The Flip Side Of Urban Renewal

It seems like every time I search for pictures on the New York Public Library these days, I’m turning up one of Berenice Abbott’s shots for the Federal Art Project. They’re beautiful and they’re public domain, so they appeal to me twice over for blog posts. This 1935 shot titled “Reade Street, between West and Washington Streets, Manhattan” shows modernity, in the form of Ralph Walker‘s little Art Deco mountain at 60 Hudson Street, peering over the mid-nineteenth century landscape of loft buildings at the Washington Market. If it weren’t for the handful of trucks and a modern fire hydrant, it would be easy to mistake the foreground of this photo for 1860 or 1870.

Everything in the foreground of this photo – all of the low-rise commercial buildings and even the west end of Reade Street that forms the center of the shot – was demolished as part of the Washington Market Urban Renewal Plan. The plan began in 1966 and by 1970 demolition was in full swing. The specific portion of the renewal site in this photo is now occupied by the Borough of Manhattan Community College (mostly housed in a single building extending four blocks along West Street) and Washington Market Park on the corner of Chambers and Greenwich Streets. Again, not only are all the old buildings gone, so are the streets on which they stood. This was urban renewal at its most extreme, treating a portion of the city as a blank canvas by first demolishing everything present.

It’s fifty years too late to protest what was done here, but for the record I disagree with the renewal idea on grounds of architectural quality, preservation, social interaction, and preservation of natural resources. The park is nice and I’m sure that BMCC is a fine institution, but the college could just as easily have been housed in some repurposed loft buildings and the park could have been created though selective demolition.

To put a commercial spin on it for a moment, these old loft buildings, which were judged fifty years ago to be worthless, are near twins for buildings elsewhere in TriBeCa that are now worth something more than ten million dollars each. (Seeing as a how a single apartment in a building like this, renovated, can cost more than ten million, a whole building is obviously worth more.) Since I’m arguing for values other than real estate valuation, this isn’t that important other than as a rebuttal to everyone who has ever said that old buildings are worthless and therefore should be demolished. If the old market was obsolete, which it probably was, why was it necessary to raze the entire area?

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