The State of the City

Before 9/11 (photo by Carter B. Horsley)

Lower Manhattan June 2002

After 9/11 (photo by Michele Leight)


By Carter B. Horsley

The terrorist attacks on the United States that demolished the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and destroyed part of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., September 11, 2001 (see The City Review article) dramatically altered the famed New York skyline but not its gritty spirit, nor its resilience.

The remarkably quick reversal of the nation's economy in early 2001 certainly was already beginning to affect the city as Internet and Wall Street companies laid off workers, real estate values eased off their astronomic climb of recent years, and the "good times" began to pass. The impact of the attacks on the city was immense. Tourism was off significantly although it began to recover in late 2003. Stratospheric luxury residential real estate values eased for a while and Mayor Bloomberg enacted a huge property tax increase to try to balance a budget with huge deficits. By early 2005, however, the city's sidewalks were burgeoning with tourists and real estate values were at all-time highs. Indeed by mid-2007, just before the sub-prime mortgage crisis unfolded, real estate values shot up to astounding levels.

The financial crisis brought on in large part by the "sub-prime" mortgage market and lack of regulation of securitized mortgages brought an abrupt halt to the astronomic rise in the city's real estate values as mortgage lending stopped and values began to fall quite dramatically in the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. No one was predicting a rapid return to values and many projects were stopped or put on hold. Fortunately, enough new product had been created in the frenzy of the previous few years to significantly improve many neighborhoods. While some sanity was likely to eventually return to the lending markets the amount of family wealth wiped out in the crisis and the contraction of the extravagant and overpaid financial services industry in the city will significantly reduce the number of people who can afford new "luxury" housing. (3/13/09)

While New Yorkers are accustomed, if not inured, to physical change, the violent removal of the World Trade Center was too traumatic even for blasé and casual New Yorkers. The city, of course, will survive and while humbled its great citizens had much to be proud of in such dark hours.

Two weeks after the attacks the majority of stores on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side sported American flags in their store windows. Several thousand residents at Battery Park City still were unable to return to their homes. Unemployment was rising. The mayoral primaries, scheduled for the day of the attacks, were postponed but held almost two weeks later with Michael Bloomberg winning the Republican nomination and Bronx Borough President Ferrer and Mark Green getting enough votes in the Democratic battle between four candidates to enter a run-off that Mark Green narrowly won.

Mayor Giuliani, who was universally acclaimed for his fine, sensitive and distinguished leadership during the crisis, created a controversy when he proposed that he remain in office for three months after his term legally ends, but the legitimate controversy paled beside the tremendous logistics of trying to return the city to normalcy as the nation's economy sputtered. Mr. Giuliani also stirred a controversy when he criticized the second offical group of proposals to redevelop the World Trade Center site (see The City Review article)

Despite the tragic pall of gloom and citizens' understandably creepy feelings, the mood of the city was humane and resilient, although Mayor Bloomberg's enactment in the summer of 2002 of a ban on smoking in most public spaces made the city much less hospitable for those who enjoy smoking.

Mayor Bloomberg

Mayor Bloomberg at Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York in June, 2003

Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to get the 2012 Olympic Games hit a snag in early 2005 when Cablevision, the owner of Madison Square Garden, proposed paying $600 million to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the air-rights over the rail yards where the New York Jets hope to erect a new stadium. The MTA then decided to have open bidding for the land and the future of the controversial Jets Stadium, part of a grand scheme, known as the Hudson Yards, by the Bloomberg Administration to redevelop the Far West Midtown area, was in doubt. (2/18/05)

The plan was finally abandoned after State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver voted against it, arguing that it would not benefit Lower Manhattan, his district. The city then quickly came up with another stadium plan that involved a new stadium for the New York Mets that could be expanded to accommodate the Olympics. The city's selection for the Games, however, remained in doubt even a few days before the final selection was to be made in Singapore, July 6, 2005.

The city's plan for a stadium to replace Madison Square Garden was coupled with a very ambitious zoning plan that was enacted and is known as "Hudson Yards" and which will create a diagonal boulevard between 34th and 42nd Streets along which very large residential and commercial buildings will be allowed.

This major rezoning is coupled with the city's plans to expand the Javits Convention Center and extend the 7 subway line and redevelop the former General Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets into an improved train terminal and a new site for Madison Square Garden, whose site might be redeveloped with towers of perhaps 90-stories.

At the same time, the MTA is awaiting redevelopment plans for its huge yards south of the convention center.

All of these plans would radically transform a large, dreary section of midtown, but also have really major congestion impacts on an area already burdened with traffic from the Garment Center, the theater district and the Lincoln Tunnel. In addition, the enormous development plans may well compete with the revised plans (see The City Review article) to develop Ground Zero. (9/2/07)

The topsy-turvy history of the World Trade Center site redevelopment plan took another crazy turn when the city's security heads said that the proposed Freedom Center was too close to West Street and was therefore vulnerable to car and truck plans. In about a month, however, architect David Childs came up with a brand new plan for the tower that was not without controversy (see The City Review article).

The city had been on a terrific roll for several years and the national economy's volatility in late 2000 and early 2001 was beginning to impact the local economy, but still the city had never been more vibrant or spectacular.

More than a month after the terrorist attacks, the city streets were crowded and the normal bustle was returning. American flags lined Park Avenue and a huge one was wrapped about the bank building at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street and American Flag label pins were ubiquitous and T-shirt sales with patriotic and civic messages were certainly up. The city's economy however was hurting with restaurants and hotels reporting fewer visitors amid ever growing cost projections of rebuilding and rising unemployment and corporate move-outs.

Memorable memorial concerts were held and once again the Yankees were in the World Series and New York City won the gentle hearts of Americans everywhere.

On May 30, 2002, the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site came to a formal end with the very, very moving ceremony with no speeches that centered on the carrying away of a empty stretcher draped with an American flag as a symbolic gesture for the more than 1,700 bodies not found and followed by the last remaining beam of the World Trade Center draped in black on a 18-wheel truck. Controversy continued to swirl over what should be done with the site and a short-lived memorial in the form of twin towers of light beams was widely hailed but ended after few weeks. By the spring of 2002, the American flag was not quite as ubiquitous in the city as it had been, but there was no doubt that hearts and minds had changed a lot.

Eleven months after the attacks, plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center (see The City Review article) were in a shambles as widespread negative criticism greeted six schemes published by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. In December 2003, plans for the redevelopment of the center and the creation of a memorial were mired in controversy. In late 2004, plans were advancing and a federal court finally ruled that the attacks on the World Trade Center were two separate incidents, a decision that was likely to assure that the major tower of the planned reconstruction of the center would go forward.

