This week, we profile Untapped Cities contributor Alex Wallach, an urban planner with a family history in Coney Island. He recently helped us answer an obscure question about a man spotted flying over Coney Island with bat wings and frog legs (see the answer here).
What’s your “day job”?
I’m a planner in the Town of Smithtown, New York, which about an hour outside New York City on Long Island. I review development applications, advise the Town’s Planning Board, and do research and analysis on a variety of town planning issues, such as zoning and land use.
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in your city?
I love walking along Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights. In one small stretch, you have incredible apartment buildings, Riverside Church, Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Park, tiny Sakura Park, and the Riverside Drive Viaduct, all with amazing views of the Hudson River, the Pallisades, and the George Washington Bridge. I think it’s one of New York’s most scenic and most under appreciated vistas.
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped:
I really liked taking a tour of the World Trade Center construction site, and going to the 90th Floor of One World Trade. It was amazing to see how that site has been transformed in the last decade, and the trip to the top of 1 WTC before it opens was really special, and slightly terrifying.
What’s the most memorable thing that happened while writing for Untapped Cities?
When I covered the Jazz Age Lawn Party, my friends and I headed to Governor’s Island fully decked out head-to-toe, in 1920s Gatsby style. Outside of the party, we stuck out, which is pretty hard to do in New York. All day long, people in the street would stop and snap photos of us. It was fun feeling like a celebrity for a day.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned as a contributor?
Writing about Coney Island allowed me to retrace my family’s Brooklyn roots. After visiting the places my family lived, I dug up old photos of my grandparents, and interviewed my dad about growing up on Coney Island in the 1960s. I learned so much about my family history that I never knew. It was a really moving experience that made me feel so much more connected to the city.
What’s your favorite Untapped place you’ve visited while traveling? Where do you want to visit next?
On a recent trip to Great Britain, I took a barge trip down the Llangollen Canal over the Pontcysyllte Acqueduct in Wales. These narrow barges navigate down this beautiful old canal, then all of sudden the canal spans a valley, over a hundred feet in the air, along a two-hundred-year-old cast iron and brick aqueduct. It was incredible. Next, I’d like to see more of France, or visit Italy.
What’s your favorite obscure fact about your city?
I don’t think too many people realize that the 1916 Zoning Ordinance required the setback “wedding cake” skyscrapers that are so iconic on the New York City skyline. I love how planners came up with setback requirements to protect sunlight, and inadvertently shaped a style of architecture that defined the classic Art Deco skyscraper, which were constructed not just in New York, but in cities across the globe.
Craziest thing you’ve ever done?
My first day visiting Spain, I went on a free walking tour of Madrid that didn’t end where it began, and I accidentally left my map, guidebooks, and all of my hostel information back in my room. Once the tour group dispersed, I was completely lost. Also, I don’t speak a word of Spanish. Based purely on memory and sense of direction, I had to navigate my way across the Madrid, alone, back to the hostel whose name and address I didn’t remember. I’m still amazed that I made it back!
What are some of your favorite websites?