What’s in a Name?

by Katia Savchuk

Since the late 19th century, the word "tenderloin" has been used to describe a "district of a city largely devoted to vice." Apparently, the name comes from allegations that corrupt police in a seedy Manhattan district could afford a nice piece of meat.

The Tenderloin is still the official name of a dense downtown San Francisco neighborhood characterized by high rates of poverty, homelessness, crime and drug use. It also remains one of the few affordable neighborhoods for low-income renters, especially immigrants, and is home to many artists and writers.

It is slightly unbelievable in our politically correct culture that a neighborhood's official name can basically mean "bad, seedy area." I wonder if this moniker has been more than descriptive and had an effect on the area's development by pigeon-holing it.

Now that trendy bars and restaurants are popping up in the Tenderloin and urban renewal efforts are under way, I wonder if the name will have a lasting effect or become an amusing anachronism.

Credits: Photos of the Tenderloin from Dizzy Atmosphere.

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Tagging the Megalopolis: Pixação in Sao Paulo

by Sergio Franco

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, a defiant synthesis of aesthetics and ethics has developed around the practice of Pixação. With roots in hip-hop culture, Pixação refers to writing one's name or alias on a visible surface without permission (a.k.a. tagging). It feeds on suppression by municipal authorities. Pixadores place their lives at risk to defy legal and spatial impediments, reaching the highest towers in the menacing metropolis.

Pixadores operate on an ethical code similar to that of soccer associations, motorcycle couriers and crime networks around the margins of Sao Paulo. However, it is not violent or involuntary. The code is known as LHP, which stands for Loyalty, Humility, Procedure — loyalty to the group without oppressive obligation; humility and restraint without subservience; and adherence to tactical procedures attuned to context.

Pixação offers each practitioner a tool to mark their identity and claim their right to the city. It is a form of resistance to social invisibility imposed by those who see them as inferior. Pixadores become notorious for traversing boundaries, including the walls of fortified residential enclaves. Few Sao Paulo residents personally know Tchencho and Di, but almost everyone knows of their existence through the markings they leave around the city.

Pixadores are not just claiming their existence. For these young people, Pixação is an opportunity to escape the entrapment of spatial, social and mental "ghettoization." It affirms that they have no fear of moving through the city, even in the face of violent repression.

Sergio Franco is a sociologist, educator and curator with 10 years of experience in the cultural industries of Brazil. Sergio’s work focuses on developing a cultural connection between Brazil and France, with research focusing on the evolution of graffiti in Sao Paulo. He has contributed to Zero-Quatre and is a UNESCO consultant working in Brazil's Historic Artistic Patrimony National Institute (IPHAN). This article was translated from Portuguese by Hector Fernando Burga.

Credits: Illustrations of Brazilian Pixadores by Paulo Ito (2010).

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Farming Cities

by George Carothers

Urban farming has existed in one form or another since cities first came into existence. More recently, people have been embracing it in record numbers in response to economic and ecological concerns.

Urban farming differs from city to city, just as agriculture varies from climate to climate. Tokyo residents have experimented with rooftops and underground sites, finding that interesting locations can inspire those who spend long hours at office desks. Other cities have shown that neighborhood farming — as seen in the parks, community centers and playgrounds of Middlesbrough, England — can yield enough produce to provide 2,500 people with locally grown food.

In the short film "New York Farm City" (above), Petrina Engelke and Raul Mandru wander through several neighborhoods in the Big Apple to showcase creative ways people grow their own food. Moving from East Harlem to Brooklyn, and from Greenwich Village to City Hall, they uncover the work of fascinating groups who are reestablishing visible links between urban sustenance and its source.

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Transitory Art in Public Space

by Vivien Park

Radya is a Russian street artist known for work that makes strong political statements with striking ingenuity. He and his collaborators alter their surroundings in ways that bring creative, thought-provoking and often humorous imagery into public view.

Their portraits of six fallen solders from World War II were created by throwing Molotov cocktails onto canvases covered with bandages. The portraits graced the exterior of an abandoned hospital in Yekaterinburg until the rain washed them away.

