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February 27, 2005

Fun City

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

Here in New York, in January, we had a big snow, but that's all it was, a big snow. It wasn't the freakin' "Blizzard of '05." It was just a big snow with some windy gusts and low temps--winter, in other words. Is it my imagination or do people get wimpier about the weather every year? I'm no different from most people in my love of mild, sunny, gently breezy, fragrant days. But I also like snow. Old row-house neighborhoods like mine become achingly beautiful in the snow. I love how the snow drapes and outlines the sills and lintels and pediments and parapets of old buildings. I like going out at night on the streets made quiet by a heavy snowfall, before it all gets plowed up, before it all gets dirty and slushy.

That said, a truly weird part of the snowy weekend was the subway situation. A relay-room at the Chambers Street station on the Eighth Avenue line burnt down. At first, the subway authority said some homeless dude tried lighting a fire to keep warm and, poof, the A and C trains stopped running. OK. Trains go in and out of service all day long every day. But then I watched the p.m. news and learned that the lines were going to be out of commission for three to five years. I don't think my jaw ever dropped so much.

Wow, I thought. The subway sure is fragile.

Well, the next day, after the city's tabloids had loudly called for the heads of some transit officials, the MTA decided it would actually take only a few months, not a few years, to fix. Then there was this, from the indispensable Gotham Gazette:

Service on the A and C trains will be largely restored today--10 days after a fire destroyed a signal room near the Chambers Street station and transit officials predicted that service would be disrupted for three to five years.

From five years to ten days.

My jaw dropped again.

And the homeless-guy theory of fire causation also evaporated. Now the official MTA line is that they don't have the slightest damned idea how the fire started. Great.

(Here is a good piece from Gotham Gazette analyzing this weird story.)

Well, the subway is fragile. In the wake of all this, reporters started probing the system for its fault lines--e.g. accessible drop-spots for terrorists' pipe-bombs and such--and had no trouble finding them. We all of us in New York have this persistent queasy feeling about the subway-as-sitting-duck. When I moved to the Big Apple a quarter of a century ago, we were also queasy about the subway. But back then the fear centered on muggers and bands of wilding youths wielding sharpened screwdrivers. Then subway crime, like crime all over the city, dropped precipitously. People just stopped being afraid in the subways, and for a while it was a lovely, refreshing feeling. Now the edge is back, thanks to nightmare scenarios involving sarin gas and bombs.

Something we tend to forget, though, amid our terror fears is that 9/11 was simply the first successful attack. It was not in its conception something new under the sun. There was, of course, the first WTC bombing, in '93, which came much closer than most people realize to doing something like what happened on 9/11. But I also remember a day--Thursday, July 31, 1997--when my wife and I were woken early in the morning one day by the deafening roar of police helicopters swooping down over our house in Brooklyn. My initial thought was that they were coming for me. Actually, they were targeting an apartment building a few blocks from us where some Arab guys had holed up as they planned a bombing attack against the super-busy Atlantic Avenue subway station. One of their number had had a change of heart and went to the police. Plot foiled. Just. "I think we were close to a disaster here," said James Kallstrom, at the time the head of the F.B.I.'s New York office.

And that's not all. New York is a water disaster waiting to happen. I don't mean a tsunami. I mean that one of the city's only two operational water tunnels could, at any moment, blow. One of the tunnels opened in 1917, the other in 1938, and neither has ever been repaired. (See this helpful site from the International Tunnelling Association.) They have cracks--that we know. We can't repair the cracks because to do so would require turning off the water to a huge part of the city for no one knows how long. Besides, we think the valves won't turn any more. The tunnels, say civil engineers, are held together by the pressure of the water flowing through them. So why don't we build a new tunnel? Ah, we are. Water Tunnel No. 3 is a legend among civil engineers--the biggest public-works project in U.S. urban history. And hardly anyone knows it's being built. It was long since supposed to be fully operational. But the 1970s New York City budget crisis about which Fenster wrote (here) a few weeks ago put an end to construction. After all, if no one could see it being built, no one would notice that it wasn't being built anymore.

We call this Russian Roulette.

It's back a-building. Meanwhile, we pray until it's ready--in 2030.

This story was detailed in a superb piece by the fine David Grann in the New Yorker last year. The article, which deftly shifted back and forth from profiles of the remarkable "sand hogs" who do the actual building and the story of the city's water perils is not, alas, online, other than via Lexis-Nexis. But it is worth seeking out. Here's the cite:

Grann, David. "City of Water." The New Yorker, September 1 2003, 88.

