China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year.
Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year. A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture.
Few achieved commercial or critical success. Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. I wanted to find out why. On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor.
Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense. Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4, movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island.
He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. Back in L. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued. Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean , The Lord of the Rings , and Transformers —which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare.
Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big. Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers -like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang. Lawrence never heard back from Jiang.
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The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September , Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract. During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny.
A foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws. Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love.
From the script:. Atlas kicks open a door.
Blood flows from the punctured neck. Atlas kicks open another door - and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a foot-long fish.
The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids. The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1, years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:. A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true - an entire kingdom of mer-people. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world.
Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up. It all started with the Wolf Witch. Must like mermaids.
Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. In , Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing.
Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution. Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks.
Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. Kershner died in Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story.
By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. He was signed on for the trilogy. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese. Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers.
Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The hour flight was too short. Around , Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back.
The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. Statues of nude Greeks with ten-foot spears guard the temple. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made. Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction.
Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. The crew tore it down and started again. Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English.
He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship.
Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life. Lawrence laughed when he read it. Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.
After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation. Jiang remained calm. The atmosphere is like the first day of school.
What is true today will not be true tomorrow. The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it. Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late.
Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee. The merman costumes were full-body rubber outfits with nubs meant to look like coral. With actual glue. For the mermaids, the hair department opted for purple skullcaps with what looked like cornrows on top and dreadlocks dangling from the back.
The wardrobe team had envisioned the mermaids with plastic seashells covering their breasts, their bodies painted in shimmering blues and greens. Walking would be a problem. Looking at the costumes and props, Maxx Maulion—Trajin—kept thinking, Oh man, this is going to be crazy. Meanwhile, Lawrence was still hard at work on the script, and he asked the actors to meet with him periodically to discuss how to enrich their characters. Polites and Maulion rehearsed their lines in their hotel rooms. The movie seemed only theoretical until the day the cast was invited into a screening room.
The graphics looked low budget, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement. While the preproduction teams got ready to start shooting, Polites and Maulion became fast friends, wandering between the looming skyscrapers of their downtown neighborhood and watching DVDs in their hotel rooms. The pair were on a high; when locals discovered that they were actors from Hollywood, they would ask for autographs.
Polites was new to the industry; he had moved to L. He worked at a restaurant while he auditioned for acting roles, and Empires was by far his biggest booking. Maulion had had a few small roles in film and TV and only recently obtained his Screen Actors Guild card. When I met Polites and Maulion over breakfast on a sunny Hollywood morning in November, they spoke of the optimism of those early days.
True, there were things that seemed off—the uncertain schedule, the unfinished script, the weird costumes—but like Lawrence, they believed Empires could be their break. In December, Jiang ordered the production to begin shooting. Lawrence was frustrated. Plus, Lawrence was only about a third of the way through rewriting the script. He shared what he had so far with the cast, the draft peppered with emotional notes. The production moved to a small town outside Beijing and into a hotel with a karaoke bar and a restaurant that served shark fin soup. Before the first take, there was a ceremony at the city-square soundstage to bless the expensive Panavision cameras that had been rented for the picture.
Red blankets were placed over them, and incense sticks were lit. A crew member made a brief speech in Chinese. The cameras roll. The first scene Lawrence shot depicts Atlas and Trajin. Atlas picks up an apple and tosses it to Trajin. A horse crosses their path. It was a thrilling moment. Massive sets. Huge crew. Film cameras. After a handful of tries, they wrapped the scene. Neither Polites nor Maulion thought they actually got the shot they needed, but they shrugged it off. Polites was still trying to make peace with his hair, and his skirt felt obscenely short, but he was living his dream.
Lawrence learned quickly how the style of filmmaking in China differed from the West. Whereas Hollywood sets are extremely hierarchical collaborative dictatorships, Chinese sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. Just like in Chinese society as a whole, the concept of guanxi —relations or connections—is enormously important.
Rao, Lawrence discovered early in the shoot, was talented and a respected professional who wielded a lot of influence with the crew, to whom he was fiercely loyal. At first the plan was to shoot the movie with two cutting-edge digital cameras, but Rao lobbied to shoot on film, an old-fashioned and more expensive option. Because of the expense, Rao would shoot quickly and move on. The actors often had to complete a scene in three or four takes, whereas on a Hollywood set a director might film dozens.
