Times Square looking south

A Foggy Nite in New York Town...

By Carter B. Horsley

This is a book about New York, which despite its infamous litany of woes has been the world's most important city in the Twentieth Century and therefore offers significant clues for the enhancement and survival of other cities. In the last quarter century of this "millennium" New York City has approached the status of "endangered species" more than once and while it currently is enjoying an exuberant renaissance it is still, like most cities in the world, in crisis.

It is in dire competition with its suburbs and in increasingly severe competition with other cities, but to a great extent its greatest enemy is itself.

What is at stake is civilization, for, make no mistake about it, suburbs, however attractive they might be, are, at best, serene retreats from, but never substitutes for, the civilized stimulation of a city. Most other cities, no matter how attractive and secure they might believe themselves to be, are deluding themselves if they think they can escape the problems that New York has been grappling with for decades.

New York's glories _ its glittering skyline, its huddled masses, its vibrant marketplaces and cultural centers, its intense and awesome presence and its humanity _ have largely defined the potential of the modern city. But those glories and assets have been eclipsed in recent years not only by the traditional urban concerns over crime, drugs, inadequate housing and aging infrastructure, but also by the advances of technology, changing lifestyles and dramatically shifting national and global economies.

The baton of civic leadership, of course, has passed many times in history. Romantic notions of destiny or divine providence aside, the world is littered with great metropolises that have died or faded away. But the world at long last is also slowly beginning to confront the challenge that the environment cannot afford such frivolous disposability. Unfortunately, too many environmentalists neglect or ignore the elemental fact that cities benefit the environment far more than suburban and rural sprawl.

Can we afford to lose our cities? Of course not from the viewpoint of conserving limited resources, but also, and more importantly, because a city is the animated and enchanted place of civilization, where social, humanitarian, intellectual, cultural and recreational endeavors can flourish _ the most active arena of human aspirations and ambitions, the cauldron and cradle of character. As John Ruskin observes at the very end of his "The Seven Lamps of Architecture," "The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar."

No matter how wondrously embellished, a city must be more than just callous concrete. It must be the efficient catalyst that energizes, enriches and challenges its citizens to strive to achieve their individual dreams. Its accumulated capital must accommodate care to the greatest extent possible and its whole must be greater than its parts, a vision that is conveniently eluded by most community activists however well-intentioned.

United  Nations

The United Nations

At its best, a city can generate an esprit de corps that is hard to quantify but easy to identify when it occurs. It often happens during summer evening concerts in large amphitheaters or park meadows or waterfront marinas, or at festive parades, or sports arenas, or concert halls, or curbside performances - those delightful moments when a surge of humanity and common experience overcome common complaints, when pride in the social aspects of human nature is manifest.

The city is justified and rarefied by its confrontations and commerce, whether they be sublime, or scary, or surreal.

Of course, a city at its worst is the stuff of nightmares.

While no one would condone the riotous looting and wild destruction of neighborhoods such as were sparked by the Rodney King-videotaped-beating-acquittal verdict in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992, the indelible images of the rampage raised once again the very curious question of why most of the damage was confined to poor neighborhoods.

Certainly, the animus was not contempt for the visual blight of many areas of such communities. The incredibly outrageous, racially-motivated acquittal justifiably and inevitably sparked some world-wide outrage and stirred up very deep emotional frustrations about poverty and racism and the social structure of the United States.

Why such anger in this instance and countless other previous outbreaks was not primarily vented against the bastions of wealth and status rather than the meager and humble trappings of the underclasses is puzzling. The answers probably lie in lazy convenience and lack of organized leadership. Such protests as occurred only make survival in such communities much more miserable.

It could be argued, also, that by burning down their own neighborhoods, the protesters were also futilely hurting basically only themselves, apart from slightly disrupting the normal routines of the franchised secure. Perhaps their message might have been more powerful and fearful had they demolished large parts of Beverly Hills. Of course, such actions would be tantamount to revolution at least in the eyes of most American observers. It was, of course, the unspoken, uncommented-upon threat that riveted the attention of the entire country and the world.

In the perverse nature of things and events, the acquittal may ultimately have its beneficial aspects if the ensuing and attending pain brings into sharper focus the terrible conditions and environment in which far too much of the population must live.

The acquittal unequivocally touched many raw nerves. Hopefully, it will make more people sensitive to the ugliness of too much of the man-made world apart from the more obvious dilemmas of violence and justice and fairness.

As Rodney King declared, in a public plea to an end to the rioting and violence, "We are all stuck here for a while."

A demeaning environment is just as dreadful as a shouted insult, a casual slur, an unconscious oversight. Neglect cannot be benign. When the in-your-face reality is offensive, ominous and overt, defensive pie-in-the-sky dreams become hard-edged and monochromatic and lose their dignity.

The physical city must be exciting and enticing, a non-stop special event. It must not be the ugly blight that now routinely prevails. That ugliness is by no means confined to devastated slums but also pervades much of the urban fabric, a horrific commentary on and indictment of the aesthetic undereducation of the nation. Life without beauty ain't human life. When we become inured to blight we lose an important part of our humanity.

The gigantic exodus from New York has often been attributed to the very tangible and quantifiable competition of cheaper housing and offices, better education, less crime, better climate and the like. Less attention is given to the more important intangible value of urbanity, of which the glory of a spectacular man-made environment outweighs other considerations. Yes, some 5-or-more-acre estates in Mill Neck, L.I., or 10- or-more-acre estates in Far Hills, N.J., are very attractive, but they are not in any way comparable to the majesty of a great city. In the best-of-all-worlds, of course, both the glamorous city and the divine estate could be tolerated if all else were removed, but this is not the best-of-all-worlds.

Sadly, it is incumbent upon cities, or at least New York, to declare war on its bloodsucking suburbs. Lipservice to brotherly regionalism has been a perfect delaying ploy for the suburbs to rape the city. Of course, the horse has already left the barn and the suburbs now have such sufficient clout as to believe themselves virtually independent of the city (and they have enough sophistication not to admit it). In reality, the suburbs have already almost won this war even if, in the process, they have garnered some traditional urban problems of traffic, infrastructure and crime and a sprinkling of the underclasses.

To capture the historic hurly-burly, the raucous razzle-dazzle, the insistent tick-tock of the urban march upon interminable boulevards of miracles, cities must now create new distinctive dreams and new public gateways to the unconventional world of tomorrow. They must have the effrontery to scoff at the private conventions of their egregious rivals, the suburbs. If they are ungainly and unkempt, they still must strive for stately pinnacles of generational legacy. Their heritage is heresy. They must resolutely roar their Philistine challenge: Progress! Mark your mark! Scream! Sigh! Despise vulgarity, but be not inured to the precious slush of humanity. The welcome mat of the city - society's front porch - is more comforting than the wary backyards of the hinterlands.

The suburbs may not be wastelands even if they have been defiled by their own growth, but the city remains the best place to get bargains and to see it all because of the high traffic counts of pedestrians, the concentration of competitors and because there is still so much accumulated wealth to fuel those economies. Go to a major regional shopping mall in the suburbs and then come back to Manhattan and walk through F.A.O. Schwartz, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bendel's, and J & R's music and computer stores. The city is the cornucopia compared to the crumbs of suburbia still.

The origins of many cities were walled fortifications in which the fortunate huddled against the world outside. Castle visions of grandeur and monumentality aside, a city, however loosely defined, was a place for refuge and hopefully survival. In time, the citadel also become a shrine and a temple and ultimately its forms took on many kinds of legibility, relevance, notoriety, all augmenting its pre-eminence and power. Its concentration generated momentum that made critiques almost seem superfluous.

In modern and very recent times, however, traditional concepts of the city have been battered inexorably and planning demoralized.

It has often been noted by urban advocates that a city's greatest strength lies in its ability to bring people together. Now matter how sophisticated technology might become, they argue, a city's meeting places provide an indispensable and very important function that cannot be easily quantified or replicated outside of the city.

It is a mistake to underestimate the value of a city's ability to create environments conducive to efficient and often unexpected enterprise. A good analogy is music. With modern technology, studio, and even home, recordings far surpass live performances, yet few aficionados would forswear concerts despite their often poor acoustics, unpredictable performances and less than perfect audiences. What makes the live performance special is not only the chance that it might surpass one that is recorded, but also the opportunity to mix with other aficionados. At the very least, the communal sharing of a special event is an important aspect of the human experience. But a gathering of people with similar interests affords superb opportunities to teach and learn. It is this exchange and synergism that help make cities so special.

If some suburban havens no longer are sacrosanct from the tarnish of their core cities, the cities are not the automatic beneficiaries. The relatively rapid ups-and-downs of the Rust and Oil Belts were only harbingers of the quickening pace of social change, most dramatically witnessed by the recent collapse of the Communist empire.

While it is easy to conjure entirely new communities and new towns, the nation's limited experiments with such developments and its debilitated economy, which includes a tremendous amount of overbuilding in both cities and suburbs, mitigate against such major initiatives significantly altering national development patterns in the near future.

Furthermore, large-scale real estate development takes a long time and while many citizens psychologically might be prepared for and have the faith for gigantic leaps of living, in reality many cannot afford such sudden shifts because of a variety of economic and emotional reasons.

Notwithstanding such caveats and obstacles, the bottom line is that a remarkable and respectable quantum mass of development has been wrought already, enough to provide a welcome pause and the potential for planning to have some impact. If some developers and lenders and investors got caught in down markets, nevertheless their communities gained, generally speaking, from their efforts.

An oversupply of office space and residential space is not a liability but an asset. It is already in place and in the long run at a cheaper cost than future development. The hapless developers and their lenders devastated by the vagaries of the economy and real estate markets knew full well their risks, which also carried enormous potential rewards. They need no sympathy and no bailout.

By that same token, the lowering of interest rates in the early 1990's might well prove to be a bigger bailout of incompetent commercial banks than the much more derided savings and loan bailout of the few previous years. The rich do not need to be subsidized and must play by the same rules as the not-so-privileged. Traditional backroom politics cannot be tolerated.

Perhaps the ultimate purpose of cities will be as transitional sites in which people incubate, or later percolate, until ready to set out on other adventures and to which they return occasionally to re-energize themselves. But before one speculates too much on the future transformation of cities, one must examine and understand their present condition.

Despite depictions of some new "edge-city" developments in suburban areas as pristine, self-contained, self-sufficient and selfish communities, the real world at the end of the Twentieth Century is a mixed bag of contradictions and much complexity.

Not all cities are becoming obsolete. Many cities are dying, but others have and are being refreshingly renewed.

Terrible slums remain, bleak and dark, and yet blight occasionally begets incredibly surges and opportunities of regenerative energy, and just when hope is about to be abandoned we stumble upon remarkable occurrences that dumbfound our preconceptions of what is possible. Who would have thought New Yorkers would ever curb their dogs and clean up after them, for example?

In the doom and gloom of the current recession it is easy to focus on "see-through" buildings and "white elephants." Writers wax dramatically, if not poetically, about overbuilt cities, saturated suburbs and citizens oblivious to the insults of dirt and anonymous structures and the pitiable plight of the underclasses and homeless. Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas merged into messy megalopises. In 1961, Lewis Mumford wrote, in "The City in History," "Will the city disappear, or will the whole planet turn into a vast urban hive? which would be another mode of disappearance."

Such dark visions, however, fail to note the fantastic transformation of the United States in the last quarter-century or so. Not only has the country more than doubled its inventory of office space in that time and shifted the bulk of new development from the inner cities to the suburbs, but it has also greatly stirred up the pot of power from a handful of great urban centers to a spicy banquet of regional bouquets spread across the land.

Whereas in the 1960's there were only a handful of major cities in the United States, by the 1990's there were several dozen. Skylines have multiplied and proliferated. To a large extent, the new skylines share a common corporate image, albeit with quite a few dashes of Post-Modern flourishes thrown in. But if new architectural masterpieces are few and far between, and they are, there has been an undeniable upgrade in the overall quality of most projects.

The historic preservation and environmental movements have imported an important notion of context and sensitivity to the development community even if their excesses and abuses have also killed, aborted or seriously maimed many worthwhile projects.

But the bottom line is that a remarkable and respectable quantum mass of development has been wrought. If some investors have been hard hit in down markets, nevertheless their communities gained, generally speaking, from their efforts.

If the "location, location, location" cliché has been bruised, so too has the notion of historical cycles. Both might still be valid, occasionally, but big changes are, and have been, afoot. Not only has the fax insisted itself into daily business lives, but the impact of cable and fiber-optic and computer systems is only a specter now of momentous lifestyle changes to come and to come quite quickly.

Emotional and simplistic attempts to suppose the rightness of historicity _ the notion that there are cycles in human history of upheaval and calm, nadirs and apexes of achievement and good and evil _ are anecdotal and of little, if any, value in understanding and coping with the nature of contemporary cities.

The "American Dream" has been disintegrating for quite some time. We might mourn the passing of aspirations that our children will grow up to live better than we have, but a remarkable number of children have, in fact, done so. The "starter" house may not be as picturesque and large as in past generations, but it is more likely to be filled with wonderful conveniences, doodads and gadgets that free up time and open new, personal vistas.

We want to think about things, including large things like cities, in abstract, window-dressing ways. In the increasingly feel-good, logo-loco frenzy of a jumbo whopper world, we are too often preoccupied with style and not substance and cajole ourselves into adopting accessibility as the basic educational tool rather than rote-memory fact cells. That is to say, we are fascinated with facade beauty and its categorization into fashions and trends.

The beauty bias is perhaps the most deep-rooted and pernicious of all prejudices. It is incredible how few areas of major cities are not grossly infected with the disease of ugliness. In Manhattan there are only a few blocks, let alone whole streets or avenues, that are without serious blemish. In contrast, many rural and some suburban areas uphold a high level of consistent, if not bountiful, attractiveness.

