Op/Ed Architectural Apartheid

While walking along the Williamsburg waterfront, have you ever felt that you were being watched? During such strolls, do you have that eerie, creepy sensation that makes the hair stand up on the back of your  neck, that even gives you a sense of foreboding? You’re not paranoid, because it’s them. It’s those waterfront glass Frankentowers—Northside Piers and The Edge—the new, gated communities that cast their menacing shadows over the nabe and shroud the local citizenry in darkness. The multiple towers comprise a colony, an unequal community within a surrounding neighborhood of distinct and incongruous architectural designs. While they’re mute, their sun-reflected, unblinking, glassy stare is a silent scream.

The new glass condo towers are the 21st century’s architectural aliens, with corporate designs that are sterile, cold, and unwelcome in an outer-borough world. Their imposing height and glass exude luxury and exclusivity, while at the same time conveying emotional detachment from the community. This is nothing less than architectural apartheid because these radical structures have a deleterious impact on the community on several levels.

First, the towers distinctly identify the newcomers by clustering them in unique residences instead of integrating them into the surrounding neighborhood. Kent Avenue is the de facto “railroad tracks” separating the wealthy arrivals from the “indigenous,” mostly original, middle and working class residents.

Second, this creates a skewed demographic that is psychologically unhealthy. The glass towers are deliberately and specifically designed to discourage tower residents from mingling with the local residents by offering comprehensive in-house amenities such as a concierge service, pool, gym, sauna, recreation room, and roof deck. These amenities become the psychological leashes that discourage residents from leaving the ersatz mini-city. The towers are the safari truck in the urban jungle as the occupants gaze through the protective glass from up high.

Third, gated communities were traditionally built as “out of sight, out of mind” exclusive suburban compounds featuring high walls and security cameras, with the residences set back from the manned entry gates.

Nowadays they are being constructed in the belly of the urban beast, following a global trend toward larger urban populations—both rich and poor—where the wealthy are now our next door neighbors. It’s a self-imposed apartheid with limited community engagement.

The word combination “glass tower” gives the illusion of transparency. Glass is a barrier that separates two parties. If that glass is a one-way mirror, then you have neither contact nor transparency. The one-way mirror allows one party (the one with wealth and power) to look out without being seen, while the excluded party sees a reflection of herself or himself, reminding her of her secondary social status in the neighborhood. It’s the same demeaning feeling you get when chatting with someone who refuses to remove their mirrored sunglasses.

The wealthy can look out, but you can’t look in. It’s the wealthy’s version of what I call “flaunt and taunt.” Instead of staying under the radar in a suburban, gated community, they arrive in the mega-cities to flaunt their elevated social status with an attitude of entitlement. It’s divisive gentrification: separate and unequal. Next time you look in the mirror, imagine who may be staring back at you from behind the glass.


Albert Goldson is an Architectural & Engineering Contract Manager specializing in transportation mega-projects, energy, and urban planning. He has also been a resident of Williamsburg for ten years and is an internationalist and avid jazz aficionado.