The dismantling of public housing projects across America has been one of the most astonishing federal initiatives of the past 20 years. After spending billions of dollars to build public housing in every major city, many small ones and some rural areas over a six-decade period, the U.S. government reversed course in the early 1990s and started financing demolition rather than construction. Some 260,000 units out of 1.3 million nationally have been demolished or removed from the public-housing inventory since that time. The government also rescinded long-standing restrictions, such as the requirement that demolished units be replaced one-for-one, and encouraged cities to decrease not only the density of buildings but the actual numbers of public-housing apartments. It has been nothing less than a revolution in the public understanding of how government can best house economically disadvantaged residents.
Many of the sleek Modernist buildings in which the advertising "Mad Men" toiled decades ago are now shabby and tired, their once glamorous tenants dispersed to neighborhoods to the west and south. The advertising industry has been gone from Madison Avenue for so long--its exodus started in the early 1970s--that only people of a certain age automatically understood the play on words behind the title of the smash hit "Mad Men." Indeed, much of East Midtown is aging badly. Of its 400 buildings, some 300 are more than 50 years old. Even those with handsome limestone exteriors that look good from the outside tend to have overly small interior spaces, low ceilings, and out-of-date mechanicals. The now mostly dreary post-war Modernist buildings have the same problems--but without the handsome exteriors.
Beautifully sited on the curving shore of the Indian Ocean in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam sits on ancient trade routes between the Far East and the African interior. Named in the mid-19th century by Sultan Seyyid Majid of Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam means "haven of peace." It's an honorific title the city has sometimes struggled to merit--with its share of terrorist violence (the 1998 bombing of the American embassy, for example), bitter labor disputes, and fairly constant petty crime. President Obama's recent trip may help change this somewhat by putting Dar--Tanzania's largest and richest city--on the Western map. Yet Dar faces an uphill struggle, competing with far better known (and also more dangerous) African cities, such as Nairobi and Johannesburg.
New Yorkers are only learning about the grandeur and glory of the Brooklyn waterfront just as its industrial past fades and dies. For much as we like to talk about "reopening" the waterfront to the public, the truth is that the waterfront was historically closed so long as it was industrial. And nowhere was that more true than in Williamsburg, where the immense sugar refineries and warehouses ruled the East River from the Civil War foreword, barring all casual wanderers. Sugar's reign came to a whimpering end in January 2004 when the American Sugar Refinery Company shut down operations at the Domino Sugar refinery site. A few months later, the 11-acre site was sold to developers for $55 million.
During the early years of the Koch administration, when a near-bankrupt New York City was subject to state-imposed financial controls similar to those forced on Detroit earlier this year, many city officials read Robert Caro's book "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" as if it were the Bible. They wanted to know how he did it. How did he actually build something? They were trying to govern a ramshackle city that had once created Central Park, developed the magnificent water-delivery system from upstate and enabled private companies to construct what became the world's most extensive subway network. By the late 1970s, city officials could barely maintain these gifts from the past, much less build anything new.
Food is to cities what tech was in the 90s: a large, disparate, confusing universe of entrepreneurs and creative types ranging from the tiny DIY young manufacturers at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg to Manhattan's renowned high-end restaurants. And just as Apple was often viewed in the early 90s as quirky and precious, so are many food innovators today.
But like the tech sector, restaurants, markets and food products have often ended up defining neighborhoods and sustaining them. The Smith Street restaurants alerted New Yorkers of a resurgence in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens long before the rest of the world had heard of Brooklandia. Harlem's restaurants, like Amy Ruth's, helped bolster the neighborhood through the very bad days of the 70s and 80s. The High Line's wild success both built on and now supports the excellent restaurants nearby.
I'm suggesting that NYCHA look at each of these projects and think about whether the project should be one that receives substantial capital investment to give it another 50 years life or whether this is a project that should be put in the category of, say, Prospect Plaza in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, in which NYCHA decided that renovating the project at a cost of $500,000 a unit was out of the question. And, therefore, they concluded they should redevelop the immense project in an entirely different format from traditional public housing.
Is Brownsville Brooklyn--long regarded as one of New York's most troubled neighborhoods--ready for its comeback? There are some hopeful signs. The once-gorgeous Loew's Pitkin Theatre, which debuted in 1929 and closed in the late 1960s, has undergone a $43 million renovation by Poko Partners, reopening with an Ascend charter school on the top floors and retail on the ground floor. Pitkin Avenue itself, Brownsville's crucial commercial corridor, has a revitalized Business Improvement District, headed by lifetime Brooklynite Daniel Murphy. A handsome 12-unit condo building developed by Habitat for Humanity welcomed its new owners in April. The percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math is increasing, allowing StreetEasy's ads for modest houses to confidently stress the "transformed public school system."
Many urban neighborhoods have tried to use culture as a transformative economic development tool. But few have succeeded as sensationally as Manhattan's Upper West Side and its beloved performing arts center, Symphony Space--dubbed by the New York Times that "Upper West Side bastion of unconventional programming." To understand the achievement we need to return to the dark, dismal days of the Symph's founding--the late 1970s.
How fabulous was Cincinnati in the old days? Winston Churchill, for one, thought it was sensational, and called it "the most beautiful of the inland cities of the union." He singled out the "unsurpassed" Netherland Plaza Hotel from whose tower "the city spreads far and wide, its pageant of crimson, purple and gold laced by silver streams that are great rivers." Over the top, of course, but so is downtown Cincinnati, mesmerizing in all its architectural splendor.
Yet Cincinnati is generally not on anyone's list of the most-dazzling cities, partly because deindustrialization hit it so hard after World War II-and partly because it responded to its declining fortunes by implementing every known bad planning idea of the 20th century. Today Cincinnati is undergoing a renaissance that combines aggressive historic preservation with an economic development strategy based on sports, culture, and food-all three deeply embedded in Cincy's view of itself. "Come for Bengals, Stay for Hofbrauhaus," suggested a recent Cincinnati USA promo.