Choosing your city

On 21 augustus 2016, in muziek, by Zef Hemel

Heard in the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg on 20 August 2016:

There he was, Philip Glass (1937), the great American composer and pianist, speaking about his autobiography, ‘’Words without Music’, and also playing a piece of his work (‘Choosing Life’ from ‘’The Hours’) on the piano, in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. Harpist Lavinia Meijer and pianist Feico Deutekom played three more pieces. Melchior Huurdeman did the interviewing. Both speakers were introduced by Tracy Metz, director of the John Adams Institute and initiator of this unique event. Glass talked about New York. How he moved from Baltimore, where his father owned a recordshop, to the Big Apple, in order to study music. That was 1969. New York, he stressed, was still an affordable place at that time. Thousands of young artists moved to the big city every year. In order to earn a living young Glass needed a job for three days a week, not more. A hundred dollars a month was sufficient to survive. He became taxidriver, construction worker, you name it; he even helped Richard Serra build his large sculpture for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The rest of the time he studied music at Juilliard.

While studying he started composing and playing for small audiences. A great time to experiment. No responsibilities. Lots of talented people, lots of opportunities. Though his minimal music was a new sound not well understood by many, he became a successful composer in short time. Only ten years later, in 1976, his opera ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was performed in the Metropolitan Opera House. Glass seemed still to be overwhelmed, after all those years, by his unexpected stardom. Just read ‘Outliers’ (2008) of Malcolm Gladwell and you’ll understand: 10.000 hours of hard work and training plus a lot of luck is needed to become an outlier. Glass worked hard and New York is a lucky place. Not that the city is a garantee for success, but sure it helps. Plus: If I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere. But then in the interview Glass raised the point that what New York lacked, at least at that time, was expert technical knowledge for composers. So he moved to Paris, where Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was teaching at the conservatory. In Paris he also met the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. That means these two cities were very important in his life: Paris and New York. And if you listen to his music, you’ll hear New York, and a bit of Paris.

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Back-to-the-city movement

On 19 mei 2016, in wonen, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The New York Nobody Knows’ (2013) of William Helmreich:

On 12 May 2016 Richard Florida wrote an article in Citylab on a new report of the NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy on gentrification in the Big Apple. The researchers divided 55 New York City neighborhoods into three categories: gentrifying, non-gentrifying, and higher-income. Gentrification is happening in 15 neighborhoods (27 percent), 7 are non-gentrifying, and 33 neighborhoods are higher-income already since 1990. The gentrifying neighborhoods were all in Upper Manhattan and in Brooklyn (Williamsburg/Greenpoint). Rent increase in Brooklyn is “a whopping 78 percent”, in West-Harlem and the Lower Eastside more than 50 percent, in Morningside Heights 30 percent. Florida: “Gentrification in New York City is the outcome of a series of economic and demographic trends that have transformed the city more broadly – notably, the surge in more educated, affluent, younger, and single people headed back to the city.” Average households income are rising. Young, educated people all seem to concentrate. The population of New York City as a total is rising again too, also in the non-gentrifying and higher-income neighborhoods. So, do gentrifiers displace the poor? No. In reality poor ànd rich, they all have to deal with steeply rising rent burdens.

The article, sent to me by Lars Boering, managing director of World Press Photo, reminded me of the chapter on gentrification in a great book written by William Helmreich. In ‘The New York Nobody Knows’ (2013), this professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of CUNY, explored the city by walking 6000 miles through its streets, thus reaching out for every corner and alley. His conclusion is: “When all is said and done, gentrification is a complex issue. It has swept through many parts of the city and has been helped along by many interests. It is changing the face of New York and will shape its future for decades. By observing it on the ground, it becomes possible to see these complexities from different angles, many of the positive, some not necessarily so.” In the Netherlands people think gentrification is dubious. Dutch opinionmakers better be envious, walk 6000 miles in New York City, or read ‘’The New York Nobody Knows’. There’s reason to be far more positive.