It became clear to Lawrence and others that Jiang had decided to get Empires on film fast. Polites, the star, quickly lost the optimism of the early days. He felt the shoot was being rushed; they were rarely given the chance to rehearse a scene. As they waited, he and Maulion talked about their next career moves and chatted up the female translators. The actors had been brought to China on generous contracts that promised cushy amenities, most of which failed to materialize. None were provided. Polites had asked for a gym so he could bulk up, as the role demanded, but his request was ignored.
The Americans had expected a selection of food provided by on-set craft services, but the Chinese productions ate more simply. The cast and crew were given the same thing every day: bone-in chicken, a cup of broccoli, and rice. Maulion, whose character was supposed to be chubby, immediately began dropping pounds. Before bed he would eat peanut butter out of the jar and an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies to keep his weight up. He asked his mom to send him cans of tuna from the States. On set, tension between Lawrence and Rao began to simmer.
Lawrence was a hands-on director when it came to lighting and lenses, and he asked the crew for complicated setups to get the shots he wanted.
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He had a grand vision for Empires. The communication problems meant that setting up a shot that would take 45 minutes on a Hollywood set would sometimes take four or five hours, with Rao shouting instructions to the Chinese crew. And then, after all that prep time, the actors would be rushed through the shot. Jiang did not attend the filming, but he called Harrison Liang frequently, asking for updates and sending instructions for Lawrence and the rest of the crew.
Indeed, Lawrence rarely had a chance to talk face-to-face with the billionaire. When Jiang did show up, he would make unreasonable demands, like insisting that a smoke machine make more smoke—a time-consuming process—when the actors were ready to shoot. But there were moments of camaraderie. Raindrops pelt the roof of the tent. In January, after a few weeks of shooting outside Beijing, the crew moved to coastal Fujian province, in southeast China. The weather was miserable, with day after day of rain. Fujian sits on a spectacular stretch of coast, with mountains, rivers, caves, and valleys nearby.
The script included many scenes in such locations, but the sites were remote and in some cases dangerous. Lawrence began to grow seriously concerned about the state of the shoot. The script was ever changing and the schedule in disarray, and the challenges of the terrain exacerbated the strained relationships on set. Irena Violette, the mermaid Dada, joined the production in Fujian. Her boyfriend, Jerred Berg, an actor between jobs, came with her. Violette arrived ready to work and with a sense of humor.
Oh well, this is China , she shrugged whenever problems arose. The makeup to complete her costume required hours of preparation every day. But the shooting schedule was so haphazard that sometimes she would spend several hours getting ready and then never shoot a frame of film. Frustrated, she would voice her concerns to the crew. When Violette finally got in front of the camera, she wanted more takes.
Other tensions arose. In one of the many byzantine quirks of how we are governed in New York, the trains and buses are part of the MTA, which is controlled by Governor Cuomo.
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But the more telling lesson here is that a tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers to restore even the most vital public good cannot be so much as entertained. T he decline of the subways is just the latest diminution of public life in New York. Over the past few decades, what used to be regarded as inviolable public space has been systematically rolled up and surrendered to unelected private authorities. Even the streets are no longer fully under public control. But before that could happen, Sonia Sotomayor, then a federal district court judge in Manhattan, found the business districts guilty of breaking minimum-wage laws, using their newfound source of almost free labor to undercut competition—and handing the money they made as a result to their already well-paid executives.
Everywhere now, private institutions have largely taken over the neighborhoods around them, repurposing them solely to meet their own needs. Our tax-free universities have been among the most shameless offenders. Cooper Union—a cultural landmark founded in as a night school of the arts and sciences for working men and women—abolished its legacy of free tuition after clotting the Astor Place area with disturbing glass boxes and nearly driving itself into bankruptcy.
New York University has torn down much of the historic West Village, including most of what was the landmark Provincetown Playhouse and a home that Edgar Allan Poe once lived in. NYU partially re-created the facade of the Poe house. Quoth the raven: Fuck you. Columbia University used and abused the power of eminent domain to kick out residents and small businesses at the western end of th Street, and is now stuffing that street with the huge, glassy, dreadful buildings of its new Manhattanville campus, courtesy of its own international vandal, sorry, starchitect, Renzo Piano.
