What We Built (and Didn’t)

Photo: Katherine Demetriou Sidelsky/Courtesy of the Architectural League

At times during the last decade, it felt as though every part of New York was constantly trying on new identities, and not always so comfortably. “The City We Imagined/The City We Made: New New York 2001–2010,” a sweepingly particular new exhibit presented by the Architectural League in a storefront at 250 Hudson Street, chronicles that period of convulsive construction. On one side of a snaking line of panels is the imagined New York: a time line of dreams, fights, proposals, announcements, visions, and revisions. On the other are 1,000 photographs of the city as it really became. You could walk through the displays repeatedly and follow a different story line each time. The show is a sentimental journey through a decade’s worth of real-estate-development fights.

In these ten years, New Yorkers discussed what was to be built with vituperative intensity. Architecture mattered—architects themselves became celebrities—and the city’s soul always seemed to be hanging in the balance. What dominated discussion were the grandest dreams and angriest battles: the threat of a stadium looming over the West Side, the vision of a jagged Olympic village bristling at Hunters Point, the alternately hopeful and paralytic saga of Moynihan Station, the demoralizing arc of Atlantic Yards, the tortuous tale of the World Trade Center. Many of these are stories of soufflélike fantasies that collapsed and left their sites in 2010 essentially as they were in 2001—or worse.

What emerges from the exhibit is how, even as New York transformed, it hardly changed at all, especially if you compare the aughts with other decades in which the city was remade. In 1920, the elevated subway that sliced through Sunnyside and Woodside ran above barren mudflats; a decade later, those blocks were a dense grid of buildings. It took only a handful of years in the fifties to raze vast swaths of the Lower East Side and erect a mountain range of housing projects. The last decade has not seen mass erasures on that scale.

The Bloomberg administration has encouraged development with an enthusiasm that has frequently had even the mayor’s admirers fuming. But just as often, it has protected the status quo. The Department of City Planning has marched through all five boroughs, rezoning 100 neighborhoods since 2001 and regularly drawing fire for opening up areas like 125th Street, the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, and Hudson Yards to high-rises. But the great majority of changes to the zoning code have involved keeping streets quiet and leafy, buildings low, and development at bay. Currently, the department is studying ways to preserve Astoria’s … Astorianess. Controlling development is also the business of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has designated 170 historic districts and 25 individual buildings since 2002. These actions don’t stop time, but they do prevent the wholesale erasure of our brick-and-brownstone history. Preservation recognizes that people live in New York because they like it here and that keeping it that way is a good investment.

Much of the recent metamorphosis has actually rolled back transformations of previous decades. The renovated Grand Concourse today resembles the airy boulevard of the forties more than it does the devastated artery of the seventies. For all the glass towers and gentrification, this is still largely a city of houses, stoops, and tenements. Rooflines are still crowned with cylindrical water towers. The bodega still thrives—or at least struggles along as it always did.

New York is an aging city in a culture transfixed by youth. Ten years of manic construction were balanced by an outpouring of conservative energy that expressed itself in restoration, retrofitting, protest, and hunkering down. So the next time you pass a block that looks pretty much the way it did a generation ago, remember: The status quo doesn’t happen by itself. Preserving even a part of it is a major urban accomplishment.

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What We Built (and Didn’t)