By Carter B. Horsley
This is a book about New York, which despite
its infamous litany of woes has been the world's most important
city in the Twentieth Century and therefore offers significant
clues for the enhancement and survival of other cities. In the
last quarter century of this "millennium" New York City
has approached the status of "endangered species" more
than once and while it currently is enjoying an exuberant renaissance
it is still, like most cities in the world, in crisis.
It is in dire competition with its suburbs
and in increasingly severe competition with other cities, but
to a great extent its greatest enemy is itself.
What is at stake is civilization, for, make
no mistake about it, suburbs, however attractive they might be,
are, at best, serene retreats from, but never substitutes for,
the civilized stimulation of a city. Most other cities, no matter
how attractive and secure they might believe themselves to be,
are deluding themselves if they think they can escape the problems
that New York has been grappling with for decades.
New York's glories _ its glittering skyline,
its huddled masses, its vibrant marketplaces and cultural centers,
its intense and awesome presence and its humanity _ have largely
defined the potential of the modern city. But those glories and
assets have been eclipsed in recent years not only by the traditional
urban concerns over crime, drugs, inadequate housing and aging
infrastructure, but also by the advances of technology, changing
lifestyles and dramatically shifting national and global economies.
The baton of civic leadership, of course, has
passed many times in history. Romantic notions of destiny or divine
providence aside, the world is littered with great metropolises
that have died or faded away. But the world at long last is also
slowly beginning to confront the challenge that the environment
cannot afford such frivolous disposability. Unfortunately, too
many environmentalists neglect or ignore the elemental fact that
cities benefit the environment far more than suburban and rural
Can we afford to lose our cities? Of course
not from the viewpoint of conserving limited resources, but also,
and more importantly, because a city is the animated and enchanted
place of civilization, where social, humanitarian, intellectual,
cultural and recreational endeavors can flourish _ the most active
arena of human aspirations and ambitions, the cauldron and cradle
of character. As John Ruskin observes at the very end of his "The
Seven Lamps of Architecture," "The sun was risen upon
the earth when Lot entered into Zoar."
No matter how wondrously embellished, a city
must be more than just callous concrete. It must be the efficient
catalyst that energizes, enriches and challenges its citizens
to strive to achieve their individual dreams. Its accumulated
capital must accommodate care to the greatest extent possible
and its whole must be greater than its parts, a vision that is
conveniently eluded by most community activists however well-intentioned.
At its best, a city can generate an esprit
de corps that is hard to quantify but easy to identify when
it occurs. It often happens during summer evening concerts in
large amphitheaters or park meadows or waterfront marinas, or
at festive parades, or sports arenas, or concert halls, or curbside
performances - those delightful moments when a surge of humanity
and common experience overcome common complaints, when pride in
the social aspects of human nature is manifest.
The city is justified and rarefied by its confrontations
and commerce, whether they be sublime, or scary, or surreal.
Of course, a city at its worst is the stuff
While no one would condone the riotous looting
and wild destruction of neighborhoods such as were sparked by
the Rodney King-videotaped-beating-acquittal verdict in Los Angeles
in the spring of 1992, the indelible images of the rampage raised
once again the very curious question of why most of the damage
was confined to poor neighborhoods.
Certainly, the animus was not contempt for
the visual blight of many areas of such communities. The incredibly
outrageous, racially-motivated acquittal justifiably and inevitably
sparked some world-wide outrage and stirred up very deep emotional
frustrations about poverty and racism and the social structure
of the United States.
Why such anger in this instance and countless
other previous outbreaks was not primarily vented against the
bastions of wealth and status rather than the meager and humble
trappings of the underclasses is puzzling. The answers probably
lie in lazy convenience and lack of organized leadership. Such
protests as occurred only make survival in such communities much
It could be argued, also, that by burning down
their own neighborhoods, the protesters were also futilely hurting
basically only themselves, apart from slightly disrupting the
normal routines of the franchised secure. Perhaps their message
might have been more powerful and fearful had they demolished
large parts of Beverly Hills. Of course, such actions would be
tantamount to revolution at least in the eyes of most American
observers. It was, of course, the unspoken, uncommented-upon threat
that riveted the attention of the entire country and the world.
In the perverse nature of things and events,
the acquittal may ultimately have its beneficial aspects if the
ensuing and attending pain brings into sharper focus the terrible
conditions and environment in which far too much of the population
The acquittal unequivocally touched many raw
nerves. Hopefully, it will make more people sensitive to the ugliness
of too much of the man-made world apart from the more obvious
dilemmas of violence and justice and fairness.
As Rodney King declared, in a public plea to
an end to the rioting and violence, "We are all stuck here
for a while."
A demeaning environment is just as dreadful
as a shouted insult, a casual slur, an unconscious oversight.
Neglect cannot be benign. When the in-your-face reality is offensive,
ominous and overt, defensive pie-in-the-sky dreams become hard-edged
and monochromatic and lose their dignity.
The physical city must be exciting and enticing,
a non-stop special event. It must not be the ugly blight that
now routinely prevails. That ugliness is by no means confined
to devastated slums but also pervades much of the urban fabric,
a horrific commentary on and indictment of the aesthetic undereducation
of the nation. Life without beauty ain't human life. When we become
inured to blight we lose an important part of our humanity.
The gigantic exodus from New York has often
been attributed to the very tangible and quantifiable competition
of cheaper housing and offices, better education, less crime,
better climate and the like. Less attention is given to the more
important intangible value of urbanity, of which the glory of
a spectacular man-made environment outweighs other considerations.
Yes, some 5-or-more-acre estates in Mill Neck, L.I., or 10- or-more-acre
estates in Far Hills, N.J., are very attractive, but they are
not in any way comparable to the majesty of a great city. In the
best-of-all-worlds, of course, both the glamorous city and the
divine estate could be tolerated if all else were removed, but
this is not the best-of-all-worlds.
Sadly, it is incumbent upon cities, or at least
New York, to declare war on its bloodsucking suburbs. Lipservice
to brotherly regionalism has been a perfect delaying ploy for
the suburbs to rape the city. Of course, the horse has already
left the barn and the suburbs now have such sufficient clout as
to believe themselves virtually independent of the city (and they
have enough sophistication not to admit it). In reality, the suburbs
have already almost won this war even if, in the process, they
have garnered some traditional urban problems of traffic, infrastructure
and crime and a sprinkling of the underclasses.
To capture the historic hurly-burly, the raucous
razzle-dazzle, the insistent tick-tock of the urban march upon
interminable boulevards of miracles, cities must now create new
distinctive dreams and new public gateways to the unconventional
world of tomorrow. They must have the effrontery to scoff at the
private conventions of their egregious rivals, the suburbs. If
they are ungainly and unkempt, they still must strive for stately
pinnacles of generational legacy. Their heritage is heresy. They
must resolutely roar their Philistine challenge: Progress! Mark
your mark! Scream! Sigh! Despise vulgarity, but be not inured
to the precious slush of humanity. The welcome mat of the city
- society's front porch - is more comforting than the wary backyards
of the hinterlands.
The suburbs may not be wastelands even if they
have been defiled by their own growth, but the city remains the
best place to get bargains and to see it all because of the high
traffic counts of pedestrians, the concentration of competitors
and because there is still so much accumulated wealth to fuel
those economies. Go to a major regional shopping mall in the suburbs
and then come back to Manhattan and walk through F.A.O. Schwartz,
Saks Fifth Avenue, Bendel's, and J & R's music and computer
stores. The city is the cornucopia compared to the crumbs of suburbia
The origins of many cities were walled fortifications
in which the fortunate huddled against the world outside. Castle
visions of grandeur and monumentality aside, a city, however loosely
defined, was a place for refuge and hopefully survival. In time,
the citadel also become a shrine and a temple and ultimately its
forms took on many kinds of legibility, relevance, notoriety,
all augmenting its pre-eminence and power. Its concentration generated
momentum that made critiques almost seem superfluous.
In modern and very recent times, however, traditional
concepts of the city have been battered inexorably and planning
It has often been noted by urban advocates
that a city's greatest strength lies in its ability to bring people
together. Now matter how sophisticated technology might become,
they argue, a city's meeting places provide an indispensable and
very important function that cannot be easily quantified or replicated
outside of the city.
It is a mistake to underestimate the value
of a city's ability to create environments conducive to efficient
and often unexpected enterprise. A good analogy is music. With
modern technology, studio, and even home, recordings far surpass
live performances, yet few aficionados would forswear concerts
despite their often poor acoustics, unpredictable performances
and less than perfect audiences. What makes the live performance
special is not only the chance that it might surpass one that
is recorded, but also the opportunity to mix with other aficionados.
At the very least, the communal sharing of a special event is
an important aspect of the human experience. But a gathering of
people with similar interests affords superb opportunities to
teach and learn. It is this exchange and synergism that help make
cities so special.
If some suburban havens no longer are sacrosanct
from the tarnish of their core cities, the cities are not the
automatic beneficiaries. The relatively rapid ups-and-downs of
the Rust and Oil Belts were only harbingers of the quickening
pace of social change, most dramatically witnessed by the recent
collapse of the Communist empire.
While it is easy to conjure entirely new communities
and new towns, the nation's limited experiments with such developments
and its debilitated economy, which includes a tremendous amount
of overbuilding in both cities and suburbs, mitigate against such
major initiatives significantly altering national development
patterns in the near future.
Furthermore, large-scale real estate development
takes a long time and while many citizens psychologically might
be prepared for and have the faith for gigantic leaps of living,
in reality many cannot afford such sudden shifts because of a
variety of economic and emotional reasons.
Notwithstanding such caveats and obstacles,
the bottom line is that a remarkable and respectable quantum mass
of development has been wrought already, enough to provide a welcome
pause and the potential for planning to have some impact. If some
developers and lenders and investors got caught in down markets,
nevertheless their communities gained, generally speaking, from
An oversupply of office space and residential
space is not a liability but an asset. It is already in place
and in the long run at a cheaper cost than future development.
The hapless developers and their lenders devastated by the vagaries
of the economy and real estate markets knew full well their risks,
which also carried enormous potential rewards. They need no sympathy
and no bailout.
By that same token, the lowering of interest
rates in the early 1990's might well prove to be a bigger bailout
of incompetent commercial banks than the much more derided savings
and loan bailout of the few previous years. The rich do not need
to be subsidized and must play by the same rules as the not-so-privileged.
Traditional backroom politics cannot be tolerated.
Perhaps the ultimate purpose of cities will
be as transitional sites in which people incubate, or later percolate,
until ready to set out on other adventures and to which they return
occasionally to re-energize themselves. But before one speculates
too much on the future transformation of cities, one must examine
and understand their present condition.
Despite depictions of some new "edge-city"
developments in suburban areas as pristine, self-contained, self-sufficient
and selfish communities, the real world at the end of the Twentieth
Century is a mixed bag of contradictions and much complexity.
Not all cities are becoming obsolete. Many
cities are dying, but others have and are being refreshingly renewed.
Terrible slums remain, bleak and dark, and
yet blight occasionally begets incredibly surges and opportunities
of regenerative energy, and just when hope is about to be abandoned
we stumble upon remarkable occurrences that dumbfound our preconceptions
of what is possible. Who would have thought New Yorkers would
ever curb their dogs and clean up after them, for example?
In the doom and gloom of the current recession
it is easy to focus on "see-through" buildings and "white
elephants." Writers wax dramatically, if not poetically,
about overbuilt cities, saturated suburbs and citizens oblivious
to the insults of dirt and anonymous structures and the pitiable
plight of the underclasses and homeless. Standard Metropolitan
Statistical Areas merged into messy megalopises. In 1961, Lewis
Mumford wrote, in "The City in History," "Will
the city disappear, or will the whole planet turn into a vast
urban hive? which would be another mode of disappearance."
Such dark visions, however, fail to note the
fantastic transformation of the United States in the last quarter-century
or so. Not only has the country more than doubled its inventory
of office space in that time and shifted the bulk of new development
from the inner cities to the suburbs, but it has also greatly
stirred up the pot of power from a handful of great urban centers
to a spicy banquet of regional bouquets spread across the land.
Whereas in the 1960's there were only a handful
of major cities in the United States, by the 1990's there were
several dozen. Skylines have multiplied and proliferated. To a
large extent, the new skylines share a common corporate image,
albeit with quite a few dashes of Post-Modern flourishes thrown
in. But if new architectural masterpieces are few and far between,
and they are, there has been an undeniable upgrade in the overall
quality of most projects.
The historic preservation and environmental
movements have imported an important notion of context and sensitivity
to the development community even if their excesses and abuses
have also killed, aborted or seriously maimed many worthwhile
But the bottom line is that a remarkable and
respectable quantum mass of development has been wrought. If some
investors have been hard hit in down markets, nevertheless their
communities gained, generally speaking, from their efforts.
If the "location, location, location"
cliché has been bruised, so too has the notion of historical
cycles. Both might still be valid, occasionally, but big changes
are, and have been, afoot. Not only has the fax insisted itself
into daily business lives, but the impact of cable and fiber-optic
and computer systems is only a specter now of momentous lifestyle
changes to come and to come quite quickly.
Emotional and simplistic attempts to suppose
the rightness of historicity _ the notion that there are cycles
in human history of upheaval and calm, nadirs and apexes of achievement
and good and evil _ are anecdotal and of little, if any, value
in understanding and coping with the nature of contemporary cities.
The "American Dream" has been disintegrating
for quite some time. We might mourn the passing of aspirations
that our children will grow up to live better than we have, but
a remarkable number of children have, in fact, done so. The "starter"
house may not be as picturesque and large as in past generations,
but it is more likely to be filled with wonderful conveniences,
doodads and gadgets that free up time and open new, personal vistas.
We want to think about things, including large
things like cities, in abstract, window-dressing ways. In the
increasingly feel-good, logo-loco frenzy of a jumbo whopper world,
we are too often preoccupied with style and not substance and
cajole ourselves into adopting accessibility as the basic educational
tool rather than rote-memory fact cells. That is to say, we are
fascinated with facade beauty and its categorization into fashions
The beauty bias is perhaps the most deep-rooted
and pernicious of all prejudices. It is incredible how few areas
of major cities are not grossly infected with the disease of ugliness.
In Manhattan there are only a few blocks, let alone whole streets
or avenues, that are without serious blemish. In contrast, many
rural and some suburban areas uphold a high level of consistent,
if not bountiful, attractiveness.
