As it emerges from a tunnel, the 7 subway line clatters upward in a broad curve high above the streets of Long Island City, opening a panorama to the East River and the Manhattan skyline pinpricked with skinny super-luxury towers.
Welcome to the New New York. In the foreground amid the lumpen jumble of lowrise loft buildings, tower cranes and new residential high-rises are fast forming a new skyline rivaling the old one it is fast obscuring. Long Island City, which has seemed to exist only to feed rail and roads to Manhattan, now is convulsively transforming into the kind of opportunistic urban mashup that resembles the new skyscraper cities of Asia and the Middle East as much as New York.
It’s my new work neighborhood—thrilling and appalling in equal measure.
My new workplace, the New York City Dept. of Design and Construction, shares its immediate environs with LaGuardia Community College, a detention center, and dozens of loft buildings that are crammed with workshops and factories. Millennial-generation startups in web media, overproduced cupcakes, and artisanal juice drinks are moving in.
An office of the Taxi and Limousine Commission has turned these blocks into ground zero for drivers of taxis and limos. Black Chevy Suburbans and chartreuse Toyota Avalons are thick on the ground as are people hawking used Lincolns, Uber jobs, and an Uber-drivers’ union. The streets will mysteriously empty, then swarm with people. The faces appear to hail from every corner of the world.
My office is separated from the manic housing development by the sunken gash that carries the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak, and the 7 line into tunnels. Through ubiquitous chain-link fencing we can watch one of New York City’s most manically growing neighborhoods happen before our eyes. (A real-estate broker told the New York Times that 20 buildings housing 7,900 rental units are under construction with 32 buildings planned. Nine condo buildings are under construction.)
The neighborhood’s residential appeal came as something of a surprise to me because the crazy-quilt grid of blocks senselessly collide or dead-end at highway ramps and rail lines.
Considering they are advertised as luxury product and command spectacular views, the towers, enabled by recent high-density rezoning, could not be lazier exercises in developer cynicism. With proportions ranging from merely dull to ungainly, they advertise mainly their cost-cutting compromises. Generally they are sheathed in uninterrupted acres of reflective glass that look utterly insubstantial and misaligned because nobody controlled the tendency of so much glass to dimple—it’s called “pillowing.”
The towers clump in islands amid the spiraling ramps of the Queensboro Bridge. Not far away, the Long Island Expressway hoists itself heavily above monument-crammed cemeteries. A mad maelstrom of vehicles of all kinds hurtle themselves in all directions on rusting bridges and ramps of museum-piece antiquity.
Little enclaves of spunky gentility appear as unpredictably as everything else. Streets of row houses alternate stolid brick and flimsy metal siding. A Beaux Arts courthouse presides with enjoyably fatuous dignity over intimate Court Square, a tiny, well-worn green that is being hemmed-in by dull glass slabs. Brick-faced Vernon Boulevard has opened restaurants, bars and other fugitive forms of Brooklynism to serve the faceless shiny towers marching along the East River’s edge.
Dutch Kills Green is a lush patch of park at Queens Plaza that would be an absolute oasis but for the screech of elevated trains overhead. Blocks from MoMA PS 1 is the SculptureCenter, a trolley-car garage converted to gorgeous brick-faced galleries full of slanting daylight. (It’s now cast into eternal twilight by overbearing glass slabs rising on all sides of it.) Gantry Park and Hunter’s Point Park South (both waterfront-park gems) are a bike-share ride away. Somewhat farther are Socrates Park and the serene Noguchi Museum.
Even though all its road-and-rail veins and arteries feed Manhattan, Long Island City is developing a distinct identity as a palimpsest—it’s new residential future heedlessly sprouting amid the assortment of factories and lofts, roads and rails. It’s not exactly a world of residential serenity. Yet its very dystopian quality grows on me. That’s as old as New York and as new as New York.