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The Next Big Things

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Airport links? Think of Paris, where, for about $8, the RER will carry you from Charles de Gaulle to any of several central Paris locations in 30 to 40 minutes. Most cities have such systems, the jewel being London's Heathrow Express, opened last year. For £10, passengers are whisked aboard luxurious trains from Paddington Station to the airport in fifteen minutes. And get this: They can receive their boarding passes at Paddington and check their bags to their flight destination.

Waterfront access? Go to Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Fells Point; ride a bike along the Potomac in Washington, or the Charles in Boston and Cambridge, where idyllic paths run for miles and miles; in Philadelphia, visit the art museum and stroll down to the banks of the Schuylkill. New York has a few nice waterfront havens, and at least our planners have finally recognized that the water is a public amenity. Of course, virtually every other city was on to this in the late seventies.

Things weren't always this bleak. New York became great in no small part because of what it built. "The biggest bridges and the deepest tunnels and the greatest water works and the best damn parks," says Moynihan. "You name it, we did it. And others copied it."

But we stopped. We came to view building as passé, or even counterproductive. The view took hold in the sixties for a variety of a reasons. First, Robert Moses's hubris destroyed not only him but the grand public projects he stood for: "The reason there hasn't been another Robert Moses," says Albert Appleton of the Regional Plan Association, "is Robert Moses." It wasn't just that Moses remade the city, building the maze of highways that only served to encourage more people to drive and made traffic worse (not everything our predecessors built was ingenious); he also ended up leaving the public distrustful of large projects in general.

When Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, arguing for smaller-scale, organic urban environments, anti-Moses sentiment found its full-throated voice. At the same time, Tammany Hall went into decline -- and whatever else Tammany did, it built, built, and built -- and was replaced by a welfare-state liberalism that took money out of capital projects and put it into social-service programs.

By the early seventies, then, the ethos of building large public works that made New York the great city it became was turned on its head. Now community control became the watchword; community boards were created; new rules were written requiring any project to run a gauntlet of agency reviews and approval processes, and, as Appleton puts it, "no one had an interest in saying yes, and everyone had an interest in saying no." The point was not to build but to block. "The way to political notoriety in those days," says builder and civic leader Richard Ravitch, "was to represent the voice of some community or neighborhood and to stop some project from happening. It was culturally out of sorts to be for building things." Then came the fiscal crisis, and all bets were off.

Now, finally, a consensus is emerging that the past 30 years' conventional wisdom has to be changed. Governor Pataki, who's thrown himself into the Penn Station project and proposed others, appears to understand it. So, obviously, does Moynihan, who's been warning about such needs for years. Senator Chuck Schumer recently announced his support for a major subway expansion. Mayor Giuliani is a little too obsessed with stadiums, which have to rank toward the bottom of our public needs, but his administration is doing the right thing on other fronts, pushing the crucial cross-harbor rail-freight tunnel, for example.

All over the city, community groups and land-use mavens have drawn up plans -- not pie-in-the-sky, we-don't-care-what-it-costs plans but well-thought-out ideas for self-sustaining, mixed-use conversions of waterfront areas that are now little more than liability suits waiting to happen. Every one of the two dozen or so people I spoke with for this article -- elected officials, appointed ones, builders, and other civic leaders -- agreed that the time is right to make New York better, more comfortable, and more competitive.


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