Nathan Glazer, a member of The City Journal’s editorial board, is a professor of education and sociology at Harvard University.
Legacy, a recent six-hour television series on the origin and possible future (and end) of civilization, concludes with two images. One is the unmistakable skyline of Manhattan at night, viewed from Queens, approached by great, illuminated bridges. The other is a crumbling ziggurat in a sea of salt and desolation, the ruins of a city of the very first civilization described in the program, ancient Mesopotamia. New York City, of course, is still alive, but it is placed at the end of this rapid progress through history for two reasons. One is that New York has served for seventy years or more as an unmistakable image of the future. The other is that if one wants to warn us, as the creator of Legacy does, that certain trends may be threatening the survival of civilization, New York City will serve for that too. The image of New York—and Manhattan in particular, with its incredible skyline, its great bridges, its crowded skyscrapers—suggests some of the ways in which we might feel we have gone too far: in creating cities of enormous scale, in distancing ourselves from nature, in developing technologies and social organizations of such complexity as to be beyond rational control, in tolerating the rise of social aberrations and problems that may destroy civil society.
New York, with Manhattan at its center, does seem to depart further from the ordinary, the familiar, the natural, than any other great city—further than its competitors in the United States, further than its competitors in the new, rapidly developing international economy. Its buildings rise higher; its engineering adaptations to its site, made necessary by its geography, are more complex; its indifference to the ordinary amenities—home, garden, shopping, easy movement—are greater than in any other American city. Of New York, it is commonly said, “It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” striking evidence of the city’s reputation for unlivability. Many things contribute to this reputation: its high costs, its crowding, its noise, its subways, its cramped housing, its taxes, its crime, its homeless. Many of these comparisons may seem unfair: New York’s rates of crime and homelessness are proportionately lower than in some other cities. But New York’s crowding makes both more immediately evident.
Contributing to all these problems, I would argue, is the physical site of the city. Our problems are not the direct result of the physical configuration of New York, but our geography pushes us toward density, height, and crowding, exacerbating the conditions that reduce the quality of life. Our problem is how to make the great decisions that permit a better quality of life, despite these given physical circumstances. Such decisions have been taken in the past, as when Central Park was reserved in narrow Manhattan; they can be taken again.
To begin at the beginning: Manhattan, the site of the original settlement from which New York grew, still the dwelling place of 30 percent of its inhabitants, and providing the jobs for three-quarters of them (not to mention great numbers who come to work in Manhattan from the surrounding areas), is an island. Not only is it an island, it is bounded on the west by the lordly Hudson, not easily to be bridged or tunneled under; on the east by the East River, of a scale that dwarfs the Seine, the Thames, the Tiber, the Sumida, or any other river dividing a great city. To bridge it required one of the great engineering achievements of the late nineteenth century, the Brooklyn Bridge. Only to the north, with the Harlem River, do we find a waterway on a somewhat urban scale, with many bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the Bronx and the mainland. The constraints to expansion presented even by the large boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, set on their own extensive island, are not negligible, at least as compared to the wide spaces once available to an expanding Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, now available to a Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Among the older cities, only San Francisco and Boston are similarly constrained.
All cities have their own physical constraints. But what remains remarkable about New York City among great world cities is that it is not easy to reach from the rest of country. Much of the city’s history centers on the problems of connecting New York to the continent across the Hudson. New York did become the greatest port in the country when our heavy traffic was borne by water, and New York City had the advantages of both the great harbor, providing protected access to the numerous docks of a city surrounded by water, and the connection to the west by water through the Erie Canal, which first gave primacy to the port of New York. But the rise of the railroads was a challenge to the city, a challenge met by the energetic entrepreneurs who built wonders in the way of tunnels, bridges, and terminals (though most railroads stopped on the western shore of the Hudson, and their freight could reach the city only by water). They marked their achievements by erecting two of the greatest monumental railway stations in the world—one of which we demolished, in an act of vandalism that will forever indict the government of the City of New York and that provided the city no comprehensible benefit at all.
If New York handled well the challenge posed by its geography in the railway age, the challenge of connection with the rest of the country in the age of the automobile, truck, container ship, and airplane was more difficult. For a while, a political accident—there is no other way to consider the career of Robert Moses—permitted a good deal of adaptation to the new age, despite the physical constraints of the city. But that age, much decried for the costs that accompanied the effort to make New York accessible by car and truck, came to an end 25 years ago.