The blight of ugliness is perhaps the most underappreciated problem cities face.

Multiculturalism, of course, has become one of the more popular buzzwords. Its pluralistic approach to values, however, can be too conveniently tolerant of the status quo. It can also often create odd juxtapositions and surprising reevaluations exemplified by the rare detached, single-family house in the midst of urban slums or the rare skyscraper in the suburbs.

Traditional images of the separation of city and suburb have often been more mythic than mature or manageable, though there can be little question that the lines of distinction are growing ever more blurred, not only between city and suburbs, but also between regions and their cities.

Fortunately, not all areas are homogeneous yet, and certainly one of the great lessons to be learned from the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) decade of anti-growth popular sentiment in the 1980's is that the principle of neighborhood/community identity is powerful and emotional.

The other side of the NIMBY phenomenon, one hastens to add, is that slavish adherence to the principle of context is not always justified and can be deleterious to a region's welfare. Old-fashioned ostrichism may be cozy, but it also gives the other animals of the world-wide development community plenty of advantages in an ever-competing environment.

While the United States certainly has plenty of design talent, both young and old, it has definitely not been the international leader in forging new, exciting and innovative building projects. For more than a decade, Japan has been in the vanguard of esoteric design, followed more recently by a brazen, but elegant band of Frenchmen.

Strangely, the NIMBY movement that has so successfully blocked, thwarted and hindered many projects in the cities has been often very hypocritical about the environment. Sound planning dictates that sprawl and spread inflict far greater damage to the environment than clustered development.

It's time for leadership to set priorities straight for a national renewal.

America needs to be proud of its astonishing, pioneering entrepreneurism and it must maintain and preserve its finest achievements and assets while also seeking ever higher quality in new ones.

Planning has never been very popular, too often caving in to the rush of political expediency and the yen for instant gratification.

One could easily draw up a "bill of rights" for development that promotes legitimate historic preservation, proper care of the environment and efficient and elegant use of property and the fair sharing of Locally Undesirable Land Uses (LULUs).

Such an agenda might include a national building code, enterprise zones, tax incentives, public works, expedited legal resolutions, quick judicial review of what constitutes a "taking" and the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of a lot of zoning.

At the very least, however, there needs to be a national concern that the United States should strive to be the great showcase of how good life can be.

The Federal Government should take responsibility for all environmental impact studies. It is best equipped to create and update complex studies that are too expensive for smaller governmental entities and the private sector to undertake. Similarly, the Federal Government must set national standards in education and housing. Does the country really need 16,000 boards of education and thousands of slightly different building codes?

At some point _ now _ the indulgence of local autonomy and home rule must give in to the economic necessities of a new federalism. There is a difference between Big Government and too much government. Before such changes can be contemplated, there needs to be strenuous national debate nurtured by a responsible and demanding press.

Crime, drugs, education, housing and sports and entertainment trivia dominate the headlines and serious architectural criticism is exceeding rare in the non-trade media. To imply that the physical environment shapes our lives is too naive, especially when that environment is increasingly electronic and potentially "virtual" rather than real reality. Yet to ignore it altogether is not only irresponsible and frivolous, but also dangerous for it minimizes the important psychology of place, which is one of the strongest emotions. Attitude and motivation can often overcome inefficiency and even incompetence. Positive and negative feelings towards cities are very real, even if hard to measure.

A magnificent physical environment is no guarantee against the wages of drugs and poverty and crime and the like. Indeed, an argument could effectively be waged that small pockets of splendor might exacerbate urban problems because of their stark contrast with the "reality" of the rest of the city. Such logic, of course, is inane.

Since the 60's, beauty has been a bugaboo. Reverse psychology, open admissions and the like reared their empty heads and were declared "in" and anything that smacked of tradition "out." But sometimes beautification, even by committee, is an improvement.

It has become popular in recent years to deride the architectural merits of most, if not all, major urban renewal projects of the 1950's and 1960's. The West Side Urban Renewal Project along Columbus Avenue in the 80's and 90's of the Upper West Side in Manhattan is a classic case. It replaced hundreds of run-down average tenement buildings with high-rise apartment towers along the avenue. The towers, which are different in large part because the project took about two decades to complete, are certainly not distinguished. But they were no worse than the average so-called luxury apartment towers being built elsewhere in the city and several were above average.

Moreover, they created a more imposing, boulevard ambience to a former slum and in retrospect are not much worse than those created two decades later along Third Avenue in the 60's and 70's.

One cannot discuss ugliness in the city without addressing the appalling problem of graffiti. Interestingly, if this pernicious phenomenon were only perpetrated against the bastions of the rich, it might be a somewhat legitimate, if outrageous, stupid and deplorable, protest against the inequities of life. But graffiti grips the slums to an even greater extent that well-to-do neighborhoods, residential or commercial.

Although pathetic arguments that graffiti has legitimate artistic merit persist in some circles, censorship is not the issue so much as the preservation of public assets and all buildings, regardless of legal ownership, are public in so far as they impinge upon the visual environment.

When graffiti is applied to eyesores they can, in fact, add colorful, even appealing flourishes while also protesting against the insult of many existing structures to our visual environment.

But when it mars the few splendid monuments that survive, graffiti is not ennobling, but ignominious. Perhaps an isolated instance can be a provocative reminder of outrage at social injustices, but the blanket and bland nature of graffiti robs from all segments of society and cannot be condoned.

In recent years, many community groups have campaigned vigorously against the demolition of many slums, arguing that "slums" are pejorative and that they are viable neighborhoods. This grassroots, "participatory," humane approach to urban planning is, of course, well intended, but absurd when it is carried to the extreme which, unfortunately, it usually has been over the past two decades.

The politics of participatory planning are an undeniable given now. After decades of having been shunted aside, ignored, forgotten, abused and angered, community activists are a very prominent fact of life in the development process. And, indeed, their presence is long overdue in the process. Certainly, no intelligent developers or architects would proceed today with any major project without knowing that they must deal with the community and that community input is often very valuable because of its greater familiarity and experience with the workings of the specific neighborhood.

Sadly, many self-appointed civic activists have agendas of their own that sometimes far exceed the project's parameters. They may want a new park a few blocks away from the site or a day-care center or the like. Many community activists have shopping lists of desired benefits that they want to wring from a developer regardless of what his legal requirements might be.

And some even blatantly lose all sight of perspective, and sometimes facts and truth, when they self-righteously decide it's time to make a point to redress their past grievances. Two recent examples in Manhattan - the City & Suburban Homes and the "Too-Tall" Building controversies - well illustrate such outlandishness and will be discussed at length further on.

Two basic premises of this book are that quality is recognizable and that aesthetics matter greatly in our lives. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, it is folly to try to impose one set of cultural rules. But it is worse yet to assume there can be no rules or that everything new is more valuable than anything old. The city must accommodate old and new. Flea markets and peddlers can be fun and lively and wholesome, but they do not have to be on Fifth or Madison Avenues or the like.

To a great and sad extent, we are living in the ruins of cities. With the exception of such historical holdouts such as Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans and sections of cities like Georgetown in Washington and Society Hill in Philadelphia, the urban horizon is terribly marred by dreck.

The few handsome enclaves that remain are relatively small and therein lies a major planning moral: cities are for pedestrian activities. How far you enjoy walking is a very good measure of big a business district should be. The walking experience, of course, can be made more pleasurable through sensitive planning and development, but on the small scale of blocks, not boroughs. There is no magic number for how many blocks constitute a viable district of any type, nor for the size and shape of the blocks. A grid layout offers simplicity and convenience. A hodgepodge of diagonals and circles and irregular blocks offers charm, intrigue and surprise as well as opportunities for special "gateways," cul-de-sacs and the like.

Jean-Paul Sartre loved midtown Manhattan for its grid that always permitted a glimpse of infinity, but the confusion of the West Village and the hurly-burly of Lower Manhattan's streetscape offer ample rewards and discoveries. Many different plans are valid. What is important is that there be connective tissue between them and not voids created by leapfrog development.

What is needed is an urban application of what is known in computer graphics as dithering, the adjacency of different colors to produce another color not found in the regular palette. There are those who might view such visual deceptions as half-empty rather than half-full, but the aim is to produce an image that is both fuller and richer.

While some might argue that a good building can uplift a block, it conceivably could also downgrade it by making more apparent the bad qualities of the other buildings in stark comparison. A bad building can vitiate a block of good buildings. Sometimes tricks with mirrors and lighting can outshine and blur imperfections, but more often plastic surgery is required. Architecture is much more than appearance, but appearance cannot be overemphasized.

Cities thrive on diversity just as suburbs thrive on homogeneity, but a simplistic emphasis on either is wrong. Utopian approaches to planning are not without value in analyzing how far short existing human enclaves fall from the ideal and in establishing the rare, isolated and small "new town."

But human communities are organic and temporal. They evolve and change and how well they adapt to their environments is not an academic exercise in style but a study in the substance of accidental history: strong leaders emerge and stumble; good plans run out of money and are abandoned; technologies advance and economies wander.

No discussion of how to make better cities can deal only with bricks and mortar. Racism, crime, education, the affordability of housing, the availability of jobs and the problems of drugs and the homeless and the unemployed are very real concerns that greatly influence the viability of a city. But if these problems did not exist we would still be faced with the fundamental question of whether it is a place one wants to be. The ultimate issue is the quality of the visual and physical environment.

While subjective opinions permit a wide range of stylistic preferences, the substance of architecture and planning is not terribly arcane or abstruse. Composition, palette, texture, technique, innovation, rarity, functionality and materials are readily discernible elements susceptible to widespread, commonsense evaluation and agreement.

Most artists, architects and planners will usually have little difficulty in judging a project's quality, although it often seems that many developers and much of the public have great difficulty in this area, a sad reflection of the country's sorry state of education and pervasive drabness.

So, for a city to be viable it must have a good grip on management of the traditional social woes and it must run relatively smoothly: its infrastructure of transit, sewage and power must be sufficient to run well and accommodate some growth and a lot of wear and tear.

But it must also have a legitimacy, some reason for it to exist. Historically, this reason was often geographic _ a city often arose at an important crossroads, or commanded a great harbor, or was a major transportation hub. But as trains, cars and planes as well as telephones, video, faxes and fiber optics have altered many basic human needs and perceptions, geography is no longer as important.

Some have equated what I would term "legitimacy" with "ambiance," but they are not the same. Ambiance, architecturally speaking, implies a well-knit sense of having been looking after, addressed and attended, much like a lawn. Unattended, it sprouts weeds and quickly grows wild. Some care results in a manicured lawn and careful planning, and considerable investment, can result in poetic landscapes and formal gardens.

The new crop of "major" American cities have been defined by new airports, often serving as important hubs for individual airlines, new convention centers, new sports arenas, a new cultural center and a sprinkling of first-class hotel chains and first-class office buildings, including at least a couple of skyscrapers to form a skyline.

While the new cities suffered from a homogeneity of architectural style, fortunately a cut above the fairly nondescript International Style derivations of the 1950's, they offer a pre-grime ambiance of fresh cleanliness much like a child after a trip to the barber. Name architects began to be sought out by big developers like Gerald Hines and the onslaught of many major Canadian developers like Olympia & York and Cadillac Fairview and Oxford Properties brought a Park Avenue corporate sheen to many hitherto urban backwaters.

New York, not surprisingly, has not been in the vanguard of design. It is the design center of the country in terms of architectural and decorative talent, but its bureaucratic and regulatory ways and restrictive zoning have stifled important experimentation in building design. Curiously, however, many of the major new buildings that did sprout in New York were substantial improvements over the routine, speculative corporate structure in the city in the post-World-War-II era.

Meanwhile, however, Boston's Faneuil Hall/Quincy Marketplace led in festival retailing. Dallas illuminated its skyline at night with geometric patterns. Tampa, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth demonstrated that airports could be fun and convenient. Minneapolis and Houston introduced skywalks to soften the vicissitudes of climate. New Orleans gave us the Superdome. Chicago gave us mixed-use towers. Seattle had its monorail. Portland had great kiosks and bus shelters.

New York, of course, experimented with special zoning districts and tax incentives and did gain some architecturally important buildings such as Citicorp Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art and Battery Park City. But increasingly innovative design was to be found elsewhere and beginning with the ill-fated Westway project to redevelop its Hudson River shoreline it lost its vision and leadership in forging dynamic new urban enclaves. Mired with horrendous financing problems to address its overwhelming problems of coping with welfare, low-income housing and infrastructure, it teetered on bankruptcy in the 1970's only to spring back to cosmopolitan glory in the 1980's with a massive infusion of foreign funds and interests.

But the end of the 1980's, however, it fell victim to a multitude of ails: tremendous competition from its surrounding suburbs; declining revenues and rising expenditures; and the erosion of its prolonged prominence as the most exciting center in the world. Technology made the advantages of concentrated location less significant. High costs of business and bureaucracy made it difficult to justify expansion or even continued levels of operation. Its sheer mass made management exasperatingly ungainly in comparison with other, smaller and newer venues.

To a certain extent, ambiance is very much related to obsolescence. In prodigious numbers, Americans have voted in recent decades with their feet and savings for newer cities and against older "relics."

An example of a newer city is Charlotte, N.C., where a small downtown now boasts several large skyscrapers just a few minutes away from the area's top residential neighborhoods. Everything seems brand new and, better yet, everything is manageable because there is not much of it, but enough to work economically and politically.

Cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Cleveland and Minneapolis seem to the right size, between 350,000 and 550,000 population, that combines sufficient mass to justify and support strong cultural, athletic and corporate endeavors while still being manageable politically. In contrast the ideal Greek city/state had about 5,000 to 20,000 citizens and 75,000 to 225,000 slaves, perhaps a maximum total of 250,000 people.

