“So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent.
The reaction must come. The tower leans from its foundations, and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe.”
—Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
“Those of us who believe that architecture invariably (and often unintentionally) embodies the values of the society that creates it will look upon these etiolated oddities less with wonder over their cunning mechanics than with revulsion over the larger, darker machinations they more accurately represent.”
—Martin Filler, “Conspicuous Construction,” 2015
In a series of interviews with Bill Moyers in the late 1980s, then-retired scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell pointed to the New York City skyline: “You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is.” In medieval towns, that was the church. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the tallest structures were the political institutions, the palaces. In Campbell’s time and place—late twentieth-century Manhattan—the highest points in a city were the “centers of economic life,” the top floors of office buildings.
In the twenty-first century American city, luxury real estate has succeeded the office tower as the symbol of economic might, and, one could argue, of a society’s guiding principle. In January of this year, a series of New York Times articles investigating veiled ownership practices in the high-rise condos bordering Central Park described slender towers topping 1,300 feet, with plans for new buildings reaching even higher. Units in the developments collectively referred to as “Billionaire’s Row” often sell for tens of millions of dollars to shell companies established to protect foreign investors. For buyers, such luxury properties function as foreign bank accounts and tax havens; for developers they represent, as Martin Filler wrote in the New York Review of Books, a kind of “vertical money.”
For many city-dwellers, the trend in development of luxury condos underscores the extreme inequality that has long characterized New York City’s economic landscape. “It was not that long ago that Columbus Circle was the makeshift residence of dozens of homeless people squatting at the site of the abandoned New York Coliseum,” wrote Times journalists Louise Story and Stephanie Saul. These days, the former site of the Coliseum houses the mall at the base of the Time Warner Center, the first super high-rise tower to have been built along the southern edge of Central Park. Developments like the Time Warner and, more recently, One57, Nordstrom Tower, and 432 Park are not merely symbolic of a system that unequally distributes its wealth in favor of the very rich: they contribute to the foundation of that system, providing tax breaks and subsidies to developers, driving rents ever higher, and marginalizing people whose mere presence is believed to do harm to property values.
In the years following the housing and financial crises that left many without jobs or homes, “the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want”has grown all the more discernable. Walking through the streets of midtown, day or night, from Chelsea to Columbus Circle, one views the real-life circumstances of the city’s poorest residents against a backdrop of wealth. Recent data published by the Coalition for the Homeless reveals the painful irony underscoring this scene: the primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.
The number of New York City’s homeless residents has risen 21% since 2010 to over 60,000; more than 14,000 families depend on the city’s struggling shelter system; and at last count nearly 5,000 men and women were sleeping rough in the parks and streets. Above it all, palatial residences with views of Central Park sell for millions of dollars a piece and many a pieds-a-terre sit empty.
In 1879, political economist and reformer Henry George published his social treatise Progress and Poverty exploring answers to the question of why, as economies progress and technologies improve, the wealth gap grows and the circumstances of poverty worsen. George believed that the poor and middle class could benefit significantly, could in fact be lifted up from poverty, if land and other natural resources—what modern-day Georgists call “the commons”—were taxed and the profits distributed equally among the rightful owners, the public. His proposal has meaningful implications in today’s urban centers where, as Filler observed, “smokestack-like protuberances … signify the steadily widening worldwide gap between the unimaginably rich and the unconscionably poor.” In fact, Manhattan’s skyline might be read like a bar graph measuring this gap: as towers reach higher and housing costs steepen, the middle-class recedes and the poor are pushed further into the shadows.
Inequality has in a sense crystallized in the forms of glass and steel residential buildings carefully designed to glitter. In growing height and number, they have come to stand for a consolidation of wealth that is seemingly insoluble. Or, to use another fluid metaphor, a wealth that is unlikely to trickle down.
Not just a view
In the dealings of urban real estate development, a claim that situates one community necessarily displaces (and disempowers) another. In Brooklyn and Queens for instance, renters and long-time owners alike suffer the consequences of speculative real estate practices set in motion by a rapid rise in property values. Less palatial but nevertheless expensive units are sold and rented to people who have been priced out of Manhattan, and low-income and middle-class tenants struggle to stay in their homes. These days, even the furthest reaches of the outer boroughs see their share of shiny new buildings whose effects on long-standing communities are often damaging.
