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New York’s Hudson Yards: The Revanchist City Lives On

As is often the case, a spurt of media attention on one event leaves any deeper issues virtually untouched. It was just over a month ago that Amazon announced it was pulling out of its highly subsidized deal to build one of its second headquarters in New York. Three billion in city and state subsidies and goodies like its own personal heliport proved to make much of the public too curious for Jeff Bezos’ liking, rather than attempt any further negotiation and despite the spurned Governor Cuomo’s shameless and pathetic attempt at begging him to reconsider, Bezos set sail, no doubt on the lookout for brighter red carpets. Meanwhile, activists celebrating that victory ceased to realize that an even greater monstrosity was emerging just across the river from the proposed Amazon location.

If one looks back at the three terms of former mayor Michael Bloomberg choosing their worst feature could be challenging. From ‘stop and frisk’ to the rezoned waterfronts now brimming with luxury apartments well beyond reach of the workers who used to toil there to the arrogant orchestrated overturning of term limits with massive personal spending for reelection campaigns, the choices are plentiful. Yet perhaps Bloomberg’s legacy can be best encapsulated by the recent opening of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s Westside. Billed for over decade as the ‘largest real estate deal in American history’, built by Related Companies and Oxford Properties, two of the largest developers in the world, and with some nonunion building labor, the 28 acre complex when completed sometime in 2035 will hold 13 buildings including apartments, millions of square feet of office space, a performance arts center, a seven-story mall, a hotel, and the requisite celebrity chef-owned restaurants.

The target audience is quite obvious: one can purchase a haircut at Sally Hershberger’s salon for $800. While roughly ten percent of the apartments are labeled subsidized, in New York vernacular this often means they’re still out of the price range of the majority, most one bedroom apartments with views of the Hudson will go for over $5000 a month, a night at the new Equinox Hotel runs for $700. Related CEO Stephen Ross himself is moving to the $32 million penthouse at 15 Hudson Yards. The mall features the likes of Dior and Fendi, and New York now has its first Neiman Marcus. Michelin chef Thomas Keller serves high priced foodie dishes at his TAK Room not far from where Estiatorio Milos, one of the city’s priciest seafood restaurants, is setting up shop. As for the common folk it seems their experience will largely be limited to some open space and Thomas Heatherwick’s ghastly collection of staircases called The Vessel.

The masses can take some consolation from the fact that they’re making a large contribution to the effort. The $3 billion in subsidies that drew the public opposition to Amazon pale in comparison to the nearly $6 billion that analysis by the New School found have been pumped into Hudson Yards. The city spent about $2.4 billion to extend the 7 train one stop to Hudson Yards (the fact that building one station, which has been plagued by leaks and mold since it opened, cost as much as it did should probably draw more scrutiny than it has), set aside $1.2 billion for four acres of open space, and spent $200million to buy up the air rights from the MTA (the state agency that runs New York’s subways and buses). Then there has been $281.2 million for things like sewers, $75.5 million for the performing arts center with retractable walls currently known as The Shed. When revenues from the development predicatively fell short of projections the City Council stepped up with $359 million in interest payments on bonds.

Such is a small price to pay for a long desired goal of elite planning to extend the Central Business District westward. If there is any consensus among New York’s vast media it is that the neighborhood pre-Hudson Yards was ‘undeveloped’. What else would blocks of warehouses, factories, and a train yard be labeled? Still can any argument be made that what New York, with its burgeoning homeless population and housing crisis, needed, especially on MTA property the city could have fought hard for, was a Neiman Marcus and waterfront hotel? As for all the office space, the New School’s research reveals that 90 percent of Hudson Yard’s office tenants are transfers from Midtown being lured by lucrative tax breaks. There’s an assortment of hedge-funds and private equity: Blackrock, managing $5.98 trillion, will write off $25 million in state tax breaks by adding 700 jobs at Hudson Yards. SAP, KKR, Wells Fargo, and L’Oreal USA are moving in, in line for $5.5million in tax breaks, as are CNN and Warner Media- these from another Related project Time Warner Center.

On the bright side Hudson Yards does face challenges. Say what one will about Manhattan, even in its ultra-wealthy phase, vertical malls, with the unfortunate exception of the aforementioned Time Warner Center, tend not to prosper. Another multi-billion dollar project conceived in post-9/11 triumphalism, Santiago Calatrava’s narcissistic $4 billion Oculus, train station mall combo, has struggled to find a purpose since it opened. For all the hype Hudson Yards is served by only one subway station and is three long blocks from Penn Station. Its design is that of a glorified suburban office park, completely in contrast to Jane Jacobs’ urban ballet. Free admission to The Vessel has a two week wait at the moment but how long can climbing on 2500 steps be a novelty? Planners seem to be counting on the famed High Line emptying out into Hudson Yards. While the High Line, the elevated park on the old New York Central rail stub, has become a worldwide icon, as far as New York goes it would hard to find a greater tool of gentrification.- the surrounding neighborhood went from a working class holdout to one filled with multimillion dollar buildings designed by world famous architects. Yet it is questionable how much business the High Line tourists could drum up at Hudson Yards.

However there is the eerie shadow of Rockefeller Center, certainly in terms of sheer real estate acreage, Hudson Yard’s predecessor. While during the holiday season hordes of tourists flock to take selfies by the ice skating rink and, perhaps for reasons beyond comprehension, the tree lighting ceremony has long been a national TV event, the fact is as soon as the Rockefeller Family signed the $3.6 million annual lease with Columbia University, then the property’s owner, in 1928 it wished to be rid of it The opening of Rockefeller Center ran smack into the Depression. The original plan to move the Metropolitan Opera there fell through and with tenants in the U.S. in short supply the family turned to international prospects, including trying to rent ‘Il Palazzo d’Italia’ to Mussolini and part of the International Building to the Nazis (it has long be part of city lure that the sculpture of Atlas across from St Patrick’s Cathedral bears a striking resemblance to Mussolini). The public never got to set its eyes of Diego Rivera’s mural however Attilio Piccirilli’s ode to fascism stood until the U.S. entered the war.

Obviously not content to be sunk with a bad investment, much like the present day Hudson yards area the Rockefeller Center area was considered ‘undeveloped’, the Rockefellers spent decades, with considerable success influencing the redesigning the city around its property from getting a subway along 6th Ave and moving office building from the East Side to the West Side in the 1980s, finally unloading a majority stake of Rockefeller Center on the Mitsubishi Estate in 1989. Mitsubishi too had an immediate bout of buyer’s remorse, defaulting on their mortgage in 1995 in the midst of a real estate crash brought about by that heavily subsidized office building boom of the 1980s.

If the time comes it isn’t difficult to imagine what planners and its owners would do to ensure the success of Hudson Yards. Whatever the exact details no doubt it will be a continuation of a long policy of serving the needs of capital, using gentrification, along with its subsequent displacement, as a default strategy of urban planning. One may be tempted, as far as New York goes, to ask how much more damage can actually be done. However, the answer remains quite scary.

It was back in 1996 when the great radical geographer Neil Smith published his classic The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Revanchism, from the French revanche, meaning revenge, dates back to 19th century Paris. Opposed to the liberalism of the Second Republic, along with the debauchery of the monarchy, and of course the uprising of the Paris Commune, where the working-classes took over from Napolean III’s defeated government and controlled the city for months, the revanchists were set on restoring bourgeois order in the city of light, hunting down Communards with a vengeance who had ‘stolen’ the city. In a sense such has been the fate for many American cities for the last three plus decades, since capital ‘came home’ again. The frontier remains open still.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

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