There is no magic number for population and a lot depends on how and where it is housed. In Manhattan's major residential areas, the typical block with tall buildings on the avenues and low-rises in the middle generally has about 2,000 residents. That number would rarely produce the appearance of a crowd on the block. Where crowding is most noticeable is on elevators and subway stairs and platforms. The city's population is several hundred thousand people below its historic peak. Of course, demographics have changed greatly over the decades and many large families have vacated the city for more room in the suburbs. One could argue, albeit not too convincingly, that the smaller remaining households have more habitable room, but such an interpretation must also balance the those household's yearning for more space with the economics of a highly complex and diversified residential real estate market.

The suburbs, of course, are no longer the bucolic, white-picket-fence ideal of the early post-World-War-II era. They've grown phenomenally as great estates have been subdivided ad nauseam and "miracle mile" shopping strips, centers, malls and offices have made the return to the city ever less frequent and necessary. Indeed, the new "edge cities" that are large, planned clusters in suburban areas are proliferating.

The success of Disney World is based to a certain extent on its "squeaky clean" newness coupled with its promotion of fantasy and escape. Its monolithic approach, of course, is too neat for urban purists, but its immense popularity reflects the American culture's predilection for simplicity and antipathy towards subtlety.

A preoccupation with newness is an aversion to the old and the "Top 40" mentality is pervasive in America at the end of the Twentieth Century.

New York City, the subject of this study, represents the "relic," of course.

Young Americans, by and large, are too absorbed with new movies and songs to want to watch old classics or listen to old songs. Indeed, such reticence is understandable if one reflects upon how exponential the growth in such cultures has been. In the 1950's, one could become reasonably well acquainted with the classics of film and popular song by the age of 25 or so. But in the 1990's, the inventories had increased so dramatically that one had to specialize or be resigned to superficiality.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that cable television and computer technologies may make coping with the volcanic cacophony of information somewhat easier and possible.

Technology, however, is not on the side of cities.

Video rentals permit cinema lovers, sickened at the destruction of almost all of the nation's thousands of spectacular movie theaters and their replacement with tiny boxes of absolutely no distinction, to enjoy movies without commercial interruptions. Videos are better than movies because viewers can enjoy their maximum personal comforts during watching as well as replay favorite scenes for their own amusement and education.

Indeed, the future bodes ill for audience-oriented cultural activities.

In the Walkman Era the enjoyment of one's favorite music is not limited to one's home or car or concert hall. With the advent of digital recording techniques and playback machines, music aficionados will generally prefer to listen to music in the comfort of their own homes rather than pay exorbitant fees to attend less than perfect acoustics in a poorly-designed concert hall with an unruly, or at least still coughing, audience. Some, of course, will resist the temptations of vastly improved listening experiences for the ability to gawk and eavesdrop with other people with similar cultural interests, or witness the virtuosity and drama of a live performance.

Similarly, dance and theater performances are more interesting up close and personal and replayable on video rather than near the rafters at the top of the balcony.

One can now begin to envision catalogue raisonnés on all important artists in all cultures becoming available on multimedia computers with reasonably accurate color and sound renditions where applicable.

And one can also hope that virtually every major discipline will have its own dedicated cable channel, opening up unprecedented educational opportunities. In addition to travel, environmental, music, movie, financial, international, national and local news channels, there might be channels for each of the arts, languages, history, sciences, and medical specialties and the like.

The implications are enormous and exciting.

The only people who might need to go to school will be troubled students in need of extensive counseling and tutoring. The social interactions of sports can be left to health clubs or the like. Everything else will be learned with much greater enthusiasm and ease and motivation in the best of all computer worlds.

Clearly such a prospect is daunting and not a little terrifying. High standards have already been set in such series as Sesame Street and Nature. But there is an entrenched establishment that is probably less than enthusiastic about the prospects of the electronic schoolroom.

What will 99.44 percent of all the world's teachers, art dealers, stock and commodity brokers and journalists do in such a brazen new world of authoritative information dissemination? How will dissent and alternative theories _ the bedrock of democracy _ survive?

It is dandy to envision all the world's greatest teachers (however many fit on the proverbial microprocessor pin) spilling forth their choicest bon mots and scribbles and asides and exclamation points on the electronic chalkboards of the future, but it is quite another thing altogether to assume not only that they could be identified but also that they would be willing to do it. Why aren't the nation's best minds running the country? They're mostly scared off by the public exposure process of governmental service, the sacrifice of maximum personal gain, the invasion of their privacy and the preoccupations of re-election. Why aren't the best people running our schools or the best performers on Broadway rather than on international tour? Money, entrenched bureaucracies, individual independence _ there are many reasons.

The finest talent does not inevitably rise to the fore. Motivation, opportunity, distraction all take their tolls and detours. The world is not inexorably driven to perpetual improvement. It stumbles, it falls backward, it lurches forward. But what does happen does matter and people matter most.

The surfeit of choices and avalanche of information and opinion can easily make the unwary inured to daily disasters and disorders. Tabloidism, the art of sensational simplification, has been running rampant in recent years. We all want it straight, that is, quickly, and simple, because our attention spans and our focal lengths are limited. We yearn for the romance of leaders so that we can rest securely. On the one hand, the relentless pursuit of the press has made the job of politics more distasteful. On the other hand, the self-effacing demythologizing of politics by former Mayor Edward Koch (Oops, I made a mistake. Sorry, I'll try not to do that again, to paraphrase liberally) have made the job of politics more permissible.

One of the basics of journalism is to remember to identify who stands to gain and lose from any development.

Working at home will become much more prevalent as the costs of personal computers, faxes, and the like continue to fall. This will lead to more flexible work schedules that will enable parents to spend much more time with their children and greatly reduce traffic congestion.

Many office buildings will be converted to residential uses because of their central location and the economics of not utilizing them despite the relatively high cost of conversion.

The four-day work week will take hold enabling more people to take advantage of meaningful leisure time.

As a result, life will become more enjoyable and to survive cities will have to become attractive to induce people to want to spend more time in them.

That means that the physical city must be exciting and enticing, a non-stop special event, a mecca.

A city's retail environment is a very crucial ingredient in any possible success. The city is the best place to get bargains and to see it all because of the high traffic counts of pedestrians, the concentration of competitors and because there is still so much accumulated wealth to fuel those economies. A city is where people congregate. In past eras, it might have been to worship in Cathedral Cities. In others, it might have been to market in the bazaars, or to spectate in Coliseums or on the Great White Way.

The spectacular opportunities that future technological advances offer surely will outweigh the myriad adjustments they will also bring. It has often been noted by urban advocates that a city's greatest strength lies in its ability to bring people together. No matter how sophisticated technology might become, they argue, a city's meeting places provide an indispensable function that cannot be easily quantified or replicated outside of the city.

It is a mistake to underestimate the value of a city's ability to create environments conducive to efficient and often unexpected enterprise. A good analogy is music. With modern technology, studio recordings far surpass live performances, yet few aficionados would forswear concerts despite their often poor acoustics, unpredictable performances and less than perfect audiences. What makes the live performance special is not only the chance that it might surpass one that is recorded, but also the opportunity to mix with other aficionados.

At the very least, the communal sharing of a special event is an important aspect of the human experience. But a gathering of people with similar interests affords superb opportunities to teach and learn. It is this exchange and synergism that makes cities special.

To a certain extent, the notion of a comfortable campus populated with people of similar concerns is central to the suburban ideal, and, of course, to college towns. But ivory towers, however, really are retreats from the ongoing complexities and realities of a diverse society. While regional shopping centers have become by default the de facto town squares of much of suburbia, they are merely diversions and do not offer a city's smorgasbord of potential encounters. Some, of course, like Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, are well and stylishly done, but most are bland.

That blandness, of course, is not naive, but the result of careful marketing that has recognized the inescapable fact that most Americans are overwhelmed with self-interest and the need for survival and are not uncomfortable doing without the special virtues and cultural amenities of cities.

Indeed, most Americans are unconsciously mired in the myth of inalienable property rights perhaps best personified by Scarlett O'Hara's passionate clutching of Tara's earth in "Gone With The Wind." And such images are commonly associated with pristine rural and pastoral visions that are simplistically equated with suburbs and an overall distrust of "chaotic" cities in which many people, though far fewer than past decades, are renters and not owners.

The preoccupation with property, of course, does not mean that all Americans prefer to have wooden outhouses or red barns rather than concrete rabbit warrens.

But, to a remarkable extent, it has become a very pervasive romantic prejudice that somehow imbues the city with evil and the suburbs with good for a great many Americans. One need not belabor this notion except to recognize that it contributes significantly to the problems of American cities whose constituency must be widened.

It is because this perception must be countered and overcome, that a city must realize that its face, its facades, count for a great deal. Indeed, in a world where appearance and superficiality are disproportionately valued, architecture, and we include here landscape architecture, parks and tree-lined streets as well, may well be the most underappreciated asset a city has as well as it most durable.

It is ironic that the beautification movement that often is obsessive in the suburbs has fallen out of fashion in the cities.

While palaces take on more meaning when compared with slums, there is little legitimacy to some arguments by some civic leaders that many poor neighborhoods should be preserved and new development in them made impossible because of the importance of maintaining diversity and concern over displacement of longtime residents and the so-called "secondary displacement" caused by "gentrification" when parts of an older and often poor area are redeveloped for higher-income residents and workers.

These concerns, of course, are very important and compelling enough to be always considered and addressed, but blanket prohibitions against new development and rehabilitation are not only inane but suicidal.

In America, there are very few perfect precincts left. The Georgetown and Society Hill districts in Washington and Philadelphia, respectively, the large historic districts in Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, La., are wonderful and important exceptions as are quite a few small New England villages.

Landmarks are very important and should be protected and in New York there are a great many legitimate ones. But the ends do not justify the means and not all landmarks are equal. Unfortunately the prevalent attitude in the city for more than a decade has been that a slum tenement is at least as important as the world's tallest building or most magnificent palace. It is not too preposterous an exaggeration to state that there are indeed many very active civic leaders and writers on the subject in the city whose speeches and writings indicate that they would like to see everything over five stories in the entire city razed.

There is much in favor of low-rise buildings in many areas. But there is also much to be said for the need for a city to offer its citizens grandeur and some monumentality, something special.

The popularity of Post-Modernism and the influence of Robert Venturi's book, entitled "Learning From Las Vegas," among many architects and planners is startling. The former is an easy and conservative rip-off and unimaginative. The latter is humpty-dumptyism of the highest order in which the dreck of American lowbrow suburban values of strip shopping centers is elevated as the highest and finest expression of pure Americana and therefore art. The pervasive ugliness of the American strip is the greatest indictment of the American way, at least from traditionally elitist perspectives and therein lies the crux of the matter: democracy has great difficulty tolerating elitism even if it is based on talent and experience and not heredity or money.

A great deal of paranoia has obviously been sparked by abuses by greedy landlords and overzealous or incompetent planners. But too often local politicians and self-appointed community spokespersons have pandered to false notions of community pride, bolstering nonsensical distortions of simple sense. Not all tenements are historically important, interesting or good. Inflamed rhetoric and uncritical press coverage have terribly exacerbated the politics of planning and knee-jerk reactions have replaced rationality.

There is no question that a great many costly mistakes have been made by well-intentioned and intelligent builders, architects and planners who were too far removed from their project's site to be alert to many potential pitfalls and problems. The record is replete with many excellent project improvements suggested and initiated by concerned community residents and leaders. Such input has become a political necessity and is to be encouraged fully. But such consultation rights should neither infer veto power or unreasonable delay.

There is no ideal city, but there are certainly good and bad cities, synergistic and decaying cities, lovely and ugly cities.

In the 1990's, Paris has emerged relatively unscathed from a very interesting foray into new architecture as the world's loveliest and most elegant city. The uniformity of building styles and types created by Baron Haussman's great metropolitan plan of a more than a century ago has withstood the test of time admirably.

For many observers, the success of the low-rise Parisian solution led to an obsessive dislike and distrust of high-rise solutions. To think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower, of course, is difficult, and when the city's skyline was broached again by the 56-story Tour Montparnasse, the city quickly moved to shunt all new high-rise projects to La Defense, a new district quite removed from the center.

Perhaps the most difficult architectural question I have ever been asked is what I thought of Beaubourg, the gigantic cultural complex designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in Paris. How could one justify the intrusion of such brightly colored and exposed building entails into an historic section of the world's most beautiful city?

My answer was that I greatly admired and liked the boldness and originality of the design, indeed, I wished New York had such delectably monstrous delights. In isolation, its brilliance justified breaking with traditional design, especially since its specific neighborhood was relatively rundown and no great architectural masterpieces were destroyed to make room for it. Although Beaubourg has not aged gracefully, this ungainly leviathan was the precursor of the city's great patronage of modern architecture over the last decade or so and its significance therefore is not far behind the great Eiffel Tower, the world's most graceful and lovely structure and one that would probably never pass muster with most "contemporary" New Yorkers.

Similarly, Washington, the most beautiful city in the United States because of the impressive Classical-style government buildings, relegated its very substantial recent commercial development to its suburbs like Rosslyn, Va. Cities such as Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S. C., and New Orleans, La., of course, retain their delightful charm because they have they have made large historic preservation districts of large areas that survived largely intact.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong with the concept of a low-rise or a high-rise city. There is little denying the fact, however, that a great many urban areas have opted for skylines in recent decades. Skylines are convenient and potent icons and need to be considered apart from the individual buildings that compose them.

Midtown skyline seen from Central Park

In recent years, anti-high-rise sentiment has soared in many communities across the country and especially in New York where many of the most vocal critics of new development conveniently refuse to acknowledge that the complexities and awesomeness of a high-rise environment are quite possibly the single most important personality of the city.

