Sitting outside of Cantina, a Mexican restaurant in the Hunters Point area of Long Island City, yesterday, I stared at the glass towers and wide sidewalks around me. I took in the street-level retail — a handful of restaurants and a coffee shop — and noted the playing fields in the middle of it all. I watched as masked couples pushed strollers by… The neighborhood felt soulless and I was struggling to put my finger on why.
Was it simply COVID and people limiting how much they’re going out?
Was it the lack of distinctive architecture or idiosyncratic street amenities?
Was it the lack of a central gathering place?
Was it simply how new it all still is? Maybe the neighborhood’s personality is still embryonic, yet to emerge?
My wife and I are in the early stages of looking to buy a home, so the question of neighborhood character was top of mind. We aspire to a place that has a sense of Place — to a neighborhood that could become our community with enough investment in relationships and time. Sitting there yesterday, however, it was hard to imagine Hunters Point ever being that. Sure, it’s a nice place to live — and to be clear, we feel fortunate for the privilege to be able to even consider it. But the sense that there’s no community made me sad.
In my mind, a community isn’t something that just exists. It’s organic. Like a vine on a lattice, it takes time for roots to grow, to strengthen their grip as the vine edges upwards. It takes time for the vine to double back on itself and make stronger connections, and eventually to bloom.
In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs described how a sense of community and Place grows out of the thousands of fleeting sidewalk encounters we take for granted every day.
“It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eyeing the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded. … The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level … is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.” (56)Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Although Jacobs was writing about Greenwich Village in the 1960s, there’s still much truth in her deeper idea — that it’s through the familiarity, trust, and web of mutual-dependencies that emerge through daily encounters that a sense of community is born.
The more I thought about Hunters Point, the more I wondered whether such a web could ever really come into fruition. The developers, instead of thinking about a Place where people would want to live, seemed to consider only the amenities that would get individuals to buy. In this way, Hunters Point checks all the boxes: Nice views. Modern appliances. Couple restaurants. Outdoor space. But what’s missing is space for interesting small businesses, space for people to gather in-community around meals, a sidewalk configuration that promotes serendipitous encounters, trees that help people feel at ease, and building scales that encourage a sense of ownership over the streets. Without this lattice, it’s hard to see how Hunters Point is ever anything other than a sterile environ with nice views.
Maybe that will work for some. But for my wife and me, we’ll keep looking.