What This City Could Be
I’ve been planning this post for a while, as a follow up to my earlier one highlighting some of my idle dreams about a future Coney Island. It’s some of my cray-cray and not-so-cray-cray ideas for the rest of New York City!
This morning, I saw this story on NY-1 about some proposals for Red Hook being presented today, which prompt me to move this piece to the top of the queue, as practically everything being proposed was stuff I was going to put here anyway. I took a walk through Red Hook a few months back, a hard core pedestrian hike winding around the entire perimeter, and you don’t have to be a screaming visionary to see what the neighborhood needs. In fact, lots of people have long known. 1) Some intelligent development of the waterfront. It’s largely industrial, and that’s fine, in fact necessary to New York’s economy. But there’s lots of space there that could be beautified and converted to public use, not to mentioned flood-proofed. Red Hook got clobbered by Hurricane Sandy. And 2) enhanced transportation. The area has never had ANY subway service and has only limited bus service. That is why I hiked there a few months ago. I had to. It was the only way in. People who live there either drive, or walk a crazy distance to catch a train or infrequent bus. (There used to be trolleys and their revival had been proposed, but the tracks have all been taken up). At any rate, waterfront development and new transportation service, including subway, were proposed today. (Mayor DiBlasio has also proposed a Brooklyn-Queens Trolley, which would include some service to Red Hook).
Now: there’s a guy in the NY-1 piece who expressed a common fear about prospects of development in the area, something to the effect that “More people will come” and “it will change”. And I understand. What do we love about Red Hook? Well, I happen to love the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge — in those rare summers when I feel like making the arduous trip to its remote location to visit it. AND what else? DIVE BARS, of course. It’s still a waterfront, and there’s still a bit of the old sailor flavor in the area. So there is fear of gentrification and loss of character.
Those who follow me on social media hear me grouse almost daily about the proliferation of high-rise luxury apartment buildings that have transformed the city over the past few years. And I enthused here about Penny Arcade’s Longing Lasts Longer big time. Those of us of a certain age moved here (or grew up here) with certain visions in our head. New York as the cultural capital of America, our equivalent of Paris or Berlin, with a special native mix (unique in all the world) of worldly sophistication added to the folkish contributions of millions of immigrants and their children. It made the culture of the City rich, rich, rich. I imagine the mid 20th century to be the acme of that spirit in New York. Walk around the West Village, in particular. You still see remnants of those aspirations. Those cafes and tiny nightclubs. They were lookin’ to be Paris. But at the same time you had a large multi-ethnic working class that made up the city’s basic fabric.
And in the last few decades that’s changed. Chain stores have invaded. And rich people are moving into these fancy new buildings (a situation personally exacerbated for me because I can’t stand most contemporary architecture). Rather than people from all over the world coming here and setting the tune from the bottom up, upscale people are moving here from the rest of America and setting the tune from the top down. Those who came for diversity fear the encroaching homogeneity.
But — a couple of thoughts now, to play Devil’s Advocate. (And they shouldn’t surprise you given some of the things I’ve blogged about Coney Island here and here, as well as the Palace). One, is that, as we all know, New York City has always been about change. Many cities have stood where this city now stands. The preceding ones were torn down, almost in their entirety. Major stuff…Bryant Park now lies where there used to be a city reservoir. The New York Public Library’s main branch stands on the spot that used to be the Crystal Palace. The Singer Building. There’s a way in which “preservation” is an alien instinct in New York, an elitist one. 100% preservation would mean ossification, stagnation and finally decay. There has to be growth, and for the growth to happen, sometimes hard choices have to be made. What if, for example, current birth rates remained, but humans never died? It would quickly be untenable. It is necessary for that which is old to pass away. You can argue and debate about the character of what the new growth will be, but the only two choices are growth and decay. I am not a fan of decay.
Second, there are ways in which world capitals like New York are magically disconnected from the land beyond their borders, its true — but there are always ways in which they are parochial. I remember when I was at NYU, a fellow student was talking about some nearby counties in New Jersey (where she was from) as though everyone would know what she was talking about. Because the counties were quite close. If you lived in one of those towns, you certainly would have heard of the other towns. That’s how it works in most other places. But if you live in New York City, you know about the neighborhoods in New York City, and you may know about other comparable cities, but for the most part, you don’t know from the provincial precincts that lie beyond our borders. That said, there are also ways in which, for millions of residents, New York itself is just a “place”, a locality, their home. Certainly in our earlier history it was that way. But because of how I roll, I frequently rub elbows with people who still see it that way — who look at life from the neighborhood level and not the world stage, among them: history buffs, sailors and people use the waterfront, community activists, small business people etc. Some of the people will be resistant to change. But others…well, I don’t think you’re looking with both eyes if you don’t think millions of New Yorkers are glad to have a nearby Target to shop at, just like the rest of America. It may be culturally unfortunate. But it also may be super convenient. And so I make this confession. When a 7-11 opened on the Bowery, I cursed it with every swear I could think of. Until the day I had a hankering for something that no nearby bodega carried. And 7-11 had it and a lot more that I wanted besides. I drank the Kool-Aid (it wasn’t Kool-Aid). And now I frequently make use of 7-11 rather than boycotting it. If you’re in business to sell me somethin’, you goddamn well better carry what I want and at a price I want to pay. Society is under no obligation to float uncompetitive businesses that sell crappy merchandise. Any alternative to that — I’m sorry — is Stalinism.
