President’s Letter: December 2022

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

December 22, 2022

Last weekend, my husband and I took a day trip to Milford, New Jersey, which may seem an odd destination.  But it has a restaurant owned and operated by some of my favorite cookbook authors.  The restaurant is in an old and lovingly restored railroad station.  I deliberately chose a Sunday Dinner seating, thinking that the ride through western New Jersey would be beautiful in the bare, late fall light. And it was. The Delaware River and the surrounding hills provide a great psychological remove from the bustle of New York City, Newark, and Philadelphia.

It is hard to believe that even here in the heart of this huge northeastern metropolis, farmland is an hour and a half away.  I was surprised to discover that the farm behind one of my favorite farmers’ market stands in Jackson Heights is near Milford.  I suspect we were eating vegetables from the same source last night at Canal House Station AND with friends for a Hanukkah dinner!

The day before this lovely leisurely trip to the wilds of western New Jersey we saw Straight Line Crazy, the play about Robert Moses, written by David Hare.  The places I have made home and my travels have made me very conscious of the role that the car plays in these cities.

Jones Beach at sunset. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, J E Hans. Modifications: photo cropped.

However, the play was yet another reminder of the carrot and stick of the highway system. The sense of easy access to some place different—whether that is Jones Beach or western New Jersey—is alluring.  However, in other ways, highways lock us in and create divisions between neighborhoods. And large public infrastructure that only serves a single function is an old-fashioned approach that we can’t afford to sustain.   Every public dollar should have several public benefits: schoolyards that are designed to double as neighborhood playgrounds are an easy example of this.  A more complicated one might be a park that serves to slow down the storm surge of a Sandy-like weather event.

The Army Corp of Engineers is eyeing a large infrastructure project right now: a series of 12 gates around the city to help New York respond to storm surge.  Certainly, storm surge is an important problem, but can we afford to spend this kind of public money ($52 billion!) on a solution for one aspect of climate mitigation only?

We are lucky to live in a time when we are rethinking the urban highway AND the street.  We are reconsidering them from a human scale—the view from the sidewalk, as it were.  However, we are confronting huge things that demand quick change but that have enormous financial and cultural impacts.  I hope that we can confront the challenge of climate change while remembering the lessons Robert Moses taught us the hard way.

Communities must be partners, and expensive infrastructure must serve many purposes.

In addition, we need a kind of Hippocratic oath for infrastructure: we must think deeply about how to minimize the harms that are the result of major structural changes.

As we figure this small problem out, I wish you and your families a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year!  Thanks for all your support for MAS!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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