The Malling of Gotham


By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
[email protected]

The mise-en-sc√®ne of Tim Burton’s new film, Alice in Wonderland, has the visceral pulse of a byzantine nightmare; ornate, cryptic and so darkly detailed it could only have sprung forth from the mind of a true creative genius. Circuitous paths spun by descending spiral staircases winding their way to cobblestone courtyards reminiscent of Gotham’s historic streets — now buried in shallow graves of blacktop just beneath our feet — echo the seductive curves of the spire-topped towers piercing the cold and inky sky. As “mad as a hatter” or “cute as a bunny,” this much is perfectly clear about Burton: bland has been universally and unapologetically banished from the celluloid worlds this filmmaker continues to construct.

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So, despite the fact that some film critics have been reluctant to embrace the intricacies that flourish in Burton’s fantastic new adventure, Eric Felten, whose piece, “Banish the Bland: The Glass Box is So Last Century” ran in The Wall Street Journal last December, might want to beat a path to the nearest movie theater and plunk down his $15.50 (who knew 3-D actually meant three extra dollars for the disposable glasses?) to see the new adolescent version of Alice. For in Burton’s world, architectural details don’t just survive, they swagger.

And while the movie may only provide temporary relief to Felten, whose article pleads for the pendulum to swing away from the signature blanding effect much of contemporary design has had on cityscapes, including New York City’s, Alice is a rather convincing piece of evidence that humanity — albeit a prickly one — has survived after all, if only on the screen. Evoking a concern that bubbles up in myriad forms all throughout Gotham, Felten railed against the radical modernists who “wanted to scrape structures clean of ornament altogether, like a landscaper who tames a wild, overgrown garden by paving it over.” In a perfect world, Felten might prefer a tad more restraint than the highly stylized architecture Burton built for Alice, but certainly nothing about it is bland.

Now I’m not suggesting we all go out and advocate for more gargoyles, Corinthian columns and curlicues in our public and private developments, though that would certainly put the Goth back in Gotham. But the distinct sense of place strutting the catwalk in Burton’s new Alice, wearing all its architectural glam and gloom right there on its sleeve, reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP).

Lamenting the blanding trend he continues to witness, Berman said the architectural and design uniformity that seems to be eating up more and more storefronts and residential blocks in Gotham “really kills the character of the neighborhood.” Fingering the usual suspects of national chain stores, Berman complained that these leviathan retail conglomerates tend to rely upon cookie-cutter designs rather than working within the context of any particular neighborhood. This one size fits all approach, Berman told me, is making it increasingly difficult to distinguish one block from another.

Echoing the gist of Berman’s concern about developers and designers being tone-deaf to the sounds and rhythms of neighborhoods, Christopher Hawthorne, back in 2004, minced no words in Slate when he wrote, “The historicism of postmodernism has fallen completely out of fashion, and prominent architects, young and old, are again designing bold, ornament-free buildings that show no obvious interest in getting along with their neighbors. Just as important, their designs are now favored not only by critics, but also by many of the officials responsible for commissioning large-scale projects, from museums to courthouses…”

Luckily, this blanding dirge composed by Berman was not conceived as an aria. For a virtual chorus of some of the most eloquent voices in New York City’s preservation community have chimed in with their own meditations on the same theme. It was immediately clear in a phone interview with Francoise Bollack, noted architect and board member of the nonprofit advocacy group Landmark West!, that she’s thought a lot about the blanding of Gotham. Primed with her own analysis of what’s driving this tedious trend, Bollack said that the blanding phenomenon is the direct offspring of the branding phenomenon, both of which she blames on the design mandates of suburban malls.

Instead of investing the time it takes to create a fa√ßade informed by the unique character of any specific urban neighborhood, Bollack, who also teaches at Columbia University, said that national retail chain stores often attempt to shortcut the process by simply replicating storefront designs that have proven successful in suburban malls. Importing these mall designs, as part of a national corporate brand, into the urban fabric that defines Gotham, feeds the proliferation of soporific storefronts and residential facades, all of which is “just kind of dulling,” Bollack told me.

While retail chain stores may consider this malling affect a positive marketing tool, flagging its corporate brand on a busy city streetscape, Bollack said that by “manipulating the urban environment to make their plan fit” rather than the other way around, these cookie-cutter designs undermine the rhythm, scale and flow that has evolved in New York City’s neighborhoods through the centuries. Following her concern to its logical conclusion, Bollack said the malling of Gotham has the moribund effect of making one place “the same as another place, so it undermines one’s sense of belonging.”

That human need to connect and belong, derived for many from a distinct sense of place, is one of the most troubling aspects of the malling phenomenon so far as Marci Reaven is concerned. In a phone call, Reaven, managing director of City Lore, a nonprofit organization whose mission celebrates the richness of New York City’s cultural heritage, told me that “when you get a critical mass of sameness in a bounded space,” whether because of an overabundance of banks, pharmacies, or any other entity, “it can’t help but change the experience of the passersby and residents.”

