Every week, we highlight one of our 300+ Untapped Cities contributors worldwide. This week, we’re featuring Julia Vitullo-Martin, a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association and Director of the Center for Urban Innovation.
What’s your “day job”?
I’m a senior fellow at Regional Plan Association, which was founded in the 1920s by giants like Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein, to plan and promote infrastructure and crucial projects in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan. RPA is about to launch its Fourth Regional Plan, which will offer a blueprint for sustainable growth.
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in your city?
Has to be the extraordinary refinery building of Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory, now being redeveloped by Two Trees Management. The refinery—which is actually three structures joined together for panning, filtering, and finishing sugar—produced 3 million pounds of sugar daily in its prime. It’s huge, magnificent, and slightly terrifying to tour, with some gaping holes. You take a misstep, you die. The views of the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Manhattan skyline, are breathtaking. The plan from SHoP Architects embraces Domino’s industrial heritage, saving the refinery building and pulling the new residential towers back from the waterfront.
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped:
I’m fond of them all, but probably The Transformation of the Upper West Side: From Food Desert to Food Destination, because the UWS is my neighborhood, where we’ve lived through the bad times (when a woman was murdered at our front gate) and now the good. Also, the transformation was realized by West Siders themselves, who took their destiny into their own hands, and fixed what had to be fixed. Every neighborhood needs an organization as effective as the Columbus Avenue BID.
What’s your favorite Untapped place you’ve visited while traveling?
The Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel—one of those fabulous, once decaying, now beautifully restored grand-dame places where you expect to see Ginger Rogers sweep in, dressed in a sleek white gown. Instead of Fred and Ginger, the guests are Bengals and Reds fans, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, but that’s ok. Their patronage is saving the building and helping preserve the great public rooms, decorated with Art Deco and Moderne details, including magnificent Rookwood Pottery tiles. Last year we stayed at the crumbling Nairobi Hilton, built in the same period, with many of the same 1930s planning features, like wrapping balconies and a long arcade of shops connecting two avenues (a pre-Jane Jacobs idea). Let’s hope Kenyans rescue the Nairobi Hilton the way Ohioans rallied to the Netherland.
Where do you want to visit next?
It’s a little weird, given that we were nearly car-jacked there, but I’d love to return to Lagos, Nigeria. A relatively new megacity, composed of a series of islands in a lagoon, it is expected to become the world’s third largest city, with some 24 million people, by 2030. But it’s a mess—virtually no infrastructure to move people and goods efficiently, fearsome crime, and a shocking lack of beauty—this in a country of handsome, intelligent, entrepreneurial people. Still, there’s a lot going on—a 1k suspension bridge now opening, new elevated rail, tiny parks built under new highways, and bus-only express lanes. I’d like to spend a few weeks living in Lagos, talking to Lagosians, and thinking about the infrastructure. Lagos is home to one of my favorite galleries, the Nike Art Centre, which gives me hope that Lagos has a future. I’d also like to visit the workshop of El Anatsui, whose spectacular exhibition, Gravity and Grace, closes August 18 at the Brooklyn Museum.
What’s your favorite obscure fact about your city?
That William Waldorf Astor launched his relatively short but spectacular New York residential real estate career by commissioning a gorgeous building in Harlem—the Graham Court. He had his monogram carved into the limestone right below the roof.
Best Celebrity Sighting:
Julia Roberts in the back row at dance class—she wore no make-up and looked like an adorable lost little girl in the big city. She moved nicely, and was exceedingly considerate.
What are some of your favorite websites?
When I’m abroad I’m utterly dependent on the New York Times for happiness and relief (you mean, NYC is still fine without me?) and the Wall Street Journal for global coverage. At home we get both print editions delivered to the front door at dawn, so I troll fun sites like The L Magazine, Eater, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, Brownstoner (and now there’s Brownstoner Queens). For solid reporting on transpo issues I check StreetsBlog and to keep up with development, Curbed and The Real Deal.
Story behind the photo:
My husband Tom took this of me leaning against a Rolls Royce in London’s Belgravia neighborhood–we had been photographing Boris’s bike racks when we realized the street was lined with fabulous parked cars–Bentleys, Jags, Ferraris, even a Maserati and a Lamborghini. You’d never see that in NYC, which has become safe for people, but not that safe for Ferraris. Those things are garaged here! (The Rolls wasn’t even alarmed.)