The UN Secretariat Building looming over the controversial piece of asphalt known as Robert Moses Park
For 30 years, some New York politicians have grumbled about the
United Nations: "If they left tomorrow morning," New York State Senator Martin Golden has said, "the office space would be filled within a year."
"The U.N. needs a good smack in the face," says New York City Councilmember Simcha Felder.
But if their past rants did little but please some of their constituents, legislators like Golden now have an opportunity to bring the world body to heel -- thanks to a patch of asphalt in the shadow of the UN building, at 42nd Street and 1st Avenue.
The bare playground is part of what is called (rather too augustly) Robert Moses Park, and the United Nations wants to construct an office building there. Though the plan has the support both of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Bush administration, a few New York Republican state senators have the power to keep it from moving forward. So far, they have succeeded.
Why are they doing this? It depends on whom you ask.
State Senator Liz Krueger, whose district includes the United Nations, says some of her senate colleagues, and like-minded members of the City Council, "have turned a land use issue into a referendum on the UN in New York City."
Whatever happens next, there seems sure to be more tension in what has already been a troubled
relationship between the international organization and its host city.
HOW THE UN CAME TO NYC
In 1945, after many meetings and lengthy debates, the United Nations decided to
locate in the United States. A number of UN delegates looked longingly at
the posh suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. But future U.S. Senator
Prescott Bush, grandfather of the current president, and other town
luminaries feared the UN would destroy that community's character.
"The anti-UN folks raised a lot of money, and they began spreading
rumors that camels would walk down the streets," Bernie Udain, then a
reporter for a local paper, later recalled. One opponent allegedly hired two men to
pretend to be Syrians by wearing fezzes and walking through the town
speaking pig Latin, which apparently sounded like Arabic to outraged
On the other hand, New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer wanted the UN. He
recalled later that he thought getting the world body "was the one great thing
that would make [us] the center of the world."
A series of Byzantine maneuvering and arcane real estate transactions
eventually brought the UN to its nine-acre site on the East River
between 42nd and 49th streets - an area that featured
slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants.
When the UN moved into the marble and glass headquarters in 1952,
most New Yorkers welcomed it. "New York was wonderful," Oscar Schacter,
a former UN legal adviser, told the New York Times on the organization's
40th birthday in 1985. "We were invited to people's houses and given
In the 1950s and the 1960s most U.S. opposition to the UN came not
from New York but from more isolationist sections of the country. But
then, in 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution - by a margin
of more than two to one - equating Zionism with racism.
Mayor Abe Beame condemned the resolution, and City Council members
called on the city to shut its liaison office with the UN, setting the
tone for the rhetoric that continues to this day.
At the same time, member countries had their problems with New York.
Some diplomats complained of police harassment, racial discrimination
and being denied apartments. Others worried about the crime rate.
"Frankly I'm terrified living in New York and I never leave the East
Side," the wife of an unnamed European delegate told the Times in
WHAT NEW YORKERS COMPLAIN ABOUT
The conflicts between some New Yorkers and the UN grew more rancorous
in the 1990s. Many persist. They include:
PARKING FINES. Because of immunity, UN diplomats cannot be taken to
court if they fail to pay parking tickets. And many have taken advantage
of that. In 1996, the city said, foreign missions and consulates in New
York received 143,508 tickets totaling more than $5 million in fines.
While only a small portion of the more than $350 million in parking
fines levied that year, this irked many New Yorkers and enraged Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani, who said he would not care if the UN left town.
Faced with the criticism, more foreign missions and consulates asked
their employees to respect city traffic laws. The State Department
revoked special license plates of some persistent scofflaws. In 2003,
Bloomberg declared victory in the parking ticket conflict.
But Eva Moskowitz, who represents the area in City Council,
disagrees. "It's gotten better, but it's not great and it's annoying,"
TRAFFIC. During the weeks in the fall that the General Assembly
meets, the city shuts streets surrounding the UN. Security can be tight
and traffic snarled. This is "a pain," said Krueger. But she added the
disruption is similar to many other headaches that occur in Manhattan
including "a visit by the president --- any president."
