Cities: A Watershed Moment
A love letter to what makes urban places elicit the best version of (most of) us; and what to do next, as we are faced with a crisis.
It seems that just yesterday, we were at the brink of a revolution in city-building. Cities — the primary engine of human progress, via large-scale collaboration — had grown bloated in middle age, their last major developmental growth spurt having run its course over the hundred-plus years of the Industrial Age. As machine-fueled infrastructure — energy production, structural densification, engineering marvels and human movement systems — accomplished their muscular mission, the Internet of Things brought new promises, in the form of bringing those investments to life — conferring to them what can only be called a consciousness. Smart grids that sense where cars are to keep things moving, and emission-free vehicles that no longer need a human guide to navigate, or park, eliminating the twin losses of time and lives; services shared in the name of human and planetary efficiency, alike, speaking to one another in a choreography of ebb and flow; technological connectivity that would allow humans to do whatever we needed, with whomever we needed to, whenever we wanted, wherever we happened to be standing; micro-farming that would put the garden back in the city, driven by science; and micro-manufacturing that would bring the guild back, 3D-printed one space-age material layer at a time. And because, for most people, the struggle to make connections, hunt, gather and resource was solved long before, our lives were ripe for disruption at the hands of the IOT, to move to the next stage of urban innovation, where we could finally outsource our physical and intellectual labors to a network of algorithms.
It was only recently — in 2008 — that global urbanization reached a magic threshold. On that milestone, half of the world suddenly lived in a city, for the first time in human history. Just 50 years earlier, fewer than one third of us did. The momentum has continued, and been powerful. Just two years ago, the United Nations projected that more than two-third of human beings — 68% — will live in cities by 2050, thirty years from now. As architects and urban designers, we know this, and have been looking forward to being partners in the creation of City 3.0: fluid, intelligent, integrated and eliciting the best of who we can be, for one another. Utopia is an oft-invoked ‘holy grail’ for architects: the perfect city; a constructed Nirvana. Well, for 300,000 years, as impressive as we’ve been, we’ve mostly fallen short of that ideal, falling victim instead to the power games we’ve chosen to play with one another, as competitors. But maybe, just maybe, the algorithms would help us overcome our baser selves, and deliver us.
Then, five months ago, Nature shone a light on our hubris.
The Twitterverse and the Social Mediots cannot stop talking about the death of urban living. Apparently, Armageddon has finally arrived, and it only attacks urbanites. Crime is up. Murder is up. Real estate has crashed. A mass exodus is underway, just like in Hollywood, while hordes of ‘survivors’ outrun the maelstrom, before it engulfs them, or turns them into zombies. Plywood is the only booming business in town, lining the public realm like a city-sized wainscot. Revolts and riots have reduced the social order to mayhem, as people who once walked among us quickly reveal their inner ugliness, and turn our gleaming cities into a jungle, ruled by even worse animal behavior.
The only thing I can’t figure out is why, apart from the plywood — and the associated job losses, especially in retail and the service economy — I can’t see it. Try as I might; as many neighborhoods as I walk or cycle through, day in or day out; in spite of the fact that I have spent nearly every single day since the pandemic began exclusively in North America’s largest metropolises — New York as much as any other — I cannot find any signs of what the Mediots are saying. Not in my life nor in that of anyone that I know; and not on the streets.
Not yet. Apart from the masks and visors, we are shopping, again; we are dining al fresco; and we are taking advantage of the beautiful weather to finally socialize, at a distance, with those we missed, while we huddled. We are, by most counts, having a lovely summer.
At least those of us who aren’t covering our heads to prevent being hit by a piece of falling sky.
It makes me wonder whether I am thick-headed, delusional, blind, looking in the wrong places, or know the ‘wrong’ people; or whether, as I suspect, some of us may be overreacting, just a tad; or worse, accelerating what could otherwise be avoided, if we just stayed put.
In that sense, what is happening to the city now — the hordes who are factually pulling up stakes and heading for the hills — is no different from when our stock markets crash: enough people freak out, start purging their belongings, and bring the house down as the result of their actions.
Our realities are the direct product of little more than our emotional state-fueled actions. Meaning, to put a finer point on it, if we chose empowering actions, by investing in our homes and our cities, we could weather the pandemic much, much better.
Here, ‘investment’ takes many forms: real estate, obviously, and meals, goods and services — the things that keep other people gainfully employed. But also, as importantly, our investment in reinventing our future; because we are limitlessly creative, when it comes to creating ways of improving what we have, and making a buck in the process.
