Friday, December 9, 2011

The Lincoln Centre Myth

From Roberta Brandes Gratz  The Battle for Gotham — New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs

Credentialed experts often attribute urban regeneration of any kind to the official plans and developments of the day. Most planners and government officials and observers don’t give credence to the gradual block-by-block and business-by-business improvements that mark organic incrementalism. They can’t recognize it until it is full-blown. They insist that ad hoc change is insignificant. They are wrong on all counts. One needs to recognize the often small precursors of positive change to understand its emerging appearance. The precursors were in abundance on the West Side, as all the gradual changes already mentioned indicate.


Visitors, whether from other neighborhoods or out of town, are never enough to spark rebirth.

Local residents and businesses do the spade work, re-energize a place or district, give a place character, and make visitors comfortable.

Visitors follow locals in the process; they are never catalysts for the rebirth process.

Years later, after [New York's] Upper West Side had turned dramatically upscale, many of those visitors came there to live, too.

... a key Jacobs principle:

Cultivate your constituency rather than trying to persuade your opponents.

"You could spend all that energy on trying to bring reason to Robert Moses, or people like him, showing him how he was harming the city, And you would waste it all because his idea of improving the city is really to wipe it out and start over with big projects." (Jane Jacobs)

According to conventional wisdom, Lincoln Center was the catalyst for regeneration of the West Side. This is a myth. Simple observation illustrates how this was not the case. If this were true, renewal would only have occurred in the late 1960s and ’70s on the West Side around Lincoln Center, or in proximity to other big new construction projects. This was definitely not the case. SoHo, the Lower East Side, areas of the South Bronx, and the many areas of brownstone Brooklyn showed early signs of nascent rebirth at the same time as the Upper West Side. Positive change was bubbling up in small doses all over the city. It was observable, anecdotal, and nowhere yet ready to be measurable. And, indeed, it was happening in many traditional and historic neighborhoods all over the country. Thus, experts and the press did not recognize its significance as the beginning of a shift. They couldn’t imagine this happening without a big catalyst like Lincoln Center.

Ignoring where else regeneration was slowly taking hold, the myth prevails that Lincoln Center rejuvenated the West Side. In reality, it did not. The rebound of the Upper West Side and scattered neighborhoods throughout the city was people driven by the vanguard of urban pioneers. Value-hunting brownstoners and apartment dwellers were attracted to the solidly built historic building stock and middle-income apartment towers. They were resisting the expected move to the suburbs. In neighborhoods farther out, way off the radar screen of city experts, immigrants were filling largely vacant housing where people had moved out. With them came new businesses as well. The Russians went to Brighton Beach and the Syrians to Atlantic Avenue, both in Brooklyn. The Chinese filled the Lower East Side. The Koreans went to Astoria, Queens. In each neighborhood, the new residents sparked a gradual rebirth that is explosive today.

Trends always start small, almost invisibly. Values and lifestyle choices brought new settlers to the West Side. Lincoln Center was clearly a sign that government and financial institutions thought the West Side was worthy of reinvestment in big government-supported projects. But what Lincoln Center really did was bring East Siders and suburbanites to the West Side in the evening—all visitors who had been afraid to venture into the area because of its reputation for crime and poverty.

Visitors, whether from other neighborhoods or out of town, are never enough to spark rebirth. Local residents and businesses do the spade work, re-energize a place or district, give a place character, and make visitors comfortable. Visitors follow locals in the process; they are never catalysts for the rebirth process. Years later, after [New York's] Upper West Side had turned dramatically upscale, many of those visitors came there to live, too.

If anything, Lincoln Center and, later, Lincoln Towers made rejuvenation more difficult, if one understands rejuvenation as the gradual return of young, middle-income families and new businesses to a stabilized, existing population mix with new buildings fitting in with existing ones. Enlivened street life, diversity of population and activity, and social interaction follow that new population. That was not what followed the development of Lincoln Center. What did follow were several large new developments, including a series of dull residential towers across Broadway. Together with Lincoln Center, they do not add up to a definition of natural, positive change. In fact, unrest caused by the displacement of seven thousand families and eight hundred businesses5 in twelve blocks demolished for Lincoln Center complicated life and made it unsettling and stressful for longtime residents and new.

