Sunday, August 29, 2010

Is There a Queens Urbanism?

Last September, Joseph Heathcott visited Columbia University to discuss this question with a diverse group of grad students, faculty members, and guests. A Midwestern transplant living in Jackson Heights, Heathcott had been teaching his students at the New School to look carefully at Queens, a borough that has received less scholarly attention than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Historians have written about Times Square and Central Park, Brooklyn Heights and Canarsie, yet Queens has lacked its storytellers – in academia, if not in pop culture, as Ryan Reft highlights in our next piece.*

There is something that just isn’t urban about Queens, at least for many observers. One often does not find the fine-grained density of Manhattan, nor the brownstone elegance of Brooklyn in the borough’s boxy suburbs, or its fa├žade of ticky-tacky retail architecture of the 1960s and 70s: a mishmash of concrete and vinyl, made shabby by time and weather. Even the most architecturally coherent neighborhoods, like Sunnyside, feature a bewildering farrago of periods and materials, wrapped around co-ops, multifamily homes, and standalone structures.

When I used to tell people I lived in Queens, they would often respond, “Oh, in the suburbs.” In his presentation, Heathcott was trying to get beyond this simple characterization. One does not cross the Queensboro Bridge and land in the middle of Levittown. The increasingly gentrified Long Island City offers pricey high-rise living to those who can afford it – a sort of colony of Midtown and the Upper East Side, just across the East River. Housing units may not stretch as high as they do in much of Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn, but the density of residences, shops, restaurants, laundromats and sheer human activity in neighborhoods like Astoria and Woodside challenge any notion of curvilinear suburban conformity. Heathcott suggested that a trip along Roosevelt Avenue introduces us to a kind of urban form that has been little studied – an intermediate zone between classic urban density (itself a relative rarity in the US) and the suburban sprawl that marks most of the American landscape.

What stood out most to me in the discussion last September was a comment by Professor Casey Blake, who pointed out that Queens is more defined by transportation than New York’s other boroughs. Highways, trains, planes, cars, cabs, bike paths – modes of transit have crisscrossed and shaped Queens’s fate in profound ways. Working from this observation, I set out to document the various ways transportation infrastructure pervades the lives of people in Queens – from the taxi dispatchers and auto shops to the railyards and bus depots throughout the borough:

Transportation City

* Steven Gregory’s 1998
Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community is a notable exception. See a review here.


1 comment:

  1. who responded, "Oh, in the suburbs?" manhattanites? quasi-manhattanites in park slope or williamsburg or riverdale?
    i thought the aforementioned multiculturalists thought of queens as a multicultural dumping ground and staten island was the suburbs.
    forest hills is the best example of the urban-suburban continuum. 71st avenue is diverse. forest hills gardens though, is the suburbs. large pristine houses with lots of hedges. very vigilant about safeguarding their private streets. predominantly jewish (but not bukharian unlike rego park).
    i had my car towed there once.
    another good example: jamaica estates. mansions there are off the hook.
    also, LIC is increasingly gentrified and there are relatively newly built high rise buildings. however, the buildings are probably 1/4 - 1/2 empty.
    for the artsy mostly white people (and/or soprano fans/is being artsy + white mutually exclusive with being a soprano fan? is there only room for the wire and mad men?)who can't afford already 100% yuppified neighborhods, LIC's main attractions are: ps 1, sculpture center, and LIC's subway proximity to midtown (queensboro one stop from i think 53rd and lex).
    like the new layout. should've kept chomsky's pic up though. maybe that other intellectual, vincent gallo, should be tropic of meta's new posterboy.