Not so long ago, before the pandemic, there was too much money in New York City, albeit in few hands, one must piously intone. This essay was first drafted back in the golden summer of 2018, as a thinking through of a contemporary question as old as the pharaohs: what should the ultrarich build with all their money? What will that mean for those of us who live amongst what they build? An old adage runs you can never be too thin or too rich. But maybe that is not true, or at least not true for everybody else?
While I was wondering such things, the City and much of the world got very sick, and other problems came to the fore. It is not clear what comes next. Perhaps the City will collapse, but the Big Apple has proven resilient over centuries, so one must warmly hope and coolly think that NYC will reconstitute itself, yet again. Most dramatically, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were put down, and the even taller One World Trade Center rose in their place. And if and as NYC recovers from the pandemic, architecture will again assert itself, as both glorification and problem. For now, here is the issue as it appeared to me, before I was so nervous about elevators.
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In a fine if embittered essay published during that same golden summer, “The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence,” Kevin Baker told of the decline of his version of New York City, epitomized by the Village, or the old Upper East Side, and the rise of a new, far less interesting, city, epitomized by the “supertall” condominiums along “Billionaires Row” (W. 57th Street). The essay seems to have rung true for many folks, and several people separately forwarded it to me. I therefore read it with some care. I recommend the essay, and have even assigned it. Baker does a fine job articulating a widely felt sense of decline, informed by sentiments and tastes familiar among the sort of folks who might read Harper’s. And I too have been known to tell stories of decline, a Fall. My agreements aside, I wondered what does it mean to say that NYC (or anything else) is declining? More broadly, does thinking about NYC’s development teach us anything about how to sort through our jumbled feelings about social change?
Much commentary takes the form of a historical narrative of decline, a Fall. New York City (or the military, or legal education, or what have you) is not all that it might be, and generally worse (or at least different, and problematically so) than it once was, whatever virtues the present may have, and current trends are downward. I write essays like this all the time. This narrative frame, older than Hesiod, is vulnerable to this riposte: “you are romanticizing the past, telling some sort of golden age story. But there was no golden age, and to think that the past was better is to think that your childhood was better, that is, your argument is merely an expression of your own mortality, weak and weak-minded.” These days, the counterattack often goes on to claim the moral turpitude of anyone who might presume the past, with its obvious evils, has something to teach, in this best of all possible worlds.
Baker knows that he risks being dismissed as an old fogey; he knows that NYC has reinvented itself many times; he knows that cities must reinvent themselves. Baker admits there were bad things about old New York, his New York, and conversely, grudgingly acknowledges some ways in which the contemporary City is an improvement over the old, e.g., less crime, visible drug use, and so forth.
Moreover, he argues, the old New York actually featured many good things (again, good from the perspective of Harper’s readers, orthodox “liberal” stuff) valorized as today’s progress or even aspiration. In the old days, Baker maintains, the City was diverse; was able to regulate business; and was generally democratic. Despite laying it on a little thick in places, Baker’s efforts to shield his argument from “you are just pining for your youth” are somewhat successful, i.e., much more than a little, but not decisively.
More successful is Baker’s obvious and real affection for a version of the City that, he convincingly argues, is passing from the scene, a city of great diversity of occupations, ethnicity, class, history, and much else besides, in relatively small compass. As a writer, he loves the City that thought of itself as the center of art, theater, dance, literature, maybe music and serious film, culture writ large. John Updike is quoted on my elevator wall: “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” (What do the Chinese fashionistas who live in my building, for a while, think about that?) In this view, the essential New York is the city sung by Simon and Garfunkel and theorized by Jane Jacobs. That City didn’t last all that long, historically speaking, maybe from Count Basie to Joey Ramone, but this is a parlor game — at its height say 1950–1970. As famously expressed by the Saul Steinberg cartoon “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” New Yorkers were and largely still are parochially self-centered in a way only rivaled in the modern era by Parisians, at least in the North Atlantic. But both New Yorkers and Parisians had a point.
Much of this sense of being legitimated by place, this place, is mere sentiment, even if I would have loved to have shared the Village with the Abstract Expressionists and Dylan Thomas. But without being overly sentimental, how are we to feel about the City, especially as it changes? It is difficult to know how to assess social changes, especially changes to the structure of life lived. Progress must be possible in some sense, or else good things apart from the bounty of nature would never come to be. But surely all change cannot be good, or else many bad things would not come to be? And the idea that we can somehow “net” history is a delusion of a financial age.
