Which New York Is Yours? A Fierce Preservationist and a Pro-Development Blogger Debate

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At Front and John streets, the Coffee Exchange comes down to make way for One Seaport Plaza, 1982.Photo: Andrew Moore

New York City enacted its Landmarks Law 50 years ago, and the battles that raged then haven’t been stamped out; they just keep taking different forms. In some circles, it seems as if the philosophy of preservation has won: The Museum of the City of New York just opened “Saving Place,” an attractive exhibit that makes a persuasive case that cherishing the past enriches the future. The libertarian Reason magazine, on the other hand, marked the occasion by producing a three-minute video accusing the act of having “bulldozed the future” in the name of the past. 

Although the Landmarks Law has protected 1,400 buildings and created more than 100 historic districts, it doesn’t have anything to say about how those buildings are used, or about the lives lived in and around them. It also doesn’t cover much of what’s under threat today: small businesses, neighborhood character, architecturally unremarkable buildings and blocks, views, culture, community glue, and so on. I called on Jeremiah Moss, the pseudonymous author of the spectacularly gloomy blog Vanishing New York, and Nikolai Fedak, master of New York YIMBY, which cheers real-estate development as the city’s life force, to see whether there’s any common ground where they can both live.

Justin Davidson: I’ve got a pessimist on one side and an optimist on the other, and I’m playing monkey in the middle. Jeremiah, you’ve written a lot bemoaning the disappearance of New York’s character. What does that character actually consist of? If we did make an all-out effort to preserve it, how would we know what to protect?

Jeremiah Moss: I think about character in two ways. First, is there a New York character that exists across time? Can we even talk about that? The city is always changing, and nobody denies that. But I think that there has been at least one constant, which is exceptionalism — a tolerance of difference and diversity. From the beginning, this has always been a place where lots of different cultures can mix and coexist, high, low, rich, poor, across the spectrum, and where people can come and be different. That’s getting lost. The other thing is that when you’re here, you’re somewhere, not nowhere. But the city is losing its New Yorkiness, and it’s become exactly like everywhere else.

Nikolai Fedak: The only unchanging constant in New York is change. Exceptionalism and tolerance are great, but they are a function of how much the city changes, and the turnover in its population. From the beginning, New York has been a magnet for people from all over the world. We want them to come and we want them to stay. We should be doing everything we can to encourage a diverse and growing population.

JD: So are those two views incompatible?

NF: Jeremiah and I agree that there is a problem and that it’s getting worse.

JD: The cost of finding a place to live?

NF: Right. But we have different ideas of how to solve it. I think that preserving buildings is not as important as making sure all those people have decent places to live.

JM: But spaces are important — buildings, but also public spaces, interiors, businesses. We have to preserve those spaces for the people who are going to inhabit them. They’re tearing down the Parish House of the Madison Baptist Church on East 31st Street, which housed a ballet school. Now it’s going to be some horrible condo or hotel.

NF: I agree with you: That’s a travesty. Those hotels are horrible, horrible, horrible.

JM: I mean, look at West 28th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, where the Flower District is. It used to be that you’d walk through a forest of palm trees and then come to the orchids, and there was this wonderful, earthy smell. That’s being wiped away.

NF: Totally agree. That block has three hotels in a row. [Plus another across the street.] It’s a great wall of Gene Kaufman [the aesthetically challenged architect who’s the darling of New York hoteliers]. But if you look at why hotels are popping up all over the place, it’s because of outdated zoning. That’s all you can build in those neighborhoods.

JD: So the key to preserving the city is to reform its zoning? How?

NF: We should allow more residential construction across the board. That’s where the demand is. Right now, some blocks in the Garment District are zoned for industrial use and don’t allow permanent housing. Look, I know we want to preserve manufacturing in New York, but we have to live with the reality of a 21st-century economy, and manufacturing isn’t coming back. So developers have no choice but to put up hotels.

JM: But Bloomberg rezoned half the city! He created the West Chelsea district to link the luxury Meatpacking District with the new Hudson Yards. And in between those two poles was Gasoline Alley, which was all garages and car mechanics and wasn’t pretty, but there was a social network that has been destroyed. And in its place we’re getting luxury housing for the global superrich to park their money in. So when you say it doesn’t matter whether buildings are preserved, I disagree. A little brick building and a tall glass building are going to have different kinds of people living in them.

NF: You’re just looking at the most expensive parts of Manhattan. Under Bloomberg, the outer boroughs were largely down-zoned to prevent new construction and preserve neighborhood character. The effect of that is that small builders have been obliterated: One-, two-, and three-family buildings have fallen off the map since 2008.

JD: Nikolai, you’re talking about measurable aspects of the city: building permits, numbers of units, prices per square foot. Jeremiah, you’re interested in preserving something much more subjective and intangible: authenticity. But what is that? What makes a building or a person or a business authentically New York and therefore worthy of preservation?