This has become an accepted way of proceeding in New York, even for subsidized institutions that are supposed to serve a public purpose. It ended up instead as an arena with all the charm of your basic bus terminal, home to an unwanted basketball team owned by a Russian oligarch.
But then, as with any major New York development today, some form of deception is requisite. The Atlantic Yards scam was bankrolled with hundreds of millions in public funding—though the chicanery here is so involved that no one can even say for sure what the final public subsidy figures will be. Sports stadiums long ago became a preferred method of legalized graft in America, with even such struggling cities as Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland, California, willingly shelling out hundreds of millions apiece to retain or attract major-league franchises.
But New York has taken the practice to stygian depths. The two major-league stadiums opened in were far from the first or the only large public subsidies the city has given to the Yankees and the Mets. Nonetheless, the Yankees reduced the number of seats available to the general public by more than 9, so that the team could make room for thirty-seven additional luxury suites in its ballpark. But here the new stadium was intended only as the anchor of a grand plan by Michael Bloomberg to transform the entire area around it—one terminus of an axis of redevelopment set to run across the entire width of the city, on a scale that only Robert Moses might have attempted.
Queens had long remained unscathed by development on this scale. More than anyplace else in New York, the borough retains some of the flavor of what the city was like in the Seventies, minus the crime and the decay. Almost one in every two residents is foreign-born, creating wonderful ethnic mixes in nearly all of its low-lying residential and industrial neighborhoods.
But this cityscape is changing, too. Much like the Martian spaceships from The War of the Worlds in both appearance and annihilating intent, the glass skyscrapers that now dominate Manhattan have in recent years jumped the East River. The first one, a foot Citicorp office building, arrived in Long Island City in Then, in , came the first residential towers, the forty-two-story Citylights residence, followed nine years later by the five apartment buildings of the East Coast LIC complex. By , the land rush was on. Its immense glass skyscrapers are overwhelming. From some angles, they look like battling Transformers; from other perspectives, they seem, aptly enough, more like the smokestacks of an impossibly large steamship, about to shove off from the rest of the city altogether.
The projected figures are numbing, almost too big to digest. The ninety-two-story tower at 30 Hudson will, the developers say, boast the first open-air observation deck in New York higher than that on the Empire State Building. Most of them are gone or going now, after decades in the same visibly slouching, century-old apartment house where I live.
In the apartment below ours, from the day I moved in back in with three friends from college, was Mercedes, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, with her extended family of three generations. When her mother, Anna, a sunny, religious, and unfailingly kind woman, began to decline with the years, Mercedes tended to her devotedly at home, bringing a hospital bed into their living room. After all those years, they were just gone, almost overnight. Across the hall from me was Raymond, a self-destructive but amiable drunk who fell completely apart when his mother died.
He could not keep up the rent, or himself, and was finally evicted and then banned from the block after several loud arguments with the super. He came back anyway and lay down in the middle of the street one afternoon—a small Irish-Latino man, in his perpetual baseball cap and scraggly beard, insisting in his gravelly, whiskey-soaked voice that they should just go ahead and run him over.
Artie and James, our constant eyes on the street, who spend much of their time sitting out on the stoop trying to convince me that the Mets are a major-league ball team, waved off the traffic and persuaded him to get up out of the street. Forgiven by the super, Raymond now comes back to sit on the stoop with his old friends, a living ghost haunting the block where he was born.
We have been almost a parody of multiculturalism on our little street. Black and white, Hispanic and Asian; straight, gay, and transgender; families of all kinds—extended, adopted, arranged by convenience or design. I would come home and see the daughters of our Sikh mailman, before they grew up, playing baseball in the halls.
Beneath me I could hear a hive of dinnertime conversations carried on in half a dozen languages, smell cooking that came from all over the world, hear someone ringing a gong and repeating a Buddhist chant. It is through all these interactions, multiplied a million times, that a truly great city is made. These stores, like so many others in my neighborhood, have not been replaced.
