Whither New York?

Some really great revealing articles lately on CEO Mayor Bloomberg’s New York in which, as you know, only the financial market and corporate and developer Friends of Mayor Mike are given ‘breaks’ while everyone else has their public space reduced and privatized, continually monitored, and their neighborhoods and communities across the five boroughs sacrificed for these same FOMM. I’ll highlight some of the pertinent points from a few of these articles today and in the coming days.

What follows is an excerpt from a most interesting article from the March 2009 Atlantic magazine, “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” by Richard Florida. He addresses NYC’s over-reliance on Wall Street and asks … what would Jane Jacobs say?

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Whither New York?

In the short run, the most troubling question for New York is not how much of its finance industry will move to other places, but how much will simply vanish altogether. At the height of the recent bubble, Greater New York depended on the financial sector for roughly 22 percent of local wages. But most economists agree that by then the financial economy had become bloated and overdeveloped.

Financial positions account for only about 8 percent of the New York area’s jobs, not too far off the national average of 5.5 percent. …

New York is much, much more than a financial center. … Elizabeth Currid’s book, The Warhol Economy, provides detailed evidence of New York’s diversity. Currid measured the concentration of different types of jobs in New York relative to their incidence in the U.S. economy as a whole. By this measure, New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals.

The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was among the first to identify cities’ diverse economic and social structures as the true engines of growth. … Jacobs argued that the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment, is an essential spur to innovation—to the creation of things that are truly new. And innovation, in the long run, is what keeps cities vital and relevant.

In this sense, the financial crisis may ultimately help New York by reenergizing its creative economy. … When I asked Jacobs some years ago about the effects of escalating real-estate prices on creativity, she told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.” With the hegemony of the investment bankers over, New York now stands a better chance of avoiding that sterile fate.

Guest Entry: Jonathan Greenberg responds to New York Times article, “The Battle of Washington Square”

washington square park at dusk

washington square park at dusk

Jonathan Greenberg is the founder of the Open Washington Square Park Coalition and lived near Washington Square Park for more than 30 years. He has fought tirelessly to preserve the public space and unique aspects of Washington Square Park despite the obstacles and obfuscations put in play by the Bloomberg Administration and New York City Parks Department. He shared this letter with me and it is today’s guest entry.

Guest Entry: Jonathan Greenberg

Letter to the New York Times

To the Editor:

Your recent front page City section coverage of the “Battle of Washington Square” (November 23, 2008) set reality on its head by distorting and misreporting the truth about why Greenwich Village community activists like me are angry about the radical redesign of Washington Square Park.

Despite the article’s 2,300 word length and the fact that he has confirmed knowledge of every fact in this letter, Times reporter Graham Bowley decided to ignore the most relevant information that the “Paper of Record” ought to have provided readers with. In portraying community activists like myself as “bitterly angry” and full of “fury,” as we tried to “write our desires” on a park that we treat as our “personal fiefs,” while reporting, unchallenged, Parks Department claims that the “transformation of Washington Square Park has been one of the most open in the agency’s history,” the Times leaves readers with the insulting impression that the lawsuits and protests over the park’s redesign were much ado about nothing, except the egos of those involved.

For instance, the Times reports that in October, 2005, Community Board (CB) 2 “rejected” a compromise that would have limited the reduction in the park plaza’s size. Incredibly, the article fails to note that neither the Board, nor the public, were ever provided with the plans for the park redesign, nor were they told the truth about the reduction in the size of the park’s plaza. This was documented both in a judge’s ruling in favor of our first lawsuit, as well as in a web video which my group created and posted. In May, 2007, the same Community Board voted, 40 to 5, to rescind its earlier approval of the plan, because it had been provided with inadequate and incorrect information.

How information about this historically unprecedented vote failed to make it into this Times article reporting the Board’s earlier, ill-informed vote astounds me (more…)

Today’s Sunday NY Times “City” Section Letters to the Editor: “Face-off in Washington Square”

Two well crafted letters with excellent points appear in today’s Sunday New York Times in the City section where the article “The Battle of Washington Square” appeared last week. The letters are accompanied by a large picture (at last!) of the fenced-off Arch and Park under construction.* The points emphasized by the letter writers – the letters are posted below – are unfortunately missing from the Times’ article. Inclusion of these (and other) aspects would have given readers a better picture of what’s transpired and what is at stake.