The blight of ugliness is perhaps the most
underappreciated problem cities face.
Multiculturalism, of course, has become one
of the more popular buzzwords. Its pluralistic approach to values,
however, can be too conveniently tolerant of the status quo. It
can also often create odd juxtapositions and surprising reevaluations
exemplified by the rare detached, single-family house in the midst
of urban slums or the rare skyscraper in the suburbs.
Traditional images of the separation of city
and suburb have often been more mythic than mature or manageable,
though there can be little question that the lines of distinction
are growing ever more blurred, not only between city and suburbs,
but also between regions and their cities.
Fortunately, not all areas are homogeneous
yet, and certainly one of the great lessons to be learned from
the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) decade of anti-growth popular
sentiment in the 1980's is that the principle of neighborhood/community
identity is powerful and emotional.
The other side of the NIMBY phenomenon, one
hastens to add, is that slavish adherence to the principle of
context is not always justified and can be deleterious to a region's
welfare. Old-fashioned ostrichism may be cozy, but it also gives
the other animals of the world-wide development community plenty
of advantages in an ever-competing environment.
While the United States certainly has plenty
of design talent, both young and old, it has definitely not been
the international leader in forging new, exciting and innovative
building projects. For more than a decade, Japan has been in the
vanguard of esoteric design, followed more recently by a brazen,
but elegant band of Frenchmen.
Strangely, the NIMBY movement that has so successfully
blocked, thwarted and hindered many projects in the cities has
been often very hypocritical about the environment. Sound planning
dictates that sprawl and spread inflict far greater damage to
the environment than clustered development.
It's time for leadership to set priorities
straight for a national renewal.
America needs to be proud of its astonishing,
pioneering entrepreneurism and it must maintain and preserve its
finest achievements and assets while also seeking ever higher
quality in new ones.
Planning has never been very popular, too often
caving in to the rush of political expediency and the yen for
One could easily draw up a "bill of rights"
for development that promotes legitimate historic preservation,
proper care of the environment and efficient and elegant use of
property and the fair sharing of Locally Undesirable Land Uses
Such an agenda might include a national building
code, enterprise zones, tax incentives, public works, expedited
legal resolutions, quick judicial review of what constitutes a
"taking" and the "arbitrary and capricious"
nature of a lot of zoning.
At the very least, however, there needs to
be a national concern that the United States should strive to
be the great showcase of how good life can be.
The Federal Government should take responsibility
for all environmental impact studies. It is best equipped to create
and update complex studies that are too expensive for smaller
governmental entities and the private sector to undertake. Similarly,
the Federal Government must set national standards in education
and housing. Does the country really need 16,000 boards of education
and thousands of slightly different building codes?
At some point _ now _ the indulgence of local
autonomy and home rule must give in to the economic necessities
of a new federalism. There is a difference between Big Government
and too much government. Before such changes can be contemplated,
there needs to be strenuous national debate nurtured by a responsible
and demanding press.
Crime, drugs, education, housing and sports
and entertainment trivia dominate the headlines and serious architectural
criticism is exceeding rare in the non-trade media. To imply that
the physical environment shapes our lives is too naive, especially
when that environment is increasingly electronic and potentially
"virtual" rather than real reality. Yet to ignore it
altogether is not only irresponsible and frivolous, but also dangerous
for it minimizes the important psychology of place, which is one
of the strongest emotions. Attitude and motivation can often overcome
inefficiency and even incompetence. Positive and negative feelings
towards cities are very real, even if hard to measure.
A magnificent physical environment is no guarantee
against the wages of drugs and poverty and crime and the like.
Indeed, an argument could effectively be waged that small pockets
of splendor might exacerbate urban problems because of their stark
contrast with the "reality" of the rest of the city.
Such logic, of course, is inane.
Since the 60's, beauty has been a bugaboo.
Reverse psychology, open admissions and the like reared their
empty heads and were declared "in" and anything that
smacked of tradition "out." But sometimes beautification,
even by committee, is an improvement.
It has become popular in recent years to deride
the architectural merits of most, if not all, major urban renewal
projects of the 1950's and 1960's. The West Side Urban Renewal
Project along Columbus Avenue in the 80's and 90's of the Upper
West Side in Manhattan is a classic case. It replaced hundreds
of run-down average tenement buildings with high-rise apartment
towers along the avenue. The towers, which are different in large
part because the project took about two decades to complete, are
certainly not distinguished. But they were no worse than the average
so-called luxury apartment towers being built elsewhere in the
city and several were above average.
Moreover, they created a more imposing, boulevard
ambience to a former slum and in retrospect are not much worse
than those created two decades later along Third Avenue in the
60's and 70's.
One cannot discuss ugliness in the city without
addressing the appalling problem of graffiti. Interestingly, if
this pernicious phenomenon were only perpetrated against the bastions
of the rich, it might be a somewhat legitimate, if outrageous,
stupid and deplorable, protest against the inequities of life.
But graffiti grips the slums to an even greater extent that well-to-do
neighborhoods, residential or commercial.
Although pathetic arguments that graffiti has
legitimate artistic merit persist in some circles, censorship
is not the issue so much as the preservation of public assets
and all buildings, regardless of legal ownership, are public in
so far as they impinge upon the visual environment.
When graffiti is applied to eyesores they can,
in fact, add colorful, even appealing flourishes while also protesting
against the insult of many existing structures to our visual environment.
But when it mars the few splendid monuments
that survive, graffiti is not ennobling, but ignominious. Perhaps
an isolated instance can be a provocative reminder of outrage
at social injustices, but the blanket and bland nature of graffiti
robs from all segments of society and cannot be condoned.
In recent years, many community groups have
campaigned vigorously against the demolition of many slums, arguing
that "slums" are pejorative and that they are viable
neighborhoods. This grassroots, "participatory," humane
approach to urban planning is, of course, well intended, but absurd
when it is carried to the extreme which, unfortunately, it usually
has been over the past two decades.
The politics of participatory planning are
an undeniable given now. After decades of having been shunted
aside, ignored, forgotten, abused and angered, community activists
are a very prominent fact of life in the development process.
And, indeed, their presence is long overdue in the process. Certainly,
no intelligent developers or architects would proceed today with
any major project without knowing that they must deal with the
community and that community input is often very valuable because
of its greater familiarity and experience with the workings of
the specific neighborhood.
Sadly, many self-appointed civic activists
have agendas of their own that sometimes far exceed the project's
parameters. They may want a new park a few blocks away from the
site or a day-care center or the like. Many community activists
have shopping lists of desired benefits that they want to wring
from a developer regardless of what his legal requirements might
And some even blatantly lose all sight of perspective,
and sometimes facts and truth, when they self-righteously decide
it's time to make a point to redress their past grievances. Two
recent examples in Manhattan - the City & Suburban Homes and
the "Too-Tall" Building controversies - well illustrate
such outlandishness and will be discussed at length further on.
Two basic premises of this book are that quality
is recognizable and that aesthetics matter greatly in our lives.
In our increasingly multi-cultural world, it is folly to try to
impose one set of cultural rules. But it is worse yet to assume
there can be no rules or that everything new is more valuable
than anything old. The city must accommodate old and new. Flea
markets and peddlers can be fun and lively and wholesome, but
they do not have to be on Fifth or Madison Avenues or the like.
To a great and sad extent, we are living in
the ruins of cities. With the exception of such historical holdouts
such as Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans and sections of cities
like Georgetown in Washington and Society Hill in Philadelphia,
the urban horizon is terribly marred by dreck.
The few handsome enclaves that remain are relatively
small and therein lies a major planning moral: cities are for
pedestrian activities. How far you enjoy walking is a very good
measure of big a business district should be. The walking experience,
of course, can be made more pleasurable through sensitive planning
and development, but on the small scale of blocks, not boroughs.
There is no magic number for how many blocks constitute a viable
district of any type, nor for the size and shape of the blocks.
A grid layout offers simplicity and convenience. A hodgepodge
of diagonals and circles and irregular blocks offers charm, intrigue
and surprise as well as opportunities for special "gateways,"
cul-de-sacs and the like.
Jean-Paul Sartre loved midtown Manhattan for
its grid that always permitted a glimpse of infinity, but the
confusion of the West Village and the hurly-burly of Lower Manhattan's
streetscape offer ample rewards and discoveries. Many different
plans are valid. What is important is that there be connective
tissue between them and not voids created by leapfrog development.
What is needed is an urban application of what
is known in computer graphics as dithering, the adjacency of different
colors to produce another color not found in the regular palette.
There are those who might view such visual deceptions as half-empty
rather than half-full, but the aim is to produce an image that
is both fuller and richer.
While some might argue that a good building
can uplift a block, it conceivably could also downgrade it by
making more apparent the bad qualities of the other buildings
in stark comparison. A bad building can vitiate a block of good
buildings. Sometimes tricks with mirrors and lighting can outshine
and blur imperfections, but more often plastic surgery is required.
Architecture is much more than appearance, but appearance cannot
Cities thrive on diversity just as suburbs
thrive on homogeneity, but a simplistic emphasis on either is
wrong. Utopian approaches to planning are not without value in
analyzing how far short existing human enclaves fall from the
ideal and in establishing the rare, isolated and small "new
But human communities are organic and temporal.
They evolve and change and how well they adapt to their environments
is not an academic exercise in style but a study in the substance
of accidental history: strong leaders emerge and stumble; good
plans run out of money and are abandoned; technologies advance
and economies wander.
No discussion of how to make better cities
can deal only with bricks and mortar. Racism, crime, education,
the affordability of housing, the availability of jobs and the
problems of drugs and the homeless and the unemployed are very
real concerns that greatly influence the viability of a city.
But if these problems did not exist we would still be faced with
the fundamental question of whether it is a place one wants to
be. The ultimate issue is the quality of the visual and physical
While subjective opinions permit a wide range
of stylistic preferences, the substance of architecture and planning
is not terribly arcane or abstruse. Composition, palette, texture,
technique, innovation, rarity, functionality and materials are
readily discernible elements susceptible to widespread, commonsense
evaluation and agreement.
Most artists, architects and planners will
usually have little difficulty in judging a project's quality,
although it often seems that many developers and much of the public
have great difficulty in this area, a sad reflection of the country's
sorry state of education and pervasive drabness.
So, for a city to be viable it must have a
good grip on management of the traditional social woes and it
must run relatively smoothly: its infrastructure of transit, sewage
and power must be sufficient to run well and accommodate some
growth and a lot of wear and tear.
But it must also have a legitimacy, some reason
for it to exist. Historically, this reason was often geographic
_ a city often arose at an important crossroads, or commanded
a great harbor, or was a major transportation hub. But as trains,
cars and planes as well as telephones, video, faxes and fiber
optics have altered many basic human needs and perceptions, geography
is no longer as important.
Some have equated what I would term "legitimacy"
with "ambiance," but they are not the same. Ambiance,
architecturally speaking, implies a well-knit sense of having
been looking after, addressed and attended, much like a lawn.
Unattended, it sprouts weeds and quickly grows wild. Some care
results in a manicured lawn and careful planning, and considerable
investment, can result in poetic landscapes and formal gardens.
The new crop of "major" American
cities have been defined by new airports, often serving as important
hubs for individual airlines, new convention centers, new sports
arenas, a new cultural center and a sprinkling of first-class
hotel chains and first-class office buildings, including at least
a couple of skyscrapers to form a skyline.
While the new cities suffered from a homogeneity
of architectural style, fortunately a cut above the fairly nondescript
International Style derivations of the 1950's, they offer a pre-grime
ambiance of fresh cleanliness much like a child after a trip to
the barber. Name architects began to be sought out by big developers
like Gerald Hines and the onslaught of many major Canadian developers
like Olympia & York and Cadillac Fairview and Oxford Properties
brought a Park Avenue corporate sheen to many hitherto urban backwaters.
New York, not surprisingly, has not been in
the vanguard of design. It is the design center of the country
in terms of architectural and decorative talent, but its bureaucratic
and regulatory ways and restrictive zoning have stifled important
experimentation in building design. Curiously, however, many of
the major new buildings that did sprout in New York were substantial
improvements over the routine, speculative corporate structure
in the city in the post-World-War-II era.
Meanwhile, however, Boston's Faneuil Hall/Quincy
Marketplace led in festival retailing. Dallas illuminated its
skyline at night with geometric patterns. Tampa, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort
Worth demonstrated that airports could be fun and convenient.
Minneapolis and Houston introduced skywalks to soften the vicissitudes
of climate. New Orleans gave us the Superdome. Chicago gave us
mixed-use towers. Seattle had its monorail. Portland had great
kiosks and bus shelters.
New York, of course, experimented with special
zoning districts and tax incentives and did gain some architecturally
important buildings such as Citicorp Center, the Whitney Museum
of American Art and Battery Park City. But increasingly innovative
design was to be found elsewhere and beginning with the ill-fated
Westway project to redevelop its Hudson River shoreline it lost
its vision and leadership in forging dynamic new urban enclaves.
Mired with horrendous financing problems to address its overwhelming
problems of coping with welfare, low-income housing and infrastructure,
it teetered on bankruptcy in the 1970's only to spring back to
cosmopolitan glory in the 1980's with a massive infusion of foreign
funds and interests.
But the end of the 1980's, however, it fell
victim to a multitude of ails: tremendous competition from its
surrounding suburbs; declining revenues and rising expenditures;
and the erosion of its prolonged prominence as the most exciting
center in the world. Technology made the advantages of concentrated
location less significant. High costs of business and bureaucracy
made it difficult to justify expansion or even continued levels
of operation. Its sheer mass made management exasperatingly ungainly
in comparison with other, smaller and newer venues.
To a certain extent, ambiance is very much
related to obsolescence. In prodigious numbers, Americans have
voted in recent decades with their feet and savings for newer
cities and against older "relics."
An example of a newer city is Charlotte, N.C.,
where a small downtown now boasts several large skyscrapers just
a few minutes away from the area's top residential neighborhoods.
Everything seems brand new and, better yet, everything is manageable
because there is not much of it, but enough to work economically
Cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo,
Cleveland and Minneapolis seem to the right size, between 350,000
and 550,000 population, that combines sufficient mass to justify
and support strong cultural, athletic and corporate endeavors
while still being manageable politically. In contrast the ideal
Greek city/state had about 5,000 to 20,000 citizens and 75,000
to 225,000 slaves, perhaps a maximum total of 250,000 people.
