Category Archives: New York City

Is Staten Island Bigger than Manhattan?

The counter-intuitive answer is not only “yes,” but by over twice as much–Staten Island, that somewhat neglected borough of an otherwise racially diverse metropolis known as Gotham; its actual landmass–58.69 square miles to Manhattan’s mere 22–almost approaches the size of the prawling borough of Brooklyn, but remains the least inhabited by far, with fewer than 500,000 residents.  Is the low density of its habitation  part of the reason that it has for so long held a lesser role in the spatial imaginary of most New Yorkers, and indeed the spatial imaginary that is projected to the nation and to much of the world?

NYC mapped

Wikimedia

The growth of Staten Island’s current far more suburban character makes it the least populated–and the whitest–of all of New York City’s boroughs, as well as the last of the boroughs to be incorporated in the city–as the island was not only joined with Richmond County, but known as Richmond long after the city’s incorporation in 1898, and only changed its name in 1975.

Removed in politics from much of New York because of its distinct demography, the perceived image of Staten Island is reduced in the mental geography of most New Yorkers–as it is in the geography of mass transit that is perpetuated by New York City’s MTA, that common proxy arbiter of transit distance, despite its obvious distortions.

NY MTA

For this former refuge of French Huguenots, if joined to the city’s 1898 incorporation, was long mapped–shown here a decade prior to the incorporation of the boroughs, in 1889, as something belonging also vaguely to the offshore, containing far less congestion and less defined by a fixed north-south street grid in the manner of other boroughs, and indeed with small settlements on its shores, even if the map was titled “Staten Island,” the name was oddly all but absent from place-names on the map’s face, running along the interior of its southernmost shore.

Richmond COunty.jpgNew York Public Library-Digital Collections

As well as having the ring of a quiz show challenge, the question comparing the current borough’s geographical size seems such a surprise because the proportion of the clty’s residents, using data from the 2010 US Census, is so disproportionately distributed, as was revealed so cleverly in one of Benjamin D. Hennig’s cartogrammic warpings of the space of each borough of New York City, shrinking the borough in proportion to its population–which both illustrates and shows by re-rendering the borough’s size to correspond with its number of permanent residents.

Hennig's shurnkenStaten

But the counter-intuitive nature of question may also be based, to cite Streetsblog, that the quite pastoral area to which one often arrives by ferry on one of the few remaining free pleasure-rides, offering an easy opportunity for photo ops in the New York Harbor beside the statue of Liberty, is also among the “least walkable” of areas in the city, and despite its interestingly old architecture and churches, often finds passengers boarding the next ferry to return, rather than explore the less densely populated site of residence that they reach by taking the sole remaining remnant of the ferry system that once connected residents of boroughs in an era before such bridges as the Verrazano or Triborough were erected.

WalkScoreMapNew-York1

More surprisingly, hence, Staten Island’s population produces considerably more garbage and waste in comparison to other boroughs–at least to judge by the mapping of some 274,000 tons of trash that New Yorkers generated in five boroughs in September of 2011.  The tally of collective trash, made before the dispersal of urban refuse to such far-flung sites in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, found that some 99.4 lbs of trash and recycling combined were generated by its residents per person–over twice that generated in Harlem’s eleventh district, in what seems to illustrate a stark citywide difference in patterns of consumption.  As well as being considerably larger, the scope of garbage generated in the city’s borough reveals a disproportionate increase in the amount of trash–recyclable and not–coming out of the less populated expanse of Staten Island.

Trash Collection NYC:Staten Island

And if the island is not the largest of the boroughs, by any means, if one includes the large if submerged sand bars that form part of its landmass–if they are rarely registered on most land maps—the extent of “sandy Staten Island,” whose sandy Raritan Bay was a site for oyster cultivation, rich with shellfish, is both of greater expanse than many other boroughs, but a considerably greater geomorphological presence in the region–as early nineteenth-century nautical maps of the arrival in New York Harbor reveal-at a time when the Island was sparsely settled on its shores.

