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Winter 2001
 
City Journal Winter 2001.
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Lincoln Center Revisions

To the editor:
I enjoyed the drawings in your "A New Lincoln Center" (Autumn 2000). As an employee of the Metropolitan Opera House, though, I’m not exactly eager to see anybody act on your plans. What would I do with myself? Still, nice drawings.

One thing surprised me, though: you attributed Marc Chagall’s murals to Alexander Calder. Rough day, huh?

James Jordan
Bronx, NY

To the editor:
City Journal’s recent article on Lincoln Center dealt primarily with the exterior of Lincoln Center’s several buildings. It ignored the more important issue of how well each structure serves its particular performing-arts function.

The Metropolitan Opera House is the acoustical miracle of the world. Its singers’ voices can be heard clearly and without amplification from all of its 3,800 seats. Nearly all of the world’s other opera houses seat fewer than 2,000. To destroy the Met would be a crime against culture.

The Alice Tully auditorium’s acoustics are splendid for midsize ensembles. The Beaumont building’s two theaters are also satisfactory.

By contrast, the New York State Theater, built as a showcase for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, has horrible acoustics—with or without amplification—and fails to do justice to the New York City Opera company.

Notwithstanding revisions by Avery Fisher, Philharmonic Hall’s poor acoustics can never be improved sufficiently to correct the terrible mistake of widening the auditorium by six seats. The building should be replaced—not because of its appearance, but because of its acoustics.

Peter Miller
New York, NY

The editor responds:
Mr. Miller is quite right in saying that the Metropolitan Opera House is acoustically superior to Lincoln Center’s other, acoustically deplorable, halls; but most music critics, pointing to the unreasonable demands its vastness places on singers, would balk very far short of calling it a treasure.

Kind thanks to Mr. Jordan for the gentle indulgence with which he points out my Calder/Chagall lapse. A beautiful new, classical opera house will harmonize well with his civility.


Are All Vouchers Equal?

To the editor:
I appreciated Howard Husock’s excellent "Let’s End Housing Vouchers" [Autumn 2000], describing the dreadful failure of our system of public housing vouchers. Husock convincingly suggests that an ideological fixation with naive "free market mechanisms" led conservatives to create a mammoth governmental program that has done little or nothing for the poor while seriously damaging portions of the preexisting private housing market. Yet despite this clear record of failure, the political influence of housing voucher profiteers has prevented this decades-old program from being effectively challenged.

I therefore found it ironic that the same issue contained a Sounding by Sol Stern ["Falling Dominoes"] advocating the rapid establishment of a massive system of public school vouchers—the latest of many such City Journal pieces. I believe that much of the current conservative enthusiasm for education vouchers rests on exactly the same sort of dangerously fuzzy market analysis so effectively critiqued by Husock with regard to housing, and that the actual establishment of any large-scale educational voucher system (whether or not restricted to low-income students) would inflict exactly the same sort of disaster.

The recent election results indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans share my concerns. In Michigan, a narrowly focused statewide voucher initiative outspent its union opponents by two to one, but still lost by nearly a 40-point margin—dragging various Republican candidates down to defeat along the way. In California, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur spent nearly $30 million of his own money supporting a very broad voucher initiative, and lost by an even wider margin.

I suspect that if conservative educational reformers invested even a fraction of their voucher time and money in attempting to return our public school system to the educational standards and academic quality of the 1950s and 1960s, they would achieve far greater results.

Ron Unz
English for the Children
Palo Alto, CA

Sol Stern responds:
It would be ironic for City Journal to blast housing vouchers while promoting school vouchers if the two markets were perfectly parallel. Clearly, they’re not. Education is a publicly provided right; housing is not. Moreover, there was no "preexisting market" in education—as there was in housing—with which government vouchers would interfere. The idea is to introduce competition, not distort it.