A political invention, the Port of New York Authority, could not in the end maintain the city’s primacy as a port. Container ports required adjacent expanses of space that New York City could not provide. The port moved to New Jersey, where the mainland provided this space, as well as direct access by rail and truck to the rest of the country. Competition from other ports, and particularly the West Coast, further reduced the role of the Port of New York.
Air transportation in New York is also sharply constrained by its site: LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark must be reached through crowded tunnels and bridges, and the businessman entering or leaving New York, or the shipper of air freight, must always ponder how to get to and from the airport.
New York’s geography makes surface transportation difficult, reducing the quality of life in many ways. Slow traffic, for example, costs residents time, increases air pollution, delays the delivery of goods, and creates noise from horns, sudden stops, and bursts of speed to take advantage of temporary openings in the traffic stream. But what alternative is there when jobs are concentrated in the southern third of Manhattan, and millions must be moved into and out of this relatively small space daily?
One of the most remarkable facts about surface transportation in New York is that almost no new facilities have been constructed for fifty years. If one looks at a map of New York City in 1939, the one thing that is truly startling is that every major crossing by rail or automobile, for people or goods, into Manhattan already existed then, except for one derisory tunnel to nowhere, at 63rd Street. As Newsday columnist Jim Dwyer observes, “Since 1940, New York City is the only major metropolis in the world to have decreased its mass transit tracks.”
Would new connections help? Or would they simply add to the congestion? That depends on context: Connections that simply dumped more automobile traffic into Manhattan would obviously not help; new and improved subway tunnels, accompanying other improvements to make them more attractive to commuters, would be a different matter.
In addition to the physical form of the city, we must consider other elements that make transportation difficult: the many political and economic factors that halted the physical expansion of the transportation links between Manhattan and the rest of New York and New Jersey fifty years ago. Today we can marvel at the heroic age of physical expansion that began with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and ended with the opening of the Triborough Bridge. Though by some measures the city is much larger and richer today, we can barely maintain the great East River crossings—yet they were all built in only a few decades.
Likewise, the subways have not been expanded in half a century: The last major line opened was the Sixth Avenue subway, fifty years ago. Since then, while enormous sums have been spent on longer station platforms, new tracks and cars, and some new connections within the existing system, only a few new stations have been added. Nowhere has the system been extended beyond the city limits, though the growth of population beyond those edges has been enormous in those fifty years. Stopping the subway at the city line requires cumbersome transfers from one mode of transportation to another, encouraging people to avoid the subway completely. In London, Paris, and Tokyo—equally old cities of equivalent size—subway lines have been extended to accommodate suburbanization.
New York manages with a transportation structure built and designed for a very different era—one in which the amount of office space in the center, and the number of commuters, were a fraction of what exists today. The system manages with remarkably little in the way of accommodation to these great changes, but it manages at a great cost in crowding, discomfort, and inconvenience. Perhaps the most striking reflection of this failure is the fact that the East Side of Manhattan is still served by only one subway line, reportedly the busiest single line in the world. A second East Side line has been proposed, urged, provided for in financing, even begun, over a period of fifty years now, ever since the Lexington Avenue line took on the additional burdens created by the demolition of the elevated Second and Third Avenue lines in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet the new line has never been built.
Transportation is of course affected by Manhattan’s long, narrow form. The best connections are to the north, and all major transportation arteries aim at the island’s lower third, where most jobs and public facilities are. But one can imagine adaptations that would have limited the enormous crowding in the southern third of Manhattan. Of course these accommodations have in part occurred. The expansions of commercial, manufacturing, and office space and housing in New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester, are all responses to crowding and costs in Manhattan. These accommodations reflect the operation of the market, rather than any public intervention that might have taken into account the costs of crowding that individuals and corporations ignore when they consider their own costs and benefits.
Was there a place for planning, is there still a place for planning, in the development of New York City? “Planning” is of course a dirty word these days, but we should distinguish central economic planning, which turned out to be such a disaster in Eastern Europe, from the crucial and necessary public decisions that affect the quality of life in a great city. Call those decisions something other than planning if you will; the fact is that no private decision could have reserved the central part of Manhattan for a great park, could have built Riverside Drive and the parks on the Hudson River, could have built the great system of arterial roadways that still make it possible for New York City to operate, with whatever difficulty. The question is, what kind of public decisions might have been taken that would have had better results? What decisions may still be taken to improve New York’s quality of life?
