These days, it feels as though the coronavirus spread has put all of New York City on pause. The usual activities of daily life have ground to a halt; workplaces have closed, restaurants shuttered, and the streets left uncharacteristically quiet as the city’s residents isolate themselves from their neighbors. But as New Yorkers retreat into their homes, many find themselves facing a challenge they may never have expected to handle: proctoring their child’s education.
As of mid-March, the vast majority of New York’s 1,800 schools have shuttered their doors. While some optimistic administrators hope to reopen by the end of April, most academic institutions plan to stay closed through the end of the academic year. The closures have disrupted the routines of over a million students. Now, just as some workers have been instructed to work from their home offices, students have been sent to virtual classrooms. The change has prompted parents, teachers, and administrators alike to find creative ways to ensure educational continuity for the city’s students despite the lack of a physical school.
“It won’t be easy,” teachers union boss Michael Mulgrew told the New York Post. “It won’t be perfect. But we need to get this done.”
After news of the upcoming closures broke on March 15th, the Department Education set about re-training the city’s 80,000 teachers for remote teaching. For a few days after students left their schools, teachers reported to class to learn how to execute their usual lesson plans remotely. Educators were instructed on how to use digital teaching tools like Google Classroom, Canvas, and videoconferencing platforms.
Some teachers have been able to adapt to the digital challenge with relative ease. However, many instructors have struggled to adjust. In a recent article for Chalkbeat, one New York mother of twins shared that while both of her children attended the same school, her experience with remote learning has differed enormously between their respective teachers.
“My daughter’s teacher has got it together,” she explained. “My son’s teacher is not there yet — everyone is learning from each other.”
That challenge that teachers face is considerable — especially considering that many of them are attempting to juggle their roles as educators with their responsibilities as parents. One reporter for the New York Post recently interviewed one such teacher, who explained that she was “juggling her own kids’ remote schooling while trying desperately to cyber-herd her own students.” The problem is made worse, the teacher shared, because her students often need to do their work somewhere other than their homes while their parents work remotely.
The coronavirus has also turned a spotlight onto one of the most significant problems facing New York schools today: resource scarcity. Over 300,000 city students — a third of the total population — do not have the digital tools they would need to learn remotely. The NYC school department is rushing to rectify the lack, partnering with tech companies to buy devices in bulk and provide Internet access to students who lack connectivity.
New York’s shift into remote learning has faced its share of growing pains over the past several weeks, and will likely face more in the weeks to come. But amidst the struggles, the persistence, determination, and creativity of the city’s teachers, parents, and students have come to the forefront. The coronavirus may have halted usual routines, but it will not block the city’s passion for education.
To borrow a quote from a Bronx middle school teacher: “It can only get better from here.”
New York has never been a city that shies away from ambitious sustainability goals. In early February, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would award a whopping $1.9 million in Environmental Justice Community Impact Grants to 21 community initiatives. With this grant money, Cuomo specifically seeks to support projects that address environmental and public health concerns in the low-income communities that often bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental harm.
“When we support grassroots efforts to build a greener, healthier, and more sustainable New York, everyone benefits,” Governor Cuomo announced in a statement. “This newest round of Community Impact Grants will make a positive difference in the lives of all New Yorkers through innovative and successful initiatives that promote environmental justice and a better quality of life.”
This passion for furthering environmental justice and healthy living has been a longtime goal for city leadership — and one that has shown unmistakable results. In 2016, New York ranked 26th on the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index and achieved recognition as the most sustainable city in the United States.
However, even as researchers for the index recognized the accomplishments of the world’s top-ranking cities, they posed a question: “How can cities do more to ensure that as they develop and implement strategies and policies to address the considerable challenges they face — from environmental to socio-economic — they do so in a way that puts people first and at the forefront of their sustainability?”
It’s a challenge that New York has taken on with dogged enthusiasm. In the spring of 2019, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act: a package of six bills that collectively intends to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in NYC by 2030.
