Using Henry George’s critique of inequality in the first Gilded Age as a jumping off point, Elizabeth Murphy has a very interesting essay considering how the new luxury towers for billionaires in Manhattan serve as reflections on our own problems with extreme inequality today.
In the twenty-first century American city, luxury real estate has succeeded the office tower as the symbol of economic might, and, one could argue, of a society’s guiding principle. In January of this year, a series of New York Times articles investigating veiled ownership practices in the high-rise condos bordering Central Park described slender towers topping 1,300 feet, with plans for new buildings reaching even higher. Units in the developments collectively referred to as “Billionaire’s Row” often sell for tens of millions of dollars to shell companies established to protect foreign investors. For buyers, such luxury properties function as foreign bank accounts and tax havens; for developers they represent, as Martin Filler wrote in the New York Review of Books, a kind of “vertical money.”
For many city-dwellers, the trend in development of luxury condos underscores the extreme inequality that has long characterized New York City’s economic landscape. “It was not that long ago that Columbus Circle was the makeshift residence of dozens of homeless people squatting at the site of the abandoned New York Coliseum,” wrote Times journalists Louise Story and Stephanie Saul. These days, the former site of the Coliseum houses the mall at the base of the Time Warner Center, the first super high-rise tower to have been built along the southern edge of Central Park. Developments like the Time Warner and, more recently, One57, Nordstrom Tower, and 432 Park are not merely symbolic of a system that unequally distributes its wealth in favor of the very rich: they contribute to the foundation of that system, providing tax breaks and subsidies to developers, driving rents ever higher, and marginalizing people whose mere presence is believed to do harm to property values.
In the years following the housing and financial crises that left many without jobs or homes, “the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want” has grown all the more discernable. Walking through the streets of midtown, day or night, from Chelsea to Columbus Circle, one views the real-life circumstances of the city’s poorest residents against a backdrop of wealth. Recent data published by the Coalition for the Homeless reveals the painful irony underscoring this scene: the primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.
And in conclusion:
“People claim the land by creating sacred sites,” the mythologist Campbell explained—and in doing so, they transform natural and cultural landscapes, often irrevocably. For many New York City residents, the most sacred places are perhaps the public grounds, the rare bits of land reserved for parks and green space. But as the values of a society change, so do conceptions of spaces deemed sacred. Today the park’s “artificial wall” is not twice but thirty times the height of the Great Wall of China—and growing. These buildings do not merely check the imagination, they loom large with a presence that will not be short-lived.
It would be generous to assume that the design of One57, meant to resemble a cascading waterfall, took to heart Olmsted’s plans to insinuate nature. The waterfall spills, as it were, away from the park, to the south. The north-facing surfaces of One57 and its neighboring super-towers are flat, more like walls. This observation echoes one put forth by Washington architect Shalom Baranes, who describes development in terms of beautification. The towers are, he explained, like the walls of a great, “outdoor room.” Indeed, like a vast parlor, the ornate walls of which signify wealth that for all but a very few is—and will always be—unattainable.
The whole thing is well worth your time. Murphy goes onto to devastate the defense by Yglesias and others of the Manhattan luxury tower that tried to make the residents of its affordable housing units go through a separate entrance, noting that the tax breaks the developers received for a pittance of affordable housing was more than valuable enough for them.