Remaking NYC

Remaking NYC April 24, 2018

In an essay exploring (in typical Marxian fashion) the cultural effects of late capitalism (specifically on architecture), Frederic Jameson tells a fascinating story about the Rockefeller Center, drawing on Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York.

Fitch’s story is about the conspiracy to change New York City from a manufacturing town to a town full of offices and services. He has plenty of evidence to draw on, like this from a businessman of the 1920s:

“Some of the poorest people live in conveniently located slums on high-priced land. On patrician Fifth Avenue, Tiffany and Woolworth, cheek by jowl, offer jewels and jimcracks from substantially identical sites. Childs’ restaurants thrive and multiply where Delmonico’s withered and died. A stone’s throw from the stock exchange the air is filled with the aroma of roasting coffee; a few hundred feet from Times Square with the stench of slaughter houses. In the very heart of this ‘commercial’ city, on Manhattan Island south of 59th Street, the inspectors in 1922 found nearly 420,000 workers employed in factories. Such a situation outrages one’s sense of order. Everything seems misplaced. One yearns to rearrange things to put things where they belong.”

Property holders in Manhattan were, Fitch argues, behind the change, since they could enjoy a 1000fold increase in rental income if they rented office space rather than factories.

The Rockefeller family was among the leaders in this change. They leased land from Columbia University on a 21-year lease. Problem was, Jameson explains, “Rockefeller Center is initially a failure, that is to say, occupancy rates in the 1930s range only from ‘30 per cent to 60 per cent’ owing to its eccentric positioning in the midtown. Furthermore, many of the tenants were peers whom the Rockefellers made special arrange- ments to attract—or to coerce, as the case may be. ‘It was Nelson who had digested the results of the transit study which the family had com- missioned to find out why Rockefeller Center was empty. The principal reason, the consultants explained, was that Rockefeller Center lacked access to mass transit. It was too far from Times Square. Too far from Grand Central. Mass transit was the key to healthy office development. The automobile was killing it'” (quotations from Fitch).

What to do? Jameson outlines the options: “either the lease with Columbia is modified in their favour—understandably enough, the University is unwilling to comply—or it is abandoned altogether, with disastrous losses. Or the area immediately surrounding the Center is favourably developed, by the Rockefellers themselves: a solution that in effect means pouring good money after bad. Or else: ‘other obstacles seemed insuperable without changing the structure of the city, but this is precisely what the family now proceeded to do. Ultimately, the city officials proved far easier to manipulate than the trustees of Columbia University or the thirties real estate market.’ It is a breathtaking and Promethean proposition: to change the whole world in order to accommodate the self” (quotations from Fitch).

It worked. The Rockefellers helped to remake city to ensure that their investment paid off.

Fitch rejects impersonal “systematic” explanations of the Rockefeller’s actions. He’s no Marxist. But Jameson is, and he argues that the Rockefeller story neatly exemplifies Marx’s theories concerning the power of economic system to constrain and control the outcomes of individual choices:

“the Rockefellers were very conscious of their project, which was a completely rational one. As for the systemic consequences, we are of course free to suppose that they could not foresee them, or even that they did not care. But on the dialectical reading, those consequences are part and parcel of a systemic logic which is radically different from the logic of individual action, with which it can only rarely, and with great effort, be held together within the problematic confines of a single thought.”

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