Control of physical infrastructure shapes our lives in New York–in profound and hidden ways. Here are some of them

Public Spaces With Private Owners

Developers love them, but is the public getting what it was promised?

By Emma Vickers and Alice Chambers

All over New York City there are special kinds of spaces that are privately owned but supposedly open to the public, more than 550 of them altogether at 333 locations, all results of bargains struck between developers and the city over zoning restrictions. At their best, they provide the public with a place to eat a sandwich or drink a coffee in the sunshine. At their worst, they are unloved concrete squares that the public can’t access and doesn’t even know exist.

 

Exhibit A is Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, which includes almost 13,000 square feet of supposedly public space. Except the public doesn’t seem to know it.

 

The Tower’s lobby is actually a public space, deemed so as a result of a 1979 agreement between the developer and the city, one that allowed the building to go higher than zoning regulations at the time would have allowed. The covered multi-story atrium, so saturated with gold fixtures that it most closely resembles the foiled inside of a chocolate box, is public. As are two outdoor terraces: one on the building’s 4th floor, facing south, and one on the 5th floor, facing north towards Tiffany's and Central Park. Even the three-story waterfall in the atrium is registered as part of its public status. At least on paper.

 

“The Trump building has clearly used every trick in the book to maximize its size,” wrote Adalouise Huxtable in a 1979 article for The New York Times, as Donald Trump was haggling over his new building’s size with the Department of City Planning.

 

Trump took advantage of a zoning regulation that aimed to incentivize developers to create more public space in New York City: The Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, program is designed to encourage developers to build more open, public spaces in the city. These can be parks, plazas, thruways… or just larger sidewalks or flower beds. In exchange for creating these spaces, developers are allowed to construct their buildings taller, or with more area, than the city zoning laws usually allow.

 

For every one square foot of space the developer provides, they receive a bonus four to ten square feet of additional building space. To take the Trump Tower example, NYCityLens calculated that this translates to almost 130,000 square feet of additional floor space, or $134 million in rent per year at current prices. It’s a good deal. Donald Trump built POPS into his other New York Trump-branded buildings: Trump World Tower, Trump International Hotel and Tower, Trump Plaza, and Trump Palace, in addition to Trump Tower.

 

 

The idea of a collaboration between private and public to create more open space in New York followed the construction of the Seagram building, which ended in 1958. With its forecourt plaza, the 38-story tower on Park Avenue inspired city planners to incentivize other developers to include public space around their buildings. As the densest city in the United States, New York can do with all the open space it can get, and so the first Privately Owned Public Spaces zoning regulations were introduced in 1961.  

 

By building a POPS, developers reap the benefits of bonus building space in perpetuity. However, public access to the spaces they build is frequently restricted: limited to certain hours, certain types of use, or even certain types of people. Building residents may gain an exclusive garden, for example, while the public have the right to look, but not touch.

 

In April 2017, the comptroller general’s office conducted an audit to determine whether the city adequately oversees POPS agreements. They found that more than half of all POPS in New York failed to provide required public amenities and wrote that “in the majority of POPS, property owners reaped the rewards of additional floor space...but did not fully meet their obligations.” Sometimes, building owners reaped additional benefits from POPS by privatizing the space, or using it for commercial activities. The comptroller made 11 recommendations for improvement.

 

Trump Tower’s supposedly public terraces are one example of where the POPS program doesn’t quite work as it should. On the day that NYCityLens visited Trump Tower, neither terrace was open and no sign explained why. A staff member said that they were closed for renovation, but there was no evidence of building work, nor could the staff member say when the terraces would re-open. Nowhere in the building is it clear that these spaces are public. The escalator to the 5th floor was closed, and staff members wouldn’t allow the elevator to go that high.

 

The Trump Organization did not reply to a request to comment on this story. The Department of Buildings wrote that public access to the terraces was affected by a fire that happened at Trump Tower last April: “There are active permits on file to perform work to fix the damaged areas.”

 

According to the Department of City Planning, POPS cover almost 3.8 million square feet in New York City. That sounds impressive, until you realize that that is 87.2 acres, or just under one tenth of the size of Central Park. The Department of City Planning website states that “More than 550 POPS provide a myriad of opportunities to sit, relax, people watch, eat, meet others—in other words, to partake and enjoy in urban life in one of the world’s greatest cities.”

 

But, as in the case of Trump Tower, it’s not clear that this is always so.