There is no magic number for population and
a lot depends on how and where it is housed. In Manhattan's major
residential areas, the typical block with tall buildings on the
avenues and low-rises in the middle generally has about 2,000
residents. That number would rarely produce the appearance of
a crowd on the block. Where crowding is most noticeable is on
elevators and subway stairs and platforms. The city's population
is several hundred thousand people below its historic peak. Of
course, demographics have changed greatly over the decades and
many large families have vacated the city for more room in the
suburbs. One could argue, albeit not too convincingly, that the
smaller remaining households have more habitable room, but such
an interpretation must also balance the those household's yearning
for more space with the economics of a highly complex and diversified
residential real estate market.
The suburbs, of course, are no longer the bucolic,
white-picket-fence ideal of the early post-World-War-II era. They've
grown phenomenally as great estates have been subdivided ad nauseam
and "miracle mile" shopping strips, centers, malls and
offices have made the return to the city ever less frequent and
necessary. Indeed, the new "edge cities" that are large,
planned clusters in suburban areas are proliferating.
The success of Disney World is based to a certain
extent on its "squeaky clean" newness coupled with its
promotion of fantasy and escape. Its monolithic approach, of course,
is too neat for urban purists, but its immense popularity reflects
the American culture's predilection for simplicity and antipathy
A preoccupation with newness is an aversion
to the old and the "Top 40" mentality is pervasive in
America at the end of the Twentieth Century.
New York City, the subject of this study, represents
the "relic," of course.
Young Americans, by and large, are too absorbed
with new movies and songs to want to watch old classics or listen
to old songs. Indeed, such reticence is understandable if one
reflects upon how exponential the growth in such cultures has
been. In the 1950's, one could become reasonably well acquainted
with the classics of film and popular song by the age of 25 or
so. But in the 1990's, the inventories had increased so dramatically
that one had to specialize or be resigned to superficiality.
Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that
cable television and computer technologies may make coping with
the volcanic cacophony of information somewhat easier and possible.
Technology, however, is not on the side of
Video rentals permit cinema lovers, sickened
at the destruction of almost all of the nation's thousands of
spectacular movie theaters and their replacement with tiny boxes
of absolutely no distinction, to enjoy movies without commercial
interruptions. Videos are better than movies because viewers can
enjoy their maximum personal comforts during watching as well
as replay favorite scenes for their own amusement and education.
Indeed, the future bodes ill for audience-oriented
In the Walkman Era the enjoyment of one's favorite
music is not limited to one's home or car or concert hall. With
the advent of digital recording techniques and playback machines,
music aficionados will generally prefer to listen to music in
the comfort of their own homes rather than pay exorbitant fees
to attend less than perfect acoustics in a poorly-designed concert
hall with an unruly, or at least still coughing, audience. Some,
of course, will resist the temptations of vastly improved listening
experiences for the ability to gawk and eavesdrop with other people
with similar cultural interests, or witness the virtuosity and
drama of a live performance.
Similarly, dance and theater performances are
more interesting up close and personal and replayable on video
rather than near the rafters at the top of the balcony.
One can now begin to envision catalogue raisonnés
on all important artists in all cultures becoming available on
multimedia computers with reasonably accurate color and sound
renditions where applicable.
And one can also hope that virtually every
major discipline will have its own dedicated cable channel, opening
up unprecedented educational opportunities. In addition to travel,
environmental, music, movie, financial, international, national
and local news channels, there might be channels for each of the
arts, languages, history, sciences, and medical specialties and
The implications are enormous and exciting.
The only people who might need to go to school
will be troubled students in need of extensive counseling and
tutoring. The social interactions of sports can be left to health
clubs or the like. Everything else will be learned with much greater
enthusiasm and ease and motivation in the best of all computer
Clearly such a prospect is daunting and not
a little terrifying. High standards have already been set in such
series as Sesame Street and Nature. But there is an entrenched
establishment that is probably less than enthusiastic about the
prospects of the electronic schoolroom.
What will 99.44 percent of all the world's
teachers, art dealers, stock and commodity brokers and journalists
do in such a brazen new world of authoritative information dissemination?
How will dissent and alternative theories _ the bedrock of democracy
It is dandy to envision all the world's greatest
teachers (however many fit on the proverbial microprocessor pin)
spilling forth their choicest bon mots and scribbles and asides
and exclamation points on the electronic chalkboards of the future,
but it is quite another thing altogether to assume not only that
they could be identified but also that they would be willing to
do it. Why aren't the nation's best minds running the country?
They're mostly scared off by the public exposure process of governmental
service, the sacrifice of maximum personal gain, the invasion
of their privacy and the preoccupations of re-election. Why aren't
the best people running our schools or the best performers on
Broadway rather than on international tour? Money, entrenched
bureaucracies, individual independence _ there are many reasons.
The finest talent does not inevitably rise
to the fore. Motivation, opportunity, distraction all take their
tolls and detours. The world is not inexorably driven to perpetual
improvement. It stumbles, it falls backward, it lurches forward.
But what does happen does matter and people matter most.
The surfeit of choices and avalanche of information
and opinion can easily make the unwary inured to daily disasters
and disorders. Tabloidism, the art of sensational simplification,
has been running rampant in recent years. We all want it straight,
that is, quickly, and simple, because our attention spans and
our focal lengths are limited. We yearn for the romance of leaders
so that we can rest securely. On the one hand, the relentless
pursuit of the press has made the job of politics more distasteful.
On the other hand, the self-effacing demythologizing of politics
by former Mayor Edward Koch (Oops, I made a mistake. Sorry, I'll
try not to do that again, to paraphrase liberally) have made the
job of politics more permissible.
One of the basics of journalism is to remember
to identify who stands to gain and lose from any development.
Working at home will become much more prevalent
as the costs of personal computers, faxes, and the like continue
to fall. This will lead to more flexible work schedules that will
enable parents to spend much more time with their children and
greatly reduce traffic congestion.
Many office buildings will be converted to
residential uses because of their central location and the economics
of not utilizing them despite the relatively high cost of conversion.
The four-day work week will take hold enabling
more people to take advantage of meaningful leisure time.
As a result, life will become more enjoyable
and to survive cities will have to become attractive to induce
people to want to spend more time in them.
That means that the physical city must be exciting
and enticing, a non-stop special event, a mecca.
A city's retail environment is a very crucial
ingredient in any possible success. The city is the best place
to get bargains and to see it all because of the high traffic
counts of pedestrians, the concentration of competitors and because
there is still so much accumulated wealth to fuel those economies.
A city is where people congregate. In past eras, it might have
been to worship in Cathedral Cities. In others, it might have
been to market in the bazaars, or to spectate in Coliseums or
on the Great White Way.
The spectacular opportunities that future technological
advances offer surely will outweigh the myriad adjustments they
will also bring. It has often been noted by urban advocates that
a city's greatest strength lies in its ability to bring people
together. No matter how sophisticated technology might become,
they argue, a city's meeting places provide an indispensable function
that cannot be easily quantified or replicated outside of the
It is a mistake to underestimate the value
of a city's ability to create environments conducive to efficient
and often unexpected enterprise. A good analogy is music. With
modern technology, studio recordings far surpass live performances,
yet few aficionados would forswear concerts despite their often
poor acoustics, unpredictable performances and less than perfect
audiences. What makes the live performance special is not only
the chance that it might surpass one that is recorded, but also
the opportunity to mix with other aficionados.
At the very least, the communal sharing of
a special event is an important aspect of the human experience.
But a gathering of people with similar interests affords superb
opportunities to teach and learn. It is this exchange and synergism
that makes cities special.
To a certain extent, the notion of a comfortable
campus populated with people of similar concerns is central to
the suburban ideal, and, of course, to college towns. But ivory
towers, however, really are retreats from the ongoing complexities
and realities of a diverse society. While regional shopping centers
have become by default the de facto town squares of much of suburbia,
they are merely diversions and do not offer a city's smorgasbord
of potential encounters. Some, of course, like Horton Plaza in
downtown San Diego, are well and stylishly done, but most are
That blandness, of course, is not naive, but
the result of careful marketing that has recognized the inescapable
fact that most Americans are overwhelmed with self-interest and
the need for survival and are not uncomfortable doing without
the special virtues and cultural amenities of cities.
Indeed, most Americans are unconsciously mired
in the myth of inalienable property rights perhaps best personified
by Scarlett O'Hara's passionate clutching of Tara's earth in "Gone
With The Wind." And such images are commonly associated with
pristine rural and pastoral visions that are simplistically equated
with suburbs and an overall distrust of "chaotic" cities
in which many people, though far fewer than past decades, are
renters and not owners.
The preoccupation with property, of course,
does not mean that all Americans prefer to have wooden outhouses
or red barns rather than concrete rabbit warrens.
But, to a remarkable extent, it has become
a very pervasive romantic prejudice that somehow imbues the city
with evil and the suburbs with good for a great many Americans.
One need not belabor this notion except to recognize that it contributes
significantly to the problems of American cities whose constituency
must be widened.
It is because this perception must be countered
and overcome, that a city must realize that its face, its facades,
count for a great deal. Indeed, in a world where appearance and
superficiality are disproportionately valued, architecture, and
we include here landscape architecture, parks and tree-lined streets
as well, may well be the most underappreciated asset a city has
as well as it most durable.
It is ironic that the beautification movement
that often is obsessive in the suburbs has fallen out of fashion
in the cities.
While palaces take on more meaning when compared
with slums, there is little legitimacy to some arguments by some
civic leaders that many poor neighborhoods should be preserved
and new development in them made impossible because of the importance
of maintaining diversity and concern over displacement of longtime
residents and the so-called "secondary displacement"
caused by "gentrification" when parts of an older and
often poor area are redeveloped for higher-income residents and
These concerns, of course, are very important
and compelling enough to be always considered and addressed, but
blanket prohibitions against new development and rehabilitation
are not only inane but suicidal.
In America, there are very few perfect precincts
left. The Georgetown and Society Hill districts in Washington
and Philadelphia, respectively, the large historic districts in
Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, La., are wonderful
and important exceptions as are quite a few small New England
Landmarks are very important and should be
protected and in New York there are a great many legitimate ones.
But the ends do not justify the means and not all landmarks are
equal. Unfortunately the prevalent attitude in the city for more
than a decade has been that a slum tenement is at least as important
as the world's tallest building or most magnificent palace. It
is not too preposterous an exaggeration to state that there are
indeed many very active civic leaders and writers on the subject
in the city whose speeches and writings indicate that they would
like to see everything over five stories in the entire city razed.
There is much in favor of low-rise buildings
in many areas. But there is also much to be said for the need
for a city to offer its citizens grandeur and some monumentality,
The popularity of Post-Modernism and the influence
of Robert Venturi's book, entitled "Learning From Las Vegas,"
among many architects and planners is startling. The former is
an easy and conservative rip-off and unimaginative. The latter
is humpty-dumptyism of the highest order in which the dreck of
American lowbrow suburban values of strip shopping centers is
elevated as the highest and finest expression of pure Americana
and therefore art. The pervasive ugliness of the American strip
is the greatest indictment of the American way, at least from
traditionally elitist perspectives and therein lies the crux of
the matter: democracy has great difficulty tolerating elitism
even if it is based on talent and experience and not heredity
A great deal of paranoia has obviously been
sparked by abuses by greedy landlords and overzealous or incompetent
planners. But too often local politicians and self-appointed community
spokespersons have pandered to false notions of community pride,
bolstering nonsensical distortions of simple sense. Not all tenements
are historically important, interesting or good. Inflamed rhetoric
and uncritical press coverage have terribly exacerbated the politics
of planning and knee-jerk reactions have replaced rationality.
There is no question that a great many costly
mistakes have been made by well-intentioned and intelligent builders,
architects and planners who were too far removed from their project's
site to be alert to many potential pitfalls and problems. The
record is replete with many excellent project improvements suggested
and initiated by concerned community residents and leaders. Such
input has become a political necessity and is to be encouraged
fully. But such consultation rights should neither infer veto
power or unreasonable delay.
There is no ideal city, but there are certainly
good and bad cities, synergistic and decaying cities, lovely and
In the 1990's, Paris has emerged relatively
unscathed from a very interesting foray into new architecture
as the world's loveliest and most elegant city. The uniformity
of building styles and types created by Baron Haussman's great
metropolitan plan of a more than a century ago has withstood the
test of time admirably.
For many observers, the success of the low-rise
Parisian solution led to an obsessive dislike and distrust of
high-rise solutions. To think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower,
of course, is difficult, and when the city's skyline was broached
again by the 56-story Tour Montparnasse, the city quickly moved
to shunt all new high-rise projects to La Defense, a new district
quite removed from the center.
Perhaps the most difficult architectural question
I have ever been asked is what I thought of Beaubourg, the gigantic
cultural complex designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in
Paris. How could one justify the intrusion of such brightly colored
and exposed building entails into an historic section of the world's
most beautiful city?
My answer was that I greatly admired and liked
the boldness and originality of the design, indeed, I wished New
York had such delectably monstrous delights. In isolation, its
brilliance justified breaking with traditional design, especially
since its specific neighborhood was relatively rundown and no
great architectural masterpieces were destroyed to make room for
it. Although Beaubourg has not aged gracefully, this ungainly
leviathan was the precursor of the city's great patronage of modern
architecture over the last decade or so and its significance therefore
is not far behind the great Eiffel Tower, the world's most graceful
and lovely structure and one that would probably never pass muster
with most "contemporary" New Yorkers.
Similarly, Washington, the most beautiful city
in the United States because of the impressive Classical-style
government buildings, relegated its very substantial recent commercial
development to its suburbs like Rosslyn, Va. Cities such as Savannah,
Ga., Charleston, S. C., and New Orleans, La., of course, retain
their delightful charm because they have they have made large
historic preservation districts of large areas that survived largely
There is nothing inherently right or wrong
with the concept of a low-rise or a high-rise city. There is little
denying the fact, however, that a great many urban areas have
opted for skylines in recent decades. Skylines are convenient
and potent icons and need to be considered apart from the individual
buildings that compose them.
In recent years, anti-high-rise sentiment has
soared in many communities across the country and especially in
New York where many of the most vocal critics of new development
conveniently refuse to acknowledge that the complexities and awesomeness
of a high-rise environment are quite possibly the single most
important personality of the city.
