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How New York Fell’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Tragical History of New York from the April 9, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

One has an obligation to ask Mr. Epstein to do what I am sure he asks his authors, editors, and fact checkers at Random House to do—and that is render a reasonable approximation of the truth surrounding a given event. I am referring to his recent article on New York City and his assertions about Westway [“The Tragical History of New York,” NYR, April 9].

I was the author of the original plan for Westway and was with the project for more than a decade. What he says is simply untrue, so much so it casts doubt on his thesis, however well intended.

When I first sketched out the idea nobody had approached me and asked me to think up Westway because they had failed to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. I only dimly knew about the Lower Manhattan Expressway’s history when I began work on Westway as a young architect. I actually spent much of my effort in the first several years, trying to convince a skeptical Department of Transportation and other governmental agencies the project could be built.

The project did not devastate several middle and working class neighborhoods as he says. It did not devastate anything. It was in the river, purposefully located there by me, so that it would not touch a single building.

The cost of the project was $2.2 billion dollars not $4 billion, as he asserts, and that figure included every single bolt, rivet, reinforcing bar, park bench, and air-quality study.

The landfill was not created by construction debris presumably from “devastated neighborhoods.” It was created by dredge spoil and sand brought to the site by barge.

The new land was not for high-rise construction. Specifically, it was to be built upon at the low-rise scale of Greenwich Village, across the street. Ironically, some considerable percentage of the $2.2 billion was to be spent, despite the reservations of The Federal Highway Administration, to surcharge and sand drain the land so as to allow that low-rise construction. Furthermore, about a third of the land was reserved for industrial purposes precisely because we were concerned about the continued flight of these businesses from the center city.

The RPA [Regional Plan Association] was not a leading supporter of the project. The organization much to our regret, was focused on such things as suburban office parks, in Stamford, Connecticut, and Princeton, New Jersey. It was only through the dogged efforts of Tex James, the former publisher of The Daily News, that RPA stayed interested in the project at all.

But what is most misleading to the reader is the implication that all of this was some mindless megalomania. New York has consistently paid much more to the Federal government in gasoline taxes than it has received in return. This project was an opportunity to redress the imbalance. For sure it would not have kept biomedical research in the city or lowered the high school dropout rate, but it would have brought to New York a large sum of Federal money, something Mr. Epstein obviously realizes is needed. This is exactly what Boston is doing now with The Central Artery, a project copied from Westway.

More importantly, Westway attempted to address one of the central issues that continues to underlie the white-middle-class exodus from this city, and that is quality of life.

I saw no reason, then or now, that New Yorkers should not have public access to one of the great rivers of the world rather than being walled off as they are now, by an at-grade polluting roadway, crossed only by pedestrian bridges, like the one just erected in Lower Manhattan. A new at-grade highway could have been built for about $200 million dollars—simple, inexpensive, and blighting. The extra $2 billion in Westway were environmental betterments putting the highway under water precisely so New Yorkers could get to the Hudson River without dodging six lanes of speeding cars.

Sometime after Westway was traded in (at about 30 cents on the dollar), I was on an architectural jury in Wilmington, Delaware. The city’s mayor was also on the jury. He was fascinated by Westway and we ended by having dinner together. He said the end of Westway was not only a shot in the arm to other Eastern cities in that their percentage of scarce Federal funds went up immediately, but it was also obvious, in his words, that one did not have to fear New York anymore because we simply could not do projects like Westway. One of several reasons he offered for this demise was that we had become intellectually lazy and rather than find solutions it had become easier for us to bay at the moon. Craig Whitaker
New York City To the Editors:

In his article on New York, Jason Epstein seems to suggest that the best kind of future is history in obverse. But is it?

New York’s history has had three chapters. Chapter One was a port city; Chapter Two was an industrial city; and Chapter Three was a centralized service city. What will be the narrative of Chapter Four? Despite Epstein’s pessimism, New York is not going fast-forward into Chapter Eleven, nor is it going back to Chapter Two. Where it is now headed, and where potentially it should be headed, is the concern of the many citizens who have come together to help prepare a new Regional Plan of New York.

A new sense of the metropolitan region is urgently needed, to face up to the consequences arising from recent decades when a modest 6 percent increase in the population was accompanied by a 60 percent increase in the urbanized area. Many of the problems—social economic, political, ecological—cannot be understood or resolved in a local, disjointed way. Hence, the need for a regional plan.

Unfortunately, Epstein is confused about planning. On the one hand, he sees only disaster from anything that “attempts to impose itself upon the random and individualistic energies” that in his view are the essential characteristics of the American spirit. On the other hand, he admires the success of other societies and cultures in making things work (a characteristic which he would admire for New York) through conscious, rational, coordinated efforts, that is, by design.

