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
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
Recently, I gave a tour of downtown Jamaica to a major retail developer. It was his initial close look at the downtown while walking. We met in a restaurant, and when we walked out on the sidewalk, the first words out of his mouth were, “The streets looks awful. The signs are terrible.” Nothing is more of an obstacle to downtown revitalization then poor storefront presentation – and nothing is more difficult to fix. Nope, not even street vending is as hard as trying to improve as retail signs, storefronts and the merchandising visible from the street.
Malls are able to have high quality signs and retail presentation because of their unitary ownership. Leases give mall owners review rights for retail presentation and have a long list of rules regarding their signs, storefronts and displays – and mall owners tend to enforce those rules. Downtowns have multiple owners, and even more individual retail tenants. There is little incentive for any landlord to enforce the sign provisions in their lease, since the woman next door isn’t enforcing hers and all you really want is your monthly rent check. Why alienate a high rent-paying tenant, who pays every month, over a trivial issue like how his store looks? Continue reading
Despite the doom and gloom of my last post, the possibility of improving the regulation of vending does exist. In the most recent session of the City Council, Intro. 1301-2016 was proposed (http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2858236&GUID=EFEAD05C-4A4E-47E3-ACDA-ADEAA0FB3F2A&Options=ID%7cText%7c&Search=vending), a report was issued and a hearing was held. The Council’s press release summarized the bill’s provisions and the Council’s objectives in proposing it (http://labs.council.nyc/press/2016/10/11/124/). The upshot of the legislation is to double the number of food vendor permits. No action has yet been taken by the Council on the bill. The precatory language of the bill, and the language of the press release reflect the substantial interest on the part of Council members in promoting vending and the limited recognition of or interest in the negative impact vending has on downtown revitalization efforts. Continue reading
Cutting edge thinking among urbanists and the progressive development community is that American consumers are tired of the covered shopping mall and are seeking a return to the walkable downtown retail experience – or that’s what one hears at the Urban Land Institute and the International Downtown Association (David Milder’s blog analyzing retail trends on medium and small-sized city downtowns is required reading towards this end: http://www.ndavidmilder.com/blog). But, what makes the experience of being on Main Street great? What would make it better? What do we enjoy about being there? What opportunities does this create for aging Downtowns across the country? Continue reading
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
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