It is worth pausing for a moment to look further at why Lincoln Center is a signature Moses creation. This is difficult to do now without offending many good people who have worked hard to make this world-renowned seat of culture a great success. But that success is due to the content and programs, not the vessel they come in. As soon as a critical word is said about the physical design of the complex, such people take offense, even though they had nothing to do with designing it, only in making it succeed as an artistic center despite itself.

First, it must be said loud and clear that the institutions of Lincoln Center have become star performers on the city’s cultural stage. But that is about cultural programming, not bricks and mortar and urban design values. Paul Goldberger wrote a very perceptive Sky Line column in the New Yorker, “West Side Fixer-Upper: New Ideas for Lincoln Center That Don’t Involve Dynamite,” giving high marks to the first steps in a planned redesign. He credited architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro with “figuring out ways to weave the atoll back into the fabric of the city.” He noted, “There were complaints about the facilities at Lincoln Center from the beginning.” But more significantly, he hit at the heart of the matter:

But the raison d’etre for Lincoln Center was dubious from the beginning. . . . Moses didn’t care much for opera, or theater, or symphony orchestras. He just figured that they could serve as a magnet for development. Using culture in this way was a new idea in the fifties, although almost everything else about Lincoln Center was stuck in the past. As a piece of design, it was as retrograde as the halls that it replaced—and much less successful. . . .
The idea of a cultural campus set apart from the city never made much sense, even though Lincoln Center did, to be fair, promote the urban renewal effect that Robert Moses intended. The neighborhood would probably have been gentrified without Lincoln Center, of course, but hardly in the same way, or on the same timetable. . . .
Lincoln Centre has sometimes seemed less the vibrant source of the neighborhood’s energy than the empty hole in the middle of the doughnut. . . . Lincoln Center reflected [Moses’s] social philosophy, which was on the side of public subsidies for middle-class amenities and against the visible presence of the poor.

Centers, like other big stand-alone separatist projects, breed more new development mislabeled revitalization. But more than anything, they continue nibbling away at traditional streets and diverse uses, the ingredients of real places. Here, too, Moses (in partnership with John Rockefeller) led the way, as Martin Filler notes: “This cultural one-stop shopping center launched a nationwide boom in performing- and visual-arts complexes.”

Moses was a separator, segregator, and isolator, designing the world for the car. He was a “centerist”—meaning cultural (starting with Lincoln Center), retail, industrial, sports, entertainment centers—isolating uses within the city, suburb, or town in a way that disconnects them from the rest of daily life, creating islands of singular activity in the urban fabric. Again, he created the model, and the nation followed.

The Moses pattern undermines the potential of vibrant, vital, economically and socially robust, integrated, and connected “places” in a city, suburb, or town. And it is a form of growth that annihilates and replaces versus replenishes and adds. Communities throughout the country today are trying to reconnect what that separating era of planning destroyed. Now, Lincoln Center, cited as one of Moses’s great achievements, has embarked on a billion-dollar effort to remodel itself in a more urbanistically connected way, undoing Moses’s isolationist vision.

Lincoln Center is a good place to understand the Moses philosophy, even though its widespread popularity as a cultural destination blinds people to the underlying fallacies of its creation. Understanding what was wrong with the barracks-style high-rise housing projects is easy today, especially since so many of them have been and continue to be blown up and rebuilt around the country. And widespread understanding exists more than ever that massive highway building and disinvestment in mass transit were the fatal domestic flaws of the second half of the twentieth century. But there are few signs of public or official understanding of the antiurban nature of cultural centers or, for that matter, entertainment centers, sports complexes, or similar concentrations of singular uses. Superblocks, whether for residential towers or entertainment, are disruptive and destructive in a city. Robert Moses launched his approach to city building in a big way on the West Side.