The Act has a few standout highlights; for one, it would require buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to conduct retrofits for energy-efficiency, such as adding better insulation or new windows. Certain building types — such as senior housing and rent-controlled residential buildings — will also be required to install heat sensors and insulate pipes, among other measures. Most notably, owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet will need to display EPA-approved efficiency “grades” at entrances.
“These letter grade signs will provide a new level of accessible transparency for the public, letting them know just how energy efficient a building is compared to similar buildings in the city,” Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the DOB, said in a statement for Curbed.
These letter grades are only the start, however. To achieve the Climate Mobilization Act’s target reduction rate of 40 percent within the next decade, efficiency expectations will intensify quickly. If all goes well, the city will slash its carbon emissions an incredible 80 percent by 2050.
All of this change will be remarkable even if New York City doesn’t hit the exact benchmarks that the Act outlines. This act — and the smaller gestures like Cuomo’s community grant funding — demonstrate that New York is willing to move forward towards its environmental priorities even though most of the country is still hesitant to follow.
Consider the Green New Deal as an example. Presented in February of 2019 by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal was a nonbinding resolution for a comprehensive policy package that would overhaul the American economy and eliminate nearly all U.S. carbon emissions within three decades. The bill faced considerable controversy on all sides and ultimately died in the Senate. Still, it sparked conversation — and gave New York the chance to prove itself as a sustainable leader, a city willing to break with the status quo.
With the Climate Mobilization Act, along with smaller measures such as Cuomo’s Community Impact Grants, New York is pioneering green urbanism in the United States and figuring out the practicalities of what sustainability will look like in a major city. There is certainly still work to be done, but one point is for sure: as America moves forward into a more sustainable future, NYC will be leading the charge.
When public outcry compelled Amazon to pack up its plans for an expansive headquarters on Long Island and leave town in 2018, few New Yorkers expected the e-retail giant to come knocking on their city’s doors again. But now, barely ten months later, Amazon has done precisely that.
In early December of 2019, Amazon announced its intention to open a new office on the western side of Manhattan. According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, the tech giant plans to redevelop a property on 410 Tenth Avenue in Hudson Yards that will span 335,000 square feet and employ over 1,500 employees.
Compared to the e-retailer’s initial plans, the space is humble — even tiny. The original vision for Amazon’ New York City headquarters anticipated a sprawling campus that would host thousands of workers, a tech startup incubator, and a school. Amazon expected the site to create as many as 25,000 jobs within its first decade, as well as several thousand construction and ancillary roles. Analysts projected that within 25 years, the new headquarters would have generated over $27.5 billion in revenue for the state.
In comparison, the Hudson Yards office might seem underwhelming, even anticlimactic. But the new office space does have something that the original HQ2 definitively did not — an affordable price point.
When Amazon was in the process of deciding which city would host its high-potential HQ2, New York leadership packed its bid with perks. In total, the public funds given to Amazon would have topped $3 billion, with the state compensating the e-retailer around $48,000 per job.
The expected cost was shocking at the time. Now, some reports indicate that the amount paid by the public might have been even higher. In early January of this year, the Wall Street Journal revealed that New York’s deal with Amazon would have included an additional $800 million in incentives and a promise to pay a portion of employees’ salaries.
When news of the deal spread, controversy erupted. The public pushed back against the partnership and rejected its cost, citing the price as one New Yorkers were not prepared or willing to pay. Eventually, the tide of negative public opinion pushed Amazon to withdraw from the deal, writing: “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”
Amazon’s plans for a New York HQ2 fell apart because the city wasn’t able to pay a high price for its presence — which makes it all the more surprising that the new office is not only small, but will be built without any special incentives, tax credits, or kickbacks.
This isn’t to say that Amazon won’t receive any support from the city. In a recent article, one writer for Business Insider pointed out that commercial tenants in Hudson Yards can qualify for tax breaks that provide up to a 40 percent discount for up to 20 years. However, these perks fall far short of the billions of dollars in incentives that Amazon might have received with the original deal.
