William Easterly and Laura Freschi on "A Long History of a Short Block"
URB.im recently attended a conference at NYU hosted by the Development Research Institute and the Marron Institute of Urban Management on "Cities and Development: Urban Determinants of Success." This is the second post of our four-part series reporting on the event.
William Easterly and Laura Freschi proposed a new approach to tackling the question of whether development flourishes under planned or spontaneous conditions. Rather than examining development at the nation-state level or city level, they zoomed in to a single New York City block: Greene Street, between Houston and Prince streets.
Tracing the history of this block, Easterly and Freschi argued that its natural course of development, which was threatened but ultimately not determined by planners, has allowed the area to adapt to changing conditions over time. Although the area has suffered through periods of neglect and immense challenges, its surprise-filled trajectory has ultimately resulted in a unique and successful neighborhood. Prescriptive planners, unable to anticipate the future, might have prevented these successes if they had been allowed to intervene.
By the 1830s the block was already an established and fairly wealthy area, home to craftsmen, merchants, and educated professionals. Not long after, it underwent a rapid transformation into New York City's biggest red-light district, as former residents fled for other areas and prostitutes moved in. This shift responded to city-wide trends: as New York developed as a bustling port city with travelers coming in and out, the demand for prostitution increased. The supply side grew at the same time, with women finding that they could earn ten times more as sex workers than as servants. This block had particularly conducive conditions for a red-light district — not only was it located in close proximity to hotels and nightlife on nearby Broadway Street, it also had the right infrastructure: two-to-three-story brick houses with many bedrooms.
The next significant transformation turned the area into a center of industrialization with huge numbers of garment factories. The city as a whole was industrializing quickly, spurred by its convenient location on the Hudson River near railroads and its foundation of good infrastructure and services, such as water, sewage, and fire prevention. Technological innovations in faster sewing machines, elevators, and cast iron buildings, among others, contributed to the garment boom. Ninety percent of the city's garment workers were Italians, Russians, and other eastern Europeans. Greene Street, nestled between neighborhoods with immigrant populations, was therefore a key site for the industry.
By 1910, the end of the garment boom, much of the industry shifted uptown to today's garment district, where there were bigger and more modern buildings. The neighborhood suffered, turning into an industrial slum. The Great Depression and the 1930s only exacerbated the situation. A few low-value industries remained, while encampments of homeless people grew. It was this low point that led city planners in the 1940s to propose tearing the block down in order to rescue it, calling for complete demolition and replacement of the "obsolete area." Robert Moses, the renowned New York City planner, proposed turning Fifth Avenue into a four-lane highway.
Out of this threat, the area began to regain its former vibrancy. The threat of bulldozers kept rents low, attracting artists and art galleries that would make SoHo the heart of the city's art scene. Just the single block of Greene Street between Houston and Prince was home to many famous artists. Still, it was not an attractive place to live, with no schools and few services like trash collection.
Today, the neighborhood is once again an important center for the garment industry, as it is home to many luxury retail businesses. For the first time in 100 years, it is a popular residential area as well, with luxury co-ops located above ground floor businesses. The fall in crime since the 1990s has led to an increase in rents. Even though there are almost no artists left, the block retains cultural and artistic capital.
Today's neighborhood wouldn't exist if planners had had their wish and demolished the buildings to make way for a highway. For Easterly and Freschi, this block's history serves the argument that development is about letting resources flow to what works spontaneously.