Urban Theory & the Superblock in Manhattan
A closer look at a staple of 20th century urban renewal policies
Perhaps nothing so destructively altered the character of New York than the process of urban renewal in the mid 20th century. In this era, famous landmarks such as the original Penn Station were bulldozed and entire neighborhoods were razed to rubble. The city was forever changed.
A critique of the program published in 1960 called out “the achilles heel” of urban renewal-its necessity to uproot those who live in the areas affected. New York City’s urban renewal policies called for displacing over 500,000 families. This number is larger than Haussmann’s historical renovation of Paris in the 1860’s. While not citing actual statistics, the same report estimated “about a third of the people displaced from renewal areas leave those areas altogether” (1).
Measuring all of the effects an elaborate program such as this has on a city isn’t simple. However, the history of New York proves it was detrimental in the end. Once urban renewal plans were completed, the city fell into its nadir in the 70’s. It was a period marked by crushing debt, loss of industry and an overall identity crisis.
Urban planners look at this period of New York’s life as how planning a city can go awry. A particularly curious invention of 20th century urban reforms is the notion of the “superblock.” Merriam-Webster defines superblock as “a very large commercial or residential block barred to through traffic, crossed by pedestrian walks and sometimes access roads, and often spotted with grassed malls” (2). Simply put, the “superblock” is exactly what it sounds like; a big city block. It breaks the traditional grid system. Superblocks were used to create college campuses, medical facilities and housing projects. They encompass so many of the problems inherent in urban renewal; obsession with green spaces, disdain in the grid system, and in general, a misconception of how citizens use space.
What lies at the center is a fundamental misunderstanding of how best to look at place. The ancient Greeks conceptualized place in two different ways; through topos and chora. Topos can be taken as the concrete version of how we define place, like looking at place through the lens of a map(3). In addition to looking at the topos of a place, one must also consider the chora of a place. Chora is the abstract idea of place. In Homer’s Illiad choros was described as a “piece of ground (or place) that is clear of the dead (i.e. not filled by the dead or the deadly)” (3). Where topos is topography, chora is choreography. It’s judging the the quality of a space, how we come together and respond to one another in that space. In an ideal world, urban planners would consider both when trying to solve a city’s problems. In mid century New York, two representatives of each idea influenced how they thought the metropolis should operate based on their perception of place. Master builder Robert Moses saw the city strictly through the lens of topos; concrete, mechanical, objective. Urban theorist Jane Jacobs viewed the city from the perspective of her sidewalk. She is famous for comparing a healthy city to choreography in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
At the dawn of the 1900’s, housing in the city was undergoing major reforms. The attitude towards cities were that they were dirty. Works such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives demonstrated the need for extensive repairs in New York’s slums(6). Enacting legislation to protect city dwellers took hold, starting with the Tenement House Act of 1901, which set legal living standards for the buildings and implemented a department to enforce them. This movement led up until the 1930’s with zoning ordinances that separated residential areas from harmful industrial activities (5).
At around the same time, city planners were exchanging ideas about the best way to build a city. Jacobs details these different ideas and their intersections, which are further expanded upon in the info graphic on the right. The prevalent notion among planners and their students was that a combination of all these doctrines-the Radiant Garden City Beautiful-was the perfect city.
These ideas all coalesce in one important historical event for the city: the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. The theme of the fair was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” In a giant dome, fairgoers looked down upon “Democracity” (7). Here we can see the elements of the Garden City visually. The center of town, semi-circular form surrounded by agriculture and above all, a strict adherence to plan. “Democracity” looked less like a city and more like the suburbs that would multiply in the years to come.
