MAS Summit 2015: The City We Want

In the 1970s, New York City seemed trapped in a death spiral. Crime was up, tax revenue was down. The Bronx was burning. Whites were fleeing the city for suburbia. President Ford said to the city "drop dead."

Fast forward forty years. Now New York seems trapped in a different sort of spiral. Crime is down, but gentrification is up. The Bronx is rumored to be the next "hot" borough, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and even Queens having become unaffordable. Artists are fleeing the city for Detroit. Mom-and-pop-shops are dying off at an alarming rate.

So the theme of this year's Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City--"The City We Want--couldn't be more timely. The summit was a grueling, non-stop two-day marathon of presentations by architects, urban planners, and assorted policy wonks. As Mary Rowe, Executive Vice President of MAS, said in her introduction, "hold onto your hats, this is going to be a fast ride." She wasn't kidding. Sessions included:

  • New York's greatest looming infrastructure crisis: How do we plan, fund, and achieve a solution for Penn Station and the Gateway Tunnels?

  • Debating Supertalls: When & where is a supertall worth it, and how can we measure their impact?
  • "The Next 50" Years of Preservation: using preservation to reimagine legacy spaces, from turning the TWA Flight Center into a hotel, to reopening the New York State Pavilion, to the long lost Spivak mural discovered in a midtown lobby this year, and more.
  • The state of urban resilience: Three years after Sandy, are we any safer?
  • The future of public/private partnerships and our underfunded parks system: A look at Pier55.
  • New York's Museum Growth Spurt: From the Frick to the Museum of Natural History to MoMA and more, can cultural institutions grow without overtaking neighborhoods?
  • Checking in on the de Blasio administration's affordable housing program: Are we making progress?
  • The highlight was "#SaveNYC: Preserving the Fabric of New York City's Vanishing Streetscape." Jeremiah Moss, the founder of #SaveNYC and the blogger behind Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, spoke movingly about how New York City was dying an unnatural death, done in by the perfidies of the Bloomberg administration. "New York is not Peoria!"

    Jeremiah's talk was accompanied by heartbreaking before-and-after photos by James and Karla Murray of unique Mom-and-Pop shops, some of them dating back generations, replaced by soulless chains or just left standing empty by greedy landlords. (James and Karla Murray will be appearing at Rizzoli Books on Nov. 23rd to sign and talk about their new book, Store Front II: A History Preserved: The Disappearing Face of New York).

    The summit coincided with the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the patron saint of small, diverse, vibrant neighborhoods. There was a forum open to the general public in the evening dedicated to her, and a specific session on "Celebrating the City: Jane Jacobs at 100."

    Unfortunately, the ghost of Jacobs' old nemesis, Robert Moses, was also lurking about. Some planners spoke blithely about leveling "underperforming" blocks to build a new Penn Station and relocate Madison Square Garden. The ethics of supertalls was debated, but there seemed to be little support for Manhattan Community Board Five Chair's Layla Law-Gisiko's proposal to "pause" construction until the impact could be measured.

    Most disappointingly, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development Alicia Glen--from the supposedly more enlightened de Blasio administration--didn't seem to support any sort of commercial rent control. In a session ironically titled "Fostering Economic Diversity," she dismissed the idea, saying "Some small businesse are probably going to just fail because they are not very good business." Mom-and-pops, she implied, were fine for the outer boroughs, but not Manhattan. So much for Peoria!

    The summit fittingly ended with an excerpt from a new opera in development about the titanic struggle between Jacobs and Moses: A Marvelous Order. Gotterdammerung, anyone? I'll let Jacobs have the last word. They are, unfortunately, as prophetic today as the day they were written. From her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

    But look what we have built with the first several billions...Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone except bums, who have fewer choices of loitering places than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping...This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.