A major blackout that lasted about a day disrupted routines in the city but passed without much frenzy - New Yorkers if anything were tougher and more resilient than ever in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Every year, almost every day, New York City changes and gets better.

Real estate cycles go and come but their legacies only continue to build a more dramatic and awesome urban environment. Not all new projects, of course, are brilliant and in the process of change too often good parts of the city's fabric get frayed, or lost, but in the aggregate the residue of progress just keeps mounting.

Indeed, evidence of the city's energy was visible by early 2005 in almost every Manhattan neighborhood. New construction and renovation projects added scores of new and surprisingly well-designed projects and plans were in motion for several huge projects.

Many of the new projects, more importantly, were a vast improvement in design over what the city had become accustomed to and suddenly many striking projects were being designed by famous architects such as Frank O. Gehry, Sir Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Herzog & De Meuron, and Jean Nouvel and numerous firms that were not well known such as Gsyzwinski Pons, SHoP Architects, and Lindy Roy. (9/2/07)

Despite the hype about glitches and terrorism, Y2K came and went with nary a hitch, and New York City topped its Millennium celebration with a "Subway Series" in which the New York Yankees defeated the New York Mets in the World Series.

The "turnover" into the Christian year 2000 was marked with major celebrations around the world, most of which were well televised and documented by ABC News, led by its superb anchor, Peter Jennings. New York City's famed Times Square event came rather late in the global festivities that began in the Pacific and headed west.

The televised, domino-fall celebrations were an important global event, almost on a par with the great Live-Aid concert in the early 1980s. While most people probably did not stay glued to their TV's for the observation of the calendar roll-over in 24 time zones for the entire day, it was a civilizing moment in history, even if the celebrations themselves were sometimes close to silly. Live-Aid was momentous for its trans-Atlantic broadcast of many of the brightest stars of the music industry performing in the cause of charity to a stupendously large world-wide audience. This New Year's/Century/s/Millennium's observance was special in its simple but dramatic illustration of globalization, the wonders and potential of technology and respect for different cultures and nationalities. While TV audiences come together at times of traumatic events, highlighting mankind's communality is highlighted, most other TV events of magnitude are less inspired and merely sporting. This international celebration, at least on ABC, was far from traumatic. Indeed, under Jennings' always sophisticated but gentle leadership, it was inspiring and a superb achievement.

The highlight was the spectacular Eiffel Tower festivities in Paris, followed by the quite stunning Washington Monument extravaganza in Washington, D.C.

For more than a generation, the French have espoused grands monuments and if not always in the vanguard of great design have been the leaders of public projects. The explosive Eiffel Tower fireworks were awesome, but no less impressive were the 11 Ferris Wheel-like structures erected for the occasion along the Champs Elysées.

It perhaps should not be surprising that the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument were such stellar settings: both are very tall structures isolated in large park-like environments that provide them with great visibility and drama.

According to Peter Jennings, England's celebration was designed to startle and dazzle the world, but unfortunately it followed Paris by an hour and paled in comparison. London had an impressive Ferris Wheel, some fifty stories or so in height, and its huge Millennium Dome, a work of gigantic scale and impressive engineering, but somewhat awkward aesthetics. The highlight of the London celebration was supposedly the setting on fire of a four-mile stretch of the Thames. Smoke from the fireworks, however, obscured the view as well as surprisingly bad TV camera work and direction and the event ended up being rather lackluster, especially for a nation so steeped in pageantry and tradition.

The coverage of simultaneous celebrations in many parts of Europe taxed the production. What could be more vexing than cutting away from the Pope at the Vatican and from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to stay focused on the incredible displays at the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, the producers came to their senses and Paris, deservedly, got the most coverage.

For New Yorkers, of course, the highlight should have been New York, but because of the anti-civilian, anti-pedestrian propensities of the terror-stricken Giuliani Administration, many people were turned away from Times Square after 8 PM and broad lanes were left open for emergency vehicles, the police and the press, taking away large amounts of precious street space for celebrants. The crowds were still fairly impressive and the fireworks from the top of the building that The New York Times sold and for which the former Longacre Square was renamed in honor of the newspaper that is now considering selling its sidestreet headquarters building and relocating, were alright. (The newspaper's coverage of the event, however, was fine, especially the lead story by the always fabulous Robert McFadden, one of journalism's most underrated stars and the newspaper's lead rewriteman for a generation.)

As uninspired as New York's celebration was, certainly in comparison with the great Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parades, perhaps because it was essentially a static event, Times Square certainly never looked better. The blaze of colored lights from the profusion of signs, many of which are very new, was the long-delayed vindication of the efforts of many groups and individuals to rejuvenate the famous "crossroads" after its precipitous decline that began several decades ago. Some observers felt that many of the official planners' decisions in rezoning and promoting this vital area were uninspired and prosaic and certainly during the day Times Square is a strange brew of not terribly exciting post-war buildings (with the exception of the blue-glass Bertlesmann Building designed for Ian Bruce Eichner by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) that overshadowed the great Paramount Building and the raped former terracotta-clad Times Tower that was eventually covered with white marble by Allied Chemical. Some still mourn the tragic loss of the fine Astor Hotel, which was replaced by the bulky, finned glass tower at One Astor Plaza at 44th Street.

Condé Nast, Times and Reuters Towers in Times Square

New Condé Nast tower, left, old Times Tower, center, and new Reuters tower, right in "new" Times Square, April, 2001

By night, however, the planners' insistence on abundant signage has proved to be brilliant. The pedestrian now is surrounded by canyon walls of rippling lights and while some of the signs are not terribly chic, the overall effect is very good and impressive.

Times Square hustler

A Warner Bros. hustler in Times Square

Just a couple of years ago, there was some concern that the area would become Disneyfied and bland. Those fears have largely subsided in large part to the funny bronze sculpture of a Times Square hustler shopping his coat full of watches outside the Warner Bros. Store diagonally across from the Disney store at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, the great large model of the sensational Concorde plane above an attractive, glass-enclosed brewery on the south side of 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, the very well-done new fence in the middle of the street divider between 45th and 46th Streets, and the very large undulating ribbons of lights for ABC-TV one block to the south.

While the great Times Square "spectaculars" created by Douglas Leigh, who passed away shortly before the end of 1999, and others, will forever be missed, the new Times Square is finally beginning to be fabulous. Mayor Giuliani's attempt to squash the civil liberties of sex-related entrepreneurs in the area has been largely successful despite its highly questionable legality, but credit for the area's "clean-up" more properly should go to the Times Square Business Improvement District that took many clues from the excellent leadership of the Grand Central Business Improvement District under Daniel Biderman who was removed at the mayor's insistence, perhaps because of his success.

