This past Sunday I joined the good people from Maggie’s Farm on their annual “Urban Hike” in New York City. This year they rounded up a group of about 13. The hike started at the Museum of Natural History (80th Street and Central Park West — near the geographical center of Manhattan Island) and proceeded uptown on a meandering path of about 9 miles, stopping at sites that included things like Pomander Walk, Straus Park ([Isadore] Straus was the founder of Macy’s who died on the Titanic), and Columbia University. The weather was chilly with persistent rain. Toward the end of the hike, at about 155th Street, we had just stood on Edgecomb Avenue at the top of the bluff overlooking the spot where once had stood the Polo Grounds (actually a baseball stadium that was the original home of the Mets, and before them the New York Giants baseball team), and we turned the corner, and suddenly this:
Several gasps and “Oh my God”s erupted spontaneously. I heard the words “Darth Vader building” uttered behind me. Whatever this black block might be, there had been no mention of it in the hike itinerary that had been provided to us; and yet this building was clearly the dominant presence in the neighborhood. Viewing it from the street, its function was not obvious. Had this thing been dropped in by space aliens? What could it possibly be, and why was it here?
Actually, I knew. That’s because I wrote three blog posts about this building back in 2014, when it first opened. They are here, here and here. This is the “Sugar Hill Project.” It’s what they call around here an “affordable housing” development. Here, from the blog post at the first of those links, was my take on the building’s aesthetics:
Could it be more hideous? This makes the old time "projects" that New York is famous for look positively pleasant. If you didn't know what it was, you would probably guess it's a prison.
At the second of the those links I calculated that each family that “won” (by lottery) the right to live in this building would receive a present-value gift from the taxpayers of approximately $2 million. Also at that second link, I discussed a New York Times review of this project by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman that had appeared on October 6, 2014. Since this is “affordable housing,” I guess it was a given that the Times’s architecture critic was required to swoon in order to be in tune with the Times’s mandatory political correctness protocol; but this review took that requirement to ludicrous levels. To start, the headline was “Building Hope and Nurturing Into Housing.” The review proceeded from there:
It has been conceived to serve some of the very poorest New Yorkers, who will move into anything but a run-of-the-mill building. Designed by a marquee architect, with no concessions to timid taste, the project aspires to must-see status. . . . Sugar Hill . . . posits a goal for what subsidized housing might look like, how it could lift a neighborhood and mold a generation.
Somehow, I’ll bet that that is not your reaction. This guy is accusing you of having “timid taste.” But could he possibly have been looking at the same building?
Anyway, I return to this subject today in light of the recent opening of the first section of the Hudson Yards development on the far west side of Midtown. Here is a photograph from January, just prior to the opening
Consider how you react to these buildings, in contrast to the Sugar Hill Project. In my own case, I wouldn’t say that an entire new neighborhood consisting of nothing but huge new glass and steel skyscrapers is exactly my cup of tea. It wouldn’t be my first choice as a place to live or work. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t call it painful to look at. The developers and architects have definitely put serious effort into making something that would be desirable for tenants and visitors.
You are probably wondering if Mr. Kimmelman of the Times has written a review. And it just so happens that he had a big article on March 14, with the headline “Hudson Yards Is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest
Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?” And what was his reaction? Excerpts:
The largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history, it is called Hudson Yards. . . . It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent. A relic of dated 2000s thinking, nearly devoid of urban design, it declines to blend into the city grid. From a distance the project may remind you of glass shards on top of a wall.
OK, I guess he hates it. But wasn’t that inevitable? I mean, the development is profit-driven. It’s for the “0.1 percent.” How could anything about such a development be good? But my question is, does he actually look at the buildings when he writes these reviews? Or is it all driven by the pre-established narrative?