In Robert Heinlein’s (fairly bad) book I Will Fear No Evil, cities have become so dangerous that residents drive their cars directly into their buildings, up car-sized elevators, and right to the doors of their apartments. Early in the book a significant figure is murdered because she tries to use the pedestrian entrance. Now, via Streetsblog, such a building is under construction in Chelsea, with an “en-suite sky garage” like Heinlein’s fictitious building. Now residents need not interact with scary and forbidding Manhattan environment as they drive right in the Lincoln Tunnel and then up their apartments.
But Heinlein published I Will Fear No Evil in 1970, and his book reflects the way many people saw cities. We can learn a lot about how people of the past saw their world by reading the stories they made up where they extrapolated contemporary trends. Looking at America’s cities of 1970, few thought that within 25 years one of the biggest problems would be too many wealthy people trying to move in, crowding others out, because the cities are so safe?
Even many urban buildings built in the ‘70s and ‘80s reflect the view of the city at the time. Manhattan Plaza, a set of apartment towers between 42nd and 43rd Streets from 9th to 10th Avenues, presents a blank brick wall with a parking garage entrance to 42nd Street, a dangerous thoroughfare at the time. Atlantic Center Mall in Brooklyn was designed to maximize the ease for shoppers to drive into its parking garage and walk directly to stores, while the path in for a pedestrian is complex and labyrinthine, and the side of the mall that faces Fort Greene, a once-dangerous neighborhood now experiencing major gentrification, has no entrance doors at all.
We can forgive these travesties of architecture because they responded to the conditions of their time. People were fleeing to the suburbs, and developers tried to make the city a little more like the suburbs. But creating a building today that, as Streetsblog puts it, “brings the isolationist paranoia of the suburbs straight to the heart of super-chic Manhattan,” has no justification. Chelsea’s Community Board 4 opposed the idea as well, as did the FDNY, but to no avail. And Robert Heinlein’s vision of the city of future becomes a little bit a reality, not for the reasons he predicted, but just because bad ideas die hard.