Under the Great Lawn, tarmac. That’s the utopian (or dystopian)vision of the “Manhattan Airport Foundation,” the shadowy group whichdrew an Internet crowd this week by announcing plans to pave over a”blighted” and “underutilized” Central Park and replace it withManhattan International Airport. The airfield would boast a singlerunway running the length of the park, long enough to theoreticallyland an A380 (although it might clip The Plaza on takeoff). Theproject’s FAQaddressed the fates of Tavern on the Green (relocated to the FoodCourt) and Strawberry Fields (replanted inside the terminal), while theMetropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park Zoo would presumably besacrificed to progress.
Absurd on its face, the hoax triggered paroxysms of rage among commenters on sites such as Curbed and Treehugger, while The Huffington Postran the story straight. Although central-city airports do exist and onceflourished–Chicago’s Midway was the world’s busiest until 1959–no onehas seriously suggested weaving runways between skyscrapers since LeCorbusier sketched it in 1922 (six years before he first flew).
While obviously a satire, the question remains: a satire of what? The campaign’s creators have admirably refused to break character, even going so far as to publish a press releaseinterpreting this week’s vitriol as a de facto endorsement. But theirmotives remain stubbornly opaque. Their immediate target would appearto be the sorry state of New York City’s transportation infrastructure.From their mission statement:
“NewYork City is the cultural and financial capital of the world. It isalso our nation’s most densely populated urban area. Yet surprisingly,New York City has no viable airport. JFK, La Guardia and Newark maywork for people who live in certain outer boroughs. But they are not anacceptable option for the majority of New Yorkers, requiring travelthrough some of the most congested traffic arteries in the nation. Ajourney which by train takes nearly two hours and by automobile cantake up to three hours. For a place which purports itself to be thegreatest city in the world, this is not a workable model.”
In this, many New Yorkers and most foreign visitors would beinclined to agree. American airports are commonly seen abroad assymptoms of some deeper malaise. “Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airportto La Guardia’s dump,” Thomas Friedman has challenged his readers repeatedly in The New York Times. “It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.” The Financial Times‘John Gapper singled out New York’s international gateway: “If anyonedoubts the problems of U.S. infrastructure, I suggest he or she take aflight to John F. Kennedy airport (braving the landing delay), ride ataxi on the pot-holed and congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and tryto make a mobile phone call en route.”
The problem with this mess, in a nutshell, is globalcompetitiveness. If a locale lacks functioning infrastructrure, thethinking goes, businesses will sooner or later leave. This argument isat the heart of the debate over London Heathrow’s planned third runway,which evoked screams of protestfrom residents and environmentalists. Prime Minister Gordon Brown wasunmoved. “We have to respond to a clear business imperative andincrease capacity at our airports,” he said. “Our prosperity depends onit.” (The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has instead proposed a$65 billion replacement on a man-made island floating in the ThamesEstuary.)
As the author of a Fast Company story about the “aerotropolis,”entire cities being built around mostly green-field airports, Iapproached the Foundation as a fellow traveler. After presenting thethesis above, the project’s press secretary, “Audrey Cortlandt,”replied in character: “Indeed the plans did proceed from an analysis ofthe very situation you cite. Whilst in the planning stages, the goalsof large scale urban improvement and renewal projects often do seemdrastic or unattainable for a myriad of reasons: financing, publicperception issues, engineering and logistical concerns, to name a few.History has proven that once opinion has mobilized in favor of thesetypes of projects they become not only feasible, but essential to theongoing well-being and competitiveness of the region.”
But she declined to offer either a final price tag for the airportor a cost-benefit analysis of paving over one of the most beloved parksin the world. (These are due to be released in a feasibility reporttheoretically scheduled for next year.) More likely, the hoax issimultaneously a critique of Le Corbusier and Robert Moses–the masterbuilders who nearly destroyed New York in their attempts to make itmodern–and the contemporary logic that spawned the aerotropolis in thefirst place, i.e. the entwined interests of economic development andglobalization.
“One day New Yorkers will move seamlessly betweenMidtown and Shinjuku without ever setting foot in an automobile,” theypromise in their mission statement. “Manhattan Airport will prove NewYork City no longer allows its vestigial prewar cityscape to languishin irrelevance but instead reinvents these spaces with a daring andinspired bravado truly befitting one of the world’s great cities,” andthen, sticking the landing, “The moment is now.”
Greg Lindsay is a contributing writer to the magazine and co-author (with John D. Kasarda) of the forthcoming book “Aerotropolis,” to be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.