Monday, December 22, 2008

Capturing Manhattanville

A couple of weeks ago I found the photography of Daniella Zalcman on Flickr and was struck by the simple beauty and urgency of her project: A photographic preservation of the Manhattanville section of Harlem in its final days before it is crushed by Columbia University's eminent domain--just approved by the state of New York.

Daniella, a student at Columbia, is also a freelance photographer for the New York Daily News. She maintains dan.iella, a blog called theonetrain, and just last week she launched the impressive site, where you can find her photos of this vanishing neighborhood, along with interviews and historic information. I wrote to Daniella and asked her a few questions.

Riverside Viaduct, by Daniella Zalcman

Q: What made you decide to photograph Manhattanville?

A: I started photographing Manhattanville three years ago when I arrived at Columbia and heard about the impending expansion plans. Columbia is planning to build another campus in West Harlem from 125th to 133rd Streets, between Broadway and 12th Avenue in the area informally known as Manhattanville. At the start of this semester (my final one in college), I decided to turn those photos into my senior architecture thesis. While I have expressly avoided injecting my own opinions and sentiments into the final product vis a vis Columbia's plans and the conflicts that they have generated, I do firmly believe that this area is worth documenting.

Q: What is it you are trying to preserve about this neighborhood?

A: Manhattanville has had a bizarre place in New York City industrial history. In the 1850s, the area was a wooded valley nestled between Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights. But by the turn of the 20th century, it became this veritable transit hub for Manhattan. It was home to the first elevated subway platform in the world, the Riverside Drive viaduct, and the Harlem River Piers, which at the time was one of the most trafficked shipping points in New York. During the 50's and 60's, however, the rest of New York City caught up and Manhattanville faded into obscurity. The area has mostly stagnated since then, but it's caught on the cusp of its final reincarnation before Columbia permanently installs a series of shiny Renzo Piano buildings, and I think it's important to capture that moment.

Sprayregen's Tuck It Away, by Daniella Zalcman

Q: Many people (and Columbia U.) might say there is nothing there of value. They say it's blighted. What did you find there?

One thing Nick Sprayregen said to me was particularly interesting--he's been in the neighborhood since 1980, and according to him the conditions that characterize blighted property really only emerged once Columbia had acquired a significant percentage of the existing real estate and evacuated the businesses and residents. I only came to New York in 2005, so I'm in no real position to know what the area was like before then, but since I've arrived the neighborhood has become increasingly deserted and grim.

Amrik Singh, by Daniella Zalcman

Q: Sprayregen and Singh are the last holdout businesspeople there. Many people might say, "who cares about a gas station and a storage facility?" Do you see any reason why we should care?

A: I do. It's not necessarily that we should care about the gas stations and storage facilities, per se -- though those types of businesses have really come to define this particular area of West Harlem -- but more that I believe it's worth caring about the families who have owned these places for the past 30 years. That might be a little overly sentimental, but I can understand both Nick Sprayregen and Amrik Singh's complete distaste for Columbia's use of eminent domain. At the same time (and as a Columbia student), I sympathize with the university's need to expand. And yes, Sprayregen and Singh are essentially the final two barriers to the development of this site -- though now that both properties have been declared blighted and the state has approved Columbia's use of eminent domain, it seems like a matter of time before they'll be forced out.

Further Reading:


Anonymous said...

I have bitter memories of being cheated at this gas station 20 years ago. I can't imagine these guys have become any less rapacious than they were then. Good riddance—the neighborhood will be better served by a world-class academic institution than by a crappy gas station and U-store it lockers.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big supporter of preservation in NYC. Unfortunately, our cause is discredited when we bemoan the loss of every last gas station and storage facility. Certainly the Singh family should get a fair deal, but that doesn't mean the gas station must stay.

Really people, c'mon!

Ken Mac said...

I haven't been up there yet, but the Claremont Theater should be revitalized. Certainly it could be used as a new peformance center.

Anonymous said...

When, oh when will these revanchist bloggers develop some base level of reading comprehension skills?

Who is bemoaning? Where did they say the gas station must stay?

From the interview:
I have expressly avoided injecting my own opinions and sentiments...

...I do firmly believe that this area is worth documenting.'s caught on the cusp of its final reincarnation...I think it's important to capture that moment.

It's not necessarily that we should care about the gas stations and storage facilities...

This is funny:
(scroll down for the pictures)

Here is a gas station in the "East Village" neighborhood of Des Moines, Iowa, about which one resident says: "Just driving by, it's obvious it's a historic building."

Perhaps New York City is a little spoiled when it comes to what's worth preserving.

Anonymous said...

Another write up on this area which fails to mention that this was Manhattan's 2nd meat market district until recently. Loading docks covered with awnings and festooned with the ubiquitous meathooks on overhead runners were visible from the highway until the late 90's. In addition, the viaduct is one of the seminal locations for rap videos. ß==o

Daniella said...

Anonymous #2: This isn't really about every gas station and storage facility, though. There have been nearly a dozen recent battles to landmark specific buildings in this area, all of which are historically significant in their own right. Yes, the new construction will be beneficial in many ways, but it'll be sad to see some of these old structures go.

ShatteredMonocle: Thank you.

Anonymous #3: Thanks!! I'll look into this -- I knew that milk distribution was a big part of the area's economy in the mid-1900s, but I hadn't read anything about meat. Will be sure to add to the site.


Jeremiah Moss said...

doesn't matter if it's a gas station, a 19th-century cathedral, or a chicken slaughter house, when one for-profit entity pays the government for a blight study that will go in its favor, and that government then takes private property away from its owner and hands it over to that entity, we have a big problem. and all of us are potentially threatened.