— Shin-pei Tsay
— 29 years old
— Plainclothes urban geographer and Director of Marketing for Project for Public Spaces.
— Grew-up in Syracuse, NY; now lives in Greenpoint
What do you do and what led you into this field? Were you always aware of the spaces around you?
Essentially, I work for a place that deals with public spaces – all places outside of your office and your home. Though a space may be privately managed, we consider it a public space if it is meant for public consumption and/or use. Project for Public Spaces prides itself on not doing the typical “design/defend” process – it starts with and focuses on the people and communities who use the spaces.
For them I am “in charge” of various marketing projects, and I sometimes get to run other projects when the real experts are too busy with yet other projects. Currently, I handle, in addition to weekly mailings, some work in the world of the General Services Administration (a federal agency filled with very cool people by the way, though they manage sometimes mundane buildings) and the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
I’m just as surprised as the next person could be that I’m in this field. During one particularly dark moment of uncertainty when the sun set at 3PM in London, I called my sister who curtly reminded me of the summer when I was six, and I elected for an architecture class at the local library when I could have been finger-painting and running around outside. So I guess I have been an urbanist dork from as early as you can get, though I sure did take a meandering path to get here.
Your degree in urban design is from the London School of Economics? Is that an unusual place to study such a thing?
The full name for LSE is “London School of Economics and Political Science.” Yup, LSE is a social science school, so really, it’s not that unusual. I got to break out of the pre-professional box of planning and architecture, and instead got to study urban geography, which included components of sociology, economics, anthropology, all from a place-specific perspective. Thanks to LSE, I got a healthy dose of post-Marxist crit, a legacy from the good old days when LSE was not a feeder school for banks in the City of London, but instead was a radical lefty school. Also, it was fun to roll off British colloquialisms such as “quid,” “queue” and “bollocks” for a year. I was very proud the day I figured out what “double-glazed” meant.
In what cities have you made your home?
Syracuse, Boston, Taipei, Mexico City, London, and New York. I stayed at one address for one month in Sao Paolo – does that count?
One of the key ideas of the Project for Public Spaces is “placemaking.” What’s that about? Are most people into the idea of workable spaces, or do people build what they want, as fast/ cheaply/ loudly as they can?
I’m no expert, but one way to think about placemaking is that it is the process, driven by a community, to create a dynamic public space that is sensitive to context, is sustainable, considers all users, and balances all of those elements and more. Placemaking, unlike designing a space, is very much about how it happens, not just what it produces. Also, its orientation is typically pro- not anti-.
Now, most people like this theory in concept. How can anyone disagree with a great workable place? Yet unworkable places happen often enough that something really big is getting in the way – human nature. It’s true, typically the obstacles fall into the traps of convention, greed or just plain laziness. Now loudness I can deal with. I only wish that people would be louder about creating workable places from the get-go – it implies that lots of people are involved with the process. Unfortunately, the loudness that we hear these days are protests after-the-fact – after the architect has been chosen, the drawings done, the profits secured, after most critical decisions have already been made.
How is it that PPS gets its clientele—are they approached or do people know to turn to you for advisement? For the most part, is your work with cities or smaller communities? And what are the practical differences in working on a large city vs. a small town? Even when you come up with good ideas, how difficult can they be to implement?
Typically people call us because a) a decision they made or a designer they’ve hired has royally f**ked up or b) they’ve heard of us and our work and want to prevent a) from happening.
We work with communities and projects of all kinds and sizes. Transportation, parks, squares, public markets, public buildings, you name it. It turns out placemaking works in all places, regardless of size or type or place and the differences between a large city and a small town are only superficial. It seems that large group dynamics vary only a little place to place, and depend on context that we are prepared for anyway.
Just to give you a couple of examples, we recently returned from Montenegro, where a few NGOs (non-governmental organizations) partnered to create a placemaking program as a means to encourage civic engagement with local governance. Over the summer, we got a nice medal from the prime minister of Croatia for a similar program, for encouraging local democracy-building. A bunch of Japanese corporate property managers visited in November and now want to hire us. The City of Tokyo recently passed an ordinance that all new buildings must ensure that their surrounding spaces are community-oriented.
The idea is that if you get everyone to agree about the goal, then people tend to agree on what good ideas are, and the ideas are easier to implement. In reality, compromises are made everywhere on large-scale projects such as these. Ultimately, no one person is responsible, it is largely how the group dynamic carries itself out. A group can be dominated by a few voices though, and this is the way the process can become the culprit.
One of PPS’s arguments is that cool buildings (such as the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Seattle Library) don’t guarantee workable surrounding areas. Are we just suckers of the cult of celebrity architecture?
I love beautiful looking buildings, and a great place doesn’t need to exclude great design or beauty or art. But when a place is only about brand name design, then I wonder, what’s the point of taking up all that space in perpetuity?
Think of it this way – you can get that cute little shrug that fits fine from Old Navy for $25, or you could get a little too tight shrug from Prada for $400. Most people wouldn’t know the difference from Old Navy to Prada. Thing is, once the season is over, that Old Navy shrug can be tossed with no guilt – it was a fun experiment. In Prada, on the other hand, you’ve invested a week’s pay, so it takes up valuable space in your closet though you secretly hate wearing it because it digs into your armpits.
