Zone A: Ecology and Etymology

2011NY0308qm 082, originally uploaded by mogaphoto.

Hurricane Irene brought a new term into the parlance of New Yorkers: Zone A. Over the past several months, I’ve been researching zoning history, looking into early zoning maps in New York and other American cities. The term, as applied to a low-lying, flood-prone area, appears to date to the city’s first zoning ordinance. Waterfront areas, often a mix of industrial, residential, commercial structures, received the “A” label for industrial/unrestricted in the city’s 1916 ordinance, first of its kind in the country. As the report issued at the same time as the ordinance and maps notes, the boundary between “A” and other district designations often followed topography.

“In many cases the boundary line of the waterfront unrestricted district follows quite closely the 20-foot contour line (page 16).”


The Flats

20100328121955, originally uploaded by massmoga.

The Flats is the name of the neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River, below the bluffs at Boyle Heights. Once covered by vineyards and orchards, it was rapidly transformed by the construction of railroad lines through the area, new industrial and warehousing uses, and the development of Boyle Heights as a streetcar suburb. From around 1905 to 1942 it was known as Russian Town, an enclave of the Molokan community, until the Aliso Village and Pico Gardens public housing developments were constructed there. The public housing complexes have been redesigned under the HOPE VI program and the areas closest to the river remain in railroad-related (and now trucking) and warehousing uses.

Looking Down, Looking Up


20090515143021, originally uploaded by massmoga.

Last stop: Washington D.C.! I went to see the Anacostia Flats and Foggy Bottom.

Foggy Bottom is perhaps the most famous bottom of all. The one place in urban America today named Bottom that many people would recognize. But few, I’d gather, have any clue as to where its name comes from, or anything about its history before Metro, the Kennedy Center, the State Department, and Watergate came to the neighborhood. As you might guess, if you’ve read other posts here, it’s history (natural, built, and social) is similar to other bottoms. Located south of the point where Rock Creek meets the Potomac River, it was subject to floods, developed in an ad hoc manner with industrial uses as its primary focus, and notorious in the late nineteenth century for crime and vice.

Transformed by land-filling, road construction, and mega-projects, Foggy Bottom presents a different image today. I went out in search of traces of the past: specifically, the place where Rock Creek meets the Potomac and the Foggy Bottom Historic District. Both sites felt like they were hidden in the interstices of one massive twisted tangle of roadways.

The photo above shows an alleyway in the Foggy Bottom Historic District. I chose this photo for this final post of the road trip because it represents interconnections between natural, social, and built in low places.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve started looking at (and photographing) details on the ground more often. The more I thought about these low-lying urban neighborhoods, and visited them on foot, the more I began to notice the surfaces of the ground plane: sod, asphalt, brick, concrete, gravel, stones, dirt, vegetation, or open water. In an earlier post I wrote about “the bottom of the bottom” and that’s my meaning here. If these places were defined in reputation and in physical form by flood events, then I wanted to know where the water went downhill, seeking out the lowest points, flowing through a neighborhood.

At the same time, I began looking for traces of the past or physical artifacts that might show something about development patterns and the history of the built environment. In many places, streets were torn up replaced, even erased altogether when an area was re-platted or new “super-blocks” came in. But elsewhere, a brick alleyway or a cobblestone path, an old canal, a berm alongside railroad track, a grate, or a drain signaled something from an earlier era. (Of course, these artifacts on the ground can be deceptive at times, as new systems likely underlie them.) Nevertheless, I began looking down a lot more, and following downspouts up the sides of buildings, or considering what was up the slope, looking up, too.

But one can also look at an alley with different “eyes.” Alleyways carried water and served as pathways, and they were also the “front yards” for many of the nineteenth century’s poor. In cities like Washington D.C., in particular, alley “dwellings” as they were known as the places where the poor people lived. So, while looking at an artifact of nineteenth century building practice- an alleyway separating very narrow two- and three-story rowhouses- we might think about the density of urban settlement, the location of work and home, the social ordering of “back” and “front,” scale, and other aspects of socio-spatial relationships.

And where there’s water, there’s likely to be vegetation. Volunteers, plants and trees sprouting up in these in-between places, along the edges of these paths. In an earlier era, probably horse droppings and trash, and other urban waste and detritus, too.

So here we have, at the micro scale, a kind of bottom. Built in brick, concrete, asphalt, wood, and other materials; physically constructed according to the building practices and societal understandings of its time; and conduit, a device for transporting and moving surface water, people, and supplies: the low point between the buildings. At the same time, part of an urban system of interconnected alleys and streets, blocks and neighborhoods.

