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The Sky Erasers: Cranes are Falling in the Siege of New York

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"Only connect," E.M. Foster, the famed British novelist wrote. Sometimes my mind does that all on its own without Mr. Foster's injunction. This Sunday afternoon I passed Eliot Spitzer's apartment house on my way home from a trip to the country. The area around the building was blessedly free of the paparazzi who have hounded the Spitzer family and their neighbors for days. I looked at the Fifth Avenue building and my first thought was not of the Spitzer's angst but of the building itself, one of those ugly white brick sixties high-rises now owned by the Spitzer real estate family; a building that replaced one of the great mansions on Fifth Avenue during an earlier building boom in the city. And then I thought of the construction crane that fell in midtown on Second Avenue on Saturday -- one that has been a Godzilla threatening the neighborhood for months and has finally killed some construction workers and possibly some residents of the decimated small buildings below, paralyzing the city for hours and driving many frightened residents from their homes. Such cranes, the sign of new building, are all over New York these days. And then I connected with my thought that they are no longer building skyscrapers but sky erasers. When is enough enough in Mayor Bloomberg's New York? Right now seems a good time to call a halt and look around, take a deep breath while there is air enough to breathe and consider the future of the city.

Michael Bloomberg -- he of the billionaire's self assurance (French for arrogance) and grating out of town accent (sorry Boston) and the appearance of great probity (Latin for wisdom that is derived from being supremely rich) is symbolic of what has happened to my city. I call it mine because I am a born New Yorker, one who was born here and who has lived here for longer than I am allowed to tell by my protective wife who wishes me to keep my false facade of youth. Please don't tell but I've seen most of the changes that have taken place in Manhattan since the end of WWII. No, this isn't the old fogey in me speaking. It's the young man who loved and loves his city and has seen it fall victim to unregulated growth spurred on by unregulated greed. Who is to keep this from happening? The first answer might be the landmark's preservation group run by the immoderately rich and beautiful Amanda Burden. This group now appears to be window dressing for rampant, unchecked development, and is now doing its best to destroy the cultural integrity of Harlem. In recent years residents of Greenwich Village have watched their neighborhood being swallowed whole by a rapacious NYU, and now upper Manhattan is to be eaten alive by an insatiable Columbia University. Great institutions can be as greedy and thoughtless as realtors, there is a Donald Trump lurking inside every University president bursting to get out. God, or is it Bloomberg, only knows how much more building is planned, or was until the current recession occurred.

I live in an apartment house that was built in 1914 in Lennox Hill. Last year our pleasant historic neighborhood was threatened by a new luxury high rise that would have destroyed the low rise character of the neighborhood with its small shops and relatively short buildings, most of which originated before WWII. The developer was buying up some small stores and filing plans to drop his gilded behemoth on to a block that has rows of beautiful19th and early 20th century stores and town houses, one of which was designed by the genius architect Stanford White. Troubled by this development I wrote to Ms. Burden and got a nothing of a reply; that means she wrote back politely but without the passion of one whose business it is to protect a besieged historic neighborhood from just such abominations. I waited for the wrecking ball and the cranes to arrive. They didn't. Only the recent financial ruin of the developer has kept that building from happening, and there is no guarantee that it will not happen someday when market conditions change.

Who lives in these new luxury towers? Who buys these apartments? I dare say many foreigners. That doesn't read nice, does it? We are not talking here about Emma Goldman's huddled masses yearning to be free. We're talking rich Europeans and South Americans seeing a great opportunity. Okay, maybe it's my incipient xenophobia working overtime, but these people are buying up my city with cheap dollars, people who have no commitment to living and working in the city. Bush's monetary policies and his misbegotten war has turned us into a third world country ready to be exploited by richer countries.

I can't stress enough that each new high rise means the destruction of an old neighborhood, and the erasing of a bit more precious air and sky. Jane Jacobs noted this as far back as the fifties; everyone acknowledged her wisdom, but the building went on and Ms. Jacobs moved to Canada. And what does our wise Mayor do about this building? Instead of placing a moratorium on the new construction, he encourages it, making the city unsafe for pedestrians and for drivers. New building means new taxes, and cities run on taxes. He has a decongestion plan to impose new fees on those entering the city from the outer boroughs - the least affluent among us - to reduce the traffic and help clean up the air, and yet no plan to limit growth, a growth which means more energy used and more pollutants entering the atmosphere. Hey, Mr. Mayor, ever think that you could reduce the traffic by reducing the number of new buildings in the city? I am wise enough to know that we can't keep the city under a bubble to prevent change from happening. Cities are about change. But there is change, and then there is carnage disguised as change.

Despite his flip flopping on his party designation, once a Democrat, then a Republican, now a Who Knows What? -- this Mayor will always be a Republican for me. He sees unregulated growth as the key to a fiscally safe and sound city while I see it as unregulated growth that is slowly and steadily erasing my sky, making it harder to breathe and to live in the greatest city in the world. Yes, crime has gone down in the Bloomberg years, but there are more ways to be mugged than having a gun in your back. Sometimes a whole city can be mugged by developers whose only commitment is to the bottom line. And that's why cranes keep falling and people get killed and I get mad.

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