Above: Stills from “West Street,” a video by Alex McQuilkin that explores both sides of West Street, the border between Battery Park City and the Financial District. | Below: Stills from Erin Lavelle’s video investigation into the of public space in South Williamsburg.
Last year, I shared a selection of video work produced by students in a workshop I teach called “Montage City: Filmmaking as Urban Observation.” The goal of the course is to expose graduate students of architecture, urban design, urban planning, historic preservation or real estate to cinematic strategies of interpreting place. The particular type of places investigated is something near and dear to the hearts of Urban Omnibus readers: the neighborhoods of New York.
When it comes to how we perceive particular neighborhoods, there’s much more at stake than real estate price comparisons. Perception of neighborhoods’ physical form and social experience grounds many of our most passionate reactions to or suggestions for urban change, whether that change is architectural, demographic or infrastructural. Will a new high-rise fit in with the scale of my neighborhood’s existing building stock? Does my neighborhood have sufficient access to public transit, good schools or healthy food? Will gentrification keep driving up prices and risk displacing longtime neighborhood residents? The politics of neighborhood identity directly influence the way the City manages growth, concentrating efforts to rezone for greater density in the places between neighborhoods or in areas in transition from non-residential to residential uses.
Above: Stills from “Triangle Below Canal” by Gabriel Burkett, which looks at sidewalks as thresholds used differently by shop-owners, hawkers, delivery personnel and pedestrains. | Below: Stills from an untitled video by Emily Jones that reveals the patterns and material textures of the Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn
With the contested meanings of urban edge conditions in mind, I encouraged students in the Montage City workshop this past semester to investigate the borders, junctions, transitions and liminal spaces between neighborhoods. (In previous semesters, the workshop has focused on themes such as “infrastructural systems in the neighborhood context” or “landscapes of production.”) This time around, the videos produced explored sites including, among others, the two faces of West Street, the porous boundaries of SoHo’s Cast Iron Historic District (PDF), the idiosyncratic bus-related environments surrounding Port Authority Bus Terminal, the sombre sidewalks of TriBeCa. Check out some examples in the three videos below, which evoke a wide range of conditions and morphologies: a cross-town Manhattan street, a waterborne inter-borough transit connection, and a vibrant crossroads in the Bronx.
In “58th Street – Hudson River to East River,” Lindsay Kunz traverses a geography that we think we know — midtown Manhattan — and reveals the surprising adjacencies and subtle shifts of use along this corridor. The video is framed, of course, by water, but the journey it charts is far from symmetrical. It doesn’t open with a panoramic view of the Hudson but with close-ups of the hard sanitation and highway infrastructure at the pinch point where the Greenway has a two-block break in greenery and the West Side Highway begins to slope up and off of the ground. Kunz uses the angles and residual spaces created by this transition between surface road and elevated highway to launch a cinematographic tracing of the area’s topography, which rises up towards Broadway passing the institutional architecture of the IRT powerhouse, John Jay College and St Luke’s Hospital. As the video crosses Columbus Circle, Kunz captures the concentration of retail through fragmentary close-ups of window displays and shoppers’ faces. As the sun sets over the 5th Avenue Apple Store, the pace slows down to match the residential rhythm of the East Side. But it’s not long before public works again signal how civic infrastructure connects the neighborhood scale to the urban scale. The closing shots do not present the tony enclave of Sutton Place as a cul-de-sac at the edge of Manhattan, but as the foreground for a view of the Queensboro Bridge that links this cross-town corridor to a trans-urban system unconstrained by the island’s shores.
Eduardo Rega Calvo’s “Staten Island Ferry” begins from the point of view of the commuter, ascending the escalator at South Ferry to arrive at the plaza before Whitehall Terminal. It soon switches to the mode of observer, cataloguing the design details of street furniture and tree-pits without ever losing track of the movements, sights and sounds of people using the space. When the renovated terminal was unveiled in 2005, architecture critic Justin Davidson, writing in Newsday (PDF), described it as destination rather than a mere transit hub, with “the panorama of lower Manhattan from the top of the escalators, the vast windows framing the Statue of Liberty, the upstairs deck with views of the harbor — these are reasons to take shelter here for a little longer than the ferry schedule makes strictly necessary.” As the video moves inside the terminal and onto the ferry, however, it shifts to a more voyeuristic reading of the mundane, daily routine of a long commute: texting, reading, watching your kids play, or watching the tourists watch the Statue of Liberty pass by.
If the previous videos were organized as journeys across and between urban spaces, the third, by Matt Charney, rests a meditative gaze on a place many people rush through on their way somewhere else, the Hub. Sometimes called the “Broadway of the Bronx,” the intersection of Third, Melrose, Willis and Westchester Avenues with 149th Street marks the boundary between Melrose and Mott Haven and serves as the interchange point for the 3rd Avenue – 149th Street subway station, a nearby Metro-North Station at 162nd Street and Park Avenue, and eight bus routes, each heading along a different radial spoke of the the Hub. The video captures the long lines at bus stops in counterpoint to the nighttime bustle of shops and street vendors, illuminated by the urban glow of neon signs, windows and headlights.
Above: Stills from “SoHo – Cast-Iron District,” Kenisha Thomas’ whimsical look at the how SoHo’s historic architecture is experienced at street level. | Below: Stills from “Midtown Bus” Jacob Esocoff’s exploration of the idiosyncratic, bus-related environments surrounding Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Cassim Shepard is the editor of Urban Omnibus. He makes non-fiction media, especially films and video, about architecture and urbanism. He lives in Brooklyn.