written by:
photos by:
February 15, 2011
Originally published in We Love New York

When Dwell proposed that I undertake a design writing variant of Supermarket Sweep—visiting five projects in five boroughs in two days—I had a single thought: Why me?

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  The New York City subway crisscrosses the five boroughs, linking all but Staten Island.
    The New York City subway crisscrosses the five boroughs, linking all but Staten Island.
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  Despite the economic downturn, the city is still booming with construction—as evidenced by the fleet of cranes on the horizon.
    Despite the economic downturn, the city is still booming with construction—as evidenced by the fleet of cranes on the horizon.
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  Another view from a subway car.
    Another view from a subway car.
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  A subway rider takes a rest.
    A subway rider takes a rest.
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  One of the pleasures of New York City is people-watching, especially in the golden glow of late afternoon.
    One of the pleasures of New York City is people-watching, especially in the golden glow of late afternoon.
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  A sidewalk view.
    A sidewalk view.
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  A view from a subway car.
    A view from a subway car.
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  Bill Ryall at home in Harlem. "When I first thought of moving to Harlem, I looked at a map. The island's about 210 blocks long, I'm near 110th Street—I thought, 'It's right in the center of Manhattan.'"    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
    Bill Ryall at home in Harlem. "When I first thought of moving to Harlem, I looked at a map. The island's about 210 blocks long, I'm near 110th Street—I thought, 'It's right in the center of Manhattan.'"
    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
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  Ryall installed vertical circulation elements, opening an unobstructed 47-foot-long view from front to back, and kept the ceiling beams exposed to create a loftlike environment.    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
    Ryall installed vertical circulation elements, opening an unobstructed 47-foot-long view from front to back, and kept the ceiling beams exposed to create a loftlike environment.
    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
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  Ryall's only so-called extravagances in the inexpensive renovation were the weather- and sound-resistant windows and central air-conditioning system.    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
    Ryall's only so-called extravagances in the inexpensive renovation were the weather- and sound-resistant windows and central air-conditioning system.
    This originally appeared in Manhattan.
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  A close-up in the kitchen of the Ryall residence.
    A close-up in the kitchen of the Ryall residence.
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  Lunch time.
    Lunch time.
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  A street vendor has watches for sale.
    A street vendor has watches for sale.
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  Downtown Flushing has the city's second-largest Chinatown, and third-busiest intersection.
    Downtown Flushing has the city's second-largest Chinatown, and third-busiest intersection.
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  With its orderly rope-covered ceiling and sleek bars of light, Minnis Shabu Shabu, John Hsu's restaurant, is purposely at odds with Flushing's aesthetic.  Courtesy of c 2010 Jake Stangel.
    With its orderly rope-covered ceiling and sleek bars of light, Minnis Shabu Shabu, John Hsu's restaurant, is purposely at odds with Flushing's aesthetic. Courtesy of c 2010 Jake Stangel.
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  John Hsu's house is a concrete modernist box nestled amid “suburban eclectica,” as architect Drew Lang characterizes the neighborhood’s prevailing style.
    John Hsu's house is a concrete modernist box nestled amid “suburban eclectica,” as architect Drew Lang characterizes the neighborhood’s prevailing style.
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  When the Hsus found themselves expecting a third child, they engaged Lang to enclose the upper part of their double-height living room to create a fourth bedroom and playroom-study upstairs. Additionally, Lang resurfaced the fireplace wall with massive slabs of filled silver travertine marble­. The slabs were so large that one of them broke an adjoining floor-to-ceiling glass pane during installation.
    When the Hsus found themselves expecting a third child, they engaged Lang to enclose the upper part of their double-height living room to create a fourth bedroom and playroom-study upstairs. Additionally, Lang resurfaced the fireplace wall with massive slabs of filled silver travertine marble­. The slabs were so large that one of them broke an adjoining floor-to-ceiling glass pane during installation.
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  Cinematographer Wilmot Kidd sweeps the roof of the Red Hook industrial building that contains his home.
    Cinematographer Wilmot Kidd sweeps the roof of the Red Hook industrial building that contains his home.
