Since 2012, photographer, filmmaker, and urban explorer Nathan Kensinger has documented the little-seen corners of New York City in his Camera Obscura column on Curbed NY. In that time, he’s visited hidden waterways in the Bronx and Manhattan, examined the changing waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens, and chronicled the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and slow resurgence of Staten Island neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm.
Taken as a whole, Kensinger’s column is both a historical document and a cultural artifact of a particular time in New York City—a period in which entire neighborhoods are being remade, whether because of rising tides or developers’ whims.
For an introduction to Kensinger’s work, check out these essential Camera Obscura columns.
Over the past decade, many of Long Island City’s historic industrial buildings have been bulldozed to make way for a dystopian collection of anonymous glass towers. Chemical factories, soda bottling plants, gas stations, and garages have all vanished, replaced by an ongoing development boom that has created thousands of sleek apartments for new residents. No other neighborhood in the entire country has had as many apartments built in the last eight years, and no other neighborhood in New York City has seen its landscape changed as much by rezoning and redevelopment.
Against this backdrop, the Amazon proposal feels like just another nail in the coffin for the community’s surviving mom-and-pop manufacturing businesses.
Canal Street should be one of New York City’s greatest thoroughfares. It’s lined with a pleasant mix of unique buildings; it passes through several thriving neighborhoods and historic districts; and it houses dozens of small mom-and-pop businesses, many of which have been there for more than 50 years.
Instead, Canal Street is currently one of the city’s worst commercial streetscapes, blighted by empty storefronts and an array of increasingly generic new buildings. A walk along its entire 1.4 mile stretch, which runs 26 blocks from West Street to East Broadway, reveals a grand boulevard in crisis, with its street life choked out by real estate speculators, and traffic so bad that transit advocates have taken to calling it “Manhattan’s Boulevard of Death.”
Some say the East Village is dead, Manhattan has been murdered, and New York City has lost its soul. Some say that if you stand in the right place and squint hard enough, it can almost seem like the old city is still alive. Jeremiah Moss likes to think of the city as a crime scene, which he is investigating for clues, searching for the cause of death.
Over the past five years, two waterfront neighborhoods have changed more dramatically than almost any others in New York City. Hundreds of their buildings have been torn down, their coast has been reshaped, and their built landscapes radically altered. These two communities—both constructed in marshlands, both severely flooded during Hurricane Sandy, both located in the first evacuation zone for the next major storm—represent widely conflicting visions for the city’s future.
They are Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, and Long Island City, Queens, where the opposing ideas of managed retreat versus increased population density are now playing out in the face of rising sea levels.
In the 47 years since the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the agency has helped repair a nation inundated by pollution, toxins, and industrial waste. Here in New York City, it has cleaned rivers and beaches, removed radioactive waste and hazardous chemicals, and supported dozens of community groups dedicated to improving the environment. But as the current president drafts plans to roll back many of the regulations that empower the agency, many New Yorkers are now contemplating what the future will be for the EPA’s complicated work across all five boroughs.
In these maps of New York, the Bronx is burning, Brooklyn is brownstones and basketball, Staten Island has the Wu Tang Clan and the Fresh Kills Landfill, and Queens is a very diverse place, with many languages spoken. These sections of the atlas do not inspire the same frisson as the more unexpected observations found elsewhere in the book, but, as the authors readily acknowledge, trying to summarize New York City in 26 maps and essays is a nearly impossible task. “You know, even if we did a thousand maps, that’s still not an adequate description of New York. Even eight million maps is not,” says [Rebecca] Solnit. “Every city is infinite, infinite piled upon infinite… But multiple maps can at least begin to indicate that richness.”
“That is the ultimate tragedy of Admiral’s Row—that those buildings got knocked down for parking. In 2016, we are knocking down 150-year-old buildings for a parking lot,” says Simeon Bankoff, the Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council. “It is embarrassing.” Although they had been abandoned for over 40 years and left to become overgrown ruins, the officers’ quarters remained an irreplaceable part of Brooklyn’s history until their very end, and it is highly unlikely that the chain grocery store replacing them will become an equally important historic structure over the next century. “This was an amenity that was publicly owned, and the government is now spending money to flatten it,” says Bankoff, who was part of an alliance of preservation groups and neighborhood activists that tried to save the buildings. “We’ve got to learn from that. We can’t allow that to happen.”
The archipelago of New York City has over 520 miles of coastline, lined with innumerable sandy beaches. Some stretch for miles, others just a few yards, but during the high heat of summer—and during what is already on track to be the hottest year ever recorded—when it feels like the entire population of the city has fled to the water’s edge, it can be difficult to find a public beach that isn’t crowded. Luckily, hidden along coastal inlets, rivers, and bays, there are dozens of secret beaches—places that are either closed off to the general public or unregulated by the government, down dead-end roads, in empty lots, and at the edges of neglected, polluted waterways. While these might not be the most pristine beaches in the city, they are rarely crowded with visitors.
The familiar tensions between rich and poor are still present on the Gowanus today, as new residential towers spring up along its shoreline and unfiltered sewage continues to be dumped into its waters, an environmental injustice that the city has avoided addressing since the 1800s. … “What happens in industrial neighborhoods across New York is going to be based off the kinds of things that happen here,” said Alexiou, contemplating the canal. “The ultimate fight with Gowanus—and this is true of urban landscapes in general—is that we are constantly fighting against nature, we just don’t think about it…At some point that water is going to win, its just a matter of time.”