I am an urbanist and historian with expertise in American landscape and an especially keen interest in the infrastructure and urbanism of 20th-century New York City. I have also studied and written about the spectacular transformation of Chinese cities over the last 25 years. I divide my time between Brooklyn and Ithaca, New York, where I am a professor of city planning at Cornell University and director of its undergraduate Urban and Regional Studies Program.
I write for both the popular and scholarly press. My books include The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (2008); Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm (2003), winner of the Spiro Kostof Award from the Society of Architectural Historians; and Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America (2001). I also co-edited, with Lawrence J. Vale of MIT, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster (2005). I am in the final stages of work on Brooklyn: A Secret History, for release in fall, 2017 by Princeton University Press.
I am a fourth-generation Brooklynite and grew up with both city and nature close at hand in Marine Park–a neighborhood still refreshingly twee-free and untouched by the forces of gentrification. We lived around the corner from one of New York City’s largest parks and one of its oldest surviving homesteads, and only two blocks from the vast, semi-wild marshes of Gerritsen Creek and Jamaica Bay. At the same time, we were only a short bus ride away from the Brooklyn Museum and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, while the subway took us to “The City” across the river, with all its manifold wonders.
These twin worlds seeded my interest in both landscape and urbanism, nature and cities. I initially studied forestry in college, then discovered landscape architecture and eventually pursued an MLA degree at Cornell. Summers during college and immediately afterward were spent out West, where I trained as a firefighter and served on several US Forest Service hotshot crews, fighting wildfires all over the western United States and interior Alaska.
I had always been keenly interested in the past, and this was only stoked at Cornell by mentors like Lenny Mirin, John Reps and Chris Otto. I pursued further study in the history of landscape and urbanism at MIT and Harvard, where I was fortunate to learn from a series of brilliant teachers–Tunney Lee, Larry Vale, Gary Hack, Leo Marx, John Stilgoe, Mirka Benes, Robert Fogelson. It was also as a PhD student at MIT that I first visited China. In the summer of 1992 I helped run a summer urban design studio at Tsinghua University with an extraordinary group of students, including Vishaan Chakrabarti, Jean Riesman, Uwe Brandes, Sharon Greenberger, and Geneviève Vachon.
Marine Park, c 1930 (Fairchild Aerial Surveys)
My interest in the urban landscape–and in Gotham, especially–is rooted in my own family’s past. My grandfather Joe hauled construction material in a chain-driven Mack during the great 1920s building boom; another helped dig the New York State Barge Canal, labored in Brooklyn factories filled now with million-dollar lofts. Giovanni later owned a grocery store on Hudson Avenue that he stocked each morning with produce hauled by cart from the long-vanished Walkabout Market. My Aunt Millie was a nurse who worked with Dr. Martin Couney at the 1939 World’s Fair and later ran his Baby Incubator exhibit on the Coney Island boardwalk. Uncle Walter was a sandhog who worked on the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Another uncle, James J. Onorato, was manager of Steeplechase Park for nearly 40 years. Walt Disney tried to recruit him to run a newfangled theme park called Disneyland, but Jimmy loved Brooklyn too much to leave. He encouraged Reginald Marsh to paint scenes of Steeplechase and hired an Englishman named Archie Leach to be a stiltwalker. It was Cary Grant’s first job in America, and he hated it. All the nieces and nephews had summer jobs at Steeplechase, including my father, who worked as a parachute jump operator in high school.
But my parents, Mario and Rose Campanella, deserve the lion’s share of credit. How else to explain two urbanists in the family? For not only did I develop a passion for landscape, place and history, but so did my brother, historical geographer and New Orleans expert Richard Campanella. Mom took us on countless trips to “The City,” as Brooklynites have always referred to Manhattan–to the United Nations, Rockefeller Center, the New York Stock Exchange, the Museum of Natural History. Dad piloted the 1964 Rambler Classic to the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks and New England, leading us through countless museums and historic sites. I learned more on these family road trips than I ever did in school.