In "Stability," riot police shields form an enormous house of cards topped with a throne-like chair. It was eventually toppled by a slight gust of wind.

More examples of Radya's work can be found at t-radya.com. Vividly documented in photos and video, their transitory physical presence lives on to reach a broader public.

This is part of a collection of featured artists from around the world. We welcome you to feature artists in Polis guest posts any time you feel inspired.

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Music for Youth Empowerment

by Teresa García Alcaraz

Palestinian youth participate in a DJing workshop. Source: Turntables in the Camps

Building upon the widespread influence of music, innovative programs around the world are empowering youth to work together, stay clear of danger, exercise creativity and improve their living conditions.

Turntables in the Camps introduces young people to DJing and electronic music in refugee camps. It started out as a series of workshops and now includes schools at Sabra/Shatila, Mar Elias and Burj Barajneh in Beirut; Nahr el-Bared near Tripoli; and Jabal el-Hussein in Amman. The schools are run by local NGOs and volunteers, with funding from the Danish Center for Culture and Development. The group is currently working on Turntable Labs for youth in Port-au-Prince, Cairo, Phnom Penh, Tunis and Benghazi, along with an online portal to facilitate communication between schools and with DJ communities worldwide.

Music in Me participants in Damascus. Source: Norman Lebrecht

Music in Me is a Netherlands-based organization that works on behalf of refugee children in the Middle East — mainly Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestinian territories. It "uses the power of music to improve tolerance and increase mutual respect between people in conflict zones," setting up a variety of youth projects and helping similar organizations in the region with fundraising.

The Simón Bolívar Music Foundation runs the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela. More commonly known as El Sistema, the program was founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975 to help embed music into the education system and promote collective practice through symphony orchestras and choruses. It is now part of the Venezuelan Presidential Ministry of People's Power, with a focus on strengthening marginal communities. Six days a week, El Sistema students practice and perform with neighborhood youth orchestras called núcleos.

An El Sistema núcleo in Venezuela. Source: The Telegraph

More than 400,000 youth play in approximately 200 El Sistema orchestras throughout Venezuela, and more than a million have gone through the program. Alumnus Gustavo Dudamel was appointed director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 26 and recently performed at the Olympic Games in London. He continues to direct youth from El Sistema in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in a concert to raise funds for recovery from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Music programs are providing valuable opportunities for youth in communities across the globe. While such programs are not a cure-all, their results have been promising. They help young people build the self-discipline and collaboration skills needed to meet life's most difficult challenges.

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Colleen Morgan on (Digital) Archaeology

Source: Colleen Morgan

“The tradition of craft in archaeology has been brutally squandered; as the de-skilling and devaluation of archaeologists continues through the culture of academic underrepresentation, lack of training, and a world-wide paucity of funding for cultural heritage, recognition for the origin of archaeological data and its relative reliability has dwindled. Even as complex network analyses of migratory patterns, massive relational databases, and vast 3-D reconstructions of Roman cities are created, the underlying data relies on the skilled labor of craftsmen and craftswomen in archaeology. A better archaeology is a participatory, multivocal, craft-based archaeology that recognizes the value of both dirt and digital archaeologists. Using digital media to highlight inequity, to bring the voices of stakeholders into relief, to de-center interpretations, and to make things and share them is a gift to archaeology, and a threat, and a promise.”

— Colleen Morgan in “The Conclusions of the Conclusions,” 2012

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Yehuda Elkana on ‘Global Contextualism’

Kang Wenming, a sheep herder from Xuehua, China. Source: American Museum of Natural History

“We should get used to the fact that all knowledge must be seen in context: not only when looking at its origin, but even when trying to establish its validity and even when looking for its possible application for solving burning problems. A concise way of putting the requirement … is ‘From Local Universalism to Global Contextualism.’”

— Yehuda Elkana in The Globalization of Knowledge in History, 2007

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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Creative Recycling and Storytelling in Dharavi

by Jordan Bryon

People living in extreme poverty tend to be innovative and provident by necessity, finding ways to survive with available resources. Massive informal settlements like Dharavi, in Mumbai, are full of creative entrepreneurs with little choice but to "reduce, reuse and recycle." Dharavi Diary is fusing entrepreneurship and storytelling in Dharavi to expand the capacity of residents to make a living from their creativity.


