Some thoughts about New York City, a half life later.
I’ve always loved NY. It’s been nearly 20 years since I lived in New York. Although “lived” might be a bit of stretch. My best friend and I decided to move out to the big city one summer in-between the college dazed early twenties. We sub-letted a barley habitable basement tenement in alphabet city, as close to the mystical east village as we could afford. The infamous energy of the city was intoxicating to a young self-styled debonair adventurer. I wanted life. And I had found it.
I had read all of Henry Miller’s New York autobiographies and was eager to live them myself. And I tried. From my roaring 90’s temp job as an admin assistant at an insurance brokerage firm just off of wall street, to the 4am closing time at the night clubs. Though my time in New York was brief—a mere 5 months before I set off to Europe for the first time—but it forever shaped me. In some ways I feel I have never left. I still read the New Yorker nearly every week. (It is consistently some of the best writing and reporting anywhere. And the comics only get funnier with age). New York has always seemed to be right there still apart of my identity. And I had always thought I would be back, but it turns out my path has gone elsewhere and I now realize I will probably never live there again.
Now at the cusp of middle age and with an amazing wife and two small daughters in tow I am visiting again. This is the third time I have been back but it is the first time I visited the old haunts and actually reflected on my brief time there. The run-down ground floor apartment where we bathed using a hose attachment to the kitchen sink is now a fancy footwear shop for the hip and posh. I’m finally turning grey. Instead of nightclubs or art shows I spent most of my visit hoping from playground to playground chasing my two year old down slides. Today though the city feels very different. There is still an energy but I don’t feel it as strongly. Where once it roared, today it murmurs. I am sure that might be more about the seasons of life than about the city. But I can’t help notice that the city is very different too.
It is still the efficient pulsating metropolis that first awed me, but as it has grown so much cleaner it appears that some of the glamour was wiped away as well. The city seems to have even more tourists than it ever did, and more seem to be international. Prices have skyrocketed, and the idea of a middle class family affording a nice night out with fancy dinner and a show is laughable. But then maybe not, what is middle class anymore?
The city does seem to have lost some of it’s edginess. This could be more representative of my trip with the two little ones. I do notice that much of it is easier to travel with a family. All parks have wonderful amenities for kids, while restaurants don’t seem to mind either. I don’t recall many kids when I lived there before. However, as many of the bohemian class has decamped to Brooklyn, the vibrant island does seem a little staler than before. Better mannered perhaps, but now it seems to be even more of playground of the rich than it was then. or perhaps that is just a return to form. NYC has always served that role, just now as a true global capital the wealth extremes seem/are, well, even more extreme. This is most clearly demonstrated by the new housing stock towering above.
Sadly the architecture of today’s global elite pales to that of the previous gilded ages. For every successful interesting Koolhaus, Gehry, or Zahad building there are hundreds of dull skinny boxes like the one above. Let’s not even mention the horribly gaudy Trump tower that magically grew fake floors just as its eponymous proprietor grew glove sizes. Outside of cheap displays like Trumps today’s gilded don’t seem to flaunt their wealth with the artisan craftsmanship and detailed ornamentation of time’s past. Rather they seem to choose bland understand looks. “Clean” gated communities that tower over the city below. White purity seems to be the safe space for high priced designers. The insipid cleanliness seems to mask its creators’ lack of inspiration.
Or perhaps that is unfair to blame the designers, after all it is the market that demands. I suspect that the global nature of the nouveau riche — from the idealistic techies to the new international rentier class that has accompanied the insane growth of financial industries — contributes to the banal design aesthetic. Together they largely lack a cultural unity from which to draw an identifiable aesthetic, so clean white spaces serve in their place. Wide expanses of glass highlight the pulsating city below. For it is a piece of that identity that they are buying into the energy of New York, even though each purchase slowly strangles the very vitality. (It should be noted that this new aesthetic extends downward to us aspiring classes as well. For example AirBnb’s most fashionable apartments seem to look similar from Tokyo to Santiago. Often with the same ubiquitous Ikea furniture).
I’ve given much though to New York over the decades. I have read and studied so much on urban development and economic geography, and always New York has been one of my touchstone examples. Few books have shaped my thinking on both the shape and functioning of modern civil societies more than classic masterpiece of narrative biography The Power Broker. It is the story of the rise of Robert Moses as the incredibly powerful–and unelected–master designer of modern New York. It is not only 1300 tour de force of the rise the most powerful Urban Planner in American history but also a love song to the beating heart of the metropolis.
Usually Moses is cast as the antagonist to idealistic Jane Jacobs, the housewife who ignited a movement that stopped Moses’s proposed Manhattan Freeway. In the last several years a cottage industry has sprung up to retell this story. But the truth is so much more complicated. Jane Jacobs went on to not only write the handbook for livable cities, but also become one of the most important economic development thinkers that has profoundly impacted how we think of economic growth (Jacob’s spillovers, etc.). This belies her reputation as merely an stalwart NIMBY. It always saddens me how many miss her latter achievements.
Like so much in our contemporary times Moses was a contradictory force. He built amazing parks and Urban centers, while also destroying urban life and deliberately encoding racism into our very urban infrastructure (e.g. Overpasses deliberately designed to be too short for Urban busses so that poorer folks would not go to the beach). However a case can be made that had he not redesigned New York to accommodate the explosive growth of the automobile than New York would might have lost much of its economic vitality during the 60s-90s. (Albeit the counter case would be that time period also represents the nadir of New York’s economic and social life). The whole country was emptying to suburbs at this time, Moses enable New York to still be the place where people commuted to, rather than losing the industries as well. It seems a plausible argument, I don’t know if it is true or not.
Today I see the effects of Mose’s engineers everywhere in the country. The road smiths have designed our urbanities around automobiles with little thought of us pedestrians, bikers, or communitarians. On balance I don’t think it has been very positive for our country. Sure many of us each have our own castle in Suburbia, but we are divided, distrustful and dehumanized sitting in our automobiles. While on the other side Jacob’s homeowner nimbyism has been terrible for affordable housing. Another case of those who have kicking out the ladder for those that are trying to climb out. Ahh. It’s so much more complicated. This will have to save itself for another much more well thought out mediation.
As I grow older, blessed with an amazing family I certainly come down on the side of Jacobs. As a society we sacrifice way too much in the name of economic growth–or at least what we think will create economic growth. Aesthetics and quality of life should matter as much if not more. That is why we have economies after all, to serve us. New York’s diminished vitality but family friendly approach seems to show that Jacobs is winning, but the new exclusive skyline of the superrich would actually seem to point that Moses still has the upper-hand. As always New York is getting there first. I will keep following.