Gary Papush, chair of the Parks, Landmarks and Cultural Affairs
Committee of Community Board 6, said he would like the UN to have a
community liaison who could alert residents to street closings and other
potential problems. "On UN community relations, I wouldn't give them a
failing grade, I'd give them an incomplete," he said
ISRAEL. The UN has passed many resolutions criticizing Israeli
actions, while failing to condemn suicide bombers who kill Israeli
civilians. But the resolutions against Israel may simply reflect what
most nations think. In these UN votes, virtually all the countries of
the world usually line up on one side with only the U.S. and Israel -
sometimes joined by El Salvador, Costa Rica, Romania or Micronesia - on
the other, Phyllis Bennis wrote in
1997. "These Assembly resolutions reflected a clear UN consensus on the
way forward toward solving what had been for so long an intractable
regional crisis," she said.
This undoubtedly riles many pro-Israel New Yorkers. But supporters of
the UN note that Israel, despite the many votes against it, continues to
belong to and support the world body.
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, said he would prefer that the UN remain in
New York City. "At least here it gives our Jewish community an
opportunity to have more dialogue with many members of the UN and have
them understand us a little better," he told The Jewish Week.
CORRUPTION, INCOMPETENCE, INEFFECTUALITY. Critics of the UN cite a litany of
failures, including alleged corruption of the UN's multi-billion dollar oil for food program, which
was designed to get food, medicine and other necessities to pre-war
Iraq. An audit to be released this week reportedly criticizes UN oversight of the program.
Councilmember Simcha Felder, author of a resolution opposing the UN
expansion, said the UN is so ineffective that individual nations are taking it upon themselves to
deliver aid to
victims of last month's tsunami in Asia. And he says, the world body has
failed to stop killings in Bosnia, Rwanda,
Israel and Sudan.
Supporters do not contest all these allegations, but argue this does
not mean the US, nor New York, should abandon the UN.
"The United Nation has brought enormous
prestige to this already prestigious city," said William Luers, of the
United Nations Association of the United States,
a private group. The UN contributes some $2.5 billion a year in
economic activity to the city, he points out, and is responsible for about 18,000 jobs.
"Nobody has ever suggested the UN
is a perfect body. Like any organization, it has flaws," said Stephen
Schlesinger, the director of the World Policy Institute at New School University, and
author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. "But what is the alternative?... A reckless, divisive,
militaristic, anarchistic world."
THE EXPANSION PLANS
The latest controversy began simply enough. At about 50, the once glittering
UN headquarters shows
its age. "This great landmark sitting on the East River is in trouble,"
said Luers. The security system is outmoded, and asbestos reportedly can
be found throughout the building.
Working with the UN Development Corporation, a city-state
entity, the UN came up with a plan for a building of about 35 stories on a portion of Robert Moses playground, an asphalt area
surrounding the ventilation towers of the Queens Midtown Tunnel that
features benches and a baseball backstop. Workers in the Secretariat
building would move to the new location while the older building was
repaired. Then, the new building would house UN employees who now work
elsewhere in the city, including in offices the UN rents from the city.
The Bush administration promised a
low-interest $1.2 billion loan.
As part of the deal, the UN would build an esplanade along the East
River between 41st and 51st Streets, creating a needed link in the
planned greenway around Manhattan. But many residents, including the
Turtle Bay Association and Community Board
6, also want what they consider a "more active"
space to replace the Robert Moses. Some are looking to the Con Ed site
south of the playground.
"It's a land use issue," Krueger said. "If NYU Medical Center said it
wanted to take the land or Mayor Bloomberg said he wanted to move City
Hall there, the issue would be the same."
Not everybody sees it this way.
Last fall, New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno would not allow a vote
on a bill that, while not approving the expansion, would have allowed
the process to proceed. "There is tremendous community opposition" to
the plan, Bruno said in a statement because
"residents fear they will lose a prime piece of recreational real estate."
But, like Bruno, the leading opponents in Albany do not come from the
East Side of Manhattan - and their opposition went far beyond the park
issue. "The United Nations has evolved into an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic
group of petty, sniping bigots who are pursuing an anti-freedom,
anti-democratic, anti-American agenda," said Serphin Maltese of Queens.