Nor is “change is inevitable” an adequate answer, even if true. Surely, we as a society can do things to affect the shape of the emerging present? That is a lot of what law does, through tax, regulation, and so forth. While we humans are not exactly the masters of our own destiny, through law or otherwise, we are not completely helpless, either. And even if we were helpless, the brute fact of change does not somehow preclude feeling, or better yet, hard-earned judgment. So how are we to judge — or at least sort our feelings — about such changes? How are those of us who have not lived most of our lives in NYC, that is, who may have a bit of critical distance to go with their affection, supposed to respond to the City’s evolution?
Let me offer this as a way to start. In thinking about change, positively “progress,” it matters what we are talking about changing. It is pretty easy to talk about whether a device performs a given function better. Does the car go faster? We can agree on an understanding of speed (0–60 mph or maybe 100 km/h, standing quarter mile, top speed (in a straight line or around a course)), and so forth, and measure that. But cars are not only about speed. Once we introduce multiple functions, objects become harder to assess. I saw a Jaguar XKE outside my Stockholm hotel the other day [Wow. Things were different.], perfectly restored but not babied, Finnish plates and driven hard. Enzo Ferrari called the XKE the most beautiful car ever. Ferrari! Only a fool would think that a currently manufactured vehicle will have that sort of glamour, will make that sort of mark on the history of design. But the Jaguar sucks gasoline, is famously unreliable, nobody’s daily vehicle, and never was. Is this a better car? In what sense, and for what or whom? Which brings us to “the city,” writ large, and perhaps different kinds of cities, say not only NYC, but also Buffalo, where my university is, or Paris. How do we feel about the evolutions of such cities?
Start with Paris as an exemplar of one kind of city, the capital. Paris offers clarity because the French, at least those around the King, since the Middle Ages have seen the city as the embodiment of France, the State, sometimes notionally but rarely seriously challenged by reference to an idealized countryside, la France profonde. Paris is a royal, later demoted to sovereign, city. So, things may be torn down, built up, and argued over, but everyone knows what the stakes are. What should the capital of France look like, sound like, and so forth, and how do we build that? How do we self-consciously represent France to the French, and to the world? Washington, D.C. may be an even more purely self-conscious expression of a polity.
If, and it is a big “if,” we think of NYC in the way we conceive Paris, the familiar complaint exemplified by Baker’s essay makes perfectly logical sense: the ideal of NYC is represented and expressed by [the East Village]; current developments stray from that ideal; and therefore, we need to do [something, perhaps change tax exemptions for new buildings, plug holes in rent control, etc.] to get back on track. One might disagree with the content of the major or minor premises, but the syllogism would be impeccable on its terms. One hears this argument all the time.
But NYC is not just different from Paris in its particulars. NYC and Paris have long embodied different ideas of what “city” means, and the cities therefore are to be judged differently, and policy is to be formulated differently. The idea of the city expressed by NYC in Baker’s paean — Jane Jacobs essentially — is something more organic, more commercial, more small and diverse is beautiful, than the idea expressed by Paris, which is the capital. NYC does not embody a plan that can be executed so much as exemplify a process, what anthropologists call an assemblage. All of these people come together from all over the world and make something magic, jointly create a milieu, diverse and vibrant. I get that. People have been singing some version of NYC’s praises along these lines since Walt Whitman, maybe earlier.
So, there is an ontological problem, a tacit self-contradiction, when Baker in effect says “we must artificially create the organic socio/economic conditions that I and others of my intellectual bent adore.” He seems to despise what he calls “Disney Broadway,” but he essentially argues for a grown-up version of just that. Society should somehow find the will and the means to create the conditions for a sort of perpetual Simon and Garfunkel version of NYC, at least in Chelsea. Small shopkeepers may not retire; Chinese food will be available. There is a hardware store and a barbershop and a cutting-edge jazz club. There are kids on stoops and lovers on low building roofs. Most of all, there is a racially, ethnically, multigendered, and most importantly middle-class population. And so forth.
The problem of relating this ideal New York City to the city as it actually exists is further confused by conflating New York, the nation’s biggest and most glorious city, with the idea of the city itself. New Yorkers do this all the time, but it is incorrect, as the invocation of Paris was meant to suggest already. NYC is special. There are not many cities much like NYC, not in the US and not elsewhere, and never have been. In particular, few places are financial centers, and those that are, clearly are not like NYC, now or in the past. Consider London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, and so forth. And for that reason alone, NYC is not normative in the way its partisans often maintain. There is a sort of “argument from Switzerland” problem here, and with Jane Jacobs for that matter. NYC isn’t the model or the curve, it is the outlier.