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  In a former shipping and receiving room, Kidd's design-builder Eric Wolf inserted a custom-crafted freestanding stair.
    In a former shipping and receiving room, Kidd's design-builder Eric Wolf inserted a custom-crafted freestanding stair.
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  Wolf also enlarged the 16-by-30-foot space's single window.
    Wolf also enlarged the 16-by-30-foot space's single window.
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  The sleeping loft is fitted with mahogany rails.
    The sleeping loft is fitted with mahogany rails.
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  Wolf mounted a platform for Kidd's video projector.
    Wolf mounted a platform for Kidd's video projector.
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  The Brook, a supportive housing building in the Bronx, occupies what had, for years, been a vacant lot. The green roof, pictured here, is one of a number of LEED-driven elements.
    The Brook, a supportive housing building in the Bronx, occupies what had, for years, been a vacant lot. The green roof, pictured here, is one of a number of LEED-driven elements.
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  “Do you really like your building?” the Brook’s director, Paul Pavon, was asked by an acquaintance, who compared the appearance of the 90,000- square-foot supportive housing development in New York’s famously blighted South Bronx to that of the Tetris video game. Indeed he does: “If you walk around this neighborhood, not too many buildings look like this. So there’s some kind of pride when the tenants come home.”
    “Do you really like your building?” the Brook’s director, Paul Pavon, was asked by an acquaintance, who compared the appearance of the 90,000- square-foot supportive housing development in New York’s famously blighted South Bronx to that of the Tetris video game. Indeed he does: “If you walk around this neighborhood, not too many buildings look like this. So there’s some kind of pride when the tenants come home.”
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  A wider view of the Brook, in the context of the neighborhood.
    A wider view of the Brook, in the context of the neighborhood.
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  Over the past 15 years, Groundswell Community Mural Project has developed hundreds of murals around New York City that give voice to otherwise underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and beautify neighborhoods that are rarely the focus of public art initiatives. Here's one example.
    Over the past 15 years, Groundswell Community Mural Project has developed hundreds of murals around New York City that give voice to otherwise underrepresented ideas and perspectives, and beautify neighborhoods that are rarely the focus of public art initiatives. Here's one example.
  • 
  On the ferry, en route to Staten Island.
    On the ferry, en route to Staten Island.
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  The Statue of Liberty in the distance.
    The Statue of Liberty in the distance.
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  The tall vegetation surrounding Carrie Grassi, Freshkills Park land-use and outreach manager, grows atop what was formerly the world’s largest landfill: 150 million tons of (mostly) garbage, accumulated over more than half a century.
    The tall vegetation surrounding Carrie Grassi, Freshkills Park land-use and outreach manager, grows atop what was formerly the world’s largest landfill: 150 million tons of (mostly) garbage, accumulated over more than half a century.
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  In 1948, when filling began, Fresh Kills’ “marshy, low-lying wetlands weren’t prized—people thought they were breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” Grassi says.
    In 1948, when filling began, Fresh Kills’ “marshy, low-lying wetlands weren’t prized—people thought they were breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” Grassi says.
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  Development over the next several years will focus on public access and showcasing the site’s unusual combination of natural and engineered beauty.
    Development over the next several years will focus on public access and showcasing the site’s unusual combination of natural and engineered beauty.
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  Phase One includes opening up 21 acres in North Park and a 20-acre swath of South Park that will incorporate ball fields, a bike loop, and natural habitats.
    Phase One includes opening up 21 acres in North Park and a 20-acre swath of South Park that will incorporate ball fields, a bike loop, and natural habitats.
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Exterior view of New York City subway
The New York City subway crisscrosses the five boroughs, linking all but Staten Island.

Getting five sets of interviewees to stay put while I ran around a vast, unpredictable metropolis seemed like a stunt that was bound to fail. Yet the idea was irresistible. Such a tour would draw me through the city’s infrastructure, its trains, roadways, and streets, sharpening my understanding of how the great urban machine holds together. I live in New York for its variety, yet I spend my days shuttling between the same few places in Manhattan; here was a chance to really see my hometown, to apprehend its sweep and multiplicity in a compressed way that would amplify both. And let’s face it: New Yorkers like a challenge—especially one that tests them against their city. This promised to be a good one.

 

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