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Saturday February 21, 2004, 11:23

What the hell is up with that building that they're putting up outside my window? Besides the fact that it's going to block my view (which is a self-serving and completely legitimate complaint), this towering monstrosity is going to block out all of the light that falls into one of the last open plazas in Manhattan, stealing from the neighborhood something that, short of a catastrophe, can never be put back.

Walking through Astor Place the other day, I looked downtown and was confronted by the late afternoon sun slowly slipping behind the canyon of buildings a block away. But for the bulk of the late-winter day, the square was well-lit and cheerful and the gaggle of goth kids gathered in the center of the square were laughing and happy.

One block away in any direction, the sun is cut off abruptly by buildings towering over the street below. In fact, wandering through the East Village, there is never any one place other than when crossing an Avenue that one can be bathed in unobstructed light. As the entryway to the village, Astor Place was always the most un-Manhattan of all spots is on the island, undeveloped and welcoming. And though that intersection had quite a bit of what might be considered "dead space" just crying out to be utilized, a lower structure that would continue to allow the area to maintain its character could have been erected. I mean, be a bit creative here, people. To be sure, the low buildings that remain in Manhattan were probably constructed before skyscraper technology had hit its peak, but do we really need to live in a city where air rights are king and the goal is not "best for the community" but "best for my pocketbook?" Surely there is a way to develop a parcel into something that does not contain hundreds of residential units and still remain profitable. Maybe even include some greenery for the hungry masses below.

This would all seem pretty arrogant of me, given my current position in a high-rise overlooking the East Village, in a building that probably garnered the same response from the neighborhood when it was built thirty years ago. But I didn't build the building, and to be perfectly frank, there is not a day that I walk into this building and don't feel a twinge of "what am I doing here? I feel like I'm living in a hotel." But in New York, one does not typically complain about ones dwelling situation, and so I generally have to talk about what a killer view I have (I do) and what a great apartment I have (it is) and how, in reality, it's probably the best place I've ever lived. But as we all know, location is key, and I loved being able to walk out my door and stumble onto St. Marks place, last vestige of the punk-era city, and while the punks these days generally take the train in from Westchester and have to be home by midnight because it's a school night, there is still that energy that doesn't exist in, say, The New Times Square. And now? Well now I can walk out my door and walk down to the street to my neighborhood SuperCuts and Quizno's sub shop and while there are only three Starbucks shops within spitting distance, I can only assume that more are coming.

This is all inevitable, right? If I wanted to live in a village I should be living in Brooklyn, and if I wanted to be living in the suburbs, well I should move to the suburbs, and I should sit somewhere with a lawn and trees and I should suck up the reality of living in a city and if I really want to order sushi at 2 in the morning, well there's a restaurant that delivers because, hell, there are enough people awake at 2 in the morning to even warrant that. And yet there seems to be total disregard for the density of the population, meaning that there is the populace that is all living on top of each other, which would seem to warrant a shifting in attitudes away from extreme rudeness and towards a collective us-against-the-world attitude (heaven forbid it should be something more globally benevolent -- I'll stick with solidarity) and even, say, a sense of duty to make the city a better place to live on behalf of all of its occupants. But that is pretty much the exact opposite of the developers and managers of properties in the city. Oh, and the people who litter. There is a special place in hell reserved for people who rip the celophane wrappers off of their cigarettes and drop them on the floor. I often want to smear dog shit all over their beds, but that's my own issue and I'm dealing with it.

The monthly bill from the management company of my building comes with an extra line item for the renovation of the outdoor common area outside the lobby to the building. Not satisfied with a simple repaving, there has been a full-scale renovation in place for about a year now that started by tearing out the trees and the bushes that lined the patio and has progressed to the point where they are going to close the front door for the next month and a half while they install the front stairs. There is going to be a very nice flower garden next to a fountain, and the walkways have all been nicely constructed, but the notion of "public space," both when it comes to the occupants of the building and the public-at-large has been widely disregarded. This building is one that is supposed to have a certain amount of "public space" built into it, which is one of the reasons why it was able to build as tall as it did. But the city has never really enforced the notion of how public the space actually has to be, to the point where the the newly renovated patio will have even less space for people to sit and eat their lunch and more reason to shoo people away (trampling the flowers will most likely be high on the list of offenses). I can only shudder to imagine how much money it's going to cost to maintain a manicured lawn and flower garden in the middle of the city.

The truth is that everything that could have been done (and I'm speculating here) to make this public space private had been done. This is understandable, to an extent. I mean, nobody wants to have kids hanging out on the stoop as the wealthy tenants walk in and out of the building. And nobody wants to have to go outside for a morning coffee to find someone sleeping on the bench next to the front door. And who knows what the situation was like when the building was first put up. It was probably a matter of safety at that point to keep people away from the occupants of the building. But this renovation gave the property managers and building board the opportunity to build something that could serve both the residents (nice patio means higher property value) while allowing for, oh I don't know, a friendly lunch spot where people could sit in the summer and have a sandwich from one of the local chain restaurants. I mean delis. I mean pizza shops. I mean Au Bon Pain.

In any event, I understand that property prices aren't always going to stay low, and that by building nicer and nicer buildings, the areas will become nicer and nicer and the total amount of usable friendly space in this city will increase, to the overall enjoyment of everyone. But this will never happen if people are miserable everywhere they go because they can't get any sun and if they can't afford to live anywhere because the towering high rises are only rentable to those people who would never want to live in a neighborhood with anything other than a shiny veneer anyway.

But I digress completely. I think that I'm just sun deprived. BRING ON THE SPRING.

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