Monday, July 6, 2015

Gotham: A Functional Relic

Last summer, I spent some time in New York City (whence all the images below come from). I've been wanting to convey my ruminations about the recent history of Gotham (the nickname deriving not from the Gothic-style architecture characteristic of the city, but from the 1807 writings of Washington Irving and his fellow "Lads of Kilkenny").  

I had wanted to get these thoughts (not a travelogue) done in time for U.S. Independence Day, but did not.

This was intended as a docking station for dirigibles.  Really.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

I will, however, firstly remark on an entirely different American city: Akron, Ohio.

This is the hometown of Chrissie Hynde, leader of the Pretenders.  On that group's 1984 LP, Learning to Crawl, there is a track, My City Was Gone

The lyrics were reportedly inspired by Hynde’s reaction at returning there, after years away in Britain (where she was a rock journalist before becoming a professional musician). 

Except that, where once was a vibrant city-core, was left only dereliction and dissection: 

I went back to Ohio 
But my city was gone 
There was no train station 
There was no downtown 

South Howard had disappeared 
All my favorite places 
My city had been pulled down 
Reduced to parking spaces

Akron was scarcely alone in witnessing such urban decay.  Yet, it wasn't the worst hit:
in the 2010 U.S. census, the city had a population of just under 200,000 — this is down from 290,000 in 1960.  

As Kenneth Jackson points out in his history of twentieth-century New York City, Robert Moses and the Modern City, Newark, New Jersey, just across the river from the "Big Apple", had a population of 439,000 in 1950, and just 272,000 in 2000: once a larger city than Akron, it had become smaller in just half a century. 

Similarly, Buffalo, New York went from 580,000 to 292,000 (roughly the same number of people as Akron) during the same period; Pittsburgh, 677,000 to 335,000; Boston, 801,000 to under 540 thousand; Cleveland 915,000 to less than 480,000, and St. Louis, Missouri went from 857,000 to 348,000 between 1950 and the end of the twentieth century.

Deindustrialization of a vast swath of the American midlands (what came to be known as the "rust belt") was in large part responsible for this decline in population of the older central cities.

At the same time, however, the total population of the metropolitan areas of all or most of these cities, grew dramatically, or at least, significantly, signalling the decentralization, or suburbanization, of residence and business.  The Buffalo-Niagara Falls' conurbation total population (according to a 2013 estimate) was about 1.2 million, versus about 900,000 in 1950.  The Pittsburgh metro area grew to 2.3 million in a 2014 estimate, but was 1.4 million in 1950.  Greater Boston's population was 2.3 million in 1950 - and 4.5 million in 2014.  Cleveland-Elyria's 2014 estimated population was just over 2 million, but 1.4 million in 1950.  Metro St. Louis' 2014 population was 2.7 million, and 1.5 million in 1950.

Flatiron Building, Fifth avenue and Broadway, Manhattan
Photo: R.B. Glennie

Newark is considered part of the "combined New York-New Jersey-Connecticut statistical area", and this conurbation, with Gotham at its centre, has also experienced dramatic growth in the second of the twentieth century and the first decade-and-a-half of this one: at twenty million, an increase of eight million people from 65 years ago.  

But, as Kenneth Jackson points out, New York City itself never saw the dramatic decline in population characteristic of virtually all other American cities: its population today is about 8.4 million; in 1950, it was 7.8 million.

It is true that, during the 1970s, when the city actually had to declare bankruptcy, crime became rampant, and significant parts of the New York became "no-go zones" even for police, Gotham suffered a net-loss of one in ten people.  Yet, coterminous declines in city-core populations were more severe for Buffalo (which lost almost a quarter of its people during the same period), Newark (13%), Boston (12%), Cleveland (14%), and St. Louis, Missouri (which lost 27% of its population between 1970 and 1980). 

What occurred uniquely in New York City during the later twentieth century was that, unlike with Akron and the vast majority of all other cities, the city did not leave.  

That is to say, in spite of the crime, the corruption, the drugs, the decay, and so on, the Big Apple did not rot away: it remained a centre of finance, advertising, publishing and mass-media.  

In this, the City of New York is a functional relic of the way all American cities used to be, as economic power is concentrated in the downtown core, with the surrounding boroughs, towns and cities existing as satellites to this powerhouse. 

This was how the town of New Amsterdam was founded by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, and it was the model upon which all U.S. cities were (consciously or not) organized, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

This applied even to cities as distant geographically from New York city, as Los Angeles, California. 

However, after World War II, and the advent the modern suburb, virtually all American urban centres — led by L.A. itself — underwent transformation such that their downtowns were partially or almost wholly abandoned by businesses and the bourgeoisie, which decamped to the satellite towns and cities, and newer communities, in the regions surrounding the old cities. 