In 1971, New York State authorized the 421-a program with the aim of spurring affordable housing development in low-income neighborhoods and promoting diversity in the form of mixed-income communities. More recently, critics of 421-a have cast it as a failing initiative providing the greatest benefits to investors, who, in addition to gaining zoning rights, receive significant tax breaks with a provision that they build an agreed-upon number of affordable units on or off site. Indeed, despite these agreements, companies too often do not follow through with the housing they promise to build, or do not provide the quantity of units proportionate to their development activity. In other cases, they offer that housing under circumstances some believe to be discriminatory.
Take One Riverside Park, a residence funded by Extell Development Company, the developer behind the super-tower One57. One Riverside complies with 421-a by including affordable units within its luxury residential building located at the far west end of 63rd Street. In 2013, the company was widely criticized for its plans to designate separate entrances for its low-income tenants and the term “poor door” was coined for what many saw as a distressing policy. Vox editor Matt Yglesias, among others responding to the controversy, thought the label unfair. Protesting one door in one building, he argued, distracts from the very real housing problems New Yorkers face—such as a lack of systems in place to ensure that a good many more affordable units will be built. His argument was predicated on a rejection of the symbolic nature of the door, and also of the building. “The building is not a metaphor,” Yglesias wrote:
It is, in fact, a building. A building in which people live. A building whose construction employs people, and whose existence expands the New York City tax base. Even better, it’s a building that created subsidized dwellings in a desirable location for 55 lucky families.
But Yglesias’ conclusions rely on a belief in the notion of a trickle-down effect that, like the metaphor he opposes, is largely symbolic. The profits earned by Extell for those fifty-five apartments, and the tax breaks awarded in exchange for their inclusion, far exceed the benefits that we are assured will distribute in the forms of jobs or affordable housing. By the April 2015 deadline for applications, more than 90,000 families had applied for those fifty-five spots. Distributed in this way—obtained at such odds—affordable housing appears comparable to the winning stakes in a state-sponsored lottery. “Lucky families” indeed.
And yet when it comes to the marketing and sale of luxury homes, far more threatening metaphors projecting images of egregious privilege are taken as read. “It’s not just a view. It’s your front yard,” claimed a 1987 advertisement for Trump Parc, with its views from Central Park South. Today, advertisements for One57 encourage potential buyers with the statement, “Not only do you live at the center of the universe…you overlook it.” Extell’s Orion42 (350 West 42nd) meanwhile promises investors a “life at the top.”
An outsized sense of entitlement is implicit in these imposing structures that make claims on public space, as well as on natural and economic resources. And yet Yglesias and others have balked at the suggestion that a building that normalizes discriminatory housing practices might stand as a symbol of inequality. “[A] building doesn’t create, foster, or even emphasize inequality,” wrote Chris Pomorski in the New York Observer, “it can, however, act as a mirror, the revelations of which are occasionally uncomfortable.” But Pomorski too deploys a powerful metaphor, that of a mirror image. Perhaps unknowingly, he has underscored a prominent and equally discomfiting feature of “Billionaire’s Row”—its large, reflective walls.
Mirrors in the sky
When the original plans for the Time Warner Center were announced in the 1980s, the structure was to become the first tower to cast significant shade in the playgrounds and meadows of Central Park. Although many rallied against the proposed development, it was completed in 2003. More than a decade later, numerous developments of even greater heights continue to appear, prompting some to propose new restrictions on designs that significantly alter the atmosphere of the park and surrounding streets. Emily Badger of the Washington Post has written in support of such restrictions: “[I]n some ways, shadows even turn light into another medium of inequality—a resource that can be bought by the wealthy, eclipsed from the poor.”
