New York, the unfinished city

by Sandy Ikeda

A friend from France, who is both an artist and an economist, on a visit to New York last year said she loves this place so much because every time she comes here she always finds it new and interesting. Well, couldn’t you say that about any great city? Apparently not.

Thomas Bender’s The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea observes:

Those who have Paris or Vienna or Budapest or Mexico City or Buenos Aires (or one of many other cities) in their minds as proper metropolitan centers will be disappointed by New York. From such a point of view New York has not yet completed its progress to full metropolitan status. But that perspective radically mistakes the case. New York’s character is to be unfinished. It is not a failed or incomplete example of something else; it is sui generis…It’s very essence is to be continually in the making, to never be completely resolved.

Max Page describes this process in terms of the dialectic between economic development and city planning, in his interesting and informative book, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, where he quotes O. Henry’s famous quip: “It’ll be a great place if they ever finish it.”

So whom does this place, qua city, really appeal to? It’s a challenge to love, really love, New York as it is (and not just a little corner but big chunks of it). And I think it takes more than ambition or a stomach for the bizarre (although without this you don’t have a chance). I think you have to be able to tolerate witnessing the new pushing aside the old again and again, anywhere. And to know that being at the cutting edge takes a readiness not only to endure deep disappointments but also to be the cause of them.

Beauty emerges from this chaos, and with patience you can see it. But I believe this takes a certain comfort with paradoxes. For an economist it means embracing inefficiency; for an artist, accepting profound pain and ugliness. I know at least one person then who can do both.


New York, as a living city, is always becoming. (You could argue that it embodies the basic Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, one interpretation of which is “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.”) As such, it can’t be perfected or efficient or ideal – or preserveable because you can’t do that to something that’s still alive. If you try, you may end up killing it or, what’s the same thing, stifling its spontaneity. At most you can alter the direction of its becoming – and then hope, because there’s really no telling where it will go from there.


12 thoughts on “New York, the unfinished city

  1. It’s funny, but for almost 200 years people basically say the same thing – although for very different reasons – about the city I live in.

  2. Bogdan,

    The French/Parisian influence is manifest. You’ve just added another world city to my “must visit” list. Thanks.

  3. This unfinished quality of New York is precisely the opposite of what GK Chesterton praises in Edinburgh in a short essay called “The Way to the Stars.”

    Some cities are really successful and present the solid and definite achievement of the thing at which their builders aimed.

    But if the aim has been achieved already, what is left for current and future generations to do but preserve the city as it is. I think Jane Jacobs called this “taxidermy.”

    So the city must remain flexible if is to become home for each generation.

    Chesterton’s essay is interesting and short. It’s worth reading as a an example of the opposite opinion. It’s diifcult to find, so I’ve scanned a pdf at

  4. That was just loaded with typos, wasn’t it? I really should scan these before I hit submit.

  5. Patrick,

    First, Edinburgh was already on my list — thank you very much for taking the trouble to scan that essay.

    Second, a contrast indeed! See how he characterizes Birmingham as a “failure” because of its “ugliness” “a jungle…confused and anarchic.” Well, he wouldn’t like NYC would he? Jane Jacobs calls this same Birmingham a success for its diverse use of space that promotes long-term dynamic economic stability (while Manchester is not because of its monolithic textile industry).

    The passage you cite captures it. Moreover, the value he places on “certainty, conviction, and dogma’ may it be appropriate (or not) wrt to what is essential about man but, because he seems to view cities as wholly man-made things, completely at odds with what I call (following Roberta Gratz) the “living city.”

  6. I enjoyed this post. New York is a living city, reflecting the dynamic classical liberal foundations of the continent which gave birth to it.

    Europeans have always found us backward and anarchic, but that is because they live in a museum. I love Europe, but America is where dreams are realized.

    Regarding Birmingham, I think it’s urban design is fine — it was the smell that made me nauseated when I visited. While I marveled at the Bull Ring development, I had to fight to keep down my lunch!

