June/July/Aug 2009

The Eternal City

Despite New Yorkers’ powerful nostalgia for the Gotham-that-was, the city’s urban ecology has always thrived on change.

Philip Nobel


“When I hear people say ‘New York,’” a friend said recently, “I replace it in my mind with ‘my life.’” So, he continued, when someone says to him “New York is hard,” it becomes “My life is hard”—the imagined state of the city standing in for whatever ails the speaker. Try it at home—it works. One can project on New York City in a way one cannot with a Dallas or a Boston. So unknowable, so much in flux—it’s natural to conflate the place with ourselves, just as it is easy to confuse it with the universe (limitless, containing everything) or the sea: by turns placid and roiled, capable of great beauty, given on a whim to soothe or to drown.

So what should we think when people cry “New York is dying”? The gridded immensity of the place begs for the superimposition of myths, and this is one of the most durable. We know the master narratives: the New York of i ny, the New York of “Only in New York,” the New York of “New York, New York,” a heap one can stand atop or slide ignominiously down. Below these are the more revealing stories, meme-common, held as civic property, but still personal: “New York is changing,” “New York used to be more exciting,” “New York is on the brink.” In each generation, the hypochondriac populace summarizes these fears in the lament “New York is dying.” Strangely, it never seems to pass.

Three new books expand on, attempt to expand on, or debunk a few common New York themes, while also revealing some things about their authors’ relationships to the place. For those in search of evidence that will reinforce a sense of doom or let them declare the city’s end, the results are not good.

We learn a great deal about Eric Sanderson in Mannahatta. In 1998, freshly Ph.D.’d from the University of California, Davis, he moved east to a job at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx. Like so many newcomers, he discovered the city to be fascinating and overwhelming. “I struggled to find my place,” he writes, “and, as a coping mechanism, started visiting the city’s wilder places and reading about its history.” Those forays gave rise in turn to the Mannahatta Project, an interdisciplinary search for answers to the question that dogged Sanderson in his bewilderment: “What was Manhattan like before the skyscrapers and asphalt, that September afternoon when Hudson arrived?”

The quadricentennial of Hudson’s voyage takes place on September 12 of this year. As interest in Henry Hudson, his Lenape hosts, and the island they called Mannahatta peaks in anticipation, Mannahatta should be essential reading. The book tells the story of the project, at times unfolding like a detective novel. We see Sanderson directing the tools of ecology, anthropology, geography, history, common sense, and, crucially, digital imagery to generate a gripping and convincing vision of Manhattan minutes before the arrival in 1609 of that English explorer in Dutch employ. One of the lush aerial views typical of the final product (the book has 120 beautiful matte illustrations) features a wee Half Moon tiding up the river that would eventually bear the name of the ship’s captain.

The images from the Mannahatta Project have been in circulation for a few years—online, in the New Yorker, in Alan Weisman’s wonderful The World Without Us—but here they are collected for the first time and minutely explained. In telling us his personal story, how by chance he found a crucial map, how by diligence he and his team synced it to existing topography, how they discovered the importance of the beaver, Sanderson also lays out a compact but sophisticated Ecology 101. You will not believe how little you know about this science—probably less than you know about Manhattan’s potential to support extra-human life. The island was an Eden, once: the crossroads for species that it is today for human cultures.

In explaining ecology, Sanderson admirably refrains from segregating us from nature’s continuum. “Cities are ecosystems,” he writes, “ecosystems dedicated to people.” That is one sign of his nimble thinking—like Weisman, he’s gone green but has not become a preacher—and his ability to extend and elaborate that metaphor throughout the book, with hardly a grating note, is a measure of the nimbleness of his writing. From what we learn about the author, we can see where he’s projecting his own coming-to-town-and-thriving narrative onto the larger story. Still, he employs the theme so deftly that, often, it approaches a kind of universal humanist grandeur. “Of course, not everyone makes it,” he remarks while discussing the role of disaster in distributing living things on a patch of land. “There are many opportunities over a lifetime to fall down—sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it just happens—but there are always some folks—some plants and animals, that is—who do get through to prepare the way for the next generation.”

