Good historians know that history rarely teaches clear lessons. When it does, we should heed them. In the 1920s, urban visionaries completely refashioned midtown Manhattan, making it the most modern and economically vibrant downtown in the world. Their work can serve as an inspiration and example for businessmen, city officials, and residents who are currently struggling to find ways to keep midtown – now an aging business district – the center of world capitalism, without destroying its historic character or creating impossible pedestrian and vehicular congestion.
So far, leaders of the 21st century campaign to remake Manhattan have paid little heed to what urban critic Lewis Mumford called “usable history." In 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a sweeping plan to rezone a 73-block area surrounding Grand Central Terminal, which would allow for the construction of super-size skyscrapers, some of them taller than the Chrysler Building. This would make New York more competitive with Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London in the fiercely contested battle to attract and retain businesses with global reach, Bloomberg argued.