To a certain extent, I believe that such strong
antipathy to anything smacking of being taller than a few stories
is a reflection of Puritanical Colonial days when nothing good
be higher than a religious structure. While I have never heard
high-rise buildings described as a Communist plot, I honestly
believe that there is a strong degree of anti-atheistic thought
brought to bear, simplistically and unconsciously, by many conservatives
against some high-rise projects. Obviously, many real estate developers
are wealthy and not a few conservative yet not universally opposed
to high-rise solutions, or windfalls.
There is a lot of intellectual and emotional
baggage, and garbage, that is involved in architecture. Our feelings
about our urban environments are obviously influenced by our feelings
over home, hometowns, places of success and rejection and love
and disappointment and the like. They also often can be affected
greatly by influential teachers, like Vincent Scully, who strongly
advocate certain styles over others and promote certain favorite
architects over others. Such biases, of course, are not unnatural
and not necessarily wrong, but often tend to have a disproportionately
large influence when some of their naive and impressionable followers
ascend rapidly to positions of immense power at important institutions.
When Paul Goldberger was named architectural critic of The
New York Times he was only 22 years old, and some jealous
observers, such as myself, might not be totally consumed by envy
when they argue that no one that young can have had sufficient
experience and wide enough exposure to be a major critic.
Introducing religion into an urban design discussion
is taboo generally as is the difficult subject of racism. I have
regularly alienated many people, friends included, when I have
blatantly declared that the overwhelming number of people who
have fled New York City for the suburbs since World War II have
done so in large part because they were racist. Angered protestations
quickly followed from virtually all who overheard my comments,
which were said with great contempt and met with even more: their
motivations were for love of country, need for more space, need
to seek tax shelters, and, most importantly, for the sake of their
children and their education.
While these excuses are not without some validity,
I still firmly believe that racism, at least as it is reflected
in the desire to send children to good schools with small if non-existent
populations of children from significantly different backgrounds,
was the tipping factor in their decisions to relocate. I have
no intention to belabor these two issues, but state them here
prominently because they are unfortunately very important in coloring
the perception and attitudes of many individuals whose votes,
either with ballots or feet or taxes, greatly affect our cities.
My bias towards the city reflects the fact
that I was born in New York Hospital, played in the sandboxes
of Washington Square, grew up on 10th Street between Fifth and
Sixth Avenues in a once-attractive apartment in a famous row of
townhouses, attended private schools, took public transportation
and spent my youth in a largely drug-free environment. As a child
I loved riding by the Mercury statues atop the traffic lights
on the open tops of the double-decker buses that ran both ways
on Fifth Avenue which was lined with the delightfully ornate lampposts.
I also played stickball and stoopball on my street and enjoyed
looking at the monkey on the organ-grinder's shoulder, and listening
to the band of gypsy fiddlers that strolled occasionally down
the street and the clopping of a horse-drawn ice-wagon, the roar
of a coal-bin delivery and the whine of a knife-grinding truck
double-parked. These are memories of the 1940's and nostalgia
is very important in any consideration of place.
Tall and large buildings are very central to
any discussion of cities. Apart from their significance as major
visual landmarks, they are important for their making urban life
concentrated, convenient and efficient.
One of the most elemental principles of planning
is that higher densities of people and greater concentration of
structures offer very real and very substantial public benefits
in terms of economic and environmental concerns. Sprawl is dumb
and more expensive.
This is true of virtually all land-use situations:
a ten-square block of 50-story office towers is more desirable
than a 100-square block of 5-story office buildings because it
requires much shorter times to walk between buildings, more significant
vistas which are more attractive to tenants and more profitable
to developers, quicker response time of emergency services, a
bigger skyline, less public infrastructure to create and maintain,
and so forth; a 1000-unit attached townhouse development using
20 acres on a 1000-acre tract is much more economic to develop
and presents opportunities to conserve or improve more of the
natural habitat than 1000 single-family homes each on one acre
lots in the tract.
There are only two arguments for sprawl: an
obsessive preoccupation with the glories of owning one's own single-family
house, the simplest and most pervasively hallowed concept of American
property rights; and greed on the well-founded premise that Americans
place a premium value of unattached single-family homes over all
other forms of housing and the fact that developers can almost
always charge more for such subdivisions whose very costliness
becomes a very effective form of de facto exclusionary zoning
in which people who cannot afford such projects are systematically
excluded from living in such communities.
Skylines, indeed, are very important. In the
early centuries after the invasion of white men who eventually
conquered and subjugated the Native Americans, town centers were
dominated by church spires and subsequently major seats of government
manifested their munificence in imposing, often domed, structures.
For the last hundred years or so, skyscrapers have come to symbolize
American culture to much of the world which has in the past two
decades striven to emulate it.
There was an insufficient public outcry in
London in the 1960's when hi-rises began to dot the relatively
low skyline. Their quality was not high, no doubt influencing
Prince Charles's outbursts of outrage a generation later. Because
the new towers sprang up individually rather than in one or two
clusters, the effect, however, was to help make the urbanscape
a little more recognizable from a distance like pin flags on a
A preoccupation with eye-level architecture
is a common malady. While it does encourage a sprucing up or at
least preservation of the low-rise portion of buildings, it has
not always been executed gracefully as witness many post-war luxury
apartment houses on Fifth Avenue that have limestone facades for
the first few floors and then revert to less than highest quality
Tall buildings not only often create more interesting
vistas, and too often ugly ones admittedly, but they also offer
their occupants entirely new and often surprising vistas, that
are truly one of the greatest glories of a major city. And while
phalanxes of routine, uninteresting apartment towers along many
avenues might seem to only offer dreary views of themselves, there
are usually more substantial "window" slits between
them than might be casually suspected, opening up longer views.
Moreover, at night even such relatively crowded pictures are transformed
into jewelly fantasies in which offending monstrosities are darkened
and hidden worlds hinted at.
Harry Cobb, a partner with I. M. Pei &
Partners, the architectural firm, once recounted that Le Corbusier
once built a house for his mother but erected a wall blocking
out the most important vista. Into the wall, however, he "punched"
a small window opening because he believed that it forced the
viewer to concentrate and value the vista more.
Since World War II, America has been on an
incredible building boom. At the end of the war, the country only
had a handful of significant cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco,
Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit. There
are now at least 40 major cities, at least in terms of skylines.
But despite a remarkable amount of urban investment
_ in Manhattan the post-war office boom has added more than 200
million square feet of office space, which, assuming a modest
replacement cost of $150 a square foot in 1990 dollars represents
a value of about $30 trillion _ American cities are, by and large,
becoming increasingly irrelevant to most Americans.
About half way through the last decade, suburban
development outpaced urban development across the country. In
some metropolitan areas, urban centers of a sort developed in
the suburbs, such as Las Colinas in Dallas, but it is too farfetched
to describe them as cities, although some have been described
as "edge cities."
Perhaps even more ominous than the corporate
and employee vote of no confidence in cities that has fueled the
phenomenal and pervasive sprawl of suburbs has been the personal
computer and fax, which have enabled a great deal of traditional
office work conducted in cities to be conducted anywhere.
But diversity is New York's greatest asset.
The world is becoming increasingly international and despite misgivings
over the heavyhandedness of the American-led United Nations purge
of Saddam Hussein's forces from poor little Kuwait, the United
Nations, especially with the breakup of the Soviet Union, is finally
gaining some stature and it is based in New York.
The trend toward multiculturalism also greatly
assists New York and because it is the seat of capitalism, which
does not appear to be in as dire straits as communism, it must
also be the centerpiece in the world of democracy.
Thus while we have just entered the vicarious
world, it is incumbent upon the city to assume leadership in the
forthcoming world of virtual reality.
Coupled with the fact that the rapid growth
of many mid-size cities across the nation of the rejuvenation
of many larger cities, the competitive gap between New York and
the rest of the country has narrowed dramatically.
It is not simply a problem of corporations
and individuals have more choices to select for possible relocation.
In many instances, the choices also offered clear-cut advantages
of being newer, smaller, and often not having as many problems
either in terms of ugly sections, or inadequate home rule, or
inadequate revenues to meet the demands of an increasingly large
non-taxpaying population base.
Any balance-sheet analysis of New York is likely
at this stage to present a disincentive for believing and realistically
hoping for continued strength or renewal.
But such an analysis would overlook the city's
greatest advantage. Despite all of its foibles and weaknesses,
it represents a gigantic investment that is increasingly expensive
to duplicate. Indeed, the staggering amount of monies poured into
cities by banks, pension funds, insurance companies and investors
and homeowners represents a very great disincentive for total
disintegration of cities. And as suburbanites discover, urban
problems can be contagious and infrastructure costs and social
problems respect no boundaries.
Some oases of great wealth will forestall their
eventual succumbing to social sobriety, but many more will be
forced to change their lifestyles and "quality of life."
Such changes are not likely to be accepted gracefully but will
be enacted because of their legal inevitability. No matter how
sacred the concept of private property rights are, they have already
been eroded in a variety of ways both in the cities and suburbs
through increasingly complex building, housing and zoning codes
and environmental regulations to say nothing of taxation. The
many variants of exclusionary zoning, some of which are environmental,
are not likely to survive repeated court scrutiny.
If all suburbs were like Chicken Valley Road
in Locust Valley, or North Street in Greenwich, Conn., or the
like, or Forest Hills Gardens, then the flight from the cities
would indeed be irreversible. But, despite the trendy interior
design magazines and puerile television documentaries of the rich
and famous, there is not enough wealth to provide the American
Dream and has not been for several years. At one time, that dream
was typified by a nice half-acre lot bounded by a white picket
fence and with a good size Colonial-style detached single-family
house in a picturesque New England style village within about
an hour's pleasant drive from Manhattan.
Do cities and New York in particular have a
This book focuses on New York City, generally
considered to be the world's greatest in the 20th Century because
of its pre-eminent stature as the international capital of finance,
communications and culture.
But as the new millennium nears, it is clear
that New York is in dire jeopardy from its own internal problems
and from greatly increased competition. Up until the 1970's, it
really had no competition as it so far outdistanced any competing
city in the sheer magnitude of its attractions and strengths that
comparisons were idle. Beginning in the 1950's, of course, it
began to see a serious erosion of much of its corporate and residential
strength to its own suburbs, a trend that accelerated greatly
over the next few decades to the point that in the 1980's suburban
growth outpaced its own.
Nevertheless, the sustained boom of the 1980's
began to transform the city through the gentrification of many
neighborhoods and the opening up of new commercial districts in
West Midtown, the Flatiron District and Lower Manhattan. This
substantial revival greatly improved the city's ambiance and livability.
Statistics do not tell the most important story
What most concerns everyone is "quality
of life" _ the factor that often makes a small city, such
as Charlotte, N.C., or Pittsburgh, a great threat to giant megalopises
such as New York. "Quality of life" is a non-scientific,
hard-to-measure combination of attractiveness and convenience,
excitement and efficiency. "Quality of life" generally
implies a wholesome balance of economic conditions and opportunities
that affords a pleasant environment in which to live and work.
It means decent attractive housing that is affordable to a majority
of citizens, adequate recreational facilities and cultural amenities
and convenient transportation.
In the early 1980's, many traveling businessmen
raved about the brilliance of the spoke-rail system of the airport
in Tampa or the water ferry from Logan Airport to downtown Boston,
just as tourists in Seattle the decade before waxed ecstatic about
the monorail to that city's World's Fair site or the drama of
Sydney's Opera House. Whether it's Toronto's fairly spectacular
new movable-dome ballpark/hotel or Houston's and Minneapolis's
air-conditioned skywalks, or Orlando's Disney World, once one
has experienced an awesome upgrade in sensitive and good planning,
one lowers one's tolerance for the unimproved and uninspired.
Even though serious travelers, such as business
executives who can afford to make their own direct comparisons,
are still a minority, the new and better urban experiences have
become more pervasive because of the intrinsic educational and
recreational nature of television, as bad as it is. It seems that
a reasonable definition of a city is that it boasts a skyline
and is a host to a television series, a few professional sports
teams, a convention center, an airport that is a hub to at least
Such a definition, of course, is trite and
inadequate. A city is not just bricks and mortar, great enclosed
spaces and runways. It is a coalescing of people with a common
interest in living together and improving themselves and, as such,
it expresses its collective and communal history through its assets,
its treasures, which include the environment, both natural and
Too often, unfortunately, too much is made
of either a city's populace, both residential and commercial,
or its physicality, its melange of developed and developable properties.
Clearly, a new town or community initially must by necessity care
most about its physical infrastructure and buildings just as a
mature skyline city must worry most about the psychic health of
Cities are not static. They grow and they decay
and are not in any set way or historical cycle. Just because many
cities tend to grow, and many often go through periods of contraction
at least in terms of their population and job base, does not necessarily
mean that contraction is bad or permanent. But cities, like almost
everything else, can fall victim to fashions and trends and other
evils of a mass communications world.
The ever-increasing sophistication of modern
life unfortunately tends to lead to shorter attention spans and
simplistic answers. The "zap" of the remote-control
device is the obsolescence penalty we all must pay for the freedom
of diversity. To cope with complexity, however, we must change
gears and revert to old-fashioned blinders that narrowly focus
on one issue at a time.
I have spent five decades living in Manhattan
and yet have only scratched the surface of what there is to see
and do there. For more than two decades, I have been blessed professionally
with an easier entree than most of the public to the city's structures.
As much as we might be overwhelmed by the city's external presence,
there is as much mystery to what lies behind so many canyon walls.
While some people might cavalierly profess
to no interest in cities they are deceiving themselves. Yes, many
people actually at some stage of their lives want only to envision
their lives as secured primarily by a white picket fence and Colonial-style,
single-family house in some bucolic community where no neighbor's
house is visible or by some desolate, and magnificent, stretch
of beach or mountain peak. But such reveries are sterile without
the necessary comparison to the bustle of a city. And they are
also beyond reach to the vast and overwhelming majority of people
either in the United States or yet to come.
We all have biases. Mine are for visual splendor:
something that catches my eyes and fills them with finely finished
details, striking compositions and vibrantly memorable palettes.
