Last week's Weekly Standard had a book review that recaptured some of my childhood feelings for New York. The book is Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan. The review is archived and subscriber-only, but some of the most interesting parts describe a truly Manhattan project: Westway, "an initiative to submerge the West Side Highway and open the resulting space as a series of public greens and commercial developments."
If the improvised nature of the waterfront is the city in microcosm, Westway is the waterfront in microcosm. The project, conceived in the late 1960s by planners in New York’s Housing and Development Administration, would have placed six lanes of highway underwater from the Battery Tunnel to 42nd Street at federal expense and opened 234 acres of land for public use, of which, according to Lopate, 93 acres would have been reserved for parks. It was defeated in 1984 on environmental concerns that were clearly just a pretext for its opponents, many of them the sort of 1960s holdouts for whom community activism is its own end. The real objection of these activists to Westway was that it opened waterfront real estate to the market. The question of how large, vibrant mixed-use development can take place without the involvement of commercial interests was never answered, but the nature of New York politics did not, and does not, require much past raising such objections and claiming a position of ideological purity.There's much more, including a critique of the plan to rupture downtown for a huge stadium in a bid for the 2012 Olympics, which the reviewer, Tim Marchman, calls "exactly the sort of utopian development scheme that periodically erupts in Manhattan and blights the city for generations." I think I need to read this book. The grand scope of Westway, which appeals to my old sense of New York as the engine of capitalism and the spiritual capital of New Frontier America, and the lunacy of the Olympic bid, which captures New York's staggering ego and tendency toward overreach, are opposite sides of the New York coin. The greatness of the city always sits on a precipice of total ignominy and failure. In my lifetime, David Dinkins epitomized the slide over the edge, Giuliani the recovery (which, as I wrote here, came at some serious cost; only 9/11 saved Giuliani's legacy).
Here's some more on the West Side Highway and the various plans over the years to get it out of the way.
More from Kenneth Silber:
New York City’s waterfront has come to be regarded by New Yorkers mostly as a place to find cheap parking or to retrieve one’s car from a municipal tow pound, or simply as a wasteland of rotting piers, homeless encampments, garbage dumps, empty lots, and vacant warehouses to be avoided altogether. Bordering the city’s vast, intricate network of waterways, from the Hudson River to the Upper New York Bay to the Gowanus Canal, the New York waterfront largely languishes as a peripheral, forgotten slum.