For the love of cities: “What’s Left?” July 2008, MRR #302

I strained my neck the first time I visited New York City. Walking around Manhattan, craning my head looking up at the surrounding skyscrapers in the mid-80s, I was properly awed by the city’s architectural display of power. And, I was reminded of John Lennon’s reply to the question of why he chose to live in New York. It’s the center of the empire.

But the empire ain’t what it used to be.

The 5-12-08 edition of Newsweek excerpted a long piece from free market fundamentalist Fareed Zakaria’s new book The Post American World in which he argues that the world “has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism” with “the rise of the rest,” meaning the growing economic prosperity of countries like Russia, China and India. This has not meant challenging the United States militarily, but rather the claim that the rest of the world has “moved on, and [is] now far more interested in other, more dynamic parts of the globe.” What Zakaria is talking about is economic, social and cultural dynamism, not military might. “America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.” In New York, the imperial city par excellence, this shift is perhaps best symbolized by the destruction of the World Trade Center, at one time the world’s tallest buildings. As Zakaria points out, “[t]he world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai.”

In watching The Visitor, a current movie set in Manhattan partly about the human consequences of US immigration policy, I was impressed with how damned good New York’s skyline looks without the twin towers, as seen from the Staten Island ferry. I admit to sharing the prejudice of many of my New York friends who considered the World Trade Center a blight on Manhattan. Not to say that I reveled in its destruction, nor should my anti-WTC remarks be construed as any kind of anti-urbanism. I’m a city person. I love city living, and I think that cities are potentially one of the most brilliant expressions of human activity. There is a character and life to any world-class city that is memorable. There is a grace and, dare I say, virility to the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building that was completely lacking in the twin towers. The World Trade Center was brutal and ugly. New York City looks so much better without it.

Speaking of world-class cities, lately I’ve been jonesing for Paris, more so than New York. I’ve visited New York over a half dozen times, the last trip five years ago, so the city feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. I was in Paris three years ago, and only for my second time. That city has the feel of a still mysterious lover.

City of love, city of light, Paris is hauntingly beautiful. I’m attracted to the millennia of history captured in its layered architecture, the vitality of both its public spaces (parks, concourses, squares) and its public life (open-air markets, frequent holidays, political demonstrations), the generous slice of western civilization contained within its museums, libraries and universities, and the sensuousness of daily existence—the appreciation for food, wine, leisure, beauty, sexuality—among many other things. Paris seems capable of passively defeating those who would change it for the worse, from outright enemies like the Nazis who were unwilling to burn down the city in retreat, to the French themselves like that American wannabe Sarkozy who tried to repeal the 35-hour work week and make the French work harder. The meteoric fall of Sarkozy’s popularity, along with his reform plans, is particularly gratifying.

This doesn’t mean that the “Spirit of 68” is alive and well in Paris. A 4-19-08 BBC broadcast of From Our Own Correspondent entitled “Visiting the Ghosts of Paris 1968,” has the following observation: “The students had specific grievances in 1968 as well, notably against the rigidly hierarchical way the universities were organized – but they went on to believe they could change France, if not the world. A teacher highlighted the difference for me: ‘This generation doesn’t want to change society. They just want to be able to get a job good enough to pay the rent and that’s why they’re worried about the quality of their education’.” I admit I was enamored with the city’s revolutionary mystique, fostered from 1789 through the 1871 Commune to May-June 1968. I made sure to visit the Butte-aux-Cailles district that, with the Latin Quarter, was the location of some of the fiercest fighting between students and police during 1968. It was also one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune, and I bought a commemorative t-shirt from an office/library/social center there dedicated to preserving the Commune’s memory. As of 2005, the Butte-aux-Cailles was being rapidly gentrified, with little resistance from anybody.

