Will New York Become One Giant Suburb?

Question: What defines the “soul” of a city?

Sharon Zukin: The soul of the city is it’s people, it’s small shops the diversity of the crowds. The hustle and bustle but not just change, rootedness, neighborhoods, streets that maintain their identity over a long period of time. Cities are always changing and it would be silly to say that a city loses its soul when it changes exactly because so many new people come, old people live, businesses die for technological, cultural, and financial reasons but the soul of a city is often felt to be in the long-time residents, the old businesses and particularly the small businesses, the small shops, the small streets. And, the people who are not the richest but they’ve been here a long time and they give the city character.

Question: What creates this craving for an “authentic” space?

Sharon Zukin: Every movement always spurs a resistance to that movement; a counter-movement, a counter-culture and in our time as in the 1960s, there was a big resistance against the standardization of overwhelmingly large organizations. In cities today, there’s been an invasion since the late 1990s of chain stores and these create visible faces of standardization. Some people have spoken of this in terms of the suburbanization of cities. And in some cities I have to say it’s a benefit to have a chain store rather than an overpriced store with terrible merchandise that does not give a good deal to consumers in the area but in general its times of homogenization that irritate people, that get under peoples skin and make them desire a more authentic kind of space to live a more authentic kind of life.

Question: How can we help prevent displacement?

Sharon Zukin: You know I can’t emphasize enough how important laws are, zoning laws, rent controls, commercial rent controls, maybe providing apprenticeships for young people who are not going to college or people who are graduates of art schools to set up small stores. A continuation of traditional crafts, I think industry is tremendously important in every city, even in New York and there have to be spaces for all of these activities to create an procreate. It’s silly to say that a city will survive on the basis of the creative class; a city only survives on the basis of diversity, different classes of people all working and its necessary for local government to make sure there is space for everybody in the city.

I mean there really have to be, you know go to your City Council Representative, write to that person and tell them they voted wrong or they voted right on something. Utter the forbidden words like new laws, new zoning, rent control, maybe all buildings should have not just one percent for art but one percent of the space devoted to mom and pop stores. I understand that these would not necessarily be old mom-and-old-pop stores but they’d be you know new independently owned stores. There really has to be an educational effort to bring tastes together with social need. Like look at the Red Hook Food Vendors in the ball field, they were unknown outside the Latino community, I should say the Latino soccer playing and soccer watching community for almost thirty years when they sold papooses and tacos and delotes and you know whatever they were selling and making at the ball fields. They never lived in Red Hook but they came faithfully every Saturday and Sunday when the soccer leagues played and cooked and sold and eventually through the Internet, through the food blogs after around 2003, 2004 a much wider public became aware of the good food and the cultural value and I would say the social value of these immigrant food vendors.

So it became really crucial for politicians and for food bloggers and for you know ordinary people who just liked tacos to put pressure on the city government to allow those food vendors to stay in place. There was a concerted campaign by the Parks Department and the Health Department to shut them down or make them conform to existing laws which I understand and through the help of outside communities pressing the city government those food vendors were able to protect their right to sell at the park in Red Hook but it’s those, it’s those cases that show how absolutely important it is for city governments to make good policies to protect people’s rights to be in a place.

Take the Community Gardens, they enjoyed a temporary reprieve a few years ago after Mayor Giuliani, lead a campaign to convert most of them to housing sites, and you know people breathed a sigh of relief and said okay great now we have community gardens. But the community gardens are only legal until fall of this year, 2010. There has to be a New York State Law passed by the Legislature that creates a permanent right for community gardens to stay in place. I think everybody agrees that community gardens are truly important. Not just as places of rest and relaxation and nature for a neighborhood but also as places of vegetable production and urban food production is very important now as a sign of the sustainable environmental future. So there has to be some government action to protect that kind of space. It’s these examples that show how important it is for all of us to press city government to make new laws.

Despite occasional, but somewhat specious, counter-culture movements, New York is rapidly becoming home to an exclusively wealthy population and endless rows of bland chain stores, both of which are destroying the city’s "soul." Can this realistically be stopped?

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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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