To a certain extent, I believe that such strong antipathy to anything smacking of being taller than a few stories is a reflection of Puritanical Colonial days when nothing good be higher than a religious structure. While I have never heard high-rise buildings described as a Communist plot, I honestly believe that there is a strong degree of anti-atheistic thought brought to bear, simplistically and unconsciously, by many conservatives against some high-rise projects. Obviously, many real estate developers are wealthy and not a few conservative yet not universally opposed to high-rise solutions, or windfalls.

There is a lot of intellectual and emotional baggage, and garbage, that is involved in architecture. Our feelings about our urban environments are obviously influenced by our feelings over home, hometowns, places of success and rejection and love and disappointment and the like. They also often can be affected greatly by influential teachers, like Vincent Scully, who strongly advocate certain styles over others and promote certain favorite architects over others. Such biases, of course, are not unnatural and not necessarily wrong, but often tend to have a disproportionately large influence when some of their naive and impressionable followers ascend rapidly to positions of immense power at important institutions. When Paul Goldberger was named architectural critic of The New York Times he was only 22 years old, and some jealous observers, such as myself, might not be totally consumed by envy when they argue that no one that young can have had sufficient experience and wide enough exposure to be a major critic.

Introducing religion into an urban design discussion is taboo generally as is the difficult subject of racism. I have regularly alienated many people, friends included, when I have blatantly declared that the overwhelming number of people who have fled New York City for the suburbs since World War II have done so in large part because they were racist. Angered protestations quickly followed from virtually all who overheard my comments, which were said with great contempt and met with even more: their motivations were for love of country, need for more space, need to seek tax shelters, and, most importantly, for the sake of their children and their education.

While these excuses are not without some validity, I still firmly believe that racism, at least as it is reflected in the desire to send children to good schools with small if non-existent populations of children from significantly different backgrounds, was the tipping factor in their decisions to relocate. I have no intention to belabor these two issues, but state them here prominently because they are unfortunately very important in coloring the perception and attitudes of many individuals whose votes, either with ballots or feet or taxes, greatly affect our cities.

My bias towards the city reflects the fact that I was born in New York Hospital, played in the sandboxes of Washington Square, grew up on 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in a once-attractive apartment in a famous row of townhouses, attended private schools, took public transportation and spent my youth in a largely drug-free environment. As a child I loved riding by the Mercury statues atop the traffic lights on the open tops of the double-decker buses that ran both ways on Fifth Avenue which was lined with the delightfully ornate lampposts. I also played stickball and stoopball on my street and enjoyed looking at the monkey on the organ-grinder's shoulder, and listening to the band of gypsy fiddlers that strolled occasionally down the street and the clopping of a horse-drawn ice-wagon, the roar of a coal-bin delivery and the whine of a knife-grinding truck double-parked. These are memories of the 1940's and nostalgia is very important in any consideration of place.

Tall and large buildings are very central to any discussion of cities. Apart from their significance as major visual landmarks, they are important for their making urban life concentrated, convenient and efficient.

One of the most elemental principles of planning is that higher densities of people and greater concentration of structures offer very real and very substantial public benefits in terms of economic and environmental concerns. Sprawl is dumb and more expensive.

This is true of virtually all land-use situations: a ten-square block of 50-story office towers is more desirable than a 100-square block of 5-story office buildings because it requires much shorter times to walk between buildings, more significant vistas which are more attractive to tenants and more profitable to developers, quicker response time of emergency services, a bigger skyline, less public infrastructure to create and maintain, and so forth; a 1000-unit attached townhouse development using 20 acres on a 1000-acre tract is much more economic to develop and presents opportunities to conserve or improve more of the natural habitat than 1000 single-family homes each on one acre lots in the tract.

There are only two arguments for sprawl: an obsessive preoccupation with the glories of owning one's own single-family house, the simplest and most pervasively hallowed concept of American property rights; and greed on the well-founded premise that Americans place a premium value of unattached single-family homes over all other forms of housing and the fact that developers can almost always charge more for such subdivisions whose very costliness becomes a very effective form of de facto exclusionary zoning in which people who cannot afford such projects are systematically excluded from living in such communities.

Skylines, indeed, are very important. In the early centuries after the invasion of white men who eventually conquered and subjugated the Native Americans, town centers were dominated by church spires and subsequently major seats of government manifested their munificence in imposing, often domed, structures. For the last hundred years or so, skyscrapers have come to symbolize American culture to much of the world which has in the past two decades striven to emulate it.

There was an insufficient public outcry in London in the 1960's when hi-rises began to dot the relatively low skyline. Their quality was not high, no doubt influencing Prince Charles's outbursts of outrage a generation later. Because the new towers sprang up individually rather than in one or two clusters, the effect, however, was to help make the urbanscape a little more recognizable from a distance like pin flags on a wall map.

A preoccupation with eye-level architecture is a common malady. While it does encourage a sprucing up or at least preservation of the low-rise portion of buildings, it has not always been executed gracefully as witness many post-war luxury apartment houses on Fifth Avenue that have limestone facades for the first few floors and then revert to less than highest quality bricks.

Tall buildings not only often create more interesting vistas, and too often ugly ones admittedly, but they also offer their occupants entirely new and often surprising vistas, that are truly one of the greatest glories of a major city. And while phalanxes of routine, uninteresting apartment towers along many avenues might seem to only offer dreary views of themselves, there are usually more substantial "window" slits between them than might be casually suspected, opening up longer views. Moreover, at night even such relatively crowded pictures are transformed into jewelly fantasies in which offending monstrosities are darkened and hidden worlds hinted at.

Harry Cobb, a partner with I. M. Pei & Partners, the architectural firm, once recounted that Le Corbusier once built a house for his mother but erected a wall blocking out the most important vista. Into the wall, however, he "punched" a small window opening because he believed that it forced the viewer to concentrate and value the vista more.

Since World War II, America has been on an incredible building boom. At the end of the war, the country only had a handful of significant cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit. There are now at least 40 major cities, at least in terms of skylines.

But despite a remarkable amount of urban investment _ in Manhattan the post-war office boom has added more than 200 million square feet of office space, which, assuming a modest replacement cost of $150 a square foot in 1990 dollars represents a value of about $30 trillion _ American cities are, by and large, becoming increasingly irrelevant to most Americans.

About half way through the last decade, suburban development outpaced urban development across the country. In some metropolitan areas, urban centers of a sort developed in the suburbs, such as Las Colinas in Dallas, but it is too farfetched to describe them as cities, although some have been described as "edge cities."

Perhaps even more ominous than the corporate and employee vote of no confidence in cities that has fueled the phenomenal and pervasive sprawl of suburbs has been the personal computer and fax, which have enabled a great deal of traditional office work conducted in cities to be conducted anywhere.

But diversity is New York's greatest asset. The world is becoming increasingly international and despite misgivings over the heavyhandedness of the American-led United Nations purge of Saddam Hussein's forces from poor little Kuwait, the United Nations, especially with the breakup of the Soviet Union, is finally gaining some stature and it is based in New York.

The trend toward multiculturalism also greatly assists New York and because it is the seat of capitalism, which does not appear to be in as dire straits as communism, it must also be the centerpiece in the world of democracy.

Thus while we have just entered the vicarious world, it is incumbent upon the city to assume leadership in the forthcoming world of virtual reality.

Coupled with the fact that the rapid growth of many mid-size cities across the nation of the rejuvenation of many larger cities, the competitive gap between New York and the rest of the country has narrowed dramatically.

It is not simply a problem of corporations and individuals have more choices to select for possible relocation. In many instances, the choices also offered clear-cut advantages of being newer, smaller, and often not having as many problems either in terms of ugly sections, or inadequate home rule, or inadequate revenues to meet the demands of an increasingly large non-taxpaying population base.

Any balance-sheet analysis of New York is likely at this stage to present a disincentive for believing and realistically hoping for continued strength or renewal.

But such an analysis would overlook the city's greatest advantage. Despite all of its foibles and weaknesses, it represents a gigantic investment that is increasingly expensive to duplicate. Indeed, the staggering amount of monies poured into cities by banks, pension funds, insurance companies and investors and homeowners represents a very great disincentive for total disintegration of cities. And as suburbanites discover, urban problems can be contagious and infrastructure costs and social problems respect no boundaries.

Some oases of great wealth will forestall their eventual succumbing to social sobriety, but many more will be forced to change their lifestyles and "quality of life." Such changes are not likely to be accepted gracefully but will be enacted because of their legal inevitability. No matter how sacred the concept of private property rights are, they have already been eroded in a variety of ways both in the cities and suburbs through increasingly complex building, housing and zoning codes and environmental regulations to say nothing of taxation. The many variants of exclusionary zoning, some of which are environmental, are not likely to survive repeated court scrutiny.

If all suburbs were like Chicken Valley Road in Locust Valley, or North Street in Greenwich, Conn., or the like, or Forest Hills Gardens, then the flight from the cities would indeed be irreversible. But, despite the trendy interior design magazines and puerile television documentaries of the rich and famous, there is not enough wealth to provide the American Dream and has not been for several years. At one time, that dream was typified by a nice half-acre lot bounded by a white picket fence and with a good size Colonial-style detached single-family house in a picturesque New England style village within about an hour's pleasant drive from Manhattan.

Do cities and New York in particular have a future?

This book focuses on New York City, generally considered to be the world's greatest in the 20th Century because of its pre-eminent stature as the international capital of finance, communications and culture.

But as the new millennium nears, it is clear that New York is in dire jeopardy from its own internal problems and from greatly increased competition. Up until the 1970's, it really had no competition as it so far outdistanced any competing city in the sheer magnitude of its attractions and strengths that comparisons were idle. Beginning in the 1950's, of course, it began to see a serious erosion of much of its corporate and residential strength to its own suburbs, a trend that accelerated greatly over the next few decades to the point that in the 1980's suburban growth outpaced its own.

Nevertheless, the sustained boom of the 1980's began to transform the city through the gentrification of many neighborhoods and the opening up of new commercial districts in West Midtown, the Flatiron District and Lower Manhattan. This substantial revival greatly improved the city's ambiance and livability.

Statistics do not tell the most important story about cities.

What most concerns everyone is "quality of life" _ the factor that often makes a small city, such as Charlotte, N.C., or Pittsburgh, a great threat to giant megalopises such as New York. "Quality of life" is a non-scientific, hard-to-measure combination of attractiveness and convenience, excitement and efficiency. "Quality of life" generally implies a wholesome balance of economic conditions and opportunities that affords a pleasant environment in which to live and work. It means decent attractive housing that is affordable to a majority of citizens, adequate recreational facilities and cultural amenities and convenient transportation.

In the early 1980's, many traveling businessmen raved about the brilliance of the spoke-rail system of the airport in Tampa or the water ferry from Logan Airport to downtown Boston, just as tourists in Seattle the decade before waxed ecstatic about the monorail to that city's World's Fair site or the drama of Sydney's Opera House. Whether it's Toronto's fairly spectacular new movable-dome ballpark/hotel or Houston's and Minneapolis's air-conditioned skywalks, or Orlando's Disney World, once one has experienced an awesome upgrade in sensitive and good planning, one lowers one's tolerance for the unimproved and uninspired.

Even though serious travelers, such as business executives who can afford to make their own direct comparisons, are still a minority, the new and better urban experiences have become more pervasive because of the intrinsic educational and recreational nature of television, as bad as it is. It seems that a reasonable definition of a city is that it boasts a skyline and is a host to a television series, a few professional sports teams, a convention center, an airport that is a hub to at least one airline.

Such a definition, of course, is trite and inadequate. A city is not just bricks and mortar, great enclosed spaces and runways. It is a coalescing of people with a common interest in living together and improving themselves and, as such, it expresses its collective and communal history through its assets, its treasures, which include the environment, both natural and manmade.

Too often, unfortunately, too much is made of either a city's populace, both residential and commercial, or its physicality, its melange of developed and developable properties. Clearly, a new town or community initially must by necessity care most about its physical infrastructure and buildings just as a mature skyline city must worry most about the psychic health of its population.

Cities are not static. They grow and they decay and are not in any set way or historical cycle. Just because many cities tend to grow, and many often go through periods of contraction at least in terms of their population and job base, does not necessarily mean that contraction is bad or permanent. But cities, like almost everything else, can fall victim to fashions and trends and other evils of a mass communications world.

The ever-increasing sophistication of modern life unfortunately tends to lead to shorter attention spans and simplistic answers. The "zap" of the remote-control device is the obsolescence penalty we all must pay for the freedom of diversity. To cope with complexity, however, we must change gears and revert to old-fashioned blinders that narrowly focus on one issue at a time.

I have spent five decades living in Manhattan and yet have only scratched the surface of what there is to see and do there. For more than two decades, I have been blessed professionally with an easier entree than most of the public to the city's structures. As much as we might be overwhelmed by the city's external presence, there is as much mystery to what lies behind so many canyon walls.

While some people might cavalierly profess to no interest in cities they are deceiving themselves. Yes, many people actually at some stage of their lives want only to envision their lives as secured primarily by a white picket fence and Colonial-style, single-family house in some bucolic community where no neighbor's house is visible or by some desolate, and magnificent, stretch of beach or mountain peak. But such reveries are sterile without the necessary comparison to the bustle of a city. And they are also beyond reach to the vast and overwhelming majority of people either in the United States or yet to come.

We all have biases. Mine are for visual splendor: something that catches my eyes and fills them with finely finished details, striking compositions and vibrantly memorable palettes.

Such splendor could be the Flatiron or Woolworth buildings, or the spire of 60 Pine Street, or the Frick Collection building, or the Sacred Heart School, or the Helmsley or Seagram's buildings, or the Federal row of townhouses on Washington Square North, or the Jefferson Market Courthouse library building, or the Plaza Hotel, or the Empire State Building, or the Art Deco richness of the Waldorf-Astoria and the former "General Electric" building on Lexington Avenue, or the sloping facades of 9 West 57th Street, or the old Surrogates' courthouse or the old Custom House.

