N E W Y O R K C I T Y H I S T O R Y
Warren Shaw is a writer, historian, professor, and practicing attorney. He has published hundreds of articles and appeared on dozens of television and radio broadcasts discussing New York City’s political, architectural and cultural history and policy. His work in urban history has been published in the New York Times, Newsday, and Metropolis magazine. Warren conducted a year-long feature series on the history of the New York City Mayoralty on National Public Radio, and was a primary panelist for a History Channel documentary covering the world’s tallest buildings. He has presented lectures and papers on New York City history for Columbia University, Adelphi University, the Graduate School of the City University of New York, Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Gotham Center for New York City History, the 92nd Street Y, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Morris-Jumel Museum, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Jewish Genealogical Society, Good Ole Lower East Side, and the Neighborhood Preservation Center. Warren was a professor in New York University’s Urban Design Studies Program, and has published scholarly articles on copyright law. He is a Senior Counsel in the Commercial and Real Estate Litigation Division of the office of Corporation Counsel of the City of New York. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, psychotherapist Deborah Berman, and his daughter Rebecca.
Warren’s fascination with New York City history stems from his experiences growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960’s. It was a pretty rough neighborhood back then. Needle Park—the most notorious heroin market in the country—was right down the block from his home. Although the neighborhood could be tough, it was also exploding with politics and culture. There were at least three grass-roots political clubs within two blocks of his home, and Warren’s apartment building was filled with artists, retired circus and vaudeville performers—and displaced Auschwitz survivors.
Warren’s parents, Mollie and Julius Shaw, were well-known physically disabled political activists who pioneered the disability-rights movement, and engineered the establishment of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Despite being in the public sphere, “we didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, my parents would’ve fared better on welfare than they did working.”
As the child of impoverished, disabled, Jewish political activists, Warren became an affirmative action student at the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine. “Going to the Cathedral School was a fundamental experience for me,” Warren recalls. “I got a great education there. And just physically the Cathedral estate, with its otherworldly Gothic architecture, was incredibly stimulating to the imagination. I met people from a much more elite social stratum. My third-grade teacher even gave me informal speech lessons, to soften my Yiddish-y West Side twang. So I got to know New York as a private-school student during the day, studying Latin and Comparative Religion, attending Evensong, and going swimming at Columbia University, and then at home at night in our rent-controlled apartment, I fell asleep to the yelling and arguing of disabled Jewish activists plotting revolution in the living room.”
Warren’s parents helped bring about important legal and cultural changes, which introduced him to the City as a continually evolving organism. “But nothing prepared me for the gentrification of the Eighties, which transformed my old neighborhood probably more than anywhere else. It morphed from poverty-stricken into what New York Magazine dubbed the ‘Yupper West Side.’ And it was this sudden, profound change that got me interested in the City’s history. What was gentrification? Why did it impact the West Side so heavily? For that matter, my old neighborhood had obviously been built for pretty well-off folks—so why was it so poor when I was a child? Then too, as new construction began to happen, I found myself becoming a serious preservationist.”
These questions fueled Warren’s research into real estate history and the laws that shape the City’s design. He began publishing and lecturing on architectural history and real estate policy, and took over teaching New York University’s ground-breaking course, “Law and Urban Design,” from its first instructor Norman Marcus, longtime general counsel to the City Planning Commission.
“Over the years, my research has moved further and further into politics and government, because that’s where the choices are made that determine how issues like gentrification play out.” Among other things, this work led to his year-long radio series on the history of the City’s Mayoralty, the oldest continuously operating municipal office in the New World.
Fittingly, Warren is an attorney in the Commercial and Real Estate Litigation Division of the New York City Corporation Counsel, where he has been involved in some of the City’s most significant land use controversies. He has successfully defended against a challenge to the creation of Gateway National Park in Queens (the only national park located within a major city), defeated a developer’s claim for a billion dollars in damages after the City cancelled a plan for two million-square-foot office and residential towers, and participated in the dispute over the proposed Olympics sports facility on 34th Street.
Another branch of Warren’s research involves the City’s role as the nation’s cultural center and birthplace of American pop culture. This flows out of an earlier career: “I was a pro musician for many years. And I studied ethnomusicology and art history in college, which helped me to understand the social relationships that produce artistic culture.” Warren’s honors-winning baccalaureate thesis, on John Coltrane and the anthropology of jazz in America, later became an important piece of evidence in a landmark litigation brought by Coltrane’s widow, Alice, against a religious organization, the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ (now known as the Saint John Coltrane Church), which preaches “Coltrane consciousness” and venerates the famed saxophone virtuoso as the reincarnation of the great spiritual leaders of the past.
“My research into our cultural history has made crystal-clear New York City’s pivotal role in the rise of distinctively American arts such as jazz, abstract painting, and the movies—not to mention deeply American holidays like our secular Christmas, which was invented here in the early 19th Century. This cultural importance is largely separate from the City’s dominant position in the nation’s political and economic evolution. But when you put it all together the truth is that, although both New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers like to say that the City isn’t really part of America, that’s not only wrong, it’s backwards. If you ask me, America is part of the City!”
In short, all of Warren’s experiences inform his history work. “When I got my first camera, at six years old, the very first thing I did was to shoot photos that documented my apartment building, my street and my neighborhood. Even as a child I understood that the present is transitory. Today becomes yesterday very quickly, and it has to be captured and remembered, or it’s lost forever.”