February 16, 1988
NEW YORK'S FINEST
The Battle of Bryant Park
Until last January Anthony Tung was an obscure treasure, known only to preservationists. He had the reputation as a fair-minded, hard working member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. His voting pattern was iconoclastic and unpredictable. He was no radical. And then, in January 1987, Ed Koch made him a symbol and a hero by trying to fire him.
Tony, as his friends call him, was opposed to the building of an upscale restaurant in Bryant Park that would have obscured the attractive facade of the New York Public Library. The mayor supported the project. The commission chairman, Gene Norman, had just endorsed Tony for a new three-year term when Tony submitted an op-ed piece to the Times in opposition to the Bryant Park restaurant.
When Tony told Norman about his article, Norman lost his composure. He was already under pressure from Deputy Mayor Bob Esnard to muzzle the outspoken Tung. Norman suggested that Tung withdraw the article. Then Tung heard rumors that Norman was urging that he be dropped from the commission. Soon, Koch announced that Tung would not be reappointed.
All of Tony's friends urged him not to make a fuss, to go quietly, because nobody could resist the mayor.
But Tony Tung is not some dreamy academic or a subservient drone from the clubhouses. He grew up a street kid on Staten Island, a member of the track and field team at Curtis High School. He is tough and not a quitter. He didn't like being singled out and purged for being a free thinker. He wouldn't resign and politely vanish. Grassroots landmarks activist Anthony Wood of the Historic Districts Council volunteered to make a fight on his behalf if he agreed to stick it out and stand by his principles.
Tony's principles include the cultural, the historic, as well as the purely aesthetic. Tony is more than just an architect; he is a pluralist and a city-lover. His notion of landmarks preservation isn't as a way to prettify the city. His notion is richer, more participatory, more egalitarian.
So last January, Tony Tung decide to defy City Hall and see what would happen. A variety of supporters, including community groups and Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg rallied to his defense.
To everyone's surprise, Tony is still a member of the Landmarks Commission. More than a year later, he is still making the case for more rational planning procedures, still defending neighborhood treasures against the threat of developer's wealth, still trying to prevent the politicization of the Landmarks Commission by City Hall, still trying to enforce the existing laws in a fair way.
A New York Times editorial last January 26 called Tony a zealot, although no one from the Times editorial board has ever interviewed him or invited him up to the Times to describe his ideas.
Tony is, of course, much less of a zealot that the authors of the Times editorials that have promoted overdevelopment for a decade. He is still the same serious free thinker he was before the mayor made him a symbol by trying to fire him. Tony was, in fact, once a true believer in Ed Koch. Now he is reading Bob Caro's masterpiece, The Powerbroker, and becoming a student of how longevity in power tends to create arrogance and corrupt judgment.