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[I’ve been meaning to post this for months.]

During our group project for the CRP New York City workshop, we specifically studied the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, an old industrial area around a historically-working waterfront, now becoming a mix of warehouse space, unfinished office and craft spaces, a few residential units (in addition to the large housing project on its edge), and an influx of creative activity like artists, performance venues, trendy bars, and randomly a Holiday Inn Express.

Being generally unfamiliar with New York City and very familiar with Chicago, it struck me that the Gowanus area looks and feels (perhaps smells) a lot like the Clybourn/Goose Island industrial corridor two miles northwest of the Loop.  Both have a lot of old, messy industrial uses – some of which still exist, others which have left only brownfields – along a formerly working waterfront, in Clybourn’s case the Chicago River.

The forces of gentrification and redevelopment have been at work longer in Clybourn, however, perhaps in part because the river is not a heavily, notoriously polluted Superfund site.  While Finkl Steel and a few others have held on in the area, by and large the area along North Avenue and Goose Island has flipped to become retail (and a bit of housing), especially home furnishings like Restoration Hardware, Design Within Reach, and Crate & Barrel.  The two most buzzworthy developments were the flagship Whole Foods (May 2009) right along the river on Kingsbury, and the Apple Store and renovated Red Line stop (Winter 2010) at the edge of the industrial development.

Comparing aerial views of the two highlights their similar scale, location near a highway, and situation between two dense residential neighborhoods – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, 1000 ft

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, view at 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

More interesting than their shared history and layout, however, is their possibly shared future – specifically, the degree to which the changes in Clybourn portend how Gowanus will develop as the Superfund cleanup moves forward.  Both already have a large Home Depot, both will soon have a large Whole Foods with several yuppie-friendly gimmicks:  the Chicago store has a lovely riverside patio, a huge food court, and a demonstration kitchen which gets regular use.  The Brooklyn store will have a rooftop garden for ultra-local produce, possibly waterfront access, and likely many WF amenities which are possible when building on such a large lot.  Both also have a kayaking presence, though the Gowanus Dredgers certainly take on more risk than the rental places along the Chicago River!

While neither area had a large residential community per se, both were home to many industrial jobs, probably for over a century in both cases.  And both have those who have some degree of fondness, or at least tolerance, for the messy, smelly, bustling, “wild west” they used to be.  In Chicago’s case, the legacy of shady activity along Weed Street comes to mind; in Gowanus’ case, the area still struggles with some drug activity and prostitution, though probably not the “roving gangs of hookers and drug dealers” claimed to exist by one resident.  The influx of trendy stores and office lofts represents real change, however, and what Clybourn is now, Gowanus likely will be.

What lessons for Gowanus can be drawn from Clybourn?

First, that change is inevitable – even its reputation as one of the most polluted sites in America will, with the help of the federal cleanup, likely not stop development in the long run.  The recession has slowed development city-wide, but New York is an aggressive real estate market, to put it mildly.

Second, that unless told otherwise, developers will probably bring big-box retail as the natural successor to large industrial spaces.  While Clybourn is now cleaner and probably safer, it is not very walkable – big parking lots separate building from street, and North Avenue has narrow sidewalks and fast-moving cars (when they aren’t clogged with traffic).  Given Gowanus’ proximity to dense and growing Brooklyn residential neighborhoods, more work should be done to make it a natural bridge between the two, not a barrier, by keeping some of the large-format stores from building replicas of what we have in the suburbs.

Third, that it is possible to keep some vestiges of the area’s past life, if only symbolic.  Chicago recently finished restoring a small railroad bridge which connects North Avenue with Goose Island, now a pedestrian walking path (but with “Live Rail” signs, which I’m not sure actually mean anything).  The Whole Foods and kayak rental places allow access to the water, but the height of the bank makes it clear that this is not another North Avenue Beach.  The Goose Island brewery, Smith & Hawken, and several other stores occupy old industrial warehouses which have been retrofitted, though many of the retail buildings (and certainly the NoHo residential tower) are new.  Although most of Gowanus’ old industrial buildings might not be worth saving for public health or financial reasons, keeping as much as possible of the old brick and stone buildings can at least maintain the area’s character, which is what has attracted much of the new activity in the first place.

