For the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law, Justin Davidson at New York Magazine talked with me and Nikolai Fedak, blogger of the pro-development NY YIMBY. While mostly polite, it was a spirited conversation, at times a grudge match.
An abbreviated version appears in the print edition of the current magazine, and a longer version appears online.
NF: ...In East Harlem, you have a proposal for a 50-story tower on top of the Target, which is going to be fantastic. People in the neighborhood object, but they can’t do anything about it.
JD: So powerlessness leads to a good result?
JM: I want to go back to something Nikolai was saying earlier and question the idea that New York has to compete, that the city has to keep growing, that it has to be the best. That’s a very corporate notion, and it’s a foreign concept to me. If we just keep growing and competing and winning, where do we end up, ultimately? With a city filled, from borough to borough, with nothing but gleaming skyscrapers. And then the city will die. At what point do we say that’s enough?
NF: But how could that actually happen —?
JM: It already is happening. Julian Brash wrote the book Bloomberg’s New York, in which he described how Bloomberg changed the way we think of the city. He talked about it as a luxury product and about himself as CEO. He treated New Yorkers like consumers rather than citizens. That is a very different way of thinking about people. Citizens speak up and fight for their rights. Consumers don’t.
JD: Fighting for your rights and interests is obviously an important part of citizenship, but it also creates the adversarial situation that Nikolai was describing, in which the wealthy will always have the upper hand. A lot of planning takes place through litigation, which can be democratic without being fair.
JM: Sure, in an ideal world, everyone would have equal access and power, but if they don’t, that just means they have to fight for it.
NF: There’s room here for everyone if you build adequate housing for them. Prewar neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have buildings that don’t meet the standards of 2015. Why should the poor live in such places in order to preserve the architecture?
JD: There are plenty of wealthy people living in old buildings with creaky plumbing, too.
JM: So, Nikolai, do you have a fantasy that if you tore down and rebuilt all those buildings, the people who live there would be able to move back in?
NF: My fantasy is a New York where everyone has access to comfortable housing.
JM: Well, yeah, how can I disagree with that? My apartment is a shithole. But I have to hold on to my shithole. I have to fight for my shithole.
NF: That mentality is what makes it impossible for the city to accommodate more people.
JM: I don’t want to accommodate more people. There are too many fucking people here already.
NF: There! That’s the difference between us. I think the city needs to evolve, and Jeremiah’s nostalgic for the city of the past.
JM: What I’m nostalgic for is the city of the present...
Click here for the full discussion