All we have to do is make up our minds to do it.
So this phenomenon — some people’s insistence that the only solution is to run for the hills, into a suburban tract home — is revealing something important: not everybody is cut out for the city. That’s not a statement about ‘toughness’. It’s a matter of motive. I just had this discussion twice over the past two days, with two different Brooklynites at two different restaurant patios, sitting ‘en plein air’ enjoying drinks and food in the breeze, while the world apparently fell apart. Some of us want to like cities, for stories told later, in mid-life, but place an expiry date on the experience. Others feel forced to be there, for employment, but truly wish they could find the same opportunity elsewhere, because ‘cities are tiring’. Another group enjoys the excitement when they’re young and childless, during which the trade-offs of space and expense pencil out, emotionally; but as soon as they become parents, priorities shift, and financial sweet spot leads them to a sea of affordable sameness, or ‘back home’ to the picket fences and free-standing homes they were raised to prefer. And finally, there’s a group of people who truly love what can only be found in places of extreme density — art, culture, vibrancy, an embarrassment of choice, and diversity of both people and their creations — but whose tolerance for what comes with it — the lack of personal controls, competing priorities, exposure to risk and the fact that in cities, everything is always ‘on 10’ — has limits. And when those limits are reached, it’s time to fold, and move on.
I’ll admit that I may not know anyone who fits any of these descriptors, which is probably why I haven’t had conversations like the ones I hear others telling me are bouncing around the world wide web: that the city is dying. The people I am close to are different, and could not imagine life elsewhere. We each attract people whose energy signature is harmonic with our own. Perhaps I’m drawn to my friends because of our shared love of urban life in all of its forms, and naturally eschew the nervous nellies, or the tentative toms. My friends thrive off of the intensity they can only find in a place as bristling with life — not just on the streets, but with interactions — as a city like New York. In fact, just last Friday, I was chatting with my friend, Michka. Ever the source of wisdom, it was he who put his finger on that fact that some people’s nervous systems actually relax in the face of ‘chaos’ — that it is somehow distilling for them. He works in hospitality, and told me that when he found himself working venues like clubs or parties, the more crowded they would get, the calmer he’d become, and Neo-like, time would slow down for him, and allow him to take the full measure of a room and everyone in it, at which point he could work it.
We discover a lot about one other when crises hit, or our emotions run high. Our visceral responses in times of stress reveal our underlying character: fight or flight; re-center or freak out.
The people I hear telling me the sky is falling are those predisposed to look for the exit; or to perpetually have one hand on the door handle, because they know before long, they will open it, and walk out.
But I know a lot of ‘Michkas’: those who thrive on the intensity to which they’ve become addicted, and which they’ve found in abundance in New York. When you are dialed into its unique energy signature, and enjoy it on its own syncopated terms, every place else seems sleepy. It’s a frequent topic among my friends. So when the alarm bells began going off a few months ago, and became deafening, of late, centering on talk — once again — about the demise of the city, that ‘people’ are fed up, that they’re ‘leaving in droves’, and that the pandemic has shown the city to be ‘an untenable model’, I was offended, because I see the situation very, very differently.
Simply put, New York City will die when what it represents is no longer appealing to enough people to fill and fuel it, whether in good times or in bad.
For the foreseeable future, I don’t see that happening.
And yes: right now, time are bad.
With that said, in my view, cities — New York chief among them — are going nowhere, fast. For every person that mourns its imminent death and flees, there are more to take their place. This is why populations grow. Even during the decade-long Great Depression, the city grew. In the preceding decade, from 1920 to 1930, it grew by 1.3 million people; and while from 1930–1940 — the decade-long crash and recovery — it grew by ‘just’ 500,000, still, it grew. We cannot measure the trajectory of a city by the quarter, as the bean counters do; nor even by the year, as the pundits and politicians must. Rather, we should measure the health of a city over the long term, because sh*t happens. And when it does, the city goes through a rinse cycle, like the deep cleaning it’s receiving right now. It happened in 2008, when 4% of jobs were lost. It happened after 9/11, at a toll of 6% of employment. It happened in 1990 — my adult arrival in the city, when 10% of jobs disappeared. And it nearly obliterated the 70’s, when for the only time in its history, New York shrank, by 750,000 bodies, and with it 16% of jobs evaporated. The only worse time for job loss was The Great Depression, when unemployment levels skyrocketed in one year, from about 3% to 23%, and took ten more to reverse course to its original levels. It did, and then continued its recovery until the city actually reached its lowest unemployment levels on record, before or since, in 1944, at the height of WWII. That year, unemployment stood at just 1.5%.