 

Some POPS don’t work simply because they weren’t designed with people in mind. The early POPS were especially bad, says Thomas Balsley, a landscape architect who the city has called in to fix a number of dysfunctional POPS. “The plaza guidelines were ridiculously lax. All it required was that they were open to the sky, and so they ended up just being a foreground to architecture and there was no consideration of people whatsoever,” he says. He recalls an interview with Seagram Tower architect Philip Johnson who, when asked what he thought about the public sitting on the steps and walls in front of the tower, said, “I never imagined there would be any people sitting in these spaces.”

 

Architects love these big empty plazas, said Amanda Burden, former Commissioner for City Planning under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a Ted Talk in 2014. “They are plinths for their creations. And for developers, they are ideal. There is nothing to water, nothing to maintain, and no undesirable people to worry about.”

 

At 50 East 89th St., the POPS is a concrete square bordered by trees behind a high-rise called the Park Regis. Although the Department of City planning lists “children’s play area” as one of the uses for the space, a sign on the wall indicates no ball playing, no chalk writing, no dogs, no radios, no running, and no skating.  “You pay $5,000 a year in maintenance, you don’t want to hear kids screaming outside your window,” said the super.

 

It’s also locked to the public at the moment. The super says it’s under construction. According to Department of Buildings violation data, the department performed a compliance inspection of the POPS here on May 23rd last year and issued a violation for illegal closure of the plaza.

 

The owners of the Park Regis did not respond to a request for comment.

 

Throughout the city, the Department

of Buildings has issued 518

violations and imposed $1,401,835

in fines since 2000, according to

data from the city’s Open Data

Portal; 49% of those are repeat

offenders. (POPS-specific violation

data is not available prior to 2000.)

This is not a full picture of violations

because, as the comptroller’s audit

report noted in 2017, for many years

POPS went uninspected by the

Department of Buildings. It found

POPS that had violated the law but

never been inspected. And POPS

that had been inspected, but not

been issued a violation because

inspectors were not aware of the

amenities a POPS was supposed to

offer, due to poor city records.

 

Many of the violations in the

database are issued because a

space doesn’t comply with the plans

that the city originally approved.

Trump Tower has been issued five

violations since 2000, all of them

related to changes to the space, or

inappropriate use of the space. The

company that manages Trump

Tower was fined $2,500 in 2006 for

setting up a sales counter in the

atrium. The company was fined

$10,000 in 2016 for the same thing.

 

Nine of the violations in the

database were issued for

commercial activities—including

the Trump Tower sales counters, but also things like sidewalk cafes encroaching on the space. In 2016, according to the city’s violation data, the owners of a condominium at 3 Park Avenue were issued a violation after a cafe, Pain Quotidien, took over the entire plaza, preventing the public from using it at all. Another seven violations have been issued for spaces that the public couldn’t access at all. Twenty-three violations have been issued because the owners had not put up the required plaque that tells the public that the space is open to them.

 

 

 

 

 

Since 2017, when Local Law 116 passed, the city must inspect POPS for violations at least once every three years. But apart from these mandated inspections, the city relies on members of the public to report problems. Before inspections were mandated, they relied entirely on public complaints. The city encourages people to call 311 when they encounter a problem with a Privately Owned Public Space. When poor signage means that the public doesn’t know it has a right to the space, however, people are unlikely to report. Enforcement is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for POPS is split between the Department of Buildings and the Department of City Planning.

 

Despite their problems, POPS have the potential to serve an important purpose in a high-rise city. “A city is only as good as its public spaces are,” says Balsley. “Its public spaces are really a reflection of how a city feels about itself.” And so in the last 20 years, the city has begun to tighten regulations, to try to make spaces benefit the public and well as the developers. This has accelerated since the comptroller’s 2017 report. Apart from the newly mandated inspections every three years, there is now a map of POPS and the amenities that the public can expect them to have on the Department of City Planning website. On July 1, 2019, City Planning will have to submit the first of what will be annual reports on the state of POPS in New York to the mayor.

 

At 401 East 80th St., on the Upper East Side, is an award-winning public plaza. Initially built in 1980, it was later redesigned by Balsley. It’s a small corner lot, bracketed by trees that camouflage the concrete walls of the adjacent buildings on two sides, and protected from the traffic, and from the wind, by abstract sculptural panels that block the road. The panels, painted red, orange, black, and blue morph into benches and steps for children to play on. They were designed by local sculptor Tony Rosenthal. Bright yellow tulips spill from the flowerbeds under the trees. Birds twitter from the trees’ branches; a robin alights briefly on the plaza’s floor.

