As the Mayor’s race begins to heat up, perhaps it’s a good
time to prompt some discussion about not only crime, schools and jobs, but
something both more conceptual and more concrete, such as what kind of city we
want to be.
The words “urban” and
“suburban” are irritatingly vague, and used as both pejorative and praise. To
some, “urban” is still a code word for minorities and crime. To others, it
means sophistication and a willingness to embrace rather than avoid, public
rather than private, a street-based life. “Suburban” can mean narrow, isolating
and sexless, or it can mean families, space and nature.
Some New Yorkers feel that the lines during the Rudy
Giuliani years have been blurred: that the city is becoming too suburban (no
sex shops, no noise, no nightclubs, no crime), and that the funkier streets of
the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s-when the city was a rougher but arguably more
interesting place-are making way for blocks that more closely resemble Garden
City, Long Island (where Rudy grew up). It might be good to clarify the
terminology, because it’s not always clear what people mean, or if they know
New Yorkers aren’t the only ones confused, however. Last
month, 1,000 “New Urbanists” visited the city for their annual convention. New
Urbanism is a movement, probably the leading popular-design philosophy in the
country dedicated to making places more citylike. But those who call themselves
“New Urbanists” are also not sure what that means.
New Urbanists have produced mostly fake urban places, like
Disney’s Celebration in Florida. These places are essentially suburban
subdivisions, built in cornfields and dressed up like small towns. Yet some New
Urbanists, mostly on the West Coast, have helped accomplish more urban goals,
such as building train lines and stopping highways.
Steven Bodzin, the
spokesman for the Congress for New Urbanism, said the group chose New York for
its convention this year because it was alien territory. The Northeast has few
of those cutesy New Urban subdivisions, and the New York architectural
establishment derides New Urbanists for liking the traditional architecture of
columns, cornices and front porches.
“In the New York architectural world, there is a deep
suspicion of New Urbanism,” Mr. Bodzin said. “Our single biggest source of
criticism comes out of New York. So we decided to come here.”
Jonathan Rose, member of the prominent Rose development
family and a developer himself, was the New York host for the convention. An
avuncular man with a bushy beard, Mr. Rose said that New Urbanists can learn
from New York, and vice versa.
“What New Urbanism has is a rap,” he said. “It has been
extremely good at communicating its vision.”
The group’s travel schedule illustrated either its diversity
or its confusion. The conventioneers toured the subway system and Greenwich
Village, but also the placid, quasi-suburban Queens neighborhood of Forest
Hills Gardens, with its privately owned streets. At the conference itself, held
at the Altman building and the adjacent Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th
Street, the group tried to work out its own definitions.
Key indicators popped up. For example, congestion-something
New Yorkers struggle with-may be a sign of success rather than failure.
“We’re in New York because it’s a congested city,” G.B.
Arrington, a transportation planner from Portland, Ore., told a small group.
“Congestion is a sign of vitality. Maybe if your streets aren’t congested,
you’re doing something wrong.”
And how about infrastructure? The average person, I suspect,
does not realize how directly a city’s infrastructure determines its character.
Build more subway lines and you get more city. Build more highways and parking
garages, and you get more traffic and quasi-suburban settings.
Jaquelin Robertson, the elder-statesman architect from
Cooper & Robertson, did a masterful job taking listeners through the city’s
key infrastructure decisions, from the Erie Canal of the 1800’s to Robert Moses
in the 1920’s and 30’s, stringing parkways across the region as “a kind of
“If the Roman Empire was about roads, bridges, aqueducts,
Roman laws and Roman legions, then my adopted New York, the Empire City, was
about parkways, bridges, aqueducts, New York real estate, Penn Station, Yankee
Stadium …, ” Mr. Robertson said.
As a journalist who has
written a book about cities, I have my own views about what constitutes
urban-and what I’d like New York to become. To my mind, urban means building
the Second Avenue subway line and making fewer accommodations for S.U.V.’s and
more for social activities, such as drinking at street fairs or dancing all
night. What urban does not mean, to me, is tolerating crime, incivility or
trash. I would like a safe, diverse, dynamic and clean city with more trains
and fewer cars, with funkier streets and more stoops instead of porches.
Maybe one of the Mayoral candidates will offer his own
answer to the question: How urban do you want New York City to be?
Terry Golway will
return to this spot in several weeks.