September 15th, 2009

Vertically Challenged

Posted in Architecture, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher Szabla

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The Midtown West intersection was windswept and deserted, save for two fighting children. To their right, a weed-strewn lot, some freshly-painted tags, a shopping cart filled with someone’s belongings from some far-off store called “Buy Buy Baby”, a long-unnecessary construction cone. To their left: an empty, suburban-style Mercedes dealership, out-of-place, surreal — just a little beyond was the Empire State Building. In the near background, a panorama of half-finished new condo towers, half-gleaming in once-trendy sheaths of glass.

New York has not reverted to the destitution claimed by some of the shriller portraits painted by the European press, which cover the economic downturn’s grip on the U.S. with the same sensationalism they once reported on the country’s urban crime. The recession is marked by subtler symbols — the increasing emptiness of storefronts, on the one hand, and the skeletal remains of stunted skyscrapers, on the other. New York’s condo tower boom is over, leaving behind a forest of halted cranes, a frozen Dubai.

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Like so many trends this decade, the condo boom and bust reached their apotheosis in Williamsburg, which has once again become a poster child — this time for the recession in real estate. Few of New York’s recent dreams have felt grander — or fallen harder — than the abortive attempt to definitively expand the city skyline beyond the East River. In July, New York magazine featured the consequences — the stoic ruins of Williamsburg’s floundered construction projects — as a disturbing example of the real estate bust’s effect on once-booming Brooklyn. The housing bubble, it suggested, was hardly limited to overbuilt subdivisions in sprawling Phoenix or Florida.

Williamsburg’s story was the classic gentrification narrative — taken to extremes. In 2000, the neighborhood was attracting creative types from the nearby East Village and other portions of Lower Manhattan. But overnight, it seemed, it had turned from artists’ enclave to tourist trap, with jet-setting Europeans descending on weekend mornings for epic brunches, bridge-and-tunnel types from Long Island and New Jersey trawling dance clubs and warehouse-sized Thai restaurants near the river, and, eventually, professionals settling, with increasing regularity, in the swank neo-modernist condo towers that had begun to emerge from north Brooklyn’s once-dowdy skyline of wooden tenements and church steeples.

By the middle part of the decade, New York’s city planners decided that Williamsburg’s newfound popularity presented a golden opportunity to redevelop Brooklyn’s East River waterfront, a neglected asset that could be mined for property tax revenue. Their plan — to blanket much of the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts with thirty-story condo towers — led to howls of protest from local residents, who feared blocked views and overcrowding on the L line, which connected them to Manhattan. Those who had not been priced out yet worried that Williamsburg was on the verge of becoming fully upper middle class. A substantial Williamsburg diaspora that had settled in neighborhoods further down the L line worried that the developments would push them still further into Brooklyn.

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Condo tower construction in Downtown Brooklyn

These scenarios did not come to pass. Instead, riverside Williamsburg is now littered with the ghostly frames of skyscrapers-once-to-be. And with increasing regularity, they are home not to investment bankers, but homeless squatters from other parts of the country, attracted to the neighborhood’s reputation for both libertarianism and magnanimity as much as its avant-garde flair.

Indeed, while similar scenes of abandonment plague Manhattan and other parts of Brooklyn, only Williamsburg appears to wear the recession with such flamboyance that even its attraction of destitute beggars has elicited comparisons to Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco neighborhood that served as a stage for the cultural transformations of the 1960s and 70s. The difference is that, while shabby chic may have seemed ironic in the late bubble, it’s now the manifestation of a grittier realism, devolving, like Williamsburg itself, from conscious fashion choice to a symbol of financial faux pas.


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2 comments

  1. Christopher DeWolf says:

    The least impressive introduction I’ve had to Manhattan was when I took a bus from Newark airport to Port Authority. When you emerge from the tunnel into the western end of Midtown, you pass through the kind of landscape you captured in your first photo.

    So there’s heroin all over Williamsburg… is that any different than normal?

    September 17th, 2009 at 2:14 am

  2. C. Szabla says:

    The city’s long had grand plans for Midtown West, but they’ve never really gotten off the ground. The real estate bubble was pushing these now frozen construction projects into the area over the last few years, but they would have never really made up for the desolation.

    Part of the problem is that it suffers from a paradoxical isolation, given how close it is to Midtown proper, Penn Station, and Port Authority. Most of it is just slightly too far from them, and too large to walk around, without the subway extension that’s always been promised but never been delivered. Hell’s Kitchen is in a similar situation geographically, but it at least has historical charm and gets associated with romantic bohemianism.

    As for Williamsburg: yes, it will probably take more than a wave of bankruptcies and a few homeless to completely kill that party. Judging from all the Castillan Spanish you hear on Bedford Ave., everyone in Madrid must still dream of waiting in line two hours to have an omelet there.

    September 17th, 2009 at 2:31 pm