Notes on New York Old & New


WE FREQUENTLY READ that New York is incomparably better today than 40 years ago. Yes and no. Crime is down, but buildings are up—to the degree that too much of a good thing is bad.

Fifty-seventh Street will soon have not only the tallest residential building in the world, but six others almost as tall are under construction or approved along the broad byway. They will make the street less pleasant to walk on, they look silly on the skyline, and they will make Central Park colder in the winter. The largest playground in the park will be up to 20 degrees colder at times because of the new buildings.

New Yorkers are finally catching on that these apartments mainly sell to foreign plutocrats for use as pied-a-terres and investment vehicles. Despite the wealth of the owners and the price of the apartments, they won’t produce much long-term economic benefit for the city, even though these towering symbols of conspicuous consumption will permanently diminish the view from the park and the experience of using the park.

Approximately 25 years ago, Jacqueline Onassis and the Municipal Art Society successfully led a campaign to cut down much shorter towers. Post-Bloomberg, the Real Estate Board of New York has more power than ever, and the MAS is frequently the cheerleader for projects they would have opposed when Kent Barwick was in charge. And we haven’t even talked about culture yet.

The owners of 31 West 57th Street have told Rizzoli that they plan to tear down the 1920s limestone building. There are already more places on 57th Street to buy $40 million condos than books. Soon there will be more towers and no bookstore.

Steinway Hall, the 88-year-old building down the block and across the street from Carnegie Hall where generations of famous and not-so-famous pianists have tried out pianos, was sold last year. So now there are more $40 million condos for sale than pianos too. The underground tunnel that connected Carnegie Hall to the piano showroom, allowing visiting pianists to walk over and select a Steinway for their concert has undoubtedly been locked. Carnegie Hall long ago kicked the artists out of the studios above the hall that had been there for decades so they could build their own tower.

Culture suffers. Non-resident plutocrats in towering fortresses are not a good trade for music and books. These visiting billionaires don’t create art, and it’s not even clear that they consume it. Conspicuous consumption versus the consumption and creation of art is one of the ways that New York is worse off today.

Maybe it’s darkest before the dawn. I read this quote today:

The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.

Nafeez Ahmed, The global Transition tipping point has arrived– vive la révolution, The Guardian

Sounds like a good place for artists.


About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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