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Letter from America

Regulars | June 2017

New York is crumbling

When you arrive at any of New York’s airports, you get an immediate, grim snapshot of America’s crumbling infrastructure. After the hostile immigration desk, you’re faced with a slow grind by car, bus or train through down-at-heel outskirts, barely improved since they filmed The French Connection.
No one is going to reach the threshold of the world’s buzziest city and then turn back because of a bit of urban ugliness. New York is confident like that. The logic is brutal but effective: why spend money when you don’t have to?

That was certainly the attitude until the 1980s. A lack of maintenance in those days raised serious questions about the viability of the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, of FDR Drive and the West Side Highway (which run along Manhattan’s east and west shorelines). And the subway system was inclined to burst into flames. 

Since then, money has been spent, but often more on eye-catchers than boring old, below-the-radar maintenance. Just this spring, the 2nd Avenue subway line on the Upper East Side was extended, to the relief of some of Manhattan’s most frazzled commuters. Many stations now have interactive boards telling you when the next train is due and where it’s going, and the ticket offices are all staffed by real-life human beings. 

But the cold calculations are right. New York’s wonders are worth the wait. A walk west above the roaring traffic over the Brooklyn Bridge is a reminder of the extraordinary fact of nearly four million of the world’s cleverest, most driven people still choosing to spend their weekdays sharing a space half the size of Guernsey.

The latest grands projets are controversial: the memorials to the victims of 9/11 – two empty, slate swimming pools, where the buzz of selfie-taking tourists sees off any lapse into spiritual contemplation.
Next door is the Oculus, a giant, dove-shaped, mostly underground transport hub, which replaces the one destroyed alongside the World Trade Centre. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava, with a view to catching and celebrating the sun’s life-giving rays at the moment in the year when the second tower collapsed.

So far, so symbolic. But, for the rest of the year, the stunning interior space is a shopping mall whose purpose seems chiefly to answer the highest of man’s callings: to create ever more beautiful venues for Apple stores. Further, it cost $4 billion. 

You don’t need to be churlish to visit Penn Station and wonder what could be done with $4 billion. The original, built in 1910, had no Jackie Kennedy to save it (she rescued Grand Central from the wrecking ball in the 1970s). The splendid classical edifice was demolished to make way for the current shocker, a caricature, a sprawling shopping centre where 600,000 commuters congest underneath Madison Square Garden every morning.

Penn Station is the meeting point for seven tunnels, including the subway and Amtrak trains from the south and west, as well as Long Island Rail Road passengers and those on the New Jersey Transit. Some say it is the busiest station in the western hemisphere.

Unlike glorious Grand Central, Penn Station is the place to sit down and weep. Nobody has a good word for it. Money is due to be spent there, but only to update old tunnelling and make it even busier. The city also needs a new bus terminal, which will be built when the politicians can stop squabbling about where to put it. And when they’re better prepared for the sort of flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Unless you’re Trumpist on climate change, hurricanes can be expected to return. 

In short, New York needs looking after, and with more than just a lick of paint. A recent report by the Centre for an Urban Future revealed that over 1,000 miles of New York City water mains are more than 100 years old. About a quarter of the water in the city’s pipes leaks, twice the accepted industry norm. Every year, there are more than 400 water-main breaks, some of which have flooded the subway. 

Across the city’s five boroughs more than 160 bridges are over 100 years old, and nearly fifty of those are prone to failure and collapse. More than 200 of the city’s school buildings were built before 1920. Two in five of Manhattan’s patched-up roads are ‘substandard’ and the rest are barely better. The statistics are endless, telling the same story for public buildings, pipeworks, public housing, hospitals and subway rail, stations and signalling. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo says the city needs to fix the roof, as it were. Donald Trump has talked the ‘back to work’ language of major infrastructure investment in New York and elsewhere, although he still speaks the language of big, knock-’em-dead projects.

But, even then, there’s a problem. New York’s population grew by seventeen per cent in the past 25 years. Has it finally reached the limits of growth? 

Kenny Simmons, 63, a New York street vendor, thinks so. ‘It sucks ... The whole system, all over. There are too many people. They’ll never be able to fix it. There’s not enough space. People break their neck to get here. It’s supposed to be the land of opportunity. But not too many people enjoy it now. Forty or fifty years ago, when there wasn’t this many people, maybe it worked. But now, it’s saturated.’
He may be right. Either way, they are going to have to spend the money.


This story was from June 2017 issue. Subscribe Now