Good morning. It’s Tuesday. We’ll look at Via Verde, which was designed as a model of beautiful, sustainable subsidized housing in the South Bronx, through the eyes of The New York Times architecture critic.
When it opened in 2011, the Via Verde complex in the South Bronx stood out for its elegance and dignity, an attempt at architectural improvement and sustainable design that promised value to match the cost. Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote at the time that Via Verde had an ambitious goal: to reinvent subsidized housing. The development had unusual features for public housing, such as a rooftop gym and a community garden where residents could grow fruits and vegetables, in a neighborhood that still lacks fresh food options.
I chatted with Michael, who just got another look at Via Verde, about how it went.
You followed the residents who moved in 12 years ago. How do they feel about living there?
Locals tell me they like the fact that it’s a very safe place, and part of the security comes from the fact that it is indeed closed: the entrance is monitored by a concierge, a doorman behind a desk. This gives the place a certain security, as there is someone to monitor entrances and exits, something many housing estates did not include.
Partly for economic reasons, but also because in the 1960s and 1970s, housing projects were designed to have porous, open campuses, filled with entrances and exits and often with interconnected corridors. It was very difficult to control these spaces.
The fact that you have a doorman at Via Verde creates more of a residential community feeling. The people who live there are famous. The minor compromise in privacy is outweighed by the benefits of having someone watch and also do things like pick up packages.
It doesn’t take much to ensure a certain level of security. Jane Jacobs talked about eyes on the street, meaning people don’t do things they shouldn’t do if they feel like they’re being watched. There is collective power in the simple act of people watching. They don’t need to be armed. They don’t need to be aggressive. They’re right there.
How different was the design from other housing projects? How unusual was this look and why was it important?
The ambition of Via Verde was to show that just because a project was built affordably and some of its residents were formerly homeless, it does not necessarily have to deprive itself of visual qualities or aesthetic.
It is important to remember that under the Bloomberg administration, the emphasis was on the quality of public building design. The Via Verde and other buildings and parks designed under Bloomberg were meant to raise the level of public design, in the spirit of the New Deal and all the extraordinary public buildings that New York had constructed in the 20th century.
So it was an ambitious goal and it worked.
RIGHT. Via Verde aimed to show what could be. The downside was always that it was expensive, it was exceptional, and it had a lot of political support, but here on planet Earth that wasn’t the way buildings actually were. constructed.
Above all, Via Verde demonstrated the importance of bringing all agencies together and using everything the government has to make projects like this possible as quickly as possible. Our biggest problem is not that we don’t know what good design could be or that we don’t understand what sustainable design is; is that we have created a system with so many obstacles, so many ways to delay or compromise a project.
When Via Verde appeared, we also needed to change the discourse around architecture and social housing. Architecture had become too focused on very high-end projects for museums, elite institutions, and the wealthy, when it could play a more fundamental role in public welfare and equity.
You quoted someone who said that Via Verde cost $99 million and turned out to be “the cheapest and most expensive project.”
It was Adam Weinstein, who heads the nonprofit that manages the building. He said the building has been much less expensive to maintain than similar buildings of the same age that were not built the way Via Verde was.
A premium was paid for the architecture and certain sustainable elements of Via Verde, which are now standard but were not then. The expense was ultimately justified, because at the heart of Via Verde was the argument that intelligent, sustainable and dignified architecture has both economic and social benefit. The building showed respect to the residents, and the residents, in turn, respected the building. There is an argument that if you treat people with dignity, they will treat you and the community with dignity. If you tell people they are worthless, what will their reaction be?
That’s not to say that Via Verde hasn’t had its share of accidents. The bamboo cabinets were supposed to be fashion-forward, but it turned out they fell apart and needed to be replaced.
You have a personal interest in Via Verdi. This is what you wrote about when you became architecture critic at The Times.
Architecture is often written before buildings are used. It’s like writing about a restaurant before anyone eats there. I promised in that first post to follow up once people move in. Buildings are not sculptures; these are lived experiences.
I also think it’s important to follow through on the things we talk about to the public. I’m glad Via Verde worked for the people who lived there, but I would have been interested if it didn’t. We owe it to the public to say if something fails and why.
There might be sledding, snowballs and snowmen in Central Park by mid-afternoon.
The city is bracing for its biggest snowfall in two years, with the National Weather Service saying a powerful storm could blanket parts of the city, Long Island and northeastern New Jersey with four to eight inches of snow . A winter storm warning went into effect at 4 a.m.
The storm will be intense while it lasts, with some areas expecting up to two inches per hour, but it will ease by mid-afternoon. Expect temperatures in the 30s, with wind chills in the 20s and 30s. At night, temperatures drop into the 20s.
New York City public schools will hold classes remotely today and the city’s public libraries will be closed.
Effective today. Suspended tomorrow (Ash Wednesday).
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I was visiting New York with a friend a few years ago. We hailed a taxi outside our hotel and headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We were delighted. The taxi was a Checker, and at the wheel was an authentic New York taxi driver: thick Bronx accent, unlit cigar, driver’s cap.
Upon learning we were from Fort Worth, Texas, he regaled us with stories about the Bronx and advised us where to find the best Italian food in the city. His name was Tony.
When we arrived at the museum, we paid the ticket price, said our goodbyes and left. We had just entered the museum when we heard someone calling our name.