Such splendor could be the Flatiron or Woolworth
buildings, or the spire of 60 Pine Street, or the Frick Collection
building, or the Sacred Heart School, or the Helmsley or Seagram's
buildings, or the Federal row of townhouses on Washington Square
North, or the Jefferson Market Courthouse library building, or
the Plaza Hotel, or the Empire State Building, or the Art Deco
richness of the Waldorf-Astoria and the former "General Electric"
building on Lexington Avenue, or the sloping facades of 9 West
57th Street, or the old Surrogates' courthouse or the old Custom
Mine are also against ugliness: the pink tower
at 222 Broadway overlooking St. Paul's Church and City Hall Park,
or the unadorned entrances and rooflines of countless housing
projects, or through-the-wall air-conditioners on great facades
of palatial apartment buildings such as 834 Fifth Avenue, or white-brick
monstrosities that punctuate most of the Upper East Side and pretend
to be apartment buildings, or bulky and bland office towers like
the former "Iranian" building at 625 Fifth Avenue, or
55 Water Street, or the main buildings at Lenox Hill or Mount
Like most, if not all, New Yorkers, and, for
that matter, residents anywhere, I care passionately about my
hometown. Unfortunately, not everyone's passions are like mine.
I must admit that I am not democratic when it comes to matters
of taste. By definition, issues of quality necessitate elitist
perspectives. Elitist, of course, does not necessarily mean esoteric,
abstruse, exotic or bizarre, but refined and uncommon. Common
sense is not the same as common taste. Beauty may be debatable,
but it is discernible.
What has become increasingly difficult and
disturbing is the NIMBY Syndrome that has bullied its way into
local political decisions affecting development and the environment.
The problem of politicians caving in to community
protests against LULUs threatens and cripples sound planning action.
LULUs such as homeless shelters, substance abuse centers, welfare
residences, low-income housing, waste dumps, prisons, discos,
public utility plants, high-rise buildings and the like are perceived
by those afflicted with the NIMBY Syndrome as highly threatening
to property and business values and the quality of life.
In many instances, a neighborhood may indeed
already be overburdened with more than its fair share of a city's,
or region's, LULUs. But, by and large, the NIMBY mantle is being
put on by many neighborhoods who simply, but quite adamantly and
undemocratically, do not want change of any kind to the status
quo. These neighborhoods, for the most part, are part of much
larger political entities. But even if they have control of their
political destiny, such attitudes are not likely to withstand
legal challenge eventually.
But many of the activist groups involved with
NIMBY attitudes have taken great advantage of the legal, regulatory
and legislative systems to thwart an incredible number of projects.
In the early 1990's, one of the greatest threats
not only to sound planning but to the democratic process itself
is the abuse of such systems. As I will discuss in detail later
in the book, many significant and important projects have been
felled by nuisance lawsuits that can hold up a project for years.
"Justice delayed is justice denied"
_ one of the strongest maxims in jurisprudence _ has been perverted
by many anti-development groups to become "justice delayed
knocks out the bad guys." Clearly the American legal system
is in trouble when a corporation has a significant legal advantage
over a poor individual because of its ability to fund and absorb
significant legal expenses and, inversely, when a community has
a significant legal advantage over a developer, and a city, as
long as the courts permit the threatened limbo of uncertain finality
The exercise of every legal means of public
protest is laudable and worthy of being encouraged, but blatant
abuse, which is too often the case in many NIMBY disputes, can
have a devastating effect on a city. During his administration,
former Mayor Edward Koch campaigned vigorously, valiantly and
heroically against the NIMBY Syndrome, although at the same time
his administration was guilty of similar travesties in unduly
prolonging regulatory decisions in the hope of killing unpopular
Popularity is a problem, especially with regard
to planning. Many civic groups have mastered the art of marketing
to stunning effect. The City & Suburban Homes and Too Tall
Building cases are prime examples.
City & Suburban Homes is the name of a
housing company that sponsored a model tenement project, also
known as City & Suburban Homes, at the start of the Twentieth
Century on the full block bounded by 78th and 79th Streets and
York Avenue and what is known now as the FDR Drive along the East
The low-rise project eventually consisted of
14 different buildings, some with courtyards and a few with handsome
iron gates, designed by several different architects. None of
the buildings were ever distinguished architecturally. The project,
however, was noted as being one of the early, but certainly not
the first, attempts to improve low-income housing conditions in
the city. Indeed, a very similar full-block project, designed
by one architect, was built and survives 15 blocks to the south.
Eventually, the original sponsors of the project
fell into financial difficulties and the property was acquired
by Peter Kalikow, whose family had long been active in residential
and commercial construction and management in the city, several
years ago. Kalikow, who became the publisher of The New York
Post about a year after I joined it as its architecture critic
and real estate editor, originally announced his intentions to
raze the block and erect four luxury towers.
Given the fact that most of the apartments
were rent controlled or rent stabilized, such a plan faced incredible
hurdles. The project consisted of about 1,300 apartments, many
occupied by elderly tenants. To the north and south of the site,
new luxury apartment towers were rising to take advantage of the
It did not take long for the community to rise
up in sharp condemnation of the Kalikow plan, which, in fact,
astounded much of the real estate community because few developers
want to run the uncertain gauntlet of gaining possession of controlled
apartments, especially on projects of such magnitude. But full
city blocks, especially in prime areas such as the Upper East
Side, rarely become available.
Opposition was fierce, intense, determined
and effective. Before long, Kalikow relented and revised his plan.
His new proposal initially called for preserving the western two-thirds
of the blocks and demolishing the eastern third on which he would
erect a 65-story apartment tower. Subsequently, he amended this
plan to replace the 65-story tower with a 81-story tower.
To make the proposal more palatable to the
community, Kalikow said he would relocate all tenants living in
the sections to be demolished to refurbished apartments on the
remainder of the site not only at his expense but also with the
same rent and the same rent controls. Those tenants who did not
wish to relocate could receive a "buy-out" fee.
On its face, the proposal might have been deemed
quite reasonable as the project had a fair number of vacant apartments
and many of the occupied apartments were in clear need of renovation.
The tenants's group and many local civic groups
and politicians vehemently attacked the plan, stating that many
of the elder tenants could not cope with such a move, that the
neighborhood needed no further gentrification and that the tower
was much, much too big.
The project was being launched at the height
of the city's anti-high-rise, no-growth hysteria. New York in
the 1980's was filled with Candides declaring that this was the
best of all possible worlds, rushing to the barricades to block
virtually any proposal with an appropriately Revolutionary ``off
with their heads" attitude toward the troops of development.
Some tenants were bought out. Others relocated
within the complex and many vowed to fight the plan unwaveringly.
The opponents of the proposal then came up with a brilliant ploy
and successfully proposed that the project be declared an official
city landmark. (I wrote a commentary piece in The Post that strongly
attacked the proposed designation on the grounds that the buildings
were unworthy to begin with, had been substantially altered, and
that better examples existed, in particular the Shively Apartments
directly across 78th Street) to commemorate the historical significance,
which was scant anyway. Needless to say, Kalikow was pleased by
my piece in which I made clear reference to the fact that he was
Normal journalistic hesitancy to avoid any
potential inkling of a conflict of interest did not deter me from
writing the piece because I genuinely was outraged by the perversion
of the landmark process. I felt not only that the designation
violated the integrity of landmarks legislation but was also being
used by the community to circumvent and supersede zoning. I did
not win friends in the community for my stand, but that was not
my role as an architecture critic. Furthermore, the issue had
become so controversial that to remain silent would have been
worse.) Kalikow then appealed the designation to the Board of
Estimate, which overturned the designation at its last post-midnight
session just as it passed into history as a result of the city's
new Charter. Actually, the board adopted a compromise that designated
the western two-thirds of the block as a landmark, but not the
portion that Kalikow wanted to develop.
In the meantime, the residential real estate
market in the city, which had been superhot, changed for the worse
and Kalikow not only has not proceeded with the project, but has
had to file for bankruptcy (shortly after I left the paper).
What was particularly galling about the City
& Suburban controversy was the utter hypocrisy of the landmarks
designation. To listen to the august commissioners, who supposedly
had some knowledge of architecture, testify that this was a handsome
project was unbelievable and disgraceful. It is a given that a
developer would do his utmost to eek out every potential profit
under the law. It is also a given that a community should try
to eek out every potential benefit. It is not a given that deceit
and subversion should govern. The board's compromise was wrong.
It should have simply and completely overturned the designation,
but New York City politicians do not have a high record of integrity.
The second example is far more egregious. At
least the City & Suburban controversy ended up with a somewhat
The "Too-Tall" building is a 31-story
apartment tower on the south side of 96th Street between Park
and Lexington Avenues. After it had been topped out, a community
group, Civitas, urged the city to force the developer to lop off
the top 12 stories on the grounds that the building exceeded permissible
zoning for the site by that amount.
The project had received all of its permits
from the Department of Buildings and, according to the developer
and his architect, the firm of Schuman Claman Lichtenstein &
Efron, conformed to the site's zoning. Indeed, two supervisors
at the Buildings Department had signed off on the project after
requiring the developer to make several changes to conform to
The problem was that the city had recently
changed the zoning for the area in question and had published
an erroneous map that was used by both the developer and the Buildings
Department in making their calculations.
The effect of the new zoning change was to
protect the ``light and air" of Park Avenue by not permitting
towers over a certain height within a certain distance of the
avenue. That distance fell close to the middle of the developer's
At first, the developer simply argued that
he had complied with all of the Buildings Department's directives
to him regarding the site and therefore he should not alter his
project, which was nearing completion.
The community group, which was subsequently
joined in opposition to the tower by most of the leading civic
groups concerned with zoning and planning in the city, argued
that the developer had submitted the wrong map and therefore must
remove the offending floors.
The Buildings Department maintained that it
merely works with documents submitted by the developer and therefore
was blameless, a position that I argued in several columns in
The Post completely justified the dismantling of the agency.
If the department does not know its own regulations how can anyone
else know them, especially since it has been widely acknowledged
in the real estate industry that the department was efficient
and fastidious in its applications and interpretations of the
city's incredibly arcane zoning regulations.
The crux of the legal issue was that maps published
by the city were irrelevant and the only true legitimate guide
is the printed text, known as the "metes and bounds,"
which did, in fact, correctly spell out the precise boundaries
Again, the civic groups, to their credit, did
their homework and stood fast, to their everlasting discredit.
Common sense might have been invoked to note
that the city continued to be a housing crisis, that several even
taller and bigger projects were in the immediate vicinity of the
project, that the project promised to further hasten the redevelopment
and improvement of the East Harlem community which begins just
across from the project on 96th Street, and that, perhaps most
importantly, had the correct interpretation of the new zoning
been made the developer could have simply moved the tower 50 feet
to the east on his lot and erected the same tower which would
have been in total conformity, which is to say that the developer
had little to gain by any implied subterfuge.
Common sense, of course, did not prevail.
In desperation, for the controversy's delay
was an added expense measured in millions of dollars, the developer
proposed a compromise in which he would build as many low-income
housing units in the neighborhood as there were luxury housing
units contained in the contested 12 floors of the building. Although
one East Harlem leader strongly supported this proposal, the civic
groups, smelling blood and on the crest of a juggernaut of community
sensitivity to the "sanctity" of the zoning regulations,
resolutely declared "no compromise."
The developer, naturally, appealed and was
unsuccessful in all venues including the Supreme Court of the
The city finally proclaimed a compromise solution
in which the offending floors would be demolished, but the developer
would be permitted to build an adjacent smaller tower on the same
lot containing the same amount of units.
The tower itself was pedestrian in design,
but no more so than most then rising in the neighborhood a few
The lunacy of the controversy was that no one
in the civic groups called for the resignation of the Building
Department employees and commissioner involved in the project.
And no one cared publicly a hoot about the developer nor the impact
that such an outcome would have on future developments. If you
comply with the regulations, ask for interpretations from the
correct department and invest a lot of money, do you have any
legitimate expectation that you have acted properly and in good
faith and should not have agreements torn up arbitrarily and capriciously?
Not in the New York City of naysayers.
Well, principles are important and public watchdogs
are certainly needed. But one must constantly remember not to
throw the baby out with the wash.
Not everyone is qualified to be a public watchdog
or ombudsmen when it comes to architecture and planning just as
not everyone is qualified to conduct brain surgery. It may not
require academic degrees, but it does require considerable experience
in the analysis of urban design and aesthetics.
A few years ago, Prince Charles initiated a
very important public debate in England, which subsequently become
the focus of attention elsewhere, on the shape of things to come
and that are. Unfairly accused by some modernists of being a Post-Modernist
ostrich, Prince Charles, with great eloquence and considerable
humor, poignantly raised many right questions about the man-made
Prince Charles had a lot of credentials as
an excellent connoisseur as well as an avid amateur landscape,
and cityscape, painter.
Outraged at ``monstrous barnacles" of
modern architecture defacing the landscape, Prince Charles argues
for quality. While I do not share all of his aesthetic enthusiasms
for some neo-Classical designers, I completely endorse his call
for greater public sensitivity and awareness of the very important
role architecture plays in our lives.
We are victims of the environment in which
we are raised, not in a fatalistic sense, but in terms of additional
challenges to surmount or opportunities to be taken advantage
of. All the world is not a stage, nor a slum.
Planning and architecture, sadly, don't get
much respect from the public and the media and when they do too
often it's more about interior design of chintzy, overdecorated
domiciles of the rich and/or vapid.
Cities, and even most towns and villages, are
unkempt, messy places. Things don't work right because of mismanagement,
fraud, graffiti-crazed juveniles, graffiti-obsessed self-proclaimed
artists, and planners, both good and bad.
But architecture, which I shall use hereafter
to refer not only to the design of buildings, but also the planning
of cities, landscape design and interior design, is vitally important
to our lives and, very importantly, to the lives of generations
still to come. It is not necessarily the most permanent of the
arts, but is without question the most public. Everyone has a
stake in a developer's dream because it is likely to intrude into
many people's environment.
"A vivid and integrated physical setting,
capable of producing a sharp image, plays a social role as well.
It can furnish the raw material for the symbols and collective
memories of group communication. A striking landscape is the skeleton
upon which many primitive races erect their socially important
myths. Common memories of the 'home town' were often the first
and easiest point of contact lonely soldiers during the war. A
good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense
of emotional security," observed Kevin Lynch in his superb
book, entitled "The Image of the City," published by
the M. I. T. Press in 1960.
That intrusion, which can be graceful and uplifting
in spirit just as well as it can be degrading and spiteful, raises
a very disturbing question of property rights, the most sacred
American shibboleth. Ironically, it is at the heart of most NIMBY
proponents' self-righteousness while it also is self-contradictory:
if other property owners have legitimate claims to control a property
owner's development, then the right of property ownership is fettered,
and each new encroachment of such rights represents a further
erosion of those rights. While it should be obvious that all building,
environmental and zoning regulations impinge upon the primeval
territorial concept of property rights, it is too often overlooked
in the many vociferous public debates on many projects.
