The Hudson Yards development in New York City, which opens to the public this month, is the largest private real-estate project in the history of the United States. A combination of new building technology, political will, and eye-popping infusions of capital has enabled the developer, Related Companies, to summon an entire community out of thin air on the West Side of Manhattan. A commuter rail yard, long considered a prime piece of potential real estate, has been covered with a massive platform, and a new neighborhood composed exclusively of oyster-blue glass skyscrapers is being built on top of it, elevated above the rest of the Manhattan grid. When completed, this neighborhood will feature thousands of offices, thousands of homes, a massive shopping mall, a school, a hospital, a hotel, an arts venue and the world’s most expensive public art installation.
Attempting to piggyback off the allure of the Hudson Yards project proper, other developers have snatched up vacant lots and old buildings in the surrounding area over the past five years and set to work erecting blue glass skyscrapers of their own. They have stretched out the boundaries of this glistening new neighborhood, so that the combined square footage of Hudson Yards and its associated offshoots will be substantially larger than that of the principality of Monaco.
Among many New Yorkers, the development has become a symbol of both transformation and decline—of a city that, thanks to gentrification and the invasion of the nouveau riche, has lost its soul. Jeremiah Moss, author of the book Vanishing New York, wrote that the development had incarnated “a city where everything must glitter, silvery cool.” In the Observer, Related was credited with the “rebirth of New York from a bankrupt dystopia into a glittering place of wealth … losing its character and diversity to a wave of glassy boxes.” Justin Davidson, writing last month in New York magazine, called it a “billionaire’s fantasy city,” “more virtual than real.”
When I first moved to New York, the first towers were still rising, but now I can see the whole cluster from my bedroom window in Brooklyn, and from the street corner where I go to get coffee, and from a hundred other places as well. A recent trip across the Hudson River to New Jersey afforded me a view of them at the water’s edge, huddled together like blue priests awaiting the commencement of a ritual. Hudson Yards looks very little like New York as we know it, that’s true. But if New York is as dead as all the eulogists have been saying, one has to wonder: What kind of zombies are these?
While Related has touted Hudson Yards as New York’s “next great neighborhood,” New Yorkers of all stripes and stations have pronounced it a fortress of capital and a stain on the city—and the construction has been marred by a series of disputes over labor violations, affordable housing and taxpayer subsidization. At the heart of the dispute over what the development means, though, is a question about how new buildings both reflect and relate to the dynamics of a changing city.
The most common story about these changes goes something like this: after World War II, as African Americans and nonwhite immigrants continued to move to urban areas in greater numbers, middle-class whites fled to newly constructed suburbs. There they resided in one- or two-story single-family houses with large lawns in secluded, often gated subdivisions, leaving the newly delineated “inner city” to a black and Hispanic underclass that was by turns systematically neglected and actively besieged. But in the past 25 years, as crime rates in those cities have dropped and new industries have emerged, the young white people who grew up in the suburbs have returned, pushing out minorities so they can reclaim and refurbish their charming prewar apartments.
With the new influx has come a new architectural style. Many of these arrivals have desired the construction of newer and fancier housing, much of which has ended up being some mixture of sleek and chic—matte windows encased in concrete walls painted blue pastels or cool grays. The construction of these fancy buildings and their corollary coffee shops and wine bars has caused housing prices in these neighborhoods to skyrocket, further disadvantaging the working-class populations who used to live in them.
But these buildings are said by their critics to do more than just ratchet up housing prices: they also suck the life out of everything that surrounds them, simply by being ugly. “New York’s great buildings used to be chockablock with beacons, crowns, ornamentation, friezes, and statues,” Kevin Baker wrote in a 13,000-word cover story for Harper’s last July, “The Death of a Once Great City.” Now all we get, he said, are “huge, glassy, dreadful buildings,” or supertall towers that look like “predatory birds.”