"To authorize an expansion of their headquarters would be a slap in the
face of American citizens."
Back in the city, Felder, a councilmember from Brooklyn, sponsored a
resolution opposing the expansion. Despite his comment about the United Nations needing to get smacked, he does think it does some good. His resolution, he
said, seeks "to make some changes. If it can improve somewhat... then
we've accomplished a lot."
In response, Councilmember Charles Barron offered his own resolution supporting the expansion and UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan. Barron said he has done this because of the UN's
contribution to New York's economy and "most importantly, the whole
world is meeting in your backyard."
Neither of these resolutions, if passed, would mean very much; they are both non-binding. But no one expects the council will even vote on them. That would
require the consent of Speaker Gifford Miller, who is unlikely to allow a
divisive fight on a matter the council has little
Meanwhile, many in the specific neighborhood where the park is located wish the foreign policy aspect of this fight would
go away. "If elected officials really want to engage in the [foreign
policy] discussion, they should go to Congress," Moskowitz said.
"We're not getting involved in the politics," said Papush of
Community Board 6.
But, for now, politics has stopped the project. For it to move
forward, Bruno must bring the issue to the floor. As the new legislative session begins this week, there is no indication
that he will.
"I don't know whether we can change the points of view," of Bruno and
the other senators, Luers said. "But it's always sensible to talk to
Some hope that the Bush administration will exert pressure on
Governor George Pataki -- who is on record supporting the bill Bruno
blocked -- and other state Republicans to let the process move forward.
After all, Schlesinger said, this debate could come down to "whether the
United States is allowing one state or city to block what would be a
necessary change" -- expansion of the UN.
If the legislature approves the bill, there will be further talks
about the park and other matters. And the expansion plan could
eventually go before the City Council as part of the normal land use approval process.
Even without the new building, Luers expects the UN will remain in
New York, perhaps finding other temporary space.
But some opponents wonder if blocking the expansion could force the
UN to move. "I don't have a problem if they leave here," Felder said,
adding "I would rather they stay here and be different." Hikind has
reportedly urged the
UN to go to Paris or Mozambique. The New York Sun, which has boosted the
anti UN movement, suggested the body move to Bonn, the former West
German capital. A city of 305,000, Bonn has had extra government
buildings since Germany reunified and moved its capital to Berlin.
But proponents say losing the UN would hurt the city, the nation and
the UN. For example, work on the new building would create 5,000
construction jobs, said Michael Sherman, communications director for the
city's Economic Development Corporation.
"The UN without US participation would be a much weaker and less
helpful organization," said Luers.
Moving the United Nations out of New York City because of a difference in political viewpoints, some say, would make just as much sense as moving the White House to Sugarland, Texas, because more people in Tom DeLay's hometown agree with the current president than do the residents of Washington D.C, 90 percent of whom voted for John Kerry.
The United Nations
United Nations Association A private support
The U.S. Mission to the United Nations
The United Nations An overview of UN operations and history Wikipedia
THE UN AND NYC
The New York City Commission for the United Nations
The United Nations at 50:
The Zeckendorf Connection The maneuverings
that helped bring UN headquarters to New York. Real Estate Weekly
How Connecticut Turned U.N.'s Sights to New York The Washington Post
New York City and the United Nations: Towards a Renewed Relationship
A 2001 report by a committee of of Association of the Bar of the City of New York on how New York can improve its relations with the UN and the benefits and concerns of having the UN here.
Turtle Bay Association The community groups; web site includes
updates on the UN expansion plan.
THE ISSUES A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility The report
of the secretary-general panel on UN reform
Failure of Nerve in U.N. Reform Washington Post
The Right's Assault on Kofi Annan The Nation
Towards a More Relevant United Nations The Economist
The Oil-for-Food Scandal Wall Street Journal
The Oil-For-Food 'Scandal' is a Cynical Smokescreen The
The Oil-for-Food Scandal: What Happened, and Who's to Blame Slate
The United Nations and the Middle East Modern World History Index
Israel, the United States, and the United Nations Tikkun
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