Such decisions, of course, are taken all the time. They are taken when zoning regulations are revised and when developments are approved that must breach the zoning regulations. They are taken (or, more likely, evaded) when a major transportation artery must be replaced. Could other decisions have been taken, whatever the constraints imposed by the physical geography, to make New York a more livable city?
The huge growth of Manhattan’s center since World War II has been accompanied by the withering of major subordinate business centers in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. These centers spread the jobs and commercial and amusement facilities, reduced the demand for transportation to the center, and made more even the use of various parts of the public transit system. They certainly contributed to the quality of life. Can this withering be attributed to the huge growth of the center, permitted by New York’s expansive zoning envelope? One senses a connection, though there are other factors: The attraction of the suburbs weakened the population base for subordinate centers in the boroughs, and the growth of crime, accompanying a new and poorer population, contributed to the decline of business in these areas.
Of course one can ask whether it would have been desirable to limit growth in the center, or whether that growth would simply have gone outside the city rather than to the subordinate business centers. But that question was not seriously addressed at all.
In London and Paris, however, where questions about density and growth were carefully considered, growth in the center has been constrained sharply, with no great apparent loss in vitality and a considerable gain in the quality of life. In New York City, by contrast, it has been assumed for the last half-century that all the city can do is accommodate private interests making their own calculations in the absence of major public guidance. Yet the question of planning is crucial: Is it necessary? In the days of Mayor LaGuardia, when Lewis Mumford was our chief urban critic, the answer was, “of course.” Likewise in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Federal Government was persuaded to support urban planning and pay for the training of planners. In New York City, however, it became impossible to produce a plan of large vision. The plan that finally emerged in 1969 was merely a description of the neighborhoods of New York and of the various interventions taking place in each—a work of value, but one that left in abeyance or abandoned the question of whether a large-scale plan was desirable.
The chief instrument of planning in New York City is zoning, but until recently, zoning regulations have offered little restraint on the steady expansion of the built-up business center. Incentives or investments which might have maintained or created subordinate business centers within the city, permitting more people to live close to work, were weak. Ironically, what is often considered one of the great achievements of zoning in New York City—the exchange of the right to build higher and denser in exchange for street-level open space (plazas), walk-through gallerias, and theaters—only increased the density. And another achievement of planning—concessions in zoning to encourage building on the west side of downtown—only increased yet further the density of the center. These were public interventions, but all on the side of increasing density in the center and accentuating the costs of that density. The density of Manhattan, then, is the result not only of the city’s geography, but also of government action.
There were of course certain advantages to this course—the cost of office space in Manhattan is a fraction of that in London, Tokyo, or Paris, in part because the city places modest limits on its builders. New York City’s unique density and height have given it qualities that other cities do not have. These qualities have been celebrated by William H. Whyte and others: excitement, variety, ease of personal contacts in the dense center, maintenance of all kinds of specialized facilities. (Even Fortune, in an otherwise gloomy assessment of New York’s attractiveness to business, adds, “But in certain industries—media, the arts, investment banking—it remains top of the heap.”)
These effects of density may be considered a contribution to the quality of life, though most Americans, particularly those who are raising children, discount the virtues that density makes possible, virtues that make the kind of city where many would like to visit but not live. One also notes that great cities like Paris and London are not built to towering heights and that their business districts spread over a larger section of the city, yet liveliness and diversity and the pleasures of the street are there, even when most buildings are only five or seven stories high, rather than two or three dozen.
Is it not possible we have gone too far? Lewis Mumford once wrote that New York City’s transportation system would have been strangled but for the Depression, which stopped, for a while, the building of new skyscrapers. We have now been through a number of cycles in which the building of new office space dwarfed the towers of New York as they existed in 1929. Yet we have done little to restrict this growth, or to add to the capacity of transportation channels moving people into and about the city. The effect on crowding has been mitigated somewhat by the sharp decline in manufacturing in the center. Even so, I think we have gone too far. The quality of life suffers when new office buildings engross mid-block sites, wiping out older, smaller buildings that provided space for modest business establishments. The quality of life suffers because of the inevitable increase in crowding. A map of New York City’s transit shows all the main lines concentrating on Lower and Midtown Manhattan. London, Paris, and Tokyo have somewhat less centralized patterns. In those cities, controls on building height have spread the business districts over a larger area, reducing pressure on transportation.
