urbanization, public spaces, and a changing NY

June 3, 2013 |  Category:   life nyc outings remembering








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.

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  • Melissa@Julia's Bookbag June 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    wow, that’s amazing Jenna! All of it sounds incredible to me, b/c I have never in my life lived in a city. In Hawaii, I was in a pretty rural place and where I live now in WA. state, it’s a suburb with an emphasis on rural. I’m fascinated by city life. I wonder where my daughter will live when she grows up. And where your daughters will end up living!

  • Cravate Noire June 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    We love the recent urban development, especially nicer public spaces and safer neighborhoods which sound great on the outset but with mixed feelings. It seems like we’re attracting more people to the city with development but without key infrastructure issues being addresssed. Such as will there be enough space in public schools for all the extra students (parents in lower manhattan have trouble securing spots in local elementary schools), or how crowded will public transport become- with new subway lines being built, crowded conditions won’t really go away till the next few years now that they’ve cut down service or urban pollution levels even.

    • Jenna June 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm

      Yes, you’re right. I didn’t address that aspect of urbanization and development mostly because it’s a whole topic unto itself and I just wanted to focus on the positive expansion of green spaces in this particular post. But of course the issue of infrastructure to address the growing population is looms big. We’ve seen it in our neighborhood first hand where development of condos were green lighted without any regard to accommodations for more students in schools. That came to a head last Fall when our school was rezoned (we were part of the rezoned blocks, though the kids will stay in the school).

  • Sarah June 3, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I was just talking to my sister, who lives in and loves New York, and she was telling me about the rooftop garden she has planted this spring, and how everyone in her building has hanging tomato plants and flower baskets from their fire escapes and landings. I can imagine how beautiful open green spaces and flowers must look amongst all the concrete and buildings. Even though urbanization brings about other issues, I’m glad to see such positive and healthy changes are taking place.

  • Melinda's Musings June 3, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    A lovely post, thank you. From someone who lives in Brooklyn, I completely agree. I didn’t grow up here, and while I’m on the fence about the gentrification of neighborhoods and the exorbitant costs that go along with that , I love seeing NYC (and Brooklyn especially) become more beautiful and accessible every year. I have lived here almost 11 years, and while I sometimes fantasize about escaping to the country, my heart belongs to New York.

  • Nancy June 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks for linking to that documentary. I hadn’t heard of it. I was a metropolitan studies minor at NYU, and I felt supersmart while watch the documentary because I knew all about the urban planning eras they discussed. LOL.
    But on a serious note, even though NYC is a great place to raise kids, I had to leave… even in Riverdale, where we lived, where the schools are “good,” my daughter would’ve been in a Kindergarten class with 24 other kids. As a former NYC teacher, I know what a nightmare that is. In her new school, she’ll be in a class with 15 other kids. Huge difference, in so many ways. We live an hour away, so I feel like we’ll get the best the best of the city without having to deal with the hassles. Is that cheating? Probably…

    • Jenna June 4, 2013 at 10:31 pm

      I found my 3rd grade class photo in which I was 1 of 33 kids in the class with one teacher here in NYC. This was in the late 70s. It probably depends on the school, the teacher, and the kid, but so far we haven’t had an issue with 24 kid class sizes. Sure, 24 is still a lot, but hey…I think i turned out okay and I survived 33.

      • Nancy June 5, 2013 at 3:24 pm

        After 7 years of watching kids fall through the cracks because of overcrowded classrooms, I just can’t bring myself to do it, even though that was high school in the South Bronx and it in no way compares to Riverdale. I’m a little spoiled also, because I’m from the suburbs and I didn’t grow up with large class sizes. And if a kid needs special ed services in NYC, it’s even harder. As a deaf person, I don’t think I would thrived as well if I’d been in a city school (thankfully, my girls are not deaf but who knows with this 3rd one? There’s a 50/50 chance, genetically, with each kid I have). So, I admit to taking it all personally and totally project that onto my kids.

        • Jenna June 5, 2013 at 3:30 pm

          Totally understandable Nancy. You do what you can for what’s right for your kids. Had our public school not been right for mine, I’m sure we would rethink it. I guess I take it personally sometimes when people attack our public school system – not saying you did, but there are plenty of people who talk trash about it – some justifiably so, of course, but sometimes there’s this blanket statement from some people like, “I would never subject my kids to the NYC public school system!” – that kind of thing. Not all of us have the option to put our kids in private schools or attend schools with smaller class sizes. As flawed as it is, I want to believe in the public school system and a lot of it does depend on the school and the PTA. Fortunately, ours have been terrific and we are totally happy with it.

          • Nancy June 5, 2013 at 7:27 pm

            I know that the school we were zoned for in Riverdale is one of the best in the city. Having worked in the inner city schools, it really is disheartening to see the discrepencies from neighborhood to neighborhood. I have nothing but respect for NYC’s teachers and I think the schools do remarkably well, all things considered. But believe me, I know that I’m lucky to have ended up in a place with low taxes and excellent public schools. It seems to be a rare combination…