Flushed Away

Kevin Walsh at Forgotten NY has a new photo essay on his neighborhood, Flushing, Queens. It’s not the typical Forgotten NY catalogue of historical obsurities. Rather, in this post, Walsh illustrates what he sees as the destruction of one of New York City’s great old neighborhood by developers run amok. Even if you see new development and increasing urban density as a good and necessary thing, as many urbanists and environmentalists do, these Flushing photos make you wonder if this is really the only way that it can be done.

Old Flushing. A typical early 20th century house:

flushing_before.jpg

New Flushing. A typical early 21st century, um, house:

flushing_after.jpg

Or, as Walsh describes it, "A New Flushing barracks: concrete from curb to building line, the better to place the SUV next to the front door. Our new beauty- and vegetation-free building will get virtually no sun, meaning its heating costs will be high, and will get few breezes for natural cooling. Don’t worry — a bank of Friedrich air conditioners, logos promonently displayed, are already installed."

Yesterday, the New York Times wrote that City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden is "wise enough to recognize that small details or granular moves can either enhance or destroy a city." Maybe she needs to take a trip on the 7 train out to Flushing?

  • P

    Exactly- I’m pro density, but crap like this threatens to encourage every neighborhood in the city to downzone as their only form of protection.

    I’m not sure what the solution is- I’m sure most of us like the diversity of architecture in this city- but ideas such as prescriptive ‘urban codes’ as proposed by the New Urbanists become more attractive as the buildings become less so.

  • The other piece to bear in mind is that increasing floor sqft is not necessarily increasing density or diversity of incomes. One of the fabulous features of the old 20th century house is that it was flexible enough to contain 2-3 generations in the same housing unit. Most apartment buildings owners find that 1-2 bedrooms are the most cost efficient which really constrains household size without getting a separate and costly unit nearby. This is partly cultural, but once the infrastructure solidifies this, we will see demand for childcare and elder care continue to rise.

  • brent

    I CAN’T STAND developers who scorn communities so much as to degrade them like this. The fact that they can get away with it in the name of offering people modern comforts is nuts. This taste level is a f#ck%ng joke. There should be standards for buildings that will benefit a community and those that will degrade it. I believe we should publicly shame developers who scoff at taste, even if reporter Jennifer Saranow of The Wall Street disapproves. Kevin Walsh is to be commended for this work.

  • someguy

    I agree 100% Brent, but I’m not sure if “taste” is the right way to frame it. Taste comes off as a subjective, elitist thing, so let’s dig under the surface of what you and I mean by taste: neighborhood beauty, character, history, property values, building durability, etc etc. More solid concepts than taste. Things the average joe can get behind. Unfortunately in the public discourse the appearance of your argument is more important in winning public opinion than the substance of your argument, even if it’s the same underlying argument. So I’d advise staying away from “taste”.

  • Hate what you see here? Visit Queens Crap and get even more outraged!

  • And it’s going on all over Queens

    http://queenscrap.blogspot.com/

  • ah, I got beaten to the punch…

    http://www.forgotten-ny.com

  • AD

    I agree with all here about this architecture totally lacking in merit.

    However, the solution we have found so far has perhaps been worse than the ill it is meant to cure. The response to this crap has been blanket downzonings in many neighborhoods, which serve to halt all development, regardless of its form and merit. The downzone is the fundamental enemy of density. It strikes a blow at what it means to be urban. By driving up housing costs (and raising property values for the existing residents who vote it in), a Queens downzone encourages development to sprawl into Nassau County.

    There are better solutions to crappy architecture than halting all development, raising housing costs and encouraging sprawl.

    Downzonings ought to be restrained, and accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction so as to not reduce the overall number of dwellings that can be built in the borough. Restrained downzonings to preserve the nice Victorians only if accompanied by selective upzoning around transit hubs, so that you have a chance to build architecturally meritorious apartment buildings around transit.

  • da

    Park Slope did just such a “balanced” rezoning a few years ago: side streets downzoned, 4th Ave. upzoned. Of course, not everyone is happy with the results; there’s a “save 4th Ave.” website out there somewhere I think.

