THE BLOG
12/11/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Why Is New York So Ugly?

Fred Bernstein

There are parts of New York that are beautiful; my favorites include the art-deco oasis that is Rockefeller Center and the brilliantly designed Brooklyn Bridge Park. But too much of the city is grimy, gray and grim. Even after years of economic growth, and despite efforts of well-funded and well-meaning groups like the Municipal Art Society, New York still poses extreme aesthetic challenges. Here's my guide to the blots:

1) Roll-down shutters

In 2003, I wrote a piece demanding the city outlaw roll-down shutters, those graffiti-splotched garage doors that turn storefronts into rusty metal eyesores and, collectively, reduce entire shopping streets to visual back alleys. Not enough has changed since then (despite some tepid City Council action). Truly, these are the gates of hell.

2) Newspaper boxes that sit empty

Claiming a First Amendment right to distribute printed matter almost anywhere, publishers cluttered already-crowded sidewalks with cheaply-made plastic receptacles. Now many of the publication are defunct, but the boxes survive, unclaimed, like the plastic that swirls around in the Pacific Ocean. Adding insult to injury, they end up as trash pails of last resort.

3) Gum

Don't look down, unless you're prepared to contemplate the millions of dirty lumps formed from expectorated chewing. Deb Stead's brilliant New York Times article, Out, Damned Spot, told the whole disgusting story.

4) Food carts and newsstands

Under a 2013 ordinance, food carts can't be larger than 5 feet by 10 feet, including all attachments. But even the legal ones seem larger, with their cantilevered LED signs and detached coolers. (The ones outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art are a world-class eyesore.) Then there are "newsstands" that have grown into sidewalk mini-malls; just try to find a newspaper amid the drinks and iPhone chargers.

5) Retail vandalism

There's a disconnect between the upper floors of many older New York buildings, with their beautiful masonry and metal details, and the buildings' ground level capitulation to retail realities: There, tacky and overly large signage destroys every vestige of architectural grandeur.

6) Trash bags

New York lacks back alleys; that means trash has to be put out at the curb. And, given the size of some New York buildings, the piles of Hefty bags are Alps of awfulness, both physical and visual affronts to decency. It doesn't help that the city requires clear bags for recycling. Hurrah; now we can see the drek inside!

7) Sidewalk sheds

That's the official term for scaffolding that shields pedestrians from construction up above. But why are there so many of them, collecting litter and abandoned bicycles for no apparent reason, year after year?

8) Loading docks

New Yorkers shouldn't have to dodge trucks loading and unloading, and they wouldn't have to if the city asked more of developers. (Rockefeller Center solved the problem 80 years ago). Too many midtown blocks are more hospitable to tractor-trailers than to people.

9) Schmutz

Ever wonder why Manhattan's snow turns black? The answer is the city's special brand of filth: a mix that includes diesel exhaust (mostly from trucks and buses) and ground-up rubber, particles released when tires roll over uneven surfaces. Keeping the streets in better shape would keep the rubber on the road, where it belongs. In the meantime, you might want to disrobe at the front door.

10) Litter

Every litter bit hurts. If so, there's a lot of hurting happening around the city. A generation ago, TV watchers were reminded, by an actor playing an Indian, that litter is disgusting. He cried, but these days he might puke. It's time for a new campaign, targeting litterers, modeled on the one that made smokers pariahs.

11) Mid-block chain hotels

The developer Sam Chang and his architect, Gene Kaufman, have ruined dozens of Manhattan blocks with their hotels for brands like Hampton Inn and Candlewood Suites. The buildings' identifying features: cheaply-made facades, often in primary colors, set back just far enough to ruin the building lines, but not far back enough to create usable public spaces. They undermine the very urban qualities that make people want to visit New York in the first place.

12) Shade

It's not just Central Park that is going to be left in shadow as supertall bulidings proliferate; much of the city has already gone dark. Sure, that's the price of living in Gotham, but maybe the Department of City Planning should establish permanent "sunlight" pockets -- places to enjoy a slice of New York's original rays.