Where the Borough Ends

Location: New York, NY
Client: Storefront for Art & Architecture
Scope: Research & Exhibition
Progress/Year: 2016

The exhibition Sharing Models: Manhattanisms invited 30 international architects to produce models of their own visions for the city’s future. The models, each representing a section of Manhattan, established analytical, conceptual, and physical frameworks for inhabiting and constructing urban space and the public sphere.

When in 1939 the Bronx borough president James Lyons planted a flag on Manhattan’s Marble Hill and deemed it “Bronx Sudetenland,” referring to the Nazi annexation of regions of Czechoslovakia, he may have exaggerated the degree of conflict. Nonetheless this moment marks one episode of many in the conflicted history of the northern border of Manhattan, a line bounded by the east-west waterway that separates the borough from the mainland. This so-called “natural” border, however, is far from static. Through the centuries Manhattan’s northern edge has been shaped and re-shaped, cataloging New York’s evolving ambitions in its changing forms. The waterway has been reconfigured from swirling eddies in the 17th century, before settlement by Europeans; to the wadeable Spuyten Duyvil Creek; to the severing of the landmass by the Harlem Ship Canal in 1895; and finally the filling-in of the river north of Marble Hill in 1915.

Where the Borough Ends investigates this liminal zone at Manhattan’s northern edge, including its episodic reconfiguration. It renders visible the paradox of how we think about natural landmarks as fixed demarcations—a Chinese word for “border” still comprises the character for “river”—when they, in fact, are transformed at the same speed as urban change. Instead of showing a single iteration of Manhattan’s northern edge, this sand-and-water model represents infinite possibilities for the divide. Viewers get their hands dirty and shape the terrain between the two boroughs by molding the model’s scale landscape. An overlaid projection responds in live-time, extending Manhattan’s grid to south and the Bronx’s urbanism to the north. Data points on model’s sides serve as reference for historical datums of elevation, water level, and average housing prices.

Where the Borough Ends aims to provoke broader questions about how politically-configured landscape forms often result in “shared” liminal territories of both conflict and coordination. Currently, Marble Hill—the vestigial neighborhood on the North American mainland but legislatively remaining in Manhattan—represents a “shared” territory that is the urban legacy of the fluctuating border. Marble Hill residents vote for Manhattan Assemblyman, City Councilman and Borough President and are called for Manhattan jury duty; yet their school board representatives hail from the Bronx and city services including fire, police, and EMS are also served from the Bronx.

Beyond New York, consider for example the recurring border disputes resulting from the shifting of the Rio Grande at the Mexican-US border, resulting in both arbitration and re-channeling of the river. Or the shifting the Sham Chun River between Hong Kong and Shenzen, which once—when its course was corrected to respond to flooding—also allocated more territory to the S.A.R. Collectively these are symptoms of a long shift from the perception of landforms and waterways as immutable wilderness, toward the contemporary understanding of urban and landscape edges to be perpetually changing, bureaucratically-defined, and up for reconsideration. Today, a group called “The Great and Glorious Grand Army of The Bronx” performatively re-enact Lyons’ flag planting annually, defending against what they consider the Manhattan’s “spoiled ramblings of the effete bourgeoisie.