After too many years I land again in New York, intrigued to see the achievements of the intervening mayors who vowed to clean up its act.
There have been the consequences of Rudy Giuliani (in office 1994-2001), with his tough-man stance and his Broken Windows Theory of urban decay – an emotive approach at the time but interestingly applied a couple of years later by Tim O’Toole at London Underground, with some success in countering graffiti. Then came Michael Bloomburg (in office 2002-2013), part-funder of the Walbrook entrance at Bank station, who spent his terms in office much-improving the New York subway, and taking the then bipartisan and now highly popular approach of encouraging public transport through a positive stance on commercial development.
Having arrived with great expectations and equally fulsome luggage, I am obliged to briefly wonder whether, despite all the much-anticipated enhancements, the continued inability to readily transit between Manhattan, JFK and the outside world is all part of the rampant insularity that these days permeates the presidential rhetoric. Surely not, this is New York…
Once in the city of course it’s all worth it. I had forgotten just how low-rise Manhattan is, the memory is of serried ranks of skyscrapers, but other cities have long since overtaken Manhattan in the numerical and physical superiority of these edifices. Manhattan now seems rather homely by comparison. That said, those Johnny-come-lately cities of the middle and far east, with their grasshopper generated building forms and their comic book design references, still can’t hold a candle to the architectural nerve and quality that is Manhattan. And in Manhattan the many and wide intervening spaces enable these muscular and often graceful buildings to be experienced from the ground, not as in London, from some remote viewpoint on the surrounding hills, but by enjoying their majesty from close-to, in the context of the intricacy of the lower buildings and the intimacy of busy street life.
In the absence of the questionable town planning enthusiasm to cluster these buildings, the new hotels, galleries, high-end residential and swanky offices are now marching off into areas previously forbidden after dark, into the public housing estates of Lower East Side, into Harlem and into and onto the railway lands of the West Side. As an approach to regeneration as defined by personal safety, increased commercial opportunity and improved building stock their impact cannot be denied. The greatest achievements of these mayors, their clean-up ambitions and their lax development constraints, is improved security and cleanliness, public transport to be used without hesitation, and the opening up of previously largely abandoned neighbourhoods. And the smell, that acrid waft of days-old garbage so much a feature of a walk around the Manhattan of the late 20th century, is gone too.
But all this comes at a cost, and the cost is vitality.
Of course I visited the Highline, much promoted as a catalyst for urban regeneration and indeed, its popularity cannot be denied, drawing many to walk its length and enjoy the rich and interesting vegetation that grows better than buddleia on old track beds.
But this is not regeneration in the way that we in Europe define it. While the walk is enjoyable and the greenery welcome, it is a walk of entertainment and not one of connectivity. Yes, it connects Rocket’s Hudson Yards with Piano’s Whitney – both of which by the way, exhibit a rather commercial sterility despite the efforts of their participating starchitects – but in between it rarely connects, passing through buildings and over streets without addressing them in any significant manner. This is regeneration in the manner of Central Park – a place of leisure that can be enjoyed by all, and towards which can now face the adjacent properties, much increasing their cost without greatly adding to the urban value of the adjacent city.
On a broader level, this significant increase in property cost, driven in part by the mayoral clean-up and doubtless a few tax breaks, has to an extent devalued Manhattan. Gone is the rich-mix, low-cost, punk-art excitement that permeated Soho, Greenwich village, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. At risk are the pop-up basketball courts on street corner building lots and the locally tended pocket parks of Elizabeth Street. In their place is offered the likes of Heatherwick’s Vessel, amusing yes, but adding to the vibrant immediacy of the city? Debatable. The result is safer, yes. Cleaner, much. More aromatic, certainly. So ticking many boxes. But in the process is lost much of the vitality, the fascination, the spark and the uniqueness for which Manhattan was famous and that I am pleased to have known and enjoyed. I am told this has not gone but moved across the rivers, but it is a shame nevertheless, because the rivers contained and concentrated the excitement and the drift away to the suburbs is unlikely to maintain the same intensity. One day I shall return and investigate.
For now, if there is a lesson for me in this it is that loosening the grip of strictly zoned civic planning, allowing development and transport to expand more freely and cooperatively, can provide local pockets of enhancement that better reflect the qualities of a slowly nurtured city. But in developing the urban realm that supports these, the requirement is for a facilitator of a more tolerant urban character and variety, rather than simply an exercise in beautification, increased leisure and gentrified property values. The need is to support further change and growth, not to cement a singular image of design prowess. The ambition should be to encourage chance engagement, the unexpected and the unpredictable, to provide opportunity to all of us, users, neighbours and owners alike.