The Urbanist

Photo by Jason Bergman

The Urbanist

Cassim Shepard knows cities. A Bostonian by birth, Shepard studied film in college. After graduating, he traveled the world after college, documenting and filming different urban landscapes. He eventually settled in New York, where, since 2008, he has served as a founding editor of Urban Omnibus, the magazine of the Architectural League of New York. Through his work at Urban Omnibus, Shepard seeks to intertwine all the fields of metropolitan studies in a way that’s both digestible and beautiful, presenting new, innovative ideas to conversations on the type of city we want, or choose, to live in.

At a time when the city is at a crossroads for its future development, Shepard says awareness of urbanism is more important than ever.

How did you become interested in cities?

Well, I’ve been interested in cities as long as I can remember. I grew up in a streetcar suburb of Boston, in the sense that I had a yard to play in but I could also walk to the subway, which was seven houses down from mine. When I was old enough, I would do that every chance I got. I would go into the city and wander around. And simultaneous to that, I began my interest in photography, and eventually in documentary filmmaking. For whatever reason, I was attracted to urban subject matter in my art-making. I went on to study art in college. But I was a film major in a department that was particularly disposed to studies in the built environment. There was a big influence of design methodologies and landscape histories.

So I started making movies about cities. My first film was about the Walled City of Lahore in Pakistan. And I went on to make movies around the world, documentaries that all had various kinds of urban themes. I wasn’t really headquartered anywhere. This was my early twenties. Through the process of documenting urban change, primarily in the developing world, I decided I wanted to learn more about how cities work, rather than in a dilettante-ish way of making work about how they looked.

This motivated graduate studies in urban geography and, subsequently, city planning. Alongside those, while still continuing to make movies and fund them, I had a variety of jobs that exposed me even more deeply to how weird and wonderful cities are. I worked for the government of New York City in the Department of Cultural Affairs on capital projects. That’s what really exposed me to the diversity of neighborhoods in New York City: I was going from a meeting at the Staten Island Zoo to the Bronx County Historical Society to the Flushing town hall. That really motivated a deep and abiding love of New York City in me; not New York City for its own sake, but New York City as an expression of challenges facing really, really large cities around the world.

Throughout this, I’ve continued to explore urbanism, primarily through ideas of how to communicate it. That’s taken on a bunch of different forms. I still make film and documentary media, I photograph, I teach filmmaking to architectural and design students. But what takes up most of my time and is my contribution to urbanism is Urban Omnibus. It was founded five years ago as a project of the Architectural League of New York, and that continues to be an endless source of inspiration.

Can you explain the name “Urban Omnibus”? Where did that come from?

The name predated my hiring. But the idea, which speaks to why we wanted it to be omnibus, is the notion that at the time it was being conceived — this is 2007 — the range of activities that people were putting energy into that all had the common goal of making neighborhoods and cities a little bit better, was really not fully captured by the range of media or interdisciplinary self-knowledge. The Architectural League of New York is a 135-year-old institution that has been advancing the art of architecture and related arts for over a century. It’s particularly strong, in my view, at marshaling the energies of the range of designers that are within its orbit toward pursuing issues of public concern in New York. So that was a really interesting thing that made me want to come to the League and work with them to develop this online portal that would really bring the widest range of things that people were doing in art, civic engagement, city government, architecture, infrastructure, and engineering together under one big tent, which we kinda refer to as the “culture of city-making.”

What’s the particular appeal of urbanism as a field?

To be perfectly honest, it’s transdisciplinary. So it enables an appreciation and an investment in objects, whether they’re buildings, sidewalks, or material culture, with really urgent political ideas about how we spend public funds to the cultural aspects of what happens. One of the defining characteristics of a city-like condition is the forced interaction with people unlike oneself, whether that’s on the subway or the street or in a cafe. Something throws up potential conflict or potential points of harmony among different groups of people, but moreover, it allows the city to be considered a concentration of cultural attitudes, and the political, economic, sociological, and architectural aspects of it become ways of expressing those cultural attitudes about living together in small quarters on top of one another.

Let’s talk about development in New York. Where are we headed?