Despite the size of the island, the cognitive dissonance of Staten Island’s considerable actual expanse seems echoed in its relatively diminished size in metro transit maps, those urban symbols of the spatial relations in the city that are encountered almost every day.

Such maps perpetuate a deeply distorted view of Staten Island as limited to the Upper Bay, and excluding the regions nearest to New Jersey or the Jersey shore, may have been all too easily falsified by the spatially disproportionate coverage of the five boroughs in the MTA subway map, which marginalizes the sizable island–which lacks major lines of subway service–out of scale, by showing it at a reduced size in the lower corner of a map where a hypertrophied Manhattan occupies and expands across its center.  For the talismanic transit map is a document of the spatial imaginaries transit-goers citywide, after all.

NY MTA

To be sure, the PATH map suggests a similar slighting of the borough’s expanse, in entirely omitting its very existence:

PATH Rail System

And the ferry map is not gracious to Staten Island outside of and apart from St. George:

Ferry Commute to St. George

But the disproportionate coverage of the inset view of the borough in the MTA transit map on the tiled wall of each and every subway stop in New York City which distorts Staten Island’s size most profoundly to confuse the spatial imaginaries of all subway riders.

inset view

However, this was not always the case:  in fact, the lure of Staten Island was indeed rendered more pronounced in one of the early maps of the Statin Island Rapid Transit Railroad Co., of 1893, which adopted quite the reverse strategy in depicting the topography of the sizable island as a destination of pleasure and unparalleled scenery–at least, as the promotional pamphlet announced, “the Most Beautiful Scenery within a hundred miles of the Metropolis,” and the “Finest Bicycle Roads of any suburb of new York,” making it well worth the excursion to future borough that was suggestively promoted as “the Wage-Earner’s Paradise,” “The Family Man’s Refuge,” and “The Married Man’s Friend.”

For Magnificent View

Boasting the “Finest Marine View in the country [sic],” the map that these legends beckoned one to unfold portrayed an island of compellingly detailed topography, inviting readers to take the cruise to the “People’s Playground” and “Greatest of all Summer Resorts” offering “Exquisite Views,” if not the “Beautiful Cloud Effects” that could be witnessed from “Excellent Roads” suitable for “Easy Riding” of up to some twenty miles round-trip distance:

Nice Topo

Whereas the boroughs of Manhattan, Jersey City, and Brooklyn are two-dimensional street plans, Staten Island unfolds for the viewer in full glorious shaded relief, using shading to suggest impressively dramatic changes in elevation of hilly terrain in oblique fashion:  the mountainous topogrpahy of Staten Island is rendered in detail by shading their slopes by hachures to give presence to sloping hills of the borough showing them in a tactile elegant relief, complimented by the streams that run to its beaches, as if to conjure a clearer landscape for the map-reader’s eye.  The detailed landscape appears almost rural, as if to compel city-dwellers to voyage to the island that is shown with such greater topographic concreteness than other boroughs.

While the one-time Staten Island Rapid Transit Company pushed a different sort of pleasure tour as an itinerary than most contemporary MTA maps, which boast continuous coverage of four boroughs, the separate transit system of the other island borough in the late nineteenth century suggested the unique terrain that it sought to offer for all New Yorkers, in a truly democratic medium of leisure.  Since then, the marginalization of transit-systems to a rubric of spatial inter-connection has led Staten Island to be reduced to the position of an inset view in the MTA transit map–reducing the sense that it is both actually so close to Coney Island, and creating a false spatial imaginary for many New Yorkers until they take the Ferry ride.  But the distinct demographic, lifestyle, and voting preferences of the borough force it to stand apart, perhaps distanced from the city as a whole, and maybe bearing less attentive observation within the city’s melting pot.

Indeed, this 538 mapping of Facebook likes of the Presidential primary of 2016–here, Clinton in Green and Trump in Tan–suggests the Democratic/Republican fault lines that seem to plague the calculation of a Staten Island v. Manhattan divide, and somehow spatially distort the relation yet once again–and, perhaps, another reason for distancing the proximity of such highly contrasting political preferences within the electorate.  Indeed, in terms of its voting patterns, Staten Island–as many of the outer areas of the boroughs–stands apart and at a decisive remove from the more densely populated boroughs of New York City, and is perhaps all the more mentally distant from city politics.