For some New Yorkers, Amazon’s decision to return so quickly despite their public rejection shows that the city’s position as a leading business center is strong enough not to require a portfolio of incentives. As economist James Parrott recently commented for the Wall Street Journal, “It’s clear the main reason Amazon wanted to be [in New York City] was the availability of a skilled tech workforce plus the synergy with related industries.”
In this way, the news of Amazon’s new office is more proof that New York is one of the country’s most promising tech hubs. New Yorkers will surely be interested in seeing how this new, humbler, and more affordable office develops.
Amazon’s new outpost is scheduled to open in 2021.
When it comes to representing real women, it’s fair to say that Central Park has been somewhat behind the times. Sure, the park features delightful fictional women and fantastical statues of imaginary women — but to date, the only named female icon is an eleven-foot-tall bronze casting of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Not a single one of the park’s 23 historically-based statues honors a real, influential woman.
Change, however, is on the horizon. On October 21st, New York City’s Public Design Commission officially approved the preliminary design for a bronze-and-granite statue that will feature three of America’s most prominent suffragettes: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The project is backed by Monumental Women, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing female representation to the park’s cohort of historical monuments.
“42 million people visit Central Park every year,” Namitha Luthra, a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors commented for Quartz, “They deserve to see real women—women who built this country, who helped realize the American promise, who helped expand our definition of we the people.”
The project is on track to complete next fall. The finished statue will officially be unveiled on August 26th, 2020, to honor the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and will be installed at Central Park’s Literary Walk.
The 14-foot-high monument shows the three women crowded around a table with their books piled around them, engaged in discussion and the pursuit of change. The statue emanates intensity, and the implied strain between Truth and her companions hints at the underlying tensions over race that were inherent to the suffragette movement.
Interestingly, the current plan for the statue is a revision. Initially, the figure depicted only Anthony and Stanton — and quickly came under censure when critics pointed out that the statue was not only racially homogenous but also featured two women who were known for their racist rhetoric. These concerns have been addressed in the new version, which brings in Sojourner Truth (Author, “Ain’t I A Woman?”) to both provide a counterweight to the other feminists’ racial perspectives and create a more diverse representation of the suffragette movement.
For project sculptor Meredith Bergmann, the change had profound meaning. “My hope is that all people, but especially young people, will be inspired by this image of women of different races, different religious backgrounds, and different economic status working together to change the world,” she shared following the Commission’s vote on the project.
This statue has been in development for years. Monumental Women first initiated its efforts to design and identify a place for the statue in 2014. The $1.5 million project was primarily funded by public contributions and received considerable funding from Girl Scout cookie sales. New York City gave $135,000 to the efforts.
Today, the project is on-track to rectify — at least in some small part — the lack of representation for female changemakers in Central Park.
As Pam Elam, the president of Monumental Women, recently put the matter in a press release: “With this statue, we are finally breaking the bronze ceiling.”
It will be exciting to see what new heights New York ascends to without such a barrier.
What can technology do to preserve New York City’s historic sites?
It’s a real question, and one that has become ever-more pressing in recent years. We tend to think of our historical sites as unchangeable, protected, and set in stone — especially since most of the more prominent ones are made from it. But stone crumbles, and circumstances change.
We lived this truth firsthand less than a decade ago, when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge tore through New York City. It flooded streets and subway tunnels, cut power, and put countless historical sites at risk for damage or outright destruction. The struggle to preserve these at-risk spaces is particularly challenging because, as one writer for Preservation New Jersey describes, “The [storm] recovery process is by nature not one that necessarily allows for the time, thoughtful planning, and holistic assessment that appropriate historic preservation requires. Anytime a historic resource is significantly damaged, it is threatened.”
But historical losses don’t always come with meteorological forecasts and time to prepare, as the global community saw when the Notre Dame cathedral burned.
There’s a real risk; in the future, New York’s very history may be on the line. Luckily, though, technology can give us the tools we need to preserve it.