People migrate to Dharavi from all over India to work in diverse industrial enterprises that capitalize on cheap labor and virtual lack of regulation, producing a combined economic output valued at over $1 billion per year. The most prominent of these industries is recycling, which collects and reuses an estimated 80 percent of Mumbai's plastic waste in 15,000 one-room factories and employs over 250,000 people.

While the recycling industry has brought some prosperity to Dharavi, the people who labor in the workshops still live in poverty. Toiling around the clock, they sort through mountains of plastics, car batteries, wires, paper, tiles, computer parts, fluorescent lights, pens and other items, often in dangerous conditions.

Guddu, a 17-year-old Dharavi resident, left school and started sorting syringes when he was seven. His job was to pull the syringes apart, tossing the plastic tubes into one pile, and the needles into another. Gloves? Of course not.


Despite hardship, people in Dharavi are tenacious, enthusiastic and creative in ways that many affluent people aren't. They've improved their community over time without much support and despite many obstacles from the municipal government. Jugaad — the practice of creatively using accessible resources to build or improve needed items — is a way of life in Dharavi. We call it slum innovation.

To support creative entrepreneurship in Dharavi, we're building a recycling design school here where people will learn to make and sell their own designs. The idea may seem far-fetched, but it's actually logical because it draws upon skills and resources already present in the community.

The curriculum can be adapted to each person's interest — from architecture to electronics and beyond. It is based on interdisciplinary collaboration and practical training that will help sorters raise their incomes and keep their children in formal education. We hope that it will also promote learning through projects that improve living conditions in Dharavi and around the world. The school will produce D.I.Y. design kits to share with people in other informal settlements, so they may develop their skills and innovate their way out of poverty.


Dharavi Diary's participatory storytelling projects help raise awareness about the lives of Dharavi residents by making technology accessible for them to tell their stories. The results will be added to a virtual tour of the community on the Dharavi Diary website. Last year we made a short documentary (see trailer below) with a group of recycling workers. It is screening at film festivals like Nat Geo and Raindance in 2013.

We're currently shooting a feature documentary that follows the struggles and triumphs of the design school and its students. We also share stories directly from Dharavi residents on Cowbird. These stories help people around the world see the desperation of slum dwellers as tenacity and enthusiasm to make a better life.

Laxmi (above) is one of the people who have shared their stories. After her divorce, she was given strict training in running a recycling workshop by her mother, who then told her to go and start her own operations. Laxmi managed to do this with impressive results. She and her collective also help run Dharavi Diary on site with guidance from our founder, Nawneet Ranjan, and other members of the team.


Dharavi Diary is running a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo, where you can make a donation and receive products handcrafted from recycled materials in return. These eco-friendly items make great holiday gifts for friends and family. If you would like to participate or stay informed, please join us on Facebook or contact us any time!

Jordan Bryon co-designs empowerment strategies with communities on the fringes, fusing local knowledge, storytelling and technology to help people help themselves. Jordan can be reached directly via jordan@dharavidiary.com.

Credits: Photos by Vidu Chandan.

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Landscape Morphology in Mexico City

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Mexico City is a giant laboratory of urban morphology. Its 20 million residents live in neighborhoods based on a wide spectrum of plans. Here are some examples.

The colonial center (above) was built on the foundations of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire. The old city was on an island in Lake Texcoco. The lake was drained to prevent flooding as the city expanded.

Geometric plans dominate throughout Mexico City. The Federal neighborhood (above) evokes the radiating streets of Palmanova, a town designed by Vicenzo Scamozzi in Renaissance Italy.

Nezahualcóyotl (above), or Ciudad Neza, is a municipality of one million people within Mexico City's metropolitan area. Its street plans follow a standardized layout — public amenities with green space confined within mega-blocks.

The rich and famous tend to prefer organic forms, and tend not to economize on water for their gardens. In the wealthy neighborhood of Jardines del Pedregal (above), some houses have heliports.

