I was talking with a friend while sitting on the grass on Governors Island over the weekend, observing just how many public parks and green spaces have opened in the city within the last 5-10 years – essentially the time we became parents. Aside from Governors Island, we now have the High Line, the Hudson River Piers and Parks, the Brooklyn Bridge Piers and Parks, the Williamsburg waterfront, and countless other playgrounds and car-free pedestrian plazas. Most of these spaces are still works in progress, spanning development over many years and opening to the pubic in phases, often one pier at a time for example, while funding gets established. Indeed, it’s been interesting to see the progress over the years and anticipate the build out of plans that are often available to the public. This year on Governors Island, we noticed the appearance of bright red benches, adirondack chairs and hammocks. This was my friend Megan’s first time on the Island and I told her how we always make a trip out here within the first few weeks of the season with the intention of coming back a few more times before it closes for the winter – but we never do, only because there is so much to do in the city in the summer and we want to hit all of our favorite events and spots at least once. Not a bad problem to have, yes?
In continuing with my documentary kick these days, I watched Urbanized last week, a film about the design of cities. There’s been a reversal happening in the last decade, a shift away from the suburbs as more and more people are choosing to stay and live in cities. This has resulted in revitalization of urban centers when decades ago the evidence of urban decay was palpable. We didn’t have so many public spaces like we do now growing up; we spent most of our time as kids playing Kick the Can with other neighbors in our street or playing on our swingset in our backyard in Queens. The city has changed so much since I grew up here (some may argue not for the better and it’s true – NYC has lost a certain edge), but the city continues to be a work in progress as it responds to the needs and wants of its growing population – and let’s also be clear – the agendas of politicians. As urban experiments, The High Line and Governors Island have been wildly successful. Closing off sections of Times Square to cars, something that seemed highly improbable years ago, was also a bold experiment. I think one of the more dramatic transformations of the city that I have witnessed in my lifetime other than Times Square is Bryant Park. The Bryant Park of my childhood was similar to Times Square – you just didn’t go there. In fact, I don’t think I ever set foot inside Bryant Park until the mid 90s. It was a dirty, seedy cesspool of trash and drugs. Hard to imagine isn’t it, as it’s probably one of the most bucolic, picturesque and lovely blocks in the whole city. Locally in our neighborhood, we’ve seen a playground and park similarly turn around within the 13 years that I’ve lived here. Sometimes we feel like old timers when we tell newcomers to the neighborhood that years ago, our beloved local playground was a drug infested space that you didn’t even want to walk past (and I didn’t; I used to cross the street to avoid walking next to the playground). It’s really hard to picture it now since it’s become a town center of sorts in recent years after its renovaton, with a local farmer’s market on the weekends and outdoor events all year round.
There are those who lament the loss of gritty character the city once embodied before the gentrification, the sterilization and even the disneyfication of some neighborhoods in NY. Arguably, the most egregious effect of gentrification is that people get priced out of neighborhoods and we see it all the time. I’m somewhere in the middle. I can sort of romanticise the NYC of my childhood and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere else, but sometimes the city was too much and that’s why I left. When I moved back in late ’96, Giuliani was 3 years into his term in office and the changes to the city were already apparent. It felt like coming back to a new city. So while I do think gentrification is a really tricky issue, I do enjoy many of the changes that are happening and it makes me firmly comfortable with raising the kids here. The challenges to improve the quality of life in NYC are many and not made any easier by the fact that we are over 8 million people, but I admit to being surprised at how far the city has come since I was a kid. Even just this year we have a new bike sharing program, as controversial as it is. We can now recycle ALL plastic (huge news for the city!). The first Whole Foods in Brooklyn is going to have a 20,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse that will grow organic produce for its customers, largely because residents demanded it as an amendment to the roof top parking lot that was planned by Whole Foods (you mean, our voice and opinions can count?). I don’t really know what the city will look like by the time our kids are adults (or even in 5 years for that matter – we are set to get a new mayor this year after all), but I like what I’m seeing. More parks, more green spaces, more car-free plazas, more rooftop gardens and more farmers markets. There is just so much more to do and more places to do them in. A lot has changed in 10 years.