Mine are also against ugliness: the pink tower at 222 Broadway overlooking St. Paul's Church and City Hall Park, or the unadorned entrances and rooflines of countless housing projects, or through-the-wall air-conditioners on great facades of palatial apartment buildings such as 834 Fifth Avenue, or white-brick monstrosities that punctuate most of the Upper East Side and pretend to be apartment buildings, or bulky and bland office towers like the former "Iranian" building at 625 Fifth Avenue, or 55 Water Street, or the main buildings at Lenox Hill or Mount Sinai Hospitals.

Like most, if not all, New Yorkers, and, for that matter, residents anywhere, I care passionately about my hometown. Unfortunately, not everyone's passions are like mine. I must admit that I am not democratic when it comes to matters of taste. By definition, issues of quality necessitate elitist perspectives. Elitist, of course, does not necessarily mean esoteric, abstruse, exotic or bizarre, but refined and uncommon. Common sense is not the same as common taste. Beauty may be debatable, but it is discernible.

What has become increasingly difficult and disturbing is the NIMBY Syndrome that has bullied its way into local political decisions affecting development and the environment.

The problem of politicians caving in to community protests against LULUs threatens and cripples sound planning action. LULUs such as homeless shelters, substance abuse centers, welfare residences, low-income housing, waste dumps, prisons, discos, public utility plants, high-rise buildings and the like are perceived by those afflicted with the NIMBY Syndrome as highly threatening to property and business values and the quality of life.

In many instances, a neighborhood may indeed already be overburdened with more than its fair share of a city's, or region's, LULUs. But, by and large, the NIMBY mantle is being put on by many neighborhoods who simply, but quite adamantly and undemocratically, do not want change of any kind to the status quo. These neighborhoods, for the most part, are part of much larger political entities. But even if they have control of their political destiny, such attitudes are not likely to withstand legal challenge eventually.

But many of the activist groups involved with NIMBY attitudes have taken great advantage of the legal, regulatory and legislative systems to thwart an incredible number of projects.

In the early 1990's, one of the greatest threats not only to sound planning but to the democratic process itself is the abuse of such systems. As I will discuss in detail later in the book, many significant and important projects have been felled by nuisance lawsuits that can hold up a project for years.

"Justice delayed is justice denied" _ one of the strongest maxims in jurisprudence _ has been perverted by many anti-development groups to become "justice delayed knocks out the bad guys." Clearly the American legal system is in trouble when a corporation has a significant legal advantage over a poor individual because of its ability to fund and absorb significant legal expenses and, inversely, when a community has a significant legal advantage over a developer, and a city, as long as the courts permit the threatened limbo of uncertain finality to continue.

The exercise of every legal means of public protest is laudable and worthy of being encouraged, but blatant abuse, which is too often the case in many NIMBY disputes, can have a devastating effect on a city. During his administration, former Mayor Edward Koch campaigned vigorously, valiantly and heroically against the NIMBY Syndrome, although at the same time his administration was guilty of similar travesties in unduly prolonging regulatory decisions in the hope of killing unpopular projects.

Popularity is a problem, especially with regard to planning. Many civic groups have mastered the art of marketing to stunning effect. The City & Suburban Homes and Too Tall Building cases are prime examples.

City & Suburban Homes is the name of a housing company that sponsored a model tenement project, also known as City & Suburban Homes, at the start of the Twentieth Century on the full block bounded by 78th and 79th Streets and York Avenue and what is known now as the FDR Drive along the East River.

The low-rise project eventually consisted of 14 different buildings, some with courtyards and a few with handsome iron gates, designed by several different architects. None of the buildings were ever distinguished architecturally. The project, however, was noted as being one of the early, but certainly not the first, attempts to improve low-income housing conditions in the city. Indeed, a very similar full-block project, designed by one architect, was built and survives 15 blocks to the south.

Eventually, the original sponsors of the project fell into financial difficulties and the property was acquired by Peter Kalikow, whose family had long been active in residential and commercial construction and management in the city, several years ago. Kalikow, who became the publisher of The New York Post about a year after I joined it as its architecture critic and real estate editor, originally announced his intentions to raze the block and erect four luxury towers.

Given the fact that most of the apartments were rent controlled or rent stabilized, such a plan faced incredible hurdles. The project consisted of about 1,300 apartments, many occupied by elderly tenants. To the north and south of the site, new luxury apartment towers were rising to take advantage of the river views.

It did not take long for the community to rise up in sharp condemnation of the Kalikow plan, which, in fact, astounded much of the real estate community because few developers want to run the uncertain gauntlet of gaining possession of controlled apartments, especially on projects of such magnitude. But full city blocks, especially in prime areas such as the Upper East Side, rarely become available.

Opposition was fierce, intense, determined and effective. Before long, Kalikow relented and revised his plan. His new proposal initially called for preserving the western two-thirds of the blocks and demolishing the eastern third on which he would erect a 65-story apartment tower. Subsequently, he amended this plan to replace the 65-story tower with a 81-story tower.

To make the proposal more palatable to the community, Kalikow said he would relocate all tenants living in the sections to be demolished to refurbished apartments on the remainder of the site not only at his expense but also with the same rent and the same rent controls. Those tenants who did not wish to relocate could receive a "buy-out" fee.

On its face, the proposal might have been deemed quite reasonable as the project had a fair number of vacant apartments and many of the occupied apartments were in clear need of renovation.

The tenants's group and many local civic groups and politicians vehemently attacked the plan, stating that many of the elder tenants could not cope with such a move, that the neighborhood needed no further gentrification and that the tower was much, much too big.

The project was being launched at the height of the city's anti-high-rise, no-growth hysteria. New York in the 1980's was filled with Candides declaring that this was the best of all possible worlds, rushing to the barricades to block virtually any proposal with an appropriately Revolutionary ``off with their heads" attitude toward the troops of development.

Some tenants were bought out. Others relocated within the complex and many vowed to fight the plan unwaveringly. The opponents of the proposal then came up with a brilliant ploy and successfully proposed that the project be declared an official city landmark. (I wrote a commentary piece in The Post that strongly attacked the proposed designation on the grounds that the buildings were unworthy to begin with, had been substantially altered, and that better examples existed, in particular the Shively Apartments directly across 78th Street) to commemorate the historical significance, which was scant anyway. Needless to say, Kalikow was pleased by my piece in which I made clear reference to the fact that he was my employer.

Normal journalistic hesitancy to avoid any potential inkling of a conflict of interest did not deter me from writing the piece because I genuinely was outraged by the perversion of the landmark process. I felt not only that the designation violated the integrity of landmarks legislation but was also being used by the community to circumvent and supersede zoning. I did not win friends in the community for my stand, but that was not my role as an architecture critic. Furthermore, the issue had become so controversial that to remain silent would have been worse.) Kalikow then appealed the designation to the Board of Estimate, which overturned the designation at its last post-midnight session just as it passed into history as a result of the city's new Charter. Actually, the board adopted a compromise that designated the western two-thirds of the block as a landmark, but not the portion that Kalikow wanted to develop.

In the meantime, the residential real estate market in the city, which had been superhot, changed for the worse and Kalikow not only has not proceeded with the project, but has had to file for bankruptcy (shortly after I left the paper).

What was particularly galling about the City & Suburban controversy was the utter hypocrisy of the landmarks designation. To listen to the august commissioners, who supposedly had some knowledge of architecture, testify that this was a handsome project was unbelievable and disgraceful. It is a given that a developer would do his utmost to eek out every potential profit under the law. It is also a given that a community should try to eek out every potential benefit. It is not a given that deceit and subversion should govern. The board's compromise was wrong. It should have simply and completely overturned the designation, but New York City politicians do not have a high record of integrity.

The second example is far more egregious. At least the City & Suburban controversy ended up with a somewhat reasonable compromise.

The "Too-Tall" building is a 31-story apartment tower on the south side of 96th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. After it had been topped out, a community group, Civitas, urged the city to force the developer to lop off the top 12 stories on the grounds that the building exceeded permissible zoning for the site by that amount.

The project had received all of its permits from the Department of Buildings and, according to the developer and his architect, the firm of Schuman Claman Lichtenstein & Efron, conformed to the site's zoning. Indeed, two supervisors at the Buildings Department had signed off on the project after requiring the developer to make several changes to conform to the zoning.

The problem was that the city had recently changed the zoning for the area in question and had published an erroneous map that was used by both the developer and the Buildings Department in making their calculations.

The effect of the new zoning change was to protect the ``light and air" of Park Avenue by not permitting towers over a certain height within a certain distance of the avenue. That distance fell close to the middle of the developer's lot.

At first, the developer simply argued that he had complied with all of the Buildings Department's directives to him regarding the site and therefore he should not alter his project, which was nearing completion.

The community group, which was subsequently joined in opposition to the tower by most of the leading civic groups concerned with zoning and planning in the city, argued that the developer had submitted the wrong map and therefore must remove the offending floors.

The Buildings Department maintained that it merely works with documents submitted by the developer and therefore was blameless, a position that I argued in several columns in The Post completely justified the dismantling of the agency. If the department does not know its own regulations how can anyone else know them, especially since it has been widely acknowledged in the real estate industry that the department was efficient and fastidious in its applications and interpretations of the city's incredibly arcane zoning regulations.

The crux of the legal issue was that maps published by the city were irrelevant and the only true legitimate guide is the printed text, known as the "metes and bounds," which did, in fact, correctly spell out the precise boundaries in question.

Again, the civic groups, to their credit, did their homework and stood fast, to their everlasting discredit.

Common sense might have been invoked to note that the city continued to be a housing crisis, that several even taller and bigger projects were in the immediate vicinity of the project, that the project promised to further hasten the redevelopment and improvement of the East Harlem community which begins just across from the project on 96th Street, and that, perhaps most importantly, had the correct interpretation of the new zoning been made the developer could have simply moved the tower 50 feet to the east on his lot and erected the same tower which would have been in total conformity, which is to say that the developer had little to gain by any implied subterfuge.

Common sense, of course, did not prevail.

In desperation, for the controversy's delay was an added expense measured in millions of dollars, the developer proposed a compromise in which he would build as many low-income housing units in the neighborhood as there were luxury housing units contained in the contested 12 floors of the building. Although one East Harlem leader strongly supported this proposal, the civic groups, smelling blood and on the crest of a juggernaut of community sensitivity to the "sanctity" of the zoning regulations, resolutely declared "no compromise."

The developer, naturally, appealed and was unsuccessful in all venues including the Supreme Court of the United States.

The city finally proclaimed a compromise solution in which the offending floors would be demolished, but the developer would be permitted to build an adjacent smaller tower on the same lot containing the same amount of units.

The tower itself was pedestrian in design, but no more so than most then rising in the neighborhood a few blocks east.

The lunacy of the controversy was that no one in the civic groups called for the resignation of the Building Department employees and commissioner involved in the project. And no one cared publicly a hoot about the developer nor the impact that such an outcome would have on future developments. If you comply with the regulations, ask for interpretations from the correct department and invest a lot of money, do you have any legitimate expectation that you have acted properly and in good faith and should not have agreements torn up arbitrarily and capriciously? Not in the New York City of naysayers.

Well, principles are important and public watchdogs are certainly needed. But one must constantly remember not to throw the baby out with the wash.

Not everyone is qualified to be a public watchdog or ombudsmen when it comes to architecture and planning just as not everyone is qualified to conduct brain surgery. It may not require academic degrees, but it does require considerable experience in the analysis of urban design and aesthetics.

A few years ago, Prince Charles initiated a very important public debate in England, which subsequently become the focus of attention elsewhere, on the shape of things to come and that are. Unfairly accused by some modernists of being a Post-Modernist ostrich, Prince Charles, with great eloquence and considerable humor, poignantly raised many right questions about the man-made environment.

Prince Charles had a lot of credentials as an excellent connoisseur as well as an avid amateur landscape, and cityscape, painter.

Outraged at ``monstrous barnacles" of modern architecture defacing the landscape, Prince Charles argues for quality. While I do not share all of his aesthetic enthusiasms for some neo-Classical designers, I completely endorse his call for greater public sensitivity and awareness of the very important role architecture plays in our lives.

We are victims of the environment in which we are raised, not in a fatalistic sense, but in terms of additional challenges to surmount or opportunities to be taken advantage of. All the world is not a stage, nor a slum.

Planning and architecture, sadly, don't get much respect from the public and the media and when they do too often it's more about interior design of chintzy, overdecorated domiciles of the rich and/or vapid.

Cities, and even most towns and villages, are unkempt, messy places. Things don't work right because of mismanagement, fraud, graffiti-crazed juveniles, graffiti-obsessed self-proclaimed artists, and planners, both good and bad.

But architecture, which I shall use hereafter to refer not only to the design of buildings, but also the planning of cities, landscape design and interior design, is vitally important to our lives and, very importantly, to the lives of generations still to come. It is not necessarily the most permanent of the arts, but is without question the most public. Everyone has a stake in a developer's dream because it is likely to intrude into many people's environment.

"A vivid and integrated physical setting, capable of producing a sharp image, plays a social role as well. It can furnish the raw material for the symbols and collective memories of group communication. A striking landscape is the skeleton upon which many primitive races erect their socially important myths. Common memories of the 'home town' were often the first and easiest point of contact lonely soldiers during the war. A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security," observed Kevin Lynch in his superb book, entitled "The Image of the City," published by the M. I. T. Press in 1960.

That intrusion, which can be graceful and uplifting in spirit just as well as it can be degrading and spiteful, raises a very disturbing question of property rights, the most sacred American shibboleth. Ironically, it is at the heart of most NIMBY proponents' self-righteousness while it also is self-contradictory: if other property owners have legitimate claims to control a property owner's development, then the right of property ownership is fettered, and each new encroachment of such rights represents a further erosion of those rights. While it should be obvious that all building, environmental and zoning regulations impinge upon the primeval territorial concept of property rights, it is too often overlooked in the many vociferous public debates on many projects.

