The bedrock principle of restoring public space is making people feel safe there. Visitors will only return to a downtown or park if they perceive it to be safe (and, of course, it must actually be safe!). The principal reason people avoided Bryant Park before 1990 was because they were afraid to go there. But why did they feel unsafe? What makes people afraid to spend time in certain places? I suggest that what makes people afraid to be in certain public spaces is a feeling of being unable to predict how other people they see in the space are going to behave, which makes them concerned for their physical safety. When people go outside of places where they feel they are in control, they look for certain markers that communicate to them that the other people they encounter in the space will behave in ways that they expect – and make them feel more certain that they will not be physically threatened.
People feel safe with what they know and people they know. If they don’t personally know the people they are going to encounter, they sense that people who have traits that are as much like theirs as possible are going to behave towards them in ways that they can anticipate. In prehistoric times, perhaps, one had circles of trust: your family and then your tribe were much less likely to pose a physical threat to you then those outside your tribe. Maybe in that environment, we developed carefully honed sensitivities about the cues that told us who was a threat and who wasn’t. As a result, we are suspicious of difference. Sameness generates feelings of predictability and therefore safety. Continue reading →
Bill Briggs founded and ran a program in southeast Queens called Youth and Tennis. For decades the program has taught young people in the public schools to play tennis and provided lessons to community kids for low or no fee. Bill was quiet and hardworking – dedicated to his kids and his sport. He didn’t draw a lot of attention to himself. He ran the program with very minimal resources – but had a tremendous impact on the lives of the community’s young people. Bill and I became very close friends over the years. Last year, when I found myself with plenty of time on my hands, I drove out to Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens every few weeks to hit with Bill. He worked me HARD. We’d hit for a couple of hours and then go for drink or a meal. I called him after our last workout last spring and didn’t get a return call. I emailed him. I texted him. I didn’t hear anything back. I reached out to some mutual friends over the summer to try to find out what was up – and was told that Bill wasn’t well, and didn’t want to see anybody. I asked after him every couple of months and the situation didn’t change. I learned over the weekend from another wonderful community leader, my good friend Archie Spigner, that Bill passed away on last Sunday. Continue reading →
The Borough Office Building, formerly occupied by a title company, and now owned by Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
An important, but underutilized, tool in the economic development kit is being the buyer of last resort for distressed property. This strategy isn’t frequently used because it requires equity capital (which many/most NGO’s don’t have) and carries the risks inherent in carrying debt and managing property. But it can be incredibly powerful. By purchasing (or long-term leasing), improving and repositioning an abandoned or derelict real asset, not only are the negative externalities associated with that parcel removed from the neighborhood and the market, but the purchaser now has an ownership stake in the community it is working to improve and will have the potential to reap some economic benefit from the success of its efforts. In addition, ownership of key sites gives the local development entity the power to influence what gets developed on the site. In my experience, this is one of the more potent forms of “nudge” to the local market that a not-for-profit can exercise in advocating for neighborhood improvement.
Community development organizations tend to shy away from the risks associated with property ownership. I’m not aware of any business improvement districts, for example, that actually own any property. But I would argue that this is a form of downtown revitalization that ought to be seriously be considered by more of the professionals who are working on downtown improvement. Continue reading →
Jamaica Transit Center Master Plan Rendering: Fox & Fowle — what’s not going to happen
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of occasions to visit Jamaica and was delighted to see progress on a number of fronts. What was most interesting to me was while there is not much happening on the sites we at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) assembled over fifteen years and sold in 2015, there is significant activity on other projects. The conclusion that I draw from this is that what we did to improve the perception of the Downtown through placemaking had more of an impact on its revitalization than our site development projects.
Also, I recently became aware of twenty-minute film about the changes in Jamaica over the last fifty years which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJP0BzmG90I&feature=youtu.be. The film is a nostalgic look at the businesses that were lost from the Downtown from the 60’s through the ‘80’s and the deteriorated conditions Downtown. A good deal of effort was put into this video and I enjoyed watching it. It contains lots of material that was new to me. The film was apparently made by a community member. In the end it raises concerns about possible gentrification brought on by the more recent changes in Jamaica. Continue reading →
The number of Business Improvement Districts has expanded greatly over the last twenty years, both in New York City and nationally. There are now close to 1,000 BIDs in the US, with over 60 in New York, and more in the pipeline. The focus of most BIDs is what’s been labeled “Clean & Safe.” Following the model we set up at Grand Central Partnership, they provide staff to sweep the sidewalks and curbs and empty trash baskets. Larger BIDs also tend to provide unarmed private security services on sidewalks within the district, and often those staff members are trained to provide directions and other tourist information. While at GCP, as well as in Bryant Park and 34th Street Partnership we hired and trained our own staff to provide these services, many small BIDs, and even some larger ones contract out to third-party providers for this work.
