The Fate of a City

SUBHEAD: The Frank Gehry condos and the Robert Stern hedge fund aeries recently built are already obsolete.

By James Kunstler on 13 January 2014 for -

Image above: Frank Gehry highrise luxury apartments at 8 Spruce Street in downtown Manhattan. From (

I was born and raised in New York City, on the east side of Manhattan (with a brief intermezzo in the long Island Suburbs (1954 – 1957) though I have lived upstate, two hundred miles north of the city, for decades since. I go back from time to time to see publishers and get some cosmopolitan thrills. One spring morning a couple of years back, toward the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s reign, I was walking across Central Park from my hotel on West 75th Street to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I had an epiphany.

Which was that Central Park, and indeed much of the city, had never been in such good condition in my lifetime. The heart of New York had gone through a phenomenal restoration.

When I was a child in the 1960s, districts like Tribeca, Soho, and the Bowery were the realms of winos and cockroaches. The brutes who worked in the meatpacking district had never seen a supermodel. Brooklyn was as remote and benighted as Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania.

The Central Park Zoo was like a set from Riot in Cellblock D, and the park itself was desecrated with the aging detritus of Robert Moses’s awful experiments in chain-link fencing as a decorative motif. Then, of course, came the grafitti-plagued 1970s summed up by the infamous newspaper headline [President] Ford to City: Drop Dead.

Now, the park was sparkling. The sheep’s meadow was lovingly re-sodded, many of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original structures, the dairy, the bow bridge, the Bethesda Fountain, were restored. Million dollar condos were selling on the Bowery.

Where trucks once unloaded flyblown cattle carcasses was now the hangout of movie and fashion celebrities. Brooklyn was a New Jerusalem of the lively arts. And my parents could never have afforded the 2BR/2bath apartment (with working fireplace) that I grew up in on East 68th Street.

The catch to all this was that the glorious rebirth of New York City was entirely due to the financialization of the economy. Untold billions had streamed into this special little corner of the USA since the 1980s, into the bank accounts of countless vampire squidlets engaged in the asset-stripping of the rest of the nation.

So, in case you were wondering, all the wealth of places like Detroit, Akron, Peoria, Waukegan, Chattanooga, Omaha, Hartford, and scores of other towns that had been gutted and retrofitted for suburban chain-store imperialism, or served up to the racketeers of “Eds and Meds,” or just left for dead — all that action had been converted, abracadabra, into the renovation of a few square miles near the Atlantic Ocean.

Nobody in the lamebrain New York based media really understands this dynamic, nor do they have a clue what will happen next, which is that the wealth-extraction process is now complete and that New York City has moved over the top of the arc of rebirth and is now headed down a steep, nauseating slope of breakdown and deterioration, starting with the reign of soon-to-be hapless Bill de Blasio.

Mayor Bloomberg was celebrated for, among other things, stimulating a new generation of skyscraper building. There is theory which states that an empire puts up its greatest monumental buildings just before it collapses. I think it is truthful. This is what you are now going to see in New York, especially as regards the empire of Wall Street finance, which is all set to blow up.

The many new skyscrapers recently constructed for the fabled “one percent”— the Frank Gehry condos and the Robert A.M. Stern hedge fund aeries — are already obsolete. The buyers don’t know it. In the new era of capital scarcity that we are entering, these giant buildings cannot be maintained (and, believe me, such structures require incessant, meticulous, and expensive upkeep).

Splitting up the ownership of mega-structures into condominiums under a homeowners’ association (HOA) is an experiment that has never been tried before and now we are going to watch it fail spectacularly. All those towering monuments to the beneficent genius of Michael Bloomberg will very quickly transform from assets to liabilities.

This is only one feature of a breakdown in mega-cities that will astonish those who think the trend of hypergrowth is bound to just continue indefinitely. It will probably be unfair to blame poor Mr. de Blasio (though he surely can make the process worse), even as it would be erroneous to credit Michael Bloomberg for what financialization of the economy accomplished in one small part of America.


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