Event: Historic Cities in Transition, part of the New York’s Identity Crisis series
Location: New York School of Interior Design, 07.25.07
Speaker: Francis Morrone — historian, journalist, author, lecturer, teacher
Organizer: The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America
City life is in a constant state of flux. In the last of a four-part series, journalist and historian Francis Morrone discussed NYC’s shifting structure, from the postwar economic boom to the glory and grit of the ’70s to current times. Often the evolution is described as increasingly “suburbanized.”
Though “gentrification” was coined in 1964 in the London Times, the phenomenon dates as far back as 1910 — in NYC. Row houses in Gramercy built in the 1850s by the bourgeois fell into disfavor when the Third Avenue El was constructed. After years of economic depression, wealthy bohemians flocked to townhouses as they were renovated. Similarly, in Washington Square, artists like Edward Hopper were followed by people who loved the cachet;, but wanted more amenities. In the ’90s, they succeeded in transforming the neighborhood, overtaking the Upper East Side as most expensive.
NYC peaked economically after World War II, with the country’s top seaport and highest number of Fortune 500 businesses. The ’50s, however, brought decline, population loss, and building neglect. “Urban renewal,” a catchphrase in this Robert Moses era, meant whole neighborhoods gave way to expressways and high-rises. But, as everyone knows, urban renewal had its detractors: The Brooklyn Heights conservation movement began after a Moses-built promenade destroyed much of Brooklyn’s downtown. Henry Hope Reed began giving his historic walking tours, leading to new conservation consciousness for urbanites. Author Jane Jacobs saw in density an opportunity to foster “cordial interactions” in ways that open spaces couldn’t. Jacobs championed “unslumming,” a term she used to mean the process in which inhabitants became upwardly mobile financially, but remained living in the same neighborhood, and thus improved living conditions.
During the ’70s, “planned shrinkage” was in vogue. Led by former City Housing Commissioner Roger Starr, many proposed using public policy to hasten population decline in targeted areas such as Bushwick. Others saw demolished areas as potential crop fields such as wheat and corn. In 1976, Starr wrote that it was time to plan for a smaller city population. He hadn’t planned on the Wall Street boom of the ’80s, or subsequent population booms.
Today, NYC is preparing for one million new residents in the next 10 years. The city is so dense that recent graduates are moving into tenements in Bushwick — once targeted for “shrinkage” — and services are following suit. Morrone urged New Yorkers to be guardians of our city history, such as the Brooklyn Brownstone Belt, while thinking about its future.