Big Smoke

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


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Joel Kotkin of Foreign Policy waxes on about how suburbs, not cities, are the answer, because population alone doesn’t make a city World Class, especially when it’s marred with a complete lack of infrastructure and capital.

In short, he critiques the developing world’s contribution to urbanization by creating the world’s largest slums to date.

However, he’s only half right. Yes, Jakarta is no New York, but neither is Zurich.

Kotkin doesn’t realize that it is the heterogeneity that fosters the cultural zeitgeist of the Ur-city. Sure, you can have little economic powerhouses like western Europe, but they’re really just homogeneous suburbs of a different sort: Pushing the poor out of your jurisdiction doesn’t make your city better. It just increases class segregation – and that’s all suburbs are, segregated communities.

Yeah, it ain’t just population, but it ain’t just money either: Else-wise Tokyo would be on top, not New York. What’s holding the likes of Tokyo or Shanghai back aren’t that they’re too dense or that their respective countries are over-urbanizing, but that they’re monoliths demographically.

Tourists and Hipsters and Yuppies, Oh My!

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I was beginning to resent the NYTimes for printing this article on the new Times Square Mall (and this letter responding to it – landscape architects should stick to their own goddamn turf and off of urban planners’ and sociologists’, but that’s another pet peeve of mine) and had an entire diatribe about hating the semi-public tourist-trap malls that the city, in all its orgiastic development, has fallen head over heels for instead of policies that matter to the hoi polloi, but then I saw this piece, and all I could think to say was,



NYTimes, you have redeemed yourself. For now. At any rate, back to the rant:

If the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is any indication, the concept of “semi-public space” is about as anathema to city life as the word “housing project” or “gentrification.” Bloomberg’s legacy (other than breaking the back of the UFT and naming the Mets’ stadium after a failed bank) might very well be the utter and complete lack of any and all regulation again wanton development for close to a decade. New York has always torn down and built up, sure, but New York has always had strict rules on architecture and urban planning, until now.

And like most Gilded Ages, with the heedless development by the rich and richer, we have entire swaths of the city practically walled off from the rest: Condo developments on the Far West Side, gated settlements in Bayside, and hipster colonies in “East Williamsburg.” The more egregious developments might as well be in Kabul, they’re so bunkered from the city proper: Underground parking, private streets (I’m looking at you, Riverside Boulevard, and your retractible car barriers), doormen; anything to recreate the suburban enclave in urbania.

Time Warner Center destroyed what was a public space – with street market, no less – and turned it into a “semi-public” space, which means a public space closed off to poor people. I remember the hullabaloo when it was being planned: They planned the entrance to the 59th St. subway station to be outside the mall lobby for the specific reason that if it exited directly into the space, they would have to keep it open to the general public – not just the public that wore Abercrombie.

Likewise, I’ve nothing against closing streets in Times Square, except for (the obvious and) the fact that the only people who seem to benefit are the tourists, and I think we’ve given the tourists quite enough of the city: Anybody who’s seen the condos on the block of the former CBGB’s can attest to just how much the city has lost to visitors. So it bugged me that the Times reporter writing this anecdotal story on what is essentially his back yard (after all, it’s called Times Square), reported that,

Despite reassurances from the Transportation Department that the changes would create a greener, more pedestrian-friendly city, some critics of the plan worried that it would sap the square of its chaotic energy. Others, apparently nostalgic for the seediness of the 1970s version of the square, denounced it as another step in New York’s transformation from the world’s greatest metropolis to a generic tourist trap.

Well, I’m happy to report that, a day after the stretch of Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets was closed to cars, the soul of Times Square remains intact. The neon still sparkles. Tourists still wander around bewildered. The whiff of last night’s junk food still hangs in the air.

because it misses the fucking point. This still isn’t the Times Square of the New York musical, or the Times Square of the seedy underworld, or even the Times Square of the public spectacle; this is the Times Square of the fucking pleasant curiosity, which is exactly the sort of glossy pastiche everybody who decries the Disneyfication of the city is complaining about: Token gestures to a middle class mentality while sweeping the uncontrollable* under the rug so that the consumers won’t get too skittish. It’s not even like they’re using the space for anything but stupid lawn chairs, making it feel like a hipster’s thesis paper more than public policy.

Thankfully, and I’ll indulge myself a little more by relinking it, a lot of it’s coming down on their ears.

*the hoi polloi, the plebs, the canaille, the base, the unwashed masses, the public, the people.

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