Hong Kong 1, New York 0

If you judge the greatness of a city solely by the swiftness and ease of the ride in from the airport, New York is a cow town compared to Hong Kong.

After nearly 24 hours of air travel, the most demanding thing I did when I landed at Hong Kong International Airport was pick up a bottle of Veuve Clic-quot at the duty-free shop. Otherwise my arrival was a breeze. The airport, designed by Sir Norman Foster and built on a formerly mountainous island leveled and expanded with landfill to accommodate the huge facility, is engineered to allow passengers to flow through it like water through a sieve. Com-pleted in 1998, it was built along with a high-rise “new town” projected to house 320,000 by 2016 and a miraculous set of components, including a highway bridge and a superb rail link to the city center. It was wonderful to arrive there for the first time and walk—as if I’d been there a thousand times before—directly to the train (no need to follow a maze of signs) through a departure hall where the time to the next train (six minutes) was clearly marked on a big illuminated sign. I could’ve found my way to the center of town in my sleep, which I more or less did.

Contrast this to the hellishness of arriving at the airport I know best, John F. Kennedy International, in New York. The last time I flew home, I decided to take the so-called AirTrain. My first experience with it, about two months after it went into service in December 2003, was not a happy one. The nearly two billion dollars worth of infrastructure looked like a relic from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. At one point my train came to a halt for a long time on the elevated tracks somewhere between JFK and Howard Beach, erasing any enthusiasm I might have had for the new system.

Because New York needs real mass transit to the airports, I opted to try the make-believe version again. Maybe riding it will make it better, I thought, and indeed this time the trip was smoother. But there were no announcements during the trip saying whether the train was going to Howard Beach or the opposite way, to Jamaica, and no directional signs on the train. Through sheer luck I made my connection to the A train at Howard Beach, but I had to help a befuddled tourist find his way back to Jamaica and the E train. If a battle-hardened subway rider can’t figure out the system, how could it possibly work for visitors? I noticed there were no signage or announcements in any language other than English. Doesn’t the Port Authority know that international airports cater to foreigners?

This is the thing about Hong Kong, and Asia in general: they do infrastructure. They still build the big stuff—obsessively and aggressively. I’m awestruck by Asian ambition. But as much as New York and other American cities (New Orleans comes to mind) suffer from our inability to build the things we need to ensure our future, there’s a downside to all this megadevelopment. Being in Hong Kong for two weeks is like watching The Power Broker play out in real time.

I visited a friend in Hong Kong who lives next to the Central/Mid-Levels Escalator, a 12-year-old series of moving stairways that runs for about a half mile carrying pedestrians up and downhill from the high-priced, impossibly skinny apartment towers of the Mid-Levels, through trendy Soho (for south of Hollywood Road), and into the central business district. It sounds goofy, but it’s actually a brilliant form of free public transportation.

One day we rode the escalator downhill then made our way across the major downtown and thoroughfares on a series of linked footbridges. We entered the International Finance Centre (IFC), a pair of office towers that sits atop a splendid mall (the Starbucks has a dazzling view), which in turn sits atop the airport train station. We then walked through the heart of the city via pedestrian bridges, strolling in climate-controlled comfort from mall to mall, stopping at a Lancôme store in one and a Dries van Noten boutique in another. Eventually we reached a building crammed with shops that, unlike all the other malls, is specifically targeted to expats. Our destination was Oliver’s delicatessen, a market that stocks Western comfort food.

That we can walk for miles without ever setting foot on pavement is, in a way, miraculous; here at last is the City of the Future. In Hong Kong they build endless self-contained universes of infrastructure—gerbil habitats of a sort that would never succeed in New York. And they do it brilliantly. However, this reengineering of daily life is actually a symptom of the city’s desperate addiction to development. In Hong Kong the government owns all the land and derives the bulk of its revenue from the sale of development rights. To remain solvent the city must systematically replace its rich outdoor life with these indoor streets. Hong Kong neighborhoods like Soho—dense, small-scale, endlessly fascinating—are relentlessly erased in favor of megacomplexes.

So it is predictable that one of the biggest projects on the development agenda, the West Kowloon Cultural District, is more like an airport than a neighborhood. In fact Sir Norman, whose 1986 Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters graces the 20 dollar bill, won the competition to build this agglomeration of museums, theaters, and commercial buildings on 100 acres of land reclaimed from Hong Kong harbor. If the winning design is built, a spectacular multistory transparent canopy covering at least half of the acreage will dominate the district. According to the Foster and Partners Web site, the purpose of this massive structure is to provide “an iconic architectural image for the city.”

Western museums, such as the Guggenheim and the Centre Pompidou, have teamed up with the handful of major local developers vying for the rights to build West Kowloon. The idea is to give this business-oriented city the cultural cachet it lacks—to create another Bilbao—but here’s where the local penchant for building big becomes a bad joke. While the genuine cultural life of the city is being relentlessly razed, they hire Foster to design an epic glass canopy to symbolize culture.

A decade ago when I visited Hong Kong in the final year of British rule, the issues were roughly the same—neighborhoods were disappearing, the harbor was being eaten away by landfill—but the idea of opposing development was unheard of. Now grassroots groups are emerging in Hong Kong as they did in 1960s New York. The West Kowloon plan has become a magnet for dissent. One neighborhood activist told me that the quality of life versus development debate that raged in New York for two generations has never occurred in Hong Kong. The conventional wisdom is that if you’re against development, you’re against Hong Kong.

So while the swift ride in from the airport leaves me breathless with excitement, I wonder whether the Hong Kong approach to urbanism is a desirable one. Does the ability to build big always presuppose an indifference to the value of small? Is the ridiculously slow and dysfunctional ride home from JFK the price we pay for living in a city that treasures its urban fabric? Back home in New York the pendulum is swinging, and the idea of building big is once more gaining traction. And across America our inability to devote money, time, and creative thinking to our infrastructure is likely a greater threat to our long-term survival than the chickens or the terrorists. But Hong Kong leaves me wondering: Can we to learn how to build big again? And can we do it without sacrificing all the wisdom we’ve acquired in the past 40 years about the importance of small?

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