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The Central Park International Airport Hoax, Explained

The Internet raged in response to a shadowy organization’s plans to raze New York’s Central Park in favor of an airport, Strawberry Fields be damned. We unravel the mystery.

The Central Park International Airport Hoax, Explained

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.

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cpia panorama

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.”

reverse cpia panorama

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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.”

manhattan aerial views

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.

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About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world

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