JM: That’s a tricky word. I almost don’t want to touch it. The New York I want to live in and came to find is unpredictable and unfamiliar, with a kind of chaos that feeds creativity. Recently, the grandchildren of the people who fled the city in the ‘70s have returned to reclaim it. The geographer Neil Smith called this kind of gentrification “revanchist” — the suburbs were getting revenge on the city. Giuliani had this notion of taking the city back. But the people who are coming back are bringing a suburban mentality. They want neighborhoods to be safe and predictable, and they want to live in a new condo with a grill on the roof that resembles the backyard they grew up in. So the question is: Is that a city anymore?

NF: Of course they want their neighborhoods to be safe! To question that is ridiculous.

JM: I’m not talking about safety from crime. I’m not advocating for an unsafe city. I’m talking about the psychological safety that people feel when they go into a Starbucks or an Olive Garden, or they walk through a neighborhood and it looks familiar.

JD: Aren’t those two kinds of safety-related? When Giuliani decided to crack down on quality-of-life crimes, he was protecting that psychological safety you’re talking about. A low-crime neighborhood manifests its sense of safety in a different way: less broken glass on the sidewalk, pretty flowers on the stoop, trashcans that aren’t overflowing. Doesn’t a neighborhood that worries less about crime come to resemble the bland, placid places you’re objecting to?

JM: No, I don’t think so.

NF: It’s true that people move here from the suburbs, and from a lot of other places, too. Hundreds of thousands of people both from this country and abroad converge on New York every year. They always have. What’s changed is that people aren’t leaving as much as they used to. That a good thing! We should be attracting as many people as possible. New York is one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, and you don’t stay that way by turning people away.

JM: There’s a big difference between the people that used to come and the people who do now. Now they don’t want to become New Yorkers, they want New York to become like them: boring.

NF: People come for the same reason they always have: to make as much money as possible.

JM: See, it didn’t used to be that way. Many people have come here to be authentically themselves, whether they were queer or oddballs or whatever. It had nothing to do with money.

JD: You guys are talking as if what you were saying were mutually exclusive. Aren’t you both right? In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto argues that ever since the New Amsterdam days, this city has been about money, not about religious doctrine or social hierarchies. It was that single-minded focus on business that made it so tolerant and so open to all different kinds of people — even though many of them come, as Jeremiah says, to be poets, dancers, activists, whatever. What’s different now, I think, is that you can come with nothing, but it’s really hard to stay here with nothing.

JM: Exactly.

JD: I think we can all agree that inequality is a severe and worsening problem. At the same time, isn’t economic diversity something we value, too? We don’t want to preserve entrenched poverty, but we also don’t want a homogeneous city of the rich, so don’t we ideally want New York to be a place where you can live on little?

NF: Of course we do. People from all income levels are valuable, and everyone should be coming to New York if they want to, whether they’re poor or rich, and they should have humane housing. We have to compete globally, and we have a city that was built mostly before World War II, a lot of which is falling apart. If you look at the public housing projects and tenements, at the rats and the gas explosions, at what point do you put the quality of human life above old buildings?

JD: So does that mean you’re categorically opposed to preservation?

NF: I think that landmarking historic districts is largely a tool used by the wealthy to raise property values in their neighborhoods. I don’t want to say that it’s a modern-day version of redlining, but it’s not far off. When affluent people come into the city and they’re whiter and wealthier and they can afford lawyers and they have political power, they create historic districts. Is that in the interest of preserving buildings, or preserving the value of their real estate?

JD: So you’d scrap the Landmarks Law?

NF: I’d reform it. If you use it to limit new construction, then you freeze the supply of housing while demand keeps going up, and you get gentrification. Look at Brooklyn Heights. The NIMBYs there are fighting the Pierhouse over a few feet of a mechanical bulkhead. Which shows you what wealth can do: make it a pretty place where nothing new can ever get done.

JD: Yeah, but low-income neighborhoods often object to new construction, too.

NF: Yes, but the outcome is different. In East Harlem, you have a proposal for a 50-story tower on top of the Target, which is going to be fantastic. People in the neighborhood object, but they can’t do anything about it.

JD: So powerlessness leads to a good result?

JM: I want to go back to something Nikolai was saying earlier and question the idea that New York has to compete, that the city has to keep growing, that it has to be the best.  That’s a very corporate notion, and it’s a foreign concept to me. If we just keep growing and competing and winning, where do we end up, ultimately? With a city filled, from borough to borough, with nothing but gleaming skyscrapers. And then the city will die. At what point do we say that’s enough?

NF: But how could that actually happen —?