New York Times Letters to the Editor — Face-Off in Washington Square

Seeing Larger Issues in a Park’s Redesign

To the Editor:

Re “The Battle for Washington Square” (Nov. 23), about local residents’ criticism of the redesign of Washington Square Park:

There is a motive that the article leaves implicit. Washington Square was a place for people to congregate and exercise free speech, a place to occupy and use. In the new plan, it’s a place to pass through and admire, where fixed installations crowd out the space that people once enjoyed. Gates and fences do not say welcome; they say keep off the grass, do not loiter, keep moving, this space no longer belongs to you.

If there are two things the Bloomberg administration does not like, it is people who exercise their rights of free assembly and speech in public and people who might do so. The victims drag-netted by police tactics during the 2004 Republican Convention know this. Places like Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and the Sheep Meadow are dangerous for demagogues and autocrats.

Sheldon Bunin

Jackson Heights, Queens

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To the Editor:

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe‘s contention that “most people will not remember what all the fuss was about” is a poor rationale for replacing a much-beloved Greenwich Village people’s park with a lower Fifth Avenue patrician’s promenade. After all, who in today’s younger generation remembers seeing and experiencing McKim, Mead & White’s glorious 34th Street Penn Station, which was torn down in 1963 and 1964 to make room for today’s ugly replacement?

That destruction helped lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to prevent further desecrations. It is hoped that our experience with Washington Square Park will lead to further preventive measures.

Vahe Tiryakian

East Village

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As I mentioned last week, The Times sent photographer Annie Tritt on my Walking Tour in September for photos to accompany the article; however, none of those photos were published. Instead, there were numerous photos of Washington Square Park throughout history – which made this public space seem very impressive – and it is, of course – and showcased its illustrious past. Nonetheless, at least one photo of the park under construction would have been appropriate.

And while I think it’s the great that the Times story on “The Battle for Washington Square” appeared (the whole issue has been woefully under-reported), I did have some further critique and reflection on some omissions and characterizations in the story which you can read here.

Correction: Actually, the Times did run two photos from the day of the Walking Tour of the Park but they are rather small and do not illustrate any of the construction.

New York Times takes in-depth look at Landmarks Preservation Commission

Today’s New York Times has an interesting, in-depth look at the Landmarks Preservation Commission by writer Robin Pogrebin which “reveals an overtaxed agency that has taken years to act on some proposed designations, even as soaring development pressures put historic buildings at risk. Its decision-making is often opaque, and its record-keeping on landmark-designation requests is … spotty.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been under the direction of Robert Tierney for the past five years. The LPC members are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. Only the chairman receives a salary (currently $177,698), the other 11 commissioners are unpaid. The LPC must “include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs.”

On Washington Square Park

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held two days of public hearings on Washington Square Park. It was later ruled by NY Supreme Court Justice Emily Goodman that the City — specifically landscape architect and Parks Department employee George Vellonakis — during its presentation to the LPC had withheld key information. The incomplete and untruthful information is what LPC based its decision on. You can watch footage of the presentation by George Vellonakis at the hearing here.

Other missed opportunities

Then there were the buildings that were demolished before any public hearing was held, such as “the Beekman movie theater on the Upper East Side, a 1952 Streamline Moderne design that was demolished in 2005; Mott House in Rockaway, Queens, an 1800s mansion in the Greek Revival style that was torn down in 2004; the Donnell Library Center on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, which is to be demolished to make way for a hotel; and Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 “lollipop” building at 2 Columbus Circle, which reopened in September as the Museum of Art and Design after a radical alteration that was fiercely opposed by preservationists.”

“No background in architecture, planning or historic preservation”

Mr. Tierney was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to head the Landmarks Preservation Commission despite having “no background in architecture, planning or historic preservation.”

Every city agency always wants their budget increased (one would think, right?). The article states, “Yet, in 2007 Mr. Tierney declined a budget increase of $750,000 approved by the City Council.”

Mr. Tierney told the Times that he was afraid the budget would get cut the next year. However, wouldn’t it be better for the agency to be well staffed for that one year vs. worrying about something that might or might not happen?

One wonders if Mayor Bloomberg wanted the LPC to have no teeth by appointing someone with no appropriate background to head it up, as development soars and the history of our city vanishes at an alarming rate.