Could New York have developed in such a way? Developers, it seems, have held the city hostage, threatening, “If I can’t build high here, in the center, I won’t build anywhere.” Particularly in bad economic times, the city was reluctant to call their bluff and risk losing the development altogether. And it is true that crime and considerations of security, as well as convenience, made it hard to distribute major new developments outside of southern Manhattan. Attempts to direct more development toward the Brooklyn hub have not yet been successful, but may succeed. (One would hesitate to promise anything for another old transportation knot, the South Bronx hub.) Yet I believe New York took the easy way out, allowing a concentration in the center that has been remarkable and unique, but which only accentuates the difficulties imposed by New York’s unique geographical form.
Had city officials made an effort to maintain the attractiveness of areas outside the present dense center, New York would be a better and more livable city today. Once it was assumed that the city would expand outward, and great institutions were built in outlying areas: a grand campus of New York University on University Heights in the Bronx, Yeshiva University on 187th Street, a group of museums at 155th Street, a complex of academic institutions between 116th and 122nd streets, the New York Academy of Medicine and the Museum of the City of New York on 103rd and 104th streets. In recent decades we have watched in dismay as many of these institutions, which once represented confidence in the city and their neighborhoods, have shrunk or been transformed, or have escaped to the center where safety is hoped for. NYU abandoned its Bronx campus; the National Museum of the American Indian sought to move into the Customs House at the southern tip of Manhattan; Julliard built a new school at Lincoln Center. The pressures to relocate to the center—resulting from the elongated shape of Manhattan and the concentration of transit lines—are made stronger by concerns about safety.
Development is unlikely to spread to outlying areas as long as people fear walking the streets there. But there is not much promise of immediate improvement in the control of crime and public disorder.
Residential as well as commercial development in New York has been characterized by giantism and high density. It is true that many New Yorkers still live in apartment buildings of relatively modest height, five or six stories. But this pattern for apartment houses was once nearly universal. It generally meant a building with a few dozen tenants, often built with an interior courtyard. Even narrow tenements provided a quiet zone, the open center of the blocks which they ringed. In Manhattan and to some extent in other boroughs, many of these small buildings have been replaced by giant structures with hundreds of tenants, built over the entire available lot with every room facing outward, maximizing exposure to noise. This has become the typical housing pattern for the poor, the middle class, and the well-to-do. There is as a benefit often more light, but the tall building for apartment living creates difficulties for families with children (who now have to manage a new transportation mode, the elevator, subjecting them to new hazards). Public housing, which began with modestly scaled buildings in the 1930s, went higher and higher, and since these were clearly dwellings for families, the quality-of-life costs were serious.
The cost of land, we were told, dictated such heights. Yet if priorities had been different, lower and smaller buildings could have accommodated as many apartments as the high-rises. This would have meant some sacrifice of open space, but would have provided a host of compensating benefits to residents: easy access to the street and playground, fewer families in each building, better security (since residents would know each other and more readily recognize intruders), more-varied play spaces. New York’s taste for giantism is evident in public facilities as well. The elementary schools are often built to house a thousand or more students. The New York high school is built for three or four thousand. There was never a good reason for schools of such size. There are no economies of scale in schools: Private schools never reached such sizes, and did quite well nonetheless. Large public facilities are, however, convenient for politicians: There are fewer struggles over site and design. There were also illusions that big buildings would be cheaper to manage.
In cities like Paris and London, publicly supported schools vary more in size, and are operated under different auspices, often religious. They are almost never as large as the typical New York school. In a city with greater public discipline, fewer new immigrants, less racial diversity, and more familial control—such as New York in the 1930s and 1940s—this perhaps didn’t matter. But as all these conditions changed, the schools became disaster zones, just as many large public housing projects did. New York is unique. It is the largest city in the United States, the center of the nation’s mass media, culture, banking, and finance, and still in many ways the center of ideas. Perched on the edge of the United States, it was for a long time the country’s greatest port. It was once a city of small manufacturers—the largest manufacturing city in the United States until the 1960s. Because of this it attracted immigrants, their number and variety matched by no other city in the United States. The United States is often said to be becoming a nation of minorities, of nonwhite races or of immigrants. These assertions are vastly overstated: The nation as a whole is still less than a quarter black, Latino, and Asian. Immigrants, even with 600,000 to 700,000 arriving each year, are a much smaller fraction of the U.S. population than during the period of mass immigration at the turn of the century.