Planners chose a repetitive style for their unfortunate clients in Fuentes de Aragón (above). This neighborhood is part of Ecatepec de Morelos (below), which — like Ciudad Neza — is a municipality within Greater Mexico City. The entire city doesn't follow an extreme grid, but neighborhoods like Fuentes de Aragón are common.

In recent years, Mexico's federal government has invested substantially in housing for the poor. Its programs, such as those beautifully photographed by Livia Corona, have rehoused over two million families in massive developments like Los Héroes Tecámac (below) in Ecatepec de Morelos.

Modernist planning is still alive in Mexico, where planners appear to have substantial power in society. The challenge of resettling so many families in so few years has been solved through standardization. Many new settlements resemble enlarged microchips.

Other developments — like Geovillas Santa Bárbara (above) — have curved streets and more diverse layouts, but they are usually for higher-income populations.

The social dynamics behind urban growth in low-income areas are complex, and self-made construction is the rule. Very few public or private initiatives strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up housing development. Instead there are extreme disparities between the two.

Street markets under red canopies show up frequently in satellite images of Mexico City. The market above is in Xico, another municipality within the metropolitan area.

Xico is bordered by Chalco Lake (above) and the Santa Catarina Mountains (below). Here, urban development takes place without much formal planning. Green space and public amenities seem a luxury.

There is a real need for a new approach to urban development — one that empowers informal communities without imposing insensitive planning from above, addressing the roots of urban poverty instead of formalizing it.

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

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Three Questions: Michael Murphy of MASS Design

by Andrew Wade

As part of the Polis Three Questions series, we interviewed Michael Murphy, executive director and co-founder of MASS Design Group. The not-for-profit firm's design for Butaro Hospital in Rwanda was a poetic argument for the merging of design and public health. Motivated by the idea that "Design is never neutral — it either helps or it hurts," MASS worked with Partners in Health on the project, which aims to mitigate the transmission of airborne disease. By approaching design holistically and seeking to make use of local materials and empower local communities, MASS demonstrates the potential social impact of design.

Butaro Hospital in Rwanda.

Can you tell us what you're particularly excited to be working on at the moment, and what lies ahead for you?

We have been working on a few projects in Haiti since a year after the earthquake that are exciting on several levels — both for the growth they bring to MASS as an organization and for their impact in community health. In particular, we have a center for cholera treatment currently under construction that continues our research in identifying the "direct" impacts of the built environment on our health. We have seen evidence of the incubation and transmission of tuberculosis due to poorly designed buildings, but cholera is really about a failed sanitary system — one that once infected can perpetuate outbreaks. To combat infection, our new cholera center will offer a micro-solution to wastewater treatment on site. We hope this inspires a dialogue about investment in better buildings and infrastructure as a health argument.

Also on the horizon in the coming year, we will be starting a few projects in southern Uganda which seek to address the problem of "brain drain," combating the large-scale emigration of skill capacity.

GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, during construction.

Rendering of the GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital.

What do you consider the most pressing issues we face as a society today, and how should we go about addressing them?

I think it’s becoming publicly evident that our poorly constructed built environment is an urgent and growing concern. As seen in rising sea levels, in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and most recently during Hurricane Sandy, cities are not built to absorb change and catastrophe. Buildings shouldn't exist simply as commodities; they need to be rethought and redesigned in such a way that keeps the residents’ health and safety in mind. The only way to achieve this is to invest more heavily in design research and in our infrastructure at both the local and national level. Our design schools need to reprioritize their emphasis, and new practice models need to be sponsored to offer market solutions to this serious global crisis.

What do you find inspiring?

I am inspired by entrepreneurs, tinkerers, designers who find a way to innovate within the calcified systems, while also maintaining a perspective of the entire system itself. I'm inspired by health innovators like Dr. Raj Panjabi of Tiyatien Health in Liberia and Josh Nesbit at Medic Mobile — both of whom are making a really incredible impact on public health.

I also met an amazing actor, Bryan Doerries, who runs an organization called Theater of War. He uses classical plays to help communities cope with tragedy and disaster, and his method of effecting change is completely unique.

