How Urban Should Your City Be?

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

themselves.

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

infrastructure emperor.”

“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.