Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I regret that I never went into Asti, closed in 1999 after 75 years as "one of New York's most beloved and treasured restaurants."

You may remember, it was the place on E. 12th Street where the waitstaff sang opera while they served Italian dishes. Said one baritone at the time of the closure, "In the last decade, our customers either died, retired, or could no longer afford to come regularly."

If you missed it as I missed it--or if you just miss it--watch this extensive video report I recently came across:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Save 11th Street

You may have heard by now that the Lightstone Group with Marriott Hotels, in collaboration with Ikea, is planning to put a Moxy Hotel on E. 11th Street. In order to do that, however, they'll be tearing down five "landmark eligible" buildings containing 75 residential units. The City recently approved the demolition.

Moxy Hotels are aimed specifically at millennial tourists. They come with "communal ironing rooms" and "elevators that act like photo booths," along with free booze and pillows on the bed that say, "I woke up like this." Marriott is planning to open 150 Moxies over the next decade.

photos from a reader

Yesterday, New Yorkers joined The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) to protest the demolition.

Speaking to the group (click for Facebook video), Andrew Berman put the responsibility on Mayor Bill de Blasio--citing Lightstone Group as his allies and political contributors. The hotel, he said, will go up for "globetrotting young people with disposable incomes, who are here for a few days and then gone." He added, "We love tourists--they're great, they're important--but they're not quite as important as long-term residents."

Tell the mayor to stop this demolition. GVSHP made it easy for you. Just click here, put in your name, and push a button.

P.S. What happened to all the residents who used to live in these buildings?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Gotham Book Mart Project

I really loved Gotham Book Mart. I loved walking to it past all the diamond shops on 47th, glimpsing their famous sign--"Wise Men Fish Here"--and feeling that rush, browsing through the shelves, always finding something wonderful and unusual. For years now, every time I venture close to its former location, I get a pang of sadness that I can't go there ever again.

So here's something.

After the shop closed in 2007, its entire contents--about 200,000 books and other items--were donated to the University of Pennsylvania by Edmondo Schwartz and Leonard Lauder. And now they're gradually appearing on a blog called The Gotham Book Mart Project.

Here are a few that seem especially special:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Left Bank's Replacement

The space that last held Left Bank Books has a replacement.

A shop called Hawkins New York is moving in. According to their website, Hawkins was "born out of a palpable void in the lifestyle market for quality, accessible, home goods." Their aim is to "incorporate the concept of artisanal collective production, while maintaining a modern sensibility in design."

I deeply miss Left Bank Books. They closed earlier this year after 24 years in business, explaining: "the costs of maintaining a brick-and-mortar used and rare bookshop in Greenwich Village are simply no longer tenable." The other small businesses on this block were pushed out by rising rents and the other inflated costs of doing business. Left Bank had moved to this spot after being forced to leave their old location on West 4th Street.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Troll Museum Resurrection

In June, I reported on the eviction of Reverend Jen and her Troll Museum. Now she will be resurrecting the museum, for only a short time, in a community art space called Chinatown Soup.

photo by Mr. E

She writes on the Facebook invite: "For years the LES Troll Museum made many people happy, made them feel like, maybe, the LES hadn't turned into a real-estate shitshow bedroom community for the rich."

The event will run for one week, opening tonight, August 16 at 7:00pm, at 16 Orchard Street.

"Expect a killer opening, weird performances, drawings, paintings, plays, a troll hair-dressing station, a troll-coloring book station, shit that's for sale, a 'Troll Parade' and informative monologues about the importance of Troll Commerce."

Monday, August 15, 2016

Zombie Urbanism

Jonny Aspen, Associate Professor at the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape in Oslo, Norway, coined the term "Zombie Urbanism" in 2013 to describe the way many urban environments are being designed today. I like the term, so I got in touch with Aspen and asked him about it--and how it applies to the redesigning of New York City, including the High Line, Hudson Yards, Times Square, and the new Astor Place.

Astor Place

Q: Can you give a definition of what you call "zombie urbanism"?

