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.’

The warehouses on the Queens waterfront and on the empty streets leading away from the East River will eventually be torn down and yet another real-estate company will publish brochures for apartments with views of Manhattan over the East River and the nearby shops. What is surprising is that these developments have taken so long. ‘New York City has become a metaphor for what looks like the last days of American civilisation,’ the New York Times movie critic wrote in 1975, while John Leonard, then the Times’s books editor, declared a couple of years later that the future was dead. These weren’t exceptional remarks: gloom was everywhere.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, America’s most famous writers on urban issues, sensed a crisis on the horizon, but they didn’t foresee just how badly things would turn out. Nor did Robert Moses, who had been in charge of city planning since the 1920s, and whose mammoth housing projects and highways had ripped through old neighbourhoods; though he did say that if his plans for New York were abandoned, trouble was inevitable. None of them predicted what would happen when New York’s port, one of the city’s biggest employers, vanished. Nor did anyone consider the consequences of the enormous black migration from the South to northern cities. ‘The time to prepare for [the black migration] is now,’ one unusually far-sighted policy-maker, David Cohn, wrote in 1947. ‘But since we as a nation rarely act until catastrophe is upon us, it is likely we shall muddle along until it is too late.’

By the late 1960s the catastrophe had happened. ‘Repeated visits to Hunt’s Point in the South Bronx,’ a reporter said after visiting a ghetto, ‘uncover so much that is supposed not to be American in 1969 that the visitor wonders if he has suddenly entered a time machine and been transported back to frontier days … There are areas that have ceased to be part of New York.’ ‘The whole area is a big garbage dump,’ one resident said. ‘If we get rid of all the sanitation inspectors, building inspectors, police and teachers in this area we assure you this jungle could be no worse than it is at present.’ Few wrote about New York as a city close to extinction as dramatically as Norman Mailer. Appalled by the decay, violence, apathy and chaos of New York in the late 1960s, Mailer decided to run for mayor in 1969, the year he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Armies of the Night.

Much of what Mailer proposed in 1969 still seems desirable, however implausible. ‘Sweet Sundays’, for example, a day in every month when the electricity supply would be switched off. All forms of mechanical transportation would come to a halt, including lifts, and people wouldn’t be able to use their energy-sapping air-conditioners. There are vast numbers who turn on their air-conditioners on Memorial Day and leave them to run continuously until Labour Day, as if air-conditioning were just a seasonal matter without any relation to the weather outside. ‘Our own New York, the empire city,’ Mailer wrote,

is not too far from death. Our first problem is that no one in New York can answer with honesty the question: can New York be saved? … Part of the tragedy, part of the unbelievable oncoming demise of New York is that none of us can simply believe it. Now all our problems have the magnitude of the junkie problem – they are so coexistent with our life that New Yorkers do not try to solve but escape them.

Every ill of overproduction is visited on us. Our traffic, our smog, our intolerable, ugly housing are not just irritants – they’re symptoms of the profound disease of Western culture. We might just as well say 20th-century culture. There’s a sense of isolation and impotence. We have a miserable environment, and we can’t affect it. That inspires a demonic bitterness.

The shaping of the style of our lives is removed from us – we pay for the huge military adventures and social experiments so separated from our direct control that we do not even know where to begin to look to criticise the lack of our power to criticise. We wait for abstract impersonal powers to save us, we despise the abstractness of those powers, we loathe ourselves for our own apathy.

Mailer believed that the city had to become a state of its own. The derelict docks should be redeveloped, there should be more day-care centres, the police should live in the areas they patrolled, and each neighbourhood should be given the power to look after itself. But none of this could happen unless New York City ceded from the state. That, however, was considered too much anarchy as remedy for the anarchy that already existed: Mailer’s campaign came to nothing.

The new beginning, when it did finally arrive, bore little resemblance to what Mailer proposed. The city would be suburbanised. ‘The fact is,’ John Hightower, a former head of the Museum of Modern Art, said in 1977, when he was president of the South Street Seaport mall development, ‘shopping is the chief cultural activity of the United States.’ James Rouse, founder of the Rouse Company, which designed South Street Seaport in the 1960s and invented the first enclosed shopping malls, said malls were the future in the cities too; shopping, he thought, was the answer to urban decay. He had his eye on Fulton Fish Market, near the Manhattan foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, with its old Georgian houses, where on early weekday mornings wholesale fishmongers sold their catches in the shadow of expensive Wall Street real-estate. The Rouse Company, which had already converted Boston’s old market, Faneuil Hall (the model for Covent Garden’s redevelopment), said that ‘there is a yearning for small special places, to be “like in the old days”.’