Times Square may not be squeaky-clean, or Tweety-clean, but it is bustling as never before with tourists and surburban theatergoers and, just as importantly, office workers. Most of the sex-related emporiums have been closed or now are far less offensive than most newsstands.

The controversial plan of Park Tower Realty and the Prudential Insurance Company to develop a Rockefeller Center-like complex of related office towers at the south end of Times Square fell afoul of the city's anti-development forces and difficult economic times. The tortured plan went though various revisions, some of which were quite exciting and impressive, but finally succumbed to the pressures of a city that has difficulty coping with the notion of good, let alone, great design despite its pre-1960's architectural heritage.

While the Millennium celebration in the city proved the banality of the Giuliani Administration, it really was a grand inaugural for the "new" Times Square, which may well change from being the city's agonized stomach to its pumping heart.

New Times Square

The new Times Square

Of course, the Giuliani Adminstration deserves some credit for this remarkable renaissance, whose incubation was so painful and "birth" so quick. Obviously, it did not occur overnight, but in recent months the completion of the Condé Nast tower, designed nicely by Fox & Fowle for the Durst Organization, and the topping out of the Reuters Tower on the east and west sides of the avenues flanking the former Times Tower on the north side of 42nd Street, coupled with the unveiling of the new ABC studio facilities that joined those nearby of MTV, and the construction of a new tower on 47th Street and Broadway, bought a new sense of enclosure to Times Square. The tremendous amount of investment in the area and the public perception that it is not only safe, but fun reflect that the Guiliani Administration is doing some things right.

At the start of the year 2000, major construction was once again in the air: The Fisher Brothers and Sheldon Solow were reported by The New York Post and The New York Times to have been selected to redevelop a very large and important multi-block south along the East River just to the south of the United Nations complex; Larry Silverstein, who is building more than 900 apartment on West 42nd Street, decided to relinquish to the city a site north of the Javits Convention Center for its expansion; a major underdeveloped site on West 57th Street close to the Hudson River is being studied for development; the city and state were reported by The New York Times to have finally agreed upon a plan for Governors Island that will include some private redevelopment of historic properties, some facilities for educational institutions and some for cultural institutions.

Perhaps more importantly, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art proposed a gigantic new mixed-used project including museum facilities and broad waterfront promenades designed by Frank Gehry for the East River waterfront south of the South Street Seaport. (See The City Review article.) The fall-off in travel and tourism, however, severely impacted many of the city's cultural institutions after the terrorist attack, including the Guggenheim and it eventually abandoned its plan for the new waterfront museum.

The fact that everything went smoothly, of course, was a great way to start the last year of the second "millennium," and for that New York and the Giuliani Administration should be proud.

If the 90's started out pretty cruelly for New York City, the "Millennium" has begun with a roar and considerably brightened prospects, and projects. One of the most spectacular is the new planetarium, shown below, given by the Rose family, leading developers in the city, the American Museum of Natural History.

The new Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History

Another is the LVMH Tower designed by Christian Portzamparc on the north side of 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, a bold building of angles and unusual colors, shown below.

Top of new LVMH tower on 57th Street seen

Indeed, euphoria was already in the air at the beginning of 1998, the centennial of the consolidation of the five "boroughs" into New York City, a sweet smell for those with no memories. The centennial of "Greater New York," however, passed without too much brouhaha as the city seemed more focused on the Millenium party mood. Unlike London, however, it was not building any grand public works, but its rebounded economy began in 1999 to revive interest in some very important, long delayed projects such as the Second Avenue subway (see The City Review article) and a new transportation link to its airports. Unfortunately, the officials proposals are minimal, but, happily, that fact has aroused some controversy.

A sharp dive at the end of the summer in 1998 had send chills up the backs of many investment bankers, real estate brokers, restauranteurs and art dealers. The market's quick and strong recovery that fall, however, calmed most nerves, even of those who endured the 1987 crash that severely impacted the city's economy. There was no denying that the city's fundamentals and spirits were in much better shape than at the beginning of the decade and that the city has never been more attractive to non-New Yorkers.

"Good news" seems everywhere.  Crime is down.  Construction is once again going up.  Tourists are everywhere.  

The many other positive signs include:

Despite press reports late in 1998 that theme restaurant chains might be losing some of their luster, those in the city appeared to be faring very well for the most part. The "Deuce" - West 42nd Street - showed tangible and exciting, indeed, almost unbelievable, signs of a renaissance, culminating in the unveiling April 3, 1997, of Disney's superb restoration, with a good bit of public monies, of the New Amsterdam Theater, which reopened in November, 1997, and the literal moving down the block in March, 1998, of the former Etinge theater to make way for a new entertainment complex on its former site. Despite the collapse of some scaffolding, the Durst Organization quickly moved ahead with its major new skyscraper, 4 Times Square, on the northeast corner at Broadway and Reuters is planning to occupy another new tower on the northwest corner at Seventh Avenue and Ernst & Young announced it would occupy yet another tower on the southwest corner at the same intersection.  

The renaissance of Times Square is not likely to slow soon, as the city announced a plan December 29, 1998 that would substantially increase the value of the transfer of air-rights over many theaters in the area and produce perhaps as much as $20 million for the Broadway Initiative, a funding consortium for the production of "straight" plays and small musicals on Broadway.  The plan would permit 25 theaters to transfer their unused "air rights" anywhere between 40th and 57th Streets and the Avenue of the Americas and Eighth Avenue in return for promising to operate their properties as theaters and paying $10 a square foot to the Initiative from such "air rights" sales.  For decades the city has staunchly resisted the creation of an air rights transfer bank and this plan is a major step in the right direction.

The "old" 42nd Street

The new Times Square is crazily new and bustling as 31 million tourists flocked to the city in 1996, an all-time high.  With Tweety ensconced in a new Warner Bros. Studio Store in the former Times Tower at the foot of Times Square there is little concern that the area's transformation is too squeaky clean.  The area is certainly not sterile, even if the sex emporiums came under severe zoning pressure to move, if not disappear.  The owners of sex shops were unsuccessful in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to review their appeal of the city's stringent, new zoning regulations against them and the city immediately started closing many of them, a victory for the "righteous," but a loss for civil liberties.

The Coliseum project became a phoenix and once again tempted developers and taunted planners.  In late July, 1998, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority selected the Related Companies and Apollo Real Estate Advisers to build a scaled-down, slightly modified version of the last plan by the same architects , Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, for Mortimer J. Zuckerman. The project, whose steel skeleton began to sprout in late 2001, will include a new corporate headquarters for Time Warner, a hotel, apartments, television studios and a concert hall for Jazz at Lincoln Center (see The City Review story).