This trip has made me realize how complex “Bottom” neighborhoods were, and how different they could be from one another, but it also confirmed these interrelationships- how the locations where urban creeks met rivers shaped what people decided to build, how “natural events” like floods shaped development patterns and neighborhood reputations, and how low-lying places became associated with those “at the bottom rung” or “at the bottom of society.”

Thanks to my committee members, family, and friends for your comments and support during these four weeks. Stay tuned for more observations in the coming months, as I plan the next steps towards completing the dissertation.



20090512125604, originally uploaded by massmoga.

The City of Richmond razed the old neighborhood that used to stand here, tore up the cobblestone streets, and re-platted a new community. This process began in the 1960s as an urban renewal project, and continues today. Vacant lots marked with redevelopment agency signs, and newly constructed houses, indicate the slow pace of “renewal”– demolition can be rapid, but rebuilding often takes decades. In this case, it has been more than forty years.

Lots of “bottoms” have gone this way: completely remade in a new image. And in most places, “bottoms” is no longer a term one finds in official use. (Shockoe Bottom and Foggy Bottom are two exceptions.) But people don’t forget, and in newspaper articles, on the internet, and in conversations, people still refer to this place as “Fulton Bottom.” In other cities around the country, too, from Nashville to Philadelphia, former residents of the bottoms gather, tell stories, remember together the history of their communities.

Frequently, it seems, economic development concerns and a “pro-business” agenda drove these transformations: more industrial land was needed, new housing had to be built to attract middle class families, room had to be made for a university or medical center or government building to expand. Infrastructure “improvements” in the form of new roads, highways, sewers, flood walls, or other structures accompanied the changes. Indeed, sometime road projects alone justified the razing of entire communities.

These disruptions and transformations are a familiar story. Across the country, urban renewal projects displaced tens of thousands of low-income and working class people, often African Americans. What I’m struck by is how many of the places I’m studying were redeveloped and how few traces of the past remain. In some areas, the shape of the land has been the best clue. Of course, those newspaper articles, internet sites, historic maps, and other documents provide lots of information on what used to be. But linking past and present has been more challenging than I expected in some places.

Throughout this project I’ve been interested in the interrelationship between natural features of the land and water, built form, and social understandings of communities. Indeed, the name “bottoms” has historically expressed both alluvial land and the place where poor people lived. But now, I notice, after three weeks visiting these places, how undoing or remaking the “dilapidated housing” or “slum conditions” in these communities (from the 1930s through the 1960s), was accompanied by a landscape transformation. Not only large site or “modernist” super-block developments, a significant change in scale and spatial relationships– an important theme in public housing history; but, also the sense and feeling of terrain.

Of course, cutting down hills, filling in marshes, extending wharves, diking, draining, and other land-making activities have been a part of city building for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years. Seeking out these places, looking for them in today’s landscape, and reading about the sense of loss that many former residents feel, it becomes more clear that many cities consciously set out to erase “the bottoms” and tried to create landscapes that looked like new or typical or even suburban places. Creeks went underground or got diverted, old names were replaced with new ones, new buildings were built: but, in most places, the simple fact of being low remains.

The Bottom of the Bottom

20090511184918, originally uploaded by massmoga.

Richmond’s engineers and planners put Shockoe Creek in a sewer and the Army Corps of Engineers constructed an enormous flood wall to keep out the James River, but Shockoe Bottom still has low elevation, overflows, rainfall, and surface water with which to contend. The photo above shows one of the lowest points in the bottom, in an alley off 17th Street. One local told me this is the spot where he always goes to see if the area is about to flood. Nearby, I smelled a strong odor, but I wasn’t sure what is was until I started poking around in these lowest-of-the-low alleys– and discovered two dead rotting fish.

A Garden in the Bottom


20090511182702, originally uploaded by massmoga.

Exploring Shockoe Bottom earlier this week, I ran into this group of volunteers working to construct an urban garden. While the area of the Bottom closest to the river is filled with massive structures supporting the highway overhead, elevated railroad tracks, and bulky historic warehouses, as one moves up the Shockoe Valley a few blocks, there are lots of vacant lots such as this one. It’ll be interesting to check back in a few months and see what’s growing here!

Flood Wall

20090511170508, originally uploaded by massmoga.

This photo gives some sense of the height of the flood wall in downtown Richmond, designed to protect the area known as Shockoe Bottom. Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, the project was completed in 1994. Click on the photo to go to my flickr site and see more images of the overlapping layers on infrastructure in this area: highways, canals, and railroads constructed in this low point where Shockoe Creek once met the James River.