Trump:ClintonFiveThirtyEight

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Filed under cartographic distortions, map scale, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), New York City, Staten Island

Tracing a Shadow Transit System: Subaltern Cartographies?

With Manhattan long ago out pricing many who might have lived there in the past, even as New York City’s Mass Transit Authority does good duty as a serviceable means to secure transportation across the isle, the five boroughs are simply not fully linked to the surrounding extra-urban area residents are pressed to move.  We needed Aaron Reiss to give voice to the less-mapped history of “paratransit-systems” fashioned from a web of dollar vans linking the city’s residents and constitute a central part of its perpetual mobility.  If New York City’s MTA map was a modernist icon of the city that initiated one to a labyrinthine pathways as a right of passage–the long-gone tokens are often worn as necklace, fetish, and a totem of conquering the web of transit–the map showed a preponderance of lines running north and south in Manhattan shortchanged commuters to Queens, and barely served Long Island.

The 1972 modernist remapping lent coherence to the historical layering of a system of subways, organizing its individual lines of the BMT, IRT and IND in a system of streamlined colors so its order seemed intuitively clear.  Designed by the late honorary New Yorker Massimo Vignelli, whose graphical craft would rebrand much of New York City in the early 1970s, so indelible has the iconography become that its subsequent iterations continue to respect the constellation’s symbolic form.  Reiss appropriated the same iconography and symbolic form to move beyond the service in five boroughs and suggest a system which operates where busses and subways just don’t reach, providing a guide to the routes on which large numbers of Manhattanites daily travel to destinations the city’s “public” transit system doesn’t extend or recognize.

 

Out of Manhattan

 

With the apparatus of MTA subway lines left in a ghostly grey that might indicate their supersession, Reiss provides the other map that is perhaps more present to a range of New York’s residents, collating commuter routes across low-income (and often immigrant) neighborhoods that supplement the system of subways run by private companies which offer far more than service to JFK.  Working at lower cost than the system of public transit itself, these lines/shuttles, more often known about through employees and networks rather than from printed or paper maps, to render what Reiss calls “New York’s shadow transportation system,” and which he dignifies with an iconography imitating the elegant minimalism of Vignelli’s classic map.

 

M Vignelli maps subway system_1972

 

Vignelli’s spider-like tracery of pastel lines improbably festooned a grim New York with candy-colored stripes spreads out from the dense knot of Midtown (Central Park is an improbable squat grey, alerting viewers to the map’s distortion and representational remove), a bow of ribbons from which it serves the outer boroughs.

 

Downtown

 

The real story behind the map is the extent to which this vision of the transit system no longer serves the needs of a wide range of commuters, who have attached themselves to a system of public transit hubs to more easily move among the now-geographically-disparate pockets of ethnic communities by lines of dollar-vans, minibuses or limousines, often to reach places on routes of transit the MTA doesn’t offer–from which it has even, Reiss found, withdrawn as service has contracted.  Providing culturally familiar settings of transit for work, links among ethic enclaves, beyond making trips to airports, cash-only van lines permitted by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission continue to serve the working-class underserved, offering an ethnography of immigrant populations in the five boroughs and New Jersey coast and malls in an unofficially improvised response to local needs.  If needs are met in ways that arose from informal networks of drivers and dollar vans, Reiss was, of course, not imagining providing these to their users, but rather tracing a visual ethnography of the improvised economy of urban transit, and a voyeuristic way to look at the emergent economy of dollar vans as if it were an autonomous system of transport of its own, in ways one imagines would not be so happily welcomed or accepted by the majority of its drivers paying customers.

