Once upon a time, New York City was famous for dreaming big and making those dreams come true.
But now, in our age of political fecklessness and mindless obstruction, Gotham has lost its aspirational luster — its capacity to conjure magic out of morass — to London.
Yes, London, which is beset by Brexit, worse inflation than ours, and parliamentary upheaval. A visit to the British capital this month clinched the case for me. The great city, the Big Apple’s historic friendly competitor, has brought forth not just one, but two new colossal achievements: an awe-inspiring complex rising out of an old power station, and a 60-mile-long train route linking the city’s most distant points.
Each is transformational. The Elizabeth Line cuts crosstown travel time by half. The Battersea Power Station, a long-derelict plant and skyline embarrassment for more than 40 years, is now the heart of a 42-acre wonderland boasting 19 football fields worth of public green space, hundreds of stores and restaurants, and handsome residential buildings that include 4,000 homes designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster.
Just four years ago, Battersea’s rubble-strewn structure had no roof. The notion that Apple would one day move its European headquarters there, as was touted at the time, struck me as preposterous. Yet its half-million square-foot digs are nearly finished and Apple will move there next year. Meanwhile, the plant’s industrial-age control rooms, pipes and mechanical artifacts have been preserved for all to enjoy.
New York used to know how to build its future on the bones of the past. Our public and private visions brought us masterpiece after masterpiece — from Central Park and great suspension bridges in the 19th century to our original subway system, Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building in the 20th.
Battery Park City, too, conceived in the late 1970s, aimed high and gradually lived up to its promise of a new residential and commercial neighborhood built on Hudson River landfill.
But since 9/11, our aspirational impulse is stuck in neutral if it hasn’t completely conked out.
Sure, we built the High Line Park. But our large commercial and transit projects, the works that define a metropolis, are largely piecemeal — and unfinished.
The new World Trade Center still isn’t complete. Hudson Yards is just halfway done. The Second Avenue Subway, proposed for 100 years, has inched to life with a mere three new stations. Political opportunists’ death-by-delay strategy chased Amazon off a plan to create an entirely new campus providing 25,000 jobs on a neglected slice of Long Island City waterfront.
Proposals to link the airports with Manhattan by train spin their wheels. Our only “think big” plan, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Penn Station-district scheme, would bulldoze dozens of sound buildings and evict residents and businesses, while enriching her real estate donors in the fraudulent name of creating a “new” Penn Station. It isn’t a dream but a nightmare in the making.
Another humbling debacle: Though the London Eye, the much-loved observation wheel on the Thames, opened in 2000, the proposed New York Wheel on Staten Island never rose higher than a few support legs.
What made Battersea possible was public acceptance and political support allowing two Malaysian investment funds to build it. Three consecutive prime ministers blessed the project. The Borough of Wandsworth approved the master plan without the rancor that sandbagged Ground Zero. Meanwhile, Britain’s chancellor guaranteed a $1.5 billion loan to pay for the extension of the Underground Northern line to Battersea’s doorstep.
There’s blame to go around for our aspirational inertia. In the first part of the last century, “Master Builder” Robert Moses rammed highways through established neighborhoods and chased out working-class residents. His mixed legacy forged a deep resistance to “progress.” Other factors include a loss of civic commitment and funds as New York’s biggest companies scattered their operations across the globe. And don’t forget our astronomical construction costs, which reached an all-time high of $86 billion this year.
It doesn’t have to be too late. A trip to London would remind our politicians and planners of what can be accomplished when we dream boldly and set aside petty concerns for the greater good. Maybe the British example can rekindle our passion that made us the greatest city in the world.
Until then, obnoxiously tall skyscrapers on Billionaires Row testify to what our developers care about most: Monuments to their own egos, with little regard for the shadows they cast over New Yorkers’ spirits.