The Malling of Gotham

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By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
ThePreservationDiaries@gmail.com

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…”

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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.”

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: ThePreservationDiaries@gmail.com.

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.