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 town denizens. 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 free tickets."
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 1985.
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," she said.
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 control over.
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 him."
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.
United Nations Association A private support group
The United Nations An overview of UN operations and history Wikipedia
THE UN AND NYC
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 Independent/Common Dream
The United Nations and the Middle East Modern World History Index