Monday, August 30, 2010

Notes on the Chelsea High Line

By now, most people with an interest in urban architecture have heard of the Chelsea High Line. Designed by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, the sleek architects who are also responsible for the subject of my fifth blog post, the ICA museum in Boston. The High Line opened a year ago to much fanfare. It remakes an abandoned elevated railway, built in the thirties to move freight to downtown Manhattan. As trucking became cheaper in the sixties, rail freight declined, and the railway closed in 1980. Subsequently, the tracks sat vacant, a slender thread of uncultivated greenery safely inoculated from overt human interference by its height. Two New Yorkers hatched an idea in the early part of this decade to convert the railway into a fully accessible park, however, and the resulting length of iron, stone, and gently waving grasses will eventually extend from Gansevoort Street all the way to 34th (the NYC City Council just approved the purchase of the last chunk). Only the first section, terminating at 20th Street, is open so far, and my brother and I walked it during our weekend in New York.

The High Line is surprisingly polarizing to critics. Nicolai Ourrossoff of the New York Times gushed over it, calling it "mesmerizing," "magical," "invaluable and transformative," and "one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York for years." Others, notably CNeal over at his superb blog The Vigorous North, have lamented the loss of wilderness inherent in its transformation to fully functioning park. CNeal also pointed out that while the idea for the High Line came from relatively ordinary New Yorkers, it became a means for the rich and powerful to mold the once gritty landscape of Chelsea into a windfall for developers (much like the ICA on the South Boston waterfront). Meanwhile, the neighborhood is fast transforming into a glittering nest of socialites. The picture above includes the Frank Gehry-designed IAC Building that sprouted in 2007.

While the High Line is certainly a creature of capitalism, my impressions were favorable. I like the juxtaposition of old water towers atop warehouses with brilliant modern creations of glass and steel. The High Line is a distinctive perch, providing a rare vantage point for gazing across at rather than up to the dense layers of urbanism in Chelsea. For me, ascending to the elevated park triggered a memory of climbing up to tree branches, from which I gained a parallel perspective into the canopy of a beech tree.

The design is playful, weaving through several buildings and including an unexpected view down into 10th Avenue that is highly reminiscent of the ICA mediatheque. While I wish there were more traces of the High Line's former industrial function, the architects did leave a few rails embedded here and there in the walkway. The High Line is very much a park, striving to divert rather than explicitly educate.

The High Line succeeds entirely in its ambition. When I visited on a Saturday in August, the park was full but not crowded, and strollers were obviously amused by the unusual point of view. As The Gates did several years ago in Central Park, the High Line is stirring excitement and curiosity about place - the best thing a park can do.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Found in the Bronx: Kweenz Destroy

On a Robert Moses pilgrimage last weekend to see exactly how the Master Builder plowed the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the neighborhood of Tremont, my brother and I came across these graffiti.

This shot and the one above, go together. Odd subject matter, I thought.

I know very little about graffiti, or street art as its finer examples are now known (how's this for the SAT - graffiti: street art; comic books: graphic art?!), nor can I claim to have listened to much rap music growing up, but these pieces display a pride in their craftsmanship. They were fresh, hardly relics of the early eighties, and as the paint spread across several blocks of vacant but tidy warehouses, their creators clearly had permission from the owner.

Following the suggested link led me to Indie184, (check out the .net cousin for a good post-modern workout), a rare female graffiti artist. She hails from Washington Heights, is a mother of three, and has several interviews on the web, in which she describes her fashion brand, Kweenz Destroy. My impression of the collection is of hipsters cross-pollinating with the world of hip-hop - American Apparel for the urban set. So much for my excitement at finding a surviving example of graffiti giving meaning to bleak concrete; commercialism has subverted even this quintessential tool of the rebellious. However, give Indie184 credit for honesty, as she responds to a question probing for Bronx hardcore nostalgia by quipping, "Rather corporate than crack any day."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Scaling Up Farmers' Markets

On Tuesday, the USDA released one of the more encouraging news items of the week—figures for the growth of farmers’ markets over the past year. Numbers are up 16% from 2009, nationally totaling well over 6,000. In 1994, when the USDA began collecting the data, there were fewer than 1,800. The top ten states are essentially California and various Midwestern and Northeastern states. Encouragingly, a southern state, North Carolina, has cracked the top ten.

One of the main arguments against localism is its cost—critics charge that paying extra for heirloom tomatoes is inherently elitist. These numbers pretty convincingly refute this contention, however, because the recession, if anything, has accelerated the growth of farmers’ markets. Localism has even ignited a small backlash against the USDA organic label, as I chronicled a few months ago. While it is important to understand how corporate agriculture has exploited the USDA label, the fact remains that the pursuit of customers who pay attention to the label encourages far better farming practices than the conventional norm, not to mention educates people, albeit imperfectly, about the source of their food. In any case, small producers rarely compete directly against corporate organic products, and they can easily get around the difficulty of getting certification by marketing themselves as “beyond organic” (or some such variant). Hence the success of farmers’ markets and CSAs, where the playing field is tilted irrevocably against corporate, large-scale operations.

At this point, with the weekly farmers’ market present in most towns of any size, advocates for local food need to consider how to increase the intensity of consumption of local food rather than its range. Either they need to carve out a larger space for themselves within existing chain stores, increase the demand for co-ops and natural food stores, or, in what to me seems the most promising option, increase their operations where they already enjoy an advantage over potential corporate competitors: farmers’ markets. In short, they should work towards sustaining farmers’ markets that open daily. The best local products, fruit and vegetables, are by their nature highly perishable; shopping once a week simply isn’t enough to enjoy summer’s bounty.

The prime difficulty is finding open space that can be dedicated entirely to markets. Parking lots, which seem to be their most common site, can be spared for a day, but city governments and nearby stores will likely balk at reserving them consistently. On the other hand, markets do bring new customers into an area, and the crowds spill over to shop in adjacent stores, so perhaps an economic argument can be persuasive on this point. Certainly, few small farmers can afford to come to market every day—when would they weed and harvest their produce if they did?—but by sharing stalls with similar vendors, they would provide customers with consistency.

The most tempting alternative for small producers who want to scale up may be to make the leap to supply traditional grocery stores, which reach many more consumers than farmers’ markets. However, these outlets need corporate suppliers because they operate on economies of scale. Small producers are much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and markets and thus should avoid the long-term contracts that chain stores require (cooperatives change the dynamics entirely). Natural food stores are more favorably disposed to local suppliers, but for whatever reason, growth on the scale of farmers’ markets seems to elude them.

Convening daily farmers’ markets will offer benefits beyond simply higher sales volumes and healthier eating. The more time people spend shopping for food, the better. Farmers’ markets encourage casual interaction, whereas at a grocery, one needs only talk to the cashier (automated checkout are becoming more and more common). Like any point of assembly that encourages conversation, whether church, school, or a sports stadium, the marketplace is fundamental to civics.