A September, 1997 Gallup Poll indicated that a majority of Americans wanted to live in New York City and the November 24, 1997 issue of Fortune Magazine ranked New York first as desirable cities in which to live in the United States, an incredible turnaround in attitudes.

The city not only may take over Governor's Island from the Federal Governor, (See The City Review story), but also considering casino gambling there a la Monte Carlo, but in January, 2000, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki agreed to a mixed-used scheme that precluded casinos. Although a casino plan, which would regain the enormous revenues lost to Atlantic City, did not pick up momentum, in January, 1998, the first gambling cruise ship, the Edinburgh Castle, began operations from West 55th Street. (See The City Review story).

Crime was down, 9.1 percent in 1997, and murders fell to their lowest level since 1967.  A November, 1997 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that 149 cities in the country had worse crime rates and that New York's rate fell 9 percent in the first half of the year, more than double the national rate of decline. (Atlanta had the nation's highest crime rate, followed by Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and Miami, Florida.)

Some major companies and financial concerns decided to stay in the city.

The long-overdue reconstruction of the Long Island Rail Road Station at Penn Station was completed and, remarkably, turned out pretty darn well, especially its new entrance on 34th Street.  In March, 1998, plans were announced for the reconstruction of the General Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Street into a facility that will incorporate a "new" Penn Station.  While almost anything will be an improvement, the G.P.O. Building is a massive, cumbersome Beaux Arts structure with many columns but not much distinction and certainly not in the same league as the forever to be lamented former Penn Station.

Meanwhile, the restoration of Grand Central Terminal was completed in October, 1998, (see The City Review article) to wide and justified acclaim at a small fraction of the cost of a new baseball stadium for the New York Yankees contemplated for the West Side by Mayor Giuliani.

(Much less important but symbolically interesting is the fact that Bridgemarket, the proposed Piranesian "food court" beneath the Manhattan approach to the Queensborough Bridge finally began construction in late 1997, two decades after it was proposed by another developer, Harley Baldwin, under the new aegis of Terence Conran, the entrepreneur who for many years had a big store at Citicorp Center.  Not surprisingly, however, in the spring of 1998, Conran sued the city for leasing out part of the space to the Food Emporium, a supermarket that he felt was not up to his standards, and the project was again delayed, but opened at the end of 1999.)

More subway stations were renovated, often very attractively, and, most impressively and incredibly, New Yorkers took to the new Metrocard with nary a hitch.

New street fixtures such as lamp posts sprung up in a few sections of Manhattan and were reasonably handsome and largely the results of the efforts of business improvement districts, organizations that Mayor Giuliani decided in the spring of 1998 to try to exercise control over despite their fine record of achievement in the face of a vacuum of public planning. Indeed, in late July, 1998, the Giuliani Administration moved controversially to seize the assets of the Grand Central Business Improvement District's, probably the city's most important and successful, in a move that seemed to ignore its very impressive accomplishments, under the very fine leadership of Daniel Biederman, that a few people apparently thought might be considered an embarrassment to the city's administration. Incredibly, the Mayor forced the resignation of Mr. Biederman and subsequently continued his campaign to undercut the importance of these very successful and important civic organizations.

The Museum of Modern Art revealed plans for yet another major expansion and selected Yoshio Taniguchi as its architect.  (See The City Review's analysis of the museum's plan.)

Donald Trump rebuilt the former Gulf & Western Building on Columbus Circle into a glossy, bronze-glass hotel and apartment tower and turned his eye on a Central Park South dowager, the St. Moritz Hotel, whose Art Deco style he said he did not plan to eradicate, but before the deal was closed the Don was trumped by hotelier Ian Schrager who grabbed up the attractive and undervalued property. The Don, however, undeterred as always, soon announced plans for the world's tallest residential tower on First Avenue close to the United Nations (see The City Review article). The "as-of-right" plan, which involved the transfer of air rights from adjacent properties, quickly brought a lot of local protests that it would be inappropriate for the site, across the avenue from the United Nations complex. Indeed, it is not clear at all how his plan does not violate the prohibition against buildings taller than the great Secretariat Building, a prohibition that led the United Nations Hotel and the United Nations Plaza apartments to curtail their heights, but civic watchdogs have been rather quiescent in recent years, and Trump won in the first round of lawsuits against the project.

Some progress was finally made in the fall of 1997 in the effort to improve public transportation to the city's airports.  Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. Pataki agreed on a scaled-down connection between a train station in Jamaica, Queens, and the Kennedy International Airport.  The $1.5-billion , 10-station project covers about 8.4 miles and is a quarter of the the cost of a proposed, and desperately needed, 22-mile rail link between Manhattan, Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said the scaled-down rail link could be completed by 2002, however, the project is not without transfers, more possible controversy and a tremendous amount of irresponsible short-sightedness on the part of elected officials.  The planned rail link will connect the Kennedy airport with the Howard Beach and Jamaica subway stations and the Long Island Rail Road station in Jamaica and will have a loop system connecting terminals at the airport.  Such a plan, obviously, is inadequate because of the difficult transfers.

The city rezoned parts of the commercial district in Lower Manhattan to permit the conversion of some older office buildings into apartment buildings to promote more diversity in the area and help bail out some distressed owners and by the end of 1998 more than 3,000 apartments will have been created in just a few years. New residential towers were announced for Battery Park City.  One of the most impressive signs of downtown's renaissance was purchase in late September, 1997, of the landmark, 7-story building at 55 Wall Street by a group including the Cipriani restaurant family with plans to convert it into a 160-room luxury hotel. The new owners, who paid $27 million for the low-rise, 155-year-old building, plan to preserve its spectacular and glorious, 70-ft.-high, former banking hall, shown at the left, in a project that may well become the classiest of all hotels in the city.  The Cipriani family owns Harry's Bar in Venice and some restaurants in New York and was joined in the acquisition by Sidney Kummel, an apparel entrepreneur, and T. Richard Butera, who owns the landmark Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo.  The building was originally domed and only three stories tall and was designed by Isaiah Rogers as a Merchants' Exchange, in 1836.  In 1863, it was converted to a U.S. Custom House, and the remodelling was designed by William A. Potter.  In 1907, it was expanded to its present size in a design by McKim, Mead & White.  Citibank eventually took over the building and in 1981 installed a very dramatic red lacquer wedge, designed by The Walker Group, in the great hall that was very dramatic but low enough not to interfere with the sumptuous interior decoration. In October, 1998, the Ciprianis were reported to be taking over the great former banking hall of the former Bowery Savings Bank at 110 East 42nd Street for conversion to a catering hall across from just renovated Grand Central Terminal. It won't be long before the Ciprianis are more famous for their spectacular restaurants here rather than in Rome and for being great preservationists. 

