Opinion: Plotting a course for Manhattan

As the steward of our borough’s historical maps, the Manhattan borough president’s office will be teaming up with Open House New York this October to display a rarely seen gem: 92 hand-drawn plots of Manhattan by cartographer John Randel Jr., including the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan that created Manhattan’s street grid from Houston Street to 155th Street.

It’s hard to overstate the economic importance of Mayor DeWitt Clinton’s initiative to construct the grid. This was the “big idea” of its time, dwarfed only by Clinton’s visionary project as governor to carve the Erie Canal out of upstate rock and seal New York City’s destiny as the nation’s center of trade and commerce.

Other big ideas followed throughout the 19th century, including Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the consolidation of the five boroughs. Although many of these development milestones profited private investors and developers, they also greatly improved the quality of life for all. There’s a sharp contrast between those public projects and today’s tax expenditures, which subsidize private luxury residential construction in the borough – towers that offer little tangible benefit for the public at large.

Thinking big is in Manhattan’s DNA, and despite prevailing sentiment that the borough has become affordable only for the rich, I am confident that in the years ahead we can revive this legacy of big ideas that make life better for everyone.

For my State of the Borough forum in February, we asked Manhattanites to tweet their vision of Manhattan’s future. Many took to Twitter to articulate not only their aspirations, but fears as well, and the one we heard most often can be summarized thusly: “If we don’t have affordable housing, we don’t have a city.”

One tweet captured the frustration of many in noting how the absence of affordable housing resulted in “working New Yorkers stuck with long subway/bus ride early in the morning and late at night.” A study released this spring by Comptroller Scott Stringer showed that New York City workers have the longest commute times among workers in the 30 largest U.S. cities – an average of 6 hours, 18 minutes per week – and have little flexibility in their schedules.

Many who work in Manhattan cannot afford to live there – NYPD officers included – and a teetering transit system is just salt in the wound. At a time when our city’s annual subway ridership has reached its highest point in 65 years, the subways largely operate with an ancient signal system and other outdated capital equipment.

Chronic crisis control – whether fighting tooth and nail to preserve existing rent-subsidized apartments or begging the governor for adequate funding to bring the MTA into the 21st century – is no way for Manhattan to be dreaming big in 2015.

We need transformative ideas on the order of those that mapped out our island in the early 19th century. The best route to achieving these ideas is for city government to work with nonprofit and corporate partners and with the public at large, especially the volunteer members of Manhattan’s 12 community boards, to widen the whiteboard and find new places where our goals intersect.

Ironically, if we really want to emulate the chutzpah of the DeWitt Clinton era, we’ll need to start by going off the grid.

 

Gale Brewer is the Manhattan borough president. 

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