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The Fight for the Look of New York

Professor Simon showcases one of many cautionary depictions of consolidation from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. PHOTO/ M.A. Rahman

By MA Rahman

Published: November 14th, 2018

New York City, cherished for its history and iconic landmarks yet critiqued for its incessant class struggles, now has found its way incorporated as the subject of concern in one Brooklyn College professor’s latest art history project entitled “A Consolidated City? Urban Landscape, Image, and Identity Across the Outer Boroughs.”

Apart of a greater art history lecture series, Professor Malka Simon, explored the differing generational attitudes and contentions that led to the modern makeup of New York City as it is known today- waterways, avenues and all.

“I’m going to talk today a little bit about my current research project which is [about] outer borough identity as it relates to landscape,” Simon stated confidently opening her lecture, promptly forewarning the prospect of confusion from the frequent art jargon throughout her lecture, which she reassures “I’ll explain if anyone needs me to.”

To understand the history of the city, Simon noted, it is necessary to examine NYC historically from its earliest of times since the 1898 consolidation and with it the struggle to combine many of the parts that constitute New York as it is known today.

With this comes facing one particular reoccurring problem: bias, a matter emphasized as she relied on the seldom surviving sources consisting of typically narrow perspectives from what is now Manhattan and with it literature in favor of consolidation evidenced in part by the routine use of the term ‘outer borough.’

An archaic term today, that according to Simon was used rather than to bemoan the persons and conditions in the early parts of modern boroughs today like Kings County (Brooklyn), was instead attributed to these early parts of modern boroughs physical distance from Manhattan and by extension distance to the business affairs from the financial capital of the country

In practice Simon contends, the relationship between Manhattan and Brooklyn even prior to consolidation was a ‘symbiotic’ one, believing the term ‘outer borough’ became more than an ascription of the distinctions between businesses of each respective borough which were often agricultural but also helped form their own identity.

“I would argue that the social landscape of the outer boroughs revolves around a struggle for autonomy, a struggle to say that we are separate from New York City, a struggle to say we have our own unique identity,” speculated Simon.

Naturally, these contrasting outlooks found themselves at odds with consolidation especially from prominent spheres of influence throughout the region from political machines to newspapers, attitudes towards consolidation varied with many examples of hostility and support towards the notion as depicted in popular political cartoons of the day.

The political spheres understood that consolidation could dictate the very shaping of the boroughs both physically and politically as an influx of immigrants entered and sought residence near Manhattan.

For members affiliated with an organization like Tammany Hall and the Brooklyn Consolidation League, such news posed as a potential boon towards accomplishing their goals as membership grew, while others such as the League of Loyal Citizens sought to oppose such a vote.

It was an elite versus elite situation Professor Simon remarks, in which consolidation ultimately won and with it a new and gradual change in landscape emerging from the now official boroughs of New York City.

Police forces now combined, streets and traffic rules conforming to a single standard, and business/social interactions across boroughs became more commonplace, the city of New York gradually began to take shape into the city as known today.

“There’s a lot of talks now of the Manhattanization in Brooklyn, it’s now is cool, artisanal, and hipster and yet Brooklyn is becoming passé so Queens will be the next Brooklyn,” Simon reflected.

Simon’s audience, comprised of mostly art students and faculty having kept quiet until this point seemingly captivated by or lost in Simon’s detailed monologue now requesting answers to lingering questions.

“Did geology factor into the preferential building of skylines in Manhattan over Brooklyn?” asked Elizabeth Starace, a senior undergraduate student, and digital arts major.

To which Simons rectified that building code in Brooklyn had been responsible for the few investment ventures in constructing large buildings in the now former outer boroughs.

Elaborating further, consolidation, Simon pointed out, did not mean abdicating all regulatory power from local councils to the Mayor’s office.

As questions continued, students demonstrated deep interest in the topic of construction regulations in New York particularly as it relates to ongoing matters affecting New Yorkers like gentrification and rent.

Cautious and tight-lipped to offer her own opinion on the matter of gentrification or speculating what the long-term future landscape might look like, Simon made it clear she understood why such matters of great concern to some students.

“I thought it was interesting,” said Jazmin Nunez, a senior art history student and politically motivated student writing on the issues plaguing her neighborhood,

Shifting to more stern tone Nunez spoke about the infrastructural problems affecting her Brooklyn neighborhood and how she found Simon’s lecture insightful in regards to the cities history of neglect and corruption.

Shifting to more stern tone Nunez spoke about what she found to be most revealing in Simon’s lecture: the city’s self-entangled bureaucracy and history of corruption helped explain to her how her neighborhood’s sewage could be left within the state of neglect for so long.

“I want people to take away that art history isn’t just about looking at works of artwork even though that’s important, it has so much more to teach us about politics, social relationships, everything basically through the lens of these objects or buildings,” Simon concluded.

 The second part of this Art History lecture series will examine South African Female Ceramists on November 27.

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