Silicon Alley came into being in Lower Manhattan, a possible harbinger that the city might still be able to attract some business enterprises and by the fall of 1997 New York led the nation in the number of Internet "domains," according to the Taub Urban Research Center of New York University.

The explosion of interest in the Internet obviously bodes well for the communications capital of the world.

Of course, the collapse of the dot.com euphoria in the stock markets and the subsequent failure of many such enterprises in late 2000 and early 2001 cast a somber cloud over Silicon Alley, but some observers feel that while many such enterprises were going by the wayside now the Internet still has a potent future.

Mayor Guiliani's campaign to address "quality-of-life" issues struck a resonant chord initially although his subsequent anti-jay-walking efforts and the harrassment of artists outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in February, 1998, have seriously questioned the wisdom of our "city fathers" and their rather authoritarian and anti-pedestrian vision of New York. In addition to alienating most pedestians, Mayor Giuliani alienated most people who love a great parade with his adminstration's heavy-handed regulation of the legendary Halloween Parade that starts in Greenwich Village. The mayor's heavy-handed ways were also to be seen in his homeless-work initiatives in 1999 that also produced considerable controversy.

New restaurants continue to open.

Hotels are running at about 85 percent occupancy, a record.

The city would like to expand the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

The office vacancy rate in midtown fell below double digits for the first time in more than 12 years and rents are soaring.  (See The City Review story.) The loss of millions of square feet of office space in Lower Manhattan as a result of the terrorist attacks helped somewhat a market that had begun to deteriorate because of the declining economy, but coupled with corporate relocations spurred by the attack outside of the city and to midtown downtown's prospects were not bright for the short term and ambitious proposals to greatly improve transportation to downtown and possibly tunnel West Street along Battery Park City were being advanced after the terrorist attack but funding for such plans remained very unclear.

Several neighborhoods continue to be upgraded.  

Architect Robert Venturi's hokey and terrible, but approved, plan for a new Staten Island Ferry Terminal at the Battery with an enormously ugly and uninspired rooftop clock tower facing the bay and marring the skyline was canceled as a lack of funding required a downsized redesign. While a new design, not by Venturi, for the Manhattan terminal is rather bland, Staten Island came up with a stunning and wonderful design by Peter Eisenman for its ferry terminal, a mind-boggling development. (See The City Review story.) Eisenman's plan, not surprisingly, apparently got lost in the shuffle a bit later.

Apartment prices and rents have soared. Some very deluxe apartments now command prices in the eight digits, not counting the cents!

Central Park, shown below, has never looked better, nor been better kept, although the recent replacement of the Children's Zoo in it was terrible. (See The City Review story.)

Christie's, the auction house, signed a lease March 25, 1997, for new expanded quarters at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, an indication of  the planned revitalization of Rockefeller Center (see The City Review article) by its new owners, a partnership headed by Tishman Speyer Properties. The new owners, however, soon therefter sought permission from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to create larger retail windows on much of the center's frontage on Fifth Avenue and the commission, incredulously, gave them permission to do so, albeit with some compromises, giving in to "eye-level" marketing and ignoring architectural integrity.

While Sotheby's, which finally completed its renovation of its York Avenue facility in April, 2001, Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg forged ahead in its onslaught on Sotheby's and Christie's, both under dark legal clouds, by opening a new facility at 3 West 57th Street.

View of World Trade Center from SoHo

View from SoHo of World Trade Center

Although many art galleries exited SoHo for cheaper space in Chelsea, SoHo remains one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods.

And a March 12, 1997, New York Times poll declared that "New Yorkers are more upbeat about their city than they have been in nearly a decade, with their views of crime, the economy and the future, suggesting that many have discarded the grim self-image that gripped them just four years ago."

A rosy future, however, is not necessarily in the cards. Race relations were not helped by the failure of a jury in Albany in early 2000 to convict four New York City police officers in firing 41 shots at an unarmed civilian in his own building and by Mayor Giuliani's comments that seemed to express more sympathy for the police than the victim, a rather incredulous and insensitive attitude, but not one surprising from a mayor known more for his nastiness than his sophistication.

The many negative signs include:

The corporate exodus and downsizing continues: Merrill Lynch announced major layoffs in the wake of the 1998 decline in the stock markets and Cunard, one of the great names in oceanliner history, said it would relocate to Miami.  In the fall of 1999, Chase revealed it might be relocating a few thousand jobs out of the city and the very tight commercial real estate market led to dramatic rent increases and a shortage of large blocks of space with the result that interest renewed in the Jersey City waterfront for relocation. Another old New York company, the Wiley publishing house, also indicated it might relocate. Downtown, increased demand and rents may slow down the pace of residential conversions of some older office buildings.  The 522,000-sq. ft. office building at 10 Hanover Square, for example, had been scheduled for such a conversion until recently when Goldman Sachs signed a lease for the entire building.

Even more shocking was a paragraph item in the Sept. 29, 1997, issue of Crain's New York Business that "Lever House will soon be without Lever Brothers" as Unilever, the parent company, announced it will move out of the world famous modern building (see The City Review article) at 390 Park Avenue and "likely leave Manhattan for facilities in the surrounding metropolitan area before the end of 1998."  The article indicated that its corporate headquarters may remain at the green-glass tower, but that 600 workers at Lever Brothers might be affected. In the October 27, 1998 edition of The New York Post, Peter Slatin reported that Aby Rosen's RFR Holdings had gained control of the famous office building's leasehold and was negotiating a 99-year extension of the ground lease with Sarah Korein. Slatin wrote that Rosen was considering adding to the building, which has about 240,000 square feet of development rights. Rosen was quoted in the article as saying he would spend "only about $7 million to fix the bulding's leaky windowed curtain wall, almost half of which has been refurbished by the building's sole tenant, Unilever." Slatin added that "the soap giant also has agreed to remain in the top four floors of the building, the rest of which is vacant."

The tax burden on city residents and companies still remains uncompetitively high.

The city is planning to present its City Council with a major revision of Manhattan zoning that will seriously impact the development of tall buildings, an overreaction to Donald Trump's snookering, however brilliantly accomplished by legal manuevering, of the city's rules for his ultra-tall tower near the United Nations that insults the United Nations by not conforming to the tradition that surrounding buildings should be lower.

Unemployment in the city remains at one of the highest rates in the nation, falling from a peak of 10 percent in June to 8.7 percent in November, 1997, its lowest rate in a year. Following the terrorist attacks, the city lost tens of thousands of jobs.

The major proposals of the recently announced Third Plan of the Regional Plan Association barely received lip service from major political leaders and editorial page writers.

The city lost most of Ellis Island to New Jersey.  (See  The City Review story.)

