Sunday, November 26, 2006

An Example of the Problem

The writer Tom Wolfe has an angry piece in today's "New York Times" about the cave-in of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to Big Real Estate. It expresses a classic middle-class division between cynicism and hope, snidely recounting the history of the Good Government attempt to confront developer desires with the public interest (the "Goo-Goo" philosophy) whose passing infuriates him completely. There's a mystery here: the Goo-Goos were gutted, but by whom, exactly?

The surface answer is Big Real Estate and the mayors who serve it. The real answer is the middle class Goo-Goos gutted themselves. The Landmarks Preservation Commission had been set up in the 1960s, after the destruction of the classic Penn Station to build Madison Square Garden, as an arm of the professional middle classes and their wealthy preservationist allies against Big Real Estate. As Wolfe puts it, "the commissioners had made names for themselves professionally as scholars, architects, city planning consultants" and were in general leaders of the aesthetically trustworthy Creative Class. So far so good, but the Creative Class didn't have the stomach for any kind of fight. Why not? Well, they turned out to be supremely impressed with their new access to high society and to its special goods and services - celebrity parties, VIP-only arts events, private lessons given by one ballet immortal to another. The middle class was effortlessly manipulated by its desire to be upper class, or be so approved of by the latter that it can come on all the good rides. The textbook example of this problem is William Jefferson Clinton.

Part II: when the gloves come off, the Creative Class goes down like a bag of cement. When Mayor Ed Koch decided to redo Byrant Park behind the New York Public Library in 1987, the Commission, led in that case by the exceptionally accomplished Anthony M. Tung, turned him down, and Koch informed him his Commission appointment had not been renewed. No other commissioner backed him up. In Wolfe's bitter retelling, "Barely a peep in Anthony Tung's behalf was heard from any commissioner or the chairman, even though all of them had so bravely agreed with him at the outset. Well . . let's face it. One has to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's doesn't one? But we'll get to decide on the rest, won't we? And still be invited to all the parties?"

Pathetic, and yet true. I would also say typical. The middle-class today survives its actual financial decline with desparate identification with the lifestyles of the rich and famous, who have never done better, thanks to the incessant labor of the world's poor and the political dumbness of the middle class. If it couldn't play rich - home entertainment centers, gated communities, golf, SUVs, etc - could the middle-class psychologically survive? Second, can the middle-class fight for anything, even for its own stuff, such as the public goods like open space or nice architecture that it will never be rich enough not to need? It gave away poor people's stuff to developers, like Times Square and Hell's Kitchen before Disney came in, but it gives its own things away too, like the public culture of Manhattan architecture it can look at even though it can't afford to buy.

Wolfe's piece ends by describing a "citizens emergency meeting" where the crowd "bayed for the blind goddess, Justice," to go to work again. People are mad as hell, but the goddess doesn't work for them. So what are they going to do?