We were happy to receive in the mail today the latest issue of MIT’s journal Thresholds, which features a piece by Interboro on “NORCs in New York.” The issue, called “Socio-Indemnity and Other Motives,” was edited by Jonathan Crisman. We’re looking forward to finding some time to read it. In the meantime, here’s a nifty interview we did with Jonathan about NORCs:
JC: Describe the first moment you realized you were experiencing a NORC.
In 2006, we were invited to do an exhibition at common room 2, a space on the Lower East Side headed by Lars Fischer, Maria Ibanez De Sendadiano, and Todd Rouhe. The exhibition space was in the lobby of common room’s office, a commercial building in the Seward Park Cooperative complex. As we started planning the exhibition, we noticed that the lobby, which was used by all the people associated with common room—cool architects, designers, and artists—was also inhabited by elderly people with heavy New York accents and canes. It turns out that the building is the epicenter of Seward Park’s senior culture: a large-windowed second story office that houses the Seward Park NORC Supportive Services Program, or NORC-SSP. The NORC-SSP is a gathering place for Seward Park’s seniors: a place to organize transport to the doctor, sign up for meals on wheels, get a flu shot, play bingo, take a yoga class and so on.
We saw this ground floor lobby as a space of encounter among the building’s different constituents: the architects and designers who worked in the building, exhibition visitors who came to see common room 2 shows, and the NORC SSP seniors who used their community room to take care of their health needs and to socialize. We built our exhibition around trying to increase the interaction (positive friction?) among these groups, and in particular, the NORC-SSP people and those who came to the exhibition.
In many ways, this space embodied ideals of “the good city.” As an urban space in which people of difference have chance encounters, it is just the sort of space that the homogenization of Manhattan is endangering. Believing that there is a value to having different types of people rub shoulders in the same space, we started to investigate how this group of seniors—in that face of a meteoric rise in real estate values and increased living costs—managed to stay put among their friends on the Lower East side. That was the start of this project.
JC: What kind of closed-loop or endogenous phenomena have you observed in these social systems? Are there any kind of other-worldly perceptions, interactions, or spatial appropriations that occur in these habitats that might seem strange elsewhere but seem right at home within the NORCs?
One thing that’s great about NORCs is that they are integrated with the city around them. Sure, when you’re sitting in the park of one or another tower-in-the-park you can forget that you are in this dense, crowded city, but for the most part, what’s great about NORCs is that they aren’t islands. Despite the fact that there are delivery services, senior shuttles, and on-site entertainment, most of the seniors who live in the NORCs make use of neighborhood services. We spent a lot of time in NORCs, but we also spent a lot of time around NORCs, mapping interactions between NORC residents and the surrounding neighborhoods. We were very busy! Visit northern Chelsea between Seventh and Ninth Avenues and you’ll see it for yourself: lots of senior citizens at the pharmacies, movie theaters, delis, etc.. The most exciting thing is when a NORC SSP forms a relationship with a neighborhood institution, like when students from FIT came to Penn South to work with seniors on their apartment interiors.
JC: What is happening to these developments as residents, for lack of a better term, move out? What kind of constituency is moving in?
What happens to the developments when residents move out really depends on the development. Unfortunately, many of the limited-equity housing co-ops that house NORCs have opted to go market. What this means is that when a unit becomes available, the unit goes to the highest bidder. However when an apartment becomes available in Penn South—whose tenants have opted to remain a limited-equity co-op market—it goes to whoever is next on the waiting list. As Penn South—like other limited-equity co-ops—have income limits, the unit is likely to go to someone who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to own an apartment in Chelsea. The challenge for NORCs is to retain their elderly population, since they risk losing their NORC status (and hence their funding), once they go below 50 percent senior. As very few people ever leave limited-equity co-ops, this is less a problem for them; however, it is a major concern for places that have gone market.
JC: Do you have any kind of design agenda or projective thoughts on how to approach the NORC? Or is this purely an incidence of seeing something interesting and wanting to give it attention?
If we have a design agenda, it is to increase accessibility. A lot of NORCs and a lot of the neighborhoods where you find NORCs have some work to do here. It could be as simple as replacing stairs with ramps (stairs tend to be a problem in some of the older NORCs, such as Parkchester), redesigning intersections to slow down cars, or increasing the time a senior has to cross a street.
JC: Your work has tended toward what one might call “everyday urbanism”—and along with it, tended toward participatory, bottom-up approaches. What would you say to someone critical of participation—say, Markus Miessen (who is also in this issue)—or some skeptical as to whether things are as rosy as the images you present?
We’re working on a book called The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion: it’s far from rosy. The book is a sort of dictionary of 101 “weapons” that segregate and integrate. What’s depressing is how much easier it has been to identify the former. The amount of creativity that our architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, neighborhood associations etc. have put into keeping “undesirables” out of communities that have good schools, good jobs, escalating property values, clean air, and all the other things that we all want and deserve equal access to is nothing short of astonishing. The result is metropolitan areas with twenty-year life expectancy differences between the poorest, blackest neighborhoods and the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods. The result is cities whose high school graduation rates are 40 percent lower than those of the suburbs that surround them.
We do believe in bottom-up, participatory approaches, but obviously, such approaches aren’t all that is needed to address some of the larger problems that we face. To make our metropolitan areas more equitable, we’re not averse to big, top-down, non-participatory policies. Wealthy, white suburban communities like the ones you find in Westchester County, NY aren’t going to participate in “affirmatively furthering” fair housing, not without the threat of penalty.
That is to say, there’s a time and a place to be rosy, and a time and a place to be mad as hell.