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Mourning the loss of Fred Siegel, New York’s urban giant


Some “urbanists” are urbanists in theory.

They’ll lecture about how it’s good for people to live in cities because cities are good for the environment and for growth.

But these urbanists don’t appear to like cities.

Fred Siegel, the urban historian who died last weekend at 78, really cared about cities because the near-lifetime Brooklynite liked people, lots of different people, in one place.

Fred, my City Journal colleague, didn’t see urbanism as a theory but as a contact sport.

He started adult life as a liberal, like much of his generation, which came of age in the 1960s.

Fred didn’t desert the left because he read something that changed his mind. No, he deserted because looters burned down his favorite restaurant.

Just after New York’s 1977 blackout riots, he was walking through Williamsburg to Jack’s Pastrami King, desiring “hand-sliced pastrami, served on delicious rye bread smeared with Ba-Tampte mustard.”

Fred had been so naïve that he hadn’t considered the looting might have damaged Jack’s.

The block was so burned out he couldn’t even find Jack’s storefront.


In 1991, Siegel wrote, “Public space is both the glory and shame of New York,” with Gothamites repelled from parks, streets, and subways by “the indignities of everyday interaction.”
Getty Images

“Told that the vandalism that had destroyed Jack’s Pastrami King was an act of liberation, I lost much of my political innocence,” he remembered.

Fred knew how important it is to safeguard public spaces.

In 1991, he wrote, “Public space is both the glory and shame of New York,” with Gothamites repelled from parks, streets, and subways by “the indignities of everyday interaction,” from aggressive panhandlers to drunkenness.

He foretold that New York’s then-new approach to public spaces, including the maxim “Good uses will drive out bad,” would succeed.

Make a park inviting through events such as road races to movie nights, and enough people will come to make the park uninviting to drug users and johns.

Decades later, Fred was early to see that New York’s success was in peril.

In 2016, he wrote that open-air pot use and untreated mentally ill homeless were endangering “the most visible triumph of New York’s historic revival.”

Fred cared about this stuff because he lived it.

When I met him for a meeting at Cooper Union, where he taught history, I found him on the sidewalk in a state of shaken outrage.

“God-awful,” he said. “God-awful.” Fred was as upset as a normal person would have been to find a decomposed body on the sidewalk.

I realized Fred was talking about the building itself, Cooper Union’s starchitect-designed academic center, which the Times called “a bold architectural statement of genuine civic value.”

Fred’s take: “Can you believe they built this monstrosity?”

Fred went to the building frequently, and every time, he was freshly shocked and upset, after most people, if they had noticed at all, would have stopped noticing.

Fred tempered permanent outrage with an interest in people — all people.

What I mostly remember about Fred was that he was always happy to see me — and it wasn’t just me.

He’d show up at meetings, dinners, and parties because he really wanted to see his friends, or his enemies, or strangers and argue.


Siegel didn’t see urbanism as a theory but as a contact sport, according to close friends.
Siegel didn’t see urbanism as a theory but as a contact sport, according to close friends.
AFP via Getty Images

Fred cared what people thought — and he took young people seriously.

Yes, he fretted about the intellect of America’s youth; he told me it didn’t bother him that his students didn’t know about World War II, but it did bother him that they didn’t know about 9/11.

But Fred never developed the habit of “expert,” that he had nothing to learn from people with less experience or learning than him.

He listened to what people decades younger than him had to say, even if he determined that 90% of it was wrong.


Siegel thought about the intellect of America’s youth, saying that it did bother him that young people didn’t know about 9/11.
Siegel thought about the intellect of America’s youth, saying that it did bother him that young people didn’t know about 9/11.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

I don’t think Fred ever said my name without a “but” in front of it. After I said something to him — anything — his response would begin, “But, Nicole. . .”

Fred wouldn’t have cared whether he got a Times obituary.

But he would have appreciated that one New York intellectual took the opportunity the obituary presented to criticize him.

“While he understood the white ethnic working class, he did not understand the Black and Hispanic poor and working class,” Columbia prof Ester Fuchs said.

Fred isn’t here to defend himself, but he’d point out what was obvious to him, if not to many “urbanists”: What black and Hispanic people want is the same as what Fred wanted — not to see his favorite restaurant burned down.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.



This story originally appeared on NYPost

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