All right, I wanted to stay close to home for this one, I’ll admit it. I work right around the block, on West Street and Noble, and of late there’s been a lot of construction activity going around. The two old industrial buildings on either side of Noble and West are finally getting renovated, and I imagine in a year (or months? or longer?) from now they’ll probably be rented out to somebody (and by the way, just because I say finally doesn’t mean I’m necessarily happy about it). Oh also, the Brooklyn Expo Center is coming – whatever the hell that is – across the street from American Playground. So yeah, this strip is changing for sure (but aren’t they always?). I’ve been trying to find out what exactly is coming into those two old industrial buildings – 56 and 60 West Street – but it’s hard to tell; according to the Department of Buildings for example 56 West Street has a work permit for conversion to commercial space and a work permit for sprinkler installation for a residential building. So go figure. It’s cool I guess that these old industrial buildings are being renovated at least, regardless of what it’s for, as opposed to being torn down and replaced by boring condos. Although you have to assume that the open lots and old industrial buildings on the other side of West Street, along the East River (including where I work), will be torn down eventually and replaced by really tall and probably boring condo towers. Why? Because the zoning allows it. And if the zoning allows it someones probably gonna build it someday. Why? Because the higher the zoning the more money to be made, so why would you ever build anything else?
Although those really tall and probably boring condos will likely include affordable housing, so that’s something going for them. And assuming those old industrial buildings are being turned into condos themselves I’d say there’s no chance that they will, so that’s a strike against them for sure. This whole area is included in the Inclusionary Housing Program, which means – as it currently stands – that if developers choose to include affordable housing, to the tune of 20% of their floor area, they can build an additional 33% of floor area on top of what the zoning allows. You know, the whole incentivize public good by rewarding with private profit thing. It’s the same idea as all the new waterfront parks that run along the front yards of the new condos – privately funded and not managed by the NYC Parks Department – and ostensibly created to fill the public desire for new parks and waterfront access. Which they do – kind of – they’re also, ya know, the front yards of the new condos: an extra little selling piece. And they all look the same! When the really tall and probably boring condos do come they’ll bring their parks with them and it will essentially be a new neighborhood grafted onto the edge of this one. Now, will I still try to live in the affordable housing? Maybe!
But the neighborhood won’t look like this anymore, that’s all I’m saying. Though hell, it doesn’t look like this anymore right now either, so why should I complain (56 West Street – the building to the right with the metal structure on top – is the only building in this picture that still stands – you can just see it in the picture below on the left). This whole area has a storied industrial past (as I’ve mentioned before), going back to the shipbuilding days of the 1850s and seeing in its time such highlights as the launching of the first caisson for the Brooklyn Bridge and the building of the Civil War ironclad The Monitor. Around 1890 the American Manufacturing Company began operations and quickly grew; at their peak before the First World War their factories and warehouses encompassed some 14 acres, 16 buildings and 6 city blocks, employing just shy of 2,500 men in what was supposedly the largest rope manufacturer in the world. At some point the lot that is now American Playground must have become unnecessary, because American Manufacturing started renting it out to the city for park use, at the price of $1, paid every third year when the lease was renewed. In 1955 it was presumably bought outright, because that year it was assigned to Parks Department control (still under the administration of the first-ever Parks Commissioner Robert Moses by the way) and officially named American Playground in honor of the American Manufacturing Company and their generosity.
By then you have to assume the end was close to nigh for the company – if it hadn’t come already. I’m not sure exactly when they closed up shop but for decades, running right up to today, their old buildings stood essentially vacant – American Playground one small spot of activity amongst the ruins. It isn’t much to look at, as playgrounds go, but it’s got swings and jungle gyms and sprinklers, handball courts and basketball and they’re all used and used well. So honestly what more do you need? And it’s publicly owned – being run by the Parks Department and whatnot. That matters to me for some reason. And that’s also of course probably one reason why it ain’t so pretty. But again, what more do you need? I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say here: I mean it’s a good thing that these old abandoned buildings are being used again but I guess I just wonder why we have to make it all look so pretty. Like, who are these new grafted neighborhoods and parks supposed to be for? I guess they’re supposed to be for people who think American Playground isn’t good enough. But what more do they need?