Somewhat less dextrous is Sanderson’s final chapter, “Manhattan 2409.” Here, he turns his fine-tuned scholarship and technological aptitude toward futuristic speculation. Will his predictions come to pass? Will great swaths be cut through Manhattan to free buried watercourses? Will the beaver return to dam them? I feared that each page would bring some passage scolding me for exhaling too much CO2. But thankfully, Sanderson retains his wit, and the chapter serves merely as a gentle, amiable, and exceedingly well-illustrated reminder that, if we all stop shitting where we eat, the city will live on.

Sanderson came to New York City, observed it, and told a story with the aim of changing our idea of the place. The same can be said of another transplant, the famed urban-planning critic Jane Jacobs—but not of the author who would tell her story. Anthony Flint’s new book, Wrestling with Moses, is most compelling as a running commentary on Flint’s inability to understand the cultural ecology of Manhattan.

For those of us who moved to New York from elsewhere, write about it, love and question it, and have even gone so far as to breed in it, Jacobs will be a familiar type: a freelance writer with a couple kids, homesteading in a gentrifying part of town. She called it “unslumming,” and her experience living in and protesting to protect the West Village led directly to her wise and stolid classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), easily the most important book on urban development written in the second half of the twentieth century. Keep eyes on the street, and the street will be safer, she wrote. Never knock down the corner store. Let people walk. In short, don’t be an ideologue—do what works to keep urban neighborhoods vital.

That’s the Jacobs so many know and love. But to Flint, she is “the girl from Scranton,” part of “a bunch of mothers,” or simply a “housewife”—squaring off, as the title tells us, against Robert Moses and his scary, testosterone-fueled urban-renewal machine. Flint aims to make her a feminist heroine; in the process, he demeans her. He seems perpetually amazed that she could raise children and have a career. He makes sure we understand the contributions of her husband (an architect). He describes the outfits she wore to major events. Why is Moses, another successful transplant, not portrayed as “the boy from New Haven? Why do we not read about his two daughters?

Flint’s portrait of spunky Jane defeating that bad, bad Mr. Moses is patently, offensively ridiculous. Flint tells us several times what she liked to cook, even mentioning her habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink, while Moses is always depicted riding around in limos in the fine clothes that his wives (both named Mary) made a point of refreshing when they wore thin. I say depicted because Flint’s history is one of those in which we are on the ground with the protagonists. From the introduction: “The morning after Jane Jacobs’ arrest, Robert Moses rose before 7 am and dressed, as he did each day”—which is why, one presumes, the author feels comfortable relating the specifics of this imaginary scene—“in an oxford dress shirt with cufflinks, a well-tailored suit, and a dark tie.” Quite often, Flint puts us between his characters’ ears. A few pages later: “It was preposterous, he thought. Some busy housewife thought she was better equipped to plan a roadway network for New York that he knew would last for a century.” If one were reading Robert Caro’s 1974 book, The Power Broker (still the benchmark for Moses studies, as well as development histories in general), one would simply trust that such inner monologues were true, that the author had found transcripts of them in a secret, psychic archive; Caro’s book is that good. As Flint’s ibid.-rich endnotes show, he relies on it—too much, perhaps, to have developed his own view of the man. His Moses is merely Caro’s minus the really dark and interesting stuff (the racism, the class privilege, the self-hatred) that, the tweedy tone of Flint’s narration suggests, he would find it not quite cricket to discuss.