Reiss’s map more to the point shows the degree to which the aging public transit systems of Manhattan and New York City at large has found itself outstripped by the pressing needs of a larger populace.  In ways that reveal the relocation of many immigrants to regions out of the purview or coverage of the existing public transit webs, the improvised sub-economies reflect the city’s shifting social geography, and offers, more than an actual guide to transit, something like a guide to the dispersion of formerly contiguous communities, and indeed often more recognizable (and less costly) modes of travel than the city’s underground subway lines.  With the rise of fares for the subway, and inflexible nature of much of the physical plant of subway lines to keep up with the city’s expansion to outer boroughs, the lines provide quick lines of transit able to keep up with the geographical displacement of communities, as well as more culturally familiar modes of travel.

When you read the maps themselves, think less of an interlocking system, than a mode to link the removed, reflecting the subaltern cultures of transit from Jamaica Center to Long Island and Far Rockaway,

 

Jamaica Center

 

across to work in Eastern New Jersey from the Port Authority,

 

NJ Minibuses

 

 

or among New York’s recent dispersed Chinatowns.

 

 

Linking Chinatowns in NYC

 

 

If Vignelli’s modernist map celebrated the antiquated system of transit was, in turn, widely celebrated for its untangling of the layers of public transit–adding a contemporary sheen to an outdated outfit and enlivening an apparently creaky enterprise–Reiss’s map untangles how communities have spun off the accepted grid.

His map recalls Pakistani-American artist Asma Ahmed Shikoh’s elegant 2006 appropriation of Vignelli’s subway lines to her neighborhood in Brooklyn as a cultural microcosm of the city’s expanse as a whole, converting the iconic map to an Urdu manuscript, the maps create a poetics of presence and reuse of urban space–albeit in ways that stretch beyond the circumscribed range of transit the system provided itself.

ASVanwyck-1

But if Shikoh deftly showed “Vanwyk Blvd” in a new iconography of her own community, returning the map to the tones of an illuminated manuscript to give it a scriptural status, Reiss uses Vignelli’s symbolic form to give graphic form to the process of dramatic disaggregation of the new New York City that a newly improvised system of dollar vans arose to meet.

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Filed under Asma Ahmed Shikoh, Massimo Vignelli, New York City, New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, Port Authority (NY), transit maps

Urban Modernity, RIP: Mapping Marshall Berman Mapping Modernism

The meaning of place seems especially difficult to retain in an age of increased mobility, when information flows are increasingly removed from any site, and offer multiplying perspectives.  The work of cultural critic Marshall Berman (1940-2013) provides a clear eyed way to recuperate modernism through the inhabitation of place.  Berman, a long-time New York City resident and echt urbanite, created rich qualitative maps of literary modernism that rhapsodized cities as places–as privileged and vital sites of generating meanings that were rooted in place.  Even after his recent death, it’s hard not to be struck by the vitality that he mapped as rooted in cities, and whose existence he never stopped reminding us about and celebrating.  A native New Yorker, Berman wrote from committed engagement in New York’s space and shifting fluidity, and in his works mapped the sense of fluidity or perpetual permutability of urban life.  He showed us, in so doing, that maps are not only imposition from above, or Olympian views, but can map daily encounters best registered on city streets.  Even when I best knew Marshall in the 1970s and 1980s, he was one of the inveterate street-walker of the Upper West Side and Broadway who exulted in most everything he noticed on the street.  Marshall maybe increasingly became an inveterate street-walker who took pleasure in public space, and enjoyed claiming for himself a spot on the street, finding a sort of release and liberation on the night-time sidewalks, in Times Square, or at the diners where he so loved to sit.

In retrospect, I imagine his championing of the street’s energy came from the magnum opus he was then completing, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)–but that his love of street-life also shaped his voracious exploration of the space of literary modernism through the act of being in public.  For Berman quickly recognized that the depersonalization of urban life was not only the trauma and drama of modernity, but, transfigured by literary expression, also a privileged site for individuality.  In ways that are still resonant, his generous mapping of the modernity among cities extended from the city that he loved to the modern urbanism.  R.I.P., Marshall.

