Lower Manhattan is an area of approximately one square mile bordered on the north by Canal Street, by the Battery to the south, and stretching from the Hudson River to the East River. Until the 1920s, this area was a thriving multi-use region, known as Downtown, housing a mixture of heavy industry, small businesses, factories, and low and middle-income housing. From the 1920s to the present day, huge shifts have come to this area, transforming it from a mixed-use space where people lived and worked to a vertical zone of financial offices. High-end retail and residential buildings have priced out heavy industry and working class housing, and the busy mixed-use waterfront has been filled in with land to create parks and retail whose purpose is to attract international finance to locate its offices in New York.
New York City, 1933.
New York City, 2012.
No part of New York City has been subjected to as much planning as downtown Manhattan Two major influences on the planning of this area have been the Regional Plan Association (RPA), founded in 1922 by Morgan bankers, Rockefeller Foundation directors, and real estate developers, and the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association (DLMA), created in 1958 by financier David Rockefeller.
By looking at the urban visions of these two influential groups, a story of the transformation of bustling Lower Manhattan into the rebranded “Central Business District” comes to light. Rather than the narrative of “market forces” as the driving principle behind planning in New York, the archives of these groups show that their determined planning and strategic recommendations played a key role in the re-shaping of Lower Manhattan. The transformation of this area was not an inevitable shift, but the product of zoning changes and tax breaks that pushed Downtown to conform to the visions of these groups.
The First Regional Plan, 1928.
The existing zoning of New York in 1928. The areas in black are zoned for use by Heavy Industry
The vision of the First Regional Plan. The areas of heavy industry have been shifted out of Lower Manhattan, and replaced by large swathes of white – areas where heavy industry is explicitly excluded.
Today’s New York resembles the vision of the RPA’s 1928 plan to a remarkable degree. Finance has replaced heavy industry, and the ports, which once handled over 50% of U.S. exports, have been shifted off Manhattan.
In 1958, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner assembled a team of urban designers, planners, and architects to make a plan for the future of downtown Manhattan. Based on a plan created by the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association, they created a 368-page document entitled The Lower Manhattan Plan.
David Rockefeller, chairman of the DMLA, shows the vision of the organization to NYC mayor Robert Wagner, November 20 1963.
The DMLA’s vision for Lower Manhattan, 1968. Its correspondence to the 1928 RPA plan, and to present day Lower Manhattan, is once again striking.
“Areas and Structure of Permanent Value,” as delimited by the DLMA plan, seek to preserve the business zone, while marking the industrialized fringes of Lower Manhattan as wasted space.
In the 15 years spanning 1958-1973, nearly 47 million square feet of new office space was created in Lower Manhattan. The centerpieces of the DLMA building boom were the World Trade Center complex, the Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters (1961), the Home Insurance building (1965) and the Jacob Javits federal office building (1968).
Between 1950 and 1990, more than 700,000 manufacturing jobs (two-thirds of the total) disappeared from NYC. In the same period, national factory employment rose by more than a third. Manhattan’s deindustrialzation was not a mere accident, but the planned redesign of the city to service the needs of finance before the needs of the population.
The disregard for the citizens of the city was made resoundingly clear in the response to the financial crisis of New York in the late 1970s. The near bankruptcy of the city was greeted not with federal aid, but with austerity measures that handed the control of the city’s budget over to a group of financiers who cut public services across the board: CUNY implemented tuition fees for the first time, public transportation was left unrepaired, garbage collections became less frequent, and the funding for hospitals was slashed.
President Ford refused to bail out the finances of the city, a policy that led The New York Daily News to run the famous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” (October 27, 1975).
While this seizing of the city’s democratically elected leadership by financial interests was achieved through a rhetoric of crisis, the change in leadership remained after the financial crisis passed. By 1978 the books were balanced, however, the Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB), formed three years earlier, dropped “Emergency” from its name, and continued to act as the Financial Control Board; the quiet seizing of the control of urban space by the interests of finance.
The use of a vocabulary of emergency and economic risk has become part of the rhetoric of the Regional Plan Association: their last two plans are entitled “A Region at Risk” (1996) and “Fragile Success” (2014) are indicative of the premise that urban space must be defended against economic failure.
The Second Regional Plan, “A Region at Risk” 1996.