As Jacobs and Moses wrestle with each other, Flint, a Boston-based journalist, wrestles with New York. He may have grown up here—I don’t know. But on the page, his is a pure outsider’s perspective. This leads him to get little things wrong—the Broadway Bridge does not cross into Spuyten Duyvil—but he also whiffs on big things. For many years, Moses wanted to put a road through Washington Square Park, extending Fifth Avenue to the south. Jacobs joined her Greenwich Village neighbors (many of whom were female professionals with kids, not simply “mothers”) in organizing protests and ultimately killing the idea—her first turn as an activist. In a chapter-length discussion of the protagonists’ clash, Flint calls the road a “highway,” as the polemicizing Villagers did. A single visit to the place should be enough to see the fragility of that claim: The road in question would have been only forty-eight-feet wide (including the tree-planted median) and, like the park, two short blocks long. The fight was a classic nimby affair—the residents rallying for their neighborhood park—not, as Flint has it, an epic battle to save a site of American patrimony. You can feel Flint’s distance from New York in that clunker, as you can when he tries to people the place; the failure to distinguish between a freelance writer and expert on urbanism (with kids) and a neighborhood mom on a righteous rampage is not an aberration. At one point, discussing gentrification, he writes, “In contrast to the bagpiper or the friendly shopkeeper in Jacobs’ time, today fashion designers, actors, supermodels, and NFL quarterbacks prowl the streets of Greenwich Village.” The bagpiper is a reference to an event Jacobs witnessed, so that’s the least jarring part of the statement. In the Washington Square chapter, in order to hallow the ground and predispose the reader against Moses’s misguided but not life-threatening incursion, Flint lists some famous people who have enjoyed the park or lived nearby, among them Henry James, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Crane, Willem de Kooning, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Even Ed Koch gets thrown in, strumming his guitar “by the fountain.” If you were to extrapolate this blinkered preservationist outlook from Washington Square to Manhattan as a whole, you’d have to put every square inch in amber.

New York doesn’t do amber. Right? We build, we tell ourselves—excelsior!—we destroy so we can build. It’s an old, tenacious New York story. But it’s not really true anymore. We don’t build much, by the standards of our own history, and we don’t build big. Often—Hudson Yards? Atlantic Yards?—we don’t build at all. That may be why we salute both Jane Jacobs and the best side of Robert Moses, builder of beaches and parkways and playgrounds, not to mention an essential foil in a decades-long effort to work out a compromise.

Today, we’re close to that sweet spot. Some think the city is selling out; I think it’s maturing, growing more sophisticated, closer to its older cousins in Europe. Like them, we have bike lanes, and bus shelters that match the newsstands. We have public toilets and pedicabs. Soon we’ll have the High Line—an elevated rail bed, tamed and adored. We made it into a park; we made it pretty. When we repurpose whole neighborhoods, we make them pretty. We eat right. We don’t smoke as much. We recycle. We keep rooftop honeybees and backyard chickens. Cleanish waters lap the shore. We’ve installed eco-friendly bulbs in the traffic lights. We value the past. We may even come soon to value the present.

The confrontation between the West Village and Robert Moses was an important episode in getting to the current state of urban enlightenment, but the tropes were not born there. Moses built nearly every limited-access road in town. Many were necessary. Some—notably two out of three proposed cross-Manhattan expressways—were not and were thankfully killed. Flint promotes a populist angle, his Jane of Arc literally charging the stage at a public hearing about the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the event that led to her first arrest.

But those projects, which would have been implemented without much fuss, alas, in the outer boroughs, also died in part because they clashed with some of the ancient idées fixes of Manhattan, among them the sanctity of the major grid (an icon since its creation in 1811), a love of the architectural past, and a respect for the opinions of the wealthy. Moses’s Brooklyn-Battery Bridge became the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel because, we learn in Caro, its planned interruption of the fabled Lower Manhattan tableau (Statue of Liberty, mass of skyscrapers, Brooklyn Bridge) was unacceptable to the city’s politicians and tastemakers. Similarly, the planned Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was relocated from the center of Brooklyn Heights to the west of and below the neighborhood because of offended preservationist sensibilities—Flint doesn’t mention that battle, perhaps because it took place too far from Hudson Street for Jacobs to be involved.

What did she invent? There is a continuous history of resistance to development that predates Jacobs by more than half a century. It’s a lost history, only just now recovered, so we can’t fault Flint for not knowing of it. I didn’t until I read Randall Mason’s The Once and Future New York, a stunning “prehistory” of New York land-use disputes and a running critique of how historic preservation is practiced. I say prehistory because we have all been told for ages that historic preservation was conceived in New York City in the early 1960s in the fight to save Penn Station (Jacobs dutifully marched)—and afterward New Yorkers adopted a new concern for civic memory, enacting the strong laws needed to safeguard it. Bad men wanted to kill the city, and brave preservationists saved it! As with most stories positing a sudden rupture in the order of things, this one turns out to be untrue.