 

On May 1st at midday there are about ten people enjoying the clear weather. One woman and her husband and niece say that they come here every other day. “We love the birds and the flowers,” she says. She particularly appreciates the small POPS, she says, because it’s a long walk to the nearest park, and her husband is in a wheelchair.

 

Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District is a nonprofit that works to preserve the architecture and the livability of the Upper East Side. This was the group that awarded the prize to the POPS at 401 East 80th. Only one percent of the Upper East Side is open space, and the Friends value every scrap of land. “We call them ‘privately owed public spaces’,” says executive director Rachel Levy, because these are spaces that have been traded to developers. “It’s a bonus they get in perpetuity.”

 

Mistakes have been made, says Balsley. But he is optimistic about the future of POPS, and how they can be improved. “I see the possibilities,” he says. “They’re there forever, they can never be taken away, they’re really our open space inventory for the city.”

How a Housing Law Defines “Affordable”

A controversial program helps owners with big tax breaks, but gives renters the short end of the stick

By Monique LeBrun

Steven Merius, a father living in East Harlem, has spent seven years looking for affordable housing through the New York City Housing Lottery, and he has been lucky enough to be called for an interview on two separate occasions. But he couldn’t accept the offers he got because his family couldn’t truly afford to live in either apartment.

“I have applied for over 40 apartments in various housing projects throughout the Bronx and Manhattan over the last seven years,” said Merius, who is 59 and a case manager at Odyssey House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in a one-bedroom apartment.

The Merius family won the housing lottery twice. The first time, the family didn’t qualify for the two-bedroom apartment they wanted; instead they were offered a one-bedroom apartment for about $1,500. But they declined the offer because they didn’t want to move into another one-bedroom apartment, and because the cost was the same as the apartment they’re living in now. The second time around, they were offered the two-bedroom apartment, but the rent was too expensive.

Affordable housing in New York City, if you scratch beneath the surface, isn’t as simple as it appears. The search for it can be very confusing, as Merius has learned. For starters, there isn’t a single unified affordable housing program. Instead the city and state provide a range of different programs to stimulate affordable housing throughout the five boroughs. One program is the 421-a Tax Incentive. The state-led program requires property owners who anticipate receiving the benefit to dedicate a percentage of the apartments or condos to be offered at an affordable rate—in exchange for a tax property exemption for the owners that can last for up to 40 years.

 

But what makes housing “affordable?” 

One newly constructed building—at 961 Madison St. in Bushwick and developed by CMZ Properties Group LLC—illustrates how controversial the definition of affordable is under the terms of 421-a.

CMZ Properties Group closed the application process for the only two affordable apartments in its six-family building in early April of this year. For one thing, the rent—$2,100 for the one-bedroom, $3,000 for the three-bedroom—are very close to the market rate apartments in the building. According to advertisements posted on StreetEasy, an apartment-finder app, there’s about a $50 difference between the market rate one-bedroom apartment and the equivalent affordable one. And then there are the income requirements—a couple must make at least $72,000 to qualify for the one-bedroom and three people must make at least $102,000. So, it seems likely that an average New York City family like the Meriuses, with an income of about $60,000, wouldn’t be able to afford either apartment.

“It’s hard to describe what’s wrong with the program because everything is wrong with the program,” said Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which is a coalition for community development across New York City.

“There are a lot of really good housing subsidy programs through the city and state. There are even a lot of good tax abatement programs to encourage affordable housing,” said Dulchin  “However, 421-a is not one of them,“ he said the program doesn’t work because of its complicated history.

The 421-a program, as it was revised in 2016, adds confusion to the larger issue at hand—the affordable housing dilemma in New York City. Much of the problem comes down to how "affordable" is defined, and how that definition creates hidden barriers around where low-to-medium income New York City residents can live. 

How that happens is complicated. Here we try to shine a bit of light.

 

 

 

 

 

 


How did 421-a start?

The program was born in 1971 as a response to a declining economy. It was designed to encourage development in New York, especially New York City, and gave developers a 10-year property tax exemption in exchange for building new units. At the time, affordable housing units weren’t a requirement to receive the benefit.  

