Hudson Yards and the Right to the City

One of the ads on the shiny new electronic stands at Hudson Yards assures us that Wells Fargo and Hudson Yards are “shaping New York’s Future Together.” Wells Fargo is the “preferred bank” of the $25 billion development that opened last week on Manhattan’s West side.

If indeed the future does look like Hudson Yards, it will be a dystopian one. In so many ways, Hudson Yards epitomizes the opposite of the “right to the city” – of city dwellers’ “freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves.”

A walk around Hudson Yards immediately puts many of our rights into question. For example…

The right to privacy

As people move around Hudson Yards, Related, the projects’ main developer, is collecting data about their movements. It will hold the data indefinitely. The electronic towers like the one with the Wells Fargo ad have interactive screens on the side, with tiny cameras installed. Jay Cross, President of Related Hudson Yards has said in a Real Deal interview that so far the primary use of the cameras is to convey information back to advertisers:

“We can say how many people looked at this ad, for how long. Did they seem interested, bored, were they smiling?”

That could just be the start of it, with Related able to share the data to third parties. “We can do what we want with our data,” Cross adds.

The rights to participation and to public space

Forget about it! With significant State-level involvement, there were not the usual City-based checks and balances to make sure that development projects take local, public needs into account. As Samuel Stein, author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” puts it, Hudson Yards is the “ultimate example of real estate-driven urban planning.”

Beyond the lack of community input on the process of developing Hudson Yards, is the fact that it is a development shamelessly targeted at a super-wealthy minority. New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote:

“It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.”

In many people’s minds, New York is associated with an image of chaotic, diverse streets and sidewalks. The sidewalks are places of spontaneous interaction – at times messy, often challenging and fraught with contention – but public interaction all the same.

Hudson Yards, with its concrete spaces surrounded by flat glass walls, destroys the idea of the street.

Ironically, Thomas Heatherwick, the architect of the “Vessel” (aka the “shawarma”) sees it as a “building extension of the public space”. He has described the twisting staircases as an opportunity for an “unspoken choreography as you see each other”. But through the lenses of selfie-taking, instagramming cameras, Vessel visitors don’t see each other, in fact it’s almost as if they don’t see themselves.

At the time of the opening, Related’s terms of service gave the right to all photos taken on the Vessel to the company – a policy it only tweaked after a public outcry.

The right to adequate housing

New York City is in the midst of a housing crisis, with over 60,000 people homeless each night, and increasing numbers of New Yorkers displaced from neighborhoods as they are unable to afford the rent. Hudson Yards – originally conceived by the Bloomberg administration following New York City’s unsuccessful Olympics bid – prioritized luxury apartments from the outset. Penthouses at Hudson Yards are going for $14 million and more, while only 1,300 apartments in the fully-completed complex will be subsidized at any level.

The right to non-discrimination

The 100% male and largely white line-up for the launch day says so much about the demographics of who calls the shots at Hudson Yards and who will reap the benefits.

The line-up conveyed a clear message, that this project is not by nor for the majority of New Yorkers.

Freedom of association

In 2018, Related began using non-union contractors on the Hudson Yards project, almost unheard of for major Manhattan developments. The building and construction trades council launched the “CountMeIn” campaign to fight back, but the Related move had stoked divisions between unions. Related reached a deal with the trades council conveniently right before launch day, hailing a “new model of collaboration”, and leaving many of the rank and file union members feeling betrayed.

Bennett Kremen, a member of Pipeliners Local 798 reportedly said: “Seeing this tragic betrayal of the ‘Count Me In’ movement now explains exactly why the great American labor movement and our struggling democracy are dying.”

The future

At an event at the 92Y that coincided with the Hudson Yards opening day, New York magazine’s editor at large Carl Swanson said: “I guess it reflects a kind of new international style”.

True…an international style that’s recognizable from Dubai, to Singapore, to new cities mimicking Dubai that are popping up across Africa.

However much the Hudson Yards developers and beneficiaries might like to believe this is a valid future they are creating, it’s an impossible one. The fight for the right to the city is alive and well in new York, as it is in so many cities.

Last night, organizations from across the five boroughs gathered to call on elected officials to make the vision of a Green New Deal for New York City a reality: reducing emissions from buildings, transitioning to renewable energy and more.

The new 2019 report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change features community-based assessments of adaptation and equity that are led by grassroots organizations in Harlem, Hunts Point and Sunset Park.

And the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance is tirelessly fighting for legal reforms to protect New York’s tenants and homeless people.

These are the people who are shaping New York’s future together.

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