Here's a quote:

Many experts worry that the old tunnel system could collapse all at once. "Engineers will tell you if it fails it will not fail incrementally," said Christopher Ward [head of the city's Department of Environmental Protection]. "It will fail catastrophically." If City Tunnel No. 1, which is considered the most vulnerable, caved in, all of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, as well as parts of the Bronx, would lose its water supply. If the aqueducts gave out, the entire city would be cut off. "There would be no water," Ward told me. "These fixes aren't a day or two. You're talking about two to three years."

In the past, the city sometimes tried to assuage concerns about New York's water system, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently noted at a press conference that the aging pipelines were "very vulnerable" and that "this city could be brought to its knees if one of the aqueducts collapsed." Anthony DelVescovo, the project manager who has been working on City Tunnel No. 3 for nearly fifteen years, echoed Bloomberg's warning. "What no one knows is that we're facing a potential apocalypse," he told me. "It's a race against the clock."

(Check out this National Geographic site that explains New York's underground workings.)

Right now we have a mayor named Mike Bloomberg ("Gloomberg," the New York Post calls him), a multi-billionaire Democrat who ran as a Republican because the local Dems are special-interest-driven and it's hard for a moderate member of the party to get slated. Bloomberg is a curious character about whom I run hot and cold. He squeaked into office after 9/11 (remember, that was the day of the primaries in New York) when the outgoing Rudy Giuliani gave Bloomberg a hearty endorsement. He proceeded to enact a strict ban on smoking in city bars. It struck me as not necessarily a wrong thing to do so much as a bizarre thing to do at the time. After all, many an ex-smoking New Yorker had found a modicum of solace in lighting up in the wake of 9/11, not to mention that sizable percentages of the heroic firefighters and police of the city took their well-earned breaks by lighting up at bars, such that the mayor's timing seemed almost disrespectful. Anyway, the mayor has zealously enforced his ban, which now seems a simple fact of life in the city. And though the mayor, to his credit, rides the subway to work every day, he lacks the common touch. A couple of years ago, my nephew graduated from N.Y.U. The university awarded an honorary degree to Yankees manager Joe Torre. Bloomberg, who spoke at the ceremony, called the manager Joe Torres. Oy.

The mayor also proceeded to raise property taxes. Maybe that was necessary, maybe not. But what is clearly necessary, trimming the municipal fat, he has failed to do. The city unions, for whose benefit--not that of the public at large--the city government exists, have not weakened--as, sad to say, they absolutely must if the city is going to avoid fiscal meltdown and/or infrastructural catastrophe. (The city's misguided spending, remember, caused the water tunnel construction to be delayed in a potentially catastrophic manner.)

Bloomberg also has a French-president-like fixation on grands projets. Rudy Giuliani stands to go down in the history books as the city's most famous mayor who never really built anything, unlike his idol La Guardia ("a foolish mayor," Jane Jacobs recently called him), who built and built and built, lavishing the city with the "amenities" that are our rotting infrastructure of today. Bloomberg wants a physical legacy, and he's pinned much of his reputation to getting the 2012 Olympics for New York. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we all consoled ourselves with such fantasies. Right now, the Olympics dream seems about as foolish as the smoking ban.

For me, the mayor can boast two signal accomplishments. One is the 311 phone system for city services. Have a complaint? Need information? Dial 311, and courteous, well-trained operators will help you take care of your problem. I haven't needed to use the 311 service much, but when I have it's worked like a dream--truly, I never would have guessed the city government could pull it off. (And it's available in 170 languages.) Bloomberg's other boast is that he had the great good sense to make Ray Kelly our police commissioner. And that brings us back to terrorism.

Back in December, New York magazine devoted most of an issue to articles addressing the question "Why Haven't We Been Hit Again?" Reporters queried the "experts." They gave five reasons.

  • We're on al-Qaeda time
  • New York has become a difficult target
  • Attempted plots have been foiled, often with the aid of French intelligence
  • It's hard to recruit suicide bombers in America
  • Al-Qaeda views itself as a military not a terrorist operation

These are all interesting theories. Many are those who believe the first--we're on al-Qaeda time. More than eight years elapsed between the WTC attacks. And it's now only a little more than three years since 9/11.

