Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.

Mayor Bill De Blasio used his 2015 State of the City address, delivered at Baruch College, to focus on the high stakes of New York City’s affordable housing crisis, and how his administration intends to address housing as a policy matter. I found it particularly hopeful that De Blasio identified the important roles of land use regulations and additional, market-rate units in solving the chronic shortage of affordable units in the city.

Greene St and Prince St One Way signs, Soho. New York City 2005

Frank Thurston Green has a piece on the political role of street signs at — where else? — a page called New York City Street Signs.


A vision of Hudson Yards. Source: KPF (fair use).

This story is consistent with what I’ve been hearing, and it suggests that the growing unionization of the New York metropolitan workforce is being driven by strength in the real estate sector.

It’s going to be a strong few years for new construction in the Tri-state area. Hudson Yards is now seriously getting underway; the Cornell-Technion project is gaining momentum; and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center continues. Add to these the residential booms in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens; the blue-collar renaissance of the West Bronx; de Blasio’s push for more affordable housing units, citywide; the commodification of NYC residential units, and the sliverscrapers it has spawned; and the potential upzoning of East Midtown; and it’s hard to miss seeing that New York real estate is entering a significant phase of expansion. If confidence fades, this could change, but a lot of these projects are already approved and financed, and right now the momentum remains strong.

This, right now, is a heyday for New York City. America may still be in moderately bad shape, post-2008, but New York City has never been wealthier, safer, more polished, or more in demand. The uptick in local construction activity is creating a lot of new union jobs in Greater New York, which is good for working people’s incomes — and it signals their growing political clout, as well.