Thursday, October 28, 2010

Marble Hill in Manhattan (not the Bronx)

I recently discovered* Pathological Geomorphology, where various geobloggers share "images of extreme landscapes, landforms, and processes," organized around a monthly theme. Last month was dedicated to landslides, for instance. This month: "the juxtaposition (or superposition) of distinctly human-made landscapes with nature's geomorphic forms."

This immediately reminded me of Marble Hill, a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan that is physically attached to the Bronx. Here's an aerial view - to orient you, this is the Harlem River ship canal where it curves around the northern tip of Manhattan. A small corner of the Hudson River is in the upper-left corner, and Broadway, and the West Side IRT subway lines, run diagonally from the middle of the bottom edge to the upper right-hand corner:

You can clearly see a looping s-curve through the middle of the picture. It's the old course of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which was widened and straightened in the nineteenth century for use as a ship canal between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. On the left side of the photo is Inwood Hill Park, where I worked as an urban park ranger in 2005. The old creek is still more or less a waterway there, though it's been filled in substantially. The nature center and baseball field at the northeastern entrance of the park (the small peninsula left of center in the photo above) actually used to be connected to the Bronx.

The eastern loop is more interesting. It's been completely filled in - parking lots, warehouses, and big box stores now occupying the former creek bed. But the streets still trace the lines of the historic creek banks. The neighborhood between the new ship canal and the old creek bed is called Marble Hill. It was attached to Manhattan Island until 1895, when the ship canal sliced it off and marooned it as an island. Here's a map from that turn-of-the-century period, via Forgotten New York:

The creek was filled in 1917 to attach Marble Hill to the mainland of the Bronx, but the neighborhood, for political and judicial purposes, remained in New York County, and the borough of Manhattan.

I've heard, anecdotally, that a number of Marble Hill residents still insist on snubbing the borough that surrounds them by telling people they live in Manhattan, which sounds more upscale than the Bronx. So, while the historic geomorphology of the former Spuyten Duyvil Creek does survive to this day in a ghost-pattern of street layouts and land uses, it survives in a more tangible sense in the neighborhood's civic affairs and a general sense of inter-borough snootiness.

Of course, this is probably my best example of how ancient geomorphic forms have influenced human-made landscapes - but I've already written about that one.

*via mammoth, another blog I've discovered and really come to enjoy in the last couple of months - it writes extensively about urban infrastructure and how it relates to our economy and ecologies. If you like this blog, you'll enjoy theirs, too.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The global economy's kyūsho is in Denmark, Maine

The Japanese word kyūsho means vital point, or tender spot - the place where one applies the legendary "death touch" in kung-fu movies.

If you've been reading the news lately, you might be aware that a growing scandal over fraudulent foreclosures is consuming the entire global credit market in uncertainty. I was listening to a report on all this on NPR's "Marketplace" last night, and it occurred to me that, somewhere, there was a family that had been foreclosed on erroneously, fought the bank, and set into motion the events that are bringing credit markets to their knees once again.

In other words, somewhere out there was a single house that was powerful enough to shake the global credit markets to their very core. A kyūsho for the global economy.

And this morning, I found it, via the New York Times. Funnily enough, the house happens to be in the rural municipality of Denmark, Maine, just a few miles from where I grew up.

The Times reports:
Nicolle Bradbury bought this house seven years ago for $75,000, a major step up from the trailer she had been living in with her family. But she lost her job and the $474 monthly mortgage payment became difficult, then impossible.

It should have been a routine foreclosure, with Mrs. Bradbury joining the anonymous millions quietly dispossessed since the recession began. But she was savvy enough to contact a nonprofit group, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, where for once in her 38 years, she caught a break.
The story goes on to tell of how attorney Thomas Cox found and deposed the bank employee who had signed the foreclosure order. During that deposition, this employee "casually acknowledged that he had prepared 400 foreclosures a day for GMAC [the lender] and that contrary to his sworn statements, they had not been reviewed by him or anyone else."