Steinway als innovator

On 4 februari 2016, in innovatie, by Zef Hemel

Geleerd van Frenk Bekkers tijdens masterclass New York 2015:

Een van de opwindendste fasen in de masterclass New York City 2015 was de ontdekking van de oorsprong van het stedelijke tech-ecosysteem van Long Island City, grofweg het gebied in Queens op een mijl afstand van Roosevelt Island, waar de campus van Cornell-Tech op dit moment in aanbouw is. Hier vestigde Steinway zijn pianofabrieken in 1869. Voor die tijd was westelijk Queens nog overwegend agrarisch, met het dorpje Astoria als centrale kern. Van een ambachtelijke pianobouwer die honderd vleugels per jaar bouwde groeide Steinway in korte tijd uit tot een megabedrijf dat 5.000 instrumenten per jaar produceerde. Steinway & Son was een uiterst innovatief bedrijf dat liefst 126 patenten registreerde, zoals het sustainpedaal, het middelste pedaal op een vleugel. Al die technische uitvindingen waren profijtelijk. Maar Steinway verdiende ook geld met een marktstrategie waarin de stad zelf een belangrijke rol speelde. Zo zorgde het familiebedrijf voor een complete muzikale infrastructuur die bestond uit pianolessen, zangverenigingen en de Steinway Music Hall op Manhattan. Ook zorgde het voor gebouwen en voorzieningen die het woon- en werkgebied aantrekkelijk maakten. Steinway bouwde avenues en huizen; een tram werd op kosten van de zaak aangelegd. De bloeiperiode eindigde met het overlijden van William Steinway in 1896 en de annexatie van Long Island City door New York City in 1898.

In zijn laatste levensjaren gaf de pianomagnaat de aanzet tot een tweede bloeiperiode door de commissie te leiden die het metroplan voor New York maakte. Long Island City werd hierdoor uiteindelijk door bruggen, een tunnel en metrolijnen verbonden met Manhattan. Daaronder ook metrolijn 7 door de door Steinway gefinancierde Steinwaytunnel. Dit keer ging het effect Steinway ver te boven. Commerciële en economische ontwikkelingen kregen een ware boost. Er werden fabrieken gebouwd, vooral in het gebied tussen het water en de drie grote overstapstations. Deze tweede bloeiperiode duurde tot 1950. Daarna sloten in heel New York de fabrieken hun deuren. Oude panden kregen een nieuwe bestemming. City University opende hier zijn universiteit voor toegepaste wetenschappen en in een voormalige bakkerij vestigden zich de Silvercup studios. LIC werd voor de Oostkust het centrum van film en media, in het verlengde van de muziek. Nog steeds werken hier vijfhonderd mensen aan de bouw van nieuwe vleugels. Alles gaat daar met de hand. Daarmee werd het innovatieve ecosysteem van Long Island City een van technologie, muziek & media, maakindustrie, verkeer en stadsontwikkeling. Alles dankzij Steinway.

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Postmetropolitan University

On 5 januari 2016, in innovatie, onderwijs, by Zef Hemel

Read in De Omslag of 2015:

Christoph Lindner is professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He wrote an article on ‘Six Discourses on the Postmetropolitan University’. Because I just finished a masterclass on New York City and its universities I read his article with more than just fraternal interest.  You should read it too. It’s on the website of  the UvA community of critical professors, de Omslag: What is a postmetropolitan university? According to Lindner it is a university that fits in the postmetropolitan era, which is an era of intensified globalization and urbanization processes: a so-called neoliberal epoch. His six discourses are: the Disembodied Campus, the Global Campus, the Speculative Campus, the Creative Campus, the Fortress Campus, and the Corporate Campus. None of these is favorable. Just like cities, he thinks that all universities will become corporate enterprises. They are entrepreneurial already. “The overarching trend that connects all of the campus formations outlined above is the neoliberal corporatization of the university and, as part of this process, its de-democratization, precarization, and (for public institutions) privatization. Universities of the immediate future, like the cities they inhabit, are likely to be more corporate, not less corporate.” He thinks a discussion on the value system is needed.