The second reason--New York has become a difficult target--is the tribute to Ray Kelly. The web site Wired New York offers this very helpful roundup of newspaper articles on New York's preparedness efforts. Many terrorism experts say they are deeply impressed by New York's efforts to protect itself, and this is down to Ray Kelly. The federal government has been notably, immorally unforthcoming in helping to secure New York. So Kelly decided to create his own counterterrorism bureau, recruit top people to staff it, conduct intelligence operations through it (including operations abroad)--in effect to create his own C.I.A. within the N.Y.P.D. Kelly has extensive experience in the federal government bureaucracy. He came to his second stint as New York Police Commissioner (he also served, and did an outstanding job, at the end of the Dinkins administration) with a thorough knowledge of what he could and could not expect in the way of federal help. And so rather than bitch about that, he's been totally proactive. The result is that he's significantly hardened New York as a target. He has not rendered it invulnerable--no one could. But terrorists are opportunistic, like muggers. A little can go a long way in protecting a target.

The third reason--we've foiled plots--is a tribute to the French intelligence service. While Jacques Chirac rails against the U.S., his intelligence service, with close knowledge of the Middle East and with many Arabic-speaking agents, has cooperated very effectively with U.S. intelligence. It turns out that at the intelligence level, the French have helped us far more than they ever could have militarily in Iraq. They are our friends, and we should continue to buy French wine.

The fourth reason--it's hard to recruit suicide bombers in the U.S.--sounds dumb, but it may not be. It's 24 hours from recruitment to execution for Hamas suicide bombers. And Hamas doesn't recruit from within its own ranks. They find a fanatical outsider and then design the mission to be accomplished in a day--before said fanatic calms down. Also, the "sleeper cells" we keep hearing about may turn out to be ineffectual, as by their nature such cells have plenty of time to reflect, and also to develop "community ties," the more of which make the terror mentality harder to sustain. And it takes only one defector from a cell to foil the cell's plot, as we saw with the 1997 plot against the subway.

Finally, the fifth reason--al-Qaeda views itself as a military not a terrorist organization--also sounds weird, but shouldn't. Osama bin Laden believes that the Mujaheddin defeated the Soviet Union on the battlefields of Afghanistan, not by planting bombs or spreading gas in Moscow or St. Petersburg. And he and others may believe that the way to defeat the U.S. is through an Iraq quagmire, and that it is going well enough for them that it would be unwise to inflame Americans' passions so as to provoke an intenser response. In other words, they got us where they want us. The irony may be that being where they want us may also be where we want us--insofar as it keeps America safe. (Quagmires do have their uses.)

Anyway, I don't know about any of this, though I think Ray Kelly, my hero, deserves a huge amount of credit and many, many thanks from all New Yorkers.

Thanks, Ray.

And now New York magazine, which some people I know think a frivolous publication, but which actually often runs outstanding city journalism, tells us, in its latest issue, of "The Coming Subway Crisis," which brings us back to where I started, with the burnt relay on the Eighth Avenue line. Does this stand for a wider, systemic problem with New York's subway system? Of course it does.

Subways require enormous amounts of money and TLC to run relatively problem-free. Some of us remember the system back in the seventies, when it was near collapse. Lately, I've been worrying that those days are coming back. It's not as bad, yet, and it's just a feeling--a vague feeling, even. Delays are more numerous. There's that queasy business when the train stalls between stations for 10, or 15, or 20 minutes. These sorts of experiences seem on the rise. When the Eighth Avenue calamity occurred in January, the press barely even mentioned that the Sixth Avenue line also ground to a halt, and wasn't back to normal for days. Last September, practically the whole system shut down for a good part of the day after a torrential overnight rainfall. What's going on?

Basically, what's going on is that after a few years in which some much-needed capital improvements were made to the system, to get it out of its seventies slump, the prospects of further improvements are remote. And in the subway biz, if you aren't improving it, it's going to hell. The State of New York, which administers the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has, under our dickhead governor George Pataki, starved the subway of funds. The subway folks believe they are getting perhaps 70 percent of what they need to maintain "state of good repair," as they say in the transit trade. That 30 percent shortfall portends inevitable, self-ramifying decay. If underfunding should persist much longer, the odds of a mass-casualty mechanical disaster will exceed the odds of a successful terror attack on the system.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in New York just keeps going up and up and up. People are willing to invest more and more and more in real estate in a city that may not even be around for the expiration of that 30-year mortgage. And it's not just housing. The Times recently reported that a 200-ounce container of Tide laundry detergent costs $14.89 at Target in Brooklyn. The same thing at Target in Houston is $11.69. Food prices in New York rose 9.3 percent between 2000 and 2003; the national rate was 2.7 percent. Wow.

