There are those who would look at the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center and see the end of cities as we’ve known them. But Daniel Patrick Moynihan wouldn’t be one of them.
The four-term senator — a fervent advocate of cities, with a particular passion for New York, his hometown — spoke recently at a conference in Boston for leading city planners, developers, and architects. His message: Don’t give up on cities, don’t give in to fear, and find a way to begin rebuilding New York quickly to show the world that the United States will not be intimidated. The shortest route to that goal, he said, is the rehabilitation of Penn Station.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Moynihan had been invited to speak to the Urban Land Institute conference long before the cataclysm in lower Manhattan. But the 3,600 men and women who attended the convention could think of little else than the attack on the world’s largest office buildings and the pall cast over the future of urban development caused by the towers’ collapse. The attendees needed guidance, perspective, reassurance.
They needed Dan Moynihan.
Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, who has written some of the most memorable coverage of the impact of September 11 on New York, moderated a discussion with Moynihan on the future of the city.
At the risk of sounding sentimental, watching them was like being in the stands for a historic matchup between two sports teams at the top of their games — the Yankees versus the Mets in game five of the subway series.
There could be little doubt about the theme of the conversation, and Goldberger’s first question was fast, hard, and right down the middle: “You’ve devoted much of your life to helping people in public life understand the value of cities, the joy people take in physically being together. Are we at risk now of losing that?”
“We’re in Boston, so we must start with Aristotle,” said Moynihan, a master of erudite surprise. “Aristotle calls attention to Hippodamus of Melitus, who was the father of city planning. He devised the grid pattern for urban spaces. He was also the author of the first ideal constitution, a constitution that presumed virtue and that hopefully instilled virtue in its citizens.”
As the audience struggled to figure out where he was heading, Moynihan squared to his theme: “When the great commercial center of Corinth was threatened by an advancing army, Hippodamus told the Corinthians to build a wall. He did not say, Flee. He did not say, Scatter. He said, Concentrate and defend. And that’s what we have to do now. It is no accident that the symbols that were attacked by the terrorists were the symbols of a high urban civilization.”
But, Goldberger pointed out, things have changed a lot since ancient Corinth, and the historical model may no longer apply. “The Corinthians had no other possible way to live and do business,” he said. “But technology has been pushing us away from density and centralization.” With email and computer networks, people don’t need to live in cities to do business. “Doesn’t that make the city harder to defend since there are alternatives?” he asked.
“There was an alternative in ancient Greece,” Moynihan countered. “You could be a goatherd. But you would not be a citizen of Corinth or Athens or Sparta.” As communications improved, he argued, cities have become more important, more necessary, and more compact. “Something happens when people are together that doesn’t happen when they are dispersed,” he said. “That’s the experience of humankind.
“This is not a moment to be intimidated,” Moynihan went on. “It’s worth keeping in mind how the British behaved during the Blitz. They kept those theaters and music halls going the whole time. People didn’t change their way of life. The only way these terrorists can win is to change the way we live. And we live in cities.”
The audience signaled its agreement with enthusiastic applause.
The power of place is profound, Moynihan continued, on a roll now. “Abraham Lincoln understood that when he kept the construction of the U.S. Capitol going during the Civil War. He said that the work of building must go on, so people know the Union will go on. And it did. And they didn’t scatter.”
“But,” said Goldberger, pushing his point, “there was no easy suburban Internet-access option available in business in 1860 either.”
“Lincoln could have made his way north, or west to Illinois,” Moynihan countered. “He didn’t. And that was a symbol.”
Still, Moynihan and Goldberger agreed that the attacks have probably changed some of the fundamental design principles for American cities.
“Look, we may not want to keep putting up ever larger, taller buildings,” Moynihan said. “One-hundred-and-ten-story buildings never made a great deal of economic sense. There’s a point where you start losing money, just because of all those elevators. And there’s another idea that we might as well get used to: No matter how tall a building we put up, they’re going to put up a taller one in Shanghai.”
