Five years ago, I posted here about the Battle for Astor Place, writing, "The City's Department of Transportation and Cooper Union are unfolding their plan to turn Astor Place into what they call a public park, but what is clearly an amenity for more condo and office towers, setting the stage for further upscaling of the East Village and Bowery."
Today, that vision is coming true. Across from Gwathmey's "Green Monster" condo tower, the Death Star has since risen, a dark, hulking slab full of tech companies. Astor Place's center has been flattened and reshaped--part of the street has been erased, and the Alamo cube was hauled off for polishing, yet to return.
And now we have our first "public" private advertainment event.
Yesterday, NYCxDesign's "Design Pavilion" opened between the Green Monster and the Death Star.
It features interactive advertisements from IBM, a resident of the Death Star, and is sponsored by 125 Greenwich Street, another supertall luxury tower that will be full of oligarch money.
125 Greenwich commandeers the center space with a large architectural display, described thus: "the installation abstracts the surrounding city fabric as an undulating landscape of white fiberglass rods, while 125 Greenwich Street and the World Trade Center buildings are prominently represented as solid forms, finished in white satin lacquer."
So the city fabric is erased, abstracted, neutralized, while the sky-high luxury residence and the corporate office tower are "prominently represented."
Whose city is this?
Uniformed security guards circle the perimeter of the pavilion. When I approached, I hesitated, unsure if I would be permitted inside.
The space is "open to the public," but doesn't quite feel open. And which public? All of the public?
NYCxDesign calls the pavilion a "public activation" and "an immersive urban experience" consisting of "a curated assemblage of creative structures and displays."
But the true urban experience is not a curated one. It is, by nature, haphazard, chaotic, idiosyncratic.
The pavilion reminds me of the controversial BMW Guggenheim Lab that came to the East Village a few years ago. James Wolcott said at the time: "An interdisciplinary lab is what you get when there's no more Mercer Arts Center, Max's Kansas City, CBGB's, or Mudd Club--a buzzword mausoleum."
This is the new Astor Place. It looks like a public space, but like many sites in Bloomberg's "high-performance" neoliberal vision of the city, it feels more and more like privatization, covered in high-end branding disguised as "fun for everyone."
Standing in the center, you find that what you're immersed in is not the urban utopia, but a dystopia of corporate advertising--the pavilion and its branded contents, surrounded by the lighted signs of Chase, Walgreens, Starbucks, CVS, on and on. This is truly the "geography of nowhere."
I'll end this post as I did the one in 2011, with some words by William H. Whyte, Jr., from his 1958 book The Exploding Metropolis:
"Everybody, it would seem, is for the rebuilding of our cities... But this is not the same as liking cities...most of the rebuilding under way and in prospect is being designed by people who don’t like cities."
"what is the image of the city of the future? In the plans for the huge redevelopment projects to come, we are being shown a new image of the city—and it is sterile and lifeless. Gone are the dirt and the noise—and the variety and the excitement and the spirit. That it is an ideal makes it all the worse; these bleak new utopias are not bleak because they have to be; they are the concrete manifestation—and how literally—of a deep, and at times arrogant, misunderstanding of the function of the city."