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Whither Manhattan, as it reopens?

Occasional Observer

New York City changed much over the past year due to the pandemic. The streets were more open with few people on the sidewalks, entertainment venues and restaurants barely in business, buses and subways nearly empty. Many with the wherewithal to do so left the city, perhaps only temporarily but maybe permanently, and along with the increase in work-at-home office workers this reduced the vitality of street life, particularly in Manhattan. 

But the city has been changing in ways well beyond what the pandemic has brought about. Manhattan used to be crawling with a great variety of specialty shops including movie theaters (even those  showing foreign films and revivals) and bookstores large and small including world-class places such as Scribner’s, Doubleday’s and The Urban Center. 

As a young architect, I remembered shopping at more than a dozen stores specializing in architectural books; now there are none, just a couple that feature a few shelves with a few design books. There were countless stores that sold records, tapes, and CDs where one could find several different versions of every Beethoven symphony. Now the music shops that remain are antiques stores, mostly for pop vinyl records. 

Once, Midtown Manhattan was a national hub for famous high-end men’s haberdashery. The first store to fall, Rogers Peet (est.1874), closed in the late 1980s. The most recent closure of Brooks Brothers (est. 1818) and Lord and Taylor (est. 1826) follow those of Chipp’s, Barney’s, and F. R. Tripler, leaving only J. Press and Paul Stuart of the historic, high-quality men’s shops still open. 

Inexpensive chain restaurants, and eateries, used to be widespread — and unusually good. Chock Full of Nuts, Zum Zum and Nedicks were some of the better ones, now gone. The few replacements don’t really measure up. 

Most museums shut for the pandemic and perhaps they will now work their wonders again. Years ago when I worked in Midtown, I used to eat lunch frequently at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). To walk up the entry staircase past Picasso’s “Guernica” was itself enthralling enough to draw me in, but the inexpensive food was also very good. Now one must have a high-priced membership card or be a guest to eat at MoMA. The Museum’s expansions over the years have made the visitor feel ever smaller and the visit much less pleasant. While it still sells some classic 20th century pieces, the MoMA Gift Shop, once an impressive Gallery of Modern Design, has become more a knick-knack boutique focused on making a profit. 

Throughout Manhattan, residential neighborhoods of mostly walk-up housing have been invaded by skyscrapers and large footprint commercial buildings. Such changes beget more change as occupants are forced out because of ever-higher rents. Throughout the city, small, interesting establishments cannot afford to operate in overbuilt, overpriced neighborhoods and get replaced by more branch banks and impersonal chain stores. The passing of new, much higher density zoning for Manhattan’s East Side between 42nd and 60th streets under former Mayor Bloomberg’s direction is only beginning to be felt. 

Along with the Wall Street area, Midtown Manhattan is the most intensely developed area in the entire country. Three enormous new skyscrapers, one 1,653 ft. tall the other two each over 1,200 ft., are planned to closely surround Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building, overwhelming them as Midtown’s foremost landmarks and, at the same time, banishing sunlight from the area. This may turn out to be a boon for real estate developers if and when the city gets back on its feet but less so for New York’s citizens and visitors.

However,  not all change has been for the worse. A notable improvement, not just in Manhattan but in the other boroughs as well, is the city government’s slow but continuing effort to recapture the waterfront, formerly consigned to industrial uses, for recreation. Much land along the East and Hudson Rivers has already been reclaimed as parkland and more is slated to become so. As long as the riverfronts do not become inundated by rising seas, residents and visitors alike will benefit greatly from this intelligent masterplanning that began decades ago. 

Lower Manhattan has diversified and become a 24-hour-a-day neighborhood. Also, over the last few years, the city has finally started closing some streets to create more bicycle lanes and pedestrian spaces. And the city government is making a determined effort to provide more affordable housing for working people throughout the city. These changes are most welcome.

 

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

 

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