The last thing to be privatized will be our imaginations.
From my rooftop on the slop of the Harbor Hill Moraine leading up to Prospect Park, I have a clear view of the skyline of Lower Manhattan, now missing its mighty twin anchors. The gorgeous towers of the 1930s—green pyramided 40 Wall, hypodermic 70 Pine, and castle keep-like 20 Exchange—have not been able to regain their once prominent place on our wounded skyline. Queens of the skyline from the Thirties through the Sixties, they are crowded out now by the ugly boxes built on Water and South Streets during the 1960s-1980s. The men who built the earlier towers were businessmen, of course, but they were also fired by imagination, competing with each other to make statements with their architectural designs and materials, their palatial lobbies, and, yes, even their cute elevator girls. The men who built the boxes were colorless drones, calculators of sq. ft. profit.
Guess which type makes up he Lower Manhattan Development Corporation? This clue will help: they are Governor Pataki’s men, representing a wide spectrum of…developers. And they have released half a dozen plans for the future of the World Trade Center site. The six plans are heavily larded with office space, which we already have a surplus of. Indeed, they want to replace all the lost office space of the WTC, but without the height. Of course, it was the State of New York—Nelson Rockefeller, Governor, helping out his brother David, banker and WTC rainmaker, with more of that socialism for the rich (public money funneled to private ends) America specialized in—which filled up the Twins, which otherwise would have been echoing with emptiness for years. Office space development, you might say, is hardly synonymous with creative planning.
This poverty of imagination shouldn’t stop us from dreaming, though. Indeed, we have been encouraged to do so. Sort of. Our masters seek our “input,” to be filed away in the archives, after a period of public comment. The power structure is what it is, and the big boys aim to get what they want. One or two scraps will be thrown to the citizenry, in the form of some kind of limited memorial. Such callousness is why we need to support the only citizens group so far with any power in this fight, the survivors, or victims’ families, however narrow their perspective may be tragedy. Yet the victorious privatizers who are sweeping away the fundamentals of democracy—public space and discourse, civil and secular society, economic parity and justice, and the shared sense of all of us being in this thing together—haven’t colonized our imagination. For the moment we can still look at the skyline and wonder. The skyline, bristling with desire and ambition, breeds dreams.
And since we’re dreaming, where are the residential units in these plans presented by the LMDC? Oh, bold dream that! New housing units and conversions should be a priority in a city with an affordable housing crisis, and where the real middle class is chased away by property costs. And where are the services for the people who live in Lower Manhattan, as opposed to the people who just shop there (as if one Gap is any different from any other)?
Where are the artists’ studious, low-rent nonprofit office spaces, and performing centers with indoor and outdoor stages? Where are the sculpture gardens, the chairs to sit on and gaze at the water?
Picture a park opening out on the Hudson from Church Street, and the view from the front St. Paul’s Chapel.
Imagine an Innovation & Venture Capital Center that combines social and private investment funds seeding entrepreneurs, emerging businesses, and clean industries.
Picture a Grand Downtown Terminal that unites ferries, the PATH and the subway, not to mention a light rail or trolley system and miles of tree-lined bike paths. Take the ferry to the Upper West Side, or the park and gardens and research and conference center on Governor’s Island, as well as New Jersey and Brooklyn. Rent an electric car….
The Terminal might have a glass barrel-vaulted ceiling, through which you can see the sky as your arrive, and, of course, the great sweep of the observation tower/memorial arising from pylons in the reflecting pool footprints of WTC1 and 2 like a pathway to the stars. That spire, beckoning out across the boroughs and New Jersey like a train whistle in the prairie, would promise the metropolis and all its mysteries.
Well, it’s easy to get carried with daydreams. Of course, it goes without saying need jobs in lower Manhattan. The jobs that dominate, the financial, insurance, and real estate gigs that make up the ironically named FIRE sector, are too limiting. Long-term concentration on this sector has manifestly weakened the city because it’s gutted the working and middle class from Manhattan. High-rise FIRE jobs tend to breakdown to high-income mangers and low-income clericals (with income division paralleling color division), and with low-wage services supporting them, but where is the middle? Small industries that once lined the harbor, once one of the busiest in the world, were cleared out to make way for FIRE. Indeed, it was a fire, a scorched earth on the working class. We pay for this folly every time the market tanks and bonuses are down. We all learned long ago that it’s a mistake to put all our eggs in one basket. It’s a recipe for disaster, but one we keep following.
We need a mixed-use downtown, with a mixed economy, and a mix of people mixing it up. And we need a genuine mix of ideas of how best to accommodate all of our needs. In short, we need to build not a theme park, nor an office park, but a real city.
Wills is a contributing writer and reporter for the Brooklyn Rail.