Harpers: “The Death of a Once Great City” on NYC & “All-powerful” Private Conservancies

Harpers: “The Death of a Once Great City” on NYC & “All-powerful” Private Conservancies

ICYMI, Harpers in its July issue featured an article, The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence. It is definitely worth reading, touches upon the privatization of oh-too-much of NYC, including our parks.

One sentence that stands out in the excellent article by Kevin Baker:

“Starting with Central Park in 1980, much of New York’s park system has been handed over to privately funded ‘conservancies,’ supposedly subordinate to the city government but in truth all-powerful, and quite determined to put everything on a paying basis.”

I like his placement of the word “conservancies” in quotes. Conservancy? Sounds so benign. What could go wrong? But, as he outlines (and there is much more that could be added to this), and as we know, so much. Sometimes the privatization, the private management of a public park, comes under the guise of not a conservancy, but a BID – Business Improvement District – like at Bryant Park. (Note: Washington Square Park is NOT privatized. See more below.*)

Why should our parks and public spaces be ‘improving’ business?

And Baker notes: “For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.”

The decline of the subways is just the latest diminution of public life in New York. Over the past few decades, what used to be regarded as inviolable public space has been systematically rolled up and surrendered to unelected private authorities. Starting with Central Park in 1980, much of New York’s park system has been handed over to privately funded “conservancies,” supposedly subordinate to the city government but in truth all-powerful, and quite determined to put everything on a paying basis. A visit to the Central Park Zoo, once free, now costs $18 per adult, $13 per child. A “total experience” ticket for the world-renowned Bronx Zoo costs $36.95 for all “adults” over the age of twelve, $26.95 for younger children, and $31.95 for seniors—in a borough where the median yearly household income is $37,525. (Rental of a single-seat stroller at the zoo will cost you $10. A wheelchair is free but requires a $20 deposit, lest you try to scoot off with it.)

Even the streets are no longer fully under public control. Starting in 1984, New York created seventy-five “business improvement districts,” more than any other city in the country—though ­BIDs are now common in nearly every one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. ­BIDs are supposed to be self-taxing coalitions of businesses, often employing the homeless and destitute to pick up trash, prettify the streets, and organize security patrols. But as the New York Times reported, one of the very first New York ­BIDs instead “organized the workers into what were called ‘goon squads’ to use force to chase homeless people out of bank lobbies with A.T.M.s.”

… “You say you’re doing so much for the city, but you’re making that money off the backs of the homeless,” Tommy Washington, then a forty-one-year-old former BID worker and plaintiff pointed out. “You donate lampposts, flower beds, Bryant Park. How are you going to represent beautify if you’re doing ugly behind that?”

Washington’s question goes to the heart of the new New York, whom it’s for, and what it means. Everywhere now, private institutions have largely taken over the neighborhoods around them, repurposing them solely to meet their own needs.

Too many people want to place a happy face on it all. It’s post-Bloomberg. As someone writing a blog for the last ten years on some of these issues, frankly, it’s weird. Maybe it’s all bubbling under the surface. I hope so. I think so. We had 12 years of Michael Bloomberg. It was a lot to deal with.

“NYU partially re-created the facade of the Poe house. Quoth the raven: Fuck you.”

The article continues:

Cooper Union may be the most egregious defacer of its own neighborhood, but it’s far from the only one. New York University has torn down much of the historic West Village, including most of what was the landmark Provincetown Playhouse and a home that Edgar Allan Poe once lived in. (NYU partially re-created the facade of the Poe house. Quoth the raven: Fuck you.) Columbia University used (and abused) the power of eminent domain to kick out residents and small businesses at the western end of 125th Street, and is now stuffing that street with the huge, glassy, dreadful buildings of its new Manhattanville campus, courtesy of its own international vandal, sorry, starchitect, Renzo Piano.

This has become an accepted way of proceeding in New York, even for subsidized institutions that are supposed to serve a public purpose. Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards, in downtown Brooklyn, was sold to the public in an elaborate bait-and-switch scheme as part of a spectacular “urban utopia” complex to be designed by Frank Gehry. It ended up instead as an arena with all the charm of your basic bus terminal, home to an unwanted basketball team owned by a Russian oligarch. But then, as with any major New York development today, some form of deception is requisite. The Atlantic Yards scam was bankrolled with hundreds of millions in public funding—though the chicanery here is so involved that no one can even say for sure what the final public subsidy figures will be. The project includes at least $100 million forfeited when the MTA, which has a subterranean train-marshaling yard there, sold its lucrative aboveground rights to the site to the developer Forest City Ratner, which was the low bidder for them. Hundreds of local residents have already been relocated, and before the whole charade is over, thousands more may be displaced from their homes, dozens of longtime neighborhood businesses will have been shuttered, and community leaders will have been shamefully compromised with emoluments ranging from a luxury-box giveaway to an on-site basketball arena “meditation room.” But in a brilliant piece of political legerdemain, no elected official was forced to actually vote for the project.

*An important note: Refreshingly, unlike its Manhattan park neighbors, Washington Square Park is NOT privatized, it is not run by a private entity, this is due to community vigilance. This public space continues to be run by NYC and its Parks Department. But there is a “conservancy” just itching to get in there. The privatizers do not like when there is a hold out.

The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence Harpers

Photos of Bryant Park: Cathryn