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Light At Grade

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 19, 2009

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Light At Grade

CLAblogThe current show of the photographs by Robert Frank at the Metropolitan in New York is provocative on many levels. One is how dark and dreary New York and most other cities looked at the sidewalk level in the 1950s and 60s. Recent viewings of The French Connection (1972) and Seven Ups (1973), with its 13 minute car chase through the streets of Manhattan and past my subway stop, show an equally dim first story. Admittedly, Frank had a somber viewpoint (no one smiles) and the cop movies were celebrating gritty. Still the 9th Avenue and West 96th Streets shown in the Seven Ups is not even remotely like the ones we have today.

Personally, I remember those streets. In the early seventies I used to marvel at how old and closed in the shops on upper Broadway were. Some actually sold lace. Others, I don’t know what they sold. Shop windows were often very fly blown. There was retail but not much selling. Naturally the midtown shopping avenues were glittering but outside those relatively limited areas the retail bulb dimmed way down. Retail and commerce on cross town streets were even more withdrawn, even mysterious, to the outsider.

Something changed and it probably happened in the 1980s. Retail activity south of 96th Street started to grow in intensity. A local avenue like Columbus suddenly became hot. Rents increased, old shops disappeared and new ones took over. The change was so abrupt that many feared for the city. Commercial rent control was proposed by the Borough President. It never went anywhere. Protecting mom and pop lace shops in the mid-80s didn’t seem convincing.

With the greater retail vigor came expanded shop windows and more lighting. Stores were reaching out to the passersby. The parochial shops of the closed neighborhoods were replaced by stores that would take anybody’s money. Yes, the mallification of Manhattan was worrisome but it seemed that New York suddenly had more neighborhoods of interest to explore.

Today the avenues and retail cross streets teem with life and light. Retail has been hard hit by the recession but it is finding its way to struggle back. Some stores are empty but they come back surprisingly fast. So what happened? An explosion in U.S. consumer spending that began in the 80s is partly the answer. The other is New York’s expanding population. Increased density and sheer numbers supported more stores, restaurants and entertainment. Competition spurred the hard sell and, often, excitement and light in the street.

Robert Frank and the cop films saw a low energy city outside its famed core. That was then this is now. Try to get through the evening crowds on Ninth Avenue today.

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