For most of its history, NYC was where the money was, and a great deal of the law, the publishing, the arts. And a lot of people, especially in the second half of the 20th century, including Simon and Garfunkel and Baker, needed to be near that, or thought they did. Or to put it in the crude modern idiom, NYC was the brand and the context. And much intellectual affection for NYC, the celebration of diversity and the meaningfulness of life in small delis and take-out at 3 am etc., etc., is at bottom a celebration of life in the metropole, of living centrally to the culture, and so just maybe being important to the culture. There is more than a bit of vanity in “if I can make it there I can make it anywhere.” Propinquity is prestige, a hardly democratic sentiment. New Yorkers constantly talk about celebrities they saw on the street, in a restaurant, and so forth, as if they were courtiers, empowered by short distances. At heart, this pride of place is deeply snobbish and indeed sheepish. Again, French intellectuals, with their horror of the provinces, except for holidays, are instructive.
The key point here is that the NYC brand may have always been diverse, but it was in principle never democratic, always based more on the pride of relative achievement, not least raw income, than communal solidarity. See above. Therefore, Baker’s familiar and ostensibly democratic solicitude for an essentially undemocratic brand rings a little hollow — only a little, after the fashion of good-hearted self-deceptions. Which is not to say that there was not a demos in the old New York, and indeed there is a demos in the City today. The immigrants, new and older, the homeless and the artists were and still are real, often fascinating. There was often charity and noble feeling, in old New York, Eleanor Roosevelt opening public housing, and is today, people trying to save their neighbors in a horrible pandemic. None of that means the City’s governing dynamic has ever been all that democratic in any sense legible outside its own context. The City has always been about money, for good and ill.
Now NYC’s brand has transformed again, gone global, much like London’s brand. If you have real Chinese/Russian/Arab/hedge fund/internet/celebrity money, you might well buy a flat in Belgravia and a piece of NYC, too. Where there is money, they will build. These days in NYC what they build are huge, pencil thin, inward looking, and largely empty, supertall condominium towers. (“Supertall” is an international term of art, a building measuring more than 300 m (984 ft.) from the level of the lowest significant open-air pedestrian entrance to the architectural top. All the terms are defined. People care about this stuff.) You don’t live there much, of course, despite the private car elevators, the stainless-steel staircases and hundreds of tons of counterweight for a thin skyscraper’s swaying. Complex systems that do not always work for telecommunications, power, water, sewage, embedded in thin walls. Luxurious play spaces, completely private, for the little ones that even you rich people (“affluent” is not the point) occasionally produce. Should you for some odd reason choose to venture outside, the gargantuan Hudson Yards development, the largest private development ever, is Dubaiesque, comforting for a certain kind of traveler.
If you are lower down the totem pole, the city is awash with beautiful and willing young things from all over the planet, who can afford to live in small spaces and work odd jobs for a while, and so who come and then go. NYC is too expensive to do lots of things without a great deal of bother, starting with raising a family, but for a while, you can be here, even without vast wealth. But it is much better with money, until you move on. From this vantage, the NYC that is emerging is the latest expression of what NYC always has been, a center or pivotal point for the capitalism of the day. In our era, the monetary base has gone from national (with a fair amount of transatlantic financing) to global. Aficionados of 20th century New York preferred the older, more national, and more industrial capitalism, as expressed in the City they called home. Heathrow is not as charming as the Queen Mary, either. Sorry about that.
Even as metaphors, the words “center,” and “pivot” are a bit misleading. Today’s global capitalism — the actual trading — is mostly not done in Manhattan. Nonetheless, many rich people, large funds, wealthy institutions, powerful regulators and so influential lawyers have Manhattan addresses, which is not quite the same thing as work. Someplace has to be home, legally if nothing else, and I teach finance in Manhattan. Actual transactions are largely done, and money exists, in cyberspace, and more and more the offices and servers are across the river, in New Jersey, or across the country in places like Charlotte and Omaha and Seattle, or elsewhere around the planet. But you would not want to have your $200 million condo in such places; there are too few celebrities and lissome young people. Even in the flux of placeless global capital, a person needs a home or several, a place to hang one’s hat, and NYC fulfills this need. Oliver Stone presciently expressed this sentiment in his use of the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place” in 1987’s Wall Street. Thirty odd years on, NYC has become a place where even shinier and yet more global imaginations of capitalism are concretized, where one can get dinner or other entertainment and enjoy the architectural prowess of old school industrial capitalism. Maybe even meet somebody.