“The administration wanted to incentivize the market to build anything, anywhere—apartments of any kind, any place—because they were trying to get the real estate industry off its back,” said Dulchin.

The first affordability requirement was added in 1985, making it mandatory for developers building in Manhattan between 96th Street and 14th Street—which is known as the Geographic Exclusionary Area—to add affordable apartments on or off site.

In 2006 the program was altered again. This time it expanded the Geographic Exclusionary Area to include some neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, and ended funding for off-site affordable housing projects.  

More than a decade later, many advocates and city officials have spoken out against the program, arguing that the city is not getting enough bang for its buck, enough affordable housing for the big-dollar tax abatements granted. Some critics say the program should’ve come to an end when it expired in June 2016.

 

What does the program look like today?

The latest version of the 421-a program launched in January 2016. Under its design, owners are able to offer a certain number of “affordable” units in exchange for tax abatements for up to 35 years, or 40 years for projects with more than 300 units. The owners pick from several ways to calculate rents and income requirements—all based on a complicated formula that uses what is called Area Median Income, commonly referred to as AMI. The Area Median Income is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development every year for specific cities. It calculates median income using the entire city, rich and poor.

One problem with the 421-a program, according to critics, is that all the formulas require only a small percentage of units to go to low-income people. So far a total of 74,282 affordable units have been built in Brooklyn and 204,466 citywide. But property owners in Brooklyn have gained nearly $4 million in tax abatements and $12.8 million citywide. 

 

How is the program impacting housing?

The competition for affordable housing is extremely high, and it’s for a valid reason: The average household income in New York City is about $58,000 and one fifth of residents are living in poverty. More than half of the people living in the city are “rent-burdened,” as defined by the city, which means residents are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and some residents even pay up to 50 percent, not including other bills like utilities, according to city data. This has caused some residents to search for lower rents.  

“We have a very low vacancy rate in New York City, particularly in the lower end of the spectrum of rents,” said Asher Freeman, the legislative director for City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “The lower the rent, the lower the vacancy rate is. Essentially for units that most people would consider affordable. The vacancy rate is, for all intents and purposes, zero.” Freeman said this has become a problem for a lot of neighborhoods in the city, but especially for communities like Bushwick, where the need for affordable housing is greater.

In general many New York City residents are moving, either to another borough or out of the city entirely, due to reasons such as cost, space, and location.  “This year we’re seeing a very big increase in the move to Brooklyn—in the last twelve months—out of Manhattan,” said Sharone Ben-Harosh, the CEO of FlatRate moving, a mobile app that helps residents move into new spaces.  Ben-Harosh said families from higher income neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca, have mostly been making the move to Brooklyn.

And according to Freeman, Brooklyn developers and owners tend to choose to offer the higher end of the income brackets that 421-a allows—thus providing housing for middle income renters, but not the people at the low end.  “In Bushwick, developers always take the 30 percent at 130 percent AMI,” said Freeman. “It’s basically market rate, so they kind of are getting a benefit for not really doing anything.”

When Another Hurricane Sandy Comes, Who’s Protected – And Who Isn’t?

Flood protection investments in the city’s most valuable neighborhoods far outpace those most vulnerable to storm surge

When Superstorm Sandy hit the Rockaways, Richard Gold told his wife he could sit out the storm at home as he did Hurricane Irene, which had swept through the city a year earlier. But the floods rose faster than anyone expected, filling Gold’s block with five feet of water. He was found dead the next morning.

 

At the same time, residents of Howard Beach across Jamaica Bay wondered why the evacuation order did not come, even as the water rose to the second floor of buildings. An 85-year-old woman, Rose Faggiano, was the sole fatality. The area had not previously been categorized as an evacuation zone.

 

Gold and Faggiano’s neighborhoods are two of New York’s lowest-lying areas. The Battery in Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and Coney Island, Howard Beach and the Rockaways will again be vulnerable when another major hurricane strikes—and when sea-levels rise as much as 11 to 21 inches by 2050, according to projections made by the New York Panel on Climate Change.

 

But the city and state government is lagging in protections for these areas. An analysis by NYCityLens reveals that coastal resiliency investments in the city’s 10 most valuable neighborhoods are twice that in the 10 neighborhoods most devastated by Sandy. Six of the neighborhoods with the most expensive real estate are in Manhattan, where only two out of 43 people died during the 2012 disaster. Seven years after Sandy, only about a third of citywide resiliency projects have been completed.