That’s exactly what we discussed in the masterclass. In New York we studied the universities of  Columbia, Cornell-Tech and CUNY, their plans for the future, their campusses, and their business models. We related all the information to the city,  to its plans for the future and its policy towards higher education. We visited New York and spoke to many stakeholders, civil servants and professors at the universities. The eighteen participants – all professionals working for cities or universities in the Netherlands – made proposals for each of these three universities. The team on Columbia University developed a concept for a university that is profitable in terms of city building and gentrification, without a negative impact on the neighborhood (West-Harlem). The second team on Cornell-Tech developed a concept for a university that fosters innovation, as a component of a true urban innovation ecosystem (Queens). The third, studying CUNY, developed a concept for a decentralized university that taps on local talent, trying to emancipate young people in the back streets of its city-region. Sure, we heard some neoliberal newspeak, but at the same time we found many opportunities to maximize the profits and enhance positive outcomes of new campus building. Instead of criticizing, we tried to develop new models that will help cities to thrive. For cities, universities and colleges are key!

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Immigrant city

On 30 november 2015, in politiek, by Zef Hemel

Seen at the IDFA, Amsterdam, on 29 November 2015:

‘In Jackson Heighs’,  the new documentary of Frederic Wiseman, opens with muslims praying in mosques, garages, sheds. Welcome to Queens, New York. On the last day of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015 I went to see the three-hour movie in a cinema at the Muntplein. Great movie! In Jackson Heights, a multicultural neighborhood in Queens, more than 170 nationalities and languages live closely together: Colombians, Mexicans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, you name it. This district in the outskirts of New York City is far more divers than the whole of Amsterdam. The film is about diversity, identity, immigration, city life, politics, gentrification, empowerment, democracy. Democracy not at the federal level, or at the state level; not even at the city level – we see the mayor, Bill de Blasio, speaking only once, at the opening of the Gay Parade. This great American urban democracy is a democracy at the ward level: a struggling open democracy of immigrant people building their own communities from the bottom up. I think the sociologist Robert Putnam is wrong. After seeing this documentary we should be far more optimistic about social cohesion, inclusiveness and the future of democracy, in big cities. Even though all these people – mostly former illegal immigrants – live in their own communities, they are learning to live together somehow.

After reading the article of Richard Brody in The New Yorker of 3 November 2015 I wanted to see Wiseman’s view on globalization. In ‘Finding the American Ideal in Queens’, Brody warns it is a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. “What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.” Sure. So is it still alive? Brody: “Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States.” Nothing wrong with that. So we can be hopeful. And it is a bottom-up process within a more or less fair constitution, in a great metropolis.

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The future

On 13 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Future City’ (1973) of Roger Elwood (editor):

Today I will give a lecture at the conference for teachers in geography of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG) in Ede, the Netherlands. Subject: the future. Some 800 teachers will be there. Where to begin? How to end my story? For inspiration, I reread ‘Future City’, offered to me by the Dutch grand old man Fred Zandvoort, and see what writers were thinking about the future of cities in the year 1973. Will cities last? How will they look? Some fifteen novelists wrote wonderful science fiction-stories on cities. Roger Elwood, the editor, noted in his introduction that it was not a happy book. Sure. Frederik Pohl, an American sciencefiction writer, for example is the author of the afterword. Pohl: “The cities I know best, New York and London, are absolute failures in some very essential ways. New York is dirty, noisy, preposterously expensive and essentially unsafe. (…) London is physically safer, but it is also dirty, also noisy and rapidly becoming just as preposterously expensive.” Then he concludes: “And yet they survive.” Pohl was convinced that city life was a failed experiment, that we will never give up on. Sounds familiar, still?

Pohl thought planners were having a problem. “Cities do not like to be planned very much.” He had made a lot of excursions to new towns – all modernist projects – and had come to the conclusion that you cannot plan a new city. “All of them are dreams, and making them come true destroys them.” Then he wrote that cities are accumulations of a diversity of social capital. It is a matter of size, of scale effect, he stressed. Only big cities are real cities; it needs a huddling for a lot of people, you should be able to get a meal at four in the morning, otherwise it is not a city. I think he was right. “They are so needed that they cannot be allowed to fail.” Well, that depends. At least that was the pessimism of the seventies. We are far more positive now. Cities are the best places in the world. Well, at least the big ones. The future will be an urban one. Even in the Netherlands we will build one big city, at last.