Berman’s sudden and unexpected death in a booth at the Metro Diner, at the heart of the Manhattan Upper West Side, can’t but provoke a reflection on his relation to the concept of urban space, from the sense of public space he lived and explored relentlessly as an observer and city-dweller to that which he read so very widely to excavate and explore with a canny sense of the personalized human geography.  For Marshall loved the lived urban environments and continued a life-long fascination he had with the living nature of a streetscape illuminated by electric lights, as if an ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, whose deeply modern possibilities he always felt beckoned and invited and which he was eager to explore.  Marshall’s recent death has prompted several emotional reflections that note the inescapably autobiographical aspects of his work, some of which he would himself, surely, be the first not to hesitate to note.  Marshall’s work was, first and foremost, that of a public intellectual who bridged personal criticism with urbanism.  For Berman often described his engaged writing on modernism and modernist projects of urban space as part of the creative projects of his life.

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November 22, 2013 · 4:02 pm

Mapping Each and Every Tree

The greenspace of Central Park has long been glorified as an almost normative sense of urban nature.  We map the space of the park, whose green provides a respite from the grey concrete facades of buildings, so much as to be colored a flat lime-green in the public maps of the city park, ringed by a tan frame of muted buildings–as if a place to experience wilderness, rendered almost life-like in the rain–even if the muted green seems to suggest a “greenspace” to be valued, as a distinct interruption of the built environment.

Green aPark

–even though the park seems When the poet Gary Snyder described his arrival in New York City, he evoked an ecosystem blending nature and culture that began form its trees and moved settle throughout the island’s sidewalks, streets and skyscrapers, even as it clung to the edges of its shores.  If the “park” is a shared greenspace in the city–and a space where city-dwellers retreat, at times, to smoke some green stuff in a meadow or on a hill, the definition of the park as a set of individual trees has rarely been mapped in detail, examining the arboreal space that inheres within this interruption of the built environment–if only to excavate and explore its complex past.

Even if the landscape was built on granite and was defined by concrete and brick, the trees defined its space, however paradoxically, in ways that capture the serendipitous presence of the arboreal variety in the city  “Maple, oak, poplar, gingko,” the poet Gary Snyder began rhapsodically and rhythmically incanting the varieties of urban trees he encountered in “Walking the New York Bedrock in the Sea of Information” (1987).   The discrete trees of Central Park are rarely counted, but the attention that is suggested in the list of trees offer a sense of Snyder’s skill as a naturalist, and  the surprising application of an arboreal register of variety in an urban environment.  For Snyder explores the city by seamlessly blending of nature and culture in New York City in ways that never stops to entertain the reader.  “New leaves, “new green” on a rock ledge/ of steep uplift,” lead to”Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,/ Iron.  Stainless steel,” in a metaphorical map blurring canyons of skyscrapers, plate glass, and electric lights buzzing in an ecosystem driven by big finance that might be submarine.  Amidst streams of subways, cars, taxis, rolling carts, people and birds, trees peak out–as “white birch leaves shiver in the breeze” and gingko trees.  

As ever the good nagturalist, Snyder returns to trees that resiliently populate its artificial built environment, as an environment partly forest, but hybrid, neither natural or artificial, open to the observer, in ways that Edward Sibley Barnard and his accomplice in crime Ken Chaya offer in Central Park Entire (2011), in provide something like a total tabulation of tree varieties within the city’s Central Park, which seems to celebrate the variety of trees that this special spot in the city preserves, counting the 19, 630 trees within Central Park that will stand as a monument for years, until someone tries to undertake the counting all over again–and presenting it to the visual delectation of viewers in a map.

 

The detailed catalogue of trees and plants in New York’s Central Park displays virtuosity in evoking the variety, range, and density of trees in the city’s largest greenspace, rendering in detail an ecosystem often vaguely mapped, often suggested as a green space amidst built environment.  In the heart of the city lies the park.  Its odd combination of nature and culture is central to most city maps.  When you look at most public maps of New York City that grace public transit, tourist kiosks, or other venues of spatial orientation, the area of Central Park is a monolithic green, less rooted in a survey or in a source of public data, but a light green box, set apart form the city’s streets–a block of greenspace located framed by the overbuilt grey of residences that crowd Manhattan island since the mid-nineteenth century, and landscaped from 1858.

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Filed under Google Earth, greenspace, New York City, open space, urban parks