They are simply. In an informal survey of Broadway, from 93rd Street to rd, I recently counted twenty-four vacant storefronts—many of them very large spaces, enough to account for roughly one third of the street frontage. Nearly all of them have been empty now for months or even years. Almost everything of use has gone. There was Oppenheimer Meats, a butcher shop whose founder had reportedly fled Nazi Germany and, I was told, brought his business down to our neighborhood from Washington Heights sometime in the Forties.
A large, imposing man with a bristling mustache, he would strut behind his counter like a Prussian field marshal, but he hired people of every color from the neighborhood and left them to run the shop when he retired. Out it went. Over on Amsterdam, between 97th and 98th Streets, was a whole row of enterprises: an excellent fish store, a pet shop, a Mexican restaurant named for Frida Kahlo, and a laundromat we used to call the St.
Launder Center, thanks to how part of its name had been torn out of its awning. Then they were all gone, too, without warning. Soon after, I ran into Shirley, doughty little Asian abbess of the St. Launder Center. On the corner of 98th and Broadway is the shell of what was once RCI, an independent appliance store founded in as Radio Clinic. It was one of the oldest surviving businesses on the Upper West Side. The little shop lost its lease in , the business chased off after eighty years in the neighborhood.
Today, more than three years later, its storefront remains empty. Like so many other abandoned spaces along Broadway, its doorway has become a refuge for the homeless and the mentally ill, supposedly purged from our city streets. A couple of blocks up Broadway from RCI was the old Metro Theater, originally the Midtown, an aging art house that dated back to and survived long enough to become one of the oldest cinemas operating in New York.
It had fallen on hard times and was showing pornos when I first moved into the neighborhood. Then it was bought and restored by a repertory-cinema impresario, Dan Talbot, who renamed it the Metro, burnished and restored its elegant Art Deco interior, and started showing old movies and then first- and second-run releases. The Metro was shuttered in Talbot died late last year, just a month before another of his marvelous reclamations, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, an Upper West Side institution and still extremely popular, was shuttered for who-knows-what real estate fast shuffle.
Already struggling, the Metro was all but enveloped by an outsized construction project, the Ariel East and Ariel West, two more multimillion-dollar condo giants built directly across Broadway from each other. Rising to thirty-seven and thirty-one stories respectively, they are related in size and style to nothing else in the neighborhood.
Their existence was enabled by the fact that St. In New York today, survival for any older, underpatronized institution often involves cannibalizing the neighborhood it has pledged to serve. The Metro never reopened. Its gorgeous marquee and purple-and-white terra-cotta tile work depicting the figures of comedy and tragedy had been landmarked, but there was no such protection for the interior. The developers ripped it all out, gutted it too quickly for anyone to object.
Online neighborhood news sites constantly pass on rumors about what the Metro is likely to become, but nothing has materialized. T hese are the choices we are left with now. If a movie theater you can duck into in the middle of the day was one of the small raptures of the modern urban landscape, all around us were the same sorts of existential conveniences. A kosher butcher where you could pick up the lamb shank you realized you forgot just minutes before the family was due for Passover dinner. Decent Chinese food for a Friday night at home in front of the television.
The proprietor proudly displays calendar photos of erupting volcanoes from his native Ecuador in his shopwindows alongside pictures of his grandchildren at their confirmations. His grandson used to store his toys and coloring books in the boxes under the unused shoeshine chairs. When you walk in, there is always the sound of classical music on the radio, and the smell of something very elemental and raw, leather and polish, the scent of a real place serving a real purpose.
It is almost the only store around that sells anything of use anymore. There are a few small hardware shops left still, some dry cleaners, a large grocery store, and a couple of bodegas. Everywhere, that which is universal and uniform prevails. Chain stores, of a type once unknown in New York, now abound. The coming growth industry seems to be in urgent care facilities, of which there are already two, to serve our ridiculously underinsured population.
This is not an anomaly; the problem is pervasive. There are so many empty shops now that the issue has even begun to slip out from under the official doctrine that the city has never been better than it is now. Last June, the office of Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer found vacant storefronts along Broadway from Battery Park to Inwood—this on a main commercial avenue in an incredibly wealthy city, in the eighth year of an economic expansion.