A: I’ve coined the concept in order to encircle what seems to be an increasingly more prevalent, and increasingly more worrying, phenomenon in contemporary urban development, namely the cliché-like way that many developers and designers talk about and deal with urban environments in general and public areas and places more specifically.

On the one hand I use it as a reference to what seems to have developed into an increasingly more homogeneous discourse, globally speaking, on what is believed to be important features of the so-called “creative city.” It’s a discourse that highlights the importance of cultural institutions, state-of-the-art architecture, and well-designed public places.

The concepts in use remind me of what the famous German sociologist Ulrich Beck has labeled “zombie concepts,” with reference to the social sciences. They are concepts that still are very much in use, but actually no longer fit the reality they intend to describe. As such the concepts are like the living dead, they are alive in our heads and our language, but not any longer useful for making precise propositions about the reality of the city.

On the other hand I use the concept of “zombie-urbanism” as a reference to how I experience many of the urban environments that come out from such a discourse, as built environments. What we can see is a kind of staged urbanism in which there is no room for irregularity and the unexpected, a well-designed, neat, and tedious urbanism based on a simplified understanding of the urban combined with more ideal aspirations about creating “living” and “people friendly” cities. You can see it in quite many urban redevelopment projects all over the world. Other examples can be found in strategies for remaking public places and plazas, such as for instance the recent developments of Times Square in New York.

Times Square

Q: What do you think is allowing zombie urbanism to spread across western cities today?

A: In general, the phenomenon is related to the current regime of neoliberal urban development and planning. This is a regime in which both developers and urban politicians quite shamelessly use urban features such as public squares and plazas as means for selling, marketing and branding. As such quite many aspects of “urbanism” have become subject to strategies of commercialization and capital manipulation. This development is of course also related to the seemingly never-ending spread of gentrification, or to what Neil Smith calls “generalized gentrification.”

The same goes, of course, for tourism, as an increasingly more important global industry.

Another important aspect, if not a cause in itself, is that quite many planners, architects, and designers seem to profit from such a development. They seem to have found themselves a new niche in designing urban tableaus of various kinds.

High Line, via urban75

Q: Where did you see these developments during your time in New York City?

A: I saw such developments most clearly in newly built areas, and especially in ones that contain public spaces and facilities. One such development is the Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens. I am particularly thinking about the promenade along the East River. Everything here looks clean, tidy, and civilized. The promenade is also equipped with well-designed chairs and benches. So everything seems in order, everything seems to make for a lively urban area. But even though the scenery is outstanding, especially the view towards Manhattan, the whole area feels dull and boring.

This is what I mean by zombie urbanism. Everything looks nice and urban, but in terms of social life, it’s rather sterile and dead.

A similar example can be found a bit further down the river, on the Manhattan side--the East River Waterfront Esplanade, especially the new Pier 15 that opened in 2011. The whole development is imbued with a well-meant rhetoric of making the waterfront accessible for all people, improving qualities of life, sustainability, and community programming. But again, the end result seems rather lackluster and limited. My impression is that most of the esplanade primarily is made to attract conventional recreational interest of tourists and middle-class groups that now seem to have taken over most of Manhattan.

Much of what’s here said also goes for the High Line and the Times Square redevelopment, though those stories probably are a bit more complex.

Besides such examples, the most obvious features of what I call zombie urbanism can be seen in many plans and prospects for future buildings and developments, especially when it comes to visualizing all the splendid qualities that the project allegedly will bring to the area when completed. Visualizations of public space qualities seem to have become increasingly important in this respect. In this way planners and developers deliberately use public space qualities as a way of both legitimizing and branding a future project. By highlighting all the fantastic urban qualities a development will bring to the neighborhood or to the city as such, any objections and criticisms that people might have towards the project are also curbed. Because who could really be against the planning of a new public space or a playground?

This has become a global trend. Just take a look at the plans for the new development at South Street Seaport or Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

The "Seaport of Tomorrow"

Q: What are the hallmarks of zombie urbanism? How do we recognize it when we see it?

