Manhattan Project


They told us recently that consensus has emerged on the rebuilding of lower Manhattan. How nice. Part of the reason for this consensus may be that few of us have any idea what exactly is going on. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) has released nothing but vague documents. Yet architect David Childs, of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), presented plans last week for the first building on the site, a typical glassy skyscraper at 7 World Trade Center. In some quarters then, plans are breeding. But if consensus exists, one wonders, who exactly has agreed upon what?

To answer this, there is no need to trot out another account of the power interests, mostly wired to the governor, jockeying over the World Trade Center site. The consensus has little to do with these matters. Instead, what those with influence have apparently agreed upon is that the rebuilding will be the publicly funded masterstroke in a long campaign to gentrify and generally rich up the island of Manhattan.

The LMDC’s 11 guiding principles are wonderfully esoteric. Take number six, “Develop Lower Manhattan as a diverse, mixed-use magnet for the arts, culture, tourism, education, and recreation, complemented with residential, commercial, retail and neighborhood amenities.” Who could disagree? People often use the phrase “mixed use” to stand in for the less welcome phrase “mixed income.” Contrary to popular belief, the two are not the same, and what is missing from preliminary plans are assurances that Lower Manhattan will remain a place where New Yorkers with a range of incomes can make a life for themselves. If there’s housing, will there be truly affordable housing? If there’s art space, will there be low-rent space to sustain a developing creative population? If there’s public space, will there be welcoming, democratic public space, or will it be, as urbanist Andrew Ross recently wrote of Battery Park City, a place where “the sharing of public space . . . still feels like a privilege and not a right”?

These questions are not even on the map now. Without them, what good could come of this? A new downtown mall? A home for global mega-firms receiving large grants to settle there? Upscale housing at high rents with the upscale tenants who can afford them? The city’s largest tourist boomtown? Some may be surprised that a plan strikingly similar to the one guiding the LMDC was submitted to the mayor some time ago. Drafted by downtown business tycoons through the mouthpiece currently known as the Downtown Alliance—with help from the same architects, Skidmore Owings & Merrill— the plan warned that firms would abandon the city unless officials swiftly built more commercial space and new rail connections, deported the Fulton Fish market, and relocated manufacturers in favor of residents downtown. The residents could “stimulate the development of shopping facilities, restaurants, places of entertainment . . . which would prove highly desirable for use by the daytime working population as well.”

Sound familiar? That plan came out October 14, 1958. It was part of David Rockefeller’s attempt to bolster land values near his new Chase Manhattan Plaza. The World Trade Center was the apotheosis of his campaign, and it’s amazing how little 44 years and an attack unprecedented in the country’s history have changed things. Hell, the Downtown Alliance and SOM are still leading the charge.

Was there any alternative vision? The clearest sense of one appears in the new collection After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City. Andrew Ross calls it the “parochial neighborhood.” Scholar Moustafa Bayoumi describes the “constellation” of small shops that defined Little Syria (which was displaced by the Trade Center). Historian Jack Tchen evocatively dubs it “port culture.” By all this they mean the multiethnic city, the arriving-on-boats-and-selling-your-wares city, the mosaic city, the accidental-interactions city, the human-scale city, the mixed-use and mixed-income city, the free city.

The LMDC is set to bid an ultimate farewell to any such versions of urban landscape, thereby completing the work of Rockefeller, who back in 1958 had choice words for it: “inefficient,” “a source of infection,” “undesirable.” Urban renewal was always a gambit to reclaim the core from the poor. The ’90s boom accelerated this initiative. The rebuilding effort could be its endgame maneuver. Not the renewal of urbanism it could be, but only the high-profile accoutrement to the moving of the fish market to the Bronx, the unceasing gentrification of Harlem, Washington Heights, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Lower East Side, the shuttering of Chinatown’s garment factories, the assault on the community gardens, the city disposition programs that hustle public land into private hands, the gleaming Olympic dreams on the West Side, the East Harlem mall, the assault on Upper West Side SROs, the creep of Columbia and NYU, the Mitchell-Lama buyouts, and the ever hungry “new Times Square.”

If the rebuilders of Lower Manhattan do not now implement provisions to foster economic and social diversity, their project will only be the jewel in the crown of this new White City. One could argue that with its international scope and victims, September 11 was the first global tragedy of the 21st century. If the human side of globalization has always been the story of people moving, as opposed to just violence and cash, then this would be a sadly inadequate response to such a tragedy, and would spell a dreary fate for our immigrant city. A jingoistic “Freedom Park,” rather than the more self-reflexive memorial warranted by September 11, will provide slim consolation.