  7. The people who least understand the dynamic nature of New York are the natives. To them, the best New York is the one they grew up in, in whatever era. In my neighborhood of Bushwick, the bien pensant natives and their college-liberal newcomer cheerleaders glorify crime, filth, poverty, projects, welfare, and crumbling buildings. Anything taller, prettier, cleaner, any amount more expensive, any slightly different food than rice and beans slapped on a paper plate, the very glimpse of a white or Asian face, is an assault not just on “New York” — the quotes are because what they consider to be “NY” is just their narrow reverse-provincial experience — but on their race/ethnicity. This of course ignores that there are many “gentrifiers” who share their (at least ethnic) background.

    There is a huge building that went up (by Bushwick standards) a few years ago — it’s 14 stories and is full of “luxury” condos. The local activist types protest it because they say it’s the face of gentrification. They have no room in their brains for the realization that more housing for the wealthy means less displacement of the poor — if they can move in their own newer housing, they won’t price you out of your old, cheaper digs. I loathe the building myself for aesthetic reasons — not because it’s tall, that’s the best part of this dump, but because it’s surrounded by a concrete parking lot (despite the fact that nobody will be driving in that congested area right next to the subway) and looks like a hospital from 1983. But I digress.

  8. As a native New Yorker (Manhattanite), I have seen many changes here. In one sense it is a different place than I remember in the 1950s/60s but in another sense it is not. Things were always changing then as they are now. Different groups moving in and then moving out. Lots of “lunatics” — but perhaps fewer visible now. I remember a “nutty” man on the subway, during the War in Vietnam, talking to himself about the bombing of Cambodia and making very good sense. Antagonisms between ethnic groups are nothing new — the new comers are always looked down on. But (most of them) get ahead and move on. The New York “aristocracy” stays and looks on with interest and excitement.

  9. Dear Sandy,

    Bucharest is architecturally the most eclectic European capital. In the old part – what’s left of it at least – the French neoclassicism is predominant, but one can also find buildings in French baroque, romantic or art-déco style, German neo-Gothic, Italian Tuscan villas or renaissance elements and anything in between, even a 2 or 3 small American art-deco skyscrapers, built in the 1930 – plus some original local styles : some “oriental” inns from the 18th century, the so called neo-Neo-Romanian or Brancovan (something invented shortly after WWI and inspired by the unique, Venetian and Byzantine influenced style of the 18th century palaces of prince by that name which right outside the city) and the “cubist style”, in many ways a Romanian version of Bauhaus created by Dada architect and painter Marcel Iancu (or Janco in English form) – and, unfortunately, the megalomaniac “New Civic Center” in Ceausescu style, for lack of another term. One can also find almost every church style you can think of, though most churches are Muntenian or Vallachian post-Byzantine, plus an exact 8th sister of those Stalinist skyscrapers that make up the Moscow skyline; neighbourhoods full of communist flats (2 or 3 production lines in the 42-43 years, no significant difference though); and lately more and more big glass buildings and suburbs with funky, expensive houses.

    The city grew rapidly in the last 8 years and is looking better; it’s pretty safe, but the traffic is a nightmare and there still are many infrastructure problems, legacy form the more recent or the more distant past. What can be seen now is the remains of layers upon layers of a never finished cycle of building and destruction that has been going on for centuries, either as a result of military conquests, earthquakes or political planning and repression.

  10. Bogdan, thanks very much for your imformative follow-up. As you may know, early in its history (founded 1624 as New Amsterdam) until the Civil War, fires and other man-made catastrophes did sweep across the city from time to time. Since then, political power, especially under Robert Moses, demolished neighborhoods and damaged private lives from the 1940s to the 1960s. It abated somewhat after that, but we have seen a resurgence of mega-projects in the present century in the form of public-private developments, most of which have been put on hold for the time being — a silver lining perhaps of the current economic cloud.

  11. Americans tend to discard most cities, New York being an exception as with a few others. Boston eradicated most of the old city. Funny, most of the urban renewal plans and American suburban design came from architects that left Europe. I’d rather have some of that museum quality of Europe, which doesn’t throw away grandeur of the past for some compound style suburbs on the fridge of the city. Instead of gracefully bickering with others most American cities are like Detroit people run for the hills, hide there numbers and constantly let the older areas fall to pieces as if in the wake of continuously outward wave. I’ve even seen where old town instead of trying to add to the town they attach dead ends compounds and shopping centers only to wonder why it doesn’t build a real urban feel.

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