It’s almost the same for cities grappling with hiring a starchitect or not. A designer building would seem cool, though it contains so many risks: it is so damn hard to find the front entrance or it’s too isolated from the rest of the community to be welcoming or because of some other designer problem (e.g., Meier’s glass walls leak; Gehry’s overheating from intense building reflection).That designer building now dominates an entire block in your downtown, and for a city, that building is here to stay. Is it worth all the fame? Maybe. Bilbao is on the map now after all. But outside of fame, all the ways it doesn’t work will leave a lasting legacy and tangibly impact hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. Prada you can consign – a building rarely goes away.
What are some of the things that PPS has worked on here in NYC?
Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, Bryant Park, Mulry Square, Balsley Pond, Morningside Park, Port Authority (we saved the bowling alleys!), and Battery Park City Park.
PPS does a lot to encourage people to speak up about their surroundings, especially if they feel they don’t work for them. How effective is that approach — do people listen to the ordinary citizen? In your opinion, what’s an example of a space that works here, and vice versa, one that doesn’t?
Ordinary citizens have a lot of power. We love the people, for instance, who plant flowers in tree pits or who sweep their stoop and the gutter in front of their building. You don’t really notice these specifics when walking down the street, but one small gesture can make the entire street feel tended for.
People listen, but how much are they willing to break convention or give up personal fame / fortune to do something about it is another matter. What’s most amazing is how little people know about each other, even as neighbors that share a common space. I feel it is sometimes due to about inalienable property rights in this country – “I’ll ignore the fact that you own this space because I believe I own this space. We can’t both own this space, or worse, share this space! Get out of my way! Much better to ignore you than to listen to you.”
Of course New York is full of places that work – from the most visible places like Central Park and Bryant Park, to the most unexpected, like Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. (I never thought living in Greenpoint would be such a delightful experience, I don’t care what anyone says about the G.) But there are plenty of places here that could be so much better. Astor Place is a good example. It is so naturally positioned as a center in the Village that it could easily be a marvelous public square with much more to do than dodge traffic from three sides.
On a similar note, what are your thoughts on some of the ideas developing now, such as Westside Stadium, the High Line, Ground Zero, to name a few?
I always feel it pointless to comment on the largest New York City projects because there is already so much opining. And the amount of projected profit at stake seems to fuel the certainty of their completion, regardless of public opinion.
PPS recently drew up a list of the 20 greatest neighborhoods in North America, with the East Village hitting number 2. How did that work — what criteria do you look at for a neighborhood, vs assessing an entire city?
Outside of Coyoacan, Mexico City, where I ate huevos like there was no tomorrow, and of course, the East Village, I have been to only a few neighborhoods on that list. (Judging) is a highly subjective exercise to begin with and reflects the strong opinions of a couple of guys who travel a lot. The treatment between cities and neighborhoods isn’t remarkably different. Cities contain neighborhoods; just think nesting Russian dolls – there’s delight and surprise all contained within one another. Some of my favorite neighborhoods certainly didn’t make the cut, so I must remind you and myself that this list has a very generous caveat – it’s not the end-all and is supposed to spark discussion. All of you living in Bensonhurst or Jackson Heights, clamor for inclusion in the next year’s issue!
The East Village is a wonderful example of how public spaces can perform very well. It’s set up for walking with narrow streets, trees, mixed and vibrant uses, served by public transit, has mixed green and urban spaces. I also like that the communities are so visible in the public realm – the Mosaic Man, the community gardens, the East 4th Street theaters, and the Ukrainian community. Of course there is, and has been, incredible turmoil in places like this with the fallout of gentrification and displacement, but over the course of time, those changes, and how the community handles them, only contribute to the vitality of the neighborhood. Part of the miracle of the East Village is that the community did an incredible job of standing up to the City for many years and claiming what was theirs.
Describe your utopian neighborhood or city.
Amsterdam and Paris combined, with the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of New York, the ample availability of delicious street food of Mexico City, and the warmth and hospitality of Rio.
Ten Things to Know About Shin-pei:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Fake Chanel earrings on Canal Street. Sporting those sparklies, the sales staff at Jeffrey’s had never been so nice.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Dating an aspiring performer has taken more out of my paycheck than any other city establishment.
Gotham Mad Lib: When the ____________ (noun) makes me feel ___________ (adverb), I like to _____________ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required – answer however you wish.)
Upon returning to New York after traveling, I feel overwhelmingly relieved when I hit the sidewalk and stretch out my walking legs.
Personality problem solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Definitely more obsessive – I finally had to take up crocheting to keep preoccupied. How could anyone ever say no, New York has not become a part of me?
NYC confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
I just love the availability of yellow cabs, but with the meter hike, a late night cab ride home is guilt-ridden.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
For natural comfort, Fort Tryon Park soothes the soul. For ultimate indulgence, a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster movie at a really good stadium seat surround-sound theater all by myself fits the bill.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Walking less than a minute to buy a Sunday New York Times, milk and doughnuts.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Only when angling for subway breathing room on the very crowded morning L train.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
Most nights this past summer, Kool Man liked to park his truck on our street at 10PM or so, and just let grind out that Kool Man theme over and over, for at least 20 odd minutes. A call to 311 took us 1 minute. Kool Man never returned.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
I love Iris the cab driver. Picking us up one night, she dawdled to yell at a guy on the sidewalk who was chewing out his date/girlfriend. She threatened to call the police on him, then took off, tires screeching. She glanced in the rearview mirror, and said, “Oh my, you look so cute!” – a wondrous thing to hear at the end of a long night. When she dropped us off, she handed me her card. I now feel like I have a personal valet/chauffeur/guardian angel.
For more information about Project for Public Spaces, please visit their website at www.pps.org. You can also visit her blog "Bird to the North" at northbird.blogspot.com where she writes about public spaces and how we live with them.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs