Radical Urban Theory

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Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan (book excerpt)

Robert Jay Kaufman


Blockology: (blok-ol e-je) n. 1. The study of a city block’s identity from one end to the other. 2. The close observation, while traveling on foot, of distinguishing urban characteristics, patterns, and themes. Blockologist:n. 1. One who is an authority in blockology. 2. An admirer of the urban scene.

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Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan

A one-of-a-kind guide that celebrates the experience of exploring Lower Manhattan through its history, people and architecture. Author Robert Jay Kaufman has selected 36 intriguing and unique city blocks to visit in depth. Each block comes with a detailed map, description of its history and character, and a full-page illustration featuring a scavenger hunt of images. In addition, you'll discover 200 "can’t-miss blocks" which have been highlighted on the maps for your investigation along the way.

With the help of easy-to-read maps, wander through the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan as you make your way on a journey of personal discoveries. Pick and choose and return again, until you experience all of Lower Manhattan for yourself.

Robert Jay Kaufman is an illustrator, whose work has appeared in major publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Games, and Science, including the children’s book, Count-A-Saurus. He divides his time as chair of the Illustration/Animation Department at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, with walking blocks in Boston and New York City. For the record, it took him 52 days and some 300 miles, moving as deliberately as possible, to walk every single block below 14th Street.

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What is a Block?

An average dictionary will provide nearly 30 definitions for the word “block.” You can find a “block” in an automobile, butcher’s shop, auction house, stock market, playroom, and factory, while other varieties are located on train tracks, ships, and football fields, but hopefully not between your ears. “Block” also means to mold, support, press, hinder, forget, and prevent. Three distinct definitions for block pertain to a city. They are as follows: an apartment complex; the land confined by adjoining streets (as in Macy’s sits on a block); and the meaning of choice for blockologists everywhere, a segment of a street bounded by consecutive cross streets and including its buildings and inhabitants. (“Block.” The Illustrated Heritage Dictionary and Information Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977: 142:13b.) This type of block is a whole world unto itself, a place where you might live, work, visit, and explore. 

The character of a block is revealed in its details, through architectural styles, sidewalk and street surfaces, signs, posts, lights, hydrants, trees, plants, flowers, parks, playgrounds, fire escapes, gates, grates, vents, pipes, and storefront window displays. In Lower Manhattan, humanity from every corner of the globe frequents this segment of a city. While cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, and carts provide the mechanical seasoning for a block, pets provide an occasional seasoning of their own. This whole mélange is brought to you by a host of largely unknown architects, sign painters, window dressers, and community gardeners, who over decades and even centuries, have created blocks with distinct personalities just waiting to be discovered.

Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan

An Observational Feast

No one who really sees Lower Manhattan leaves unaffected; it is an observational feast that can provide a lesson or two on what makes the city thrive. There is a block for every mood, sensibility, and interest. You get to know blocks that are meditative, active, utilitarian, historical, and modern. There are respected blocks and forgotten blocks. There are blocks with only restaurants and blocks with only shops, and blocks that offer just one cuisine, and some that simply sell shoes. There are blocks with wealthy people residing on one side of the street and poor on the other. And blocks with a single tree standing alone, while others are like parks. As you navigate your way through Lower Manhattan, there are choices to be made, toward the familiar or the unknown, with great urgency or at a slow pace. Endless bits of knowledge are filed away, vital information for future routes and future returns. You are the navigator of this pedmobile. Not only is there no direct way, there are unlimited possibilities for getting from here to there. This is where every urban admirer becomes a blockologist, adept at knowing blocks, their pluses and minuses and how they best connect.  This allows you no small measure of control over your walking experience.

Urban Literacy

The vista on almost any street in Lower Manhattan is time recorded in the facades of buildings compressed side by side, subjected to incalculable alterations and renovations. There are many rows of townhouses or apartment buildings that were once identical that are now as different as they can be. Every decade’s architectural preference since the 1820s is reflected in the facades of these blocks. How does one make sense of the multiplicity of styles, a never-ending meal of architectural tapas? To really walk Lower Manhattan, you must have reverence for the unexpected as a result of the city’s passion for perpetual change. In addition, the proliferation of type on signs, clothing, and graffiti is enough to overwhelm the senses. How do you decide what to read, observe, or ignore? The ability to make sense of visual chaos comes with time and observational osmosis, and it leads to urban literacy.

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East 10th Street: Avenues A & B

Gathering Notions

East 10th Street is a revitalized block with a public library, café, bakery, restaurant, and attractive residences. It is also on the edge of Tompkins Square Park. At present, no other park in the city is used better or valued more. But what a wild ride it has been to reach this favorable point.

The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 was the first real attempt at urban planning for the City of New York. The original design for this site included a long park extending all the way to the East River. What a novel idea to bring the waterfront into the city, and open up views of the river. But it never happened. An alternative, seemingly benign plan was implemented in 1834,(1) with the creation of a dignified park surrounded by well-to-do residential blocks. Shortly thereafter, German immigrants densely populated this area known as Kleindeutchland, Little Germany, or Dutchtown (a misuse of the word Deutsche).(2) These urbane newcomers brought with them socialist ideals that included the notion of strength-in-numbers, and they used Tompkins Square as a gathering place for political protests. After the bread riots and draft riots, this spot ceased being a park and became a national guard parade ground. The park was back for a second chance in 1879,(3) and again the residents’ rousing appeals for social reform and the labor movement filled the block and resonated off the surrounding buildings.

The German community later relocated to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, but Tompkins Square would maintain its contentious reputation far into the next century, as the neighborhood became a center for alternative lifestyles. Ultimately, the homeless overwhelmed the park, which led in 1988 to a violent and controversial struggle with the police. Add to the mix, drug addicts and their dealers, and Tompkins Square Park closed for renovations in 1991.(4)

The park reopened with a curfew that made for a more welcoming square for children and their parents, and dogs and their owners, without discouraging nonconformist views. It is curious how things do not quite work out as planned, but then eventually turn out for the better. No one person could have thought up this place, an egalitarian block with a park where many gather and freely express all sorts of notions.

1. Burrows, Edwin G., Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 579

2. Sanders, Ronald, photographs by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr. The Lower East Side: A Guide to Its Jewish Past in 99 New Photographs. New York: Dover Publications, 1994:19
3. Naureckas, Jim. New York Songlines: 10th Street. 12 Sept. 2004
4. Mipaas, Esther. “Tompkins Square.” The Encyclopedia of New York City, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

More Radical Urban Theory:

Beyond Sprawl
Bank of America’s ballyhood denunciation of suburban sprawl.

An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan
Exploring Lower Manhattan through its history, people and architecture.

Crime Rave
Law-and-order demagoguery.

Stereography of Celebration
Perspective and virtual happiness.

Radical Urban Theory