Joel Kotkin is but one of several smart commentators who basically say that New York is a relic of the urban past, unlike, say, Atlanta, Riverside-San Bernardino, or Las Vegas--the three top cities on Kotkin's list of the "Top 25 Cities for Doing Business in America," which appeared in the March 2004 Inc. (Here is a .pdf of the article.)

Me, I plan to go down with the ship. Why? It's something to do with the way the old buildings look in the snow.



posted by Francis at February 27, 2005


Very interesting. Thanks.

Posted by: JT on February 28, 2005 9:36 AM

Re: the aqueducts collapsing, it's interesting to note how many catastrophic nightmare scenarios there are out there that the experts tell us we're just barely managing to skirt. From meteors slamming into the Earth to nuclear meltdowns to Y2k all sorts of civil engineering disasters to super-plagues, if you actually computed all the probabilities, it seems like there should be something going massively wrong just about every day, at least somewhere in the world. Instead, disasters on this order seem to happen only once every few years, at most. Why is this? I'm wondering if doomsayers in various fields don't systematically overestimate the likelihood of things going terribly wrong. Perhaps they don't take into account the effect their own predictions have in reducing the odds of catastrophe?

Posted by: Alex on February 28, 2005 10:08 AM

What a lovely eyes-wide-open love letter to NYC. It's great, and much too rare, to read appreciations that don't depend on romanticizing their subject matter.

The city seethes beneath us. Have you taken a look at David Macaulay's visual books -- "Church," etc? He's got one, "City," that does a great job of of driving home how complex cities are, just as giant mechanical things. I remember a few images of what it's like beneath street level -- pen-and-ink cross sections of electricity conduits, sewers and water, transportation, building foundations, etc. Eye-opening, to say the least. Amazing cities work at all.

Oh, and I remember an episode of "Modern Marvels," I think it was, that dealt with how towns and cities get their clean water and get rid of their waste water. Sounds dreary, was fascinating. They visited the NYC water acqueduct systems and hung out with sand hogs. More amazing stuff. You're left with the impression that cities are rescued on a daily basis from complete collapse by people of whose existence you haven't got a clue. Invisible heroes everywhere.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 28, 2005 12:11 PM

I've attended pretty much all of the public forums that have been held regarding plans for the redevelopment of NYC post 9/11, and one of the things that has greatly surprised and disappointed me is the apparent lack of public interest in using the City's resources (including newfound Federal aid) to "retro-fit" the city to make it less vulnerable to various disasters -- including, but not limited to, terrorism. Generally speaking the organizers of these forums and the people attending them seem to have focused, instead, on these disaster funds as new sources of funding for pet schemes that they've been pushing for years (or, maybe, even decades).

In particular, I remember one "forum" sponsored by an organization with the misleading name of the Fiscal Policy Institute (which has been correctly identified in subsequent news accounts as an advocacy group funded by, I believe, labor) that occurred a few days after a spate of articles concerning the difficulties involved in evacuating people from early 20th Century subway and commuter rail terminals. The "forum" was held in a downtown office building not far from "Ground Zero," but the organizers and participants seemed quite uninterested in addressing such problems which (if I recall correctly) I, alone, brought up at the forum. Instead the focus was on things like "creating jobs," building "affordable housing" and building a direct rail link to JFK.

Some other good examples, to my mind, of disturbingly misplaced priorities are the construction of 1) the Calatrava train station (an airport terminal deposited opposite the venerable St. Paul's Chapel graveyard), 2) the Fulton St. Transit Center (a squat, glassy and glitzy World's Fair Pavilion vandalizing the east streetwall of "the Canyon of Heroes"), 3) the reconstruction of the Bowling Green subway station and 4) the proposed tunneling of West St. (the post-9/11 son of Westway). While I don't have the figures at hand, each of these projects involves the expenditure of many millions of dollars on "vanity" projects that, at best, would do very little good (and, at worst, would do great harm), when the monies could be better spent on projects more directly related to dealing with the vulnerabilities of a very important, yet very vulnerable, section of New York City. (And I really wish I had the actual figures handy, because it's just amazing how much some of these projects cost. In particular, the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the brand new "temporary" PATH station for the Calatrava station is mind boggling.)

These days, whenever I hear about NYC being incapacitated in some way (e.g, a minor snowstorm that cripples mass transit; serious local flooding in SoHo due to, supposedly, inadequate storm sewers; a train crash due to inadequate signaling; etc.) I ask myself whether 1) the problem would have occurred at all during NYC's "Golden Age" and 2) had it in fact occurred, would it have created as serious a disruption?