Perhaps the time has come, Moynihan suggested, to look for other variations besides height to define the urban landscape. “Washington, DC is a vibrant city,” he said. “It had emptied out, as so many of our cities did, as a result of the automobile. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president, he rode up Pennsylvania Avenue, and it was barren.
“Washington, DC has come back so wonderfully well. It thrives, it prospers — and it does not soar. A building-height limit in no way impedes a vital urban society. Can we agree,” Moynihan asked rhetorically, “a building does not have to be 200 stories high to be significant? Like those elegant buildings down on that filled land by the Hudson River, the World Financial Center.”
“We learned,” he said, “and I don’t think we’re going to forget. But we’re going to rebuild downtown New York.”
The old pol had warmed fully to his theme of renewal, and Goldberger sat back, smiling broadly as Moynihan directed his remarks to the audience: “And we could not pick a better place to start than to build a new Pennsylvania Station.
An architect’s drawing of the proposed renovation of Penn Station, designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
“It’s time for a new Penn Station,” Moynihan repeated, “Not just as a way to get around but as a way to say who you are. We have a brilliant new design, incorporating the rail station into the large, elegant post office just to the west, which was designed by McKim, Meade and White — the same architects who did the original Penn Station. We have the money: $815 million, which we cobbled together over a decade. We have a contractor: a joint enterprise between a Houston firm and the firm that built the Frankfurt airport in Germany. We could start Monday morning and get it going, right now — phoenixlike.”
Four weeks earlier, before the destruction, it would have sounded like propaganda. But in the wake of the tragedy, Moynihan’s genuine zeal for the project was ennobling and seemed to galvanize the crowd. Suddenly, the audience of developers could see past the fear and uncertainty, and recognize the power of an architectural statement.
“So what’s holding it up?,” Goldberger asked, framing the question on everyone’s mind.
Moynihan sighed. “The postmaster general,” he said in a small voice. “The U.S. Postal Service needs $140 million to fix it up. It’s a 90-year-old building. But we’ve offered him the money. If somebody in the executive branch would just say to the postmaster general, ‘Sir, if you can’t do it, we’ll get a postmaster general who can,’ we could start Monday morning.”
Goldberger, already familiar with the design, caught Moynihan’s enthusiasm and framed it in the context of the postattack reality. “It will be a long time before we resolve what to do at the World Trade Center site,” he said. “Even with the best intentions, there will be one or two years’ worth of struggle and anguish before we’re ready to move ahead there. What better than an immediate symbol of rebuilding, something that would reinforce the public realm?”
Moynihan was suddenly grave. “Paul, I’ve been down there,” he said. “A fire marshal took me down to the scene of destruction a short while ago. It is a Stygian site. It hurts. It also inspires. The people there, the police and firefighters and the engineers, they work together; they’re calm; they’re thoughtful. But we’re not going to have anything there in two years’ time. Let’s not kid ourselves and then look up in a couple of years and say, ‘Hey, I thought this was going to be done.’ In a decade, perhaps.
“But there are other things to be done,” he continued. “And we must not give in. We must learn not to say, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ Nothing happened. A couple of bastards from the Middle East decided they would sacrifice themselves. But that doesn’t change a civilization. And we are a civilization.
“Here we are, the oldest republic on earth. There are two countries in the world that both existed in 1800 and have not had their form of government overthrown by force — the United States and England. When you have that stability, that durability, against all experience of humankind, you must be doing something right. And for heaven’s sake, don’t let us get the idea that it isn’t working because of something that happened on September 11.
“What we built once we can build again, or we can build it differently. And this time, we can make it even better.”
The room erupted with applause and cheers as the developers, architects, and city planners rose to their feet. After all these years, Dan Moynihan can still move a crowd.
Paul C. Judge (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Learn more about the Urban Land Institute on the Web.