Tuesday, January 16, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt seventeen)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

Ironically, this was also the concern of one of New York’s richest men, David Rockefeller, whose Chase Bank had already outgrown its headquarters on Pine Street, just around the corner from Coenties Slip. Now Chase was merging with the historic Bank of Manhattan, begun by Aaron Burr in 1799 under the false pretenses of establishing a water company for New York, and would need even more space, but Rockefeller was reluctant to abandon downtown—“ An area . . . rich in history,” as he wrote—for the new banking capital of Midtown. In February 1955, Rockefeller heard a building was about to be sold next to the Chase headquarters; he managed to delay the sale, raise the necessary capital for a counteroffer, and close the deal the following day. His next order of business was to get permission from New York City to close part of Cedar Street to allow for the construction of a new headquarters on the two-block parcel, and he knew just who to go to. “The key to getting the plan approved was to have the support of Robert Moses,” Rockefeller mused, partnering two of the most powerful men in New York City to reconfigure its path. Among Moses’s many titles, he led the New York City Planning Commission. “Much to my relief, Bob proved to be an easy sale.” Rockefeller’s swift development was also aided by Title 1 of the Housing Act, passed in 1949, which pledged a billion dollars toward urban renewal, essentially allowing governments to seize private property and hand it over to private developers.

Change came swift as a wrecking ball. A photograph of the Mutual Benefit Life building, standing just before a crane, led Walker Evans’s 1956 Fortune magazine black-and-white portfolio “‘Downtown’: A Last Look Backward.” Evans had been a close friend of the poet Hart Crane, one of Indiana’s heroes, and had photographed many corners of America, including sharecropping in Alabama in the 1930s, on assignment with the writer James Agee. (Fortune killed that spread, and it became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) Evans was the first photographer to get a solo exhibition at MoMA. At Fortune, where he was staff photographer from 1945 to 1965, he was pretty much allowed to do whatever he wanted. He took the photos, wrote the texts, and edited the layouts of his portfolios. And he was most interested in how the United States was changing—the speed with which whole neighborhoods were transforming or disappearing, and the way that the Depression of the 1930s fueled the explosive ambitions of Manhattan real estate’s precarious recovery. “The financial quarter and its fringes as they have looked for a generation are presented in the pictures on the following pages. In a sense this is a last look backward,” Evans wrote. “A score of new construction projects have been planned downtown. The building boom now commencing will change the face, and a good deal of the atmosphere, of the whole district.” By the time the Coenties Slip artists were first moving into their lofts, the area was already slated for demolition, and the little four-story Georgian-style brick buildings of their street destined for other plans under the watchful eyes of Moses and Rockefeller.

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