My tentative feeling is that these kinds of things happened less, and mattered less, when the City (and its infrastructure) really "mattered."

The "official" response is usually that the event is a result of unprecedented and unforeseeable circumstances. But occasionally some reporter will do some digging and find out the "real" reasons – which seem more to do with laziness, poor planning, inadequate funding, changing priorities, etc. In the case of a train crash due to signal problems, it was because subway cars are longer now, which disrupts the workings of the old-fashion safety signals. In the case of local flooding in SoHo, I suspect it was because the storm sewers had not been properly maintained. In the case of a woman being electrocuted walking her dog, it seems to be because of cheap and inadequate repair work.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 28, 2005 1:49 PM

Thanks for the great post, Francis.

Posted by: fenster on February 28, 2005 3:19 PM

I remember that New Yorker article very well, one of the more reality-, not ideology- based ones. (My data is '2003, I cancelled my subscription in the fall)
Apart from inevitable (and annoying) proletariat-holding-the world-on-their-wide-shoulders (Michael's "invisible hero") praise, I tend to believe current setting is a picture of catastrophe waiting to happen.
I suspect the situation described is even gloomier, if only because of painfully familiar socialst budget/labor setup at MTA.
Where is NY's Margaret Thatcher? MTA is another instance of attempts of solving incompetence problem by throwing more and more money to the incompetent (but Politically Correct!) monopoly.

Thank you, Francis, for introducing Joel Kotkin; promptly bookmarked. It is such a relief to find somebody eloquently voicing my own half-thought considerations. [Although old buildings in the snow warm my heart, too. Does it make us "Euro-Americans", the ones whose "focus is on preserving older urban forms, cultivating refinement, and following continental norms in attitude, politics, and lifestyle"?]

I think the dangerous prospect awaiting aspiring cities Kotkin writes about already becoming a reality in Brooklyn, accelerated by it's proximity to Manhattan, of course. Even in my field, what I see in a small fraction of city's business - young and creative furniture and design companies who moved from expensive SOHO to Wiiliamsburg searching for lower overhead costs and closer to cheap production sources, tends to fall into trend that Kotkin noticed: close proximity to mega-overpriced Manhattan quickly slashed these advantages. Rents in B-burg doubled over last 3-4 yrs, property prices multiplied by three (and taxes, thanks to Mr. Bloomberg, rose sharply, too) - without improved infrastructure.
The second-year show of brilliant young Brooklyn-based furniture and furnishing designers,, featured about half new faces - original participants either didn't stay in business or moved it elsewhere, and I sensed despiration notes in many of 2-year exhibitors' marketing. (One guy, explaining sharp increase in list prices of his reconstituted-wood benches, exclaimed: have you seen my electric bill?!)

Btw, those of you in the city, I encourage y'all to come to St. Ann's Warehouse on May 6-8, for really amazing talent viewing - much more creative, humorous and crafty than anything I saw yesterday @ Cooper-Hewitt's "Design & Art" exhibition (with exemption of Richard Artschwager. But I digress.)

After famous August'03 Blackout many big realties decided to put up emergency generators on their hirises. Is the wells in their courtyards a next step?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 28, 2005 3:23 PM

After reading Totyana's interesting comments, I checked out the Joel Kotkin website, and I noticed that he has a new book coming out, "The City: A Global History."

I've been reading various Kotkin articles and essays for about ten years now, and I have mixed feelings about his take on cities. Given the focus of his most recent book, and the body of his work on cities over the years, it would be interesting if someone like Francis did a review of his book, comparing and contrasting the Kotkin approach to cities with that of Jane Jacobs. While there seems to me to be some strong similarities in what they both have to say about cities, there also seem to be some significant differences. It would be interesting to read what Francis would have to say, especially in light of Jacobs' most recent book, "Dark Age Ahead."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 28, 2005 4:26 PM

And add to it "Boozy" at Ohio Theater, please - if you have an intention to see it, that is;
NYTimes review aside.

I think a play about R.Moses/Jane Jacobs doesn't come often.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 28, 2005 5:10 PM

David Grann's "City of Water": You liked it as an article. Will you like it as a movie?:

"July 14, 2004
Paramount arm options City of Water"

"According to Variety, the film is slated to be a 'high-stakes drama set in an unknown, idiosyncratic world far beneath New York.' The screenplay will involve a father/son story set before the backdrop of the underground tunnels."

Posted by: Dave Lull on February 28, 2005 6:34 PM

Kotkin basically says (to oversimplify a bit): "NYC isn't growing as fast as Phoenix, so Phoenix must be the future."

But the proper comparison is not between NYC and Phoenix. The proper comparison is between NYC and other metro areas where the city is trapped in its 1945 boundaries: St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh.

And compared to those dens of death, NYC is a howling success.

Posted by: Michael Lewyn on February 28, 2005 7:15 PM

It's alarming that Kotkin's vision is so narrow -
he never stops to
ask if there might be other things that contribute to
a healthy district
than zoning and ground-floor retail.
--to wit, this article from October, 2000:

>GRASS-ROOTS BUSINESS; Reviving Main Street, Or Living
in the Past?
>IN its marketing brochure, this picturesque county
seat 18 miles from the
>center of Philadelphia likes to portray itself as
''everybody's hometown.''
>But to property owners like Al Anderson, this mostly
white, middle-class
>burg of 6,000 seems anything but.
>Mr. Anderson owns two properties along State Street,
Media's traditional
>shopping boulevard. But he cannot rent them to the
highest bidders -- banks,
>brokerage firms and the like -- because of a zoning
ordinance passed by the
>borough council last December. The measure, which all
but requires landlords
>to rent first-floor offices to retail businesses, is
intended to
>reinvigorate downtown shopping.
>''The demand is for office space for professionals,
but they want me to rent
>to quaint small shops,'' complained Mr. Anderson, a
retired DuPont
>executive. ''They don't realize that State Street
doesn't make it as a
>shopping experience any more.''
>The conflict along State Street may seem minor, but
it symbolizes a growing
>tension in many American suburbs between the rights
of private property
>owners and a New Urbanist-inspired vision of
restored, retail-oriented Main
>The perceived success of retail restoration efforts
in places as varied as
>Pasadena, Calif., the Back Bay area of Boston and New
Jersey towns like Red
>Bank, Morristown and Princeton has drawn many
imitators. But by their
>nature, these efforts are likely to be highly
divisive in small-town
>settings, said Larry Houstoun, a principal of the
Atlantic Group, an urban
>development consulting firm in Cranbury, N.J.
>''If you begin to work for change in a suburban
context, you are at risk,''
>said Mr. Houstoun, whose firm has done two reports
for the Media borough
>council on downtown revitalization. ''Many people
remember when they had
>good stores and want the convenience, but there's
always a vocal minority
>who's against change.''
>For their part, Mr. Anderson and other members of Mr.
Houstoun's ''vocal
>minority'' feel that the council's initiatives -- not
just the ban on
>first-floor offices, but also two town-backed retail
projects and an
>ordinance strictly regulating signs -- stem from
misplaced nostalgia.
>Business in Media, they say, depends on activity
related to the Delaware
>County Courthouse and the town's growing role as a
financial hub. Property
>owners point out that despite the booming economy,
State Street now has
>vacancy rates of 15 to 20 percent.
>But political leaders see the policies as a
last-ditch effort to return the
>four-block-long stretch of the street, with its two-
to four-story brick
>buildings built in the 19th and early 20th centuries,
to its former role as
>the center of community life.
>''We like to see ourselves as 'everybody's hometown,'
with all the diversity
>and activity that suggests,'' said Frank Daly, who
first as mayor and now as
>the borough's lawyer has been a leader in downtown
renewal policies for more
>than a decade. ''We don't want to end up as an office
park. We did not want
>a street with nothing but law offices and banks.''
>THE vacancies on State Street, Mr. Daly contended,
were caused not by the
>city's policies but rather by the decades-long
transformation of small-town
>America. Perhaps the biggest blow came in the early
1970's, when two
>shopping malls opened, each less than a
>10-minute drive from downtown Media.
>Another factor has been the expansion of the local
service economy. Media's
>office population has been bolstered by what Mr. Daly
called ''the
>litigation explosion'' of the last quarter-century.
Law firms, including
>branches of Philadelphia-based firms, want offices
near the courthouse, one
>block off State Street.
>The growth of government, which has tripled the
number of county workers in
>Media to more than 3,000 over the last 30 years, also
changed the character
>of the old downtown. The once-sleepy town became an
important service
>industry hub, with a dozen bank and brokerage-firm
offices and a daytime
>population that swells to over 25,000.
>In the process, Mr. Daly said, State Street
storefronts once occupied by
>small retail businesses were turned into professional
offices. Restaurants,
>clothing stores and bookstores that once served local
residents were rapidly
>replaced by fast-food outlets and print shops that
catered to the office
>clientele. The last supermarket left in 1996,
followed by the closing of the
>local Woolworth's and a women's clothing store.
>These developments prompted the council's 1999
ordinance that essentially
>banned new first-floor professional offices along a
four-block stretch of
>the street. To promote the kind of development it
favors, the city restored
>the old Borough Hall on State Street and leased it to
what has proved to be
>a successful restaurant. It lured another restaurant
to space that Merrill
>Lynch had sought for an office.
>In addition, the borough required that signs in the
downtown district be
>small and unobtrusive. And it awarded a $2.8 million
grant to improve the
>streetscape and lighting.
>Council members, who have generally approved these
measures by votes of 7 to
>0 or 6 to 1, said their efforts were already luring
shoppers back to State
>Street at night and on weekends.
>''You can't get groceries downtown, and you can't get
panty hose,''
>Councilwoman Debbie Krull said. ''Our constituents
want more retail, and we
>want to meet their demand. We don't want a street
that's only busy from 11
>to 2. We want a nicer mix for our residents.''
>BUT what council members view as enlightened
planning, landlords regard as
>an assault on property values. The measure met with
polite but intense
>opposition this year from the Media Business and
Professional Association, a
>new, 65-member group that wants to reverse the new
policies and unseat the
>Richard Swift Glassman, the group's spokesman,
contended that the council's
>actions represented a ''taking'' of property rights,
a violation of what he
>called ''free trade'' as well as poor public policy.
The son of a State
>Street merchant, and himself a landlord on the
street, Mr. Glassman argued
>that the city's strategy had turned State Street into
''an empty shell.'' He
>said that as recently as 1983, long after the malls
opened, the street had
>virtually no vacancies.
>Another member of the group, Michael McCloskey, a
real estate appraiser,
>said that he, too, missed the former ambience of the
street. But he regards
>the council's actions as counterproductive, even
silly, given that an
>estimated 60 percent of State Street's current
consumer base is office
>workers, mostly commuters.
>''Hey, I'd like to go back to the past, too -- in my
dreams,'' said Mr.
>McCloskey, a longtime Media resident, over lunch at
the Towne House, a
>landmark restaurant just off State Street. ''But this
is the year 2000 and
>we have malls and power centers. People don't want to
drive to Media for
>their everyday needs. They come to work, maybe to eat
lunch, and that's
>Pat Callahan, president of the American Association
of Small Property
>Owners, said she considered the Media conflict an
example of a trend in
>small cities and towns -- including places like
Leesburg, Va., and
>Asheville, N.C. -- to restrict property rights in the
name of downtown
>revival. Media's restrictions on ground-floor usage,
she said, may be
>setting a dangerous precedent.
>''The Media situation has implications for lots of
communities,'' said Ms.
>Callahan, whose group, based in Washington, monitors
such policies. ''Public
>officials tend to trade bad ideas around among each
>In Media, even the most active members of the
business group realize that
>reversing the borough's policies will be difficult;
recent surveys show that
>many residents prefer to see State Street returned to
something closer to
>its 1950's mode.
>Council members ''will do anything that the residents
want,'' Mr. Glassman
>''They don't have to do anything for the businesses,
because most of us are
>not voters,'' he acknowledged, as most of the
commercial property owners
>live elsewhere.
>This kind of controversy too, is common in small
towns that have been
>engulfed by suburban sprawl, as property owners'
drive for profits comes
>increasingly into conflict with residents' preference
for the Main Streets
>they remember so fondly, whether from an earlier day,
or from Disneyland's
>ersatz version.
>Of course, not all business owners -- in Media or
other towns -- oppose
>renewal campaigns. Joyce Doubet, who with her
husband, Joseph, runs a
>jewelry store on State Street, sees no alternative --
except for the street
>to become like too many modern downtowns, cold and
dead after dark.
>''This town is not only about business, but it's also
about residents,''
>Mrs. Doubet said. ''There are a lot of people who
like the intimacy of the
>town and want to maintain some of the old spirit.
This place is still pretty
>unique, and if everything goes as planned, State
Street will come back,
>better than ever.''

Posted by: martine mallary on February 28, 2005 9:52 PM

Wonderful post, Francis. It is a treat to see you digging under all the historic buildings you represent so graciously.

I am also pleased to see others posting caveats about Joel Kotkin. Phoenix, indeed. Phoenix is unsustainable. If we New Yorkers think we have water problems, Phoenix should at least provide Schadenfreude.

