Should you find yourself driving on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, it is inadvisable to guide your vision away from the Mad Max reenactors around you for more than half a second, but those who dare cast their glance east around West 34th Street will be startled by the curious new object looming there. It looks like an unfortunate misshapen thing produced by your ten-year-old at summer camp, except it cost $200 million. If young Scooter or Daisy presented it to you, you’d smile effortfully, place it on your desk, and wonder how long would constitute a decent interval before the thing could be thrown out. New York City’s newest landmark, however, can’t be thrown out. At 3,200 tons, it is history’s largest paperweight.
The working name for this item is “the Vessel.” I call it “the Wastebasket.” It’s a huge bronzed-steel megasculpture/artwork/jungle gym of winding staircases and landings that looks like several bands of copper twisted into a loose funnel shape. You might also call it “the Stairway to Nowhere” or “the Civic Sieve.” It is the marquee attraction of a $25 billion new neighborhood of skyscrapers and public spaces (welcome, Bella Abzug Park!) called “Hudson Yards,” which was privately funded with the aid of the usual tax incentives and sweeteners. Twenty-five million for BlackRock? Okay.
Once New York City’s definition of colossal public sculpture was the Statue of Liberty. That formidable lady stands for something. She exudes ambition, majesty, pride. She commands New York Harbor, lights the way to the principal portal of the greatest country there ever was. At 150 feet, the Vessel is almost exactly the same height as Lady Liberty excluding her pedestal (152 feet from base to tip of torch). Far from dominating its environment, however, the Vessel seems dropped randomly into a dense neighborhood. It huddles between two skyscrapers in an obscure part of town like a Mob witness cringing between bodyguards as he sneaks in the side door of the courthouse.
Designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, the Vessel does not stand for any ideal or even seek to stand for anything, much less anything as “problematic” as liberty. It is literally as well as figuratively an empty Vessel. It’s just a set of stairs wrapping around a void. We’re supposed to be enthusiastic about climbing a 154-flight StairMonster? Occasionally the cantankerous old elevator in my apartment building seizes up and I have to climb twelve flights to my home. It never occurred to me that this was an attraction I should advertise to suckers from out of town.
The more you think about it, though, the more the Vessel serves beautifully as a symbol of this city anno Domini 2019. Start with the price tag: Budgeted at $75 million, it came in at about $200 million. Two hundred million bucks for a drafty pine cone? It makes everyone think of their first apartment.
Yet, like everything else billed as new and exciting in New York City, the Vessel has, in its first week open, created a vortex of madness around it. If you want to climb it, that’s free, but because only 1,000 people are allowed on it at a time, first you’ll have to go to the website, wait your turn to register, and then book a slot. Yes, in New York, even online you must wait on line. I just tried the site and was told there were 2,913 persons in the queue ahead of me. Expected wait time was 43 minutes. At which point I could fill out the form and begin the process of waiting for my appointment to climb a mile of stairs. The Statue of Liberty defined New York at the time — wide open and welcoming. The Vessel really defines New York at this time — recondite and exclusive. At this moment, New Yorkers who “know somebody” are cutting the queue and marching to the top of the Stairway to Nowhere so they can brag about it on Instagram.
The Vessel is the monument version of our tall but pointless mayor, who also stands high above street level while the breeze wafts through the void between his ears. A year into his second term, it’s become clear that the principal thing Bill de Blasio stands for is the vast amount of money he’s been able to spend during boom years on Wall Street, with almost nothing to show for it. The latest city budget is $92 billion. By contrast, Chicago (with nearly one-third Gotham’s population) spends $8.9 billion. Los Angeles (nearly half the population) spends $9.9 billion. In five years as mayor, de Blasio has increased spending by $16 billion — far more than the entire budget of the second-freest-spending municipality, which is San Francisco, at $11 billion.
Mostly that money simply gets absorbed by the ever-increasing payroll of city employees, not anything lasting. The age when New York City rapidly improved infrastructure — the George Washington Bridge sprang to life in just four years — is long gone. Building a single new subway station to serve Hudson Yards, at 34th Street and Eleventh Avenue, took eight years and $2.4 billion. East Side Access, an ongoing project to link the Penn Station rail lines to Grand Central Terminal, was projected to cost $2.2 billion in 1999. The latest estimate being bandied about is $12 billion, and it will take at least three more years to complete. Picture New York City’s tax revenue as a vast amount of lucre being poured into a political structure: It flows out the bottom as freely as it would pour out of the Vessel.
This article appears as “New York’s Civic Sieve” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.