Friday, April 29, 2011

PlaNYC 2030, the questionable estimate of 1M more people, Morrone's history of erroneous NYC predictions, and the preservation movement

Will New York grow by a million people by 2030, the premise of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability effort? The latest statistics, growth of 2.1% over the past decade, suggest it's increasingly unlikely, though Bloomberg and others contest the numbers.

Still, the PlaNYC update should at least acknowledge the new numbers--but it hasn't, as Michael D. D. White points out in his Noticing New York blog:
Not only have the population projections not been changed in the plan... the old numbers remain firmly anchored in the plan.
A history of misplaced predictions

That got me thinking about the insightful keynote address given March 5 by historian, critic, and much-lauded guide Francis Morrone at the annual conference of the Historic Districts Council (HDC).

One theme of his address: over the past 40 years, the span of HDC's existence, many predictions have been way off. And though Morrone didn't mention PlaNYC, anyone listening would have another reason for skepticism.

Similarly, though Atlantic Yards is tangential to this discourse--the project has been justified, in part, because of the need to add density in light of population growth--we should be reminded (yet again) to take Atlantic Yards predictions with a grain of salt.

From the 1950s to the 1970s

Morrone reminded his audience that, in the 1950s, New York City was the pre-eminent world city by "every conceivable measurable criterion," including manufacturing, corporate headquarters, wholesale/retail sales, seaport activity, and cultural capital.

Predictions that the city would suffer a shortage of factory workers were way off. And, he noted:
New York City lost nearly a million people in the 1970s.

Today we are supposed to be planning for a city that will grow by more than a million by 2030. Yet 20 years before people started talking about "planned shrinkage," when New York had a preeminence among the cities of the world that no city in the history of the world had ever had, not a single expert, not one, predicted, or could have, the scale of the population loss. Something for us all to keep in mind when we hear expert projections.
Planned shrinkage

In 1976, the writer and housing expert Roger Starr promoted his theory of "planned shrinkage," in which the city would withdraw services to prepare for "doomsday," when the city went bankrupt.

And, during the 1977 World Series, broadcaster Howard Cosell famously told the TV audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning," the consequence--in Brooklyn, as well--of not only arson but also a fire department decimated by drastic cutbacks.

Morrone calls that de facto "planned shrinkage."

Gentrification, with crime

In the 1980s, "a paradoxical decade in New York," the Wall Street boom--and strategic investment by the mayor's office in both office districts and neighborhoods fueled gentrification in both Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Actually, crime continued to rise.

Observed Morrone:
Nothing amuses me more than when young commenters on the Brownstoner or Curbed blogs just presume that gentrification followed from the fall in crime. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pace of 1980s gentrification was torrid.
Misreading gentrification

City newcomers embraced urban life and, in doing so, fueled more wrong predictions, as Morrone recalled:
I remember that as these new residents began to buy up brownstones and co-ops in Park Slope, where I live, in the early 1980s, older residents of the neighborhood complained that the newcomers were all Double-Income-No-Kids, or DINK, families, and the neighborhood's traditional orientation toward families with children was disappearing. Once again, predictions proved preposterously false. The thing was, though, that neighborhoods like Park Slope--where by the early 1980s so much of the work of physical rehabilitation had already been carried out by the preceding generation of brownstone "pioneers"--emerged as the preferred bedroom communities for the workers--the "symbolic analysts" as Robert Reich called them--in the new economy. And that is where the preservation and--dare I say it--"rebranding" of the old neighborhoods seemed an integral part of the city's new economic direction.
The role of immigrants

He also pointed out that the city's revival since the 1970s depended significantly on "the third great immigrant wave," repopulating and reviving non-gentrified (at least then) neighborhoods like Jackson Heights in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn,

A dismaying paradox remains today, as Morrone put it:
We have witnessed something of a return to the conditions of widespread substandard housing that prevailed in the city in the early 20th century. This time, though, for most affluent city residents, the problems of immigrant housing are even more off the radar than they were then.
And New York no longer provides sufficient housing options for the middle class:
This radical escalation of housing prices--outpacing the general inflation rate by many times--began in the 1980s, with a significant moderation between 1987 and 1992, only to begin anew and even exceed 1987 levels by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Remarkably, for all the talk of the housing bust since 2007 or 2008, the fall in property values has thus far not matched--in some places, such as Park Slope, not come close to matching--the previous fall.
That's a vexing question.

The Bloomberg impact


Morrone summarized the impact of the Bloomberg administration:
For all his power, he has not always had his way: New York failed to attract the Olympics, the mayor did not get congestion pricing, and so on. But his rezonings, his reorganization of the school system, and many of his other initiatives have been historic. Not least, he has continued the Giuliani administration's emphasis on livability issues, as the "rebranding"... of the city as the capital of finance and international business services continues. From the High Line to Brooklyn Bridge Park, from the painted malls of Broadway to the new bike lanes, to the scads of new luxury high-rise apartments, to the unprecedented activity in New York of the chicest of world architects, the New York of today--the present Great Recession notwithstanding--has become what the historian Fred Siegel dismissively calls "Luxury City."
(Here's the derivation of "luxury city.")

Preservation, decline, and development

Morrone pointed out that, even as poet Marianne Moore left Fort Greene in 1966, citing crime, people were moving into the neighborhood, and would launch efforts to preserve it, getting landmark designation.

Even then such efforts were misconstrued, as Morrone noted:
In the 1960s, as the preservation movement gained some momentum, Roger Starr, who served on the editorial board of the New York Times, wrote that in a city beset by such major problems as was New York, the preservation of old neighborhoods was at best quixotic, at worst dangerously irrelevant. Forty years later other commentators, such as the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, would argue that preservation had succeeded to the point where it threatened to erode the dynamism of a great world city. The preservationists got it coming, and they got it going.
In conclusion

Morrone concluded thusly, with a nod to his hosts:
One lesson to be drawn from our recent history is that predictions and projections, when they are made about something as complex as New York City, are more often wrong than right. One final example: The Times article on planned shrinkage from which I quoted specifically mentions Bushwick. Right now, on March 5, 2011, I guarantee that there is a senior at Oberlin, in his or her dorm, listening to Arcade Fire and dreaming of the day they can live in Bushwick.

But the most vital lesson is that we'd never have got here at all had not a hardy band of New Yorkers thought, in the city's bleakest moments, that the place was worth preserving.

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