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Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers

Author(s):Barr, Jason M.
Reviewer(s):Shester, Katharine L.

Published by EH.Net (February 2018)

Jason M. Barr, Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xvii + 437 pp. $53 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-199-34436-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Katharine L. Shester, Department of Economics, Washington and Lee University.

In Building the Skyline, Jason Barr takes the reader through a detailed history of New York City’s development. The book combines geology, history, economics, and a lot of data to explain why business clusters developed where they did and how the early decisions of workers and firms shaped the skyline we see today. Building the Skyline is organized into two distinct parts. The first is primarily historical and covers New York’s settlement and development from 1609 to 1900; the second focuses primarily on the twentieth century and is a compilation of chapters that focus on different aspects of New York’s urban development. The tone and organization of the book changes somewhat between the first and second parts, as the latter chapters often cover more than a century and focus primarily on findings from Barr’s related research papers.

Chapter one starts with Barr taking the reader on a “helicopter time machine” ride, in which the author describes the New York landscape in 1609 from the sky before taking the reader on a subterranean walking tour of the city. He then describes the location of rock and water below the subsoil before taking the reader to the surface. Barr’s love for New York comes through when he describes fun facts about the location of the residence of Aaron Burr and various legends, as well as native trees and birds.

Chapters two and three take the reader up to the Civil War, with chapter two focusing on the early development of land and the implementation of a grid system in 1811. Chapter three focuses on land use before the Civil War. Both chapters are informative and well researched and set the stage for the economic analysis that comes later in the book. I was particularly interested in how even early public transportation led to suburbanization, and how the location of an agricultural village in the 1600s impacted the locational choice for the New York and Harlem Railroad nearly two hundred years later. I would have liked Barr to expand upon his claim that existing tenements prevented skyscrapers in certain neighborhoods because “likely no skyscraper developer was interested in performing the necessary ‘slum clearance’” (p. 77). Later in the book, Barr makes the claim that bedrock depth was not a limiting factor for developers, as foundation costs were a small fraction of the cost of development (p. 214). At first glance, it is not obvious why slum clearance would be limiting, while more expensive foundations would not.

Chapter four focuses on immigration and the location of neighborhoods and tenements in the late nineteenth century. Barr identifies four primary immigrant enclaves and analyzes their locations in the context of place-based amenities. Most of these enclaves were located on the least valuable land, between the industries located on the waterfront and the wealthy neighborhoods bordering Central Park. Barr also explains why tenements were seldom taller than five stories; low rents could not justify the cost of an elevator, and residents were unwilling to pay profitable rents for space in buildings with more than five floors.

Part two of the book begins with a discussion the economics of skyscraper height (chapter 5). Barr distinguishes between engineering height, economic height, and developer height — where engineering height is the tallest building that can be safely made at a given time, economic height is the height that is most efficient from society’s point of view, and developer height is the actual height chosen by the developer, who is attempting to maximize his/her return on investment. This chapter has an interesting discussion of technological improvements that made skyscrapers possible. For example, the introduction of iron and steel skeletal frames made thick, load-bearing walls unnecessary, expanding the usable square footage of buildings and increasing the use of windows and availability of natural light. Elevator improvements such as safety brakes and electric power also made taller buildings viable. Government policies in the twentieth century, such as floor-to-area ratios and tradable air rights, also played a major role in determining building height. Chapter six then presents data on building height throughout the twentieth century and uses regression analysis to “predict” building construction. While less technical than the research paper on which the chapter is based, it is probably more technical than would be preferred by a general audience.

Chapter seven tackles the “bedrock myth,” the assumption that the absence of bedrock close to the surface between Downtown and Midtown is the reason for the lack of skyscrapers between the two urban centers. Rather, Barr argues that while deeper bedrock does increase foundation costs, these costs were neither prohibitively expensive or were they large compared to the overall cost of building a skyscraper. What I enjoyed the most about this chapter was Barr’s discussion of how foundations are actually built. He describes the use of caissons, which allow workers to excavate the soil until they reach the bedrock and even below sea level. Barr’s thorough technological history discusses not only how caissons work, but also the risks that were involved and accidents involving them. While this chapter references empirical research papers, it is not overly technical and is an enjoyable and easy read.

Chapters eight and nine focus on the birth of Midtown and the building boom of the 1920s. Chapter eight contains a long discussion of urban economic theory that, while accessible to a large audience, may serve as a distraction to readers primarily interested in New York. This chapter would be well-suited for undergraduates learning about the economics of cities. In the next chapter, Barr considers two of the primary explanations for the building boom of the 1920s — the first being exuberance, and the second being financing. He uses data to assess the viability of these two stories and finds that supply and demand factors explain much of the development of the 1920s; though it enabled the boom, cheap credit was not the primary cause.

In the final chapter (chapter 10), Barr discusses another of his empirical papers that estimates Manhattan land values from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The data work that went into these estimations is impressive. Toward the end of the chapter, Barr assesses “whether skyscrapers are a cause or an effect of high land values” using Granger causality. He finds that changes in land values predict future building height, but the reverse is not true. The book ends with an epilogue, in which Barr discusses the impact of climate change on the city and makes policy suggestions for New York going forward. These include expanding Manhattan by filling in part of the water around the island, removing price controls, and reforming zoning laws.

I learned a lot about the development of New York from reading this book, and chapters of the book will appeal to anyone interested in the subject. Readers looking for a chronological history of the skyline will likely be more interested in the first part of the book, as much of the second part is organized around economic theory and analysis.

Katharine L. Shester is Associate Professor of Economics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Her current research assesses the effects of residential segregation on birth outcomes (with Greg Niemesh) and the effects of public housing on single motherhood (with Samuel K. Allen and Christopher Handy).

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Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII