Our city is molting.
Bricks flake away. So do brittle fire escapes, terra-cotta encrustations, old paint, cracked stoops, faded awnings, sash windows, and stone laurels fashioned a century ago by Sicilian carvers. New York is shucking off its aging walk-ups, its small and mildewed structures, its drafty warehouses, cramped stores, and idle factories. In their place, the city is sprouting a hard, glistening new shell of glass and steel. Bright, seamless towers with fast elevators and provisional views spring up over a street-level layer of banks and drugstores. In some cities, a building retains the right to exist until it’s proved irredeemable. Here, colossal towers are merely placeholders, temporary arrangements of future debris. New York lives by a philosophy of creative destruction. The only thing permanent about real estate is a measured patch of earth and the column of air above it. The rest is disposable.
And the metamorphosis has sped up. In the past fifteen fat years, more than 76,000 new buildings have gone up, more than 44,000 were razed, another 83,000 were radically renovated—a rate of change that evokes those time-lapse nature films in which flowers spring up and wither in a matter of seconds. For more than a decade, we have awakened to jackhammers and threaded our way around orange plastic netting, calculating that, since our last haircut, workers have added six more stories to that high-rise down the block. Now that metamorphosis is slowing as the economy drags. Buildings are still going up, but the boom is winding down. Before the next one begins is a good time to ask, has this ferment improved New York or eaten away at the city’s soul?
Some see this sustained spasm of building as an urban lobotomy, in which the city has sacrificed its eccentricities and variety to placid prosperity. I am more optimistic, but to test that feeling against unsightly reality, I decide to canvass the city, inventory the construction that so many New Yorkers revile, and see what is worth defending. The results of my tour (or 54 side-by-side comparisons, at least) appear on these pages. Half a century ago, similar upheavals resulted from urban-renewal campaigns and social housing planted on the scale of midwestern corn. This time the boom has happened lot by lot. I see single-family houses on Staten Island and a vertical metropolis at Columbus Circle, juice-carton towers and displays of virtuoso design. In some cases, the same architects have built for sybarites (Polshek Partnership’s Standard Hotel, which stands, Colossus-like, astride the High Line) and for the low-income, elderly, and disabled (Polshek’s Schermerhorn House in Brooklyn). I hear the wails of those who mourn the city they knew decades, years, or weeks ago, but I come away satisfied that the boom has left us a better town.
I start my peregrinations at the corner of Bowery and Houston Street, which has rolled over from a rank and raffish past to a more sedate kind of glumness. Here, in the last few years, graffiti-encrusted storefronts have made way for a pair of hulking rental boxes by the suburban developer AvalonBay Communities. On the south side of Houston is the company’s first Manhattan beachhead, Avalon Chrystie Place, which is marginally edgier than its usual pabulum. Paired with SLCE, Arquitectonica, the firm that brought you the gaudy Westin hotel in Times Square, has restrained itself to the point of invisibility, giving the façade a smattering of texture that does little to lighten the dumpy massing. A vast Whole Foods took most of the retail space, confirming fears of a middle-class takeover of the Lower East Side: The tofu’s fine and the living is easy, but couldn’t class warfare be waged with better design?
Leaping across Houston Street, AvalonBay leveled McGurk’s, a rickety five-story dive that in the 1890s employed whores so desperate that the place came to be known as Suicide Hall. The glass block that went up instead—Avalon Bowery Place—might not oppress its residents quite that much, but its aggressive blandness has a way of chipping at the soul. A gimcrack look is nearly all that connects the reflective interloper to the dark, medieval dwellings all around. You don’t have to be ancient to remember the Bowery’s concordance of ravaged masonry and human ruins, who tottered from flophouse to dive to doorway. Now the closest thing to a den of sin is Bruce Willis’s wine bar, Bowery Wine Company, which a few dozen neighbors welcomed with placards that read DIE HARD YUPPIE SCUM. The National Trust for Historic Preservation tried more-genteel tactics: It has put the area on its list of “Most Endangered Historic Places.”
As I make my way up the new boulevard of Bowery toward the de-punked East Village, I think about the trade-offs. As the grandchild of Lower East Side tenement dwellers, I sympathize with preservationist sentiments. We need to remember, if not actually to relive, the experience of this once colorfully impoverished neighborhood. And yet it’s one thing to preserve the traces of history, as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum does; it’s another to fetishize misery. This slum sucked in huddled masses who craved less putrid air, more abundant food, and a little more space between one person and the next. Is it right to romanticize what they wanted desperately to escape? Hasn’t the birthplace of Gertel’s and Katz’s earned itself a place to buy organic spelt? Avalon’s ersatz châteaux could have been more graceful, but is the transformation they’ve helped to wreak really so dismal? Bad architecture can be good for people, too.