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Learning from New York

"Manhattanization," a pejorative term coined in San Francisco half a century ago by opponents of tall buildings, needs to be rethought, writes San Francisco Chronicle's Native Son columnist, Carl Nolte, upon return from a weekend trip to New York.
June 1, 2017, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Luciano Mortula

It may have been a short trip, but Carl Nolte returned with lots of thoughts based on comparing what he saw in New York City, particularly Manhattan, with what he left in San Francisco. 

New York City seems to be a little cleaner, a little safer, and a lot less stuck on itself than our fair city. They’ve cleaned up their act in New York. In San Francisco we’re still talking about it.

The Big Apple still needs improvement. In the airport comparison, JFK loses to SFO, writes Nolte. And the taxi "ride into the city is dreary, past sad neighborhoods in Queens, past cemeteries, into the mother of all traffic jams, a prelude to an ancient tunnel, full of fumes."

But upon exiting the tunnel into midtown Manhattan, Nolte is impressed with what he sees, noting how the urban environment has improved since his last trip two years ago. Comparisons to the City by the Bay were inevitable.

There were homeless people hanging around with the same sad signs you see in San Francisco, but fewer of them. Other panhandlers were dressed as Batman and Minnie Mouse or the Statue of Liberty. We didn’t see people shouting crazy stuff the way they do at Powell and Market in Everybody’s Favorite City.

"We felt like refugees from the city where Anything Goes," writes Nolte, graphically recounting some of the unsightly daily street scenes that San Franciscans have had to adapt to but were absent in Manhattan.

Favorite place visited

We walked all over. And the best walk was on the High Line, a decommissioned elevated railroad freight line that has been turned into a park in the air, wandering through and above an old industrial district. 

Now it’s a promenade, a park, a showplace, with pieces of the old freight tracks still in place, a reminder of past days. It wanders through old meatpacking plants, and next to glass-walled condos.

However, it's what the High Line represents, in addition to the enjoyment of walking along an old freight rail line above bustling streets in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of West Chelsea, that resonated with the San Francisco columnist.

“No neighborhood in New York has changed identities so profoundly as this stretch of the West Side,” Justin Davidson [architecture and classical music critic at New York magazine] writes in “Magnetic City,” his new book about New York. The High Line’s story, he writes, “is far from over, because the city that changes around it is a show that never folds.

Nolte's column ends on a rather somber note written on the plane ride home, though I suspect he may also have been expressing the feelings of returning home too early from a great trip. Upon seeing San Francisco, he writes, "What a pretty city. Too bad it’s so afraid of change. 
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Correspondent's note: Almost seven years earlier, Nolte's colleague, urban design critic John King, reported on his trip to New York, and came to the same conclusion as Nolte in his aptly named piece, "Our city could use a little 'Manhattanization" (posted here).

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Published on Friday, May 26, 2017 in San Francisco Chronicle
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