Take the 4 train out of Manhattan, and it will climb above ground, past Yankee Stadium, and squeeze through a canyon newly formed by two 19-story buildings facing off across the tracks. A ride along much of the city’s roughly 250 miles of elevated subway track will reveal many more apartment buildings, charter schools, and community centers rising up in close proximity to infrastructures more than a century old and trains that can screech at up to 100 decibels. Elevated lines have long run past warehouse and tenement landscapes seemingly frozen in time. But as city agencies and real estate developers seek out scarce remaining lots, many formerly undesirable, comparatively affordable, and transit accessible sites are being rezoned and reimagined. The architects tasked with these projects must address challenging issues of vibration, soundproofing, and privacy, often in buildings with especially sensitive populations: elementary school students, formerly homeless individuals, and survivors of domestic violence, as well as market rate studio renters. High performance walls and windows, subtle site plans, and strategically placed sports facilities all seek to accommodate the particular constraints of these new constructions’ environs. For more than a decade, Gail Albert Halaban has been photographing neighbors across narrow streets in cities across the globe. Here, she surveys New York’s new urban condition, and the increasing intimacy between private homes and workplaces and a 24-hour transit system.
In the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood, a new apartment building rises between the Bronx River Parkway and the elevated 6 train line: twelve stories topped with a solar panel hat. While the building presents a loud exterior in red, yellow, and orange, the interior promises a private and comfortable oasis. The environmental review required to rezone the site — two lots with a vacant former health clinic and a one-story building housing a liquor store and dry cleaner — dictated that the new building’s design mitigate the high ambient noise levels of the subway and highway. High performance windows attenuate sound. Along the 6 tracks, they are laminated like a croissant, with seven layers of glass and polymer in all. A sealed facade and ventilation system deliver fresh air filtered of particulates to residents in a ZIP code that sees asthma-related emergency visits at a rate 69 percent higher than the city’s average.
Two new residential towers nest in a tight corner where the 2 and 5 trains roll up onto Westchester Avenue, around the corner from the Bronx’s busy Hub: the first in a five-building, 1-million-square-foot, mixed-use development launched at the end of the Bloomberg administration. At the base of the building closest to the tracks is a new YMCA, only the third in the borough. The passing of the trains (once every 90 seconds at rush hour, on average) barely registers inside the bright oasis of the gym, where staff have installed a translucent decal in the window over the swimming pool to shield the lap swimmers and aqua aerobicizers from the gaze of curious commuters. Apartments are set back above the Y and seeded with a series of roof gardens with views of three boroughs.
Their train squealing into the station, passengers on the southbound 1 at 125th Street can peer almost directly into a Columbia University neuroscience lab only 50 feet away. But the researchers absorbed in their work mapping bird memory wouldn’t sense a thing, unless they happened to turn around and look out the floor-to-ceiling window. So serene is the atmosphere within the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the first stage in a massive extension of the university’s footprint into Manhattanville (a tower to house faculty and graduate students is going up one block to the south). The architects insisted on a building that was visually open to pedestrians and people on the subway platform, requiring a glass facade that was totally see-through, and also highly attenuating of sound. The complex and seamless solution is a double curtain wall: a single, sealed outer layer of highly transparent low-iron glass, an inner wall for insulation, and a sizeable gap in between. Not visible are the heavy foundations deep underground that attenuate the vibrations that could be particularly problematic for precision scientific instruments like MRIs or electron microscopes.
A concentrated effort has paved the way for new housing construction on city-owned sites along the L and 3 trains in East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn. Where the lines cross at the corner of Livonia and Van Sinderen Avenues sits a new complex of four buildings of affordable and supportive housing. The facade over the Livonia Avenue L station is highly insulated and clad in silver-colored aluminum composite panels that nod to the subway cars that roll past, while windows are angled away from oncoming trains for privacy. Setbacks from the street and at the sixth or seventh floors increase the distance between 299 homes and two sets of railroad tracks.
Where the 7, N, and W trains emerge into the light of Queens, new residential buildings rise up at a rate that few anticipated. Rezoned in 2001 to create a new office district, Long Island City has instead become a luxury residential enclave, wedged between elevated train lines and self-storage facilities, and short on parks and schools. Amenities like pools, gyms, and game rooms are common in new buildings. Strategically located at track and station level, they also serve as privacy buffers for residents and free subway advertising.
Further out on the 7, a wall of sealed-off balconies presents a subtle mystery to Corona commuters. This was a speculative condominium development, recently converted to a charter school. It opened its doors to its initial classes of kindergarteners through second graders in the fall of 2023. The terraces accumulate detritus that blows off the subway platform: One discreet sign of the multiplying solutions, ingenious or awkward, in the search to find a corner to build on, whether for private profit or to address vital social needs.
— Mariana Mogilevich, Karla Pérez, and Kevin Ritter
All photos copyright Gail Albert Halaban
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.