Similarly, those who ardently seek to preserve the best of an area's architectural heritage as worthy landmarks are also treading on difficult terrain. These preservationists, valiant guardians of quality, have, in many instances, been selflessly heroic and truly civic-minded. But, at least in the United States, they have been woefully behind the times as evidenced simply by the Penn Station fiasco in Manhattan in which one of the city's few truly grand structures was demolished to make way for a new gateway that, despite a recent renovation and

modernization" is one of the most banal, insipid and deeply depressing public insults.

But the corollary of "justice delayed is justice denied" must be that "ultimate justice is better than no justice." Preservationists have waged and won many honorable battles. But they have also committed a lot of obfuscating and dishonorable mischief through their manipulation of a court system that, at best, can be described as inconsistent, if not irrational, and, at worst, corrupt _ corrupt in the sense of acting on behalf of current political favor rather than basic legal principles.

Unfortunately, Americans got on the preservation bandwagon late and then abused it. In the process, they have often made a mockery of the concept. In New York, the record is incredibly shoddy and much of the belated good work that has been done is discredited and potentially threatened by the unbelievable hypocrisy and disassembling of many revered leaders of the preservation movement who seem to be much more impressed with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis than an honest-to-goodness masterpiece of bricks and mortar.

Because of their extreme cowardice in the face of politicians, the preservation movement in the city has focused the overwhelming proportion of its time and energies and designations on the conservation of neighborhoods, presumably but not usually with authentic historical importance, rather than on the preservation of genuine architectural monuments and masterpieces.

It took the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, created in 1965, one year after the demolition of the former Pennsylvania Rail Road Station, one of the city's greatest wonders, 15 years before it designated its first skyscraper as a landmark. It was not the Empire State Building, or the Chrysler Building or Rockefeller Center, but the former American Radiator Building on 40th Street overlooking Bryant Park. That building, designed by Raymond Hood, a designer of the far more important Rockefeller Center and the more prominent original McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, is an interesting example of Art Deco design, but certainly not in the league of world-class icons for which the city is famous.

Eventually, over the last decade or so, the commission has gotten around to designating a substantial number of commercial buildings including some of the above-mentioned skyscrapers. But certainly it has not applied the same mentality to commercial areas as it has to residential ones and the reason has been simple. It has been fearful that wealthy owners might legally challenge its designations with a high probability of success.

It also used the historic district designations of large residential neighborhoods to supersede and replace zoning, in violation of its mandates. But the districts were more popular because they tended to improve property values and therefore were less likely to be challenged despite the fact that many of them are of highly questionable merit and have boundaries that smack of pandering to special interests and include a large proportion of properties of absolutely no conceivable architectural or historic worth.

One of the most celebrated and important landmark controversies in New York has involved the Grand Central Terminal. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the city's landmark designation of the terminal when it was challenged by developers who wanted to erect a major skyscraper atop it. The ruling, which was widely hailed by preservationists as supportive of landmarks, however, took specific notice of the availability of unused air rights over the terminal and several neighboring properties which had once been developed by the terminal's original owners. Such rights, the court said, presented alternative means for the developers to realize an economic gain from their property.

Another developer, Ware Travelstead, several years later took an option to use most of the air rights to erect a 73-story tower on the site of a 11-story building at 383 Madison Avenue that occupied the small block between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues and 46th and 47th Streets.

Despite the fact that a distinguished tower design for Travelstead's project by Kohn Pedersen Fox would have created a striking counterbalance to the Chrysler Building on the other side of the terminal and to the bulky Pan Am Building on the north side of the terminal, many civic groups protested the plan on the grounds that it was too massive and that the neighborhood was already too built up.

To defeat the proposal, they managed to convince the city's planning and legal officials to create a new zoning district for the area that would not have permitted such a big building and extended the area to which the air rights could be transferred slightly. In addition, and more importantly, they got the city to argue that Travelstead's site was not qualified to receive the transfer because the former owner had made the mistake of selling its underground property that was the legal basis for the earlier proposed transfer of air rights.

In essence, the city committed highway robbery on the flimsiest of legal pretexts that clearly flaunted the intent of the Supreme Court's ruling and the history of the site. The city's position was totally indefensible, reprehensible and outrageous and, needless to say, met with no criticism from The New York Times which increasingly was concerned with pleasing the ladies of social sets rather than printing all the news that fit to print.

Travelstead was likely to win his case on legal appeals to the Supreme Court if he could have afforded the long wait and if he still determined that the project might be economically viable. Not surprisingly, he gave up the property and it is now being developed on a far less grand scale, and a different design, as a new headquarters for Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc.

The two most prominent and interesting cases that illustrate this point are the Grand Central Terminal and the St. Bartholomew's Church cases. Both cases essentially revolve the issue of what compensates a "taking" that would require just compensation from the government which designated the property a landmark. I am convinced that eventually the nation's highest court will lay down clear guidelines that will require governments that restrict property uses to compensate for the reduced usage. That decision, of course, will wreck havoc with landmarks, but is, I believe, the only alternative to abolishing property rights altogether, a course that I personally believe to be right but also believe is politically unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans at this juncture in history.

Property rights are so entrenched in the American system, unfortunately, that they are even closer to God than cleanliness. For that matter, I also believe that eventually the nation's highest court will get rid of the "In God We Trust" motto that adorns most courtrooms and currency and schools as the most flagrant violation of the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. But, then, that is another story, or book. I state this in passing, and parentheses, to help the reader understand my perspective _ admittedly atheistic _ and not to inflame religious controversy.

The significant point to be made here is to be aware of the basics and not start an argument in mid-stream. What is relevant is an understanding of how social contracts, the basis of government, are structured and maintained. There are some very gritty paradoxes that abound in democracy, not the least of which is that democracy has trouble condoning, to say nothing of permitting, anti-democratic thoughts.

Historically, Americans have a love affair with the Constitution bordering on the reverential respect given to sacred "Revelations." The U.S. Supreme Court was established to interpret the Constitution and make it palatable in the historical continuum of American society. Unfortunately, those who considered themselves purists regard the literal words of the document sacrosanct and choose to overlook scientific and technological as well as psychological and sociological advances, or events, that render parts of the Constitution either archaic or irrelevant.

The constituency to preserve such hallowed interpretations, however, is incredibly entrenched and alert enough to recognize that such debates can debilitate established power. One well-known economist, Arthur Laffler, recently noted, with remarkable insight, during a discussion of tax reform that too many people were anti-rich rather than pro-poor. My point in this aside is to strongly emphasize the importance of priorities, both setting them and keeping them straight.

This book is a collection of my opinions about what is right and wrong in New York City and other cities, and about what can be done to reinforce and extend the rights and correct and remove the wrongs. I tend to not only try to see the largest picture possible, but also to try to envision what I consider the best picture possible and then work backwards to practicality. Too many critics and observers, I believe, work the other way and start and too often stay small and practical. Utopia may be silly, which is worse than far-fetched, but utopianism, the belief that it is worthwhile to strive for the creation of better worlds, is a paramount value for me. I believe democracy is wonderful, although my trust in capitalism is somewhat less secure. The great test of capitalism, I believe, is its philanthropy. Dreams can abound in a just and decent society.

We are living in a period of very great and very rapid change. Technology is lessening geographic and cultural differences and the raison d'etre of many cities while the emerging multiculturalism is reinforcing it. In the process, much is likely to be sacrificed and great turmoil will befall many cities and many suburbs. We therefore cannot afford not to focus intense attention on how we choose and want to live and how we wish to try to control our destinies.

I did not study architecture in school. Indeed, although I attended four years of college I never graduated. My understanding of architecture comes primarily from meeting with architects, planners and developers in the course of writing newspaper articles on the specific projects. From 1971 to 1982, I was the main reporter on commercial real estate projects for The New York Times. In 1978, I was, among many other things, architecture critic for The Metro, an interim strike newspaper in New York. From 1981 to 1987, I wrote the North American Real Estate and Architecture Supplements for The International Herald Tribune for which I visited about 50 cities in North America. From 1987 to 1991, I was the architecture critic and real estate editor for The New York Post.

My only other qualifications to write about design issues stem from a lifelong interest in art, instilled by my late mother, G. Susan Horsley, who was an avid collector of 19th and early 20th Century American Art.

As a reporter and critic, I discovered that the best way to understand a project was the old-fashioned way: to walk through and around the project at many different times and to act dumb and ask a lot of impertinent questions such as why not alter the proportions or the color or the facade details. The point is not to be disingenuous, but to learn from people who had invested a lot of time, energy, prestige and money in the project and, in the process, to protect myself from a lot of naive assumptions that could result in bogus analyses. In many, though not all, instances, I was rather flabbergasted to listen to some quite valid justifications for what I had considered to be bad judgments. The truth is always stranger and more surprising than fiction.

The deadline pressures of daily journalism, of course, are often cited as excuses for lapses of critical judgment. Usually, however, an architecture critic has a bit less deadline pressure. While a building can be "appreciated" in a relatively short amount of time _ some it often seems only with a mere glance _ I am constantly dumbfounded by not only how much a building can change under different lighting conditions, such as changing weather, but also by how very difficult it is to extrapolate the end result from a rendering or model even when one is very, very familiar with the context. Sometimes, for example, the depth of a protruding mullion or a sample granite or window facade slab creates a greatly different effect when stretched out over 50 stories.

More importantly, perceptions and criteria change, often dramatically, over time. The soaring black glass monolith known as Metropolitan Tower on West 57th Street quickly became one of the city's few aggressively modern towers when it was erected in the late 1980's. Its rakish angles and arrogant demeanor overpowered not only 57th Street but also the even taller CitySpire project, designed by Helmut Jahn, just behind it on 56th Street. But its supremacy was soon surpassed by Carnegie Tower, just to the west of it on 57th Street, designed by Cesar Pelli as a complimentary campanile to adjacent Carnegie Hall. Pelli's very handsome tower is distinguished by a novel cornice treatment of jutting angular struts that unfortunately intrude upon the graceful outlines of Metropolitan Tower from some vistas. This skyscraper triad _ midtown's only equivalent to the dizzying cacophony of the financial district _ is intriguingly disappointing in the lack of cohesiveness and planning of the three individual projects, all controversial in their own right.

Yet in their aggregate the buildings are a powerful presence that manages to correct an awkward imbalance in the north midtown skyline. CitySpire and Metropolitan Tower, whatever their faults, which will be discussed later in the book, might have had a certain credibility in their own, singular isolation.

While Carnegie Tower is widely considered to have the most pleasant facade of the three, its remarkably thin north/south profile appears awesomely precarious especially when viewed from its most prominent vista, looking south from Central Park. Because of its proximity to Metropolitan Tower _ they are separated by the Russian Tea Room, whose owners held out unsuccessfully for more money in a assemblage that would have resulted in one very large tower rather than the two slender shafts that were built _ Carnegie Tower seems to have a magnetically symbiotic relationship with the Metropolitan Tower that mysteriously seems to help keep it up. This titanic ensemble well illustrates the problems of development and planning in New York: one neither starts nor ends with a tabula rasa and cannot make design assumptions in a vacuum. Surely, Ian Bruce Eichner, the developer of CitySpire, would have had an easier task selling many apartments with unobstructed panoramas of Central Park rather than the backsides of two very tall towers directly across the street.

Most critics, including myself, have fallen prey to the devastating disease known as contemporariness. We concentrate on the new to the great neglect of the old. This, of course, is symptomatic of journalism and the need to pacify superior editors with ye olde traditional "news peg," the slant that provides a competitive justification to run that story that day. While preservation battles occasionally foray into print and weekend editions sometimes carry neighborhood "tours" and "walks," sufficient space is rarely given to reflective re-analyses and district updates.

As has been wittingly observed by many architects such as John Burgee and Philip Johnson, there are "foreground" and "background" buildings, as distinct from "new" and "old." By and large, the architectural tradition, if any, of New York was definitely been on the side of "foreground": developers and architects have jostled and stumbled over themselves, with very rare exception, to madly assert their projects from the chaotic jumble that is their context.

Many sites, because of their prominence, cry out for a "foreground" building, one that knocks your socks off. Others, like many sidestreets, where buildings are crowded together and difficult to visually comprehend, or Upper Park Avenue and West End Avenue, where a uniform building type and size has been well maintained, require a "background" building whose presence fits in so well with its neighbors as to be scarcely detectable as new.

Context has become a very au courant concept that nicely coincides with the awakening of an environmental consciousness in recent years. It is undeniably a major issue that should be dealt with in the planning process. Should a project relate to its surroundings, and in what manner is a fundamental question that all architects must ask as they begin to shape their creations and negotiate, bargain, plead and fight with their patrons.

Unfortunately, context has been seized upon by many community activists and some critics as a mighty weapon with which to smote blasphemous, yea, ungodly, major projects. Naturally, had such zealots been abounding in the early decades of this century New York would simply have been swamped in tenements and Forest Hills enclaves and never have evolved its almost mystical and mythically romantic silhouette that inspired most of the world and led to New York becoming the epitome, or epicenter, or, at least, apex, of capitalism, if not the pinnacle of (Western European-inspired and -transmogrified) civilization.

Strict adherence to contextual concerns, of course, does not strip away the potential for all innovation and experimentation, but it does forsake dramatic breakthroughs, such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. On the other hand, contextual concerns, when gracefully adapted, can preserve the ambiance of consistent architectural treatments and ensure, and often, though not always, improve property values.

Several years ago, I was impressed with a very attractive renovation of an old residential building in the Chelsea section of Manhattan being undertaken by Douglas Durst of The Durst Organization, one of the city's prominent developers in the post-World War II era.

