In the nine years since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, filmmaker Jason DaSilva has found it increasingly difficult to traverse his beloved New York City. Using an electric scooter to get around his neighborhood, Mr. DaSilva has run in to many challenges including a lack of access ramps at the entrance of shops and restaurants and a nearby subway station with no elevator. City-provided taxi services for disabled persons have to be scheduled one day ahead of time and are often unreliable. The few public taxis that are wheelchair accessible can make traveling around the city easier, but taxi rides can be cost prohibitive.
In his short film for the New York Times titled “The Long Wait”, Mr. DaSilva demonstrates how arduous navigating the city in a wheelchair can be. As an experiment, Mr. DaSilva decides to time himself and his friend to see how long it takes them both to arrive at his favorite coffee shop (which is frustratingly only one subway stop away from his station nearest to his apartment). His friend Steve rides the train one stop and arrives at the destination in 13 minutes. After reviewing his public transportation options, Mr. DaSilva decides that the quickest route would be to take the East River Ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan and then transfer to two different buses. He arrives at the coffee shop in one hour and 43 minutes.
After traveling to cities like London, Toronto and San Francisco who have incorporated more accessible design elements like access ramps into buildings and wheelchair accessible trains, Mr. DaSilva says he was surprised that “forward-thinking” New York City lags behind other cities in accommodating their disabled population. “It’s not M.S. that exhausts me,” he says, ” it’s the barriers that prevent me from conducting my daily activities. Public-transportation challenges have turned my playground into a sand pit.”
Mr. DaSilva is working on researching design elements that can contribute to a more accessible city and believes that creating an accessible physical environment for all users is a basic human right. Hoping to contribute awareness of this issue he’s created AXS Map which allows users to provide, rate and explore information on the most accessible places to grab a coffee, get a hair cut, eat sushi, etc in cities throughout the US. “I hope it’s a small contribution to the community I am now a part of,” he says, “and helps make New York a little bit easier for us to live in.”
During the Occupy movement, one of the most important questions asked was who owns our public spaces and what is the role of these spaces and who is allowed (or deterred) from speaking? Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space is a new book that asks: Where can the public congregate and how can city planning, design, and policies support First Amendment rights to public assembly and free speech? The book features essays written by experts in social science, planning, design, civil liberties, urban affairs, and the arts that address the importance of our public spaces as forums for expression with an historic and contemporary lens.
I’m proud to say that many professors, current students and alumni of my alma mater Pratt Institute contributed to this thoughtful and important book. You can read more about the book (and it’s larger initiatives, current exhibitions, lectures and news) through Beyond Zuccotti Park’s Twitter and Facebook pages.
Today, the New York Times had a great opinion piece by Jeremiah Moss titled Disney World on the Hudson: In the Shadows of the High Line.
For me, the High Line is an innovative and unique reuse project, but one that also embodies exclusivity. The 1.45-mile-long park is located in a mostly swanky area of Manhattan, surrounded by chic shops and restaurants, expensive food trucks and sits literally high above the street (which can be an issue when elevated spaces can feel unwelcoming and exclusive). The park is accessible to some visitors by mulitiple stairways and less-abled visitors (or those encumbered with strollers for example) can access the long and winding park by select elevators. But those with any impairment or any sort of carriage must be careful not to trip over raised concrete design features that surround the planted areas embedded in the concrete surface of the park.
The Friends of High Line board boasts a few high-profile celebrities who live or work near the park (the website features a history of the High Line video narrated by the actor Ethan Hawke) and had managed to create such a buzz about the space that on opening day there was a line of people wrapped around the block, waiting (after they obtained an official wrist band) to explore this new “public” space, a handful at a time.
Many other cities around the country have looked to the High Line as a model of an innovative reuse project than can attract a lot of locals and tourists to a neighborhood but it may be important for them to take a closer look. Mr. Moss writes that the park “has become a tourist-clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history.”
As so often happens with gentrification, Mr. Moss fears that any remaining diversity of “regular New Yorkers” will soon vanish. He writes:”Within a few years, the ecosystem disrupted by the High Line will find a new equilibrium. The aquarium-like high rises will be for the elite, along with a few exclusive locals like the Standard Hotel. But the new locals will rarely be found at street level, where chain stores and tourist-friendly restaurants will cater to the crowds of passers-by and passers-through. Gone entirely will be regular New Yorkers, the people who used to call the neighborhood home. But then the High Line was never really about them.”
A New York-based group of teenagers called the Bronx Helpers who work to enhance the quality of life in their community have recently successfully lobbied the City of New York to improve the safety of E 172nd Street and Townsend Avenue by removing some parking spaces near the intersection to increase visibility of pedestrians and vehicles. The Bronx Helpers convinced the city of the necessary safety improvements after three years of advocacy.
After the city rejected a plea from the Bronx Helpers for a stop sign at the dangerous intersection (for which the activists had collected over 1,000 signatures of support), they convinced city officials to come and tour the neighborhood in hopes of finding another solution. This tour convinced the city that something should be done.
Congratulations to this passionate group of activists who worked hard to make their voices be heard and in doing so, succeeded in improving the safety of their neighborhood.