The Rise and Fall of New York’s Municipal Art Society
We’d seen this drill before. It was one of those sneaky organizational moves—announcing the “arrival” of a new president, after the forced ouster of a predecessor, during the traditional holiday dead-zone between Christmas and New Years. That was the stunt pulled off recently by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), when it dismissed Gina Pollara and replaced her (starting on February 1st) with Elizabeth Goldstein.
The letter from MAS chairman Frederick Iseman had the fingerprints of high-priced PR operatives all over it, as it extolled the virtues of the incoming president without even once mentioning Pollara (not even, an obligatory thanks-for-her-service sentence). It was almost Stalinesque, in its erasure.
For me the whole episode—and MAS’s non transparent handling of it—was a sad reminder of how far this once great civic organization has fallen. And the media strategy had the intended effect. Until about two weeks ago, when the New York Times finally followed up, no one except for the intrepid William Menking at The Architect’s Newspaper, had covered this fall from organizational grace.
This is a pity, since MAS has a long and venerable history. Founded well over a century ago (in 1893, to be precise), it was an early advocate for sane and sensible zoning (before the very idea of zoning had gained favor). It defeated an insane proposal to build a subway line through Central Park; supported the construction of public housing; fought and helped save the Tweed Courthouse, Radio City Music Hall, Jefferson Market Courthouse, Grand Central Terminal, and Lever House, among many others. MAS strengthened landmark preservation laws and even lobbied for the establishment of a permanent city planning commission. It’s not a stretch to say that MAS created the blueprint for citizen activism in New York City, and also served as a model for groups in other cities.
If the stakes were high enough for the wellbeing of the entire city, MAS would occasionally speak truth to power: they would take on powerful real estate interests, in the press, at dinner parties on the Upper East Side, even in the courts, if that was deemed necessary.
MAS was never, however, a collection of flame throwing radicals. (Jane Jacobs never forgave them for supporting Westway, as well as failing to help save the Helen Hayes and Morosco Theaters.) They were a good-government group of respectable citizens, in touch with neighborhood issues, whose first instincts were toward dialogue, discussion, and compromise. Still, if the issue was important enough, if the stakes were high enough for the wellbeing of the entire city, MAS would occasionally speak truth to power: they would take on powerful real estate interests, in the press, at dinner parties on the Upper East Side, even in the courts, if that was deemed necessary.
That whole ethos—that balancing act, perfected in large part by Kent Barwick—began to unravel with the arrival in 2009 of Vin Cipolla. A tech entrepreneur and serial corporate CEO (his Wiki page boasts six positions), Cipolla took great pride in securing MAS’s “seat at the table,” but the group’s proximity to power has, it seems to me, almost fatally compromised it.
As the pro-development tendencies of the Bloomberg era took full effect, the MAS under Cipolla remained largely silent on a whole host of issues. They failed to confront City Hall and oppose the proliferation of super tall buildings: the anti-urban sliver buildings; the insanely-scaled, almost dystopian, Hudson Yards; the massive One Vanderbilt tower, currently under construction near Grand Central Terminal—these are all projects that MAS, in previous decades, would have at least weighed in on, if not outright opposed. (When, by the way, was the last time MAS went to court to fight anything of consequence?)
On the preservation front, they did not step up and fill the void left by a now toothless Landmarks Commission. When the Bloomberg Administration up-zoned more than 100 neighborhoods, MAS did not even sound a cautionary alarm about the unintended consequences that act might have on New York’s poor and working-class families. They were similarly timid when the rezoning of Midtown East was under consideration.
Not too many years ago, the MAS occupied a street-level, publicly accessible location called the Urban Center, in the base of the Helmsley Hotel. There, exhibitions and public forums kept the public informed and engaged. Today, they’re more likely to convene costly “summits,” underwritten by the corporate and financial elite. Meanwhile, they rent expensive commercial office space on Madison Avenue, several floors above the street (and the public), creating a yearly nut that makes them increasingly dependent on the same interests that they should occasionally be confronting.
The act that had most community activists scratching their collective heads (was this a practical joke? an Onion headline?) was MAS’s decision in 2014 to award its “highest honor,” the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, to Bruce Ratner.
The last straw for many, the act that had most community activists scratching their collective heads (was this a practical joke? an Onion headline?), was MAS’s decision in 2014 to award its “highest honor,” the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal, to Bruce Ratner. This was of course the same infamous developer who used eminent domain in Brooklyn to wipe out a reviving neighborhood and build the Barclay’s Center. The award was a tone-deaf move that bordered on unintentional parody.
By that point, sadly, many community leaders had already given up on MAS, as a credible voice of citizen advocacy. To her great credit, Pollara was, in her short tenure, steering the organization in a fresh direction. Old supporters who had lost confidence in MAS began renewing their commitments. Shortly before her dismissal, she helped organize a successful lobbying effort in Albany to block Mayor de Blasio’s misguided attempt to lift height restrictions in New York City. It’s a shame Pollara won’t be around to re-fight that battle, since this colossal give-away to developers is scheduled to get another legislative push soon.
In the Times account, MAS offered up a carefully crafted statement signed by board member Christy MacLear, accusing Pollara—vaguely and indirectly, with no specifics—of failing to create “a balanced approach to fundraising needs and vocal advocacy.” Putting aside the obvious fact that this statement was pure spin—I have heard more positive accounts of Pollara’s fundraising efforts—let’s take them at their word, at least for the sake of argument.
“Balance” here, I would argue, is in the eye of the beholder. Until her arrival, MAS was pretty much missing-in-action in terms of advocacy. Pollara’s work, especially in Albany, was an attempt to re-tip the scales. Those activist efforts should have been encouraged and applauded. As for fundraising, this seemingly larger, glitzier and more expensive MAS is the creation of a different set of leaders, with vastly different priorities and values.
Can the MAS regain its lost soul under the new leadership of Elizabeth Goldstein? (Does it even want to?) I certainly wish her well, given the many challenges ahead. But she and her board of directors have a difficult task and really only two choices: they can “rebalance” and reconsider their civic values, as Pollara gamely tried to do, or they can risk further irrelevance and suffer the worst possible fate for an organization with deep roots: being reduced to a historic footnote, like a grand but dilapidated house, awaiting the wrecking ball.
Featured historic image via Archizer.