New York wasn't unaffected by this trend, of course: during the 1970s, as Gotham businesses fled to Long Island, or elsewhere in the tristate area, the city was forced to accept the disreputable merchants of paid sex and smut — the area around the world-famous Times Square becoming notorious for its porn-dealers and theatres, liquor peddlers and “massage” parlours. 

Not why it's called "Gotham", apparently.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

Still, the downtown core of New York City, located in midtown and lower Manhattan, didn’t undergo the wholesale abandonment and dessication that affected nine out of ten American cities in the period after the war — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and not forgetting the worst case of all, Detroit.  

Whereas in these places, social and economic power departed from the inner core, becoming decentralized in the suburban communities adjoining the original city, New York’s status as the global financial capital, assured that its core remained the anchor of the whole metro area (arguably, only San Francisco, Boston and Chicago similarly resisted this complete decentralization of power to edge cities). 

It is important to remember, as well, that suburbanization is scarcely a post-World War II phenomenon.

A documentary film on the history of New York by Ric Burns (brother of the more famous Ken Burns) describes how, as lower Manhattan became the undisputed centre of American business and industry, residences became segregated from workplaces, and the island-borough's population gradually expanded northward to beyond present-day Harlem, to the farmlands north of the Harlem river that had been established in the seventeenth-century by Swede Jonas Bronk (hence, "Bronk's land" or the Bronx).  

The need to expand residential population to Long Island, spurred the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (completed 1883, and the subject of an early documentary by Ken Burns), which caused the population of that city (not part of New York until 1898) to grow by almost 200% between 1880 and 1900 (versus "just" 150% population growth in Manhattan during the same period), becoming the largest of the five New York boroughs by the 1920s.

Suburban expansion then, as in recent decades, occurred as the more prosperous sought to escape the noise, smells, congestion and crime of the heavily-populated quarters in southern Manhattan. 

But suburbanization, as it occurred around Gotham throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, differed from that which occurred later, elsewhere, in that sprawl didn’t culminate in the economic and physical enervation of the downtown (this occurred in New York, largely in the outer boroughs, especially the south Bronx and large parts of the former city of Brooklyn). 

Why then, did New York, and select other centres, not undergo total, or nearly so, suburbanization of its financial and social heart, that was the rule during the post-war period for all other American cities? 

The United States, as the continental nation that exists today, was established in the nineteenth century. Not accidentally, this growth arrived in tandem with the development and spread of the railway

Initially, migration to the western territories was a true step away from civilization, with the mortality of frontier people endangered by weather, outlaws, isolation and aboriginal resistance
Times Square: the only danger now is being crushed to death by tourists.  Literally.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

But the establishment of transcontinental rail after the American Civil War, resulted in the “closing of the west”, in the famous phrase of Frederick Jackson Turner. This was in fact to turn the American west into a periphery of the metropole back east, which was itself centred in New York City. 

Eventually, too, the west coast of the U.S., centred at first in San Francisco, then in the southern California mega-city, became its own metropole, partly eclipsing New York as the undisputed dominant locality of America. 

But before that, what had occurred on a country-wide scale, in regard to rail-train technology’s ability to carry goods and staples over long distances, also happened in the major towns and cities of the U.S. after the introduction of commuter-rail traffic

Thereby, at least the more prosperous of the urban population could live in outer neighbourhoods closer to, or beyond, the city limits, leaving the inner core of commercial and industrial districts with a residential population of at or near zero (the Wall Street financial district, for example, is a ghost town during nighttime hours). 

These areas were usually bordered by neighbourhoods of those too poor to move away, usually of African-American or immigrant background, in crowded, substandard and otherwise forsaken dwelling places (as with the long-notorious Lower East Side of New York city, not far from Wall Street). 

Even medium-sized American cities installed streetcars and “short-line” rails to bring people from satellite communities to the downtown. 

New York and Boston, which became large cities prior to the railway, placed their commuter rail underground, in extensive subway systems. By contrast, Chicago, which was founded after the invention of the railway (and was in great degree an invention of the railway), built elevated tracks over the city — the famous “L” — while elevated trains are a feature of the outer boroughs of New York and Boston, the latter constructed largely in the later nineteenth century, again following the invention of the train. 

The era of the rail-train was relatively brief, only a century or so, before it was overtaken by the motorcar. According to some, this occurred not because of the forces of supply and demand. Instead, a conspiracy of automobile interests, led by the General Motors company, deliberately bankrupted commuter- and tram-rail firms they purchased by the hundreds in the period after World War II. The obvious motive was to “force people into cars.” 

However, private passenger rail companies faced financial trouble and insolvency regardless of their ownership. When they weren’t owned by the municipality outright, they were often saved from closure by bailouts or outright takeover by city authorities. 

People preferred commuting by automobile, and trams and streetcars caused even further congestion to already heavily-trafficked streets. 

City planners, and the public in general, were glad to see them go, as with the elevated commuter-rail tracks, which were so noisy and ugly — all of these becoming subject to romantic veneration (like the railway itself) only decades after they disappeared. 

