Under the Great Lawn, tarmac. That's the utopian (or dystopian) vision of the "Manhattan Airport Foundation," the shadowy group which drew an Internet crowd this week by announcing plans to pave over a "blighted" and "underutilized" Central Park and replace it with Manhattan International Airport. The airfield would boast a single runway running the length of the park, long enough to theoretically land an A380 (although it might clip The Plaza on takeoff). The project's FAQ addressed the fates of Tavern on the Green (relocated to the Food Court) and Strawberry Fields (replanted inside the terminal), while the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park Zoo would presumably be sacrificed to progress.
Absurd on its face, the hoax triggered paroxysms of rage among commenters on sites such as Curbed and Treehugger, while The Huffington Post ran the story straight. Although central-city airports do exist and once flourished--Chicago's Midway was the world's busiest until 1959--no one has seriously suggested weaving runways between skyscrapers since Le Corbusier sketched it in 1922 (six years before he first flew).
While obviously a satire, the question remains: a satire of what? The campaign's creators have admirably refused to break character, even going so far as to publish a press release interpreting this week's vitriol as a de facto endorsement. But their motives remain stubbornly opaque. Their immediate target would appear to be the sorry state of New York City's transportation infrastructure. From their mission statement:
"New York City is the cultural and financial capital of the world. It is also our nation's most densely populated urban area. Yet surprisingly, New York City has no viable airport. JFK, La Guardia and Newark may work for people who live in certain outer boroughs. But they are not an acceptable option for the majority of New Yorkers, requiring travel through some of the most congested traffic arteries in the nation. A journey which by train takes nearly two hours and by automobile can take up to three hours. For a place which purports itself to be the greatest city in the world, this is not a workable model."
In this, many New Yorkers and most foreign visitors would be inclined to agree. American airports are commonly seen abroad as symptoms of some deeper malaise. "Fly from Zurich's ultramodern airport to La Guardia's dump," Thomas Friedman has challenged his readers repeatedly in The New York Times. "It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones." The Financial Times' John Gapper singled out New York's international gateway: "If anyone doubts the problems of U.S. infrastructure, I suggest he or she take a flight to John F. Kennedy airport (braving the landing delay), ride a taxi on the pot-holed and congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and try to make a mobile phone call en route."
The problem with this mess, in a nutshell, is global competitiveness. If a locale lacks functioning infrastructrure, the thinking goes, businesses will sooner or later leave. This argument is at the heart of the debate over London Heathrow's planned third runway, which evoked screams of protest from residents and environmentalists. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was unmoved. "We have to respond to a clear business imperative and increase capacity at our airports," he said. "Our prosperity depends on it." (The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has instead proposed a $65 billion replacement on a man-made island floating in the Thames Estuary.)
As the author of a Fast Company story about the "aerotropolis," entire cities being built around mostly green-field airports, I approached the Foundation as a fellow traveler. After presenting the thesis above, the project's press secretary, "Audrey Cortlandt," replied in character: "Indeed the plans did proceed from an analysis of the very situation you cite. Whilst in the planning stages, the goals of large scale urban improvement and renewal projects often do seem drastic or unattainable for a myriad of reasons: financing, public perception issues, engineering and logistical concerns, to name a few. History has proven that once opinion has mobilized in favor of these types of projects they become not only feasible, but essential to the ongoing well-being and competitiveness of the region."
But she declined to offer either a final price tag for the airport or a cost-benefit analysis of paving over one of the most beloved parks in the world. (These are due to be released in a feasibility report theoretically scheduled for next year.) More likely, the hoax is simultaneously a critique of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses--the master builders who nearly destroyed New York in their attempts to make it modern--and the contemporary logic that spawned the aerotropolis in the first place, i.e. the entwined interests of economic development and globalization.
"One day New Yorkers will move seamlessly between Midtown and Shinjuku without ever setting foot in an automobile," they promise in their mission statement. "Manhattan Airport will prove New York City no longer allows its vestigial prewar cityscape to languish in irrelevance but instead reinvents these spaces with a daring and inspired bravado truly befitting one of the world's great cities," and then, sticking the landing, "The moment is now."
Greg Lindsay is a contributing writer to the magazine and co-author (with John D. Kasarda) of the forthcoming book "Aerotropolis," to be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.