New York City Mike House | Victor Orriola
Conditions of urban decay and abandonment are beginning to spread through New York City at a rate not seen since the 1970s. 2008 was the first year on record that the DOB kept records of stalled construction sites and high foreclosure rates began to affect the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. As a result 15,000 renters who never engaged in irresponsible mortgage financing have come to account for at least half of the cities foreclosure victims. Simultaneously the NYC Dept. of Homeless Services together with the NYC Housing Authority have been advocating for an approach which stresses permanent housing over the typical transitional shelter model as a long term remedy for transitional housing.
We perceive the NYCHA’s call for a new type of transitional housing model as an indication that city agencies are now willing to be more progressive in the way that transitional populations are handled and understood. With that in mind we thought it appropriate to investigate some illicit practices which tend to thrive off of the decay and dysfunction of the city’s built environment. Specifically the work done by metal scrappers and squatters has become a model for our re-invigoration of abandoned sites. Through mapping we have identified how seemingly disparate sites are actually part of a sophisticated and highly interconnected underground network with it’s own rules for economy, occupation, growth and decay. While doing so we have been able to formalize some seemingly mundane qualities that such practices might use to evaluate any given vacant site and adopt these practices into a formal housing and community infrastructure.
Beyond simply a housing intervention, we propose various degrees of enclosure which create concrete benefits for mainstream real estate speculators as well as social service providers. These disparate entities rarely engage productively with one another as their fundamental operations tend to be opposed. In Ruin Nation gentrified and frontier populations will support each other through an engagement with various local architectural operations.
Ruin-Nation Mike House | Victor Orriola
Since 1968 architects have continually questioned notions of capital and commodity driven space making. The notion that architecture is merely a channel for the various flows of capital and market forces has been coming under scrutiny as of late. With the rise of emerging markets and new global flows of capital during the 1990s, first world cities were experiencing tremendous growth and increases in the production of space. However this growth was greatly challenged during the recent financial crisis. Mass foreclosure, outsourcing of entire job sectors and class stratification has resulted in conditions of dysfunctional urbanism.
Former manufacturing centers such as Detroit and other rust belt cities have been experiencing massive depopulation and decay. The exodus of the car industry in Detroit has resulted in the loss of 800,000 residents since 1960 (1). Large industrial facilities and corporate headquaters now sit vacant throughout the city resulting in the spread of crime and general conditions of decay.
New York has been experiencing quite an economic shock of it’s own lately. While New York was once home to a burgeoning industrial sector, the loss of those jobs has not been unmanageable due to the strength of the financial and real estate sectors. However this past year has seen these industries reeling from the world wide financial crisis. An estimated 82,000 financial sector jobs were lost last year. (3) Major slowdowns were experienced in the real estate and construction industries as well with 2009 being the first year that the DOB kept records on stalled construction sites.
There are currently a number of city neighborhoods that are experiencing this condition of dysfunctional urbansim. Former industrial and manufacturing zones in Mott Haven, Williamsburg, Hunts Point and East Harlem are continuing to experience moderate levels of abandonment and urban decay. A recent Manhattan wide survey of vacant buildings showed the majority of empty structures in the area immediately north of Central Park.(4) We speculate that the recent instability of other major local job markets could further this condition of decay in the next few decades.
We posit that this condition of abandonment exists within the margins of two economic systems, Capitalist and Post-Capitalist. Practices which utilize these sites operate in a manner that is dependent on the failures of capitalism. They exist in a frontier territory in which expansion, occupation and survival are the primary modes of operation. While this “Marginal Frontier” operates with similar goals in mind; those of “occupation” and “resource gathering”, it is fundamentally different than capitalist frontierism. Occupation and resource gathering withing Marginal Frontiers does not seek to further the flow of capital for the dominating forces, but rather to ensure a basic quality of life through the reappropriation of cast off materials. Notions of private property, monetary enrichment and excess are trumped by the common good of the collective.
Marginal Fronteirs in New York City exist whithin at least two social practices currently. Metal scrappers and squatters concern themselves with occupation and resource gathering. To this end they employ a series of space and social based protocols which create fronteir territories through the virtual linkage of abandoned sites. Our aim is analyze and map these illicit protocols in the hope that a network logic will become apparent. Such a logic is unconcerned with traditional notions of capital and could serve as a model for a post capitalist infrastructure.
Abandonment Networks Mike House | Victor Orriola
Recent events in the world economy have caused great distress, disruption and insecurity through all levels of society. It is impossible to go a day without news of another downturn or massive financial bailout. Complex market economic theories have been embedded in our collective conscience and it would appear that we are all now living on “Main Street”.
Recent events concerning the real estate / housing markets have had perhaps the greatest impact on average citizens. New York City in particular suffered a massive housing bust following the boom years of the late 1990’s. Economic vehicles such as sub-prime loans and variable rate mortgages have put a huge amount of home owners into foreclosure. Primarily minority areas such as Harlem and East New York have seen foreclosure rates as high as 15%. (1)
As homes continue to be vacated former owners appear to be adapting by creating improvised transitional communities. Like all informal settlements, these temporary villages operate with a specific set of protocols. They are often located near existing transport infrastructure (highway overpass), members engage in collective construction of dwellings, etc. (2)
Our initial interest in the behavior of these emerging tent cities and “Hoovervilles” required a deeper investigation into Protocols of Absence. The study of relationships, practices and spatial organization within sites of abandonment aims to uncover some of the logic built into these systems. Simultaneously an inquiry into philosophical and artistic speculations on Absence, Impermanence, Insertion, Removal and Memory has allowed us to formulate an abstract thesis which is as follows:
The process of removal and it’s resulting absence does not simply result in a void, but quite the opposite. Absence can create strong linkages of varying intensity. These linkages are usually virtual in nature, and can intensify a sense of community and common good within populations.
Both clay and the absence of clay are needed to produce a vessel, . . . thus as we profit from what is present, so we benefit from the absent.
Michael Chen and Jason Lee teach design studios and seminars at Pratt Institute. They both hold undergraduate degrees in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley and Master of Architecture degrees from Columbia University.
Michael Chen has taught design at Pratt Institute, Cornell University, Columbia University, and New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is a principal of Normal Projects, a multidisciplinary architecture and design firm based in New York and Los Angeles.
Jason Lee has taught design at Pratt Institute and Cooper Union. He is a partner at tentwenty, a multidisciplinary design firm based in New York.
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