Paul Goldberger and Skyscraper Economist Jason Barr Debate the Manhattan Skyline

manhattanpanorama1906 Paul Goldberger and Skyscraper Economist Jason Barr Debate the Manhattan Skyline

Manhattan 1906, in the throws of a boom.

Last week, The Observer learned with the help of Rutgers economics professor Jason Barr that the reason for the development of Midtown apart from Lower Manhattan, and the skyscrapers both possess, had nothing to do with bedrock beneath these towers, as had long been believed.  Call it the uncanny valley, the soaring mountain range that makes the New York City skyline the best in the world.

Having determined what was not the cause of this unique skyline, The Observer thought we had figured out what was, that being the flight of the wealthy north.  But it turns out one very influential urban investigator begged to differ: New Yorker architecture critic and Pullitzer Prize winner Paul Goldberger.

Mr. Goldberger left an unexpected if incisive comment on our article with his own theory about the skyscraper’s northern migration:

This reminds me of the old joke about a sociologist being someone who comes into a new city and studies all the demographic data to predict where the most likely house of prostitution will be, whereas anyone else would just ask a cab driver.  Of course bedrock has nothing to do with skyscraper location and with the fact that Manhattan has two business centers. Neither does the movement of the wealthy. It’s transportation.

Nowhere in this article does anyone talk about Grand Central Terminal and the fact that in the late 19th century pre-electric trains were banned south of 42nd Street, which is why GCT was built there, and why the midtown district developed around there. Lower Manhattan is a product of history; midtown a product of transportation access. When GCT was electrified and rebuilt in 1913, then midtown’s growth, relatively modest up to that point, truly exploded.

Mr. Barr counters that his research on Manhattan core samples actually undermines this explanation, to a degree, at least when looking at his historical focus from 1890 to 1915, when the first boom in skyscraper development began and before the city codified what had been fairly organic development in the first zoning laws adopted in 1916. He emails:

Mr. Goldberger raises an important question about the role that Grand Central Station played in the development of Midtown. However, the answer is both more subtle and less obvious than one might guess. The original Grand Central Depot opened in its current location in 1871. City officials mandated that the New York Central place its terminal well north of the congested business district of lower Manhattan. The tracks coming into the city were above-ground and trains bellowed steam and smoke along Park Avenue. Because of this, the neighborhood around the station remained unattractive for more than 40 years.

In our study, we investigate the locations of the first generation of skyscrapers, between 1890 and 1915 (before zoning). Most skyscrapers near the terminal were built during the second generation, after World War I. Thus the role of the station was to enhance development of midtown, but it was by no means its initial cause.

Of the 74 skyscrapers that were completed by 1915, only four were constructed directly adjacent to Grand Central Station. Three of them were built in anticipation of or after the enclosure and electrification of the tracks in 1913; the fourth, the Belmont Hotel, was completed in 1908.  The growth of midtown, however, was well underway before then.

Looking at the location choices of early skyscraper developers reveals that their initial interests were not the area of East 42nd Street. Rather developers were primarily locating skyscrapers around Union and Madison squares. These locations were natural draws for the well-to-do because they were quiet, park-filled neighborhoods above the fray of a bustling and slum-filled lower New York.  It is within this context that we see skyscraper developers “jumping” from downtown to midtown at the turn of the 20th century; the majority of these “jumps” were to Union and Madison squares.

More broadly, because of the common perception that bedrock depths were most crucial in the development of the skyline, our published study directly aims to measure the effect of bedrock. Our study reveals a relatively minor role for bedrock depths, and it also reveals a relatively minor role for Grand Central Station.  More importantly, the formation of the skyline was driven by no one single thing, it was driven by several general demographic and economic factors, such as population density, employment locations, land values, and access to elevated railroads.

The Observer shared Mr. Barr’s take with Mr. Goldberger, and in the end, it seems they are more in agreement than disagreement, and this is simply a matter of when, not how:

I don’t know that Jason Barr and I differ all that much here, and I certainly agree with his basic premise that the presence or absence of bedrock is largely irrelevant to decisions about where skyscrapers were located. He argued that tall buildings spread beyond their historic beginnings in Lower Manhattan toward midtown because developers were following the rich as they moved uptown, which is absolutely true.

The history of Manhattan in the 19th century and for a good portion of the 20th is a history of relentless northward growth, and it happened in uneven fits and starts, not only because of economic cycles, but also because of non-skyscraper development that blocked simple northward expansion. It’s significant that the industrial district we now know as SoHo didn’t give way to skyscrapers; when the skyscraper was still new, so was SoHo, and in the 19th century it was the city’s industrial fringe, so major commercial high-rise development understandably leapfrogged over it in search of more tranquil sites. You could think of the early development of Union and Madison squares as being conceptually closer to suburban office buildings of today than urban ones, in that they represented an attempt to break away from the congested commercial center, most of which was still all the way downtown. Union and Madison Squares grew rapidly, supplemented by the Ladies Mile, but not enough before 1915 to pose a true threat to the hegemony of Lower Manhattan.

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century, after electric trains arrived in the reconstructed and expanded Grand Central Terminal in 1913, that the area we now consider Midtown Manhattan entered its period of explosive growth, and achieved a critical mass sufficient to make it a true rival to Lower Manhattan, and ultimately to vanquish it. If you look at Manhattan before 1915, Jason Barr is right: the transportation infrastructure wasn’t the critical factor in where skyscrapers were located. But after 1915 it was another matter altogether. “Terminal City,” which was the name the New York Central Railroad gave to the blocks surrounding Grand Central, was one of the first, not to say most ambitious, large-scale planned urban developments in the world, and it is where the idea of air rights was invented. It’s the beginning of the gargantuan Midtown that we now know.

But of course a lot happened between Midtown and Lower Manhattan in the years before 1915, as developers began the long process of expanding beyond the limits of the Financial District.

And there you have it, hopefully the definitive explanation for why the Manhattan skyline looks the way it does.