The planner is, of course, going to conclude that Gowanus needs better planning.  But in this case, and based on what has already happened along the Clybourn Corridor in Chicago, it seems to be true.  Change will happen, and the area will likely not remain industrial, except perhaps at its south end toward the Gowanus Bay.  Once the Canal itself becomes a water amenity rather than an environmental liability, it will become a desirable place to be; the large, underused lots are rare in New York and will become prime locations for suburban-style retail, unless more guidelines are put into place ahead of time to create denser, more walkable development which benefits the neighborhood.  Taking the good aspects of Clybourn and learning from the bad, Gowanus can perhaps become the same, only better.

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It’s been a busy week – four days in Boston for the APA Conference, then home just in time for a short bout with stomach flu and off again for HPP (Historic Preservation and Planning program) Work Weekend!  Two out of the three of those were a great time.

South Boston

South Boston

For Work Weekend, our caravan of cars headed up to Medina Stone Farm, a 19th-century farmhouse and barn property now managed as a B&B and performance venue.  While we only had limited time and a semi-skilled crew, we were tasked with 1) stripping, re-glazing, and painting several historic windows purchased in Ithaca and brought up to be installed in the small barn; 2) preparing to repair an old stone-and-mortar fence by putting rocks into piles by size; 3) painting the exterior of the small barn; and 4) documenting the site through drawings, description, and photos.

Medina Stone Farm

Medina Stone Farm

We weren’t able to do the exterior painting because it rained all day on Saturday, but we did good work with the other three jobs, and met some interesting animals along the way (an orange cat, some horses, a couple mules, a couple goats, some sheep, several chickens, and two dogs).

My favorite job, and the one that really made me think, was the several-step process of restoring the old windows.  They came in various conditions, from ready to repaint and install, to missing panes and with significant wood damage.  Most had original glass, but needed to be re-glazed and repainted – meaning the lines of putty which hold each pane in the wooden frame needed to be scraped out, the frame re-sanded, and the glazing putty re-applied.  There wasn’t time to complete all the windows and install them in the barn, but we at least put new glazing in (I think I’m using the correct terms) and primed them for painting.

In addition to feeling great for doing some actual tangible work – in contrast to the mile-high stack of words I’ve been reading for the last two years – I really enjoyed learning more about how old windows work, and why taking the time and care to repair the elements of an old building is a good thing.

Windows are a critical part of any building:  they provide natural light and interesting views for the interior, if they open they help cool and circulate air in the rooms, and can be a major site of decorative detail.  While contemporary windows (not counting large glass-wall style windows like those in office buildings) are generally designed as one big energy-saving unit, but old windows are complex, multi-part technological systems in themselves.  Windows are often one of the big projects of building preservation because, unlike modern windows, they are a versatile and fully-repairable piece of building technology, whether damaged during bad weather or simply aging over prolonged exposure.

A modern, manufactured window must be replaced wholesale if any part of it is broken, its insulating vacuum seal infiltrated, or if it  or the frame eventually warps.  An historic wood window, however, can be taken apart and reconstructed by hand.  The wooden frame can be rebuilt, including the small dividers between window panes; the glass panes can be removed, cleaned, or replaced if broken; and the glazing can be pried out, sanded down, and reapplied.  This makes the window more versatile, generally longer-lasting, and over the span of several decades less costly than replacing it with a new one.  Because the windows in a wood-frame structure were also designed specifically for that building, historic preservationists also argue that it is better to keep original windows because they will fit better, shifting with the rest of the structure and providing a better seal against the elements than a retrofitted contemporary window of different materials.  Well-maintained older buildings tend to be energy efficient and structurally sound if their constituent elements are preserved, as they collectively represent a technological system which is meant to function in a certain way.

Working on Windows

Working on Windows

Working with these windows, some of which had their original panes and glazing from probably before 1900, made me really appreciate preservation as a means of saving technologies and putting it back to work.  When the average person thinks of preservation, the reason for saving something tends to be along the lines of historic sites like battlefields, or for aesthetic and architectural purposes, the classic phrase “an excellent example of early/mid/late ___ style.”  Where preservation is meant to keep a building functioning, however, the technological aspects of preservation come into play as well.  This view of preservation doesn’t seem to have much recognition outside the field, but as interest in sustainability and energy efficiency grows in the public discourse (including a session on the value of historic buildings at the APA conference), it seems important to highlight this aspect of preservation as part of why historic buildings (and other structures) should be kept.  Not only are they valuable from a real estate and economic development standpoint (in terms of maintaining land values and sense of place), they are also valuable technological systems which were designed by people wise enough to know about energy efficiency and recycling long before the “sustainability” buzzword came along.

Windows are a good thing!

Windows are a good thing!