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The end of things-as-known

On 10 november 2015, in literatuur, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ (1970) of Saul Bellow:

Saul Bellow’s ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’, published in 1970, is a must read. Mr. Sammler, a survivor of the Holocaust and an intellectual, is the hero of the novel. He lives in New York. His age: seventy-something. Every day he takes the bus from his apartment on the West Side to the Fourty-second street library. Then Bellow’s description of Sammler’s daily urban trip on the bus: “Such was Sammler’s eastward view, a soft asphalt belly rising, in which lay steaming sewer navels. Spalled sidewalks with clusters of ash cans. Brownstones. The yellow brick of elevator buildings like his own. Little copses of television antennas. Whiplike, graceful thrilling metral dendrites drawing images from the air, bringing brotherhood, communion to immured apartment people. Westward the Hudson came between Sammler and the great Spry industries of New Jersey. These flashed their electric message through intervening night. SPRY. But then he was half blind.” New York gives Sammler no hope. Not only the pickpocket at work on the bus depresses him. Also racism, tourism, erotic persuasions, the crazy violence of fanatics. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.”

In the novel Mr. Sammler tries to get a grip on New York. In his introduction to the Penguin Classic, Stanley Crouch writes: “We get the feeling of a human being in repose, in grief, in rage, in self-protective contemplation, in unsparing self-examination, in attentive motion through Manhattan, on foot, in public transportation, in chauffeured limousine.” According to Mr. Crouch, Bellow chose New York for his novel as the capital of capitalism, the power of the city over the country was evident. But then, in chapter 6, there is a telephone crisis. In New York! Sammler is at the house of his benefactor Elya Gruner in New Rochelle, who is dying in a hospital on Manhattan. Trains are not running. The servant will bring him in the silver Rolls Royce. There he goes. “It would soon be full spring. The Cross County, the Saw Mill River, the Henry Hudson thick with reviving grass and dandelions, the oven of the sun baking green life again.” They’re getting nearer to Manhattan. So in the end he is positive, isn’t he? “Looking from the window, passing all in state, in an automobile costing upwards of twenty thousand dollars, Mr. Sammler still saw that together with the end of things-as-known the feeling for new beginnings was nevertheless very strong.” He drives from north to south, up Broadway. “And away from this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth but already looking toward the moon and Mars with plans for founding cities.”  There he finds Elya in the hospital at last, dead.

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On 5 november 2015, in geschiedenis, infrastructuur, planningtheorie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Building Gotham’ (2003) of Keith Revell:

Penn Station is the busiest station in the Amtrak system.

We met at Penn Station, New York. From there we would take the train to Boston. He had the tickets. The station, dating from the sixties, looked like Dante’s Inferno, but then as if you’re in a science-fiction movie, from the Jetsons, a world deep under the ground. My friend – also a planner – said I should read ‘Building Gotham’ of Keith Revell if I wanted to know more about Penn Station and its history. The book, he said, describes the engineering works of New York City from the end of the 19nth century untill the beginning of the Second World War, the Progressive Era. And yes, Keith Revell, a historian from John Hopkins University, did a great job by studying the regulation of skyscrapers and railroads in the city. All the great experts – mostly engineers – who were doing those difficult urban projects, were his heroes. The first chapter is about ‘conceiving the new metropolis’; next a chapter on private infrastructure follows, one on public infrastructure, and the book ends with a chapter on urban and regional planning – zoning – as a new expertise. So after our trip I started reading the book. A great book.

In his preface Mr. Revell writes that at first he thought his project would be an inquiry into the ways that the concept of efficiency affected the building of New York. Instead, he discovered quite something else. “As I learned more about what the experts engaged in those projects were doing, I discovered that efficiency played a less important role in their worldview than interdependence – the latter far more powerful concept with profound political implications.” He calls it ‘a civic culture’, leading to the formation of new public institutions. That’s what urban and regional planning is about: a civic culture. But all those institutions are weak now. People very much disagree on the future. So Revell wonders if “bureaucratic organizations (can be) the proper instruments for determining and carrying out the public interest in a democratic society.”  The answer is no of course. And interdependence is ever more a problem. That’s why we have to rethink planning.

