As I've written about here before, the redesigned Astor Place is shaping up to be a neoliberalized theme park disguised as an open public space. We've watched the process develop over the past few years, and now it's about to reach its hideous completion.
Here's the latest scuttlebutt on the project from long-time reader Liberation:
"I was told by someone who works for Village Alliance that, when eventually complete, the new Astor Place will have a variety of food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs, and some type of lighting scheme. There's a large electrical box on the north east corner of Chase that will power all of this. The Village Alliance and some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building decide who these food vendors are and, in general, decide what takes place in the area.
One bit of news I found shocking is that they have allegedly altered The Alamo sculpture so it will now include some type of lighting. According to the Village Alliance employee the sculpture will also rotate on its own now, as he said people have hurt their backs trying to spin it. Personally, I find it unethical to alter an artist's work to make it appear more like a theme park attraction."
Astor Place, 1998, photo by Alex at Flaming Pablum
It sounds like a joke. It has to be a joke, right?
The Alamo, the famous Cube, turned by skate punks and college students from the beginning of time, will now rotate robotically so the new East Villagers don't throw their backs out? A scrappy piece of public art that has been loved into realness by the rough hands of city kids, covered in graffiti, kicked, climbed upon, and even yarn bombed, will now be floodlit and mechanized, like a plastic ballerina turning in a music box? It is almost impossible to believe. Could it be true?
More egregious, however, is the report that "some type of committee at the Sculpture for Living building" will be making the decisions about who is allowed to occupy and profit from this supposedly public space.
The Sculpture for Living is the 21-story "green monster" luxury condo tower on Astor Place, the first in a set of massive, out-of-context new construction here. It contains a "limited collection of 39 museum-quality loft residences," originally priced between $1,995,000 to over $6,500,000. "It doesn’t belong in the neighborhood,” critic Paul Goldberger wrote at its opening. “...the architect has destroyed the illusion that this neighborhood, which underwent gentrification long ago, is now anything other than a place for the rich.”
And now those rich residents will dictate how the public will use Astor Place, historic site of riots and protests, over a century of dissent? If the report is true, it would represent a massive betrayal of the people by City Hall.
The betrayal began some 15 years ago, when the city and Cooper Union colluded to rezone and redesign Astor Place for the purpose of upscaling it and making it profitable for a very few. East Villagers fought back. Many said "the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus."
That's exactly what has happened. Now we have the 400,000-square-foot 51 Astor Place, known locally as The Death Star, full of chain stores and featuring a bland corporate plaza. Now we have real-estate brokers and developers calling Astor Place "Midtown South."
The Marxist urban theorist Henri Lefebvre wrote that a city is a “place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and of the unpredictable.”
This is exactly what is being destroyed in New York today--and especially during the years of Bloomberg and Burden. From one end of town to the other, unpredictability has been steamrolled by the tight constraints of design. Our public spaces are being privatized in stealth--they may look open, but look closer and you'll see the mechanisms of closure and control. Security guards, surveillance cameras, corporate events, the uniformity of design elements; and, of course, the private committees of wealthy property owners that quasi-secretly dictate so-called public use of our space (see Washington Square Park, the High Line, etc.).
What have we allowed to happen to our city? Why are we not taking up cudgels and storming Astor Place? Oh, just eat another cupcake. I'll have another latte. Any feelings of injustice will soon fade.
The Alamo cube is due to return to Astor Place any day now. Will it really be plugged in and controlled? Like a loved one kidnapped by the villains of Stepford, will it return to us as a robot, docile and compliant, not quite recognizable?
Imagine the rumor is true. To spin the Alamo cube was to play, to participate, to get your hands dirty and feel your body work in concert with the urban object. You pushed against it with your friends and with strangers. It was, very often, a communal effort.
If we are forced to stand by and watch the cube spin on its own, we will be nothing more than passive observers of a Disney-style spectacle. "Look, but don't touch," the invisible sign will say. This sums up what our entire city has become--and is still becoming.
Let's hope it's all a farce. Recent history, however, doesn't support satire in this case. To quote Luc Sante:
“The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats—as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions—have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds… As a consequence of these and other changes, we have forgotten what a city was.”
Astor Place Redesign
Battle for Astor Place
UPDATE: William Kelley, executive director of the Village Alliance, writes to EV Grieve:
"The Alamo sculpture should return in August, and it is exactly the same as it was before. There are no lights and the spinning mechanism is human powered, just like before. It received a thorough cleaning and coating to protect it from the weather and will return in good shape. Also coming in August, there will be bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas for use by the public, much like you see in other plazas around the city.
Finally, there will be a single food concession in the north and south plaza spaces at Astor Place (not around Cooper Square or points south) pursuant to the license agreement with NYCDOT. No other vending will be allowed on the plazas."
Mr. Kelley, what decision-making powers will come from the Sculpture for Living residents?