 

“Every shorefront community deserves the benefit of a comprehensive coastal resiliency plan, not just Lower Manhattan,” said Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, in a new report criticizing New York officials not only for falling behind on hazard mitigation projects, but also for inequitable allocation of disaster funding.

 

According to the city’s own hazard mitigation database, of 855 planned projects to protect New York’s neighborhoods, only 227 have been completed across the city. Of those, 87 were merely planning and design measures or policy changes.

 

Since 2016, for example, only the implementation plan and preliminary designs have been completed by the Mayor’s Office for Resiliency and the Economic Development Corporation to protect the Coney Island Creek wetlands, a community where nearly 9,000 homes were damaged by Sandy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, the Economic Development Corporation was the lead agency on a more tangible completed project last year. It was also the 10th most expensive.  Hunter’s Point South, a new development in Long Island City designed to absorb and drain floodwaters from the East River, cost the city $105 million. Real estate in Long Island City is the city’s sixth most valuable, with properties selling for an average of $3 million last year.

 

Meanwhile, 156 projects are on the city’s wish list and 473 projects are in progress but still pending across the city, including a $2 million storm surge barrier along the Gowanus Canal. Forty percent of the Gowanus neighborhood was damaged by Sandy.  

 

Even efforts to protect the New York’s most valuable real estate have stalled, including the city’s two most high-profile projects: the Lower Manhattan and East Side Coastal Resiliency plans, known collectively as the Big U. The estimated investment into Lower Manhattan is $212 million. The original plan for the East Side would have cost $700 million, and groundbreaking was slated for 2017.

 

But the plan was abruptly changed by city officials in September, claiming that the new design could be completed earlier and with less disruption to residents. City officials were pilloried by community leaders, experts, and residents for scrapping a plan that took four years of community input, in favor of a new plan that will now cost twice as much at $1.45 billion,.

 

“After years of working with the community on the previous plan, this unexpected change raises numerous questions about the process by which the city selected this new proposal and its process for gathering and incorporating public feedback,” said Brad Hoylman, who represents parts of Manhattan in the New York State Senate, at a January City Council hearing.

 

Meanwhile, experts suggest that the most equitable way to protect rich and poor New Yorkers alike is to build a regional storm surge barrier from Sandy Hook, N.J., to Breezy Point in the Rockaways. The barrier would protect not only New York City, but also New Jersey.

 

“Sandy exposed vulnerabilities that had long been present: communities in low-lying areas, many of them occupied by minority or less affluent residents,” wrote a group of experts led by Malcolm Bowman, director of the Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group, in a study “The vast majority of these residents will be left out of the city’s proposal to build more than 160 perimeter barriers, including the Big U and non-structural measures.”

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently finished a series of public meetings to solicit community input on such a plan. But the project, according to Army Corps estimates, would cost $58 billion and require significant city, state, and federal investment.

 

“It’s a twisted reality, but big federal dollars to protect our coastlines only flow in the wake of disasters like Sandy,” wrote Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, in a March op-ed announcing the new plan for Lower Manhattan. “I don’t expect climate deniers like President Trump to come to the table on this.”

 

But even if the project secures funding, it would still take 25 years to build. And another storm might hit in the meantime. According to the National Academy of Science’s projections, one-in-500 year hurricanes like Sandy will now likely happen once every 25 years because of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

 

“New York City alone has 520 miles of coastal waterfront,” Catherine McVay Hughes, a co-author on the study and former chair of the Lower Manhattan community board, told NYCityLens. “As we approach Superstorm Sandy’s seven-year anniversary, most of our waterfront continues to be exposed.”

By Francesca Regalado

Bridging New York’s Digital Divide One Hotspot at a Time

Start-ups, nonprofits, and internet collectives work toward a more connected future for all

By Jennifer Doherty

In 2015, New York City signed a deal to replace thousands of its antiquated pay phones with LinkNYC kiosks. The purpose:  allow New Yorkers to call anywhere in the United States for free. These Wi-Fi-enabled sidewalk spots also give users access to maps and city services, the ability to charge their devices, and permit them to connect to the web.The kiosks follow the city’s push to help more New Yorkers gain online access by installing free public Wi-FI in every subway station, which it accomplished in 2017.