Third, here are some spectacularly wonderful changes that have happened in the past few years, such as the addition to the city of the NewMuseum, the new cultural district around BAM, the High Line, the Rubin Museum, the downtown Guggenheim, the opening of Governor’s Island, the new WTC complex (including the memorial and museum), the new Fulton Center, the 7 train extension, the (upcoming) Second Avenue line, two new minor league baseball teams, and an (upcoming) giant Ferris Wheel on Staten Island). And I know I’m leaving things out. Things aren’t all black and horrible and an inevitable descent into darkness. I’m also a huge defender of the new Times Square. Lamenting the absence of “grit” is, to me, the height of irresponsibility and idiocy. I’m all for a vice district (in fact, I’m all for a LEGAL vice district), but put it on the periphery some place, not on top of tourist hotels and historic theatres frequented by children. Give me a break. People who holler “Bring back the crack dens!” deserve to be mugged.
Lastly, I think the recent transformation of New York is reflective of large social changes being brought about by technology. And it’s an extension of a pattern that began a century ago, really. Those of us who moved to New York — it’s what brought us here. For many of us, we were lured by reports of its glamour in movies, radio, television, magazines, and the like. In other words, communications technology made it attractive and drew us. That process is continuing. But something else is happening. The internet, and the omnipresent availability of video and audio media mean that, to a certain extent, “sophistication” no long requires a GEOGRAPHICAL locus. You don’t need to go to an art house to see foreign films — you have access to any film you want in your home, no matter where you live, in seconds. Order exotic food or books. Whatever! But what about bumping into sophisticated people? I don’t know. The Mad Marchioness belongs to an online bookclub and told me one of the members lives in rural Alabama or Mississippi or someplace like that. I’m sure it still sucks for a bookworm to live there now, but surely it’s gotten better. So the world is flattening out. Sophistication is being exported OUT of the city, even while a certain provincialism is being imported. More of what we’re looking for can be found in smaller cities, where local people have carved out scenes for themselves instead of moving here. And some of the crass convenience of convenience stores has moved in. Our physical topography may be changing, but I’m not too worried about our mental topography.
Anyway, a little argument for (or a resignation toward) change.
We’ve already expressed ideas for Coney Island and Red Hook. What else?
Well, since we started on Times Square above, I think it could do with still more improvements. Specifically I’d love to see 42nd Street improved with theatres and restaurants clear down to the waterfront, connecting it to the tourist attraction at that end, The Intrepid Museum. Theatre Row is nice but sort of anemic, and most of the strip past the Port Authority is still ramshackle and irrelevant, and there’s that awful traffic pattern that bisects the street. Divert that! Maybe get rid of cars entirely on the Deuce and just have a tourist trolley, as some have proposed. And build a new bus terminal, maybe even move it. In most other cities, the bus station is on the outskirts. So let it be here. Also, bring back Hubert’s Flea Circus to Times Square! And (I would have said) a circus building for Big Apple Circus…but they closed.
Similarly, New York’s previous entertainment district, the Bowery is transitioning and gentrifying. What it’s missing now is some sort of tribute to its past, either a museum or a theatre or both. A permanent music hall in the tradition of Sammy’s Bowery Follies!
South Street Seaport needs rebuilding, and like it was! Not the crappy things they’re talking about. There is great potential there for a rebuilt museum and shops.
Here’s a radical one: put the West Side Highway underground. It spoils the otherwise beautiful Riverside Park, with its noise, and it’s separation of the park from the surrounding neighborhood. The views of the Hudson are so beautiful — but ruined by the cars.
Bring back the Polo Grounds!
Finally, what is New York without the tallest building in the world? I despise Donald Trump, but perhaps nothing is more illustrative of what a fraud he is than the fact that he’s never really built anything worthwhile in New York! I mean, isn’t that what he’s supposed to be famous for? His specialty seems to be building the tallest buildings in the world in Arab oil countries using slave labor! However stupid you may think it is (puerile, phallocentric) such structures do lend prestige, mostly because so much of the world is so puerile and phallocentric. The tallest buildings in the world are all in other countries. New York is WAY down the list. And (in spite of props I gave it above) I find the rebuilt World Trade Center depressing, lacking in ambition, scale, prestige, anything. In spite of all the big talk, we didn’t “rebuild”. After a decade of squabbling, we built a less impressive structure than used to be there, one that makes no waves in the world of any sort. What it says to me is “New York and America: slowly coming back to a considerable fraction of our former prestige!” A century ago, New York was mostly a city of three story clapboard houses — and it got transformed into something like Oz. I don’t care who does it, government or private enterprise, but if you ain’t doin’ somethin’, you’re doin’ nothin’.