July 16, 2010

Spock’s New York

Star Fleet Federation Headquarters has moved to Chelsea, and it is called the High Line. This is a spectacular renovation of an old elevated freight railroad track in lower Manhattan that rides over what were once a meatpacking district and a notorious Romulan sex slave market. The Federation has recaptured the neighborhood and turned it into a nice place. No, the High Line actually does not suck. It was the no-brainer thing to do with these old elevated tracks, and the new promenade has been rightly advanced as a model for urban development in the 23rd century.

The urbanist Stephen Zacks invokes the High Line in reference to another former industrial site, this one an old factory on the Brooklyn waterfront:

“The Domino Sugar site is Williamsburg’s High Line. … These unique sites are opportunities to generate new forms of urbanism and orders of magnitude greater revenue, instead of producing the high volumes of [condo] units that are now languishing on the market.”

All very well and good. Beam me up, Scotty. Or down. And now there is a call by the City of New York to build a ferry landing in Greenpoint. This area has always been somewhat isolated from the city on account of a weak subway connection, sparing the neighborhood from the extent of development that has overtaken Williamsburg, which lies conveniently on the L train to Manhattan. Greenpoint, welcome to the Federation!

In addition, a sports arena and condo-retail complex are on the drawing board for downtown Brooklyn. Between downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg lies the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is still a long way off from becoming a serviceable Starship landing pad. But they already have massive film production studios in place to that eventual end. It is, as Commander Spock might say, enough to sharpen your ears.

In New York we call Manhattan “the city.” And that is what they call the little island in the Seine in the middle of Paris. It’s also the name of the financial district in London. When New York is as old as London and Paris were when they were already old, our fair city will be a megalopolis spanning half of New Jersey, half of Long Island, half the Hudson Valley, and half of Connecticut. And in the middle of it all there will be "the city" — the old quarter known as "Gotham." Mostly, this island will be a tourist strip. The financial district will be in Connecticut, the culture industry will be on Long Island, New Jersey will be the largest “residential neighborhood,” and the new sex slave market will be in the Hudson Valley.

What am I getting at! The point is, the kind of urban planning that captures New York City in the present time (the early 21st century) is in many respects a matter of common sense. The broad scheme boils down to re-taking the waterfronts of the city for human habitation. And that makes sense, since these waterfronts are no longer being used for manufacturing and shipping on anything like the scale they were in the past. Pepper the whole scheme with parks, esplanades, conceptual art “nature walks” — in short, the whole schmorgesboard of presumed cultural virtues of urban life — and you’ve got your city of the future.

Fine. I’m happy. So where’s my mocachino.

The problem is, this utopia yet fails to hold a match to the candescent fun we had on the Brooklyn waterfront or on the West Side Highway as recently as 20 years ago. The brightest urban planners in the world are unable to achieve the culture — by which I mean the visceral, hardcore, glorious, up-your-ass culture — that New York knew in these rusted warrens once upon a time.

There is a long-standing dilemma in the western world of best intentions undermining and even impoverishing civic life on certain fundamental levels. Now at the outset of the 21st century this dilemma is acutely felt in one beautifully anodyne urban scheme after another, all over the western world. And we wonder, has it occurred to any of these designers of “urban space” that maybe I don’t want my sightline or the trajectory of my stroll manipulated? Has it occurred to any of these designers that maybe what I would like most is for them to get out of my face?

I enjoyed the High Line more when it was abandoned, and you had to climb clandestinely upon it to enjoy a feral and slightly skeevy solitude. No museum, no contrived park or recreational widget will ever achieve the raw freedom of a warehouse blowout on the Williamsburg waterfront in the first years of the 1990s.

And yet, we do have a certain faith that New York will become enchanted again — a new shoe is never comfortable, and it needs some wear to get a patina and to become stylized by the foot. This is not the first upheaval the city has survived. There was an “Old New York” that vanished when the slums of downtown were raised in the 1890s, and another that vanished in the age of Robert Moses in the 1930s. New York City always steps out real swell, and then stumbles back drunk and disheveled to her gritty nature.

The Vulcans are our best friends in the galaxy, our strongest allies, and some of the best scientists of the Federation. But in the long run, the culture of the Vulcans is incompatible with that of New Yorkers. At one time a species more violent and barbaric than even our own, Vulcans eventually surpassed Humans in a zeal for Enlightenment rationality. The result was that they turned their desert planet into a cultural desert as well, with nothing but three-dimensional chess, anesthetic harp music, and awful new-age fashion. Get rid of the pointy-eared ones I say! If “white flight” made New York fun again in the 1970s, we should try Vulcan flight this time. And if that makes me prejudiced, well … you got a problem with that?