The general public malaise with Washington is fueling attempts to transfer power and responsibilities from the Federal to state governments despite the fact that Federal agencies generally have higher standards and competence than their state counterparts. Furthermore, New York's governor does not hail from the city.

The city continues to fail to offer a planning and construction environment capable of encouraging and permitting exciting design and as a result the city festers while the rest of the country and the world witness spectacular new projects.  Even the architecture critic of The New York Times, Herbert Muschamps, bemoaned, in a January 8, 1998, column, that "the city is in deep trouble":  "Despite the oratory emanating from the Giuliani administration about the value of culture, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs has been asked to accept an 11 percent cut in funds for the coming fiscal year.  Ditto the Department of Parks.  As for the Department of City Planning, an agency that once exercised enlightened stewardship over the public realm, well, as, Tennessee Williams used to say, 'Baby, don't let me commence.'"

A perfect example of the city's planning deficit was the Guiliani Administration's Christmas 1997 imposition of pedestrian no-walk zones in midtown, such as that shown above on Madison Avenue and 50th Street, that placed a higher value of cars than people!    The situation worsened in February, March and April, 1998, with the arrests of many artists who sold their "art" outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in April, 1998 posted a sign near its admissison counter saying that it supported free speech but also needed visitors to pay admissions and not heed the pleas of some of the protesting artists to reduce the amount of their "voluntary contribution" as a means of supporting their cause.  The sign was removed after a while and the many arrests of the leader of the artists' protest were subsequently dismissed. The almost daily arrests were made by the Parks Department, which should be concerned with more serious matters than suppression of artistic license, especially at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority made some progress on the controversial future of its Coliseum convention facility on Columbus Circle and after much delay selected a winning bid from the 9 recently submitted proposals that were not at all exciting. The winning bid is a recycling with minor adjustments of the previous plan by Mortimer Zuckerman for the site. (See The City Review story.)

Plans to reconstruct Penn Station by expanding it into a rebuilt Grand Central Post Office building on the other side of Eighth Avenue were scaled back somewhat and revised, again, although financing plans for the mammoth and much needed project advanced, albeit without much architectural review.  In March 1998, the Postal Service finally agreed to parts of the plan, hopefully indicating that the project will advance more quickly after long delays.

The Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome persists, thwarting virtually all good design and most new projects as civic pride continues to be replaced and overshadowed by neighborhood intransigence, if not ignorance and incompetence.

Public pay toilets remained a backwater and a sad commentary on the city's legendary bureaucratic morass.

George Steinbrenner continued to talk, ruining a noble New York Yankee baseball heritage and insulting all fans with an arrogance unmatched since Boss Tweed.  Mayor Giuliani apparently was a devout listener, suggesting in April, 1998, that the city fund a major new stadium over rail yards south of the Javits Convention Center by not fully reducing its commercial rent occupancy tax as planned.  Such a proposal would embarass Boss Tweed as much as it would enrich and delight Steinbrenner and should surely force every resident of The Bronx to never vote for Mayor Giuliani for anything.   The Mets, meanwhile, unveiled soon thereafter impressive plans to build an Ebbets Field-like baseball park with a retractable roof on a parking lot next to Shea Stadium.  There is nothing wrong with Shea or Yankee Stadium and there is absolutely no reason to build new stadiums for these teams, especially the Yankees. During the summer of 1998, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer presented an excellent proposal to improve the area around the famous Bronx stadium and connect it to a redevelopment riverfront. (See The City Review article.) The Yankees, meanwhile, had a spectacular season and won the World Series in a sweep.

Apartment prices and rents climbed ever more dramatically and astronomically (see The City Review article).

New York University demolished the Palladium theater and nightclub at 126 West 14th Street west of Third Avenue, the former Academy of Music theater, and one of the Manhattan's last movie palaces.  As designed by Arata Isozaki, the great Japanese architect, the Palladium quickly became the most spectacular disco in the city and it is demolition is outrageous as its interior is an international landmark and its neighborhood history is significant and there is plenty of other development sites in the immediate  vicinity, including a large parking lot across the street!  The university plans a 1,000-bed dormitory on the Palladium site and is already constructing another dormitory just to the west of it on the former site of Luchow's, the legendary German restaurant.

According to a Dec. 19, 1997 article by Peter Grant in The Daily News the number of employed construction workers in the city climbed from 83,100 in 1992 to 94,300 in 1997, but "still way below the 121,800 figure set in 1988."

While Mayor Guiliani's interest in "quality of life" issues had some beneficial effects, many of his policies were not popular, especially his unsuccessful attempt to censor the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the fall of 1999 for a controversial art show (see The City Review article).

Nonetheless, progress is progress and New York is certainly in better shape than it has been in almost a decade. This period, however, has been fraught with catastrophe for many individuals and concerns and has been one of the longest depressions ever experienced by the city and its scars will linger for decades.

A city's health can be measured in many ways.

The amount of new office construction, for example, is a good indication of a city's momentum and economic prospects as it reflects not only developers' ambitions, but also lending institutions' analyses of future demand for office space and therefore jobs.

Similarly, new "luxury" apartment construction indicates at least part of the population is upwardly mobile and capable, somehow, of paying higher rents. New one-bedroom apartments in converted office buildings near the South Sea Street Seaport are being offered at around $2,000 a month and new studio apartments around TriBeCa, on the other side of the island were being offered at $1,950 and up in the fall of 1998!

New York City is still beset by a host of staggering problems that are not likely to be solved quickly: a very high cost of doing business; economic warfare not only with the region, but also with the rest of the nation and the world; an enormous, but aged and aching infrastructure; noble traditions; a frightening education system; outrageous and extensive slums; far too much visual blight; a very diverse, but not broadly wealthy population; a tangled government; onerous and not always equitable taxes; and great confusion and hysteria over public policies of fair distribution of difficult land uses, historic preservation and economic development.

Sadly, such a litany could have been written at almost any time over the past few decades.

Yet much is different and in many ways the city is far better than it used to be even in its glory days before the Brooklyn Dodgers and much of the city's middle class fled.  (Of course, if the city could get the Dodgers back, that would be a definite something!)

The city has two balance sheets to tally: one is human resources and the other is its man-made and natural environments.

Of  the former, the obvious demographic changes in the city have tipped wildly: hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of white middle-class residents have fled since World War II and have been replaced by a far more diverse group of immigrants. Regardless of official census counts, however, the city's population probably has not declined significantly in recent decades. The city's population, however, is certainly down from its historic peaks and nowhere near what it can support in terms of infrastructure.