Interestingly, the city didn’t die, during the whimpering 30’s. Far from it; it bustled. Famed photographer Bernice Abbott was funded by The Federal Art Project, where she documented the city streets and its energy. A photo blog published by The Week captured her work from that time. I encourage you to peruse her beautiful images, to have a sense of what life in a decimated city looked like. In fact, the article’s subtitle warns, “These vintage photos will make you yearn for the Gotham of yesteryear.” How odd, that the worst economic period in the city’s history could make one wistful, upon looking at the streets and faces of its residents.
Admittedly New York in the 1930’s was greatly aided by a federally funded recovery — Roosevelt’s New Deal — which helped the city “pull itself out of this new morass,” as FDR said at the time. His Works Progress Administration improved the infrastructure of New York City, creating 3 million jobs while doing it. In the city alone, Roosevelt’s programs commissioned the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel, the restoration of the Central Park Zoo and LaGuardia Airport, among myriad less bold-faced investments.
The investment in the city — a time of hardship, and the decision to do something about it — was key to its recovery. After that, the city grew at an exponential rate, and didn’t see a downturn for a quarter-century. In this past quarter century, the city has seen four of them. How a city fares, to some degree, is a matter of what we invest in it.
It’s not rocket science.
Sometimes, a city needs help. When President Ford told New York to ‘Drop Dead!’ during the 70’s, when the city filed for bankruptcy, it suffered, greatly. My father moved there in 1973, and I remember what it felt like, then. It wasn’t pretty. And while the city pained, New Yorkers did what they could, to help one another. Communities thickened, and creativity bustled.
As I wrote on April 22, not everything was doom and gloom. The city, in fact, reached its creative zenith — perhaps unrivaled in the century:
“There was CBGB’s, founded in 1973, birthing the careers of Patty Smith, Blondie, the Ramones; Max’s Kansas City, which hit its fever pitch in the 70’s as home to art powerhouses Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd; literary icons William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg; and musical legends Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Then, there was Studio 54, opening in 1977 — the single most legendary nightclub in history. The list is too long to include here, but everybody who was anybody was there, sometimes naked on horseback, at the greatest party on Earth. Owner Ian Schrager said it was like “standing on stardust”, and it left glitter that could be found months later in attendees’ clothing and homes. Finally, there was the Bronx. As a 2012 The Atlantic article described the era, “Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataaa, and Grandmaster Flash hot-wired street parties with collaged shards of vinyl LPs.” They invented the first real, ultimately global, new music genre, in ages: Rap. Its influence on the world of fashion, music, language and culture is perhaps the biggest cross-cultural phenomenon to come out of New York in 50 years — maybe 100. And this was the 70’s! The article goes on, “The New York Dolls stripped rock ’n’ roll to its frame and wrapped it in gender-fuck drag, taking a cue from Warhol’s transvestite glamour queens. Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both bussed in from Jersey, took a cue from the elusive Dylan, combining rock and poetry into new shapes.”
To a large degree, the New York we all lived in, until Bloomberg turned it into a shopping mall, was the product of the 70’s. Which is only to say, that there are trade-offs to every era: safety, shopping and sameness today; or grit, gangs and glitter yesteryear.
I’m not judging.
In spite of its ills, my father — like seven million others at the time — muddled through, and never lost their love of the city’s energy. They simply adjusted, dug in deeper, and reinvented themselves, until the pendulum swung once more, leading to the gentrifying tsunami that some of us have been riding since, while others have been ripped from their homes, no longer able to afford them, and swept into ever-smaller, ever dirtier corners of the city. Gentrification is not good for everyone. For many, the 70’s were far kinder than the 00’s.
Think about that, for a second.
In my view, even if, somehow, some new version of the 30’s or the 70’s were to recur, it may crush the city economically and force hardship upon millions; but it, too, will end sometime, because the city will recreate itself anew — somehow — with or without federal aid.
It always does.