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Urban university walk

On 2 november 2015, in onderwijs, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Seen and heard on 20 October 2015 at Morningside Heights, NYC:

The weather, that day, was excellent. His walk started at the old campus site. Then he took us eastward, to the rim of the heights, showing us West Harlem deep down below. Wonderful view! John Reddick is from Yale, where he studied history of architecture, with Vincent Scully. With his loud voice Mr. Reddick guided us around, told us some great stories on the history of Columbia University and its neigbourhood. The site, in northwest Manhattan, was an empty plateau in 1890. In the beginning the city wanted it to become the site of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, but Chicago won the competition. So the future of the place had to be reconsidered. Columbia University, which moved up from 50th Street and Madison Avenue to 116th Street and Broadway, now forms the centerpiece of Morningside Heights, but the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Barnard College and Riverside Church were its competitors. At the end of the nineteenth century Columbia was ‘a sleepy little place’, but Seth Low – who would become Mayor of New York City – had a great vision when he took over as the university’s president in 1889. Low didn’t want the Gothic of the traditional Ivy League campus. He wanted Columbia to become a great urban university, in and of the city.

So McKim, Mead & White, Columbia’s architects, adopted an urban Renaissance model for the campus. It was a conscious decision to be different from places like Princeton and Yale. This you can also read in Andrew Dolkart’s ”Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development” (Columbia University Press, 1998). Only when the subway was built in 1904, the place became a residential neighborhood. Since then, most of the appartment building have been purchased by Columbia, which needed ever more extension space. So that’s where our sunny walk ended: strolling along Riverside Drive in northern direction, crossing a tall bridge. Deep down below us we had a stunning view on Manhattanville, where Columbia University is building its brand new second campus on a 17 acre-site, costing 6.8 billion US dollars. Welcome to the masterclass New York City, moderated by the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam, on the future of the city and its universities.

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Powering forward

On 30 oktober 2015, in economie, innovatie, technologie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Metropolitan Revolution’ (2013) of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley:

The US economy is broken. How to repair it? Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley wrote a book about ‘how cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy’. It is similar to Benjamin Barber’s ‘If Mayors Ruled the World’, only more in detail. Katz and Bradley are working for the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, a nonprofit public policy organization, one of Washington oldest thinktanks, maybe even one of the most influential thinktanks in the world. Their message: the US government can’t solve the huge economic and competitive challenges its cities are facing, so networks of metropolitan leaders are stepping up "and powering the nation forward." They give examples of New York, Denver, Northeast Ohio and Houston. Katz and Bradley think power is shifting again in their country. No longer the federal state is the central agency in moving the country forward. The American revolution, they write, was an urban revolution, so the new economic revolution will be urban again.

The example of New York is exactly the one the Masterclass NYC of the Wibaut Chair at the University of Amsterdam is studying in depth right now: innovation and the next economy. It is the case of ‘the applied science initiative’ of mayor Bloomberg in 2011-2013. The initiative was based on the idea that innovation is closely intertwined with new developments in science and technology, but that New York was weak in engineering. There were too few engineers and similar technical professionals based in New York City. Technology strength often clusters around universities, so universities are basic to the infastructure needed. Katz and Bradley: "There is, of course, a deep irony in the fact that technology, which was supposed to cut ties between people and places and allow people everywhere to work from almost anywhere, turns out to flourish in fairly compact geographic concentrations." A host of studies have shown that clusters spur entrepreneurship and boost start-up initiatives. "Universities do not usually by themselves create clusters, but they can be powerful factors in maintaining and energizing them." So that’s why New York launched an international competition in which the prize was a new school of engineering on Rooseveldt island. Cornell University and Technion in Tel Aviv were the winners in 2013. The building of the new campus has already started. We visited the site two weeks ago. It will open in 2017. "This process will be a model going forward for any kind of technology-oriented development."  Also in Europe. In the biggest European cities and metros, I mean.

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