I am in awe of material scientists and building experts like John Ochsendorf, and altruistic curators like Courtney Martin and John Cary inspire me daily with their belief in the sharing of ideas with the public. We all owe them a lot.

In terms of design and architecture, I have been in awe of TAM Associati in Italy, the genius of Francis Kéré and the work of TYIN in Norway.

Credits: Images from MASS Design.

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Who’s First on First Street?

by Melissa García Lamarca

Number One First Street in Manchester, England.

The Number One First Street building in Manchester, England, sits forlornly in a landscape of parking lots, wedged between two busy roads. There are several conflicting signs on the site. One states that the European Regional Development Fund is partially supporting the "Corridor Public Realm Phase 1" project. Yet signs closer to the building — and on the side of a lonely bench — mark the area as private property.

A sign announces funding for the European Regional Development Fund's "corridor public realm."

Also curious is a billboard that proclaims "Putting Sustainability First" (below) on a site surrounded by parking lots and generally free of people. This begs the question, sustainability for whom? And, for that matter, what is actually happening? Why and how is it taking place?

Parking beside the Number One First Street building.

I was also intrigued by the fact that Manchester City Council is the main tenant of the building and, judging from the signs, the main "partner" in the larger First Street Manchester development. The Number One First Street building is a small piece of a 20-acre, $130 million public-private partnership. It will include a cultural center, a four-star hotel, restaurants, retail space, a 700-spot multi-story parking lot and new public space. Construction will begin early next year, and the site is slated to open in the fall of 2014.

First Street Manchester plan. Source: Townshend Landscape Architects

Cultural center designed by Ian Simpson Architects and Mecanoo. Source: Ian Simpson Architects

As a gateway to the city center from the airport and points south, the now largely abandoned area (besides the One Street building and its parking lots) needs development. But development geared toward "creative class" business and consumption seems out of sync with the city's most pressing needs. A recent article in the Manchester Mule explains that the city council's $30 million investment in First Street comes at a time when the region is in the grip of a housing crisis and undergoing an unprecedented $275 million in service cuts, with further reductions to housing and council tax benefits on the horizon.

A statement from the First Street Manchester masterplan. Source: First Street Manchester

The project aims to "reinvent" the city to attract capital, a common strategy worldwide. To say nothing of its questionable benefits, this strategy is painfully boring. Projects like First Street Manchester sweep a city's problems and unique character under the rug in favor of more attempts to serve a global elite at the expense of many. If we want actual first-rate development, it's time for a new approach.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

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In Pursuit of Urban Entrepreneurship

by Melanie Friedrichs

Providence is not a large town. You can walk from end to end in an hour (even though most people choose to drive), and it's common to see familiar faces on the streets. The metropolitan area is just populous enough to attract big-name bands on their way down the East Coast, but some people still consider it a suburb of Boston.

Providence is not a rich town. Rhode Island's unemployment rate is the second highest in the nation, and Providence's rate is 1.6 percentage points higher. Last spring, the mayor's appeal to Brown University for monetary assistance led to a highly publicized squabble with the university administration. A brief pit-stop at a student protest landed me in the Wall Street Journal (below, far right).

Source: Wall Street Journal

As is often the case with cities that are neither large nor rich, there are many people trying to save Providence. (Perhaps it's all part of an instinct to care for small and helpless things). All of the would-be saviors more or less agree on one thing: Providence needs jobs, and because everyone knows that importing casinos isn't a particularly sustainable strategy, jobs means entrepreneurship. Of course, every would-be savior has a slightly different idea of what entrepreneurship means and how to go about promoting it. The following is a rough grouping of these approaches, which I hope will lead to useful discussions on sparking innovation and employment in cities.

