Looking at the Urban Past – and Future

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The New York Sun

There are funerals all the time in Gotham, but inanimate objects are rarely eulogized. That said, the Municipal Art Society mourned the East River’s industrial heritage at an unusual program on Tuesday. Dearly departed structures spoken of included the Greenpoint Terminal Market, the former Con Edison power station, and the Long Island City Power House. In a “death notice” sent out, organizers announced that these buildings are survived by the endangered Domino Sugar Refinery, Sohmer Piano Factory, and Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse.

The event was organized in conjunction with the exhibition “Preservation on the Edge: Six Months On,” which runs through Saturday. The exhibit is a reprise of a show that the Municipal Art Society mounted in November highlighting the waterfront’s historic industrial buildings. Six months after that exhibit, half of the featured structures have been destroyed. The Greenpoint Terminal Market was lost to fire last month. The Con Edison power station on First Avenue was destroyed in January, and the Long Island City Power Station, a brick Renaissance Revival power plant, had its recognizable smokestacks removed in the spring.

Municipal Art Society senior vice president, Franck Sanchis, opened the program by elaborating the analogy between buildings and people. Buildings, he said, have personalities. Like humans, they age and have additions. Some are appreciated and missed when they are gone. He offered reasons why the public often does not value industrial buildings: They are not seen as outwardly beautiful.

Eulogist Lou Sepersky spoke movingly about the Con Edison power station, and Joe Darragh eulogized the Greenpoint Terminal Market. Mr. Darragh was born a couple blocks from the waterfront in Greenpoint and worked along the waterfront for 42 years at the lumberyard there. An associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jeffrey Kroessler, eulogized the Long Island City Power Station and discussed the Sohmer Piano Factory. In his remarks, he criticized the universal application of the real estate industry mandate “highest and best use,” which he said is contributing to the destruction of these historical buildings.

One of the threatened buildings, the Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse, is one of the earliest reinforced concrete warehouses in America. Its architect, Cass Gilbert (of Woolworth Building fame), used Egyptian Revival motifs on the building with its coved cornice and narrow window openings.

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“We would be sitting in the middle of a highway if it weren’t for Jane Jacobs,” a State Senator, Thomas Duane, said, referring to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s plans to have a highway run through Washington Square Park and the West Village. Mr. Duane was among the politicians, activists, and preservationists of the Washington Square Arch who gathered Wednesday for a celebration of the late Jane Jacobs, a pioneering urbanist and author who died in April. The Center for the Living City at Purchase College, founded in collaboration with Jacobs, sponsored the evening with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation was host.

How does a community pay tribute to someone who made contributions to environmentalism, economics, architecture, and urban planning? Erik Wensberg recalled how at a neighborhood meeting in January 1961, in an “ordinary, open and unassuming” manner:

she read us a banal bit of boilerplate from the Times which said that the city would study fourteen blocks in western Greenwich Village with a view to possible urban renewal. Jane patiently explained to us that the so-called study was the opening fraud of a government racket which cleared urban lands of buildings and tenants and brought in expensive versions of both, who paid higher taxes. If we liked our busy, friendly, frowzy neighborhood, urban renewal had to be fought.

Jane Jacob’s son also spoke, recalling the time when he was seven, the age at which his mother enlisted him. He wore sandwich board placards, which read “Save the Square” to help to get petitions signed.

Other participants at the program included Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Landmarks Preservation Commission chair Robert Tierney; and Hillary Brown, who teaches sustainable design at Columbia and Princeton Universities. Parsons the New School for Design dean Paul Goldberger said there were three women in the 1960s who changed the world: Betty Freidan, Rachel Carson, and Jane Jacobs. Each one, he said, was initially dismissed but braved the accepted wisdom of the time.

Seen in the audience were CUNY Graduate Center historian Mike Wallace; philanthropist Joan Davidson; Assemblywoman Deborah Glick; Toronto-based developer Margaret Zeidler, who is president of Urban Space Property Group, and whose father formed an architectural firm with Jane Jacob’s late husband; playwright Richard West; Arthur Ziegler Jr., Gregory Youchum of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation; psychologist Gil Horowitz; and lawyer Ronald Podolsky talking with activist Sharon Woolums. After the event, a group headed to the White Horse Tavern, near where Jacobs lived. Seen was Norman Mintz, co-author with Ms. Gatz of “Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown” (Wiley).

Mr. Goldberger directed ire against those who misappropriate the terms that Jacobs made popular. Who could imagine, he asked, that a gigantic football stadium could be promoted as enriching street life with shops and cafes?


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