With the brutal confidence of a revisionist with the facts on his side, Mason, a city- and regional-planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania, lays out his argument: “Historic preservation thrived in New York City from the 1890s onward”; this forgotten movement created a lasting, coordinated network of rescued buildings and invented memorials—a “memory infrastructure”—that hides in plain sight to this day; it should be considered part of the wave of Progressive urban-reform movements taking shape at the same time. Related to the last point, and perhaps most shocking to those of us familiar with the all-or-nothing tactics of contemporary practitioners, preservation’s forebears in New York imagined their calling to be, Mason writes, “an integral part of modernity and modernizing cities—not a means of resisting them.” From there, he pivots to a central point that will appeal to the latent revisionist in all of us: “Historic preservation should be seen as part of the broader cultural foment of modernity, not as a reaction against it.”

Amen and hallelujah—I pray this book is widely read. Preservationists deserve better than to be stereotyped as naysayers (mea culpa). Such forward-looking attitudes, salvaged from their progressive past, would let them act more constructively in the complex battles that shape New York City. For apparently, the city has always been shaped through factional fighting, a Moses (or equivalent) on one side, a Jacobs (or passel thereof) on the other. Like today’s, Mason’s preservationists had their crusades. One of them, the fight to save St. John’s Chapel, points up how deeply ingrained in the city’s DNA our latter-day development wars really are.

The Varick Street chapel was completed in 1807. One hundred years later, Trinity Parish, as self-interested and crafty a development power as the city has ever seen, decided to close and sell the church to profit from the appreciation of the land. Enter the factions: those early preservationists, but also the congregation, the clergy (pro and con), politicians, socialites, journalists, lawyers—all jostling in the papers, leaking stories, suing one another.

Trinity was damned for its treatment of the poor. A poem was published in protest: “Fling to earth these sacred stones, / Give the altar to the dust!” Eventually, the parish retreated. Not long afterward, the city announced plans to widen Varick Street, taking the structure by eminent domain. For a time after the widening was completed, the church, lawsuits pending, jutted out into the street. A compromise solution allowed a sidewalk to tunnel beneath the church’s portico. Time passed with no apparent resolution in sight. Public interest pulsed and waned. The subway bored beneath the street. Finally, in 1918, after nine years of civic circus, the opposition fatigued and the building came down.

Such a familiar tale! It could be Westway or Ground Zero, the community garden down the block or any corner lot. Mason studied at Columbia—his book was based on research there—and he must have used that time to observe his surroundings well. By doing an end run around the covenants of New York preservation history, he shows us something basic about the city itself. It’s something Sanderson, that other keen observer of the place, would recognize as true: Because of its complexity, New York does not change like other places doplaces where fewer species attempt to nest or root, if you’ll allow me, or fight for dominance.

Flint, and similar chroniclers of New York development struggles, come from another school, one where heroes are worshipped. Perhaps because it makes the story easier to tell, or more compelling in the marketplace, they put disproportionate power in the hands of individuals, suggesting that events turn on their characters and acts. They seldom do; the factors effecting change in cities are too convoluted, the contexts too multiple. Especially in New York. Here, change always comes as the net result, the averaged vector, of a thousand actors, strong and weak, pulling at their own angles. There’s a budge in one direction. Some are pleased, some defeated. Then they all go home and talk or write about it, telling their stories, none of which should end with death. “One of the wonders of New York, perhaps her main wonder, is her people,” Sanderson writes, introducing a chapter on the aboriginal New Yorkers. “Opinionated, quick with a word, insistent on getting ahead, generous in a pinch, New Yorkers are, nearly to the last individual, a tremendously alive bunch.”

Philip Nobel is the author, most recently, of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (Metropolitan, 2004).

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