No single building can revive a borough, but one that is nearing completion shows what can be achieved by the bundling of government, talent, and goodwill. Via Verde, an apartment building that doesn’t sacrifice either genuine affordability or architectural elegance, was designed by Grimshaw and Dattner and developed by Jonathan Rose Companies and the nonprofit Phipps Houses, who cobbled together every available scrap of subsidy. It’s not the usual brick block or huddled bunker, but a light, airy complex that curls around a skinny lot, rising from townhouses to a tower and inviting neighbors to gather in its open-air amphitheater or stroll through a series of rooftop gardens spread out across multiple levels, like a miniature Bronx Versailles. The design is full of thoughtful details, from the interlocking duplex apartments to the positioning of windows for cross-ventilation, to the syncopated rhythm of light fixtures down each hallway. The minutiae matter because they reaffirm the tattered belief that good housing shouldn’t be a luxury.
The parallel histories of Melrose and Medellín offer a template for a city that is nearly as economically divided as the cross-border sprawl Cruz has studied. A steady drip of individual projects—a greenway, a park, a mall, a food market, a museum, a courthouse, apartment blocks—has brought fresh vigor to the Bronx and made it possible to envision weaving them together with bike lanes, urban farms, pedestrian corridors, and free and frequent buses making local loops on dedicated lanes. A poor borough rich in entrepreneurial energy and bold ideas (tear down the Sheridan Expressway!), the Bronx is poised to turn itself into a global model of enlightened urbanism. Knitting together parks, libraries, transit, streets, and education for a city’s poorest residents—making small changes on a vast scale—is something only government can do. New York needs what Cruz calls an “urban curator,” a municipal architect with the inventiveness and clout to turn a tangle of agencies and philanthropies into a coordinated progressive squad.
Such a person might start a dozen or so miles to the south in Brownsville, where subsidized housing has replaced many empty lots, but there is still room for a colorful and architecturally dramatic network of sports facilities, libraries, community centers, food markets, arts spaces, and public gardens. The specifics of where these facilities should go, whom they should serve, and how they should be built can’t be airily dictated from here; they should emerge from a deep collective immersion into the neighborhood’s needs, followed by a period of urgent construction. New York doesn’t need ski lifts to reach high-altitude slums, but it does need the focused, tenacious eagerness to act on such a crazy idea. Greening Brownsville may seem like a luxurious fantasy, but we can draw a sheepish sort of inspiration from the words: “like they do in Medellín.”
New York has a long if fitful tradition of progressive urbanism. You can see it in the reformed building codes that followed Jacob Riis’s reports of slum life; in the Bronx cooperatives built by Jewish factory workers in the twenties; in the pools and playgrounds that Robert Moses scattered around the city in the thirties; and in the subway system itself. The key to New York’s future is to recycle its pioneering past. We can canvass Asian insta-cities and scrape Scandinavian capitals for ideas, but inevitably we will come up with innovations that New York already has in its bones. KPF has ridden out the recession by building immense multiuse transit hubs in China that act as catalysts for large-scale development—yet two blocks from their office is the source of that model: Grand Central Terminal. The New York architect Steven Holl has designed a cluster of skyscrapers around a public space in Chengdu, China, that he calls “Sliced Porosity” but might more descriptively be called Rockefeller Center East. Even New Songdo’s cutting-edge pneumatic waste system, which sucks garbage through tubes, eliminating heavy bags and smelly trucks, has a generation-old precedent on Roosevelt Island. These things have embedded themselves so deeply in the fabric of metropolitan life that we forget that they were once radical. Conjuring a brighter, higher, faster, and more humane city does not mean indulging in some exotic reverie. New York has always thought of itself that way: in the future tense.