We also learned that people love to eat – they come to a mall just for an eating experience. We are already moving in this direction in the suburban mall. The suburban mall is preserved as attractive, safe and comfortable, and dependable, with lots of greenery, lots of light, and entertainment. These things work. They work because a mall has a small management that controls the environment – one mall manager who understands that people come here to be comfortable. Our mission is to do downtown what has been done in the suburbs.

The older and more historical an area, the more attractive it is to mall developers, and therefore the more attractive to the crowds who, so it’s believed, yearn for other times.

‘In America, nostalgia for things is apt to set in before they go,’ Robert Hughes once remarked, and long-running nostalgia always seems to prefigure an eventual end. Few places in New York have inspired as much nostalgia as Fulton Fish Market, and laments about its imminent demise filled the newspapers every time it came under threat. A market had existed on Fulton Street since the early 19th century, and until the Brooklyn Bridge was opened, ferries between New York and Brooklyn left from nearby quays. The market, which wasn’t at the time exclusively a fish market, was surrounded by oyster bars and saloons catering for the passengers awaiting their rides across the East River. S.B. Miller, a 19th-century fishmonger famous in Fulton Street’s saloons, claimed to have eaten 170 varieties of fish, which is about fifty more than all the edible fish listed by Alan Davidson in his comprehensive North Atlantic Seafood.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Rudolph Giuliani, first as US attorney and then as mayor of New York, tried to have the market closed down. He had made his reputation by prosecuting organised crime, and insisted that the delivery men at Fulton Street were part of a racket. (The market had had strong associations with the Mob since the 1920s, when Joe Lanza, better known as Socks, head of the United Seafood Workers Union in the prewar years, controlled the piers round the southern tip of Manhattan.) Giuliani’s attempt to shut Fulton Street failed, just as all previous efforts had.

Property developers tried for years to close the market: they would cite mystery fires in the fishmongers’ halls, any number of them throughout the 20th century, in support of their efforts. In 1912, after one such fire, a reporter wrote the market’s obituary: ‘In these later, degenerate days, it has been merely a market, chiefly restored to buyers of large supplies for hotels, restaurants and steam boats, quite forgotten by the multitude, and not in the tide of general traffic. But memories must rise at the thought that even its name is to vanish.’ Departments of sanitation, development, and law enforcement: they all had a go. In 1959, the city’s commissioner of markets announced that Fulton Street, like every other market, would eventually move to a new facility in the South Bronx. Old outdoor markets, the commissioner said, were ‘outmoded’. ‘Don’t tell me that,’ one New Yorker said. ‘Don’t tell me a Van Gogh is outmoded.’ ‘Never mind that,’ said a fish wholesaler, ‘just tell the public to eat more mackerel.’ ‘They’re going to send us out there with the Indians and charge us more,’ Salvatore Bracco of ABC Fillets said. ‘This is prime real estate; that’s a swamp. We deserve compensation.’ A few years later another fishmonger compared himself to an Indian. ‘I feel like we are a tribe of Indians who were always ignored and left to do what we wanted. Now that the white man has found “oil” on our land, suddenly he has a treaty in his hand and a promise from the great white father.’

In the late 1980s, the Port Authority, with the support of Mayor Ed Koch, commissioned an expensive new market hall in Brooklyn, named Fishport. It was completed in 1989, but the fishmongers never turned up; they stayed on the East River. Then, in November 2005, Fulton Fish Market finally left Manhattan. The new fish market is at Hunt’s Point, where all the city’s food markets are housed, as the authorities planned back in 1959, in the same quarter of the Bronx that was said, in the year Mailer ran for mayor, to have ‘ceased to be a part of New York’.

I went to Fulton Fish Market the summer before it left Manhattan. The fish handlers drove fork-lift trucks (the wheelbarrow long gone), which slipped over the greasy cobbles and tarmac, darting about while the fish lay in cardboard or polystyrene boxes or on trestle tables; the paraphernalia of the market – the weights and scales, the cashiers’ tills, the tables and the stacks of boxes – all improvised, rigged together for the night.

There was once a strong political dimension to Fulton Street: Robert Kennedy launched his campaign to become senator there before dawn one day in 1964. ‘I have eight children and we eat fish every Friday. From now on, we’ll eat fish twice a week. That’s what we’re going to do for the fishing industry of New York.’ The market, Mob-associated though it was, had been an important New York Democratic Party symbol. Al Smith, the first working-class and Catholic governor of New York, and later governor and presidential candidate, worked as a barrow-boy at Fulton Street. It was a Republican mayor who eventually had the market closed.

The halls of the old market are to become part of the mall developed by the company that acquired James Rouse’s firm. Shops and restaurants – with views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River, and an elevated section of the FDR Drive – have replaced the fishmongers’ stalls. Nostalgia for the market has vanished. So has much of the resistance to the city authorities and their plans for New York. New Yorkers seem to have accepted that their city is now a wealthy megapolis with Manhattan at its core, famous for its eating experiences and the taste of other times.

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