Epstein’s conception of New York is importantly wrong. He sees the weakness of New York as Manhattan Island surrounded by Bushwicks in the boroughs. What he fails to see is the strength of New York as a new form of human habitat, a metropolitan region, an urban galaxy. (A galaxy has a nucleus, many brilliant stars, and a lot of debris—perhaps an apt description of the region today.) Seeing New York as a region will be the narrative of the Chapter Four in its urban history.

New York was the site of this century’s most cogent revolution in thinking about cities, when Jane Jacobs focused attention on the block and neighborhood, street, and sidewalk. Life is lived locally, in the fabric of the city. But, a second revolution in thought about cities is needed now, because life is also lived regionally, within a regional structure and fabric, an ecology as well as an economy. Our air and water, our job market and housing market, our roads and railways are regional. The greatest threat to the region today is the acceptance, as if inevitable, of the social inequities, the economic inefficiencies, the ecological and spatial consequences of a “doughnut city” (that is, a ring of outer affluence surrounding inner depression). Better possibilities can be conceived, discussed, and created—if we embrace the regional galaxy as the new New York.

Robert Geddes, FAIA

Jason Epstein replies:

Reader’s Report on a proposed first novel by Craig Whitaker:

An idealistic young New York architect in the early 1960s is asked by an unidentified patron to conceive an entirely new neighborhood on landfill in the Hudson River along the deteriorating West-Side waterfront. Inspired by this mysterious patron, the architect, who is himself called Whitaker, conceives, apparently all by himself, a low-rise neighborhood that will combine commercial, residential, and industrial functions sited on landfill so as not to disturb adjacent neighborhoods. What he imagines is a second Greenwich Village along New York’s magnificent but under-used waterfront. Naively, this young idealist has yet to learn that land and construction costs in Manhattan mandate high-rise construction. Presumably he will discover this in a subsequent installment when heartless developers reveal that cruel bankers won’t lend money for unprofitable ventures. At this stage in his career, young Whitaker is still naive enough that he only dimly knows about the twelve-year battle, just to the east of his proposed new city, over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a controversy widely reported in the press, between New York’s political construction complex and the residents of lower Manhattan, who don’t want the city to build an expressway through their neighborhood, a struggle which the neighborhood has recently won.

Unaware that Manhattanites don’t want their neighborhoods uprooted by expressways, young Whitaker decides to build an expressway of his own, but presciently chooses to hide it within a four-mile tunnel to traverse the West Side shoreline from the Battery to 59th Street, beneath his proposed new city. The tunnel will cost a mere $2.2 billion, including park benches and rivets, only $2 billion more than a surface road would cost, but worth it for the sake of pedestrians who would otherwise have to wait for the light to change before crossing at grade level to get to Whitaker’s dream city in the Hudson. It does not occur to young Whitaker that pedestrian tunnels or overpasses would be a cheaper solution than his $2 billion tunnel. As a further amenity Whitaker’s tunnel will be accessible only at either end and not through intermediate entrances whose ramps might uproot existing neighborhoods. Once a motorist enters Whitaker’s tunnel he goes the full four miles whether he wants to or not. Though Whitaker’s tunnel is opposed by city and federal highway bureaucrats, fellow idealists in the mayor’s office, the trade union council, and the construction industry are so moved by his dream that they really to his cause.

Whitaker omits from his proposed novel the ending in which a coalition of cynical New Yorkers challenges his project in federal court and wins on environmental grounds. By this time these obstructionists have also hoodwinked their fellow citizens into believing that the tunnel and landfill are a waste of public funds which could better be spent on mass transit than on a tunnel, likely to cost two or three times its official estimate, beneath an existing, underused riverfront highway. In an unconvincing ending, the visionary mayor of Wilmington tells Whitaker that he plans to apply for the federal highway funds that New York passed up but whether Whitaker means to suggest that Wilmington will therefore surpass New York as a world class city is unclear.

Conclusion: Author has a knack for fiction but major plot elements are missing—for example the identity of his mysterious sponsor is never revealed—and the approach is too naive (or disingenuous) to create the appearance of truth. Might make a good screenplay if Capra were alive.

Mr. Geddes’s letter is puzzling. It is obvious that we live in city regions as well as in cities themselves. We also live on a planet and within a universe. But what does this explain? Strong cities create strong regions, but the converse is not also true. Regions do not create cities. When a city dies so eventually does the region that it once generated, just as the stars—to pursue Mr. Geddes’s own galactic metaphor—nurture their planetary systems and not the other way around. I did not suggest that businesses don’t need to be planned or that government has no role in such planning. What I said is that Asian governments encouraged urban industrial work while The Regional Plan Association discouraged such work in New York City, preferring to move it to regional sites. That New York City’s industrial economy seemed to generate itself is not to say that city government should have done nothing to understand and contribute to this process.

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