From this perspective, most contemporary critiques of what NYC has become are nostalgic, even as they try to deny it. It is not the case that NYC once was a democratic and happy blend of robber barons, political operatives and thieves, but mostly hard-working immigrants and brilliant artists, and then one day the big money arrived and drove out the funky people and the ghosts of the good plutocrats like J.P. Morgan. NYC was founded by a Dutch corporation. It has been a key locus of financial capitalism since the days of the Buttonwood Tree, and it still is. But the scope and shape of capitalism changed, much as car bodies do. What has remained the same, however, is a widespread conviction that Manhattan is a key site for the expression of real wealth. Updated, of course, hence the pencil shaped condominiums looming over Central Park, with elevators for cars and the like. And such expressions, as Gatsby demonstrates, have consequences for the societies and physical places where they occur. In this sense, the pencil shaped condominium towers are genuine, the real New York, today. New York is becoming boring simply because global capitalism is expressed in essentially similar ways elsewhere.
New Yorkers need not bow down before these developments, need not accept what is being done to their city in the name of expressing oceanic wealth. As suggested, politics and so law matter. Moreover, as disturbing as the pencil condos are, even before the pandemic it was unclear how far megarich gentrification would go, and is more so as of this edit. Other New York Cities are imaginable, maybe preferable, and in theory doable. Maybe a halt should be called (by whom?). In principle, it could be said that NYC circa 1960 was really cool, and so the powers that be should try and preserve that sort of city, roughly speaking. Upgrade the coffee, factor in a little more acceptance of human differences, perhaps. Some tall buildings, of course, but not too many, and with real architectural interest. Enough Renzo Piano (although I cop to fondness, especially at the Menil Collection, in Houston). Personally, I would like such a city much more than the emergent Dubai New York. The NYC that Baker proposes, with its profoundly subsidized middle class, might be sort of faux, but it still might offer the person to person experiences, and some of the creative ferment, of the last century.
But something would be lost, too. Even if society could agree to subsidize and tax in such a way that Manhattan and the more fashionable parts of Brooklyn, at least, retained their traditional charm, constructing such a city would constitute a rejection of the capitalist dynamics that created Simon and Garfunkel’s NYC in the first place. Baker makes what is at bottom and for all its celebration of diversity an oddly nativist argument for a grown-up version of Disney New York. Realizing that vision would entail at least as profound a transformation of what the City means as the emergence of boring Dubai New York. Baker would save the appearance of his preferred (my preferred, for that matter) New York by stopping the evolution of the capitalism that created the City. It is, at heart, a profoundly conservative argument, a scream to stop.
To say that something is profoundly conservative does not mean that it is wrong, even if that may be a bitter pill for some Harper’s readers. Maybe New York should stop. The kind of capitalism that built Manhattan has itself been overtaken by history, and one might not want to live in and among the architectural expressions of contemporary global capitalism. The megarich will find homes easily enough. Some have even been known to indulge a certain romanticized nostalgia (often for other cultures) in London and elsewhere. Along the same lines, absent a near-apocalypse, New York is likely to continue to sport individuals wealthy beyond comprehension. Choosing this path, however, self-consciously thwarting the destruction and creativity of capitalism, would mean that New Yorkers are becoming more like Parisians, shifting emphasis from experiment to experience. Amidst globalization, that is, after the decline of 20th century republican capitalism, perhaps such a shift in sentiments would be psychologically prudent.
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And now, in the long winter of 2020–21, we have stopped, it is unclear for how long. A halt was called, not by the political imposition of an urban aesthetic, but by a public health emergency. As the emergency subsides, because by nature emergencies are short lived, one must wonder what new normal will emerge. We will not go back to what now seems to have been the golden summer of global capitalism, whatever our problems were then. Nonetheless, inertia is a powerful thing, and after the pandemic, global capitalism may return to a chastened version of its recent self. Perhaps still more supertall condominiums will loom over the City.
Or perhaps capitalism will transform itself yet again. The globalization of the last few decades seems somewhat abashed, challenged by rising nationalisms, in China but here, too. Where capital once sought efficiency, we now see that resilience is just as important, if we are to endure an angry nature, not just viruses but climate change. NYC may express that transformation architecturally; the tastes of the rich do change sometimes.
This new capitalism may find itself in uneasy architectural alliance with a third possibility, suggested throughout this essay. A certain cut of urban liberal believes that New York is not, or perhaps no longer, primarily about money, well no more money than required by a lettered elite that wishes to educate its children in socially acknowledged terms. Presenting a privileged child to society has always cost money, now no less than in Edith Wharton’s day. But one need not be cynical about today’s elites of the second tier. They hold certain ideals about how life is to be lived, worth subsidizing, and how the City is to be built. It is a vision, and I for one am not unsympathetic. Maybe the City could be reconstituted along these lines, though it is hard to imagine assembling the necessary political will from the truly wealthy or the, shall we say, non-elite, who might move to Texas rather than pay the taxes.
There are of course darker possibilities and endless variations, but not for this winter afternoon, waiting on vaccines and teleconferencing, a long way from the City.