3D Mapping for Preservation and Education
Traditionally, historians would map important sites using two-dimensional methods and non-digital tools. In recent years, however, 3D-scanning has risen to the forefront of the preservation conversation. In 2015, researchers from Japan’s Kanazawa University applied 3D scanning technology to map Shang Shu Di, a Chinese heritage site in the Fujian Province. They found that the 3D tools could provide a far more accurate and detailed record of historic buildings. Their findings, among other research, sparked a widespread shift towards digitally-powered preservation in the architectural and preservation communities.
This mapping tech is already being used to preserve at-risk sites, albeit under more tragic and less experimental circumstances.
In Syria, the Institute of Digital Archeology reproduced the 2,000-year-old Triumphal Arch, which was destroyed in Palmyra during ISIS occupation. At a third of the original’s size, the replica wasn’t an exact copy of the original monument; however, cutting-edge 3D technology gave historians the power to preserve the memory and importance of the site even when it was damaged beyond repair. Similarly, Somali Architecture uses 3D scanning tools to preserve historically significant locations that were destroyed during wartime by producing accurate and digitally-accessible 3D models.
“What this goes to show is that even destroyed heritage can be returned to us in some way—as long as there is proper documentation of it. […] We no longer have to be content with saying, ‘Well, it’s been destroyed, so it’s gone forever.’” Nada Hosking, Director of Programs and Partnerships at the Global Heritage Fund, commented in a recent article.
However, she notes that while these digital tools are invaluable, they cannot replace the sites they scan. “Recreations and reconstructions may have the look and feel of a heritage site or monument, but they lack the historical depth of them, and we cannot neglect to preserve what history has handed down to us,” Hosking cautions.
Her point is valid; however, after the fires at Notre Dame, it seems wiser to double up our digital scanning and preservation efforts, if only to protect the historical significance of a site against natural events that render real-world preservation impossible.
VR Can Preserve Cultural Memory and Pass on Lessons
Sometimes, the cultural memories of a place fade faster than the site itself. VR can provide a new way for historians to preserve stories from those who lived through significant periods in New York’s history — as well as offer a more immersive method of sharing those stories, even as their tellers fade into history.
Take The Last Goodbye as an example. The VR experience debuted in 2017 at the Tribeca Film Festival and served as a 17-minute testimony of what it was like to survive the Holocaust. The project’s guide and narrator, 85-year-old Pinchas Gutter, recounts the loss of his family and his time in Majdanek concentration and death camp.
For Gutter, participating in the VR experience and being visible as a storyteller was crucial to his mission to ensure that knowledge of the Holocaust persists even as those who experienced it firsthand pass on. In an interview with Wired, he explained that “Without that living, breathing reminder, the Holocaust becomes easy to forget—or even deny. Without personal accounts […] it’s hard for people to accept its atrocities as ‘the gospel truth.’”
The Last Goodbye exemplifies a story that must be shared for the good of our current and future societies. It has historical significance and meaning on par with — even in excess of — a historical site. Stories like Gutter’s must be preserved; this mode of immersive, VR-powered journalism provides a means to do it.
Few New Yorkers have Gutter’s experiences or recollections that are imbued with similar historical significance. However, they do have memories worth preserving and stories that are worth recording for the sake of the city’s cultural memory. They can provide insight into the social evolution of New York City and provide first-hand accounts of pivotal events that won’t be lost to age and time.
New York may seem eternal when you walk its streets, but its historical sites and memories aren’t. We need to use technology to preserve its history — before it’s too late to do so.
New York City isn’t exactly the first place that most outdoorsy hobbyists picture when they think of a hike. After all, it’s an urban landscape; one built with concrete, crowded with skyscrapers, bustling with people — and distinctly lacking the peaceful woodsiness that most people associate with long treks. Some thru-hikers, however, see the city as just as much a place for hiking as any natural expanse. They plot trips along its sidewalks and staircases with as much enthusiasm as they would long-reaching mountain trails and switchbacks, and view bodegas and coffee shops with the same relief that they would a woodsy rest stop at the end of a long day.
