exclusively for affordable housing and spreading the projects across the boroughs."

News reporter Greg B. Smith was even unable to frame the article as "Community protests city initiative," because a lot of residents supported the plan: "Some tenants are angry that the limited open space they enjoy will soon be displaced by towers of apartments. Others are ecstatic, hoping much-needed senior housing will rise on what they see as wasted space."

Okay, so it's not really "NYCHA selling off green space to developers!" Instead, NYCHA may sell some parking lots and maybe an occasional ball field or "leafy triangle" to people who want to build low-income housing, and a lot of people who live in the projects can't wait for it to happen. Oh, the scandal! But there's more.

If you've ever walked around a NYCHA project (go ahead, these days you're pretty unlikely to get shot), you know that they have some of the shittiest "green space" you can imagine. If it's not fenced off, it's a big empty lawn or a grove of trees with no place to sit. If it's on the way between two places that people want to get to, it still probably doesn't get that much traffic because of its high-crime reputation.

How often do you see project residents actually hanging out in the "green space"? Usually they're on the edges of the project where they can interact with the rest of the world, the world that doesn't feel welcome in their green spaces.

One of the most hilarious things for me was seeing this posted by certain people who like to invoke Jane Jacobs, because Jacobs absolutely hated the "green space" in the projects. Over and over in The Death and Life of Great American Cities she lambasts the projects for their despotic design, and contrasts their failure to the success of human-scaled, organic streets. Here is a quote from Page 90 (with an unfortunate comparison to "savages") about the general uncritical love of what was then called "open space":

In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with an old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.

And here is a quote from Page 15 specifically about open space in NYCHA projects:

In New York's East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. A social worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the usual answer was, "What good is it?" or "Who wants it? "Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: "Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, 'Isn't it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!'"

Yes, the poor have everything, including "green space." But they don't want it, the silly things. They want places where they can live when get old, so they don't have to move too far away from their families and friends. And the city may "quietly sell off" some land to developers so they can build that senior housing. Oh, the scandal!


D. Ghirlandaio said...

There were riots in China a couple of years ago, when factory owners under pressure from western protestors cut the maximum working hours for the employees. It turns out the workers wanted to work 15 hour days, because they were making money and saving it. So I guess that makes 15 hour workdays ideal, because knee-jerk reactions are always the best response to knee-jerk reactions.

I didn't catch at first how much you used the News story as a jumping off point. Using the photograph you've chosen as an example of "fetishized green space" is just perverse. But of course I found your site through an approving link by a white guy who grew up the the suburbs and who refers to his new home affectionately as "the urban hellhole"

Marc said...

Jacobs' quote reveals that nothing's changed in 50+ years: we still fetishize "open" and "green" spaces as cure-alls for cities. The fetish actually goes back to Olmsted and even before - but whereas Olmsted produced some great parks, I've yet to come across any abstract urban "open space" that is actually worth spending time in...

D. Ghirlandaio said...

The green space offered to the poor -and that's what we're talking about- is crap. Like everything else offered them in this country it's done on the cheap. And you're calling for the equivalent of "welfare reform".

The Highline is badly designed, but it's popular, and you're not going to complain about it. And as an architect friend said to me before it opened, it'll be semi-privatized within 10 years, with 24 hour access to hotel guests, but not from the street.

"The new urbanism" includes green space, doesn't it?

Unknown said...

Modern example:

alai said...

"The green space offered to the poor -and that's what we're talking about- is crap. Like everything else offered them in this country it's done on the cheap."

It's a question of priorities. Green space in New York-- high quality or not-- is inevitably going to be very expensive, and crowds out other uses. The resources would be better used on a hundred other things, all of which would improve poor people's quality of life more than assorted patches of grass.