JM: It already is happening. Julian Brash wrote the book Bloomberg’s New York, in which he described how Bloomberg changed the way we think of the city. He talked about it as a luxury product and about himself as CEO. He treated New Yorkers like consumers rather than citizens. That is a very different way of thinking about people. Citizens speak up and fight for their rights. Consumers don’t.

JD: Fighting for your rights and interests is obviously an important part of citizenship, but it also creates the adversarial situation that Nikolai was describing, in which the wealthy will always have the upper hand. A lot of planning takes place through litigation, which can be democratic without being fair.

JM: Sure, in an ideal world, everyone would have equal access and power, but if they don’t, that just means they have to fight for it.

NF: There’s room here for everyone if you build adequate housing for them. Prewar neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have buildings that don’t meet the standards of 2015. Why should the poor live in such places in order to preserve the architecture?

JD: There are plenty of wealthy people living in old buildings with creaky plumbing, too.

JM: So, Nikolai, do you have a fantasy that if you tore down and rebuilt all those buildings, the people who live there would be able to move back in?

NF: My fantasy is a New York where everyone has access to comfortable housing.

JM: Well, yeah, how can I disagree with that? My apartment is a shithole. But I have to hold on to my shithole. I have to fight for my shithole.

NF: That mentality is what makes it impossible for the city to accommodate more people.

JM: I don’t want to accommodate more people. There are too many fucking people here already.

NF: There! That’s the difference between us. I think the city needs to evolve, and Jeremiah’s nostalgic for the city of the past.

JM: What I’m nostalgic for is the city of the present.

JD: I’m still trying to reconcile your two points of view. The great thing about this city is its ability to embrace opposites. Change is one constant in New York’s history; the other is nostalgia. I think it has room for fierce capitalism and also for unremunerative creativity, for preservation and vigorous development. That’s my fantasy, anyway.

JM: I’m looking for that balance, too. But we’ve gone way too far in the direction of a big, corporate, money-is-the-be-all-and-end-all ethos. We need to course-correct.

JD: And I know one way you’re trying to do that with the #SaveNYC campaign. Tell us about that.

JM: I’ve been documenting the loss of small businesses. #SaveNYC is trying to protect them. Our first initiative is to get the Small Business Survival Act passed in City Council. Then I hope we can introduce something like San Francisco’s ordinance to control the spread of chain stores. I’m not talking about getting rid of all them. It’s a question of balance.

JD: That’s a tough sell in the cradle of capitalism. Commercial rent control has never gone anywhere in New York, and it’s hard to argue that it’s fair for the government to help out one kind of business at the expense of another.

NF: Jeremiah, you’re saying we have to give tax dollars to protect small businesses?

JM: Well, so many of our tax dollars already go to huge corporations as giveaways and incentives, so let’s not go there. When a store [has] been there for 100 years and plays a role in the community, we should recognize that the business is important, the interior is important, the family lineage is important. Small-business owners watch the street, and they know people. They hold the character of New York, they preserve a visually vibrant streetscape. If you put up walls of glass like the Avalon on Bowery, you lose all these little stores, and that changes the experience of walking. We also need to protect cultural institutions, places where people can make art and take dance lessons. That’s being wiped away. That New York is under attack, and it needs to be protected.

JD: Nikolai, I know you’re an unreconstructed capitalist, but wouldn’t you agree with Jeremiah that there are some businesses whose value can’t be measured only in terms of revenue? Don’t they bring a benefit to the city that deserves support, even if the market is more ruthless?

NF: Many small businesses fail within the first five years. That encourages innovation. I don’t think the state should subsidize businesses, and I wouldn’t want commercial rent control. But I would encourage a built fabric that encourages small business. Instead, Bloomberg obliterated small residential construction — the kind that might have had small shops at the ground floor.

JD: Nikolai, after 50 years of the landmarks law, do you really believe it should never have been enacted? I mean, the historic fabric is part of the reason people come here, so in that sense, doesn’t it promote the city’s growth?

NF: I think the way we create historic districts is flawed. My problem is with choking off new construction, not with preserving the existing façade. The skin-deep beauty of old neighborhoods has value. You could tear down the interiors of entire blocks, but maybe get a density bonus for incorporating an old stone wall.

JD: A whole city full of movie-set façades? You’ve just caused preservationists all across the city to drive stakes into their hearts.

NF: Good.

JD: So if we’re at least agreed that your two points of view are in irreconcilable conflict, which one is winning the future of New York right now?

NF: Neither. The city is torn between nostalgia and growth. And if policy keeps lagging behind, it could easily throttle success.

JM: Amanda Burden often said that, thanks to Bloomberg, “we are building and rezoning today once again like Moses on an unprecedented scale, but with Jane Jacobs in mind.” That’s oxymoronic. You can’t do both. As for who’s winning the future of New York, it’s clearly the followers of Moses. The preservationists are the underdogs here.

*This is an extended version of an article that appears in the May 4, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.