The great historic strength of the city, of course, has been the diversity and dynamics of its population mix. As the city of opportunity and the nation's major port of entry, New York has not only attracted both poor, but ambitious immigrants, but also the affluent. New York is the definitive hotbed of global multiculturalism. Never a pristine, homogeneous enclave, New York has always been an in-your-face, upfront, spicy potpourri of the best and worst in human society, an unforgettable reminder, constantly, of humanity's refinements and disasters.

A study released December 1, 1997, by the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University that was based upon an analysis of data gathered by the U.S. Census found that Hispanics have replaced blacks as the second largest racial/ethnic group in the five boroughs. "In 1996, there were 1.926 million Hispanics in New York City, an increase of more than 143,000 from the 1.783 million recorded in the 1990 U.S. Census. More than one out of ten New Yorkers is from Asia. While blacks also increased during this period, their total rose by less than 50,000, from 1.847 million to 1.894 million. During the same period whites declined by nearly 385,000 from 3.163 million to 2.780 million, while Asians rose from 490,000 to 630,000," the study maintained.  

By the year 2000, it continued, "approximately 37.5% of the city's population will be foreign-born, a percentage that rivals the high point of immigration for New York City in 1910, when 40% of the city's population was foreign-born."

The data show that the number of foreign-born persons in New York City has risen dramatically since 1980, when 23.4%, or 1.7 million, were immigrants. By 1996, that number had grown to more than 2.4 million, or 33.9% of the city's population. the study found.

Corporate relocations and downsizings as well as the evaporation of urban manufacturing activities have severely narrowed economic opportunities and further exacerbated the exigencies of survival in an already costly environment. The erosion of its economic base is coupled with changing public policies about the role of Federal and state governments that increasingly offer less support to cities that no longer shelter the majority of the population or even the bulk of commercial development.

The man-made environment, on the other and, has, nevertheless, burgeoned dramatically. Physically, Manhattan has grown a lot taller and many areas have been significantly upgraded: SoHo; Battery Park City and the spectacular Wintergarden at The World Financial Center, shown at the left, adjacent to its bomb-surviving neighbor, the World Trade Center, shown below; the clunky but funky new Times Square; the rejuvenated 57th Street corridor; the spunky spankiness of the new Third Avenue and the new Water Street; and dozens of pretty interesting, if not great, new buildings, and scores more that have been handsomely restored.

Lots of mediocre or uninspired new structures have risen on sites formerly occupied by graceful, if not fine, buildings. The history of the city's development is strewn with many sad tales, but it has grown miraculously and mightily. Today's towering midtown, for example, used to be farms.

One could argue endlessly over the missed opportunities and mistakes in the city's growth and pine for lost Greek Revival, or Federal, or Beaux Arts swaths gobbled up by the city's voracious builders, plotters and planners.

The fact remains that the city has never been perfect, especially since the Civil War. More sobering is the realization of how much more needs to be done not only to keep it functioning but also to improve it.

World Trade CenterAesthetic quibbles aside, however, the city is more staggeringly impressive than ever. In the last quarter-century, the amount of office space in Manhattan has just about doubled and the skyline has not only gotten thicker but also has broadened itself widely.

Perhaps more importantly, the design quality of new construction has greatly improved after the post-World War II nadir and while the art of urban design has still not become a science it is more appreciated, which does not necessarily imply, of course, that past errors will not be repeated.

Graffiti has eased and subways are newer and cleaner and cooler and many stations have been dramatically redesigned and improved, although far more are in desperate need.

If one notes the double-decker buses run by some sightseeing companies and some new streetlamps fashioned after old styles one might think New York was really getting its act together.

All of New York City is not a boom town, but neither is it a ghost town.

Savvy and saucy, maniacal and menacing, ragged and raucous, dizzy and dazzling, insane and imperfect, New York is chaotic and anonymous, but it remains the international capital of the world and the quintessential city of dreams and dramas, of finance and fun.

It is still "a wonderful town."

Well, everything is up-to-date in Kansas City and San Diego and Charlotte and Dallas and some things seem to be getting better in New York: Donald Trump has got some financing and started construction, albeit with some flaws, for his riverfront project on the West Side, another major new riverfront project, Queens West (formerly known as Hunter's Point), is moving ahead  on its second tower across from the United Nations, tourism is up, the preposterously onerous taxes on hotel stays has been somewhat reduced and business improvement districts are visibly sprucing up some important areas. In the fall of 1998, Trump announced he would build an enormous tower, which he will call Trump World, on First Avenue across from the United Nations. How he plans to circumvent a prohibition against erecting buildings taller than the United Nations Secretariat Building in the immediate vicinity has puzzled many civic activists.

(The business improvement districts, which finance local improvements and services through property fees, have quickly proven to be very effective, even though they introduce a new bureaucratic layer and infringe, at least theoretically, upon the jurisdiction of community boards. The recent suggestion that residents near Central Park pay a special assessment for its upkeep was quickly abandoned, however, emphasizing both the existing high tax burden for New Yorkers and mixed feelings about such special assessment districts, which raise many difficult issues about rich and poor areas and balkanization. The B.I.D.s are finally being publicly scrutinized as it has dawned on some that that they wield great power. They epitomize the ideals of privatization and decentralization, but they also interrupt/interfere with established patterns of elected representation. Like community planning boards, they are very exciting experiments, but they come with some growing pains.)

The depression of the early and mid 1990's may have eased somewhat for some New Yorkers, but technology and human culture and interests have not stopped churning and their pace of change has created very major challenges for New York and all cities. Just a few years ago, a New Yorker could note with a sense of alarm the mounting competitiveness of regions and cities most manifest in the new, emerging urban and suburban silhouettes across the nation. These newer, smaller communities had fewer existing problems to conquer and could quickly adopt new stylish urban appurtenances such as sports stadia, convention centers, airports, mass transit and skyscrapers.

But their quantum mass still seemed puny by New York standards.

How then do you explain the Swiss Bank deciding to relocate to Stamford, Conn., only a couple of years after moving into its own brand new skyscraper behind Saks Fifth Avenue and overlooking Rockefeller Center? Even more disturbing was the report last year that the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, one of New York City's most historically important corporations, was contemplating a similar move after only a few short years in its sprawling, art-bestrewn complex on Seventh Avenue and 51st Street. Equitable decided to stay, but to downsize, significantly.

Meanwhile, of course, companies use the threat of leaving the city to extract outrageous concessions. CS First Boston, the investment bank, for example, recently got $50 million in concessions from the city just to move to the Madison Square area from midtown. Such financial boondoggles for the rich, and First Bostoners are not known to be poor, is total lunacy, and arguments that past city generosity to other financial giants justifies such a policy is sick. (Of course, the other side of the coin are inane attempts to raise revenues by pursuing taxes on pensions of former New Yorkers who have found the city's and state's tax laws just not worth the pain of staying or visiting.)

