Diary

Inigo Thomas

New York is no longer a city of five boroughs with a village at its centre. The latest report of the US Conference of Mayors describes it as a megacity, with the metropolitan area absorbing surrounding counties in New Jersey and New York State. This is a city with a population of 18 million and a GDP of $1 trillion, just a little lower than Spain’s. It’s the richest place on the planet. Its boundaries are hard to define. One result of New York’s growth is that Manhattan is becoming an enormous downtown: an island of hospitals, universities, malls (or mall-like developments), places of entertainment, offices – and homes for those who can afford to live there.

In Through the Children’s Gate, his recent book about New York, Adam Gopnik writes that since 11 September 2001 the city has become ‘tragic and fragile’, ‘the Venice of the new millennium’.[*] New York – or Manhattan, more precisely the subject of Gopnik’s book – has indeed become like Venice, but not because it’s fragile. It is more of a resort city than ever. This transformation occurred despite 9/11 – plans to make Manhattan more mall-like and visitor-friendly were drawn up years ago – and because of it too: the pace of change has picked up since then. The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, sometimes talks about the importance of tourism to New York as if tourists were more important to the city than its inhabitants, but when you consider that 44 million tourists visited the city last year – an increase of 25 per cent since 2001 – that isn’t so surprising.

The best chapter in Gopnik’s book is about the redevelopment of Times Square, once a peep-show alley, now the headquarters for the US’s main media companies and – still – the theatre. Similarly dramatic transformations are to be repeated in other parts of the city. Frank Gehry has designed an enormous complex of shops, a basketball stadium and apartments to be built over marshalling yards in Brooklyn. Many residents are against the Gehry construction, though it is not the development itself that is likely to kill the neighbourhood so much as the skyrocketing rents and house prices. The redevelopment of Harlem continues: Renzo Piano is to build a third Columbia University campus at the western end of 125th Street, close to the Hudson. And this is just the beginning.

Since Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, more than four thousand blocks in the five boroughs have been ‘re-zoned’, so that buildings in areas once protected for particular commerical and manufacturing uses can be converted into luxury or more affordable apartment buildings, or into more shops. The biggest private real-estate development in New York’s history, begun in the late 1990s, nears completion on Manhattan’s West Side: 13,000 people will live in Trump City when it’s finished. The Queens waterfront is another area that has been marked by the city authorities for residential improvement. How much construction there will be in Queens hasn’t yet been announced, though the waterfront is considerably bigger than the Trump City site. In the late 19th century, this quarter of Queens was the Steinway family fiefdom, its piano factory a mile to the east. The Steinways built houses for their workers close to the plant, less in an act of enlightened utopianism than an attempt to prevent the piano workers, most of whom were former German cabinetmakers, from going on strike. But the piano-makers’ union continued striking despite the better housing and the theme park the Steinways built for them on the north shore of Queens. ‘New York remains New York,’ one of the Steinways said, ‘and that means a city where democracy called by its true name is the rule of the mob … Heaven help those who by expressing republican sentiment may provoke the rage of the mob.’

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[*] Quercus, 336 pp., £17.99, July, 978 1 84724 163 4.