The automobile differs from the tram or train in that it is (for the most part) individually, not communally, owned, and cars are more versatile in how they could move about. 

Which is to say, while rail-travel was practically and technically delimited in the extent it can be routed through a city, and must be organized according to a strict schedule, the car faces many less restrictions for both these factors. 

It can be driven from one place to another at any time, and can use any city street for this purpose. So, even though traffic-jams and gridlock restrict the mobility of the motorcar, and most people drive their cars according to a particular schedule, an automobile-dominant city is much less beholden to the centre-periphery character of railway-driven cities. 

The big reason that New York isn't Detroit-on-the-Hudson.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

The majority of American cities that got rid of rail-based transport systems, no longer resembled New York city in their pattern of settlement. 

Instead, Los Angeles became the model. The latter grew into a big city almost entirely under the auspices of commuter-railroad travel. As Sir Peter Hall notes in his mammoth history of cities, commuter lines were often constructed by land speculators hoping to sell real-estate in the rural areas of L.A. county that later became the cities of Pasadena, Long Beach, Burbank, Venice, and so on (at more than 4,000 square miles, the county is home to eighty-eight municipalities with a total population of nearly 10 million). 

The latter became the “bedroom” communities for a regional economy that was still situated in downtown Los Angeles. But Angelenos also took to the automobile as no one else in the United States, or elsewhere: by the 1920s, according to Sir Peter, residents of Los Angeles county possessed one in every seven automobiles in use throughout the entire United States (this at time when about one in every 120 Americans lived in L.A. county). 

Empire State Building by day.
Photo: RB Glennie
Bowing to public demand, city authorities set about in the 1930s the planning and construction of several “parkways” to ease congestion on thru-streets — these became the freeways that for better or worse, Los Angeles is famous for. 

Authorities also dismantled the extensive street-car and commuter-train system, genuinely due to its insolvency (rather than due to any conspiracy of automobile interests). 

Given that travel between the “satellite” cities was, by car, just as easy as travelling downtown — easier in fact, as the latter was by definition more congested than the outlying areas — economic activity became decentralized between the various centres throughout the metropolitan area. 

The downtown area of Los Angeles, thereby, went into steep decline after the war, with large residential areas of the city itself becoming “no-go” zones for anyone not living there, such as the south-central district, which became notorious in the nineteen-eighties for gang activity and wholesale murder. 

The extent to which cities reorganized themselves under the auspices of motorcar travel, occurred most radically in L.A. 

But it affected all American cities, including New York, which saw the limits of settlement stretch far beyond Queens on Long Island, into neighbouring cities in New Jersey, and north to Westchester county and into the state of Connecticut. 

The difference, though, was that New York, unlike L.A., had an underground commuter system that didn’t impede above-ground traffic, on which could not be easily or cheaply abandoned, as were the municipal trolley and streetcar systems of Los Angeles (and indeed, of New York city itself). 

Commuter-travel declined steeply in N.Y., just as it did elsewhere, and during the 1970s and ‘80, the city’s subway system itself became a danger zone, with people refusing to use it other than at rush hour (when commuters stood and sat together, their eyes looking down, afraid to catch the eye of the many criminals and crazies who seemed to be on the trains at all times). 

Still, residents of suburban New York commute by train to Manhattan and elsewhere in within the city itself, just as hundreds of thousands in the outer boroughs leave behind their cars to travel to Manhattan island — living out Gotham’s status as functional relic of the way American cities used to work. 

The endurance of commuter systems was the key to the maintenance of the other select U.S. cities’ organization on a centre-periphery basis, namely, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. 

xcept, the latter city didn’t have a subway system, but maintained above-ground commuter rail tracks (originally built privately, but taken over by the city during the 1940s and ‘50s, to create the Chicago Transit Authority). 

This isn’t an especially American phenomenon either. In Canada, the city of Toronto has maintained a Gotham-like centre-periphery orientation not only because, and going contrary to the trends in the U.S., it embarked on an extensive underground rail system (which was opened in 1954). 

It has also maintained an extensive street-car network, one of the only North American cities (aside from San Francisco) to do so. 

The city also has an extensive “Go-Train” commuter line, which brings people from the outer suburbs to the downtown area (of course, none of this is privately operated, as the commuter network in the city is owned by the Toronto Transit Commission). 

By contrast, the other large city in Ontario, Ottawa, was not large enough to have installed an subway system (a single, east-west line is about to built here). It also eliminated its streetcar network in the late 1950s. 

Though the city’s status as the national capital meant that the downtown didn’t undergo the decay that characterized large American cities, the dominance of the automobile did result in the decentralization of private economic activity to the adjoining cities of Nepean, Gloucester and Kanata. Consequently, the city of Ottawa (which was amalgamated into a single unit at the end of 2000) comprises an area larger than the city of Montreal, which has more than twice the number of people.

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