While urban rejuvenation of an organic, ground-up kind has worked wonders, we’ve apparently lost the ability to accomplish heroically scaled, top-down development of the Rockefeller Center and Robert Moses sorts: The debacle at ground zero (and Moynihan Station) is a case study in New York dysfunction, a reminder of the bad old pre-311 days. Just as George Bush failed to take advantage of the post-9/11 moment to forge a radically sensible new national energy policy, our local political and business leaders failed to seize the opportunity in 2001 and 2002 to turn the World Trade Center site into something grand and good.
And then there’s this Panic of 2008. What’s happening now—unlike 1974, 1987, 1990, and even 2001—does look and feel not like a mere correction, but rather a much larger historical turn, the end of a hypercapitalist era. A chastened, more prudent Wall Street may be good for America and the world … but perhaps not for New York. Our local renaissance the last quarter-century was fed in large measure by all that cash gushing into the city’s economy, and by all that exuberance—cynical as well as optimistic, irrational and otherwise—coursing out of Wall Street. “This is not going to be a feel-good time,” Mayor Bloomberg said last week, as he proposed raising property taxes by 7 percent immediately.
We have been through booms and busts before. And this being the city it is, the ups and downs seem more extreme and operatic than elsewhere. We are drama queens. “Poor dear reckless New York,” Henry James wrote a century ago. But the city also, in its gimlet-eyed, show-must-go-on way, makes do and muddles through. James: “Its mission would appear to be, exactly, to gild the temporary, with its gold, as many inches thick as may be, and then, with a fresh shrug, a shrug of its splendid cynicism for its freshly detected inability to convince, give up its actual work, however exorbitant, as the merest of stop-gaps.”
What has given and (knock wood) will continue giving New York the ability to recover and regenerate? The subway system. The compactness. The fact that it’s headquarters for not just one but several of the Ur-modern industries—finance as well as fashion as well as marketing as well as media as well as art. The routine difficulty of day-to-day life that makes the city a sort of perpetually toughening boot camp. And the unstoppable inflows of variously dreamy and eager emigrants, from the rest of America and abroad, who keep coming because of the self-consciously thrilling, muscular, glamorous, universally familiar idea of New York City. This is Oz.