Saddest of all is the planned demolition of the Essex Street Market. Built to house the myriad Jewish pushcart vendors of the chazzer mark, the legendary outdoor marketplace along Hester Street, it provided them with a safe, sanitary place to peddle their wares, protected from the elements and criminal shakedowns. And so we have come full circle, from a city that tried to help along its poor and embattled strivers to one that would rather keep the land barren until only the very richest are available.
T he great threat to the New York of the Sixties and Seventies—and many other cities in the Northeast and Midwest—was considered to be the flood of largely unskilled, uneducated African Americans from the South and Hispanics from the islands. Now there are no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant? This sentiment was articulated, over and over again, by many of the would-be gentrifiers. In the success story that New York is considered today, the situation is just as perverse: the rents are driving people and commerce away, but some of the tallest residential towers ever built sit all but empty.
The cause is once again a flood of outsiders, though this time they are not poor but among the richest people in the world. They have already proved themselves more destructive to the health of the city than the least-skilled poor, and their depredations will do incalculably more damage to New York over the decades and even the centuries ahead. In the brutally Darwinian world of the poor, they usually got jobs, started families, became useful and productive citizens, or failed and were pushed back out of New York—back home or to another place—or ended up incarcerated or even dead.
New York has always attracted the wealthy and predatory, dating back at least to our most famous pirate, Captain Kidd. Coming here was seen as a sort of arrival, for individuals and businesses alike. Their owners lined Fifth Avenue with their fairy-tale mansions—some of them later converted into museums or elegant stores—or filled luxury apartment houses such as the Dakota. They hired the most renowned architects to erect gigantic advertisements for their transformative, world-conquering enterprises, including many of the most memorable structures ever built in the city: Grand Central Terminal; the Chrysler, Woolworth, Empire State, and Seagram buildings, among others.
Noxious as the old robber barons could be, they at least dropped vast amounts of money into the local economy in the form of property taxes and purchases in elite shops. They employed people in droves—small armies of domestics, vendors, and workers at all levels—to service their needs and businesses. They contributed to the city through their building and philanthropy—Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Morgan Library, and the Frick Collection, to name just a few examples.
The new rich infesting the city, by contrast, are barely here. They keep a low profile, often for good reason, and rarely stick around. They manufacture nothing and run nothing, for the most part, but live off fortunes either made by or purloined from other people—sometimes from entire nations. The New Yorker noted in that there is now a huge swath of Midtown Manhattan, from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, from 49th Street to 70th Street, where almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year. New York today is not at home. Well on their way to being built: 53 West 53rd Street 1, feet , West 57th Street 1, feet , and West 57th Street 1, feet.
Finished or not, many of the apartments were—at first—snapped up as soon as they went on the market. Nor are the records these sales set likely to remain for long. These would be the largest home sales ever recorded anywhere in the United States. Who spends this sort of money for an apartment? The buyers are listed as hedge fund managers, foreign and domestic; Russian oligarchs; Chinese apparel and airline magnates.
Or, to use a more urgent analogy, these areas are now the dead zones of New York, much like the growing oxygen-depleted dead zones of our oceans and lakes, polluted with pesticide runoff and deadly algae blooms. A steamship company office, where my wife and I once booked a trip to Europe. Countless little restaurants, churches, coffee shops, art-supply stores, studios, and galleries.
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High culture and little hideaways, together they made up a stretch of Manhattan at its most alluring, a boulevard that was at one and the same time touristy and tony, a place to browse and to slip inside, both European and unmistakably New York. Now the Steinway showroom has been banished to 43rd and 6th. The Coliseum was chased away and died. Super tall, they are also super skinny, like 1,foot embodiments of the rich themselves.
Together, these buildings perch over Central Park like a row of gigantic predatory birds. There are now so many of the supertalls gathered so closely together that they threaten to leave the lower sections of Central Park, the only true architectural marvel to be seen here, in shadow for much of the year.
One simulation found that the shadows of the highest towers may knife a mile into the park on the winter solstice. When the journalist Warren St. But this seems to be the calculation on which New York now operates. E ven for those who can afford the new New York, it is unclear how much they actually like it or maintain any ability to shape it to their tastes. What is the point, after all, of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else? At the same time, its favorite nooks and crannies are being annihilated, even the more upscale ones.