Reflections on Sunday’s New York Times article, “The Battle of Washington Square”

Sunday’s November 23rd New York Times cover featured a photo of the Washington Square Arch promoing the article, “The Battle of Washington Square,” which prominently appeared on the “City” section cover with an array of photos capturing the park’s illustrious history.

The Bloomberg Administration’s push to radically redesign this public space has been under the radar for way too long. However, let me be clear — the issue was never about anyone in the community not wanting repairs, upgrades and a spiffier Washington Square Park. The park needed a renovation as the New York City Parks Department let it fall into serious disrepair.

The issues were (and still are) about the Process – how this extreme revisioning of this prominent public space was pushed through – and the Design – what the park’s composition would ultimately be, one that chooses to ignore what actually worked and was successful about the park.

When first contacted by New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, I thought … at last the story will be told.

And it’s great the story has at last been told.  It’s complex and it has unfolded over more than four years.  It’s about community and democracy vs. money and power and a government subsumed by its own arrogance.  There is still more of the story to be told.  While the Times gives an overview of what’s transpired thus far and reminds us how important Washington Square Park is as a public space, the story still doesn’t quite get to some key facets of the argument, of the timeline, of the nuance, and sidesteps the city’s corrosive and corrupt actions.

Outlined below are my thoughts and supplemental information to the article which, overall, is a welcome addition into the dialogue around what’s transpired to date to Washington Square Park.

Blogging as “Venting” ?

Mr. Bowley, in a way that I’m sure – to his mind – was a vehicle to add color to the article, describes my blog as a way for me to “vent my frustration.” I consider the Washington Square Park blog a place for my writing and p.r. background to be put to good use. An outlet in the so-called “Battle of Washington Square” to: track the process, analyze it, write about it substantively, and advocate for change. I don’t believe that is venting.  The use of the word venting feels very old vs. new media.

Characterizations and Omissions

The cost of the project

The writer states that the park redesign will cost “$16 million-plus.” Very vague, especially since, Phase I alone, initially budgeted at $6 million is now costing over $13 million – by the Parks Department’s own admission. More than double the projected cost. So, is there any real way that the remaining TWO phases can be anything less than $25 million? In a financial crisis – and really at any time – is this the way our city money should be spent?

Unattributed statements

The story states: “Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements.” And yet none are quoted. It continues, “Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase I of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.”

Perhaps if the piece had not glossed over the lies by George Vellonakis — the “landscape designer” who was given license to alter this historic park with an unimaginative design — to the community; if Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe was not given a blanket opportunity to make his greenwashing statements about the park being more “green” without a rebuttal; if the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Community Board meetings – which are all on video and which the Times watched – were not just breezed through towards the end of the article, perhaps then, the reader would understand why people might be “bitterly angry,” if that’s even the case.

Characterizations

It seems to me that the City “officials” are put on pedestals in which they are immune to characterizations. In my opinion, on this playing field, we are all equal participants. If Adrian Benepe lies, that should be in the article. If George Vellonakis shows his arrogance in a meltdown on camera when he thinks his “design” might be stopped, he’s fair game. If George Vellonakis also lies and misappropriates information to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, that should be in the article. That is part of the story. Understandably, that fuels community anger.  (Much of this footage is contained in the documentary mentioned in the story, SQUARE:  Straightening Out Washington Square Park.”)

What can be done?

I am glad that Graham Bowley – who assimilated years of information in preparing this story – and the New York Times covered the topic of Washington Square Park’s redesign despite some of the omissions from the piece.

I mentioned Saturday that my comments were inaccurate a few times in the story. And I would like to clarify this one, with which the article ends:

“[Ms. Swan] hopes that when Phase I of the renovation is completed and Phase 2 begins next year on the southwest, southeast and northeast quadrants of the square, she may still be able to persuade parks department officials to save some of the trees or the pathways or the alcove seating that she says was such a facilitator of conversation.”

“The biggest question people ask is, ‘Why?’ Ms. Swan said. Why are they doing this?

“There was a huge mass of people who fought for three to four years,” she added. “A lot soon ran out of steam, but there are still some people fighting. Though I am not sure a lot can be done.”

I did not say that last sentence. I would never say that. I said, “[some] people do not think a lot can be done” or they don’t know what to do. But that’s not me, folks. I think a lot can be done to maximize and retain the dynamic elements of this public space, still.