 

While the solutions are convenient for checking your messages or looking up directions on the go, for many New Yorkers,  the only way for them to go online is on a street corner or underground via these free hotspots and kiosks.

 

“It is absolutely impossible for a young person to have to navigate homeless people and drug addicts to get to a Wi-Fi signal and do their essay on a phone!” expounded Clayton Banks, co-founder of Silicon Harlem last Thursday at the opening of a new uptown coworking space run by the social entrepreneurship company. The space is one prong of the company’s ongoing fight to narrow the city’s digital divide.

 

Currently, 21 percent of New York City households are still not connected to the internet, according to the latest data from the United States Census Bureau.  In lower income neighborhoods like Harlem, that number increases to 40 percent. In East Harlem, it reaches 50 percent, according to Banks. That means one out of every two residents can’t access the web at home.  

 

As with most problems, the trouble comes down to money, says Banks. Whether they’re necessary or not, internet subscriptions add another utility to a list of bills that some New Yorkers are already struggling to pay.

 

“The gaps that we’ve seen in our history are two: you don’t know about it, and you can’t afford it,” Banks explained in a phone call.

 

Silicon Harlem started out in 2013 organizing meet-ups for entrepreneurs who wanted to promote their visions and exchange ideas but were tired of schlepping downtown for networking events. It quickly evolved into a limited liability corporation that produced coding courses for schoolchildren. This year, they’re taking on the affordability issue by partnering with the internet service provider Spectrum to bring low-cost broadband into buildings that aren’t currently equipped with highspeed internet.

 

The lower prices are “built on bulk billing,” as Banks puts it, with the idea being that every unit in the building will subscribe to the internet service provider at a lower price.

 

“Everyone’s going to benefit from everyone being connected, and hopefully we can close that gap of connectivity,” he says.

 

With this new pricing model, qualifying buildings will receive high speed internet, mobile data, and cable that would usually cost upwards of $150 per month for just $39. The system has now launched for units in the building that houses Silicon Harlem’s headquarters and the new coworking space, with more to come.

 

Silicon Harlem projects that it can bring the number of Harlem households without internet down to 25 percent in the next 18 months.

 

“Internet is no longer an option, it’s a utility. New Yorkers need it to go along with their daily lives,” said a spokeswoman for Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer’s office in a statement. She went on, praising Silicon Harlem as “a phenomenal organization” for its work to to make internet connectivity more equitable.

 

In February the Manhattan borough president’s office switched from a standard internet service provider to NYC Mesh, a non-profit network whose goal  is to make internet available to all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In contrast to Silicon Harlem’s approach of working within the system, NYC Mesh functions on an anti-corporate, collective ownership model. Mesh users own (not rent) their modems as they would with a commercial internet service provider, often referred to as an ISP. Instead of a set fee every month, they make  voluntary contributions. Hall says that about 80 percent of users pay the suggested $20 monthly donation. All proceeds go toward maintaining the network, and installations and trouble-shooting are done by Hall and core team of about 30 volunteers.

 

Mesh began when founder Brian Hall stuck antennas out of the windows of his East Village apartment. The network expanded slowly at first, as individual nodes had to be within sight of each other to receive the signal.  

 

Today, there are 316 Mesh users across Manhattan and Brooklyn. The number of users doubled last year, and Hall expects it will double again this year. Many of those users live in NYCHA’s Saratoga Village Houses in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mesh installed antennas on the roofs of buildings there and now provides internet to residents for free.

 

Hall points out that in low-income neighborhoods highspeed internet is often not available, even for those who are willing to pay, because service providers don’t see installations as worthwhile.

 

“The reason poor areas have bad internet is because the ISPs can’t make money out there. I’ve seen some really obnoxious things. They’ll run fiber, not connect anyone, and say they satisfied the terms of the contract,” says Hall.

 

Rather than working with ISPs, Hall dreams of a return to the internet as it once was. “I see us getting back to the original idea of networks connecting to networks for free,” says the activist.

 

Banks also takes heart for the future of connectivity in New York. “We all tend to go to the past a lot; sometimes we get stuck there,” he says. “The present is laborious, it’s exhausting. The future is beautiful; nobody owns it. We’re in a space where we can all participate. There are no rules.”

 

“My generation brought on the internet,” says Banks. “Your generation has the opportunity to rethink how infrastructure serves everyone fairly.”

By Dan Rudy

 
 
 
 
 
 

New York on the Defensive

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