I live along the East River in Manhattan. I moved here just under 2 years ago and when I did the skyline of western Queens and Brooklyn was of low rise, dirty, worn out tenement houses and warehouses, interspersed with church steeples. Today as I look out my window there is a mountain of towers in Queens and skeletons of scaffolding and pre-cast concrete rising out of Brooklyn. This is not shocking to me, after all the city is undergoing possibly the largest building boom since the 1920’s. Everyday when I walk to the subway I see buildings going up. In the two years I will have lived here I can count at least 10 condo towers that have gone up along my walk to the subway alone. Some have glass walls with windows reminiscent of Mondrian, others have concrete panels, others a mix of both, one even has “bricks” which is actually painted concrete. As New Yorkers there is a sort of jadedness towards all the development. “Of course buildings are going up everywhere, this is New York.” The future is growing all around us.
But as I watch the building frenzy, I can’t help but wonder what these machines for living will look like after 10, 20 years of wear.
I used to take the 4 train to the north Bronx to take classes at Lehman College. When I had time in between classes I would walk around the Grand Concourse, that once imperial boulevard that long ago gave way to the needs of high speed car travel. Lining the Concourse are block after block of pre-war apartment homes. The Bronx was developed as an urban suburb and most of the development that followed the extension of the subway lines were large apartment houses for the middle classes fleeing the crowded tenement houses of Manhattan. Like the luxury condo towers rising all around, these were built en-mass and reflected the styles of the day. They too were luxurious, maybe not by todays standards (in New York “luxury” means a doorman and in-building laundry), but they did offer much more space and contained the newest technological advances in urban living of the time.
But as time wore on and the next generation became wealthier they moved on to greener pastures. With white flight and the original owners retiring to Florida or the Southwest, many of these buildings began to become occupied by the lower class, new immigrants and poor blacks. These once fresh, clean apartment buildings quickly began to show their age as the new tenants were unable to afford the upkeep. Once seen as a glimmering step up, they now were seen as where the other half lived. Today you can just make out what once was when you look closely at the little details around the edges of the buildings, that is if they haven’t fallen off and been replaced with a quick stucco job.
So when I look at the new towers all I can think is what they will look like when they are no longer in vogue. What will age and neglect do to these relics of our time? What will BLUE look like when the the YUPies who fill it move to the newest gentrifying areas? What will it look like when poor new immigrants take it over and the windows start to fall out? All I can imagine is a vast sea of tall glass towers, dark and broken, dirty and scary. A forest of twisted trees, towering over once busy streets. When I see a new glass tower go up I imagine it once it has outlived its economic value for the rich and discarded like all the row houses that are now boarded up, the once fashionable hotels which are now rooming houses, and the once shining modern towers that are now “projects”.
Off in the distance in Brooklyn, right past the new tower going up in Williamsburgh along Kent St, I can see the last generations building boom. Like a far away mountain range they rise, the Marcy Projects. Looming large and dark they are now the place where we send those who have failed at the American dream or those who have just begun the climb. What will our new projects look like when they are no longer filled with those at the top but with those at the bottom?