What I find most interesting about development in New York is housing and affordable housing, particularly how the mayor will deliver on his promise of units, both preserved and built. I’m interested in that issue as a political topic and how we go about doing that, but I’m also interested in the broader issues within that, in terms of trying to expose the history of the way things are, which is something we try to do on Urban Omnibus and something I think is really important to our core mission: trying to encourage greater intimacy with the choices around us that go into why things are the way they are.

Apply that to housing and you have some very, very interesting ways in which the development and the physical building of properties is actually implicated in a bunch of other, more complicated processes, which range from a really diverse history of different types of ownership models; different types of things like limited equity co-ops to public housing; different structures of affordable housing; a very interesting history of design; ideas about how to deliver a high-quality housing environment; different attitudes about how much space people need to live.

One of the reasons housing is as expensive as it is in New York is because of minimum room sizes, which came out of a very progressive movement to reform tenements and exploitative housing conditions. But those laws that set minimum space requirements, as opposed to other laws — every room with a bed has to have a window, etc. — a lot of these things that were built out of a social reform agenda have greatly impacted what we can supply. A lot of those laws predate things like electric light, air conditioning, or other kinds of technological advances. The policies don’t reflect these. Illegal basements are something near and dear to my heart. Because it’s clear to me that some of the places that we need to densify are single-family neighborhoods. And not making towers, but getting a little bit more of supply out of existing units. A lot of housing that already exists remains full of illegal conditions; the illegality should be based on health and safety, not necessarily on fears about immigrants taking over, which is often how these things play out in certain neighborhoods.

Crown Heights, where I currently live, is changing demographically at a whirlwind pace. The physical landscape is changing as well. I see old buildings being torn down to make way for condo towers. It’s a common sight in Brooklyn, but not everywhere. Can you talk a little about how changes in zoning are shaping neighborhoods?

I live on Fourth Avenue, which isn’t in any particular neighborhood; it’s neither in Park Slope nor Gowanus. Park Slope is this bizarrely incredible but expensive brownstone neighborhood, while Gowanus is this industrial neighborhood under federal Superfund designation and rapidly changing. All development upzoning in Brooklyn and Queens was concentrated on the edges of neighborhoods, in part because it was a really good policy in organizing development around transit. But in part because there were the fewest entrenched landowners; it was easier if you weren’t in the middle of a historic neighborhood. The Bloomberg administration really concentrated on these places.

So a lot of this is top-down. But what about changes from the bottom up?

There’s a great history of that. One of the biggest transformations in this demographic of homeownership happened during the major crisis in the 70s, when, for a variety of complicated reasons, the city found itself in this very uncomfortable position of owning a tremendous amount of property through in rem foreclosure. Dealing with what to actually do with those assets really set the foundation for a lot of interesting policy developments that are an evolution of certain departments within city government that deal with things like housing. But another thing that came out of that is the urban homesteading movement, which was essentially a coalition of nonprofits that tried to create learning and training and strategic advice for those people who chose to stay in their buildings after being foreclosed upon and create a situation in which ownership could eventually be transferred to them. So I think there are lessons there about stewardship and people taking control of the neighborhoods. And we see that now: Crown Heights has probably changed the most rapidly of any neighborhood in New York, and then you look at Brownsville, where there’s much, much less pressure — about that, at least.

There are some really interesting things that aren’t directly related to the urban homestead movement. But definitely come out of the same spirit as, “These are our assets” and “How can we live here?” Some of the poorest neighborhoods have a strategic asset that the richest neighborhoods don’t: multiple generations in the same place. This really has a way of developing leaders. You see these leaders in Brownsville or the Lower East Side that you don’t necessarily see in Park Slope because it’s a much more transient neighborhood. What this might actually foretell, I hope, is something in terms of cooperative models that might extend toward getting some of the good aspects of gentrification — better schools, more investment, better access to resources, more jobs — without displacement. When people talk about the fear of gentrification, they’re usually being displaced or priced out. And there are ways to access the resources without necessarily going down the displacement route, which is what you see on Franklin Avenue.

Stepping back a little, the city’s population is expected to increase by a million in the next few decades. Is that sustainable? Where are we going to put all these people?