Similarly, those who ardently seek to preserve
the best of an area's architectural heritage as worthy landmarks
are also treading on difficult terrain. These preservationists,
valiant guardians of quality, have, in many instances, been selflessly
heroic and truly civic-minded. But, at least in the United States,
they have been woefully behind the times as evidenced simply by
the Penn Station fiasco in Manhattan in which one of the city's
few truly grand structures was demolished to make way for a new
gateway that, despite a recent renovation and
modernization" is one of the most banal,
insipid and deeply depressing public insults.
But the corollary of "justice delayed
is justice denied" must be that "ultimate justice is
better than no justice." Preservationists have waged and
won many honorable battles. But they have also committed a lot
of obfuscating and dishonorable mischief through their manipulation
of a court system that, at best, can be described as inconsistent,
if not irrational, and, at worst, corrupt _ corrupt in the sense
of acting on behalf of current political favor rather than basic
Unfortunately, Americans got on the preservation
bandwagon late and then abused it. In the process, they have often
made a mockery of the concept. In New York, the record is incredibly
shoddy and much of the belated good work that has been done is
discredited and potentially threatened by the unbelievable hypocrisy
and disassembling of many revered leaders of the preservation
movement who seem to be much more impressed with Jacqueline Kennedy
Onassis than an honest-to-goodness masterpiece of bricks and mortar.
Because of their extreme cowardice in the face
of politicians, the preservation movement in the city has focused
the overwhelming proportion of its time and energies and designations
on the conservation of neighborhoods, presumably but not usually
with authentic historical importance, rather than on the preservation
of genuine architectural monuments and masterpieces.
It took the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission,
created in 1965, one year after the demolition of the former Pennsylvania
Rail Road Station, one of the city's greatest wonders, 15 years
before it designated its first skyscraper as a landmark. It was
not the Empire State Building, or the Chrysler Building or Rockefeller
Center, but the former American Radiator Building on 40th Street
overlooking Bryant Park. That building, designed by Raymond Hood,
a designer of the far more important Rockefeller Center and the
more prominent original McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street,
is an interesting example of Art Deco design, but certainly not
in the league of world-class icons for which the city is famous.
Eventually, over the last decade or so, the
commission has gotten around to designating a substantial number
of commercial buildings including some of the above-mentioned
skyscrapers. But certainly it has not applied the same mentality
to commercial areas as it has to residential ones and the reason
has been simple. It has been fearful that wealthy owners might
legally challenge its designations with a high probability of
It also used the historic district designations
of large residential neighborhoods to supersede and replace zoning,
in violation of its mandates. But the districts were more popular
because they tended to improve property values and therefore were
less likely to be challenged despite the fact that many of them
are of highly questionable merit and have boundaries that smack
of pandering to special interests and include a large proportion
of properties of absolutely no conceivable architectural or historic
One of the most celebrated and important landmark
controversies in New York has involved the Grand Central Terminal.
In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the city's landmark designation
of the terminal when it was challenged by developers who wanted
to erect a major skyscraper atop it. The ruling, which was widely
hailed by preservationists as supportive of landmarks, however,
took specific notice of the availability of unused air rights
over the terminal and several neighboring properties which had
once been developed by the terminal's original owners. Such rights,
the court said, presented alternative means for the developers
to realize an economic gain from their property.
Another developer, Ware Travelstead, several
years later took an option to use most of the air rights to erect
a 73-story tower on the site of a 11-story building at 383 Madison
Avenue that occupied the small block between Madison and Vanderbilt
Avenues and 46th and 47th Streets.
Despite the fact that a distinguished tower
design for Travelstead's project by Kohn Pedersen Fox would have
created a striking counterbalance to the Chrysler Building on
the other side of the terminal and to the bulky Pan Am Building
on the north side of the terminal, many civic groups protested
the plan on the grounds that it was too massive and that the neighborhood
was already too built up.
To defeat the proposal, they managed to convince
the city's planning and legal officials to create a new zoning
district for the area that would not have permitted such a big
building and extended the area to which the air rights could be
transferred slightly. In addition, and more importantly, they
got the city to argue that Travelstead's site was not qualified
to receive the transfer because the former owner had made the
mistake of selling its underground property that was the legal
basis for the earlier proposed transfer of air rights.
In essence, the city committed highway robbery
on the flimsiest of legal pretexts that clearly flaunted the intent
of the Supreme Court's ruling and the history of the site. The
city's position was totally indefensible, reprehensible and outrageous
and, needless to say, met with no criticism from The New York
Times which increasingly was concerned with pleasing the ladies
of social sets rather than printing all the news that fit to print.
Travelstead was likely to win his case on legal
appeals to the Supreme Court if he could have afforded the long
wait and if he still determined that the project might be economically
viable. Not surprisingly, he gave up the property and it is now
being developed on a far less grand scale, and a different design,
as a new headquarters for Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc.
The two most prominent and interesting cases
that illustrate this point are the Grand Central Terminal and
the St. Bartholomew's Church cases. Both cases essentially revolve
the issue of what compensates a "taking" that would
require just compensation from the government which designated
the property a landmark. I am convinced that eventually the nation's
highest court will lay down clear guidelines that will require
governments that restrict property uses to compensate for the
reduced usage. That decision, of course, will wreck havoc with
landmarks, but is, I believe, the only alternative to abolishing
property rights altogether, a course that I personally believe
to be right but also believe is politically unacceptable to the
vast majority of Americans at this juncture in history.
Property rights are so entrenched in the American
system, unfortunately, that they are even closer to God than cleanliness.
For that matter, I also believe that eventually the nation's highest
court will get rid of the "In God We Trust" motto that
adorns most courtrooms and currency and schools as the most flagrant
violation of the Constitutional principle of separation of church
and state. But, then, that is another story, or book. I state
this in passing, and parentheses, to help the reader understand
my perspective _ admittedly atheistic _ and not to inflame religious
The significant point to be made here is to
be aware of the basics and not start an argument in mid-stream.
What is relevant is an understanding of how social contracts,
the basis of government, are structured and maintained. There
are some very gritty paradoxes that abound in democracy, not the
least of which is that democracy has trouble condoning, to say
nothing of permitting, anti-democratic thoughts.
Historically, Americans have a love affair
with the Constitution bordering on the reverential respect given
to sacred "Revelations." The U.S. Supreme Court was
established to interpret the Constitution and make it palatable
in the historical continuum of American society. Unfortunately,
those who considered themselves purists regard the literal words
of the document sacrosanct and choose to overlook scientific and
technological as well as psychological and sociological advances,
or events, that render parts of the Constitution either archaic
The constituency to preserve such hallowed
interpretations, however, is incredibly entrenched and alert enough
to recognize that such debates can debilitate established power.
One well-known economist, Arthur Laffler, recently noted, with
remarkable insight, during a discussion of tax reform that too
many people were anti-rich rather than pro-poor. My point in this
aside is to strongly emphasize the importance of priorities, both
setting them and keeping them straight.
This book is a collection of my opinions about
what is right and wrong in New York City and other cities, and
about what can be done to reinforce and extend the rights and
correct and remove the wrongs. I tend to not only try to see the
largest picture possible, but also to try to envision what I consider
the best picture possible and then work backwards to practicality.
Too many critics and observers, I believe, work the other way
and start and too often stay small and practical. Utopia may be
silly, which is worse than far-fetched, but utopianism, the belief
that it is worthwhile to strive for the creation of better worlds,
is a paramount value for me. I believe democracy is wonderful,
although my trust in capitalism is somewhat less secure. The great
test of capitalism, I believe, is its philanthropy. Dreams can
abound in a just and decent society.
We are living in a period of very great and
very rapid change. Technology is lessening geographic and cultural
differences and the raison d'etre of many cities while the emerging
multiculturalism is reinforcing it. In the process, much is likely
to be sacrificed and great turmoil will befall many cities and
many suburbs. We therefore cannot afford not to focus intense
attention on how we choose and want to live and how we wish to
try to control our destinies.
I did not study architecture in school. Indeed,
although I attended four years of college I never graduated. My
understanding of architecture comes primarily from meeting with
architects, planners and developers in the course of writing newspaper
articles on the specific projects. From 1971 to 1982, I was the
main reporter on commercial real estate projects for The New
York Times. In 1978, I was, among many other things, architecture
critic for The Metro, an interim strike newspaper in New York.
From 1981 to 1987, I wrote the North American Real Estate and
Architecture Supplements for The International Herald Tribune
for which I visited about 50 cities in North America. From 1987
to 1991, I was the architecture critic and real estate editor
for The New York Post.
My only other qualifications to write about
design issues stem from a lifelong interest in art, instilled
by my late mother, G. Susan Horsley, who was an avid collector
of 19th and early 20th Century American Art.
As a reporter and critic, I discovered that
the best way to understand a project was the old-fashioned way:
to walk through and around the project at many different times
and to act dumb and ask a lot of impertinent questions such as
why not alter the proportions or the color or the facade details.
The point is not to be disingenuous, but to learn from people
who had invested a lot of time, energy, prestige and money in
the project and, in the process, to protect myself from a lot
of naive assumptions that could result in bogus analyses. In many,
though not all, instances, I was rather flabbergasted to listen
to some quite valid justifications for what I had considered to
be bad judgments. The truth is always stranger and more surprising
The deadline pressures of daily journalism,
of course, are often cited as excuses for lapses of critical judgment.
Usually, however, an architecture critic has a bit less deadline
pressure. While a building can be "appreciated" in a
relatively short amount of time _ some it often seems only with
a mere glance _ I am constantly dumbfounded by not only how much
a building can change under different lighting conditions, such
as changing weather, but also by how very difficult it is to extrapolate
the end result from a rendering or model even when one is very,
very familiar with the context. Sometimes, for example, the depth
of a protruding mullion or a sample granite or window facade slab
creates a greatly different effect when stretched out over 50
More importantly, perceptions and criteria
change, often dramatically, over time. The soaring black glass
monolith known as Metropolitan Tower on West 57th Street quickly
became one of the city's few aggressively modern towers when it
was erected in the late 1980's. Its rakish angles and arrogant
demeanor overpowered not only 57th Street but also the even taller
CitySpire project, designed by Helmut Jahn, just behind it on
56th Street. But its supremacy was soon surpassed by Carnegie
Tower, just to the west of it on 57th Street, designed by Cesar
Pelli as a complimentary campanile to adjacent Carnegie Hall.
Pelli's very handsome tower is distinguished by a novel cornice
treatment of jutting angular struts that unfortunately intrude
upon the graceful outlines of Metropolitan Tower from some vistas.
This skyscraper triad _ midtown's only equivalent to the dizzying
cacophony of the financial district _ is intriguingly disappointing
in the lack of cohesiveness and planning of the three individual
projects, all controversial in their own right.
Yet in their aggregate the buildings are a
powerful presence that manages to correct an awkward imbalance
in the north midtown skyline. CitySpire and Metropolitan Tower,
whatever their faults, which will be discussed later in the book,
might have had a certain credibility in their own, singular isolation.
While Carnegie Tower is widely considered to
have the most pleasant facade of the three, its remarkably thin
north/south profile appears awesomely precarious especially when
viewed from its most prominent vista, looking south from Central
Park. Because of its proximity to Metropolitan Tower _ they are
separated by the Russian Tea Room, whose owners held out unsuccessfully
for more money in a assemblage that would have resulted in one
very large tower rather than the two slender shafts that were
built _ Carnegie Tower seems to have a magnetically symbiotic
relationship with the Metropolitan Tower that mysteriously seems
to help keep it up. This titanic ensemble well illustrates the
problems of development and planning in New York: one neither
starts nor ends with a tabula rasa and cannot make design assumptions
in a vacuum. Surely, Ian Bruce Eichner, the developer of CitySpire,
would have had an easier task selling many apartments with unobstructed
panoramas of Central Park rather than the backsides of two very
tall towers directly across the street.
Most critics, including myself, have fallen
prey to the devastating disease known as contemporariness. We
concentrate on the new to the great neglect of the old. This,
of course, is symptomatic of journalism and the need to pacify
superior editors with ye olde traditional "news peg,"
the slant that provides a competitive justification to run that
story that day. While preservation battles occasionally foray
into print and weekend editions sometimes carry neighborhood "tours"
and "walks," sufficient space is rarely given to reflective
re-analyses and district updates.
As has been wittingly observed by many architects
such as John Burgee and Philip Johnson, there are "foreground"
and "background" buildings, as distinct from "new"
and "old." By and large, the architectural tradition,
if any, of New York was definitely been on the side of "foreground":
developers and architects have jostled and stumbled over themselves,
with very rare exception, to madly assert their projects from
the chaotic jumble that is their context.
Many sites, because of their prominence, cry
out for a "foreground" building, one that knocks your
socks off. Others, like many sidestreets, where buildings are
crowded together and difficult to visually comprehend, or Upper
Park Avenue and West End Avenue, where a uniform building type
and size has been well maintained, require a "background"
building whose presence fits in so well with its neighbors as
to be scarcely detectable as new.
Context has become a very au courant concept
that nicely coincides with the awakening of an environmental consciousness
in recent years. It is undeniably a major issue that should be
dealt with in the planning process. Should a project relate to
its surroundings, and in what manner is a fundamental question
that all architects must ask as they begin to shape their creations
and negotiate, bargain, plead and fight with their patrons.
Unfortunately, context has been seized upon
by many community activists and some critics as a mighty weapon
with which to smote blasphemous, yea, ungodly, major projects.
Naturally, had such zealots been abounding in the early decades
of this century New York would simply have been swamped in tenements
and Forest Hills enclaves and never have evolved its almost mystical
and mythically romantic silhouette that inspired most of the world
and led to New York becoming the epitome, or epicenter, or, at
least, apex, of capitalism, if not the pinnacle of (Western European-inspired
and -transmogrified) civilization.
Strict adherence to contextual concerns, of
course, does not strip away the potential for all innovation and
experimentation, but it does forsake dramatic breakthroughs, such
as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. On the other
hand, contextual concerns, when gracefully adapted, can preserve
the ambiance of consistent architectural treatments and ensure,
and often, though not always, improve property values.
Several years ago, I was impressed with a very
attractive renovation of an old residential building in the Chelsea
section of Manhattan being undertaken by Douglas Durst of The
Durst Organization, one of the city's prominent developers in
the post-World War II era.
