Overhauling the LES Image
Foreign design students took one look at our neighborhood and decided it could look better
by Noah Wildman
How about transforming Orchard Street? Doesn’t look half bad, as ideas go.
Image by Suangkamol Supanijawong (Thailand), Jiyoung Heo (Korea), and Hsiao-Yu Chen (Taiwan). The “Communication Path” engages a new layer of
Designed by Ji Sun Lee and Soo Jin Choi (Korea), and Nattapol Suphawong (Thailand).
The plan for the new Allen Street mall, designed by (left to right) Hsin-Ming Cho and Yi-chun Lin(Taiwan), and Ployjan Witoonchart (Thailand).
This past summer I had the pleasure to serve as guest critic at the final presentation of a class of international design students at the Parsons School
of Design, New School University. The theme was the Lower East Side. Students explored the area, identified design problems, and then presented their solutions. A graphic designer and resident of the LES, I sat in on the students’ presentations and offered feedback.
Instructor Tamar Samir is a multidisciplinary designer and part-time faculty member at Parsons. She says the LES was chosen “for its historic and cultural importance to New York, for being one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York, and for its multicultural residents.”
As it turned out, the students used each other as interpreters when needed for speaking with Hispanic and Chinese residents.
The Lower East Side stood in sharp contrast to their home towns. “The dirt, graffiti, and garbage cans were all they noticed at first. They’re used to more sterile urban aesthetics,” said Samir.
One group of students felt the architecture around Orchard Street was too monotonous - the shopping district is bound by right angles, buildings of equal height, and lacking in the markers a stranger needs to get their bearings quickly. They surveyed people on the street, asking what they felt were landmarks in the area. The most common answers were the Tenement Museum, “the pickle store” and “the bridge.” The Williamsburg Bridge is a strong visual, but a bit out of the way, and the other two are hard to find if one didn’t know where they were to begin with.
The students’ solution was to build a public park on an empty lot on Broome Street, currently a parking lot. Using a strikingly modern design featuring curves and round shapes to contrast with the square blocks of the surrounding architecture, the park would offer a dogrun and a tall multi-media sculpture rising up high enough to be seen from blocks around.
Another group of students found that there is an active art underground on the Lower East Side, known only to “insiders.” They noted many murals
and a great deal of graffiti unique to the Lower East Side; classic masonry and architectural elements on both preserved and unpreserved buildings; and a myriad new galleries and performance spaces. Their solution was to design a cleverlyfolding tenement building-shaped “Map of Art” that centered around a map of the LES and lines connecting spots to pictures and descriptions of the different locations.
The giveaway map would raise the cachet of the local art scene to rival Soho’s and Dumbo’s.
Other students identified the Allen Street park as a major design problem. This blighted stretch of concrete and broken benches between two large
strips of road has historically been a haven for the homeless and drug-users. The students presented a clever land-use idea of a grid of relaxation areas, theater spaces, foot bridges between the islands to keep traffic flow and create indoor space for restrooms and kiosks in their bases, clear fiberglass shells to keep out noise and pollution, and a climbing wall reminiscent of the Trapeze School on the West Side. The only thing missing was a dog run…
One group of graphic designers suggested an airport-like system of signage applied in small colorful squares to sidewalks and walls to indicate a store’s purpose and its ethnicity. The students' intent was obviously pure, but the culture gap came into stark relief here. In a United States where labeling things ethnically can be a test of subtlety and politics, a storefront labeled “Jewish” may be interpreted the wrong way. These design students’ exercises were a fine reminder that the Lower East Side is not only a world-class neighborhood with a unique and flavorful past, but a rich source of inspiration for the future that extends a little bit beyond a “pickle store...”
Seeing these students getting their design-legs and getting a grip on America by absorbing my neighborhood helps strip away clich? and doubt from the phrase, “proud to be an American.”