Publisher's Note — February 13, 2014, 11:49 am

Say No to Dubai on the Hudson

“Pharaonic exclusion is their motto; contempt for human scale and ordinary people their raison d’être.”

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on February 13, 2014.

West 57th Street in Manhattan might seem an unlikely setting for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “tale of two cities.” After all, no poor people live there (unless they’re sleeping in doorways).

However, the announcement last month that the Rizzoli bookstore at 31 W. 57th would close — to make way for yet another luxury tower — has caused me to see the neighborhood in a different light. It might be just the place for the new mayor to draw the line in the battle between the global plutocracy and everybody else.

Anyone traversing 57th Street will probably notice the famous Carnegie Hall, at the corner of 7th Avenue; Bergdorf Goodman, the fancy department store, on the corner of Fifth Avenue; and Steinway Hall, the landmarked piano showroom, at 109 W. 57th.

Easy to overlook is Rizzoli, smallish and unassuming but nonetheless a cultural jewel that in some respects is as important to the city’s social fabric as are its better-known neighbors. Perusing the three floors of Rizzoli affords an intellectual comfort and stimulation that is rapidly disappearing — along with bookstores themselves — in decreasingly cosmopolitan Manhattan.

All those tables covered with beautiful volumes of art and photography; all those lovely bookcases filled with English, French, and Italian literature — this is the culture-rich New York that used to be accessible in discreet and intimate locations all over town. With its vaulted ceilings, thick carpets, and wood paneling, Rizzoli is unmistakably elegant, but that doesn’t make it any less democratic, since you don’t have to pay a cent to get in the door.

The same cannot be said of the grotesquely oversized “residential” high-rises springing up along 57th Street and elsewhere in New York. Pharaonic exclusion is their motto; contempt for human scale and ordinary people their raison d’être. During Hurricane Sandy, the whole world was able to watch a crane dangling dangerously from the 75th floor of 157 W. 57th and wonder at the shortsighted greed of real-estate developers and their friends in city government. The question wasn’t, as one reporter posed it to former mayor Michael Bloomberg, whether the crane operator was properly licensed by the city. The question was why Bloomberg and the Department of City Planning had permitted the tower to be constructed in the first place.

The answer lies in the price per square foot — on average more than $6,000 a square foot for a condominium in 157 W. 57th. Real-estate money — from sellers and buyers alike — is catnip for politicians and bureaucrats hungry for tax revenue . . . and campaign contributions.

Now smaller buildings along the street are toppling like dominos. The vacant lot at 111 W. 57th, next to Steinway Hall, will before long be occupied by an apartment building that resembles a misshapen needle, seventy-seven stories and just sixty feet wide. Whatever replaces the six-story structure that houses Rizzoli, and two adjacent properties also slated for demolition, it surely won’t be low-rise public housing. Bloomberg’s fellow billionaires, be they Russian, Chinese, or Saudi, will be grateful for their spectacular views of Central Park.

Is there any hope for Rizzoli? Employees of the bookstore have collected more than 10,000 signatures protesting the demolition plan, and the local community board has written Robert Tierney, chairman of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, calling for public hearings. But this is more than an uphill battle — in New York, only Spider-Man can scale the face of a skyscraper, or challenge a real-estate mogul.

Rizzoli’s home — the former Sohmer Piano Co. showroom, built in 1919 in French classical style — is already shrouded in black netting, so it’s no longer possible to view the store’s lovely exterior. Seasoned smashers of all things bright and beautiful, the owners, the LeFrak family and Vornado Realty Trust, have covered up their pre-emptive defacement of the façade. The balustrade over the arched entrance was recently removed, no doubt to diminish the building’s architectural significance and discourage Tierney from reconsidering his staff’s rejection of pleas to save it.

I asked Peg Breen, president of the private New York Landmarks Conservancy, if she thought the new mayor might intervene. “I’m not hopeful,” she told me. “REBNY [the Real Estate Board of New York] is the only entity with a loud voice.” And de Blasio has so far disappointed her on zoning and preservation issues. “When he was first elected public advocate, he was very friendly and even came to our board meetings,” Breen said. “Since then, nothing. [Preservation] certainly wasn’t part of his campaign.”

Of course, de Blasio (whose office has not responded to my repeated queries) could justifiably argue that he has bigger fish to fry and smaller fry to protect than a pretty bookstore owned by an Italian corporation. But time is of the essence for Manhattan, where the money power is truly out of control. You don’t need to be down and out to feel crowded out by apartments costing $90 million.

Why not make a stand on 57th Street — before our city turns into Dubai-on-the-Hudson?

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note September 11, 2014, 1:49 pm

Is France in peril? Au contraire!

“To compete with tight-fisted, export-driven Germany, France needs to devalue its currency, but it can’t, since it doesn’t have its own currency.”

Publisher's Note July 17, 2014, 12:36 pm

A Jerusalem Education

“It gradually dawned on me that since 1967, I had made very little progress in seeing Arabs or empathizing with their plight.”

Publisher's Note June 19, 2014, 3:42 pm

In Praise of Michael Hastings

The Last Magazine exposes the lies and obfuscations of the march to war in Iraq 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Gulfstream G650

    Oh shut up, socialist.

  • Niv21

    Junk! This dude has some serious issues with the rich. Jealous much?

  • Jorge DeSilva

    It’s too late to matter because at this point what’s the difference?

  • BrendanOMaidian

    Not only is this the making of “Dubai on the Hudson,” it will bring in more of those who live in that Middle East Disneyland, and deprive we simple Americans of the beauty of our once-glorious skyline. This is the Bloomberg legacy: to impress his billionaire buddies of how cool he was as a conniving scumbag mayor. How much, do we ask, did Mikie B increase his personal wealth by approving all of these disgusting structures so near to Central Park? I’ll bet these fat cats drink Mountain Dew, too, by the gallons, and chuckle down each guzzle.

    • Another commenter

      As long as we don’t have the money, we aren’t entitled to a glorious skyline. When we were kids and we went places like the beach or National Parks, we were discouraged from taking home shells and rocks and other souvenirs because “what would happen if everyone took them home?” We believed that everyone could and would subscribe to that obvious selfless concept. Meanwhile other people who never learned to share became super rich and bought up all of the pretty shells, rocks, the beach, the water next to it and the air above it. We are left with some archaic concept of the greatest good for the greatest number and suppressing our acquisitive desires to share with others. We were dupes and now all we can do is lament the few things that unfettered capitalists and the uberrich can destroy at a whim. Too bad for us, eh?

  • http://www.spectrumstock.com Ottmar Bierwagen

    In the coming years New York will become a high rise slum. The decimated middle class is moving into poverty; only the super rich will be able to afford Manhattan. When they get bored, they too will move on.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. "
Photograph by Sebastian Meyer
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Flying Blind·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground.”
Article
The Monkey Did It·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Murakami’s fiction, what presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously to be a keyhole.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
PBS Self-Destructs·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The present state of PBS, the result of built-in deficiencies and ideological conflicts, was almost an inevitability.”
Illustration by Thomas Allen

Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams:

4

In India, 1.8 million female children were estimated to have died between 1985 and 2005 as an indirect result of domestic violence against their mothers; the boys of abused mothers were not at increased risk of death.

Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today