The project was a red-brick Victorian-Style
low-rise building of the kind found throughout the Georgetown
section of Washington, D.C. It particularly stood out because
the rest of the block consisted of relatively nondescript and
unexceptional tenement buildings.
Rather than quickly realize that the Victorian-style
building was obviously erected before the tenements, I asked Durst
why such a pleasant building had been erected amidst such dreck.
Durst, whose father, Seymour, is one of the great historians of
the city, raised his eyebrows and explained that not only had
the entire street once been lined with similar buildings but also
much of that area in Chelsea.
Cities grow incrementally. Building is a time-consuming
process and for much of New York's history it has seemed a never-ending
process. Unfortunately, New York was outrageously laggard in grasping
the merits of preservation, probably because its character, if
a city can have one, is at least partially defined by impatience
and a preoccupation with convenience. New Yorkers are too lazy
not to jaywalk and to stray too far from their offices or transportation
While the development of Manhattan historically
did progress northwards, it generally bulldozed and rebuilt rather
than leapfrog with the result that there are hardly any blocks
that completely retain their former historic splendor. The result
is that many of the city's official historic districts make a
mockery of the very notion of preservation because that tend to
be blanket area-wide designations rather than individual buildings.
Such an approach, of course, enables the city's Landmarks Preservation
Commission to have design review of all properties within such
districts and effectively to bypass, in a more restrictive fashion,
Perhaps ideally, Manhattan should have preserved
its older historic districts as it moved uptown and conceivably
every ten blocks north or so would define a different architectural
style or decade. Thus, our most modern districts would probably
be in Upper Manhattan rather than midtown.
Another variation, again impossible because
of historical events, would organize the perfect Manhattan from
its logical center, say 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and develop
out from it chronologically across the avenues. Thus, the Avenue
of the Americas and Madison Avenue would be developed, say, a
decade after the core of Fifth Avenue was filled, then Seventh
and Park Avenues, then Broadway and Lexington Avenue, then Eighth
and Third Avenues, then Ninth and Second Avenues, and so on. The
result, hopefully, would be stylistic homogeneity along the avenues
at least in midtown. While convenient for tour guides, such an
approach, is now totally unrealistic at least for such a built-up
area as midtown, but not inconceivable for redeveloping large
tracts on the Lower East Side, East Harlem, or much of the Bronx.
Like it or not, the chaos of architectural
diversity and quality in midtown Manhattan is a given of New York
City's character. Indeed, it may very well be its most defining,
if not glorified, aspect. This face of New York is brazen, contemptuous,
energetic, adventurous, exasperating and overwhelming. One of
the most cherished images for many "romantic" New Yorkers
is of the old, small, antique "hold-outs" occupying
the last toe-hold of a vast assemblage for a mammoth tower of
far less design distinction. What is conjured is the battle between
the poor and the rich, the low and the mighty. The facts in such
circumstances are generally irrelevant to the romantic observer.
Certainly, the city's weird juxtapositions of small buildings,
often, but not always genuine landmarks, set smack beside a monstrously
uninteresting looming skyscraper can often justify a yearning
for "the good old days," or the like.
But the existing portfolio of such situations
presents an uneven record that mitigates against making any generalizations:
some situations, like the holdouts on the Macy's block are unfortunate
and others, like the Russian Tea-Room on West 57th Street are
Zoning, of course, is the engine of the city's
physical progress and, not surprisingly, it is labyrinthine.
Much worse, however, is that, contrary to public
outcries by impassioned civic activists and naysayers, zoning
in New York City is quite "arbitrary and capricious,"
qualities that governmental actions are not supposed to possess.
The city has been in the vanguard of zoning
since it introduced the nation's first Zoning Resolution in 1916.
Then, it was spurred largely by public concern that the new generation
of skyscrapers, such as the 42-story Equitable Building at 120
Broadway, were so tall and covered so much of their lot that they
greatly diminished "light and air" at street-level.
The city's planners then established limits
to the size and shape of buildings that could be developed on
every parcel in the city, and further designated what uses - residential,
commerce, industrial and the like - could be permitted on every
parcel. To a great extent, their mapping of zoning districts tried
to reflect and promote current uses, many of which were considered
to be incompatible with others at the same location.
The city was already relatively modern with
transit lines and automobiles and elevators and electricity and
the like. But in 1916, air-conditioning, airplanes and environmentally-mitigating
technology were not common or advanced and suburbs were much more
bucolic and removed than their present counterparts.
The planners allowed for a maximum residential
population of about 12 million people, about 50 percent more than
In 1961, the city made a major revision of
the Zoning Resolution, which introduced development bonuses for
public spaces, such as plazas and changed the basic office building
form from setback "wedding cakes" to "towers-in-a-park,"
but did not appreciably alter the maximum "build-out"
potential of the city.
The overall zoning for the city was not subsequently
altered, but was subject to almost continuous amendments, some
of which were substantive.
In the 1980's the initial successes of the
environmental movement gave backbone to substantial community
opposition to new projects of almost any kind throughout much
of the city. That opposition, which became the NIMBY Syndrome,
not only was fiercely antagonistic to new projects but also launched
an attack upon the maximum "build-out" mentality of
many developers. Blatantly ignoring the fact that the city's population
had dwindled substantially in the post-World War II era, they
argued, or more correctly proclaimed, that the city was too big
already and could not afford to properly maintain its infrastructure
and offer services, let alone grow.
This reversal of philosophy owed much of its
impetus to the theories of Jane Jacobs, a self-proclaimed city
planner, like myself, who wrote the highly influential book, "The
Death and Life of American Cities," a polemic initially against
the bulldozing mentality of "urban renewal" programs
that resulted in many huge and unattractive housing projects for
the poor and low-income sectors of the population that were eyesores,
poorly designed and bereft of most of the amenities that fostered
a spirit of neighborhood.
Jacobs, long active in the Greenwich Village
community, subsequently abandoned New York to leave in Toronto.
Before she left, however, she was influential in the design of
West Village Houses, a low-rise residential enclave that encompassed
several blocks in the West Village near the Hudson River. Although
touted as a superior alternative to high-rise towers, these dark
boxes were just as insulting to the architectural heritage and
ambiance of the area as the towers she damned and feared.
Her enthusiastic emphasis, however, on the
importance of the design of urban streets was important and with
the arrival of a new mayor, John V. Lindsay, a few years after
her book was published in 1861, found many advocates. Lindsay,
tall, attractive and young, surrounded himself with many young
and energetic planners such as Don Elliott and Alexander Cooper
and Jaquelin Robertson and before long, helped in part by funding
for an Urban Design Council by William Paley, many of Jacobs's
urban planning principles began to become law. Indeed, planning
quickly became popular as the public debated the quality of plazas
and began to make amends for not having been preservationists
by designating landmarks left and right, that is, primarily on
either side of office buildings and in the outer boroughs.
In analyzing or evaluating the merits of any
particular public policy, it behooves one to be fully aware of
the economic and political climate at the time the policy is introduced.
The public may not actually be unsophisticated or impatient, but
many important editors of major newspapers, like The New York
Times, have been at least with regard to urban design and
planning. Understandably, they are preoccupied with hard-breaking
news of major disasters and political campaigns and fashion and
food trends and gossip items. What little time was left over was
quickly taken up by crime and court decisions and national and
international events and the prestigious realm of the senses known
as culture. Time and again, the editors' eyes would roll back
in their heads as soon as they heard or read the word "plan."
Oh, another pipedream, they would pooh-pooh before either killing
the story altogether or emasculating it to the merest of mentions
with very rare exception.
Much of this antipathy to planning was defensive.
The editors were constantly overwhelmed by an ever-burgeoning
amount of news. Whereas The Times's editors still were
loyal to the notion of attempting to be an objective journal of
record in the early 1960's, it was a losing, exasperating battle.
The death knell was sounded with the announcement
in 1964 by Turner Catledge, then management editor of The Times,
that A. M. Rosenthal, then the paper's correspondent in Tokyo,
would become the new head of the city desk, which would also be
renamed the Metropolitan Desk.
Rosenthal, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize
for reporting in Poland for The Times, was considered an
excellent writer and Catledge was interesting in raising the quality
of writing in The Times, which was still competing with
the New York Herald Tribune, widely acknowledged to be
a better written, though substantially smaller, paper.
Rosenthal brought along as his top assistant,
Arthur Gelb, who had been an assistant culture news editor and
an old chum. The two complemented one another remarkably. Rosenthal
was a pitbull: a mercilessly fast decision maker who was contemptuous
of plodding ways and interested only in results. Gelb was a Yorkshire
terrier, flitting wildly in many directions simultaneously, a
veritable sparkler of ideas, some brilliant and some not, a conjurer
of an overwhelming amount of different sidebars for the lead story.
The result often became a major takeout that was awesomely and
not infrequently inanely comprehensive, often to the very great
expense of other news that day.
Rosenthal was at the editorial helm for the
launching of the new special daily news sections, a major reorganization
of the paper as a way of creating new advertising venues.
What the special sections, specifically the
Science section on Tuesdays, the Living section on Wednesday,
the Home section on Thursday and the Weekend section on Friday,
did was to transform the editorial emphasis of The Times
from an elitist recorder of all the news that a fair-minded, well-educated
person ought to be aware of to a vehicle popular with advertisers
wishing to reach a high-end consumer audience.
At first glance, it might appear to much of
the public as if these new sections were major enlargements of
the paper's news coverage. To the extent that the some of the
areas such as food and science and home furnishings were significantly
expanded, such an assumption was accurate.
But the sad reality was that the paper's total
"news budget," the amount of space devoted to non-advertisements
in the entire paper, remained about the same. This was only accomplished
by cutting back on the allocations of the news budget to the traditional
core of the paper: the foreign, national and local news departments.
To provide space for the special sections,
the traditional departments had to make major sacrifices at a
time when their own bailiwicks were growing ever more complex
and demanding of coverage: more countries were coming into existence
requiring more coverage; more issues were assuming national importance
such as the space program, the environment and civil rights; and
more communities were asserting themselves and confusing the role
of local governments just as American litigiousness was reaching
its zenith overcrowding the court system.
It had been possible for many decades for The
Times's editors to ensure for its readers that they were not
overlooking all important and interesting developments in the
political, legal and cultural arenas. Furthermore, such coverage
was delivered promptly and with a high degree of accuracy and
objectivity, at least in the news, as opposed to editorial page
Promptly meant an event that occurred one day
was reported in the next day's paper, not a few days or a few
weeks later as subsequently became a not uncommon occurrence at
Under Rosenthal, and Gelb, who must always
be considered in tandem, the erosion of "hard" news
was due not only to the proliferation of special sections, but
also to a redesign of the paper.
The paper, in different stages, reduced the
number of columns per page from eight to six, increased the size
of type and photographs, and adopted a radically different layout
design for much of the paper. These changes had the affect of
significantly reducing the total amount of news space.
This long digression is justified only by the
disproportionately important role that The Times has had in helping
shape public opinion about urban planning and architecture. To
its credit, of course, is the fact that it employed Ada Louise
Huxtable as its architecture critic for many years and she justly
won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism.
The paper's subsequent commitment to architecture
may be judged by the fact that Paul Goldberger was named as Huxtable's
replacement when he was only 22 years old and that, many years
later in 1990, Goldberger was given the additional responsibilities
of being culture editor. It is ludicrous to think that someone
can be a legitimate critic at the ripe young age of 22 of anything
over than lollipops and baseball cards or that the intensity of
focus to be thoroughly expert and au courant in one field cannot
be diminished by the added burden of overseeing a very large and
important department such as culture news at The Times.
To be candid, I lusted for Huxtable's job while
I was at the Times but like virtually everyone else there I had
no idea it was going to become available. I must also admit that
with very, very rare exception and then only in very recent years
I have been virtually diametrically opposed to Goldberger's opinions
as expressed in his columns.
My reason for leaving The Times to become the
architectural critic and real estate editor of The New York Post
in 1987 was largely because of my frustration at having been transferred
from real estate to society news and my frustration with Goldberger's
views and had a desire to express my own.
My new real estate news section at The Post
began to have a good following and a degree of influence, but
unfortunately fell victim to the advertising and real estate recession
in 1990 when its publication was suspended.
It is self-serving of me to suggest that the
demise of my section, and my critical columns, at the Post, was
a loss to the city, but I do firmly believe that it is not healthy
for a major city such as New York to have only one regular architecture
critic in the popular press. Not only is competition important
for motivating everyone to higher standards, but it is also necessary
to help nurture a diversity of opinion and to encourage a more
responsible press, which is vital to democracy.
The Times is now a better written paper, but
it no longer is the "bible," the indispensable and comprehensive
font of information for the public. Of course, the explosion of
new fields of knowledge and professions has made such a newspaper
probably impossible, not only to produce, but also to digest.
However, no editor at The Times assumed, even in the pre-Rosenthal
halcyon days, that everyone read, or should read, all 1.5 million
words in the daily paper. That was the purpose of headlines, to
simplify the sorting process of readers. And while most readers
were probably not aware of the arcane hierarchy of the headlines
there was a very definite value system attached to the size of
a headline and its placement in the paper.
Under Rosenthal, and Louis Silverstein, his
anointed art director, the number of different headlines was greatly
reduced and their size and placement began to lose their informational
relevance and relationship to the importance of the story. The
Times, which had never been known as a writer's paper, shifted
from being an editor's paper to being an art director's paper.
The trend began in the Sunday Travel, Arts & Leisure, Business
and Real Estate sections, but eventually extended to much of the
paper after the Front Page. The prominently displayed stories
on the front of the sections were not necessarily the most important
editorially, but those which had the best graphics.
The paper changed from an elitist viewpoint
to which readers would accommodate themselves to a marketing-driven
perspective in which slow and unsophisticated readers would be
accommodated by large type and pictures. The old grey horse of
The Times gave way to a breezy, jazzy jogger that covered less
All these dramatic and important changes did
not occur in a vacuum, of course, and were largely motivated by
the growing impact of television, the then new "soft"
journalism, that emphasized and promoted personal opinions and
derided the notion of objectivity, initiated by Tom Wolfe, Jimmy
Breslin and Clay Felker at the Herald Tribune and its short-lived
successor, Widget, as the World Journal Tribune was affectionately
known in the trade, and the natural, though not always legitimate,
desires of a new administration to put their imprimatur on their
American journalism has not yet fully adjusted
to the impact of television. The immediacy of its coverage of
a breaking news event cannot be watered down by less than competent
correspondents. Newspaper editors realized, relatively quickly,
that their readers had already viewed the main story or stories
before they looked at their newspapers. As a result, they tended
to apply the "second-day" approach on the first day,
that is, the stories began to be filled with a lot more reaction
than action. Many of the stories in The Times sports section read
more like feature stories than news stories and who won the game
or match was buried low-down. A magazine mentality began to dominate.