Perhaps because they have done so much to annihilate the New York around them, every luxury of the new buildings is designed to pull its residents inward, away from the rest of us—the very antithesis of urban life. This is another way in which the rich and their real estate brokers have made essential changes to the nature of New York.
The Palm Oil Fiefdom
Want a drink or a meal, a swim or a game of pool at the end of the day, a yoga class or a good book? Something to do with the kids? The emphasis on privacy is constantly stressed. It comes from nothing and nowhere, just an extension of an empty, overpriced receptacle, and it means every bit as much to the people and the city that it lords itself over.
This is a fifteen-story collection of connected staircases, which thousands of visitors can climb at the same time, continually passing one another. Not even its developer is able to take it seriously. It must be admitted that in the new city, the values of our public authorities seem just as misplaced. Those three new stations of the Second Avenue subway that New York finally managed to produce last year, after nearly a century of effort, are devoid of anything connecting them to the city that has awaited them for so long. What actually happened was that the design of the new subway stations was outsourced to assorted stars of the modern art world, most of whom not one New Yorker in ten thousand would likely recognize by name or achievement.
The artists are depicting themselves and their celebrity friends imitating us, waiting for a train and doing all the perfectly ordinary things that we ordinary people do! It is one thing to replace some of the more offensive monuments and messages from the past, quite another to simply blank out everything with the generic and the tragically hip. Our buildings and our public art today are not a corrective but the easy disengagement of the developer. The void in our art reflects the sensory deprivation of our neighborhoods, where the complex and varied city has also been wiped out.
The things we have lost will never be found again, and the new things we have received are literally empty and spiritually devoid of meaning. What are we going to do about a New York that is, right now, being plundered not only of its treasure but also of its heart, and soul, and purpose? Bill de Blasio, our current mayor and previously an obscure local politician, was first elected in , running against Republican Joe Lhota, a longtime state and city bureaucrat under the old regime and its ethos of development first, now, and always.
Lhota ran a scorched-earth campaign, warning New Yorkers in commercial after commercial that a vote for some fuzzy liberal like De Blasio meant regression, meant going back to the bad old days of runaway crime, bankruptcy, and disorder. When all the votes were counted, Lhota had lost by nearly 50 points. Crucial as this sort of work is, it only stanched the bleeding. The remaining 80, new units of affordable housing would start to materialize with De Blasio rezoning fifteen neighborhoods for higher-density habitation.
This approach, as well, did absolutely nothing to contain rents. Worse still was the other tool that De Blasio would use to coax the developers into building in these newly rezoned hot spots: article a of the property tax code. This has been the leading means by which New York has built new housing since , when the federal government largely dropped out of the business.
The developers are taxed only at what the property—often a vacant lot—was valued at to begin with, excluding all the value their new building adds to the property. No one could ever accuse this provision of discouraging new building. It is, in other words, mass gentrification locked in for many years to come, while the city is further starved of tax dollars needed to maintain and improve its public services.
The a tax break is an anachronistic tool left over from the Seventies, when both landlords and the middle class were abandoning the city in droves. Nothing could be further from the case today, and the recent evidence is abundant that continuing to use it is a counterproductive strategy, one that is subsidizing the wealthy while diminishing the amount of affordable housing available. Not so coincidentally, as Greenberg reports, landlords have redoubled their efforts—often illegal—to bribe or intimidate their less affluent tenants into moving out.
Some of the more egregious examples he cites are in Brooklyn: landlords cutting off heat and hot water, inviting belligerent homeless men to defecate and hold drug parties in the halls, not fixing collapsing walls and ceilings, nailing up plywood over doors, locking tenants out and getting them arrested, and, in one instance, even bearing false witness to get a tenant committed, temporarily, to a psych ward.
I n my part of the forest, thank goodness, the process is a little more civilized, a sort of soft, running eviction. The large rental company that now owns every building on my side of the block and much of the next block as well brought in crews of what obviously seemed to be undocumented workers to repoint the brickwork, and thus drive up the rent for all of us by a couple of hundred dollars each month. Working out on precarious scaffolding in winter weather, these men were forbidden to talk to us, even when we tried to offer them water.