Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Folly of Preservation

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There is a quote from Harper’s way back in July of 1856 that reads as follows:

“New York is notoriously the largest and least-loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years altogether. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew. If he chances to stumble upon a few old houses not yet leveled, he is fortunate. But the landmarks, the objects which marked the city to him, as a city, are gone.”

To me, that sounds like standing in a river and lamenting the water going by: An indictment not so much of the city but of life itself; fleeting, ephemeral, not a three but a four-dimensional existence. It’s a common refrain, however, as much now as then, so to what extent is it true? This brings to mind two questions: 1) Is the New York of today in any way recognizable to a denizen of the New York of then, and vice versa; and 2) in what form could the ur-nature of New York be defined?

The question has certainly sparked the imagination of many an artist since, which is how we got Scorcese’s Gangs of New York and Vidal’s 1876. Indeed, Gangs of New York was a bombastic ode to the city that won over the New York Times but got panned by the Los Angeles Times (and I don’t know which is the greater endorsement,) that to me spoke to a difference in identification: Our city recognized itself; theirs did not. However, the underlying verisimilitude of such works is a matter of perspective, for in making the characters palatable we subconsciously modernize sentiment. After all, Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive when he was New York’s police commissioner, but he’s laughably racist and provincial by today’s standards. That said, we do share a common humanity with our own ancestors that transcends political or social circumstance, which is why such published opinions resonate.

When it comes to policy, however, we tend to define the first question architecturally, and indeed were I to transport a man from the 1850s to today, that would be the first thing he’d look for. This is difficult, for New York rebuilds itself constantly:

This 1890s tenement on 63rd St is a hold-out amid construction of 1970s modernist apartments around it, but at the time of the Harper’s lamentation, that block was free-standing houses to which the tenement was an intrusion.

This 1899 rowhouse on 57th St is dwarfed by its 1927 neighbors, yet all three buildings would be considered worthy of historical preservation today. The two apartment buildings are in turn dwarfed by a 1969 tower on 56th St.

Which is the true New York? To me, this is a Ship of Theseus argument: If you replace every single building in New York, is it still New York? If not, is Fraunces Tavern the defining element of the city? How far back do you go to start counting?

Some more examples:

This 1910 office on 9th Ave got a modern appendage and a conversion to condominiums, yet retains the original awning, cornices and detailwork of its history in the Meatpacking District, though the meatpacking industry has since moved elsewhere.

This is a 2010 addition on a 1948 apartment building on Myrtle Ave. The cornices and lintels and brickwork remain, but the interior is entirely different, as the building was gutted.

For the last two examples, did the addition change the character or did the change in character prompt the addition? The architect who built that last addition, Robert Scarano, was banned from doing business ever again in New York, mostly through his repeated use of building code loopholes to create such additions, but he did not create the market by which those additions were demanded.

Let’s do one final example:

The Chelsea Hotel kept all of its external architectural flourish from its 1884 inception, but has gone through so many internal upheavals as to warrant its own book: From 80 apartments run by a transcendentalist to a hotel in 1901, from 80 hotel rooms to 300 as workers’ housing in 1929, and as an artists’ collective until it was converted into condominiums in 2011.

It was landmarked in 1966, but to what end: The architecture yet remains, but the last two owners have diligently rid themselves of the cultural cachet that made it famous. Which part of the Chelsea Hotel was the real one – the physical structure or the artists within?

I like to think that there is an ur-nature to New York. Picking on this Harper’s quote that comes from a time before the city had yellow cabs, before the city had skyscrapers or subways or elevated trains or brownstones or the Bronx or very many non-European immigrants at all, before Central Park officially opened and pig farmers lived in what are now the Brambles, the sentiment is yet deeply familiar. It resonates, because the attitude is familiar, even if the urban edifice is altogether different. Harper’s Monthly is itself a reflection of that: Continuous publication since 1850, but it is not housed in its original headquarters (the Bingham Building wasn’t built for almost 50 years since this lament, yet is now preserved as part of the NoHo historic district) and its managing company has gone through a dozen mergers since.

Not much exists of that New York but that New York exists in us, which is what, I believe, truly matters. If I thus had to pinpoint what defines New York, I would say it’s the populist press of the immigrant experience in a capitalist enterprise: Where religion, education, race and creed are subsumed into and spoken of in terms of money. From the bankers to the anarchists who try to blow them up, that’s the quintessential story of the city.

The urban form influences that to a great degree: It is New York’s inherently high-density, pedestrian-oriented street and transit design that allows the sort of life New Yorkers both yesterday and today would find familiar, even if the specifics differ. To say that, however, means that it is not necessarily Art Deco or Gothic Revival or brick or brownstone or the 1916 setback law or the 1961 setback law or the Ansonia or the Dakota that informs our way of life. They are the consequence of that form, but they are not the form itself.

We don’t have a real means of preserving an attitude, except to allow it to flourish under the general circumstances in which it was fostered: In the 1850s straight through the 1950s, New York was in a building boom that makes Bloomberg’s building boom appear a paltry, half-measure effort, and it did not care for what was in the way – yet, its character has remained intact. As I have stated in my last article, a quarter of Manhattan is now historically preserved, which keeps the current buildings intact, but at what cost to our character?

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