A truly beautiful post, Francis.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on February 28, 2005 10:11 PM

I am also pleased to see others posting caveats about Joel Kotkin. Phoenix, indeed. Phoenix is unsustainable.

Unsustainable for whom? Phoenix is growing because it is a relatively easy and low-overhead city in which to do business, as compared to places such as California and NYC. If Phoenix keeps growing to the point where water becomes a major issue, enough resources will be available to make whatever infrastructure upgrades will be necessary. NYC's central problem is that its bloated government imposes such a heavy regulatory and financial burden on its resident businesses that they and their workers are migrating to lower-cost regions. That is an unsustainable municipal business model.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 1, 2005 6:36 PM

Two days too late, but to Jonathan I say HA!

What basis does he have for the statement, "If Phoenix keeps growing to the point where water becomes a major issue, enough resources will be available to make whatever infrastructure upgrades will be necessary."? None, except for some vague sense that sexy new Red State cities must be inherently stronger than their Blue State predecessors.

The very low-tax, minimal-regulation characters that have made Sunbelt cities grow also lock them into unsustainable courses. These cities' raisons d'etre are low taxes, small gov't. Not urban character, not shared experience, not unique traits. So where does the cash come from to make these magical infrastructure fixes that Jonathoan evidently believes pale in comparison to Aqueduct #3? Talk about raising taxes, and every business that fled an old city for low taxes will threaten to leave - or do so. Same deal with residents. And remember, there'll always be another Sunbelt city offering NOT to raise taxes.

The one inherent strength new cities have over old is the ability to physically grow. NYC and Pittsburgh grew the exact same way that Phoenix and Riverside have - annexation. It has _always_ been the way for American cities to grow. As long as new cities can annex their high income suburbs and old cities can't, old cities will suffer by comparison. Unions and regulations are red herrings, whatever ideologues who know nothing of urban history say.

Posted by: JRoth on March 3, 2005 11:39 AM

-There is nothing vague about the high cost of NYC's government. That's a big part of why people and businesses migrate from there to places like Phoenix. I am not saying that's good or bad, merely observing what is happening. Discussions about hypothetical limits to "sustainability" elsewhere strike me mainly as rationalizations to avoid discussing NYC's problem of high costs. People are voting with their feet and taking their businesses with them. It seems worth asking why that is happening.

-If Phoenix doesn't grow, there is no problem, because in that case water (and other infrastructure) demand doesn't grow.

-If Phoenix grows, there will be more tax revenue to deal with emerging issues such as water demand. That is all I was saying. It's true even if Phoenix taxes at lower rates than does NYC. (There are also other conceivable solutions to increased infrastructure demand, e.g., privatized water distribution and/or more effective pricing.)

-Believe it or not, there are municipal alternatives to raising taxes. Services can be cut. Property can be sold. Inefficient services can be privatised or put up for competitive bid. City governments can even say no to public-employee unions. NYC's way of doing things is not the only way.

-It's a big country. There is room for a variety of municipal models. Your comment about "urban character" is a red herring. NYC's problem is that it has allowed the costs it imposes on residents and businesses (same thing, really) to rise to a level that is unaffordable for many people. They cannot afford to stay there even if they love NYC's urban character. The city is less competitive than it once was. At the rate things are going, people and businesses will continue to leave NYC and the tax base will continue to shrink, leading to either higher taxes and more migration or to reforms and cost-cutting. Which alternative do you prefer?

Posted by: Jonathan on March 5, 2005 12:03 PM

This is the first time I have checked in on from my darkened neighborhood cybercafé in Paris, a city that has done a lot of annexing over the centuries. My neighbors right now are all men playing war games, a fact I am trying to fit into my understanding of France's international posture. In any event, I am delighted to see how the conversation about Phoenix and New York has moved forward. PS. A propos of Michael's report on emotion in "Sideways," I found it at 5am Paris time on the flight over, in French, and at first I thought it was a French movie. M.

Mary Campbell Gallagher

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on March 5, 2005 1:19 PM

I think Jonathan's got it about right. It does not matter much whether New York shall be any sort of model for future urban (or, let us be precise, suburban) growth, so much as it matters whether New York, with its "urban character" (which means a very, very great deal to those of us educated to a certain appreciation of civilization) may continue to sustain itself or flourish. New York through systematic misgovernance has essentially abdicated its responsibility to be a great city, and it is enough to make one cry--as indeed it makes me cry every day.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 5, 2005 10:04 PM

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