In addition, though Section 8 vouchers set up a perverse incentive, rewarding the dysfunctional and breeding complacent reliance on government, school vouchers reward those who strive to improve their children’s life prospects by making the effort to free them from failing public schools.

Finally, there’s the difference in outcomes. Federal housing vouchers, as Howard Husock demonstrates, have been a colossal failure, causing harm to poor people and poor communities. The school voucher program in Milwaukee (the only one on which there is reliable evidence) not only benefits 10,000 children who receive the vouchers but has stimulated major reform efforts in the Milwaukee public schools.

If there’s anything ironic here it is that Ron Unz cites my article, in which I noted the increasing number of prominent liberals and Democrats who now support small-scale voucher experiments, as an example of an alleged "conservative fixation" with vouchers at the expense of improving the public schools. The majority of my education articles in City Journal have not been about vouchers but about what’s wrong with the public schools and how to fix them. The broadly based civil rights movement that I am proud to be a part of is for vouchers and for public school reform. We know how to chew gum and walk across the street at the same time, and we welcome Unz’s public school reform efforts.
 

Travelers’ Aid?

To the editor:
Peter Reinharz’s Sounding, "Why Penn Station Should Stay Put" (Autumn 2000), raises concerns about relocating Penn Station a block west into the James A. Farley Post Office. There’s just one problem with his argument: Penn Station isn’t going anywhere. It’s just being expanded to create a larger, safer, and more efficient complex— like adding a new terminal to an airport—using the existing platforms that even now extend beneath the Farley building.

The core of New Jersey Transit and Long Island Railroad passenger and ticketing operations will remain in the existing—and newly renovated—Penn Station, while the new Farley facility will be the center of passenger operations for Amtrak and airport access. Like the existing West End Concourse that serves LIRR passengers west of Eighth Avenue, the new station will provide almost 40 new stairs, escalators, and elevators, improving access to the western end of the platforms for millions of passengers.

This expansion, championed by Governor George Pataki and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and endorsed by the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association, and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, will increase the current passenger capacity at the station by approximately 30 percent and double the amount of passenger circulation space in the complex to meet the future’s staggering ridership projections.

Converting the landmark Farley Post Office into an intermodal transportation center will meet the new ridership demands with state-of-the-art transportation facilities and mixed-use development that will spur development on Manhattan’s long-neglected West Side. The new plan includes flagship facilities for Amtrak, world-class airport access to Kennedy and Newark airports, expanded facilities for commuter railroads, improvements to the Eighth Avenue subway, new postal-service facilities, high-quality retail, commercial, and conference-center spaces—not to mention the preservation and restoration of a historic landmark.

Once the Farley station opens, it will set a new standard for rail travel. America’s busiest transportation facility—busier than Newark, Kennedy, and La Guardia combined—should be America’s best. And it will be.

John D. T. Gerber
Acting President,
Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation

Peter Reinharz responds:
Yes, the expanded Pennsylvania Station will ensure the "preservation and restoration of a historic landmark" by moving the bulk of station operations one block west. Aside from the Amtrak and airport links housed in the new facility that Mr. Gerber mentions, we can also expect overflow traffic from New Jersey Transit and the LIRR to be shunted to tracks west of Eighth Avenue, a block away from the Seventh Avenue line and another block away from both the BMT and IND lines at Herald Square. Passengers carrying suitcases—or backpacks or briefcases—will have farther to walk to mass transit connections.

The Farley building is beautiful and worth preserving. But the railroads should consider practicality instead of appearance. The expansion should take place at the present site between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, rather than moving west as a means to preserve a historic landmark.

Rather than having state capitalists define the needs for New York’s transportation headquarters—they always expect such projects to "spur development," don’t they?—the blue-ribbon central planners should ask the travelers with suitcases and backpacks whether they would prefer two in-house subway lines or a grand concourse and a long walk. If ridership increases as much as Gerber projects, lots of folks will be hoofing it. The choice, to this commuter, is eminently clear.

 

 


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