Data from the Furman Center indicate that while larger BIDs have a significant effect on commercial property values, smaller BIDs in New York City lack sufficient resources to make much of an impact (http://furmancenter.org/files/publications/FurmanCenterBIDsBrief.pdf ). The Furman Report questions the efficacy of the creation of small organizations, much of whose budgets is necessarily spent on administration, and in recent years, it has been smaller BIDs that have been started in New York. This was certainly my experience in Downtown Jamaica, Queens, which has three BIDS, two of which are quite small. None of the three can afford to maintain a security program, and even the largest of them finds itself with very limited resources, given the magnitude of the challenges with which it has been tasked. Continue reading →
1894 Bryant Park before the physical changes. Looking north.
A serious challenge facing public space managers is people living in and engaging in antisocial behavior in public spaces. This seems to be a particular issue for cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon. The situation is raising a raft of crosscutting concerns about individual rights, the causes of economic disadvantage in our country today, the sensitivities of upper-middle class urbanites and our society’s stubborn unwillingness to assist those suffering from serious mental health issues, including substance abuse. Conflicting interests and ideologies play out in policy discussions about how public spaces are governed and managed.
Successful restoration of social control to public spaces is not about enforcement. The apparent decline in the quality of the public space experience in the second half of the 20th century was driven almost entirely by how safe people felt they were on sidewalks and in parks. Many felt that the public realm of shared space was out of social control, and as a result, they feared for their physical safety. Some of this fear may have been exaggerated or even incorrect, driven by race- and class-bound assumptions and stereotypes. But even if the threat was not real, the perception of it kept people from visiting, working, shopping in or investing in public places perceived to be unsafe. Much of the success of improved public spaces over the last two decades has been based on improving those perceptions – making public spaces feel safer by employing “broken-windows” management (discouraging low-level disorder and providing high-quality, detail-oriented maintenance) and placemaking practice. Continue reading →
A view of the planting beds — on the south, shady side.
Nothing gives you more bang for your public space improvement dollars than plants. When people ask me what the one thing they should do to improve public space, my response is always to institute a horticulture program. Improving the perception of public space is about providing visual cues to users that the space is under social control. Colorful, well-maintained plants send that message in a number of ways. The physical material isn’t very expensive and the skills to maintain horticultural materials are widespread and easy to find. Putting plantings in places where people don’t expect them sends a powerful message.
I knew absolutely nothing about gardening when I went to work for Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in 1991. My father grew some terrific tomatoes in the yard when I was growing up (it was New Jersey, after all) and for some reason there was always mint growing outside the backdoor of the house that we put into iced tea. And that was the sum total of my agricultural experience when I arrived in the Park. From that day to this, I haven’t had a personal garden or even a yard. Continue reading →
Jamaica, Queens is now experiencing dramatic change. It was for literally centuries the civic, transportation and commercial center of Long Island. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that began to change, as businesses and white families began to move out of the Downtown and further east on the Island – in the same pattern that economically decimated so many American downtowns in an arc that runs from St. Louis to Hartford. Downtown Jamaica, home to the first supermarket and the first Macy’s store outside Manhattan, lost its three department stores, its daily newspaper and its three local banks all within a decade.
What was left was a rich physical and social infrastructure. Jamaica was an early rail center, and remained the home to the Long Island Railroad’s main transfer station. As a result it was the center of the Queens County bus network, with scores of lines passing through or terminating there. The Downtown was also served by three subway lines – two of which were elevated as they arrived in Jamaica. Nearby, was the JFK International Airport. It was the home of the Queens Supreme and Family Courts, as well as the central library for the huge Queens Library system. Demographically, it had become one of the largest communities of African-American (largely middle-class) homeowners in the country. Continue reading →