  • Anonymous from EU

    While the article addresses a problem I would like to point two things that reduces the credibility.

    Chapter “Evolution of a plot”, 155th Street north of Beech. Labeling every “a bit larger than a small sedan” car a SUV does not make you look credible. That car is called a “mini van”, it is designed to carry more than five people around and does not look like a station wagon on steroids. It is a most reasonable vehicle for people with big families.

    Chapter “Stump Me”. If you look very closely you may notice that those two trees are almost throughly rotted. Neither of the stumps have only about two inches of healthy wood in them. Leaving them standing would be very dangerous since they would collapse and possibly injure people in the next storm.

  • stormy

    Hey, I like the typical Forgotten NY catalogue of historical obscurities!

  • Anonymous from EU, both trees were in good shape, at least from my observation, and may well have continued to be for some time, if their owners did not unceremoniously chop them down because they wanted the neighbors to see their newly “renovated” domiciles.

    Point taken on the vehicle. It’s a gas guzzler and takes up a lot of room.

    In my opinion, we apparently need to save Flushing, and other NYC neighborhoods… from their homeowners.

    http://www.forgotten-ny.com

  • P

    “In my opinion, we apparently need to save Flushing, and other NYC neighborhoods… from their homeowners.”

    Which leads to my favorite doomed crusade- against the proliferation of curbcuts and driveways in neighborhoods with a formerly continuous sidewalk.

  • brent

    Someguy- I am going to have to take the position that taste is a “solid concept”. Great cultures have standards of taste. We as a nation have been undermining taste in favor of convenience. Decades of prioritizing parking lots, square footage, overly complicated rooftops, etc has been at the expense of detail, material quality, workmanship, and traditional elements. My opinion is that these things are not subjective; they can be quantified. Keep in mind that there is nothing elitist about demanding a better taste level be brought to the public realm because every single one of us inhabits it.

  • brent

    P- I will join your crusade.

  • P

    Excellent, Brent! We can go door to door asking people not to park in their front yards anymore. I’ll bring earplugs, you bring the bulletproof vests.

    Someguy-
    I think it’s a bit more complicated than you suggest. Are we legislating ornament? What about Modernism? Can a building code distinguish between an elegant but spare contemporary design and the p.o.c. shown at the top of the page?

    I agree that we can legislate many of the worst offenses (parking and bulk, for instance) but much of the rest is either highly subjective or would demand a degree of governmental control I would not expect New Yorkers to submit to.

  • P

    Oh- those were both directed to Brent. Sorry.

  • Steve

    As much as I dislike the design of the brick box installed next to the olderhome in the photo above, there are many obstacles to imposing design requirments on development in a neighborhood like Flushing. Each design requirment and/or approval process by which it is applied adds to the cost of developing the real estate. And there is no guarantee that the people involved in creating and applying the design requirements will share the Sblog (or any other enlightened) agenda. I’m not saying people can’t try, but its very hard.

    A much more fruitful opportunity to foster enlightened residential design is provided by large public developments. Take a look at the interesting new development in the Bronx the City is announcing in post immediately above.

  • Benjamin Hemric

    Although I’m inclined, at least at the moment, to disagree with the apparently anti-densification thinking of Kevin Walsh (and others), I think Kevin Walsh is doing a very valuable public service by publicizing the issues and thus furthering public discussion of this important topic (and also documenting the loveliness that once was).

    I grew up in the Jamaica Hills section of Queens (the area, essentially between Parsons Blvd., to the west, and 168th St., to the east, and between Hillside Ave., on the south, and Grand Central Parkway, on the north), a few neighborhoods to the south of Flushing, and the replacement of large, beautiful homes (especially those located on generous plots) with undistinguished apartment houses and homely two-family houses started there at least as early as the late-1950s! So initially, my thinking was very much along the lines of Kevin and others who oppose densification.

    But in thinking about this problem, I also believe it’s important to think about the larger process at work here and WHY, in economic terms, this is happening. Here’s a tentative attempt at such an explanation:

    The people who are willing to buy (and modernize) such older houses are, essentially, being outbid by those who are happy enough with smaller, more modern residences even if they are aesthetic eyesores. (In other words, given their budgets, the housing itself is more important to the new residents than the aesthetics.)