This obsession with transplanting rural life into city life, as if purity was inherent in rural life, continued into other exhibits. A documentary titled The City was screened for attendees. Watching the film, one gets the sense it was written by someone who hates cities. It serves as propaganda for the death of the city. Viewers are overwhelmed by a montage of stressful city life clips set to melodramatic music. The remainder of the film is spent glorifying a new kind of city; one connected by highway, surrounded in green. “The sun and air and open green are part of the design. Safe streets and quiet neighborhoods are not just matters of good luck, they’re built into the pattern and built to stay there.” The treatment was done by Lewis Mumford, a thinker that Jacobs categorizes as “Decentrist.” As Decentrists were intent about breaking large cities apart into smaller ones, the tone of the documentary as anti-city agitprop is fitting (4).
Eventually Le Corbusier managed to have his influence over the city he detested, as his towers-in-the-park design still exists in many of the New York boroughs. Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village is just one example in Manhattan. The towers-in-the-park model relied on the creation of superblocks and exclusion of streets. To make Stuyvesant Town, “600 buildings once containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools and two theaters, were razed” (8).
Using the power of eminent domain, New York acquired large tracts of land, razing the tenements to the ground, closing the streets and merging multiple blocks into one.This 1952 bird’s eye view shows Stuyvesant Town is joined by a string of super blocs lining the East River. The United Nations building in the right hand corner and three other public housing projects (Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald, and the Baruch Houses) in the lower center of the picture (10).
The super block completely alters the city landscape, as it removes the square one of the city: the street. In The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City, author David Kishik notes that keeping people off the street was “the supreme act of progressive benevolence.” The democratization of the grid plan allows each building the same potential for space. Super blocks undermine this equality (11).
Kishik points out an exception to the rule of superblocks is Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller Center succeeds as a project because it keeps the streets that intersect it and adds walkways to encourage foot traffic. The area works because of its integration, where most projects feel like “alien bodies dropped into the city from outer space” (11).
More and more people are moving to cities. The United Nations states that 54% of the of the world’s population lives in urban areas, projecting that number to increase to 66% by 2050 (12). It’s pertinent to understand the areas we live in, especially the complex notion of the city. A hopeful sign for the future is that the behavioral effects urban design has on its citizens are finally being investigated empirically. Colin Ellard, an environmental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, recently studied how different types of buildings affect those walking by. To do so, he took small groups on walking tours of two different types of buildings. He used the Bowery Whole Foods and a nearby area that had a variety of restaurants and open storefronts as test sites. Participants answered questions describing their emotional state, while also wearing bracelets that measured skin conductance. The Whole Foods in question takes up an entire block of East Houston Street from the Bowery to Chrystie Street. The building looks like a typical metro installment of the super chain; all glass facade, uniform rectangular windows, silver accents. Meanwhile, Ellard describes the other test site as “a happy hubbub of eating and drinking” (13).
Jane Jacobs would be happy with this study, as the results support her hypothesis for what makes a healthy city. When standing in front of the Whole Foods monolith, participants responded with negative emotional states and the bracelets echoed this fact. They described the building as “bland, monotonous and passionless.” At the other area, subjects ranked their emotional states as positive and had higher arousal measurements. They interpreted the space as “mixed, lively, busy” (13). While it’s not totally concrete, having empirical evidence to back up theories of urban design is an important development for the field of urban planning. Instead of going off of assumptions of what makes as healthy city, as Howard, Jeanneret and Mumford did in the past.
The current trends in architecture inherit the same principles as Le Corbesiurs designs. There’s an emphasis on straight lines, glass facades and a complete absence of decoration or distinction. Architect Rem Koolhaas remarked on this trend, saying ‘In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable’(13). Just as the character of New York was threatened by the forces of urban renewal, it is now fighting the forces of gentrification and genericization. As independently owned bodegas give way to identical Duane Reades, the essence of the sidewalk ballet that “never repeats itself” continues to disappear from the city. City blocks become indistinguishable, interchangeable and make for unhappy citizens. The ideas of old find ways to reinvent themselves in the present. For this reason, it is imperative to look at the history of urban renewal, to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
4.The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
9. Regulating Place: Standards and the Shaping of Urban America, Eran Ben-Joseph, Terry S. Szold
11. The Manhattan Project: The Theory of a City, David Kishik