In the Vanguard Of a Sea Change

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The New York Sun

Many of the world’s great cities, like Venice, Italy; Paris; and Buenos Aires, Argentina, are now essentially complete. They have swelled to their foreordained limits and been filled with most of the building stock they’ll ever need. But even though New York has existed for nearly four centuries, it is still very much a work in progress: Not only are its specific streetscapes in constant flux, but the grand strategy of the entire city, the very role and function it should serve, is undergoing a revolution from an industrial to a post-industrial state. This sea change can be seen throughout the world, but New York is in the vanguard, exactly as it was in the rise of the modern city a century ago.

If you want material proof of this revolution, walk along the far West Side of Manhattan Island, from the Chelsea Piers at 23rd Street down through the West Village. Many changes have taken place in the past decade or so, with more on the way. In addition to the Chelsea Piers, perhaps the earliest harbinger of this change, are the art galleries of Chelsea, the Chelsea Art Museum at 22nd Street, the three residential towers designed over the past five years by Richard Meier at Perry and Charles streets, the Hudson River Park that will one day connect the Battery to Riverside Park, and a new office tower designed by Frank Gehry at Twelfth Avenue and 18th Street.

For much of its earlier history, of course, New York was coterminous with Manhattan Island at the center of New York Harbor. As such, it was a maritime entity: The water at its circumference was spiritually at its center. Since World War II, however, a variety of social and technological forces, from cars and airplanes to the rise of containers in moving cargo, exploded the maritime rationale for New York City until, by the 1970s, it had ceased to exist. As the city’s magnetic charge, so to speak, flipped from the circumference to the center, Manhattan, which had once been its sailors and longshoremen, its piers and masts and the Fulton Fish Market, became Central Park, Fifth Avenue, and Times Square.


Once maritime Manhattan had passed away, the city’s circumference very quickly became a grimy no man’s land. No longer a destination, it assumed all those functional necessities that were deemed too ugly, too déclassé, to exist anywhere near the exalted center of the island. Garages and car repairs, power stations and sanitation hubs all accumulated around the edges like barnacles clinging to the timbers of a rotting ship.

But over the past 10 or so years, a new urbanistic process has emerged, one that really picked up speed around 2000. First world cities, once essential organs of manufacture and commerce, have lost their sense of functional necessity: With exponential improvements in communications and transportation, it is no longer imperative that one be physically present in a city, as had once been the case. In response to their vanishing functionalism, certain urban centers, and none more than Manhattan, have increasingly reinvented themselves as zones of culture and recreation: The loading docks of Chelsea have become art galleries; the abattoirs of the Meatpacking District are now upscale restaurants, and the waterfront itself, once essential to the city’s economic commerce, has become a park.

In one of the ironies of urban history, the disappearance of New York’s functionalism has only increased the city’s drawing power. But the new inhabitants of the far West Side, and of New York City in general, are very different from the old. While residential Manhattan has historically been limited to a relatively few desirable zones, now the urge to live here is so great that, henceforth, no parcel of the island will ever again appear unworthy of residential development. Even the once off-limits zone of infrastructure that is the far West Side has become the object of such longing among the latest generation of home-makers, that even Martha Stewart, who can live anywhere she wants, has bought one of the apartments in Richard Meier’s Perry Street Towers.


This reinvention of the far West Side has coincided with the emergence of a new phase of taste among the younger generation, an appreciation of hulking, superannuated infrastructure, no longer as a functional necessity, but as a compelling, and quintessentially urban, backdrop. Just as the 18th century discovered the natural sublime, so today many people find a kind of man-made sublimity in the hulks of a city’s decaying infrastructure. The West Side of Manhattan, with its stumps of rotting piers, its salt-bitten iron-works collapsing into the Hudson, its massive smokestacks that have emitted no smoke in decades, above all such landmarks as the High Line, suggests to the latest generation a virile and purposive past that, even as it is being transcended, is scrupulously preserved.

For this reason, the development of Twelfth Avenue below 23rd Street does not and will not resemble the usual developments that you see in New York. Most people don’t realize that Park Avenue rises over the tracks leading north from Grand Central. This fact was vigorously suppressed by the developers of the past 100 years. On the Far West Side, however, the train tracks and the smokestacks are the area’s main selling points. In the process, the grunge aesthetic has migrated from torn jeans and a three-day growth of beard to architecture and urban planning, as a whole new generation of New Yorkers has taken to slumming on the far West Side.

The New York Sun

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