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According to Reaven, the humanity and cultural heritage reflected in the character of a block or a neighborhood is what creates a deeper level of engagement vital to sustaining a community. Humanity, often reflected in the architectural and design details discarded in the malling process, is what makes one feel as though “the place is reaching out to you or its meeting you on its own terms.” Walking by yet one more bank, Reaven said, she just doesn’t feel anything “sincere about the way it’s reaching out” to her.

Details reminding us of the human capacity to inspire and create, a quality as vital as oxygen to some, are too often being stripped from historic structures in Harlem, according to Cecil Corbin-Mark, director of policy initiatives for the nonprofit We Act, a West Harlem Environmental Organization. A former chair of the landmarks preservation committee of his community planning board, Corbin-Mark told me in a phone interview that Harlem had always been awash in the sort of detail that might make Felten’s heart sing. One of the great things about being a Harlemite, he said, had long been the ability to walk along its streets “and be totally astounded by the different fabrics of the neighborhood and how they are woven together.” But now, Corbin-Mark said, many of those fine details that had helped define Harlem’s character have been buried, for example, under drab concrete facing in place of beautiful “copper cornices that played like an architectural symphony.”

Perhaps shielded by misconception, Corbin-Mark said that because Harlem has, in some ways, been off the radar of many of the national retail chain stores, much of the area has actually been spared the more aggressive malling phenomenon that has taken shape in other parts of the city. But he was quick to add that one of the most storied streets in the world has taken a direct and hard hit: “You could land on 125th Street, take away the signs that say ‘Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard,’ and you could be anywhere. You could be in Peoria.”

That sort of surrealistic sameness observed by Corbin-Mark and here dubbed the “malling of Gotham,” was at the heart of an op-ed in the New York Times last Dec. 30. In it, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, summed up the phenomenon pretty neatly when he wrote that “[t]raveling in a straight line is no longer much different than traveling in a circle.”

Proud to report that the particular stretch of Park Slope, Brooklyn, he calls home still evokes the exhilarating feel of a carnival, Michael Devonshire, partner at JHPA, Inc., Preservation Architects, regrets the fact that other parts of Brooklyn have been completely muffled. Following a recent walk up Park Slope’s 4th Avenue corridor, which has been undergoing intense development, Devonshire, who also teaches at Columbia, said “the new stuff is heartless.” Dismissing the development out of hand, Devonshire described it as “Fauxbusean minimalism driven not so much by good design as by what’s available in the materials catalogs.” And without the crafted details that make Gotham Gotham, he added, it’s all “just totally vanilla.”

Devonshire’s fellow Brooklynite, Norman Mintz, and co-author (with Roberta Brandes Gratz) of Cities Back from the Edge, agrees. While Mintz told me that in Brooklyn it’s been happening more in piecemeal, rather than the more pervasive malling he’s observed in Manhattan, he’s still worried that “all these nibbles have been adding up.”

So, since it would appear the malling of Gotham has tentacles spreading in every which direction, the question is what to do about it. And on that score, there also seems to be some consensus. While landmarking has long been a cherished tool in the preservationist’s kit, to blunt the malling of Gotham, many are turning to zoning for answers.

Citing ordinances that have scotched the malling effect on San Francisco and Seattle, Kurt Cavanaugh, managing director of the nonprofit East Village Community Coalition, is hoping to convince the City to designate “even a block or two” in the East Village for a pilot program to showcase the impact that a “formula retail zoning ordinance” like the one enacted in Bay Area could have on development and design practices in Gotham. The point, Cavanaugh told me in a phone interview, is to always be mindful of scale and context so as not to undermine the valuable character of a neighborhood.

Curiously, some scholars contend that Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871), off which Burton’s new movie riffs, actually had a great deal to do with the sort of size and scale contemporary developers and designers seem to ignore, at least in Gotham.

With that thought in mind, perhaps, my suggestion that Felten duck out during lunch to see Burton’s new Alice would be even more effective if it were extended to include the City’s development community, too. Who knows? Between Alice’s mathematical lessons in scale, and its whimsical delight in architectural detail, Gotham might start looking less like a mall and more like a Burton movie. Better that than bland!

Please send preservation news tips and info to: [email protected].

Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.

The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.

But in the build-up to World War II, the economy quickly contracted in fear, and the hopeful wager that had been placed on the Hippodrome property failed to yield the anticipated winnings. Gambling on a dazzling short-term payoff quickly gave way to the humble reality that razing a theater once described by Streetscapes author Christopher Gray as “one of the most unusual theatrical venues ever built,” produced nothing more than a tedious parade of blueprints, drawings, plans and ideas about what to do with the idle property.

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  • Dervla

    What an amazing place we’d live in if NYC looked like something out of Tim Burton’s imagination! As Susan writes, maybe that’s a little extreme, but some more character in the faceless buildings springing up around the city these days like mushrooms would be appreciated.