What the current stresses do cause and create — and this is the point I am trying to make — is a new opportunity to improve what was broken. We need to look at this as a chance to toss the bad, and invest in a better future. An invisible cancer has visited cities, of late. No less a giant than Rem Koolhaas, the world’s single greatest architectural thinker and innovator for a half-century now, was just profiled in Time Magazine, saying “The problem is that in the last 20 or 30 years, cities have become gathering spaces for relatively affluent people and for tourists. There has been a kind of really drastic transformation of the point of cities, that we didn’t really pay enough attention to.” He’s referring to what cities focus on now — that which generates the maximum income, in lieu of what made them exciting places to be, in the first place: the energy and creativity that come from co-locating a number of high-energy individuals committed to doing great things, together. Koolhaas’ commentary comes as no surprise; he rose to fame for his published thesis Delirious New York: a paean to the city’s ‘crowdedness and density’, written while he lived there… in the 70’s. I know the book well: he actually wrote it, funny enough, while living in my father’s office, crashing on the sofa while he was a still-penniless ex-student with an idea — long before he became the leading light of our profession.
He’s right. There is a dark side to all of the gentrification, of late: a blandness that has arisen, and which has attracted all the people I mentioned earlier — those for whom city living always carried an asterisk, and a tenuousness, but to which, under the right conditions, they would submit , and ‘enjoy themselves’; people who would insist, as they are right now, that the world is ending, and they need to escape before it’s too late, because too many artisanal coffee shops and glistening boutiques have shut their doors, and the music has stopped.
To them, I have only this to say: “Thank you for spending some time with us. It was helpful, and we appreciate your business. But the truth is, we lost a lot in the trade to make you feel safe. We lost ‘our salt’ — our flavor, as it were, more than a bit. We lost the gritty, bootstrap energy that has defined New Yorkers for a century: the can-do, pull it together and figure sh*t out energy that built the city, from the first. Never had it been a shopping mall, until 20 years ago, when you helped to turn it into one, with your actions. And while there was still a lot to love about the city of five months ago, pre-COVID, I’m sorry to tell you, but it was never about the meals, or the shopping. It was always—always—about the people, their commitment to their home, their love of chaos, their tolerance for being uprooted from time to time, and their willingness to reinvent themselves when they are. Sometimes, those gyrations birth a music movement, or six. At other times, bridges are built and airports are made, making life better for everyone, for a century, or more.
“So thank you, really. Now please leave us alone so we can fix it.”
All cities — not just New York — are ready for a reinvention. The IOT promises to upend the status quo, and create a New New Deal in the process. While everyone fears the takeover of the robot and the decimation of the job market, we are already there, in a way — just not at the titanium hand of our replacement. Already, 20.4% of New Yorkers are out of a job. It’s almost as bad as the 1930’s. We may even surpass it. We will see. But with this upheaval comes the opportunity to truly remake the city, once again, because when we are jobless, we have little else to lose in taking the risks. Sadly, Google’s Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto when that city — my other home — couldn’t see past its own nose, and was gripped by a nonsensical fear of being spied upon by Big Tech. It’s tragic: Sidewalk Labs had hatched an amazing plan to incubate City 3.0. That very idea — a new infrastructure, invented to remove most, if not all of the pain points we face every day — could well be the saving grace that creates millions of new jobs, and builds the platform for a new era in human cooperation and enlightenment, for those who invest in it; one that fuels a creative tidal wave of energy to move the needle not back to where we were, but to where we dream to go, and usually don’t have enough moxie to pull off, because it’s scary, and we are already employed.
As Koolhaas said last month, city-dwellers impressed him back in the 70’s because of “the incredible flexibility that people have shown in terms of changing their behavior in the most radical way.”
And while Koolhaas himself has recently lost his faith in the city, and has turned his focus instead on the rural landscapes of the vast interior, as evidenced by his recent exhibit at the Guggenheim — ironically shut after just a one-month run, because of the pandemic — I haven’t. Because until ‘real’ New Yorkers — or Tokyoites, or Londoners, or Parisians, or Lagosians, or Hong Kongese — abandon their homes for a house in the boonies in spite of their misgivings, the cycle will end and reverse, and the people will reinvent themselves in the process.
I don’t think Koolhaas was referring to the fleeing masses when he cited their “incredible flexibility” and “behavior-changing”. Rather, I believe, he was tapping into the very spirit of city-dwellers. It lured him there once, nearly 50 years ago; and places like it still capture more than half of the planet’s imagination, and energies.
We just need to be brave enough to take on our reinvention, once again, and get on with it — as soon as we finish bidding adieu to the kind people who stayed with us awhile, but who showed their true faces on their way out the door.
City 3.0, here we come.