Changing the Cityscape


Game. Set. Match. You flip your left wrist upwards, sending the ball high up into the sky. The height is perfect, and this auspicious ball toss reminds you that you are in control of the game, and this point, potentially the final point, is what it all comes down to. You loop your racket behind and above your head and lob it down, catapulting the fuzzy, yellow sphere with the speed of a bullet right down the T. Ace. The umpire announces: Game, set, and match. You can barely believe your ears, let alone your eyes. You have captured the tournament, you have won the Ivy League 1984 tennis championship, right here on Columbia’s court on upper campus. This is the scene that played in my head when I visited upper campus right before spring break. It was a slow night, and feeling tired, but not quite fatigued enough to head off to the Land of Nod, so my friend and I decided to walk around campus. We quietly made our way up Low Steps, exchanging the occasional remark about the vast expanse of leisure time that lay ahead of us. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do for the next nine days, there’s absolutely nothing to do!” my friend remarked; he was staying on campus.

Upon reaching the foothills of Pupin and Northwest Corner (NWC), the controversial building set on upper campus intended as a model for Columbia’s impending expansion, he mentioned that there used to be tennis courts somewhere in the vicinity. The idea was confirmed a few moments later as lines, of a distinct tennis persuasion, began to make themselves visible on the ground in front of NWC’s campus entrance. When I saw them, something clicked. In times past, this space had functioned as a playground, a social gathering hub where people met, competed, interacted. Today, it has been replaced by a steel and glass structure described by the New York Times as “superb architecture: clean, compact, and perfectly calibrated”.

A similar phenomenon is erupting all over New York City; there exists a clash between those who wish to preserve the existing social fabric of various districts in the city, and those who desire progress, new structures, and economic development. Examples abound, but the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards is one of the best. Wedged between the historic districts of Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene, the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards is the target of the Forest City Ratner Corporation, which is looking to construct a modern complex in the area. On the one hand, it means jobs, not just construction, but permanent ones as well; a new, bustling district would signal the end of a declined area that has been lying fallow since Brooklyn’s heyday at the turn of the twentieth century. On the other, it means uprooting the existing social fabric and instituting an entirely new, unprecedented urban dynamic. Property values, for example, will skyrocket in the surrounding areas, forcing residents living in the vicinity to move away. Yet hasn’t this process happened before? Weren’t the Atlantic Yards once a bustling, vibrant middle-class neighborhood?

I have always been a champion of change; preservation is a challenge for me to understand. This case is especially troubling. Brooklyn has always been changing; from the heights of the Roaring Twenties to the depths of the Depression just ten years later. In the ensuing decades, residents rejuvenated the brownstone forests, leading to increased property values once again. Brooklyn was poor, and it was rich. It was occupied by whites, and by blacks. Brooklyn was in decline, and it is now in ascent. Many want change to continue, and many want it stopped.

Photo Cred: Thomas Cole, 1836

Yet why have those who desire the preservation of urban communities chosen today’s buildings, today’s social fabric, today’s urban dynamic to freeze in time? Why wasn’t the Long Island Railroad Station preserved, or the tenants who lived in the area in the 19th century, or the trees and grasses and animals before them? The Atlantic yards district today is not what it was twenty years ago, one hundred years ago, one thousand years ago. The question begs itself to be asked: why should it remain the same twenty years from now, one hundred years from now, one thousand years from now?

The predicament facing the Atlantic Yards has resonances throughout the city. Just a few blocks from my room here at Columbia, the university is engaged in a bitter legal battle with residents and businesses in the future site of the expanded Manhattanville campus. This issue has polarized residents, students, and citizens. Do we move forward, or do we hold on to the past? The Bloomberg administration has been actively supporting development projects, but with mayoral elections coming up later this year, the new administration will have to take up the burden of striking a balance between progress and preservation.

Such a balance is not very difficult to achieve. Change does not have to rend existing communities; it does not have to force rents into our city. Awareness of social issues involved with development is key, but there must also be a sustained effort by both residents and the city administration for increased participation in the planning process. There is no questioning the fact that the face of our city is always changing. The real question is: how will we proceed from here? Change should happen, but it must be an organic process.