Up with Downtown

This exhilarating, great-hearted book of a mere ninety-nine pages, written by Mike Wallace, coauthor of the magisterial Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, is described with excessive modesty by its author as a compendium of ideas floated mostly by others for reconstructing Lower Manhattan and energizing the city as a whole. But the synthesis of these ideas, whatever their origin, and thus the force of the argument belong entirely to Wallace, who also claims that he wrote in haste and under pressure. But this is not evident in his spare, conversational, and vigorous prose.

To suggest, ideally, where New York might go from here, Wallace temporarily sets aside “the obdurate realities of money and politics” and, “starting from Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan, and the immediate imperatives of rebuilding and memorializing,” presents “proposals—many of them splendidly imaginative and eminently feasible—that embody citywide perspectives for change.” Having done this, he offers ways “to assemble the fiscal and political” means “to transmute these ideas into reality.” He hopes readers will rediscover New York City’s “lengthy tradition of effective governmental action on behalf of economic growth and social justice—in particular, the almost forgotten legacy of the New Deal,” hence the title of his book, which is, inter alia, a defense and an example of that pragmatic liberalism which has contended throughout New York City’s history and that of the United States with its no less creative adversary, frontier anarchy.

The Twin Towers were already functionally obsolete when they were completed in 1970, a late expression of New York City’s single-minded commitment since the 1920s to high-rise commercial development at the expense of other uses, such as small-scale industrial work, the portal through which generations of immigrants entered the larger economy. An early example of this preference for high-rise development was the magnificent Rockefeller Center, followed after the war by the glassy monotony of Third and Sixth Avenues and culminating in the World Trade Center, built long after Lower Manhattan had “lost its unchallenged predominance” in the 1920s when “Midtown…established direct rail links…to the ever expanding suburbs.” Midtown developers seized the opportunity to displace the Downtown financial center by building “their own great office towers, which soon overmatched Downtown’s both in height and numbers….”

By the 1950s, Wallace writes, despite evidence of irreversible decline, David Rockefeller created the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, a quixotic attempt to revive the old financial district by encouraging high-rise commercial construction even as “many corporate headquarters followed the white middle-class to the suburbs,” where rents were lower, schools were better, and crime and racial conflict were minimal. Between 1956 and 1974 “the number of Fortune 500 companies resident in Manhattan plummeted from 140…to 98.” By the 1980s Citibank had moved its back office work to Sioux Falls, followed by Chemical and other banks, including Rockefeller’s own Chase Bank, which increasingly performed their routine work in various “second-tier cities,” linked to headquarters by modern telecommunications and computers …

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