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“Live/work” today describes residences that double as workplaces for an artist or upstart entrepreneur, but in much of New York City the line of separation between living and laboring is blurry. Nowhere is that more apparent than in row houses. The city’s quintessential residential form is also home to embassies, dollar stores, and everything in between. In contrast to apartment buildings constructed with ground-floor retail in mind, row houses are built as residences and modified later on. The building type is not necessarily a natural fit for welcoming strangers off the street — row houses are narrow and strain for natural light. On the other hand, they lend character to the street and offer a surprising flexibility: a business may reside in one room, or five floors. So from Harlem’s NiLu Gifts to the Michael Werner Gallery on the Upper East Side to Ridgeway Typewriter Co. in a Bay Ridge basement, independent businesses have thrived in the city’s rows. Sometimes they break up otherwise residential streets — allowing a cup of coffee to be purchased or a church service to be attended on otherwise quiet blocks — while others form commercial districts with their own strong character.
Photographer Amani Willett headed to Brooklyn to capture places where home and business comfortably nestle against one another. On Brooklyn Heights’s Montague Street, tony brownstones filled with shops lend an upscale air to the commercial district of the city’s first suburb. (Here, a Starbucks and a Sprint store are very rare encroachments by chain stores into row houses.) In Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope, the mom-and-pop businesses fit seamlessly into the low-scale red brick and brownstone urban fabric. And, in one short stretch of an otherwise residential neighborhood on Brighton 11th Street, every row house doubles as an insurance agency, doctor’s office, or daycare — middle-class houses that happen to have offices inside. Together, these places reveal (even when we don’t look up to notice) all the ways that live and work collide.
Typecast is the Architectural League’s long-term investigation into architectural typologies that have come to be seen as outdated, stagnant, or obsolete. This year, we’re taking a hard look at the row house. –E.S.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.