New York: The "Old City." (the Encyclopedia of New York City)

By Glazer, Nathan | The Public Interest, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

New York: The "Old City." (the Encyclopedia of New York City)


Glazer, Nathan, The Public Interest


The appearance of The Encyclopedia of New York City,(*) edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, leads one to think of one of Parkinson's laws: When the capital is complete, the empire is ready to fall. Or perhaps, more grandly, of Hegel's owl of Minerva, which takes flight at dusk. For New York City's current economic and social woes have been accompanied by a spate of major scholarly works that are unparalleled and were unavailable in the days of New York's glory, wherever we place it. This is a phenomenon that certainly deserves some consideration.

The facts of decline, or at least the struggle to retain preeminence, are undeniable. The city suffers under a burden of social costs that impose tremendous strains on its budget and that require an array of taxes and a level of taxation unparalleled in any other American city. Since the late 1960s, an inexorable one-seventh or so of the city's population, one million people, has been on welfare, a figure far transcending the 300,000 on welfare at the beginning of the 1960s.

New York cannot manage to find the resources for the minimal infrastructural improvements that are essential to a world city. It has not yet connected its airports to its center by public mass transit, though all its world competitors have, and even cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cleveland can manage the feat in the public-transit-poor United States. And a proposal by the Port Authority of New York, to connect Kennedy airport to the city center, an improvement that owes much to the heroic efforts of Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, is still measly; it will get those arriving at Kennedy as far as Jamaica in deep Queens, where they must transfer to other transit lines. New York's major transportation systems have shown little improvement for 40 years. The last major extension of the subway system was more than 50 years ago. The last major connections of Manhattan to the rest of the city and the U.S. mainland are almost as old, and one cannot even imagine that there will be any more, though the latest Regional Plan Association's proposals for New York call for them. Manhattan is dependent on several major bridges - Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensboro - which were built before 1909, and the city is hard-pressed to maintain these crucial connections. The aging underground water mains regularly explode in geysers.

New York has lost most of its manufacturing jobs. One could debate whether that is such a serious matter for a world city that must fulfill so many other functions, in finance, in information industries, in culture. But New York's preeminence as a headquarters city for major American corporations has also declined.

All in all, it is clear that New York casts a smaller shadow on the American scene than it once did. "The old country," the Economist labeled the United States not long ago. "The old city," one thinks of New York, especially when one arrives there from sparkling overseas airports, accessible by new public transit or commodious and clean taxis, only to encounter New York City taxis, with their dirty trunks and their anti-crime barriers, confining the passenger to a mean back seat, and the aging freeways into Manhattan, with their debris-strewn borders.

But, in contrast to all these and other troubles, information on New York flourishes, novels on old New York become bestsellers, interest in New York, by its inhabitants and by its visitors, is undimmed or expanded far beyond such curiosity in the past. An intriguing phenomenon. There was no encyclopedia of New York City during the decades considered by many its last good ones, the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s. There was no guidebook to its architecture. The first AIA Guide to New York City (AIA is the American Institute of Architects) dates only to 1967. (A mere 464 pages; the third edition, from 1988, has grown to 999 pages, and not because of so many new buildings but because so many more of the old buildings are considered of interest. …

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