New York, The Unfinished City

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.

This article was published before at ThinkMarkets.