The project was a red-brick Victorian-Style low-rise building of the kind found throughout the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. It particularly stood out because the rest of the block consisted of relatively nondescript and unexceptional tenement buildings.

Rather than quickly realize that the Victorian-style building was obviously erected before the tenements, I asked Durst why such a pleasant building had been erected amidst such dreck. Durst, whose father, Seymour, is one of the great historians of the city, raised his eyebrows and explained that not only had the entire street once been lined with similar buildings but also much of that area in Chelsea.

Cities grow incrementally. Building is a time-consuming process and for much of New York's history it has seemed a never-ending process. Unfortunately, New York was outrageously laggard in grasping the merits of preservation, probably because its character, if a city can have one, is at least partially defined by impatience and a preoccupation with convenience. New Yorkers are too lazy not to jaywalk and to stray too far from their offices or transportation hubs.

While the development of Manhattan historically did progress northwards, it generally bulldozed and rebuilt rather than leapfrog with the result that there are hardly any blocks that completely retain their former historic splendor. The result is that many of the city's official historic districts make a mockery of the very notion of preservation because that tend to be blanket area-wide designations rather than individual buildings. Such an approach, of course, enables the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to have design review of all properties within such districts and effectively to bypass, in a more restrictive fashion, existing zoning.

Perhaps ideally, Manhattan should have preserved its older historic districts as it moved uptown and conceivably every ten blocks north or so would define a different architectural style or decade. Thus, our most modern districts would probably be in Upper Manhattan rather than midtown.

Another variation, again impossible because of historical events, would organize the perfect Manhattan from its logical center, say 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and develop out from it chronologically across the avenues. Thus, the Avenue of the Americas and Madison Avenue would be developed, say, a decade after the core of Fifth Avenue was filled, then Seventh and Park Avenues, then Broadway and Lexington Avenue, then Eighth and Third Avenues, then Ninth and Second Avenues, and so on. The result, hopefully, would be stylistic homogeneity along the avenues at least in midtown. While convenient for tour guides, such an approach, is now totally unrealistic at least for such a built-up area as midtown, but not inconceivable for redeveloping large tracts on the Lower East Side, East Harlem, or much of the Bronx.

Like it or not, the chaos of architectural diversity and quality in midtown Manhattan is a given of New York City's character. Indeed, it may very well be its most defining, if not glorified, aspect. This face of New York is brazen, contemptuous, energetic, adventurous, exasperating and overwhelming. One of the most cherished images for many "romantic" New Yorkers is of the old, small, antique "hold-outs" occupying the last toe-hold of a vast assemblage for a mammoth tower of far less design distinction. What is conjured is the battle between the poor and the rich, the low and the mighty. The facts in such circumstances are generally irrelevant to the romantic observer. Certainly, the city's weird juxtapositions of small buildings, often, but not always genuine landmarks, set smack beside a monstrously uninteresting looming skyscraper can often justify a yearning for "the good old days," or the like.

But the existing portfolio of such situations presents an uneven record that mitigates against making any generalizations: some situations, like the holdouts on the Macy's block are unfortunate and others, like the Russian Tea-Room on West 57th Street are questionable.

Zoning, of course, is the engine of the city's physical progress and, not surprisingly, it is labyrinthine.

Much worse, however, is that, contrary to public outcries by impassioned civic activists and naysayers, zoning in New York City is quite "arbitrary and capricious," qualities that governmental actions are not supposed to possess.

The city has been in the vanguard of zoning since it introduced the nation's first Zoning Resolution in 1916. Then, it was spurred largely by public concern that the new generation of skyscrapers, such as the 42-story Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, were so tall and covered so much of their lot that they greatly diminished "light and air" at street-level.

The city's planners then established limits to the size and shape of buildings that could be developed on every parcel in the city, and further designated what uses - residential, commerce, industrial and the like - could be permitted on every parcel. To a great extent, their mapping of zoning districts tried to reflect and promote current uses, many of which were considered to be incompatible with others at the same location.

The city was already relatively modern with transit lines and automobiles and elevators and electricity and the like. But in 1916, air-conditioning, airplanes and environmentally-mitigating technology were not common or advanced and suburbs were much more bucolic and removed than their present counterparts.

The planners allowed for a maximum residential population of about 12 million people, about 50 percent more than then existed.

In 1961, the city made a major revision of the Zoning Resolution, which introduced development bonuses for public spaces, such as plazas and changed the basic office building form from setback "wedding cakes" to "towers-in-a-park," but did not appreciably alter the maximum "build-out" potential of the city.

The overall zoning for the city was not subsequently altered, but was subject to almost continuous amendments, some of which were substantive.

In the 1980's the initial successes of the environmental movement gave backbone to substantial community opposition to new projects of almost any kind throughout much of the city. That opposition, which became the NIMBY Syndrome, not only was fiercely antagonistic to new projects but also launched an attack upon the maximum "build-out" mentality of many developers. Blatantly ignoring the fact that the city's population had dwindled substantially in the post-World War II era, they argued, or more correctly proclaimed, that the city was too big already and could not afford to properly maintain its infrastructure and offer services, let alone grow.

This reversal of philosophy owed much of its impetus to the theories of Jane Jacobs, a self-proclaimed city planner, like myself, who wrote the highly influential book, "The Death and Life of American Cities," a polemic initially against the bulldozing mentality of "urban renewal" programs that resulted in many huge and unattractive housing projects for the poor and low-income sectors of the population that were eyesores, poorly designed and bereft of most of the amenities that fostered a spirit of neighborhood.

Jacobs, long active in the Greenwich Village community, subsequently abandoned New York to leave in Toronto. Before she left, however, she was influential in the design of West Village Houses, a low-rise residential enclave that encompassed several blocks in the West Village near the Hudson River. Although touted as a superior alternative to high-rise towers, these dark boxes were just as insulting to the architectural heritage and ambiance of the area as the towers she damned and feared.

Her enthusiastic emphasis, however, on the importance of the design of urban streets was important and with the arrival of a new mayor, John V. Lindsay, a few years after her book was published in 1861, found many advocates. Lindsay, tall, attractive and young, surrounded himself with many young and energetic planners such as Don Elliott and Alexander Cooper and Jaquelin Robertson and before long, helped in part by funding for an Urban Design Council by William Paley, many of Jacobs's urban planning principles began to become law. Indeed, planning quickly became popular as the public debated the quality of plazas and began to make amends for not having been preservationists by designating landmarks left and right, that is, primarily on either side of office buildings and in the outer boroughs.

In analyzing or evaluating the merits of any particular public policy, it behooves one to be fully aware of the economic and political climate at the time the policy is introduced. The public may not actually be unsophisticated or impatient, but many important editors of major newspapers, like The New York Times, have been at least with regard to urban design and planning. Understandably, they are preoccupied with hard-breaking news of major disasters and political campaigns and fashion and food trends and gossip items. What little time was left over was quickly taken up by crime and court decisions and national and international events and the prestigious realm of the senses known as culture. Time and again, the editors' eyes would roll back in their heads as soon as they heard or read the word "plan." Oh, another pipedream, they would pooh-pooh before either killing the story altogether or emasculating it to the merest of mentions with very rare exception.

Much of this antipathy to planning was defensive. The editors were constantly overwhelmed by an ever-burgeoning amount of news. Whereas The Times's editors still were loyal to the notion of attempting to be an objective journal of record in the early 1960's, it was a losing, exasperating battle.

The death knell was sounded with the announcement in 1964 by Turner Catledge, then management editor of The Times, that A. M. Rosenthal, then the paper's correspondent in Tokyo, would become the new head of the city desk, which would also be renamed the Metropolitan Desk.

Rosenthal, who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Poland for The Times, was considered an excellent writer and Catledge was interesting in raising the quality of writing in The Times, which was still competing with the New York Herald Tribune, widely acknowledged to be a better written, though substantially smaller, paper.

Rosenthal brought along as his top assistant, Arthur Gelb, who had been an assistant culture news editor and an old chum. The two complemented one another remarkably. Rosenthal was a pitbull: a mercilessly fast decision maker who was contemptuous of plodding ways and interested only in results. Gelb was a Yorkshire terrier, flitting wildly in many directions simultaneously, a veritable sparkler of ideas, some brilliant and some not, a conjurer of an overwhelming amount of different sidebars for the lead story. The result often became a major takeout that was awesomely and not infrequently inanely comprehensive, often to the very great expense of other news that day.

Rosenthal was at the editorial helm for the launching of the new special daily news sections, a major reorganization of the paper as a way of creating new advertising venues.

What the special sections, specifically the Science section on Tuesdays, the Living section on Wednesday, the Home section on Thursday and the Weekend section on Friday, did was to transform the editorial emphasis of The Times from an elitist recorder of all the news that a fair-minded, well-educated person ought to be aware of to a vehicle popular with advertisers wishing to reach a high-end consumer audience.

At first glance, it might appear to much of the public as if these new sections were major enlargements of the paper's news coverage. To the extent that the some of the areas such as food and science and home furnishings were significantly expanded, such an assumption was accurate.

But the sad reality was that the paper's total "news budget," the amount of space devoted to non-advertisements in the entire paper, remained about the same. This was only accomplished by cutting back on the allocations of the news budget to the traditional core of the paper: the foreign, national and local news departments.

To provide space for the special sections, the traditional departments had to make major sacrifices at a time when their own bailiwicks were growing ever more complex and demanding of coverage: more countries were coming into existence requiring more coverage; more issues were assuming national importance such as the space program, the environment and civil rights; and more communities were asserting themselves and confusing the role of local governments just as American litigiousness was reaching its zenith overcrowding the court system.

It had been possible for many decades for The Times's editors to ensure for its readers that they were not overlooking all important and interesting developments in the political, legal and cultural arenas. Furthermore, such coverage was delivered promptly and with a high degree of accuracy and objectivity, at least in the news, as opposed to editorial page columns.

Promptly meant an event that occurred one day was reported in the next day's paper, not a few days or a few weeks later as subsequently became a not uncommon occurrence at the paper.

Under Rosenthal, and Gelb, who must always be considered in tandem, the erosion of "hard" news was due not only to the proliferation of special sections, but also to a redesign of the paper.

The paper, in different stages, reduced the number of columns per page from eight to six, increased the size of type and photographs, and adopted a radically different layout design for much of the paper. These changes had the affect of significantly reducing the total amount of news space.

This long digression is justified only by the disproportionately important role that The Times has had in helping shape public opinion about urban planning and architecture. To its credit, of course, is the fact that it employed Ada Louise Huxtable as its architecture critic for many years and she justly won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism.

The paper's subsequent commitment to architecture may be judged by the fact that Paul Goldberger was named as Huxtable's replacement when he was only 22 years old and that, many years later in 1990, Goldberger was given the additional responsibilities of being culture editor. It is ludicrous to think that someone can be a legitimate critic at the ripe young age of 22 of anything over than lollipops and baseball cards or that the intensity of focus to be thoroughly expert and au courant in one field cannot be diminished by the added burden of overseeing a very large and important department such as culture news at The Times.

To be candid, I lusted for Huxtable's job while I was at the Times but like virtually everyone else there I had no idea it was going to become available. I must also admit that with very, very rare exception and then only in very recent years I have been virtually diametrically opposed to Goldberger's opinions as expressed in his columns.

My reason for leaving The Times to become the architectural critic and real estate editor of The New York Post in 1987 was largely because of my frustration at having been transferred from real estate to society news and my frustration with Goldberger's views and had a desire to express my own.

My new real estate news section at The Post began to have a good following and a degree of influence, but unfortunately fell victim to the advertising and real estate recession in 1990 when its publication was suspended.

It is self-serving of me to suggest that the demise of my section, and my critical columns, at the Post, was a loss to the city, but I do firmly believe that it is not healthy for a major city such as New York to have only one regular architecture critic in the popular press. Not only is competition important for motivating everyone to higher standards, but it is also necessary to help nurture a diversity of opinion and to encourage a more responsible press, which is vital to democracy.

The Times is now a better written paper, but it no longer is the "bible," the indispensable and comprehensive font of information for the public. Of course, the explosion of new fields of knowledge and professions has made such a newspaper probably impossible, not only to produce, but also to digest. However, no editor at The Times assumed, even in the pre-Rosenthal halcyon days, that everyone read, or should read, all 1.5 million words in the daily paper. That was the purpose of headlines, to simplify the sorting process of readers. And while most readers were probably not aware of the arcane hierarchy of the headlines there was a very definite value system attached to the size of a headline and its placement in the paper.

Under Rosenthal, and Louis Silverstein, his anointed art director, the number of different headlines was greatly reduced and their size and placement began to lose their informational relevance and relationship to the importance of the story. The Times, which had never been known as a writer's paper, shifted from being an editor's paper to being an art director's paper. The trend began in the Sunday Travel, Arts & Leisure, Business and Real Estate sections, but eventually extended to much of the paper after the Front Page. The prominently displayed stories on the front of the sections were not necessarily the most important editorially, but those which had the best graphics.

The paper changed from an elitist viewpoint to which readers would accommodate themselves to a marketing-driven perspective in which slow and unsophisticated readers would be accommodated by large type and pictures. The old grey horse of The Times gave way to a breezy, jazzy jogger that covered less ground.

All these dramatic and important changes did not occur in a vacuum, of course, and were largely motivated by the growing impact of television, the then new "soft" journalism, that emphasized and promoted personal opinions and derided the notion of objectivity, initiated by Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Clay Felker at the Herald Tribune and its short-lived successor, Widget, as the World Journal Tribune was affectionately known in the trade, and the natural, though not always legitimate, desires of a new administration to put their imprimatur on their products.

