From the Wall Street Journal:
F. Scott Fitzgerald was looking toward Manhattan when he wrote, in "The Great Gatsby," that "the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world."
He certainly wasn't looking from the bridge toward Queens. In the 1920s, the view would have been a landscape of factories and warehouses.
Today, amid a development boom in Long Island City, the view is different but no more pleasing. The waterfront towers that have sprouted seem to have taken their aesthetic cues from Newport, N.J., rather than from that other borough across the East River.
Further inland, there's been a flurry of new residential projects by developers eager to cash in on New York's healthy market for both rental apartments and condominiums. Since 2008, at least a dozen new residential buildings with about 5,000 units have been completed or are under way in the 37 blocks in central Long Island City that the city up-zoned in 2001.
Land rushes like this in many other New York neighborhoods have been enough to create a sense of place. But in Long Island City, that's proving trickier to pull off. The area boasts some architectural diamonds-in-the-rough, but they're far more isolated than those found in neighborhoods such as Dumbo, which retained a historic character despite plenty of infill watering.
Rather, the area consists mostly of nondescript, low-slung buildings and enough parking lots to house seemingly the whole of the New York yellow cab fleet. It's a promised land for developers; but the area needs quality as well as quantity of both residential and commercial development to become a real neighborhood.
In the end, the aesthetic hope for Long Island City is perhaps best seen in the best-known symbol of the area: Artkraft Strauss's Pepsi-Cola sign, which once topped a bottling plant along the waterfront and now sits in Gantry Plaza park. The Strauss firm designed some of New York's most interesting signage from the 1930s to 1950s; let's hope that a sign from 1937 won't remain the most innovative thing about the neighborhood.
No one ever said building a neighborhood mainly from scratch was easy, and some welcome and discerning decisions have clearly been made in charting its development. The fine balance that remains to be achieved is to create a coherent neighborhood whose greatest asset is something more than the five-minute ride to Manhattan.