The Modern Pharaohs of New York

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, April 29, 1986

I work on the 39th floor of an East Side building and my open view of the city around me is, well, almost closed. I can see a patch of the East River but, even at this height, the Hudson is blocked from sight be all those magnificent new office and apartment towers.

We’ll just have to keep building higher and higher — if we want to see over each other. And even higher still, if we want to expand our horizons a tad and catch a small vista of Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey.

What a wonderful Erector-Set contest! My building is bigger than your building! It’s so good to be a sophisticated Manhattanite.

Of course, there’s a downside to the high-rise land rush, but only the curmudgeonly lunatic fringe will complain. Up here on the 39th floor, one can’t be bothered by the mayhem inflicted on the poor souls confined to the depths below. You can’t see many of them, anyway, from perches like these — although you do get an occasional glimpse of their gridlocks and the smoke from their subway fires. Are they cooking down there?

So anyone can tell from these jottings of mine that I know the new pyramids are good for us, like B-1 bombers. But can we talk seriously?

I’ve been noticing that  it’s chillier at street level in Manhattan than it used to be; that’s because the sun is being blocked out by the pyramids. The real-estate developers and their bankers and architects are apparently such hot stuff that they don’t need the sun.

I’ve also noticed that there are so many new pyramids and so many new upwardly mobile people coming to live and work in them that the old sidewalks are too small to handle the crowd — so people are now walking in the downwardly mobile gutters and streets. This has made traffic worse and has begun to irritate the masses, who are usually a stolid bunch.

The subways, too, are starting to choke with the extra bodies, but our political leaders keep saying that New Yorkers are a gritty lot and will persevere with a smile. I’ve noticed that the smiles are getting fainter.

Why do we need so many new pyramids all on one borough, when the city has four other boroughs to build on?

A variety of answers are given; all of them have to do with money, big money.

The mayor says the city treasury has to take advantage of Manhattan’s lure by auctioning land to the highest bidders. The highest bidders are the people who give the highest amounts to election campaigns and who get the highest tax abatements and who then get permission to build the highest. Paraphrasing Darwin, Edward Koch says it’s unfortunate but unavoidable that the working class and others who can’t afford to live so high will be swept out by the bulldozers of the modern pyramid builders; let them live in another borough, he says, for that is their constitutional privilege. He said this recently when he abruptly killed an urban renewal project in the Clinton neighborhood. He is building an economically segregated city.

The developers say they’re running out of available land to build on in Manhattan and that’s why they have to make up for the lack of space at the bottom by reaching higher at the top. They say it’s the only way they can make a profit, because building costs are so high.

One developer not untypical of the species, Harry Macklowe, announced not long ago that he will realize a $100-million profit from a single luxury condominium building he is erecting alongside Carnegie Hall. Developers consider this an ordinary profit, not an exceptional one, in much the same manner that they regard $300,000 as an ordinary price for a one-bedroom apartment. They, too, are building a segregated city.

The philosophers who serve as the developers’ court attendants — lieges such as lawyers and public relations men — also have an answer. They tell us that their builder-patrons are the economic and spiritual lifeblood of the city, pioneers risking all to prove that the fiscal crisis of the 1970s didn’t leave us bereft of the courage to think big. The pyramid-makers might blush, heaven knows, but one is tempted to call them the pharaohs of the 1980s.

Some of the more candid developers, in their private moments, will acknowledge that their syndrome of building bigger and higher is a form of competitive ego-tripping and macho exhibitionism. These ego exercises would be harmless if they were conducted behind closed doors and not practiced on the people of this city. You know, just the Erector-Set boys snapping towels in the locker room.

But their doings have much wider consequences for the quality of life in this city. And we cannot expect them to unilaterally stop pursuing their private interests to embrace the larger public goal of shaping a civilized city.

Just as politicians will be politicians and soldiers will be soldiers, developers will  be developers. They will salivate over their latest frontiers — Chinatown, the Upper West Side, the areas around Times Square and the Convention Center. And they wild their thing unrestrained, unless the rest of the community raises a holler that can be heard and felt in City Hall.

For City Hall is where the rules are made, and right now the rules encourage the pharaohs to construct pyramids for the rich, not human-scale housing for people who use the subways.

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