Completed in 2014, One57 has lately supplanted the Time Warner as the symbol of public concern for private developments’ encroachment on public space. At certain times of day, depending on where in the park you stand, the flat face of the tower mirrors the sky and almost blends in. In the photo opening this piece, sunlight cast on the western face of One57, and the reflection of passing clouds, lends it a camouflage—smoke and mirrors. But a photo taken on the same day from the east side of the park shows the effect is no longer one of concealment. The tower is backlit and dark, its shadow stretching across walkways and meadows. Gone is the camouflage of what might be compared to a chameleon resting against a rock. What appears in its place is the gnomon of a gargantuan sundial.
James Wrona’s photographs might be read as an attempt to access a view of “Billionaire’s Row” that is both complete and unique—a challenge, James reports, given the size of these structures and the range of attention they’ve already garnered. These buildings are not just exclusive; they are elusive. Inside the Shops at Columbus Circle, patrons of J. Crew and Whole Foods can only wonder at how the city’s wealthiest residents enter the condos just above, as their entrances are intentionally hidden from view. Looking out through the all-glass front that makes up the mall’s main entrance, James depicts the lobby as a sort of gallery: a gallery of shops, but also a gallery of windows looking out onto a collection of wealth.
In the title poem of his 1968 collection “City Without Walls,” W. H. Auden shares a vision of a city overcome with modernist hazards, “fantastic forms fang-sharp, / bone-bare” that inspire in the poet feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia. Today’s changing urban landscape evokes a similar sense of confinement. From James’ vantage on the mezzanine in The Shops, windows behave as a second viewfinder cropping out all but the bottom half of One57. To photograph the topmost floors, he crosses the street to where he can aim his camera straight up at the buildings on the north and south sides of 57th Street, and captures from a dizzying perspective the walls of 146 W 57th (Metropolitan Tower) and One57. As Auden wrote of the “fantastic forms” in his view, these buildings “are visual facts in the foreground now, / real structures of steel and glass.”
In his personal writings, Olmsted described Central Park as a haven, a space valued for its contrast to the loud and crowded city surrounding it:
[T]he park is to be surrounded by an artificial wall, twice as high as the Great Wall of China, composed of urban buildings. Wherever this should appear across the meadow-view, the imagination would be checked abruptly, at short range. Natural objects were thus required to be interposed, which while excluding the buildings as much as possible from view, would…establish a horizon line, composed, as much as possible, of verdure.
In his plans for the park, he wrote of bringing the classes together, to “translate Democratic ideas into Trees and Dirt.” While the ultimate success of Olmsted’s proposal is debatable, his endeavor to account for a continually changing landscape deserves credit: “The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when…the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets and piles of erect buildings.”
Around the same time that Olmsted was finalizing his plans for a central park, George was devising a proposal to foster the notion of a public commons. While George’s ideas were not universally embraced, they continue to hold significant potential in today’s cities, where resources by which corporations yield incredible profit range from water and air rights, sunlight used for solar energy, and even the naturally occurring electromagnetic frequencies used by Internet service providers.
“People claim the land by creating sacred sites,” the mythologist Campbell explained—and in doing so, they transform natural and cultural landscapes, often irrevocably. For many New York City residents, the most sacred places are perhaps the public grounds, the rare bits of land reserved for parks and green space. But as the values of a society change, so do conceptions of spaces deemed sacred. Today the park’s “artificial wall” is not twice but thirty times the height of the Great Wall of China—and growing. These buildings do not merely check the imagination, they loom large with a presence that will not be short-lived.
It would be generous to assume that the design of One57, meant to resemble a cascading waterfall, took to heart Olmsted’s plans to insinuate nature. The waterfall spills, as it were, away from the park, to the south. The north-facing surfaces of One57 and its neighboring super-towers are flat, more like walls. This observation echoes one put forth by Washington architect Shalom Baranes, who describes development in terms of beautification. The towers are, he explained, like the walls of a great, “outdoor room.” Indeed, like a vast parlor, the ornate walls of which signify wealth that for all but a very few is—and will always be—unattainable.
James Wrona is a portrait, travel, and landscape photographer based in New York City. He has collaborated with Elizabeth Murphy on two previous photo essays for this magazine: “Perpetual Meadowlands: Among the Reedbeds of the Hackensack,” which appeared in our summer2012 issue, and “’As Having Life’: Reflections on the Gem of the Mall,” which appaeared in our summer2013 issue. His website is jameswrona.com.