American journalism has not yet fully adjusted to the impact of television. The immediacy of its coverage of a breaking news event cannot be watered down by less than competent correspondents. Newspaper editors realized, relatively quickly, that their readers had already viewed the main story or stories before they looked at their newspapers. As a result, they tended to apply the "second-day" approach on the first day, that is, the stories began to be filled with a lot more reaction than action. Many of the stories in The Times sports section read more like feature stories than news stories and who won the game or match was buried low-down. A magazine mentality began to dominate.

Until the success of CNN's coverage of the Gulf War in 1990, television news remained essentially a tabloid headline service with the exception of the Sunday morning news programs and occasional prime-time news specials and coverage of national political conventions. While a proliferation of cable television channels devoted to specialized topics, like the legal system, entertainment, sports, the environment and entertainment, is likely to go far to remedy the paucity of quality news coverage on television, it is unlikely to replace the need for the print media.

While some viewers may sit still and wade through sports and weather segments to get to a particular news feature or report, it is an excruciating waste of time in an ever-more fascinating and demanding world. Once one is offered and enjoys convenience its absence is infuriating.

Television's novelty has taken a long time to wear off. It remains highly addictive. But eventually it will subside, but not go away, of course. Newspapers and magazines and trade journals can and must fill the gap for the discerning and concerned consumer. But magazines and trade journals are beset by the disadvantage of time: newspapers can beat them to the punch. Therefore, magazines and trade journals can only hope to survive by offering relatively definitive and full analyses and reports that newspapers, constrained by their size and deadlines, cannot match.

The problem is that newspapers now emulate magazines too much to the neglect of basic coverage. The business pages of The Times are littered with one-paragraph stories that are more frustrating than tantalizing in their lack of context or details. And there is no longer any meaningful reason for newspapers to run the interminable stock listings as all people interested in them have access to instant quotes from a variety of sources.

Change is inevitable, both in journalism and in cities. My indulgence in these journalistic asides is to emphasize the importance of always striving for higher standards and to explain as best and openly as possible my biases so that readers can balance them with their own.

Real estate is very big business and the infrequent publication schedule and limited distribution of trade publications mitigate against their effectiveness in timely public debates that can influence major planning decisions on specific projects.

It can be argued that the failure or inability of the major daily newspapers in New York, and elsewhere, to adequately cover many local urban planning stories has led to the emergence of many much smaller weekly papers that concentrate on specific neighborhoods such as the Upper East Side or Battery Park City. There is no doubt that these publications serve a very useful and importance purpose, but unfortunately it is perhaps too idealistic to assume that their interests and viewpoints are going to veer far from the parochial with the consequence that the perspectives they tend to foster will not always be citywide or regional, to say nothing of always being the most erudite and experienced.

Can we leave planning to the locals or to the masses?

Can we expect politicians who are entitled to seek re-election to always make the most rational, economic and aesthetic decisions?

Can we expect great architects never to make egregious mistakes or wonderful critics to always be right?

Can we call something ugly and expect its owners and users to love us?

Can we let future generations work out problems?

Can we make a city work?

These are questions that I, presumptuously but hopefully constructively, will try to answer in this book. This book is a combination guide book and a how-to book. It confronts real-politic but is also utopian. It consists of a lot of personal opinions, but they are grounded in a great deal of exposure and a great deal of anger. The city has gone awry and is almost out of control. It will, of course, survive me. But I am compelled to write it not so much out of conviction that my personal opinions are important, but that there are commonalities of appreciation and wisdom and judgment upon which seasoned, experienced artisans and perhaps artists might generally agree. Without such an understanding, I would not be so brazen as to hurl hosannas and hellfire.

There is a great temptation among creative people to believe in the inherent rightness, purity and instinct of the first impression. But in complex subjects, such as architecture, those first impressions are often not sufficient for a fair assessment of a project's worth.

However, I have found that such impressions when tempered by public discourse are more durable. Often, as a reporter I had trouble, seated before my typewriter, and then wordprocessor, coming up with the "right" lead for a story. Almost invariably, the lead came forth when I got up from my seat and started to talk to someone about the story. Sometimes just hearing oneself talk made a great difference. It is not sufficient to say I like or I don't like a specific plan or object. I should explain why and, as a critic, I should suggest alternative designs or solutions. Surely, no one will agree with all of my pronouncements, but hopefully they will stimulate reflection and action.

While this book is focused on the physical aspects of a city, it cannot, of course, totally ignore very important non-physical considerations. Who uses the city? Who needs the city? Who wants the city? How can we shelter the homeless? How can we finance improvements? How can we try to fairly distribute public benefits to all sectors of the community?

It is beyond the scope of this book to seek solutions to ending the problems of the homeless, the ill-housed, the ill-fed, the unpampered, the undereducated, the underprivileged, the unstable, the unsure, the insecure, the uncounted and the unaccountable, the uncommunicative, the unreachable.

These are questions of political, charitable and economic will. They are paramount. Without progress in coping with such issues all structures are doomed to dust, ruin and abandonment. When survival is in peril, all else be damned. Yet caution and prudence dictate that the threshold of survival must include some betterment, a tipping of the scales of stability towards progress.

Progress may not infer the perpetual building of more and bigger buildings. It may mean, in some instances, the demolition of existing structures and, in others, the rehabilitation of others. But it does call for efforts to improve the circumstances of life, for ourselves and for others, or at the very least not at the unreasonable expense of others.

New York City is not utopia and given its spectacular history of accommodation, adjustment, and aspiration, it never will be. To paraphrase a popular song lyric, if you can make part of it here, then there is hope for everywhere.

The demographics of the city have changed dramatically this century and are continuing to change. Whites are no longer a majority. Traditional minority groupings are being fragmented. There is no question that the city is an incredible mosaic of races, classes, and types. Multi-culturalism, the hip "ism" of the early 90's, is a mixed blessing. It nurtures respect for many different viewpoints and heritages. But it can also vitiate them by imbuing them with equal status in a pluralistic society. The workmanship and aesthetics of a grass hut is not less impressive and valid than the flying buttresses of a Gothic Cathedral or the glass curtain-wall of a skyscraper; a street peddler's makeshift stand is just as legitimate as the marble columns of a couturier. There are differences, often immense, and it is wrong to pretend the contrary.

If multi-culturalism promotes and preserves diversity and quality it is fine. If it also inspires new cultures through cross-fertilization and experimentation, it is better. It must not, however, result in reduction to common denominators and banality. If the city is to be a melting pot, its spices should be distinct, not bland, and its flavors must be strong, not weak. Social and political assimilation must not negate cultural stimulation.

Despite my own protestations to be as critical as possible, I believe the bottom line has to be tempered greatly by reality. Many generally undistinguished projects may include notable features or variations on an accepted style that merit recognition and encouragement. It is easy to throw everything out, but subtleties are rare and should be cherished even if surrounded or encased in dreck.

Finally, except for the privileged, modern life is rough. It's one thing to do without in a poor, rural village hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. It's quite another to be constantly bombarded in the media with images and tales of the good, worse, the luxurious, life. One needs strength to resist such fantasies and hope to achieve some of them.

This is a book basically about cities in general and New York City specifically. But any discussion of urban problems and potentials cannot ignore the suburbs and other competing venues whether they are resorts or farms or wasteland. It is not idle speculation to ponder how existing cities might be improved or how new towns might be created, survive and thrive. It is no one's responsibility but our own.

The best-laid plans of mice and men get screwed up, inevitably. But those derailments and detours are not necessarily unavoidable or always fatal. The notion that real estate historically runs in cycles of boom and bust is easy to remember but not terribly relevant nor infallible. There certainly are windows of opportunity for fortunate developers and communities and there are also horrible times.

Too often, people have been aware of risks, taken plunges and then insisted, often with surprising success, on being bailed out and not suffering the consequences of the accepted risks. And often such free lunches are provided mostly to the big guys and not the poor sucker. American justice, sadly, is pretty shoddy in much of its practice. Americans have coasted for almost half a century as the unquestioned, unrivaled leaders and rulers of the world. Their record, at the top of the global totem pole, has been remarkably fine and often noble, but certainly not guilt-free.

Now, as America's international dominance wanes, other regions of the world are flexing their muscles. The "European Community" poses an impressive threat to American monopoly of many markets as does the taunting powers of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. To a great extent, economic might rests on the shoulders of low-cost labor and, should energetic and hopefully fair leadership emerge in China, India, Africa and Latin and South America and Russia the future holds a healthy supply of interesting entrepreneurial undertakings.

Major cities will survive if only because too much wealth has been invested in them to permit them to die. From time to time over the last two decades, some impassioned and very frustrated urbanites have suggested that New York either declare bankruptcy or secede.

The former never got very far because many pension funds, both public and private, had been coaxed into buying the city's bonds and therefore had a vested interest as creditors in not letting the city off the financial hook, the main purpose of which was to permit the city to restructure and renegotiate many of its expensive contracts, especially with unions.

The latter never got very far because neither the state nor the nation wanted to lose the tremendous amounts of revenue generated from the city. They also, of course, did not want to encourage chaos and Balkanization.

Unquestionably, Manhattan could become the world's most successful city-state, like Singapore, overnight by seceding from both the state and the nation. It is the quickest and best solution, but one that is highly improbable because of the severe pains it would inflict on the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn _ Staten Island is actually in favor of seceding from the city.

To a great extent, secession makes wonderful sense. New Yorkers have little in common with much of the rest of the country that certainly has a fair bit of antipathy towards the city anyway. The fate of the outer boroughs, of course, is difficult. Queens could probably survive on its own, especially if it aggressively developed Hunter's Point and Jamaica as major commercial centers. Brooklyn would have many more problems and the Bronx would be an even worse disaster.

The great planning mistake was the dismissal of the urban renewal concept and the adoption of the notion that all neighborhoods, even the most ravaged, abused and infested, were not only equal but worthy. The Jane Jacobs of the world, and there are many, made these eyesores and inured dens of iniquity and impoverishment and innocence hallowed, sacrosanct grounds in which ``people-pride" rose above the ashes in heroic, but not always very rational, stances.

Clearly, the city would have an easier time trying to secede in its present configuration rather than Manhattan trying to splinter itself off from the other boroughs. And while that would mean that the city would not become an overnight nirvana it would still be significantly better off, assuming, of course, that it recognized that it must declare economic war on its neighbors.

Such talk would have been considered not only idle but stupid before the recent events in the Soviet Union, which have dramatically brought home the fact that social contracts are not inviolate.

Still, separatism is the stuff of which civil wars are made. While I wholeheartedly propose and endorse New York City`s secession from the state and the nation, I more optimistically propose a variety of less severe measures in Part One of this book as ways to significantly improve the city. Part One also includes a basic primer on urban design.

Part Two is essentially a highly critical, but not encyclopaedic guide book of the city's highlights. As such, it can stand on its own for most tourists and New Yorkers interested in the city's premier attractions and monuments.

Some other guides, such as the American Institute of Architects' Guide to New York, document a much greater number of properties, but often fail to offer much elaboration. A few other popular guides are chuck full of anecdotes and a fair amount of opinion, but limit themselves only to the top 100 or so prominent properties. These and others are listed in the annotated bibliography at the end of the book. In many cases, my observations are not dissimilar from those expressed in some of the other leading guides. But I would not have ventured to write this book if I did not feel strongly that they were either inadequate or greatly off the mark. In my discussion of individual properties, therefore, I have tried to carefully review the literature and only make extended comments when I have felt my opinions are at considerable divergence with the "established" interpretations. While each such description is self-contained, I have included footnotes indicating extended and interesting material.

In the interests of keeping this book manageable without sacrificing its potential benefit to readers as a reference, I have opted for a compromise format that rules out its use as a pocket guide but includes sufficient material and photographs to be a solid reference book without being outlandish in size or cost. These are unfortunate trade-offs. I have, however, organized Part Two into sections that roughly correspond to areas easily covered in a pleasant walk and suggest that newcomers to the city, as well as those old-timers willing to renew their confrontations with the city, study those sections of the book that cover the areas of their next day's activities. In such a way, hopefully, they will remember to keep their eyes alert to what is around them and then make their own comparisons.

In his preface to his 1982 book, entitled "Lights & Shadows of New York Life," James D. McCabe Jr. observed of New York that:

"Its magnificence is remarkable, its squalor appalling. Nowhere else in the New World are seen such lavish displays of wealth, and such hideous depths of poverty....It is richly worth studying by all classes, for it is totally different from any other city in he world. It is always fresh, always new. It is constantly changing, growing greater and more wonderful in its powers and splendors, more worthy of admiration in its higher and nobler life, more generous in its charities, and more mysterious and appalling in its romance and its crimes. It is indeed a wonderful city. Coming fresh from plainer and more practical parts of the land, the visitor is plunged into the midst of so much beauty, magnificence, gayety, mystery, and a thousand other wonders, that is fairly bewildered."

One remains bewildered and hopefully still bewitched. But one is also quite bothered that more has not been cherished and that more progress has not been made.

The city still has tenements, which McCabe bemoaned, and politics at least as complicated if not as corrupt as those of those Boss Tweed days, but the city also has continued to constantly change, its most endearing, frustrating and hopeful personality trait. It can get worse, but it also can get much, much better.

In his delightful and provocative book, "Delirious New York, A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan," Rem Koolhaus, the architect, observed that "Manhattan is the Twentieth Century's Rosetta Stone."

"Not only are large parts of its surface occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper), utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the U. N. Building), and irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall), but in addition each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies that provide alternative images to the New York that exists," Koolhaus continued.

Indeed, New York perhaps more than any other city, almost exists more in the realm of imagination than in reality. Its rawness stimulates. Its slums anger. Its high points of structure and culture inspire. Its garret anonymity vicariously enraptures. Its past conquers. Its future gaiety invites.

It should not survive as it is, but continue to transform. Its reinvention will be costly and painful, but it is possible to regain pride and preserve the best of what is left and create a better urban environment, which, in the long run, is the most important human environment.

Step lively, please.