Sunday New York Times City Section Cover Story 11/23: The Battle for Washington Square

Tomorrow’s New York Times City section features a cover story “The Battle for Washington Square,” an effort by reporter Graham Bowley to outline what’s transpired thus far around New York City government’s controversial redesign of this renowned park and dynamic public space over the last four years.

What’s transpired could be a multi-part series or a book (and is a movie), so it would be exceedingly difficult to get every last nuance into one story. I’m still assimilating the article but a few immediate comments – it’s puzzling that there are no current photos of the park under construction especially because the Times sent a photographer on my September Walking Tour highlighting the redesign elements of the park.  The online story only portrays pictures of Washington Square Park in the past which strikes me as a bit, um, odd.

There’s a nice synopsis of the Park’s value as a public space: “perhaps … [no park is] more valued than the 10-acre, 181-year-old Washington Square Park, the beating heart of Greenwich Village. Through the decades the park has been the haunt of some of America’s best-known artists, writers, musicians, anarchists and Beatniks, and a seemingly round-the-clock distillation of the frenetic spirit of New York.”

The reporter Graham Bowley walked with me through the Park a few months ago. There are a few inaccuracies as far as my comments. For example, Mr. Bowley quotes me as saying of the new exterior fence – currently being installed at 4 feet tall with unapproved “decorative spears” on top, vs. the current height of 3 feet: “That keeps you out. That is very threatening.” Actually, what I said is that it is not welcoming.

And I definitely think things can be done from here on. See my further comments: “On Washington Square Park’s Design Going Forward” here.

I welcome the New York Times covering the story – the story has been woefully un- (and under) reported to date – and I hope it leads to others. There are so many more pieces of what transpired to be told. And I’d love to hear other feedback from you.

Room 8: The role of bloggers as citizen journalists

Brooklyn BlogFest Sign * May 2008

Brooklyn BlogFest Sign * May 2008

On the day I testified at the City Council term limits public hearing, one of the other panelists was a journalist from a site called Room 8. Room 8 describes itself as: “the imaginary neighbor to New York City Hall’s legendary press room, Room 9. It’s a place for insiders and informed outsiders to have a running conversation about New York politics.”

Yesterday, Room 8 featured a post about the role of bloggers in covering Mayor Bloomberg and the whole term limits fiasco. In an article titled, “Was the Lie of ‘Consistent Leadership’ Old Media’s Last Stand?,” Oneshirt writes:

Only the city’s bloggers like Your Free Press, Pardon Me For Asking, The Brooklyn Optimist, The Daily Gotham, Queens Crap, and Washington Square Park [note: yes, yours truly] reported to their readers during the term limits debate that the Council’s argument for continuity of leadership to save the city’s economy was nothing more than public relations spin to cover the Council’s blatant power grab for an additional term in office. At the same time these citizen journalists across the City were reporting the real facts, the Mayor was meeting with the publishers of the three major dailies to coordinate a cover story for his support of extending term limits.

The writer then notes a lawsuit that lawyer Normal Siegel (who is running for Public Advocate and is one of the lawyers on the term limits lawsuit) has filed on behalf of bloggers – “citizen journalists” – who have been denied official press passes by the NYPD (which issues these media credentials):

Siegel’s lawsuit argues that … in favoring corporate-employed reporters over citizen journalists and independent bloggers, the City’s press credentialing system effectively chooses to license primarily staid, cautious reporting – with a strong bent toward corporate coddling – over the dynamic, unadulterated articles of journalists like [plaintiff Rafael] Martinez-Alequin.

The article ends by stating:

The city’s fast-emerging community of bloggers is quickly growing its readership simply by providing the type of truthful analysis that is hard to find in the City’s dailies. In so doing, New York’s blogosphere has established itself as the City’s premiere forum to debate controversial opinions, encourage participation in local politics, and further the belief that people should control their own lives.

I’ve thought often about the role of New York City’s bloggers in reporting the dramatic changes in our city under Mayor Bloomberg which go largely unreported by the mainstream media. Without this information, one day we’d all wake up, would not recognize anything about where we are and we’d wonder how it happened.