But “New York is not America,” as we have often been reminded. The immigrant presence is far stronger. As a city of services, media, and culture, New York continues to, attract immigrants, from abroad and from the U. S. hinterland. With 3 percent of the nation’s population, it is the first residence of 15 percent of immigrants. Between 90,000 and 100,000 immigrants a year settle in the city, and that has been true for two decades. One would expect that immigration would decline during bad economic times, but it has remained steady during the recession of the past two years. Perhaps the volume of immigration is maintained by the special provisions of the Immigration Restriction and Control Act, which has made it possible for many illegal or undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.
The new immigrants have transformed the city, making an enormous contribution to the quality of life. They have restored decaying neighborhoods, filled empty storefronts, and added to the mix of restaurants and street life that help make New York into a world city. There have also been costs: Immigrant children, many of whom have inadequate educational backgrounds and require expensive bilingual classes, flood the public schools. Immigrants also add pressure on the hospitals and welfare agencies. Yet all in all, I believe, the city’s quality of life would have been no better if the volume of immigration of the past twenty years had been a quarter or a third of what it was.
The site made New York a great port and attracted ethnic diversity, immigrants, and a growing population that encouraged manufacturing. Diversity made for a tolerant city, and a city of enclaves in which immigrants of any kind could find a place to live, to work, to use their native language, and to experience some comforting connections to their native culture while learning a new language and a new culture. The foreign-born, 40 percent of the city in the ages of mass immigration, have been rising for two decades and are now 30 percent of the city. But they also move out of the city at a rate not particularly less than that we find among the natives, for we have not been successful in creating or maintaining the quality of life that leads a growing family with children to find the city desirable.
When we speak of a city’s “quality of life,” we often think of the things tourists remember: the squares of London, the boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of New York. It is odd that what New York has to offer is so far from the simply human, the accessible, the kind of cityscape a man or woman can walk in and enjoy, and which adds to those necessities of urban existence—work, housing, transport, safety—a fillip, something to lift the spirit and tell one, I am a citizen of no mean city.”
New York has achieved great things through planning—Central Park, Riverside Park, Prospect Park—the results of actions on a scale we seem incapable of today. Our vision today is stunted, if it can be called vision at all. In contrast, one recalls Paul and Percival Goodman’s Communitas, now more than forty years old, with its amazing proposals for New York. Restore the riversides to the people they said, for parks, for residence, for sport. (In very modest measure that has been done in the most substantial enhancement of the city in the last two decades, Battery Park City.) They wrote before economic changes had made the city’s port facilities obsolete. But let us recall that all great cities have operated on more than economic motives. What is the economic justification for Central Park, or the parks of Central London, or the extensive Imperial Palace grounds in the heart of Tokyo, or the green strips of Paris boulevards? The presence of kings and emperors made it easier for the great cities of Europe and Asia to reserve, create, and maintain such facilities. In our more commercial-minded civilization they have been matched in only with great effort by a host of civic-minded individuals. Yet they once were matched: Treasures were bequeathed to us that we are called upon to maintain and, if we have the vision, to expand. Today we are too preoccupied with necessities to worry about embellishments. A great city dies when it deals only with necessity.
New York’s geography is at the root of many of these problems but it also offers virtues: We had to build great soaring bridges, the Brooklyn and the George Washington among others. We built high because we lived in a crowded city, its center constrained by great waterways—and because there is something in American culture that inspired us to build high: Every city on the prairie has built high in the center.
But we have suffered costs as a result of this higher density. I have been trying to make a case for physical planning, major public intervention for the common good. Yes, New York’s economic development is hampered by far too much regulation: The newspapers tell the sad story of projects—public facilities, office buildings, apartment complexes—that cannot make it through the regulatory maze or, if they do, can only do so by being saddled with enormous additional costs. One is reminded of the exclamation of Senator Moynihan, contemplating the debacle of Westway: “How did we ever manage to build the George Washington Bridge?” New York’s development must be unshackled, for it is far too bound by rule and regulation. But the unshackling should be combined with a vision of a better way of life. Unleash the productive forces, but govern them by a larger sense of the common good.
The recent argument over Trump City offers something of a model that suggests a better way to manage. Trump envisaged yet a further increase in giantism. Public agencies offered no resistance. The community did. What has emerged after years of conflict is a plan that basically extends Riverside Drive, with a park in front of it. We were once able to build such complexes of apartment house, road, freeway, and park, and created one of the most desirable living areas of the city. What circumstances made that possible? What could be done to make such embellishments of the city, such contributions to an organic mix of living space and open space and transportation possible again?