Private Sector

Most of the Providence professional community is employed by one of the mandatory outposts of too-big-too-fail banks (Fidelity, Citizens, TD, Bank of America) or one of two idiosyncratically located corporate headquarters (CVS, Hasbsro). Professionals are courted for their spending capacity, and they read about each other in the Providence Business News. The entrepreneurially inclined go to Providence Geeks or Betaspring (Providence's premier startup incubator) to network. Despite valiant efforts, Betaspring tends to attract only entrepreneurs who are too poor to locate in Boston, New York or Silicon Valley, and who move away after about 18 months. The number of for-profit companies founded in Providence over the past 10 years that employ more than 15 people can be counted on two hands. According to the private sector, Providence doesn't have jobs primarily because Providence doesn't have talent: All the brains drain to the big city and leave behind a lackluster workforce.

Judges at Demo Day, the culminating event of the Betaspring incubator program. Source: Betaspring

Nonprofit Sector

While the private sector dreams of the next Facebook, the nonprofit sector chases micro-entrepreneurship, which tends to be modest, gritty and local. In many cases, a "job" means minimum wage and a "company" means a home-cleaning service with three or four employees. Providence's nonprofit sector is further split between young savior-wannabes and seasoned social workers who know the system inside and out. The two groups have different visions. Young saviors believe in catalyzing social change from the grassroots up — that microloans made by the Capital Good Fund or employment opportunities offered through Amos House will lead to a healthy, happy economy. The system insiders, for the most part, are just trying to keep the boat afloat until the mythical rising tide lifts all. According to the nonprofit sector, Providence doesn't have jobs primarily because Providence isn't empowered: Youth grow up in an oppressive cycle of poverty, crime and unemployment, without access to the resources or support they need to break free.

Amos House started the Friendship Cafe to provide job training. Source: Amos House

Public Sector

Providence's biggest entrepreneurial engine should be the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, but it's widely considered underfunded and ineffective. The more energetic city and state officials run between ribbon cuttings and events hosted by the private sector or the nonprofit sector; bureaucrats with empty pockets become glorified cheerleaders. I'm a big fan of the General Treasurer, but I get the impression that she is too bogged down in the quagmire of welfare programs, unemployment insurance and pension plans to have much energy for anything else. The most active arm of the public sector in Providence is probably the Rhode Island Foundation, which is not a public institution at all, but is so old and established that it almost seems like one. According to the public sector, Providence doesn't have jobs primarily because Providence doesn't have money: State stimulus funding has long ago run dry, leaving little resources for entrepreneurial job creation.

Rhode Island State Capitol, far more imposing than it needs to be. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When it comes to creating jobs, the power of Providence's universities and hospitals dwarfs that of the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector combined. In 2009, five of the 10 largest employers in Providence were hospitals, and two were universities. Jobs are obviously not the main priority for hospitals and universities. For three years, Brown's Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship was the closest thing Providence had to an entrepreneurship hub, but it didn't manage to focus the energies of the private, nonprofit and public sectors to offer effective support for entrepreneurs. The university cut its funding in 2012. According to research institutions, Providence doesn't have jobs because, well, there are many reasons. Why don't we get someone to study it? Oops, semester's over, time for exams!

Brown University, the giant on the hill. Source: Brown Broadcasting Service


As an employee at Andera — one of the largest Providence start-ups — and a Venture for America fellow, I am supposedly part of the answer to reversing brain drain, but I'm definitely not answer enough. As a former intern with Social Venture Partners Rhode Island and confessed savior wannabe, I am also aligned with Providence's nonprofit community, but haven't effected even micro change. As a citizen of Providence, I am part of its government (by the people, for the people, of the people) but I find that I can do nothing but watch it flounder. When I was a student at Brown, I was unable to build something strong enough to withstand the transience of university initiatives.

I often wonder if the would-be saviors would be stronger together. My affiliation with all four sectors suggests that the entrepreneurial community isn't as splintered as it may seem, but it's still far from a cohesive body. As in all urban settings, the magic happens when everyone is brought together. Most of my posts about Providence (especially here and here) have been about such moments. However, the most significant gap is between potential saviors and the people to be saved. Providence's low-income residents are seldom a driving force behind initiatives to promote entrepreneurship.

It's easier to write about tragedy than triumph, and I'm afraid this post has been a downer. After all, we've been in a recession for four long years. Still, each sector has helped enrich Providence socially, culturally and economically. Their work merits criticism rooted in profound respect. If you'd like to talk about Providence, please contact me via @mfriedri or melfriedri@gmail.com.

