Thoughts of the month: Rethinking space in housing projects / Essex Market / Tokyo Metro

Pass by any of the colossal housing projects in the city (whether public or affordable, like cooperatives) and if you take a deeper look, you’ll realize there is a massive underutilization of space.

Robert Moses built upon Le Corbusier’s Radiant City movement with a massive undertaking to create housing for poorer New Yorkers. Today, one look at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which owns and manages the public housing projects, and you’ll see it is a complete disaster. Consistent lack of stable utilities and facilities, dilapidated buildings, and lack of investments in the overall environment, with money going to over-policing. While there is much to dissect in regard to the deep level of corruption at NYCHA throughout the years, I’ve been recently thinking about the use of space and the environment around these housing projects.

We’re not thinking bold enough. We could completely overhaul and revitalize the use of these spaces.

What if we reimagined the rooftops or the large unused green spaces in courtyards as mini urban farms? These could provide fresh produce to the local community, which addresses the ever-present issue of food deserts. Since they’re grown on-site, these goods would be cheap and seasonal, and labor could employ people in the community, creating a circular economy.

What if we could beautify the public spaces to become more like our parks? We could build dynamic spaces for children to play or adults to relax. Maybe even allow certain vendors during the day to enable a movement of people and remove the aspect of isolation in a major city. NYC could always use more parks.

After the city’s initiative to have buildings retrofitted to be carbon-neutral (and in Brooklyn, a step further by requiring green roofs), is the city thinking about how it can invest in renewable energy to power these buildings? Solar farms, for example, could potentially power these communities and bring more resiliency to the infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the status quo requires us to take the first crucial step: reinvesting in our housing projects, in their infrastructure, to create a foundationally habitable environment to begin with. Luckily, we do have some people and representatives thinking about these endeavors.

I’ve taken an interest in the new Essex Street Market at the ultra-luxe building on Delancey and Essex recently. In a discussion with a friend of mine (shout-out Sofia), she brought up an interesting point that got my mind going.

Will the same longtime residents from the Lower East Side community (heavily Puerto Rican, working-class, etc.) feel welcome in the new market?

From the modest bazaar that it was, people now enter a glass tower luxury high rise to do their Sunday shopping among the hipster tourists and denizens trying out the latest overpriced cut of salami.

The market remains publicly-owned in its new home. The vendors have been preserved in an agreement of continuity within the public-private partnership, which will likely preserve old-school shops for years to come. Sure, we can give props to a properly executed public-private partnership, with developers understanding the importance of the cultural asset to the community. On the flip side, maybe the developers are maintaining a skeleton of what the market once was in the present, with profits in sight for the future. Slowly, as the demographics change with gentrification, we might see vendors pushed out by the growing bourgeois class that is replacing the former LES community as customers.

What does the future look like for the Essex Street Market?

Recently, I read an article about how the Tokyo Metro has such a profit margin that it is considering becoming publicly traded with an IPO.

While I don’t believe public goods must be profitable in order to provide the adequate services we need, in the market society that we do live in, it’d be interesting to see which projects Tokyo Metro pursues around the world.

Will it be helping to fund metro projects around the world that they know can be profitable? The article states that the company is eyeing projects in Europe, Asia, and Australia. But imagine if they could tackle the MTA’s woes by completing a new subway expansion or upgrade on-time and efficiently. (Ahem, CBTC, Second Avenue Subway, TriboroRX anyone?)

Will it be investing in alternative transportation options? They could think about putting money into the hands of various urban tech startups working in mobility and transportation — the way Mini does with their A/D/O space and it’s Urban-X accelerator.

Alternatively, could this be a cautionary tale? Opening an organization that runs a rail system to the market could potentially have consequences if they have to succumb to shareholders who strive only to maximize profit. Inevitably, they might have to cut costs and cancel projects when a downturn occurs.

urbanist / tidsoptimist / daydreamer / student & future planner at Pratt GCPE /

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