Manhattan Institute

A Tale of Two Urbanisms

New Yorkers are trying their best to muddle through—but will their government and political class fail them?

This beautiful-weather early summer in Manhattan is the tale of two future urbanisms. The real-world urbanism in the street and in the parks is gradually, if gingerly and painfully, trying to live through and recover from two disasters: Covid-19 and four nights of nihilistic rioting. Then, there is the urbanism on the Internet: embracing the burn-it-all-down absolutism that will be disastrous, in the long run, for cities.

A stranger to the news, had he or she walked mid-Manhattan’s streets Sunday afternoon, would have known that something was amiss—but nothing catastrophic. Rockefeller Center’s Channel Gardens gated off with metal barriers, rendering a marquee public space unwalkable, its carefully tended flowers unenjoyed? Odd, but perhaps in preparation for a construction project. A big police presence, forcing foot traffic onto unwieldy detours? Well, it’s summer parade season.

Indeed, a peaceful, festive—if small—parade troops down Fifth Avenue, past the museums. Mostly (but not entirely) white, mostly (but not entirely) young, the paradegoers could be marching for any cause: environmentalism, gay rights, impeach Trump. The marchers aren’t in any obvious existential distress; if they thought they were in imminent danger of tear-gassing or police batons, these Manhattanites would never bring their small children and fluffy dogs out. Police, on foot and in a phalanx of cars, peaceably lead them and follow them.

As midtown becomes Central Park, almost all of Fifth Avenue is boarded up. A hurricane coming, maybe? Whatever it is, people are still comfortable enough to jog in their Lululemon and stand, casual arms on bikes, in the near-empty street to meet their friends. In the northern part of Central Park, above 100th Street, families of all races— black, Hispanic, white, Asian-American—enjoy the Conservatory gardens. Children run around as elderly men jointly do crossword puzzles in the shade. Workers—white, black, Hispanic—prune the plants. Just outside the gardens, on the parks’ hills, young women do yoga. If there is an acute new threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—one that requires the full mobilization of the citizenry to fight—most New Yorkers aren’t heeding it.

Stay at home, though, and get your news from a number of leading urban pundits or what I’ll call “urban Twitter,” and you would think that we were in a civil war. “It took the looting of Chanel and the reversion of SoHo to a wasteland” to achieve social reform, writes New York Times metro columnist Ginia Bellafante. For most of urban Twitter, the looting was nonexistent, or it was equivalent to corporate crime; the cops were the rioters. The devastating impact of all this disorder on the streetscape is ignored. Bike companies should by boycotted unless they stop selling bikes to cops (presumably, it’s better for the police to get around by car).

Across urban Twitter, the calls to “defund NYPD” and “abolish the police” are ubiquitous. Urban Twitter apparently won’t brook incremental reform. New York either has a fully fascist police force or none. Real cases of police brutality are evidence that the whole police force is irredeemable, notwithstanding the fact that the NYPD, under vacillating elected leadership and no clear civilian-set goals, has overseen more than a week of relentless protest, including violent agitation, with no reported instances of critical injury or death on either “side.” For urban Twitter, the now-infamous video of two police officers driving their cars through a crowd in Brooklyn—causing no apparent injuries—isn’t an example of a strategic blunder by Bill de Blasio’s administration and a tactical one by the NYPD, in which the officers found themselves, practically speaking, trapped, with options only to move forward or be further encircled by a crowd already throwing a metal barrier as well as other objects and stomping on the car; it is an example of willfully murderous police intent. The two lawyers who threw a homemade bomb at one police car, and made plans to hand out other such bombs? They don’t seem to exist; they would muddy the pure narrative.

No sympathy is shown for a police officer stabbed, possibly by a terrorist; likewise, little sympathy for a police officer run over by the civilian driver of a car. Urban Twitter sees no chance whatsoever that the organizers of a post-curfew Mott Haven protest—who themselves featured a photo of a burning police car and a “F—ck the Police” slogan on their publicly distributed flier—had any intent but peaceful demonstration.

Any suggestion that elected officials should encourage protesters to stay home—and protect themselves from infection—is met with derision or straw-man arguments. Any concern over looters harming small businesses means that you don’t care about George Floyd. It’s all or nothing. You either encourage tens of thousands of people to risk their own and their loved ones’ well-being in permanent mass protest, or you’re callously indifferent to the injustice done in Minneapolis.

The question is: Which urban philosophy wins? The nihilist philosophy holds that there’s nothing to save here: we must burn down Chanel in order to redeem ourselves. This position, on its face, is absurd; the people who looted Chanel were more likely criminal fencers than police-reform advocates, and New York’s luxury strips are an important part of walkable urbanism. Try walking block after block of boarded-up Italian and French fashion outlets to remember how important well-designed windows are to attracting healthy foot traffic. Even people like me, without a prayer of affording a Fendi suit, enjoy the displays. And, of course, luxury retailers support tens of thousands of urban and regional jobs—in the marketing, fashion design, and magazine industries, in the artisanal craft and retail industries. The nihilistic philosophy is catastrophic for enlightened urbanism. If we defund, rather than reform, the police and let crime soar, New York’s tax base would collapse. The city will have no money, and no broad, sustained public interest, to fund transit or continue efforts to reduce traffic deaths, in part by building new bike lanes, or to pursue other improvements.

New York’s hope is that its elected officials and aspiring elected officials stay off the Internet—and get out into the parks more often. So, far, unfortunately, the rising leadership has bowed to the mob. The only thing that city council president Corey Johnson will say about looters is that they “aren’t helping”—something you say when your cat knocks over the computer, not when several hundred people are systematically destroying commercial corridors across three boroughs. Peaceful protests consume all political attention, though only a tiny minority of New Yorkers are out marching around in circles every day, convinced that their efforts will result in the abolition of the police department. Most New Yorkers are trying to eke out some semblance of normalcy—going to work if they can, going for a (socially distanced) jog, letting their children enjoy the plantings in the park. Yes, many New Yorkers are concerned about police brutality, and may want reforms. But they don’t want to burn the city down in order to save it.

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