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01.21.2011
Review> Bloomberg Makes Space in New York
Studying the transformation of place in New York under the Bloomberg administration
Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City by Julian Brash

Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City
Julian Brash
University of Georgia Press
$69.95, cloth; $24.95, paper

It’s always bracing to read urban studies not written by architects. Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City is an exhumation of the three (and counting) terms of Mayor Mike, written by Julian Brash, who is an anthropologist and therefore refreshingly uninterested in arguments based on aesthetics.  Brash is primarily concerned with issues of class—always a tricky and elusive subject—and the commodified “place-making” promoted by Bloomberg stalwart and former deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, described here as a “youthful man blessed with a preternatural ability to maintain both a set jaw and an ingratiating grin.”

Brash makes it clear that his allegations of class warfare are tied to “the production of space,” and it is that focus that makes Bloomberg’s New York worthwhile reading for architects and planners.  He examines the Bloomberg administration’s various over-scaled proposals for Hell’s Kitchen (“Hudson Yards”), a key puzzle piece in Doctoroff’s unsuccessful attempts to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York. Brash reveals that the plan’s ultimate defeat was due in large part to the ability of neighborhood groups, including the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and Community Board Four, to co-opt the Bloomberg administration’s use of rhetoric and renderings that promoted an idealized, “elite” city.

Hudson Yards.

Aerial view of Hudson Yards in Manhattan.
Julian Brash

Beyond issues of who’s part of “the elite” and who’s not (and Brash applies the term too often and too vaguely) the “luxury city” has, in fact, become a reality, and Brash smartly ties class politics to place-making. By examining Hudson Yards in detail, Brash shows how a supposedly “placeless” group he calls the “Transnational Capitalist Class”—bankers, investors, and developers with global aspirations—don’t “transcend space,” but in fact inhabit and change the city on a very local scale. Brash’s insights here are thoughtful and intricate, offering a more vivid, not to mention more accurate, explanation than the tired and simplistic label “gentrification.”

In fact, I would go a step further than Brash and say that while “transnationals” do indeed occupy and transform physical space in the city, they often do so in a deliberately non-contextual way that is the very definition of placelessness. Many of the startlingly daring condominiums, for example, built during Bloomberg’s first two terms from 2002 to 2009, were promoted more often as good investments than nice places to live.  Some of the flashier projects seem completely shrink-wrapped and divided from the city, marketed as opulent interior worlds uncorrupted by the neighborhood lurking outside. Tsao & McKown’s William Beaver House in the Financial District has an indoor dog run, a movie theater, and an on-site auto mechanic. Annabelle Selldorf’s 200 Eleventh Avenue in West Chelsea has an elevator that lifts your car directly into your apartment.  Meanwhile, Trinity Real Estate president Jason Pizer, who manages Trinity Church’s six million square feet of space in a neighborhood north of the church that he insists we call “Hudson Square” (in honor of the previous Hudson Square neighborhood that Trinity helped to destroy between 1867 and 1918), refers to the church’s vast parcels of land as “the portfolio.” Under Bloomberg, much of the physical space of New York became a kind of three-dimensional futures market.

A rally in support of a new Jets stadium.

A 2004 rally supporting a New York Jets stadium in Manhattan.
Julian Brash

There is much to enjoy in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, notably new public spaces like Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line.  And I certainly don’t feel nostalgia for the “good old days,” 20 or so years ago, when there were 2,605 murders in a single year (1990) and New Yorkers regularly carried “hold-up money” (usually a crisp $100 bill) in order to have something to offer the inevitable mugger.  But over the last decade, things have definitely swung towards a monocultural, less sustainable city. Brash points to New York’s lack of economic diversification as a disturbing trend, and this is where his argument against the “Bloomberg Way” is most convincing. A city overbuilt with offices, condominiums, and chic restaurants for the “creative class” isn’t actually very creative urban planning. When I first moved to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn 15 years ago, there was still an active furniture factory at the corner of Smith and Warren Streets. Now it’s a condo. It’s impossible to imagine light manufacturing in my neighborhood today; industrial spaces have universally transformed into boutiques and bars.

Pizer, in a recent interview in Trinity News, practically crowed about the death of industry in Hudson Square: “[In] 1999 we were still primarily a printing area, and to see the portfolio morph from light industrial into the creative office tenants we have now is very exciting.” Exciting? I find the over-reliance on “creative office tenants” a precarious gamble. A city built only for the “elites” means that if they go down, we all go down.

Fran Leadon

Fran Leadon is an architect and co-author, with Norval White, of the fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City.