For fast-paced, be-there-yesterday New Yorkers, embarking on a thru-hike and slogging through the city’s streets when a perfectly serviceable subway trip is available might seem like a bizarre waste of time — and it’s true, thru-hiking requires a perspective shift. Walking miles through the cityscape is meant to slow the walker down; to make them think about and experience the city in an entirely new way. Urban thru-hikers are forbidden from backtracking or using public transportation, although they can plan their routes to coincide with convenience stores, restaurants, AirBnBs, landmarks or whatever else they might need or be interested in seeing.
Bob Inman, the creator of the Inman 300 thru-hike in Los Angeles and author of Finding Los Angeles on Foot, describes these urban hikes as about “perforating the barriers within communities that car culture creates… about finding what is notable, historical, quizzical, and beautiful in this great city while walking.”
Inman frames thru-hiking as a feat of exploration. Other thru-hikers, however, have taken his philosophy a step further and made urban foot travel almost an act of social commentary; an in-depth investigation and celebration of what a city does and does not have to offer at the pedestrian level.
Consider thru-hiker and activist Liz “Snorkel” Thomas’ work in New York City. An avid hiker, Thomas is best known in the hiking community for her accomplishments in more stereotypical hiking landscapes. In 2011, she walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 80 days and 13 hours, temporarily earning the title of the fastest woman to ever do so. Throughout her career, she has accumulated over 15,000 miles on long-distance trails — including several hundred on New York’s urban terrain.
In New York, Thomas wasn’t on the lookout for winding woodland trains; instead, she sought out playgrounds. Earlier this year, the avid hiker spent several months collaborating with the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to design a nine-day hike that would weave through public play spaces. Her trek was meant to highlight the work that TPL’s New York City Playgrounds Program has done to ensure that all city residents can find green space within a ten-minute walk. Since its establishment in 1996, the Playground Program has transformed over 200 unused paved lots into community playgrounds. Thomas’ 225-mile route stops at a full half of the converted spaces.
For Thomas, the hike itself wasn’t as crucial as immersing herself in the communities she traveled through and drawing attention to the importance of having accessible green space. “If you’re trying to teach a kid how to ride a bike, you can’t just stick the bike in the back of the car and drive to a park like my dad did when I was learning to ride,” she told one reporter for Adventure Journal. “These schoolyards are not just there for the school; they serve such an important function to the community that lives around it.”
Thru-hiking is, in this way, an act of advocacy and public service — a way to not only appreciate and learn more about the city but to press a cause with an appreciation for work that has already been done.
Liz isn’t the first person to explore accessibility and social causes in New York through hiking, either. Consider Curbed reporter Karrie Jacob’s walk to the notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly La Guardia as an example. Jacobs planned her trip in part because Google Maps informed her that the trek was nearly impossible on foot — and even if she did make it, the path would drop her on the wrong side of the Grand Central Parkway.
“It was an expedition,” she writes, “like Magellan circumnavigating the earth or Lewis and Clark trekking to the Pacific Ocean, except we were heading to a place that had already been thoroughly discovered—by some 30 million passengers a year—and is only five miles, as the crow flies, from midtown Manhattan.”
And yet, the discoveries Jacobs found weren’t the ones she anticipated. She found that rather than blazing a wholly new trail, she realized that she was walking a well-trodden — if poorly-designed and challenging to traverse — path that countless airport workers use every day. She writes:
“I thought we were explorers, discovering an unknown route to the airport, but it turns out that roughly 120 people go that way every day. And I realized something that should have been obvious from the outset: For those employed at LGA, it’s as much a neighborhood as the Financial District is for those who work on Wall Street.”
This realization says something significant about urban thru-hiking and, really, urban exploration in general. We have preconceived notions about what our city is — what it has, what it lacks, what it feels like to travel through it. When we look down on our communities from an elevated train car, we barely have a chance to see them, let alone understand them. We lose our ability to gain a real understanding of what communities — ones that we may not even realize exist — need, as well as our ability to appreciate the small, beautiful qualities that can only be seen on foot.
Perhaps more of us should follow Liz Thomas and Karrie Jacobs’ examples — if only for the chance to better understand and care for the city we call home.