Sometimes it helps to stand back and look for the big truths hiding in plain sight amidst massive mounds of little insights, false positives, mistaken assumptions and, well yes, wishful thinking.
Such a truth revealed itself as I took my regular Fitbit-inspired walk around Manhattan today. I started on the Upper East Side in the 90s and headed 35 or so blocks south, before heading back up: my roughly10,000-step daily requirement and all logged before 9:00 AM. Invigorating, right? Well, not quite.
An Urban Wasteland
Typically, I walk down Park or Madison Avenues and then across 60th and back up Fifth Avenue, heading into Central Park (on really ambitious days), before cutting back to Lexington for the final leg of my round. Little by little over the course of the summer and fall, I have watched small retail wither away on Madison and Lexington, along with the major crosstown thoroughfares. I have watched residential streets become emblazoned with townhouse-for-sale signs, prestigious buildings trot out “apartment-for-rent, inquire within” stanchions posted at their entrances and I have seen those stores remain vacant and those signs remain up indefinitely. If you’re following my walking path, you’ll make the turn northward just about the point of no return, e.g., Barney’s, its windows ablaze with signs reminding you that Fred’s, the restaurant on nine, remains open. It too, of course, is shuttered, so we confront yet another lie littering the landscape.
Our community leadership, instead of leading, has been watching the weathervane spin and mistaking it for a compass.
A year or so ago, a reporter for The Commercial Observer described Soho as looking like a “gap-toothed child,” reflecting the spotty, on-again, off-again appearance of these oh-so-chic retail streets. Well, that child has aged quickly and now what was once the world of a six-year-old’s predictable growing phase has become the new look of retail in Manhattan transformed into the placid look of an aging face. Sadly, it’s not a pretty look nor graceful aging. It’s premature death. These stores along my walk and throughout New York are not coming back until, or if the residential real estate gaps are filled in again.
And when will that happen?
Big Little Lies
This is what I mean about big truths hiding in plain sight. It’s not just about conventional retail dying, although it is, here and elsewhere in the world. It’s not just about residents fleeing the city, and not just this city, but all cities.
It’s about the delinquency of civic leadership, which is the MIA of this crisis. Our community leadership, instead of leading, has been watching the weathervane spin and mistaking it for a compass. Our local leaders intone the mindless boosterism of a Chamber of Commerce, chanting “New Yorkers have gotten through the 70s, 9/11, the financial meltdown, and we’ll get through this.” But here we are. We have a legacy of national leaders who questioned masks before they encouraged them, cancelled school, before it started — and then cancelled it again. They doubt vaccine efficacy before they’re ready to embrace it. All the while, public services such as transportation, sanitation and healthcare have been enfeebled through slapdash budgetary coercions.
Where Are Our Leaders?
Ask any genuine leader how to lead and she will tell you: First, state the vision. Then, identify the objectives essential to bring the vision to life. Then, the strategies to achieve the objectives. Then, the tactics you’ll use to deliver the strategies. Then, the metrics by which you’ll know if you’re succeeding or need to retool.
Is there a cohesive plan to reimagine urban community vibrancy? Here or anywhere? What has happened instead seems to be a radical refusal of those within the conventional hierarchy to lead our way out of this abyss. The stock market is forging new highs, the vaccines are en route, and a new government has been elected. But the legacy of the leaders of the past nine months seems to be a delegation of authority to the lowest possible levels. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but our leaders have simply dithered in what has become a willful dereliction of duty. Sadly, we have just about run out of time.
Nature abhors a vacuum, if you don’t tend your garden it will be choked with weeds. Thus, in the absence of any serious, multilateral, cohesive approach to urban reimagining, each community must go at a solution on its own. Each tiny retailer. Each minor landlord. Each performance space. Each coffee shop and restaurant. Each hotel and airline. Each church, mosque and synagogue.
It is as though we are living in a 2020 version of an Ayn Rand brutal, objectivist industrial world. Or more recently, as seen on this season of The Crown, an unforgiving Thatcheresque didactic vision of personal responsibility as the antidote to powerful and pervasive cultural atrophy. And so, the dystopian city and the country continue to bleed, hemorrhaging jobs, power and, yes, compassion.
The Brave March Forward
What is needed is not the audacity of hope, but rather the audacity of leadership. We long for leaders who have the willingness writ large to envision a unified thesis of what the next normal entails and how we will get from here to there, identifying the mile markers along the path and describing what success will look like. The future will be different if we learn the lessons of the past and the present. Right now, we have a glimpse of it in exactly the same way we have the intimation of reality that’s refracted from a disco ball, contingent on where we’re dancing and what Kool-Aid we’ve been imbibing.
The essential problem of envisioning a new future, as Faith Popcorn will tell you, is that you’re almost certainly going to get it wrong. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put a stake in the ground.
Our local leaders have met their deer-in-the-headlights moment and they are now in a transitional moment bridging the past to a still uncertain future. Unwilling to place bets on any forceful, unified course of action. Frightened of the potential cascading effects of unintended outcomes or poll numbers or future career potential. The lamest of lame ducks, willing only to decry the situation and what others have or have not done.
And so, we walk on, through a grim crisis of metaphysical proportions. We walk through the urban landscape, rather than circle the scenic Central Park Reservoir. We imagine a vision for this city: to become the model, the first mover of a new urban community vibrancy. We state the essential objectives:
- A robust small business and entrepreneurial engine, flexible enough to serve a neighborhood and future focused enough to create a national and, dare one say it, global constituency.
- A boundary shifting arts and culture scene that thrills and amazes, demanding to be seen.
- A series of welcoming, affordable neighborhoods, easily reached by clean and efficient mass transit, offering world-class education, recreation and wellness services.
There are more concrete goals than the musings of my wanderings. We hope, springing eternal, that our leaders ponder them, align and state them publicly. Nothing in life happens without an idea and perfect ideas do not spring from Zeus’s head. They need a plan. And plans need to be executed. Imagine above all what it might be like to have a shared vision of a meaningful future, even now in the winter of our discontent.