City Council and Mayor Bloomberg in the News today…

NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn came out “harshly” against Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to cut back $400 property tax rebates for homeowners and “overhaul” senior centers. However, skepticism about this outrage abounds. City Council Members who spoke anonymously to the New York Times said that the Mayor will ultimately “yield” on the rebates and then push for an increase in property taxes, his real goal. “It’s like professional wrestling,” said one council member. “They [Mayor Bloomberg and Christine Quinn] arrange the moves in private and play them out in public so that people come out and say, ‘She’s so tough.’ ”

And so much for going against any of the Mayor’s redevelopment or rezoning plans as Hunters Point South and Willets Point plans were approved by the Council yesterday despite the fact that, at Willets Point, much of the land will need to be taken by eminent domain. There are thriving businesses there. It’s just they are mostly auto shops and a bit bedraggled, and not considered particularly valuable (the business owners and people who frequent them would disagree). Instead of fixing up the area over the years (sound familiar?), the city got into a contentious fight with the owners who don’t want to leave. The Times story does not quote anyone opposed to the City Council vote.

But there is news that perhaps Albany via the New York State Legislature will stop Mayor Bloomberg’s third term! Said Kevin Parker (Brooklyn) speaking on Mr. Bloomberg’s record over the last seven years, “On his report card, under ‘works well with others,’ he gets an F.”

The Truth About Washington Square Park (Video)

This 4 minute video gives an overview of New York City’s redesign of Washington Square Park, the lack of transparency and community involvement, what’s in store and what (still) needs to be challenged. It outlines a fact that was never revealed to the Community Board or City Council – the loss of public space to the Fountain Plaza – a reduction of 23%.

It was completed close to two years ago so the information about the lawsuit at the very end is off (the lawsuit ultimately failed to stop New York City’s redesign plans from moving forward); the rest is accurate.

The City unfortunately did not choose to go the transparent route and go back to Community Board 2 and Landmarks Preservation Commission with accurate information (as Judge Goodman stipulated). Instead, they appealed the decision and won (with a different judge) on appeal.

Community Board 2 ultimately rescinded their approval of the Parks Department’s redesign plans tho’ in a somewhat oblique manner.

“The Truth About Washington Square Park”
Produced by Progressive Source Communications and Matt Davis
Narration Written by Jonathan Greenberg
Narrated by Kaveri Marathe
Music by Ariel Zambenedetti
Video Footage © 2005-2006 Matt Davis
From the documentary “Square: Straightening Out Washington Square Park”

Now About the Mayor…

Columnist Mike Lupica in the Daily News : “Who died and made the New York Mayor royalty?”

Lupica reminds us how Mayor Rudolph Giuliani decided he was indispensable post 9/11. Now his successor, Mayor Bloomberg, feels he needs more time (8 years is not enough?) to finish what he “started” — that New York City can not manage without him (his billionaire friends agree).

The fascinating thing with Mayor Bloomberg is the free pass he gets in the media most of the time. I watch cautiously but I feel he may just have hit the thing-that-will-bring-reality-out-into-the-open with this overturning Term Limits (or extending the “Term”) thing.

Lupica writes;

It’s clear how much Bloomberg likes his job, running the city as an imperial mayor. So did the guy before him. The problem is the same for both of them: same law, the one saying the job has to end. At which point it’s not the city’s job to find them something to do. …

Bloomberg … is as ambitious as Giuliani ever was in New York, and is never wrong, not on the Olympics, not on a West Side stadium for the Jets, not on congestion pricing, not when he wants the area on Broadway south of 42nd St. and almost all the way to Madison Square Garden turned into our big, bad city’s version of the Champs Élysées.

On Bloomberg toying with the idea of pushing the City Council to overturn term limits without quite stating his motivations (as if this is some secret?), Lupica states:

He does not quite come out and say this, because that is not his style. You read the accounts of the dance he is currently dancing with the City Council in general and Council Speaker Christine Quinn in particular, and there is one adjective constantly applied to Bloomberg, and it is the same one applied to Giuliani seven years ago. And the word is “coy.”

Yes, Bloomberg’s style (so to speak) is to the pull the strings behind-the-scenes. But the word I would use to describe this stated style of our CEO Mayor is not “coy.” It is duplicitous.

Mayor Bloomberg’s behind-the-scenes string-pulling can be linked to Washington Square Park‘s redesign as well as the major changes to Union Square Park, the giveaway of one-and-a-half Bronx City parks to the Yankee Corporation, and so much more.

It’s time for Mayor Bloomberg to accept that he will be packing up his bags soon. He never moved into Gracie Mansion so it should be easy, right?