    Also, city neighborhoods (at least in America) have always changed, gotten denser, over time. It is part of growing and developing. The difference between such development in the past and such development today, so it seems to me, is that in the past the new growth was, as a rule, as aesthetically pleasing as the buildings it which it replaced.

    For instance in Jamaica Hills, the early apartment houses built in the 1940s and early -1950s that replaced single-family homes, one of which was built by Donald Trump’s father, I believe, were actually rather nice. I always thought they added a touch of glamour to the neighborhood. The newer ones (from the late 1950s, early 1960s), along Hillside Ave., on the other hand, are not as nice. (And in Manhattan, even the “affordable housing” of the late 19th Century, bare-bones old-law tenements (with toilets in the hall!) that replaced the more affluent housing of previous residents, have many touches of grace and beauty.)

    In terms of a practical solution (how can one encourage more urbane architectural design), however, I’m not sure what can be done. But, while this may not solve the problem, one thing that I think should be done, at the very least, is to point out that there are indeed attractive apartment houses and “row-houses” in Queens (some of which are even featured on Kevin’s “Forgotten New York” website). So, I think this will, at least, help point the discussion in the right direction.

  • Anonymous from EU

    Kevin Walsh, the trees may very well look healthy on the outside while being almost throughly rotted inside. The thin layer of sapwood still provides water for the leaves but it would not hold in a storm.

  • Rob

    Be careful of this… newer ones (from the late 1950s, early 1960s), along Hillside Ave., on the other hand, are not as nice. (And in Manhattan, even the “affordable housing” of the late 19th Century, bare-bones old-law tenements (with toilets in the hall!) that replaced the more affluent housing of previous residents, have many touches of grace and beauty.)

    There is a well documented 40 year “hole” in appreciation of architectural style.

  • ROB

    CHECK OUT THIS SITE, I WAS BORN IN FLUSHING ON BOWNE AND 41ST AVE AND GOT THE HELL OUT. IT IS AN ABSOLUTE DUMP-LOOK AT THIS INFO THAT I FOUND ON LINE. AMAZING!!!!

    http://www.ellisparkerbutler.info/epb/biblio.asp?id=5248

  • I put up a blog post that’s related to this issue: Style vs. Form. Here’s the main point:

    In the opinion of many urban designers, the most important architectural factor that supports a pedestrian-friendly street is not the style, but rather the form of the building. That is, the way the building is sited on its lot, the way it meets the sidewalk, its frequency of doorways and windows, and its general shape and mass.

  • Mick

    Curbcut Crusaders —

    Please add Astoria to your growing list. In the not so distant past, (though it was before Streetsblog) front yards had grape arbors, rose bushes and little stone gardens and fountains. Now they’re paved for illegal parking. Community Board 1 was yelling about this back in the ’80’s.

  • Benjamin Hemric

    Rob wrote:

    Be careful of this . . .

    [quoting Benjamin Hemric’s Jan. 17th post] ” . . . newer ones (from the late 1950s, early 1960s), along Hillside Ave., on the other hand, are not as nice. (And in Manhattan, even the “affordable housing” of the late 19th Century, bare-bones old-law tenements (with toilets in the hall!) that replaced the more affluent housing of previous residents, have many touches of grace and beauty.)”

    There is a well documented 40 year “hole” in appreciation of architectural style.

    Benjamin writes:

    1) There are some buildings that never were, and never will be, thought of as beautiful or neighborly / urbane (i.e., “schlock” architecture), and I think these are really the kind of buildings that Kevin and others are talking about in Queens.

    2) With these buildings, it’s not about “style,” it’s about “care,” “neighborly-ness / urbanity” and “affordability.” (However, it does also seem to be true that some architectural ideologies probably lend themselves less to an affordable, neighborly / urbane type of architecture than others, especially on a large scale [i.e., for use in many buildings throughout a district, be it predominantly high-rise or low-rise].)

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