A: This is harder to answer, because it’s not so that zombie urbanism is something that can be clearly pointed out as something that exists like a thing in the world. Zombie urbanism is a theoretical concept that, in the way I seek to use it, represents an effort to capture and put into words some important changes in the way our urban environments are produced as well as experienced.

For me, the latter issue of how we experience the urban world is especially important. This is what I’m trying to find ways of describing. Issues of feelings, affects, and atmospheres then become important, though they are not easily captured or put into words. I don’t want to become too philosophical about this, but the issues here at stake also relate to what each and one of us believe to be more or less genuine and authentic.

Why does the new Starbucks on the corner seem to be less authentic than the old coffee shop that it has replaced? It’s easy to pinpoint a range of issues and features that makes it so, but what it is that really makes the big difference might be harder to identify. Much the same goes for the topic of zombie urbanism. In general, my argument is that our urban life world increasingly seems to be staged in accordance with global clichés about urban environments and urban living. This is what worries me, and this is what needs to be further explored.

Astor Place

Q: Recently, in the East Village, Astor Place has been redesigned. This was years in the making. They removed part of the street, widened the central square, planted trees, put in concrete slab seating, and tables with umbrellas. It is now used by corporations like IBM and Citibank to hold “advertainment" events.

I'm pretty sure this is a prime example of zombie urbanism. But some would argue that it's a good thing--those slab benches and tables are full of people. How do we claim this is not an authentic and lively urban scene?

A: I agree that the remaking of Astor Place seems to be a good example of zombie urbanism. I would have to make some reservations due to the fact that I haven't seen the end result myself. But from what I can see from pictures and descriptions on the net, the makeover of the area resembles much of what I would call zombie urbanism. So what makes it zombie-like?

The most telling point is that the overall design solutions seem to be very generic. The whole place seems to play up design schemes for public places that are quite similar in many parts of the world. It is the same ingredients that are replicated all over: widened sidewalks, new seating, more plantings, upgraded lighting and so on, plus an attraction or two, may be an artwork or something, that apparently is to make the area stand out as something unique and special. My experience is that such places more often than not make for a fairly limited spectrum of public uses and activities.

City life is about encountering the unexpected and the unfamiliar. I'm not quite sure Astor Place will be the right place to visit in that respect.

Such forms of public design, even though many might see them as improvements, are damaging in that they block more creative ways of going about making public places. Instead of taking on the challenge of really involving people and working seriously with how to make places that are both socially mixed and inclusive, one settles with established urban design solutions, often prescribed by international consultancies.

When it comes to New York it might be that it's such a dynamic city, one can live or cope with a few zombie-like design solutions, such as at Astor Place, just because the places often will be put quite extensively to use. As such, the places themselves will continuously be in a state of flux and change, despite the way they are designed.

It's comforting to know that people will overrule the prescriptions of planners and designers. That's what urban living is very much about.

Astor Place

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Muste Gets Cruzed

The A.J. Muste building, at 339 Lafayette at Bleecker Street, has been completely covered from head to foot in green plywood. This weekend, the plywood was plastered with the apparently anti-Trump slogan Ted Cruz uttered at the Republican National Convention: "Vote Your Conscience!"

This is courtesy of luxury real-estate developer RFR.

Until recently, this building was known as "The Peace Pentagon." It was home to several activist and social justice groups, including The War Resisters League, Granny Peace Brigade, Global Revolution, Paper Tiger TV, and The Socialist Party.

The Muste Institute originally bought the building in 1978, providing affordable space for these and many other groups. Unable to afford expensive repairs, they sold it in 2015 for over $20 million, and moved to Canal Street, bringing their tenants with them. A documentary is in the works about the move.

August 2015

I always liked this low brick building, seeing its windows full of social justice slogans, especially as the neighborhoods around it changed so radically. It was a holdout, and we need holdouts. And we need holdouts that makes themselves--and their resistance--visible.

This is not quite the same thing.

Anyway, soon it will be demolished and replaced with (most likely) another luxury condo box with luxury chain stores on the bottom.