In general, I think New York City can withstand a great level of more density than it already has; I don’t think we’re built up by any means. Us being built out, even doubling the capacity, wouldn’t necessarily mean high-rises everywhere. New York City has always been a mix of different densities; it has every kind of housing typology and neighborhood typology of almost anywhere in the country, except for large farms. People don’t think about the single-family homes — Brooklyn has them; it’s not just Queens and Staten Island. A lot of the Bronx is single-family homes. I think there is an equation of density with high-rise development that is a lot more complicated than that; there are ways to think about density and creating more units within the existing supply of housing and that doesn’t necessarily mean more skyscrapers.

Let’s talk about prices. Should we expect the current upward trajectory to continue?

I think everything is cyclical. In the in rem foreclosure crisis that I was talking about earlier, there was talk of planned shrinkage in Upper Manhattan, which is the same conversation we’re having about Detroit now. They were like, “There’s no way anyone would want to live in this huge amount of overbuilt land.” And there were too many housing units and not enough people to fill them. So I do think there’s a cyclical nature to all of this. I’m not sure our generation’s children are going to be as enraptured with the cities as we are. I do think one of the biggest threats to our urban way of life as we know it and the reason why we love living in cities is the fact that because of income inequality and affordability in places like New York, a lot of the socioeconomic and ethnic groups that make cities the interesting mix that makes us want to live in them are going directly to the suburbs now.

As long as America has been around, cities have been the initial ports of call for new immigrants. That is on the decline. Now, immigrants are going more directly to suburbs and subdividing large houses to best fit their needs. One contributing factor to that is the fact that joint families, which is a very quickly rising household categorization, there’s nothing for them in the urban rental market anymore.

In terms of where things are headed, I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether things are going to continue to get more expensive. I think they will for a while and then finally plateau. But I do think it’s important to preserve not just the static economic conception of affordability, but also affordability for whom, in terms of asking the broader question of what kind of city do we want. I don’t think affordability should be exclusively discussed only in terms of income; it should also be affordable to different kinds of households. And I think that is what’s going to preserve the dynamic of an urban mix that makes people want to live in Brooklyn or anywhere else in the city.

What do you expect from the new administration?

I have a feeling we’re not gonna see as many glass towers, but I think the biggest drivers of how development will change will hopefully, by necessity, be adapting to climate changes rather than other remnant questions. Bloomberg was certainly pro-property-development, but he was also pro-investment in a whole breadth of other things. I think one of his lasting historical legacies will be what he’s done with parks, which hasn’t been seen since the 1930s, and that’s a tremendous legacy to leave the city. The maintenance of the parks is far more expensive than the construction of the parks, like with anything. One of the biggest questions I would have for the de Blasio administration is, “What are their priorities in terms of maintaining operating expenses in some of the infrastructure that were heavily invested in throughout the Bloomberg years?” Because de Blasio wants to create a lot more housing and he can’t necessarily create density in every neighborhood without a commensurate increase in spending on public resources — transit and school are obvious, but also things like parks.

I think his vision of development is much more equitable; I think it’ll place a higher priority on promoting economic diversity, but whether or not that translates into a totally new vision of how to develop more holistically remains to be seen. But I’m optimistic.

A big thing I’m interested to see is if the de Blasio administration picks up this emphasis on jobs and this emphasis on the middle class and working families and if they create policy incentives towards manufacturing. When New York had a strong, robust neighborhood-based population, manufacturing was a big part of that. One of the most optimistic places, I think, for the future of New York to visit is the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Correction (Feb. 24, 2014): An earlier version of this article included a reference to the East New York industrial park that suggested Cassim Shepard viewed it as a model of manufacturing in Brooklyn. Elsewhere, in a section of the interview that did not appear in the final published version, Shepard made it clear he does not feel this way. The reference in question has been removed.

John Surico is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and BKLYNR. He lives in Crown Heights.

Jason Bergman is a freelance photographer and videographer. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Bushwick.

Also in this issue

The Neo-Industrialist

The Pratt Institute’s Adam Friedman thinks that Brooklyn is on the cusp of regaining its manufacturing prowess. Interview by Phillip Pantuso

The Generalist

Author Robert Sullivan on what we can learn from downtown Brooklyn. Interview by Melissa Batchelor Warnke