The rest is more or less history. "Robo-signers" who approved hundreds of foreclosures a day without even looking at them were exposed nationwide, and foreclosures have now been frozen in 23 states.

This tiny $75,000 house in rural Maine is a lot like Bruce Lee's one-inch punch: we see the mighty banks knocked down, but it's damned hard to see how it happened. Mr. Cox and Ms. Bradbury are like Bruce Lee on the right, and the GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM is the sad sack on the left:

The entire story is extremely worth reading for anyone who wants to relish some schadenfreude at the expense of bankers and their lawyers, and as a case study for the lack of humanity in the financial system. Reporter David Streitfeld also tells us that Mr. Cox, the lawyer, had previously worked at a bank to call in loans on small businesses, often taking business owners' homes as collateral when they couldn't pay. The job ruined his mental health and his marriage, and he's since volunteered to work on behalf of borrowers "to make amends." I hope that this story redeems his conscience - it certainly ought to.

Ms. Bradbury's case deserves to make her a hero of modern times. It's already set a precedent that's letting thousands of families stay in their homes at the expense of negligent banks. And maybe someday, her humble house in the woods of Denmark will be memorialized as the place that finally foisted honesty on the banking system.

P.S. Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the group that Mr. Cox is volunteering for, is a nonprofit law firm. A judge ruled that GMAC would pay the legal expenses for Mr. Cox's work, but Pine Tree serves a good many clients who can't afford to pay, and here's how you can help them.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

High-Rise Birdhouses

Artists in London have installed clusters of hundreds of birdhouses on Ailanthus Altissima trees (a.k.a. the Tree of Heaven, Ghetto Palm, or the Tree that Grows in Brooklyn) growing in the terrace gardens various public housing projects.

The high-density birdhousing is meant to mimic the high-density human housing of the surrounding human neighborhood. And also, perhaps, to mimic the proliferation of Ailanthus trees throughout most of the world's cities.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Go to Detroit, Young Man, and Grow Up

Bizarrely, a boot company and the guy from "Jackass" have teamed up to debunk the hopeless, epicenter-of-the-recession "ruin porn" that dominates everyone's perception of the Motor City. It's pretty fantastic, so I'll buy into their viral marketing scheme by re-posting and recommending their film here:

Here's the link for the whole 3-part series. It visits some of the famous ruins of Detroit, but only in the context that people are reviving and doing exciting things for those ruins. In this telling, the empty prairies and abandoned buildings don't necessarily represent blight; they represent possibility. Like the frontier in Horace Greeley's day, Detroit offers amazing opportunities for people to reinvent themselves - and reinvent the city.

A lot of what appeals to me in this video reminds me of the things I loved about Houston. Because in spite of its rapid growth and booming economy, Houston (like any other big city) also had a fair share of abandoned buildings, even entire neighborhoods overgrown in weeds, and those were the places I loved to explore.

It was also cheap to live there, partly because Houston has a sprawling geography and very few rules about what people do with their real estate - there is literally no zoning law there.

And so: one man I'd met bought the concrete shell of an old rice mill near the bayou, lived in a bus parked inside its empty walls, and made art cars. Our friends bought an abandoned apartment complex and the old pool hall next door to house a successful after-school program. And the summer we lived there, Art League of Houston commissioned this project for two abandoned houses that had been slated for demolition in the Montrose neighborhood (which is one of the city's most vibrant, by the way):

So in general, the most amazing parts of Houston were the places that had recently been abandoned, and were on the verge of re-creating themselves. I think that the same goes for most cities.

So I guess I disagree, somewhat, with the derogatory term "ruin porn." There are at least a few of us who are ogling Detroit's gorgeous, abandoned architecture and new prairies not out of scorn for the Government Motors bailouts, nor for the sake of wallowing in self-pity about this recession, but out of genuine sense of possibility. We are imagining ourselves making something new there, and being a part of the revival.