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Rebuilding Community Heritage

by Anna Fogel

47th Street in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. Source: QueensNYC

Emily Goldman is a preservationist and doctoral student in historic preservation at Cornell University. After completing her undergraduate studies in history at Harvard University, Emily pursued a master's in preservation planning at Cornell, working intensively on post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. Her thesis focused on Sunnyside Gardens, a housing community (once home to Lewis Mumford) in Queens designed by Clarence Stein during the 1920s. Emily then worked for the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City, where she helped with Sunnyside's transition to a local historic district. Her current research is centered on Hillside Homes, a Stein community in the Bronx. She's exploring its cultural significance for the people who live there, along with lessons this holds for urban housing and preservation in other parts of the world. We're very grateful that she made time for an interview.

A Sunnyside community garden in 1926. Source: Astoria History

What sparked your interest in historic preservation?

I've always been drawn to history through hands-on contact with the built environment. Two international experiences in high school stand out: an archaeological dig in Greece and a masonry restoration project for a medieval church in France. During college I took part in two trips to the American South with a great professor, Tim McCarthy, to help rebuild churches damaged in racially motivated arson attacks. This experience highlighted the value of buildings in community resilience.

Rebuilding the Hayneville Church of Christ after an arson attack. Source: Harvard Gazette

How do you see the preservation of cultural heritage benefiting cities?

Although once considered almost a luxury, historic preservation has gained a lot of influence over the years and is now generally recognized as integral to urban governance. Many cities have preservation commissions that regulate all local landmarks, preventing demolition, overdevelopment and significant exterior changes. While this can seem like minutia, the larger concept is vital.

A historic brownstone in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. Source: New York Times

Historic buildings give local communities and visitors a quiet sense of history and continuity. In our rapidly changing world, especially in urban areas, it can be comforting to find structures that have endured for centuries. The beauty that comes with age and craftsmanship cannot be replicated.

Can you share some examples of impressive work in historic preservation?

Source: Treehugger
Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission has approved the installation of cobalt blue solar panels covering the gabled roof of a Victorian house. This is a great indicator of preservationists becoming more flexible when it comes to the greater public and environmental good. New Orleans residents have been working hard to restore and preserve the city's heritage after Katrina. When a historic section of Mid-City was selected as the site for a new V.A. hospital, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission along with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and other supporters were able to save most of the significant architectural elements from hundreds of houses slated for demolition; now some can be rebuilt and parts reused elsewhere. Important preservation initiatives are happening all over the world, and for so many different reasons.

A building reconstructed after an earthquake in Bhadli, India. Source: ArchNet

Are there any international initiatives that particularly stand out?

Mary Norman Woods recently collaborated with Brinda Somaya, an inspiring architect from Mumbai, in helping the village of Bhadli rebuild after an earthquake. They worked directly with the villagers to reconstruct buildings, including original decorations, and Somaya donated materials like clay, paint, lime and mirror shards. This strikes me as a good example of international partnership. I'm also impressed with He Shuzhong and the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, as it's especially challenging to preserve the built environment in China's current political and economic climate.

Preservationist He Shuzhong (left) with a resident of Menglian, China. Source: The Beijinger

What are you most excited about working on at the moment?

I'm working on a project at Hillside Homes, the third garden community designed by Clarence Stein in New York City (the other two — Sunnyside and Phipps Garden — are next to each other in Queens).

Phipps Garden Apartments in Queens. Source: A. Richard Miller

A model of Hillside Homes in the Bronx. Source: "Toward New Towns for America"

Hillside was built in 1934 as low-income housing with durable brick architecture, built-in community amenities and interior courtyards. It has been revitalized by management and residents since its days as a haven for drug dealers in the 1980s. At the same time, there is room for improvements based on the original design that could make the development more comfortable and attractive. I'll be talking with residents in detail to understand how the place is working for them today. It's currently not a designated landmark but there's a good chance that it will be some day. I'd like to help ensure that, if formal preservation occurs, it is a positive change for the people who live there.

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