January 14, 2015
by: ac
UCLA Professor of Sociology David Halle at the "New York's New Edge" Oculus Book Talk.Credit: Center for Architecture
Art historian Elisabeth Tiso at the "New York's New Edge" book talk.Credit: Center for Architecture
12.08.14: A panel of experts discussed issues in the Far West Side following a presentation of New York’s New Edge: Contemporary Art, the Highline, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side at the December 2014 Oculus Book Talk.Credit: Center for Architecture

David Halle and Elizabeth Tiso’s newest endeavor, New York’s New Edge: Contemporary Art, the High Line, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side, is a chronicle of Manhattan’s West Side development from the 1970s to the present. The authors explore the art boom in Chelsea, the birth of the High Line and the crafting of the Meatpacking District, the failed attempts at codifying urban activity around the Javits Center, and, finally, an inquiry into the art life of the Lower East Side (LES).

The first section, charting Chelsea’s history as a no man’s land to “it girl” of international art venues, is where the filter of a social scientist can best tell the story. The narrative of escalating rents in New York begins the growth of Chelsea. Mathew Marks’ purchase of his building, which launches Chelsea’s breakneck expansion, illustrates with humor how necessity can foster innovative urban thinking. Marks never intended to be a property owner when he started his gallery, but due to the fear of being priced out of the neighborhood (as many gallery owners had been in SoHo), Marks, via his sister’s business acumen, opted to buy rather than rent. And so begins the smart business community that Chelsea developed. According to Halle and Tiso, Chelsea’s position has been threatened many times, but the art world feels very comfortable in this place. It has remained sustainable even as the art industry has transformed.

The book hits its stride as an urbanist exploration in the chapter on preservation. The story of the High Line has been told and retold, but set alongside the colorful narrative of “preservation activities” for the Meatpacking District, you see that these projects are not only beautiful and exciting, but that they are reinventing the definition of preservation. Rem Koolhaas theorized (and is quoted in the book) as cautioning preservation projects not to “embalm” the past. The authors touch on the power of the now defunct restaurant Florent all too briefly, although in a well written paragraph, and illustrate the importance of the “activist entrepreneur” or “social entrepreneur” to make a place like the Meatpacking District a historic district. The intricate dance of preservation activities to zoning changes that brought about the now thriving Meatpacking District is explained elegantly. This chapter is crucial because it measures the successes of the neighborhood rather than the economic gains. It is most interesting because its accomplishments are often messy and not designed.

The most difficult reading I found to be the chapter on the West Side megaprojects. The text is very heavy on political capital and intrigue, so much so that the goals of the projects are difficult to follow. The biggest lesson of these stories is the juxtaposition to the successes of the High Line and the Meatpacking District. I do applaud Halle and Tiso for presenting case studies that are failures; how better to move the urban construct to a more interesting place.

The final chapter on the LES illustrates that the art scene will always surprise the business world. Spaces for new galleries are small and affordable, the neighborhood is heavily residential and often lower income, and the presence of the New Museum suggests that the neighborhood might rival Chelsea. Halle and Tiso call out the LES art scene for not connecting to the audience, citing the work at the New Museum in particular. But this chapter reinforces the example of the Meatpacking District: social entrepreneurs are the heroes in this story.

The one method that Halle and Tiso used that was strange and difficult to reconcile with the rest of the book is a section on audience reaction or appreciation of the art scene in Chelsea and the LES. The authors reference surveys they conducted to illustrate what visitors thought about art. The results are pedantic and a bit depressing. The inclusion of the surveys is confusing, and truncated the argument for a tolerant and ever-changing urban dynamic that the rest of the book proposes.

The 12.08.14 Oculus Book Talk was enthralling. Halle began the presentation with a short, very concise presentation of the book’s major themes. This was followed by a forum with the Center for Architecture’s most lively comrades who brought their own insights, opinions, and tales to the table. Andrew Beveridge, chair of Queens College Department of Sociology, put forth an argument about the governors of California, New York, and New Jersey, and how their attitudes about urban growth impacts private versus public projects. Tiso highlighted a project not included in the book – the Barry Diller-funded Pier55 endeavor. She presented it as a question to the audience: Will this project be successful as a completely privately funded construct; is its design worthy? Sculptor Silas Seandel gave the audience the neighborhood insider’s (aka old timer) view of the project, which was not as positive as the design community’s opinion of the High Line. Alexandros Washburn, Assoc. AIA, aptly declared Halle and Tiso’s text “a portrait of change.” Most elegant was AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA’s evening walk-through of the High Line, Chelsea, and the Meatpacking District illustrated with his own photographs. We were taken through the neighborhoods with a wise and delighted eye via Vitruvius’ commodity, firmness, and delight. Bell added “community” to the matrix (as a good New Yorker should). In short, the roundtable mirrored New York’s edge: messy, contrary, often off topic, romantic, and constantly evolving.

Want more? See a video of the lecture and listen to an interview with co-authors David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso.

Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: New York’s New Edge: Contemporary Art, the High Line, and Urban Megaprojects on the Far West Side
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.08.14
: David Halle, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles; Elisabeth Tiso, Art Historian; Silas Seandel, Sculptor and Metal Furniture Designer; Alexandros Washburn, Assoc. AIA, Industry Professor of Design and Director, Crux Center, Stevens Institute of Technology, and former Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of Planning; Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIA New York Chapter; Andrew Beveridge, President, Social Explorer Inc., and Chair, Department of Sociology, Queens College
Organizers: AIANY Oculus Committee
Oculus Book Seller: McNally Jackson Books


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