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Grand Street: A Cultural Fight for Space[s]

Grand Street


‘To walk along Grand Street is to wrap oneself in the ethnic history and cultural fabric of New York City. Grand Street evokes memories of the city’s labour movement, the Jewish Lower East Side ghetto, the wave of Italian immigration, the lengthening sprawl of Chinatown, and of one of its new frontiers, SoHo, where Grand Street quietly begins.’

[The New York Times, 1977]

The dissertation provides a spatial analysis of the ethnically diverse Grand Street in New York. I investigate the relationship between capital and culture by examining space and identity on Grand Street, asking the question how can we make sense of Grand Street and its unique socio-cultural and economic conditions in spatial terms?

Grand Street runs from East to West across the lower portion of Manhattan and links two distinct ethnic communities as part of the Lower East Side. Historically this area has been an immigrant foothold to a transient population of Irish, German, Polish, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Italian communities since the mid nineteenth century. At this time, Grand Street was seen as truly grand and functioned as a major thoroughfare and shopping centre to the Lower East Side with, for example, Lord and Taylor, now a national department store, selling dry goods in a shop at the corner of Chrystie Street.

Today the street can be still be characterised as a neighbourhood shopping street but is now occupied by the Italian and Chinese communities of Manhattan. Both groups have established strong identities for their communities which surround Grand Street and are known widely as Little Italy and Chinatown. Culturally-specific activities and routines express a socio-cultural identity in the area and along Grand Street.The result is a distinct cultural, economic and spatial dynamic. Yet Grand Street is under transition once again, this time attempting to resist the prevailing forces of globalisation and gentrification.

I became intrigued by Grand Street in 2005 during my time in the United States when I moved there as part of my architectural education. I moved into an apartment under the Manhattan Bridge in the depths of the Lower East Side. Moving to New York was an eye opener in terms of the density and cultures of the city. New York’s history of immigration has resulted in a population in 2000 where 36% are foreign born, and over 170 languages are spoken. Yet as a leading financial centre, New York is ranked as one of the worlds most expensive and exclusive cities – particularly the island of Manhattan This is having a distinct homogenising effect on the population. Urban environments such as Grand Street are therefore of particular significance because of its distinct socio-cultural dynamic.

The two main issues of capital and culture are interrelated through the constructs of space and identity and forcefully influence Grand Street. The aim is to start to make sense of the relationship between these two forces with regards to the specific conditions of Grand Street. From a capital standpoint, what are the effects of capital on the spatial conditions of the street and its inhabitants? From a cultural standpoint, how is it that the Italians and Chinese, as two distinct ethnic groups seemingly dominate this area of Manhattan? How important are the cultural identities of Grand Street’s inhabitants on the street’s configuration and function?

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