Until the success of CNN's coverage of the
Gulf War in 1990, television news remained essentially a tabloid
headline service with the exception of the Sunday morning news
programs and occasional prime-time news specials and coverage
of national political conventions. While a proliferation of cable
television channels devoted to specialized topics, like the legal
system, entertainment, sports, the environment and entertainment,
is likely to go far to remedy the paucity of quality news coverage
on television, it is unlikely to replace the need for the print
While some viewers may sit still and wade through
sports and weather segments to get to a particular news feature
or report, it is an excruciating waste of time in an ever-more
fascinating and demanding world. Once one is offered and enjoys
convenience its absence is infuriating.
Television's novelty has taken a long time
to wear off. It remains highly addictive. But eventually it will
subside, but not go away, of course. Newspapers and magazines
and trade journals can and must fill the gap for the discerning
and concerned consumer. But magazines and trade journals are beset
by the disadvantage of time: newspapers can beat them to the punch.
Therefore, magazines and trade journals can only hope to survive
by offering relatively definitive and full analyses and reports
that newspapers, constrained by their size and deadlines, cannot
The problem is that newspapers now emulate
magazines too much to the neglect of basic coverage. The business
pages of The Times are littered with one-paragraph stories that
are more frustrating than tantalizing in their lack of context
or details. And there is no longer any meaningful reason for newspapers
to run the interminable stock listings as all people interested
in them have access to instant quotes from a variety of sources.
Change is inevitable, both in journalism and
in cities. My indulgence in these journalistic asides is to emphasize
the importance of always striving for higher standards and to
explain as best and openly as possible my biases so that readers
can balance them with their own.
Real estate is very big business and the infrequent
publication schedule and limited distribution of trade publications
mitigate against their effectiveness in timely public debates
that can influence major planning decisions on specific projects.
It can be argued that the failure or inability
of the major daily newspapers in New York, and elsewhere, to adequately
cover many local urban planning stories has led to the emergence
of many much smaller weekly papers that concentrate on specific
neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side or Battery Park City.
There is no doubt that these publications serve a very useful
and importance purpose, but unfortunately it is perhaps too idealistic
to assume that their interests and viewpoints are going to veer
far from the parochial with the consequence that the perspectives
they tend to foster will not always be citywide or regional, to
say nothing of always being the most erudite and experienced.
Can we leave planning to the locals or to the
Can we expect politicians who are entitled
to seek re-election to always make the most rational, economic
and aesthetic decisions?
Can we expect great architects never to make
egregious mistakes or wonderful critics to always be right?
Can we call something ugly and expect its owners
and users to love us?
Can we let future generations work out problems?
Can we make a city work?
These are questions that I, presumptuously
but hopefully constructively, will try to answer in this book.
This book is a combination guide book and a how-to book. It confronts
real-politic but is also utopian. It consists of a lot of personal
opinions, but they are grounded in a great deal of exposure and
a great deal of anger. The city has gone awry and is almost out
of control. It will, of course, survive me. But I am compelled
to write it not so much out of conviction that my personal opinions
are important, but that there are commonalities of appreciation
and wisdom and judgment upon which seasoned, experienced artisans
and perhaps artists might generally agree. Without such an understanding,
I would not be so brazen as to hurl hosannas and hellfire.
There is a great temptation among creative
people to believe in the inherent rightness, purity and instinct
of the first impression. But in complex subjects, such as architecture,
those first impressions are often not sufficient for a fair assessment
of a project's worth.
However, I have found that such impressions
when tempered by public discourse are more durable. Often, as
a reporter I had trouble, seated before my typewriter, and then
wordprocessor, coming up with the "right" lead for a
story. Almost invariably, the lead came forth when I got up from
my seat and started to talk to someone about the story. Sometimes
just hearing oneself talk made a great difference. It is not sufficient
to say I like or I don't like a specific plan or object. I should
explain why and, as a critic, I should suggest alternative designs
or solutions. Surely, no one will agree with all of my pronouncements,
but hopefully they will stimulate reflection and action.
While this book is focused on the physical
aspects of a city, it cannot, of course, totally ignore very important
non-physical considerations. Who uses the city? Who needs the
city? Who wants the city? How can we shelter the homeless? How
can we finance improvements? How can we try to fairly distribute
public benefits to all sectors of the community?
It is beyond the scope of this book to seek
solutions to ending the problems of the homeless, the ill-housed,
the ill-fed, the unpampered, the undereducated, the underprivileged,
the unstable, the unsure, the insecure, the uncounted and the
unaccountable, the uncommunicative, the unreachable.
These are questions of political, charitable
and economic will. They are paramount. Without progress in coping
with such issues all structures are doomed to dust, ruin and abandonment.
When survival is in peril, all else be damned. Yet caution and
prudence dictate that the threshold of survival must include some
betterment, a tipping of the scales of stability towards progress.
Progress may not infer the perpetual building
of more and bigger buildings. It may mean, in some instances,
the demolition of existing structures and, in others, the rehabilitation
of others. But it does call for efforts to improve the circumstances
of life, for ourselves and for others, or at the very least not
at the unreasonable expense of others.
New York City is not utopia and given its spectacular
history of accommodation, adjustment, and aspiration, it never
will be. To paraphrase a popular song lyric, if you can make part
of it here, then there is hope for everywhere.
The demographics of the city have changed dramatically
this century and are continuing to change. Whites are no longer
a majority. Traditional minority groupings are being fragmented.
There is no question that the city is an incredible mosaic of
races, classes, and types. Multi-culturalism, the hip "ism"
of the early 90's, is a mixed blessing. It nurtures respect for
many different viewpoints and heritages. But it can also vitiate
them by imbuing them with equal status in a pluralistic society.
The workmanship and aesthetics of a grass hut is not less impressive
and valid than the flying buttresses of a Gothic Cathedral or
the glass curtain-wall of a skyscraper; a street peddler's makeshift
stand is just as legitimate as the marble columns of a couturier.
There are differences, often immense, and it is wrong to pretend
If multi-culturalism promotes and preserves
diversity and quality it is fine. If it also inspires new cultures
through cross-fertilization and experimentation, it is better.
It must not, however, result in reduction to common denominators
and banality. If the city is to be a melting pot, its spices should
be distinct, not bland, and its flavors must be strong, not weak.
Social and political assimilation must not negate cultural stimulation.
Despite my own protestations to be as critical
as possible, I believe the bottom line has to be tempered greatly
by reality. Many generally undistinguished projects may include
notable features or variations on an accepted style that merit
recognition and encouragement. It is easy to throw everything
out, but subtleties are rare and should be cherished even if surrounded
or encased in dreck.
Finally, except for the privileged, modern
life is rough. It's one thing to do without in a poor, rural village
hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. It's quite another
to be constantly bombarded in the media with images and tales
of the good, worse, the luxurious, life. One needs strength to
resist such fantasies and hope to achieve some of them.
This is a book basically about cities in general
and New York City specifically. But any discussion of urban problems
and potentials cannot ignore the suburbs and other competing venues
whether they are resorts or farms or wasteland. It is not idle
speculation to ponder how existing cities might be improved or
how new towns might be created, survive and thrive. It is no one's
responsibility but our own.
The best-laid plans of mice and men get screwed
up, inevitably. But those derailments and detours are not necessarily
unavoidable or always fatal. The notion that real estate historically
runs in cycles of boom and bust is easy to remember but not terribly
relevant nor infallible. There certainly are windows of opportunity
for fortunate developers and communities and there are also horrible
Too often, people have been aware of risks,
taken plunges and then insisted, often with surprising success,
on being bailed out and not suffering the consequences of the
accepted risks. And often such free lunches are provided mostly
to the big guys and not the poor sucker. American justice, sadly,
is pretty shoddy in much of its practice. Americans have coasted
for almost half a century as the unquestioned, unrivaled leaders
and rulers of the world. Their record, at the top of the global
totem pole, has been remarkably fine and often noble, but certainly
Now, as America's international dominance wanes,
other regions of the world are flexing their muscles. The "European
Community" poses an impressive threat to American monopoly
of many markets as does the taunting powers of Japan, South Korea,
Taiwan and Singapore. To a great extent, economic might rests
on the shoulders of low-cost labor and, should energetic and hopefully
fair leadership emerge in China, India, Africa and Latin and South
America and Russia the future holds a healthy supply of interesting
Major cities will survive if only because too
much wealth has been invested in them to permit them to die. From
time to time over the last two decades, some impassioned and very
frustrated urbanites have suggested that New York either declare
bankruptcy or secede.
The former never got very far because many
pension funds, both public and private, had been coaxed into buying
the city's bonds and therefore had a vested interest as creditors
in not letting the city off the financial hook, the main purpose
of which was to permit the city to restructure and renegotiate
many of its expensive contracts, especially with unions.
The latter never got very far because neither
the state nor the nation wanted to lose the tremendous amounts
of revenue generated from the city. They also, of course, did
not want to encourage chaos and Balkanization.
Unquestionably, Manhattan could become the
world's most successful city-state, like Singapore, overnight
by seceding from both the state and the nation. It is the quickest
and best solution, but one that is highly improbable because of
the severe pains it would inflict on the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn
_ Staten Island is actually in favor of seceding from the city.
To a great extent, secession makes wonderful
sense. New Yorkers have little in common with much of the rest
of the country that certainly has a fair bit of antipathy towards
the city anyway. The fate of the outer boroughs, of course, is
difficult. Queens could probably survive on its own, especially
if it aggressively developed Hunter's Point and Jamaica as major
commercial centers. Brooklyn would have many more problems and
the Bronx would be an even worse disaster.
The great planning mistake was the dismissal
of the urban renewal concept and the adoption of the notion that
all neighborhoods, even the most ravaged, abused and infested,
were not only equal but worthy. The Jane Jacobs of the world,
and there are many, made these eyesores and inured dens of iniquity
and impoverishment and innocence hallowed, sacrosanct grounds
in which ``people-pride" rose above the ashes in heroic,
but not always very rational, stances.
Clearly, the city would have an easier time
trying to secede in its present configuration rather than Manhattan
trying to splinter itself off from the other boroughs. And while
that would mean that the city would not become an overnight nirvana
it would still be significantly better off, assuming, of course,
that it recognized that it must declare economic war on its neighbors.
Such talk would have been considered not only
idle but stupid before the recent events in the Soviet Union,
which have dramatically brought home the fact that social contracts
are not inviolate.
Still, separatism is the stuff of which civil
wars are made. While I wholeheartedly propose and endorse New
York City`s secession from the state and the nation, I more optimistically
propose a variety of less severe measures in Part One of this
book as ways to significantly improve the city. Part One also
includes a basic primer on urban design.
Part Two is essentially a highly critical,
but not encyclopaedic guide book of the city's highlights. As
such, it can stand on its own for most tourists and New Yorkers
interested in the city's premier attractions and monuments.
Some other guides, such as the American Institute
of Architects' Guide to New York, document a much greater number
of properties, but often fail to offer much elaboration. A few
other popular guides are chuck full of anecdotes and a fair amount
of opinion, but limit themselves only to the top 100 or so prominent
properties. These and others are listed in the annotated bibliography
at the end of the book. In many cases, my observations are not
dissimilar from those expressed in some of the other leading guides.
But I would not have ventured to write this book if I did not
feel strongly that they were either inadequate or greatly off
the mark. In my discussion of individual properties, therefore,
I have tried to carefully review the literature and only make
extended comments when I have felt my opinions are at considerable
divergence with the "established" interpretations. While
each such description is self-contained, I have included footnotes
indicating extended and interesting material.
In the interests of keeping this book manageable
without sacrificing its potential benefit to readers as a reference,
I have opted for a compromise format that rules out its use as
a pocket guide but includes sufficient material and photographs
to be a solid reference book without being outlandish in size
or cost. These are unfortunate trade-offs. I have, however, organized
Part Two into sections that roughly correspond to areas easily
covered in a pleasant walk and suggest that newcomers to the city,
as well as those old-timers willing to renew their confrontations
with the city, study those sections of the book that cover the
areas of their next day's activities. In such a way, hopefully,
they will remember to keep their eyes alert to what is around
them and then make their own comparisons.
In his preface to his 1982 book, entitled "Lights
& Shadows of New York Life," James D. McCabe Jr. observed
of New York that:
"Its magnificence is remarkable, its squalor
appalling. Nowhere else in the New World are seen such lavish
displays of wealth, and such hideous depths of poverty....It is
richly worth studying by all classes, for it is totally different
from any other city in he world. It is always fresh, always new.
It is constantly changing, growing greater and more wonderful
in its powers and splendors, more worthy of admiration in its
higher and nobler life, more generous in its charities, and more
mysterious and appalling in its romance and its crimes. It is
indeed a wonderful city. Coming fresh from plainer and more practical
parts of the land, the visitor is plunged into the midst of so
much beauty, magnificence, gayety, mystery, and a thousand other
wonders, that is fairly bewildered."
One remains bewildered and hopefully still
bewitched. But one is also quite bothered that more has not been
cherished and that more progress has not been made.
The city still has tenements, which McCabe
bemoaned, and politics at least as complicated if not as corrupt
as those of those Boss Tweed days, but the city also has continued
to constantly change, its most endearing, frustrating and hopeful
personality trait. It can get worse, but it also can get much,
In his delightful and provocative book, "Delirious
New York, A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan," Rem Koolhaus,
the architect, observed that "Manhattan is the Twentieth
Century's Rosetta Stone."
"Not only are large parts of its surface
occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper),
utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the U. N. Building), and
irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall), but in addition
each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture
in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular
fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that
exists," Koolhaus continued.
Indeed, New York perhaps more than any other
city, almost exists more in the realm of imagination than in reality.
Its rawness stimulates. Its slums anger. Its high points of structure
and culture inspire. Its garret anonymity vicariously enraptures.
Its past conquers. Its future gaiety invites.
It should not survive as it is, but continue
to transform. Its reinvention will be costly and painful, but
it is possible to regain pride and preserve the best of what is
left and create a better urban environment, which, in the long
run, is the most important human environment.
Step lively, please.