  • Tabetha Garman

    As I was reading, I immediately thought of my hometown of San Francisco– and how Haight/Ashbury, once home to an Alice in Wonderland (or perhaps Through the Looking Glass would be more accurate to true Carroll fans) vibe, now looks like an over-sized strip mall. Then I thought of mimsy borogroves and mome raths outgrabing as they should and…
    Not only our architecture, but our entire society could use a healthy dose of whimsy. We’ve lost touch with our creative, child-like wonder on the whole. Its reflected in everything– from the blanding trend so neatly explained in Ms. Hefti’s article, to fashion (the 1980’s…really? that’s inspiration?), to the cookie-cutter way we design our houses and decorate our lives– all the way through to our politics and our opinions. Everything is weighted with deadly seriousness, and we promptly start spinning in ever shrinking circles of averageness. We are boring America. We need to shake ourselves up and let out our inner Alice.
    Old houses and buildings have whimsy– can anyone think of anything architecturally more whimsical than a Victorian house or the Hippodrome as discussed a few Preservation articles back? And we gaily knock them down with nary a thought to make way for the glass-boxed Gap…its enough to make one mad as a hatter.

  • Brigid Rumpf

    This article really speaks to an issue that I hold dear to my heart….as a working graphic designer in NYC and a New Yorker born and bred and someone who “lives in the details”…my city — my surroundings — my Gotham are my muse. It is the sanitation of individuality!!I am so happy to see it discussed here! Susan Hefti is insightful and knows always how to find a hot topic.

  • Amy Wittorff

    After September 11th, the city was emotionally drained for a while. Life was especially stark in lower Manhattan where I served as the Director of Fraunces Tavern Museum for several years. Conversation everywhere, even on NYC’s ordinarily rowdy subways, was suddenly hushed. The trauma that leveled the towers, and took from us so many friends and family members, left the city feeling flat and enervated. The Yankees tried to do their best to lift our spirits that year; swinging their bomber bats with a smile. But the city and everybody in it was, for the most part, just going through the motions. And the recession that followed was equally merciless.

    Now, as NYC struggles to bounce back from yet another recession, the last thing it needs is more bland box stores and condo complexes. These mausoleums are about as inspiring as dry toast.

    Here’s to the magical world that has and will continue to feed the imagination of some of America’s greatest artists, thinkers, innovators, entrepreneurs and performers. She may have been a Victorian Brit. But, Alice’s spirit is ALL Gotham ALL the time!

  • Kelly Ann

    Another awesome column from The Preservation Diaries! I have to cop to being a Banana fan, right off. But paramount to having a retail presence in NYC should always be the unparalleled opportunity to be a part of the world’s most vibrant cityscape. Would you open a business in Paris and roll up the sidewalk cafes? Whether it’s kitsch or beaux arts, NYC’s storefronts and structures should have as much personality as its denizens. Businesses, especially those bound up with the ideas of design and fashion, should come with their ears and eyes wide open, not with an agenda to emasculate or “tame” the raw energy that IS Gotham. These companies should celebrate NYC for the wonderland that it is: Otherwise, they should just stick to Ohio.

  • meg cullen

    Certainly for the audience of “preservationists” there is overwhelming agreement with S.K. Hefti’s entreaties. Perhaps zoning requirements would be a stopgap to this “malling” effect. To have that occur, there needs to be loud, clear, and massive group action. I do wonder however, if most of the “20-somethings” really care by and large or are they so dismally ignorant of the architectural qualities that make up neighborhoods? Perhaps our schools need to include architecture, design, and the importance of preservaton in curriculum studies.

  • mgp

    Dear SKH:

    Another outstanding article.

    Even if the theme is a bit over the top (“Alice In Wonderland” indeed), the writing is first-rate and the provocative nature of the theme engages the mind and calls for reminiscence and riposte.

    Keep up the good work!


  • SML

    Dear Susan,

    Congratulations on another thought prevoking article and so well written! I was drawn to NYC after college. I lived in Park Slope back in the 80’s and 90’s and felt connected there and in Manhattan with the historic brownstones and great unique structures and architectural detail all around you. The architecture is what felt so real, so alive and you knew it had been there years before you, it had gone through many decades of its own history and therefore your own personal experience was an extention of that history or from films or books you had seen or read about before you came to NYC. I now live in Newport, Rhode Island where the architecture is concentrated with some of the earliest colonial structures in the nation preserved and maintained and kept in tact and appreciated for the period. Thank God for preservationists, like Doris Duke who helped save many of Newport’s structures and history. The blandness that we are all seeing now in many parts of the nation is a reflection of the the stark reality that character is out of fashion. We must not let this die and must find substance and do our small or large part to build awareness to the ignorant or bland personalities who could be doing better designing and building our new structures so they become treasures we can all enjoy. Thank you Susan for enlightening us all once again. I am a true fan of your writing and spirited thoughtfulness. Keep up the great work!
    SML in Newport