Regrettably, circumstances prevent me from vacationing in either New York or Paris any time soon, so I’m enjoying my own world-class city, San Francisco. Often referred to as “the Paris of the West,” San Francisco does have a certain charm, with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Parts of it have the appearance of a lazy Mediterranean town, delicate whitewashed residences interspersed with trees covering the city’s famous hills. Yet I thought my hometown looked shoddy and rundown both times I returned from Paris. There’s an elegance and cosmopolitanism to Paris that makes San Francisco seem downright parochial, an impression accentuated by the city’s relatively low urban density when compared to Paris, and especially to New York. I’ve had visitors from New York tell me that San Francisco isn’t really a city, but more like an urban town. They walked among the modest skyscrapers of the downtown financial district, sniffed condescendingly, and explained that San Francisco couldn’t possibly be serious about the business of being a big city without more tall buildings.

Unfortunately, that’s going to change, and soon.

The current 550-foot height limit in the city was a reaction to the building boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that saw the rise of the 779-foot Bank of America Building, and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid at 853 feet. In particular, the controversy surrounding the construction of the Pyramid produced a proposition to limit buildings to six stories in 1971 that was defeated, and a “compromise” 1972 urban design plan that capped downtown building heights at 700 feet. The subsequent rise of the financial district further fueled anti-height sentiment that culminated in the mid-80s with the success of Proposition K (1984), which prohibited towers from casting new shadows on existing city parks; another “compromise” urban design plan (1985), which capped downtown building heights at 550 feet but raised previously low heights south of Market; and voter approval of Proposition M (1986); which restricted new office buildings for ten years.

These modest successes signaled the eventual demise of organized popular opposition to downtown development forces. As is frequently the case with grassroots social movements, widespread interest and support could not be sustained, the ordinary people who participated went back to their very busy lives, and organizational and institutional gains languished in the wake of relatively incremental victories. What’s more, capitalists are often capable of long range strategic planning and great patience, despite their impatience for immediate profits. In the case of San Francisco, downtown interests also waited out their progressive opposition.

The waters were tested in 2003 when the Planning Department rezoned Rincon Hill to allow almost a dozen towers to be built over 35 stories to increase downtown residential density. The 641-foot One Rincon building is scheduled to open this year, with two more on the way. City officials approved a redevelopment district around the Transbay Terminal in 2005 that permitted six residential towers of 35 to 55 stories on land once covered by freeway ramps. These towers will rise from public land sold to raise money for rebuilding the terminal. “The notion of extra-tall towers also is the culmination of efforts since the 1980s to shift the focus of downtown development – taking growth pressure off neighborhoods such as Chinatown and North Beach and steering it south of Market Street.” This, according to a 4-27-08 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Reaching for the sky South of Market.” In 2006, Planning Director Dean Macris came out in favor of extremely tall towers in the Transbay Terminal area. A year later, the winner of the Planning Department’s proposal competition for the Transbay site, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and the Hines development firm, recommended a 1,200-foot tower. And in May of this year, the Planning Department proposed new zoning in the terminal area that would once and for all overturn the 550-foot building limit.

One Rincon Tower did generate a measure of concern and complaint, but nothing compared to the opposition provoked by the Transamerica Pyramid. “The anti-height fervor downtown quieted in the 1990s,” the Chronicle article states. “[A]nd there’s been little controversy about the towers erected during the past decade along Mission Street.” This is due, not merely to the ability of capitalists to wait out their opponents, or the inability of those opponents to build a lasting resistance movement, but also to the changing demographics of San Francisco in the intervening years. Much like Manhattan, San Francisco has become home to the well-to-do and rich, with poor folk shunted to the margins, and middle class families no longer able to afford to live in the city. A demographic with little interest—class interest, that is—in fighting the Manhattanization of San Francisco.

Me, I’d like to see San Francisco shed its roll up the sidewalks at 11 pm provincialism. But I would rather see the city emulate Paris than New York. For one, this is earthquake country, with a big shaker due any time now. Do you want to be a thousand feet in the air when the ground starts to really rock and roll? For another, the proposed skyline, particularly with the Transit District towers (see sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/planning/City_Design_Group/CDG_transit_center.htm) looks more like Blade Runner than Manhattan. They make the old World Trade Center look positively enchanting.

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