How can the city stem the continued corporate exodus and downsizing? Where are new jobs coming from as technology makes location more and more irrelevant for most businesses and personal entertainment more and more private?

Cities take a long time to mature and a long time to change. They grow incrementally and not always predictably. Wouldn't it have been nice if all the Federal and Greek Revival townhouses of Greenwich Village and Chelsea were still standing, or all the marble mansions along "Millionaires' Row" on Fifth Avenue, or if all the white-brick "monstrosities" that pass as apartment buildings had not been built, or if the old Penn Station were still there? Imagine if all the corporate towers of Park Avenue were sprinkled throughout the Lower East Side.

Of course, such nostalgia trips and fantasy runs are idle play, but not really. People do get fed up and decide not to take "it" anymore. It is the nature of New York City to always be in transition, but change is certainly not always for the better. Sic transit gloria. One could argue that the fantastic commercial development of the city's suburbs may have been necessary to spur the city once again to be dynamic and competitive and not rest on its laurels. The suburbs, of course, have grown so mightily that they now have their own momentum and some of the city's problems, but hardly all.

Can the city recover its magnetism and vital esprit? Can it once again become an economic juggernaut? Can it have yet another renaissance? Can it cope humanely with the homeless and AIDS and illegal aliens and drugs and even smokers?

Yes. But it ain't going to be easy.

Pollyannas, we're not. Utopists, we're not.

Even with all its blemishes and flaws, outrages and frustrations, New York City is still magical, especially at night. It is the world's most spectacular stage set with the world's most fascinating and colorful actors. Above all else, it is the true test-tube of democracy where dreamers and damners and doers breathe the same air and sweat.

In the urban battlefield, some losses are acceptable and some are not, some compromises are inevitable and some are not, some plans are valid and some are not.

It is the civic dynamic, in the end, that really counts. That dynamic is a mix of pride in accomplishments, prudence in management and a prejudice for progress. That dynamic thrives in the plenty of choice and fuels the individual prospect. In the real world, of course, few have sufficient choices and most prospects are dim, if not dreary.

While community activism very often makes for better neighborhoods, it does not always make a better city.

A no-growth, anti-development avalanche of huge proportions has become a very major and difficult political reality in many parts of the city and has often exerted a disproportionately large and political influence on many key land-use issues such as location of locally undesirable uses, zoning and landmarks. The impassioned activists have been extremely successful in dramatically rewriting most of the regulations regarding development in Manhattan and many major areas of the other boroughs to thwart the very kind of development that actually defined New York as a world-class city.

Third Avenue facades

Incredibly, the city that captured the world's imagination as the most romantic and thrilling high-rise environment has so bureaucratized, minimized and restricted imaginative and creative design as to have become a reactionary and anachronistic backwater of modern design at a time when architecture is one of few arts still vibrant.

While no one is crying out for another Robert Moses, the quality of most typical major projects in the city in recent years has been less than inspired and pedestrian (in the worst sense).

Occasionally, of course, some good projects and ideas emerge, but often with very mixed results. Take 42nd Street. The humongous 42nd Street Development Project was created to rid the blight of the Times Square area and that tawdry street. The original design was severely attacked by many groups, correctly, and it was radically redesigned. The original prospect of a Rockefeller Center-type redevelopment of the lower end of Times Square was largely responsible, along with a major rezoning, for the explosion of new projects in the vicinity. The 42nd Street project, however, got incredibly bogged down in lawsuits and continued opposition from a very determined group of civic activists, and not only has not been built, but it also has been postponed almost indefinitely. The Walt Disney Company confused things by deciding to try to open a facility on the block and for a few months recently a very interesting temporary art project for the street transformed it into a very amusing streetscape. Forty-Second Street may even get a new trolley, albeit one with very ugly overhead cables rather than the charm of a Tooneyville Trolley or at least a San Francisco cable-car. While it is laudable that something is happening, unfortunately "something" does not automatically mean that it is good. The sad fact is that 42nd Street and much of the surrounding area has been a terrible embarrassment for the city for decades and while the new office towers in and around the theater district have improved the general ambiance, the Great White Way ain't much of a smashing showcase. Still, their newness and massiveness come as a almost pleasant surprise to some visitors who have been away too long.

The city has been in a traumatized state of design paralysis for a very long time and the media is responsible for lack of timely, in-depth coverage and leadership.

Not too long ago, a group of residents on Ninth Street off Fifth Avenue are, not surprisingly in these times, protesting double-decker tourist buses coming down their street, conveniently forgetting probably that Fifth Avenue used to be two-way and that all the city's wonderful double-decker buses used Washington Square Park as their open air terminal!

But time is of the essence. The city is slipping and cannot rest on its laurels. Much of the problem, of course, is money and the city will never have enough, of course, but an important part of the problem is image. The city has been humbled and exhausted by raids and defections. Morale and pride are low and the troops listless and worried about reinforcements and survival.

The ruins of the city may appall some and may not be perfect, but by anyone else's standards they are still mightily impressive, an asset devoutly not to be squandered.

Squalor still abounds, however, and that still rankles.

The unthinkable happens, but also the unexpected and New York needs to do the unexpected. It needs to remind everyone that the shock of New York is that it works and provides opportunities, more than any other place. It is real and cyberspace fantasies are only temporarily enticing.

Attitude and esprit de cité and morale are intangibles, but very real. What really makes New York special is its contagious energy and excitement. When one thinks about how much garbage is produced and usually removed each day, how many megawatts of electricity are used just to help cleaning people in offices late at night, how much ink is applied to the city's newspapers, how many dishes are washed at each night's banquets and balls, how many financial transactions are made, how many waiters are undertipped, how many varieties of pasta and crudités are offered, how many new potholes waffle the streets, how many bon mots are missed, how many pigeon fanciers and sidewalk artists there are, how many treasures lurk behind blank windows, so much pain, so much wrenching, so much energy, it's kind of thrilling being on the cut, ragged edge of civilization.

How's the city doing? That depends on which side of the bed you got out of this morning. Attitude, hey, is important.

More than ever, the city is a cauldron far too big for any suburban kitchen and its stew is redolent with exotic flavors.

It is multicity. It is the unfinished, but unforgettable city, the traumatic but dramatic city, the city of strangers and symbols, the city of the jostled and the jaunty. It is not cybercity, though it is the hypercity of hype. It is exhausted but exuberant.

Jeff Koons's Puppy at Rockefeller Center

Has the city gone to the dogs? No. But it does love Puppy, Jeff Koons's marvelous botanical sculpture, shown above, that was installed at Rockefeller Center for the spring and summer of 2000.

It is New York and the rest of the world isn't.

 

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