Every year, the United Nations General Assembly descends upon New York City, bringing with it traffic jams, crowded subways, diplomatic mishaps, and, in recent years, some tens of millions’ worth of public spending. Given the trouble—and today, a president whose only real interest in foreign policy seems to be alienating other nations—it’s hard to believe that ordinary Americans once saw the prospect of hosting the UN in their country as a benefit, not a costly liability.
Yet that was the prevailing sentiment in 1945, when the organization was searching for a place to settle. It was a different time: The men and women whom today’s right-wing politicians revile as “globalists” enjoyed a slightly more flattering profile. Intellectuals were more inclined to condemn nationalism strongly and without hesitation, calling it “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” (Orwell) or “an infantile disease…the measles of mankind” (Einstein). World peace was largely deemed a cause worthy of intellectual inquiry and charitable giving, rather than the subject of resigned shrugs.
It was in this atmosphere, and from the ashes of two world wars, that the United Nations rose: if not a symbol of peace, then, to paraphrase one of its architects, at least a “workshop” for it. But rootless cosmopolitanism isn’t particularly conducive to establishing a functional bureaucracy, so the UN had to go in search of a “forever” home—and after a lengthy debate about the best place for its headquarters, it opted for the United States. Curiously, this was the result not solely of American strong-arming, but also of the -international community’s reasoning that the United States would be less apt to “return to its previous isolationist tendencies” if the UN was on its turf. As New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put it, the organization would “bring right home to us the troubles and the problems of the entire world, and also bring home to us our responsibility.”
The next question was precisely where in the United States to site the fledgling organization. Some 150 different US localities, from the Black Hills to the Great Smoky Mountains, volunteered to become “the new capital of the world.” A businessman from South Dakota pledged that in his state, “no large city will absorb your identity.” Minneapolis made a dubious claim that it had an “ideal climate.” La Guardia, while in favor of locating the UN in New York, refused to participate in the “scramble of cheap competition,” so it was up to his successor, William O’Dwyer, to do the city’s bidding.
Once New York was decided on, the search for a location was as complex as any of the city’s real-estate transactions. Scouts surveyed several sites in the area, including the Sperry gyroscope plant in Lake Success, Long Island, and Flushing Meadows Park in the borough of Queens, where the UN was temporarily housed. Parts of the Hudson Valley and Westchester County were also considered, to the great chagrin of some residents, until, in a last-minute move, the Rockefeller family decided to donate $8.5 million toward the purchase of a stretch of slaughterhouses known as “Blood Alley” on Manhattan’s East Side (they were assured that they would not pay tax on the gift).
In the postwar environment, the symbolism of a slaughterhouse turned into the headquarters for an international peacekeeping organization was fitting. And ever since, writes Pamela Hanlon in her new book about the UN and New York City’s evolving relationship, “the two have stuck together—the ever-confident city, never wanting to appear overly enamored of its international guest, and the UN, never intimidated by its cosmopolitan host.”
How many architects does it take to change a light bulb on international territory? The United Nations wagered 10. The idea was that one architect would represent each major region of the world. Building the UN was an unprecedented exercise, not just in design but in diplomacy. Constructing the halls for global consensus from the ground up was one thing; building them in a way that attained the globe’s consensus was another.
The architects included Ernest Cormier of Canada; Liang Sicheng of China; and Wallace K. Harrison, an American who led the panel of designers. Their task was complicated somewhat by the presence of Le Corbusier, who was known for correcting his own interpreter’s English and insisted on taking credit for the building’s design when it was his protégé, Oscar Niemeyer, who drafted the winning model.
The language that the architects used is telling: They were making plans for a holistic world architecture, as opposed to a political international style (today, they might opt for a global approach). And because of its prominence, the new Secretariat—a marble-and-glass structure 39 stories high—was the subject of much discussion when it was finished in 1951. Frank Lloyd Wright called the main building “a super-crate to ship a fiasco to hell.” In The New Yorker, Lewis Mumford likened it to “a mirror” in both the positive and negative senses of the term.
Both were right. In the preface to artist Nancy Davenport’s book of photographs documenting the building’s recent renovations, Reinaldo Laddaga writes: “From the outset, a certain lack of definition affected the organization that the buildings housed…. Universalist ideals (‘world cooperation,’ ‘world peace’) were supposed to be advanced here, but the process of embodying them in documents and plans, offices and calendars, resulted in a long, complex improvisation at the end of which emerged an entity that was to be seen alternatively as necessary (however dysfunctional) or completely crippled by bureaucracy and organizational incoherence.”
One of the biggest criticisms of the UN is precisely that—that it is of this world, but too often far from Earth and even farther from its neighbors. Hanlon, who lived blocks from the site for many years, writes as a friend and a neighbor. She doesn’t hide her affection for the somewhat charmless neighborhood of Turtle Bay; she also picks up on detail and the meaning of small things—a statue, a park, a pedestrian walkway—in a way that only a local can.
This approach is successful in that it gives the sweeping developments surrounding the UN a particular locality and tells the story of postwar internationalism in a readable, human way—exactly what Mayor La Guardia had hoped for. But the real strength of Hanlon’s approach is that it juxtaposes America’s inequalities with the UN’s multiculturalism.
In the 1960s, African diplomats came face to face with these inequalities while working in New York: To avoid the everyday racism of the city, many “took to wearing their national dress to distinguish themselves from New York blacks,” Hanlon writes. One diplomat’s wife confided that her husband “wouldn’t let her wear American-style clothing because he was ‘afraid I would be taken for an American negro and perhaps I would come to some harm.’” Finding adequate housing for a multiethnic staff presented a similar set of challenges—not just because of high costs and low vacancy rates, but because landlords extended their discriminatory policies to foreign dignitaries and their families.
These encounters between the local and the global further reveal the striking tensions between the social status of black dignitaries and that of African Americans. The United Nations may have been an international territory with lofty values, but nothing could shield its officials and workers from the racism and violence that persisted outside its compound.
Hanlon’s approach nevertheless has its share of weaknesses. Even though she deftly captures the way in which the UN became a part of the city, a fascinating set of hypotheticals goes unaddressed: Does the UN really need New York, and does the city need the UN? Would we all be better off if it had made its home elsewhere? And what should residents of the city—and citizens of the world—hope for from the institution at a time when its role in world affairs is being marginalized by nationalist and corporate interests?
In that respect, discussions about displaced playgrounds and awkward zoning sometimes read like missed opportunities to explore the more esoteric legal underpinnings of what it means for the UN to be inviolable and extraterritorial, and yet situated in a specific city.
It’s true that the UN has its own postage stamps, which are valid only within its buildings—a quirk, and a charming one at that. But diplomatic immunity, for instance, is a much graver, more nuanced, and more interesting matter than just a bunch of unpaid parking tickets by diplomats. It enables labor violations, human trafficking, and other infractions that fly in the face of the UN’s mission, but it also facilitates diplomacy in the most fundamental way: by granting some version of “safe passage” to official visitors in a foreign land.
Similarly, the principle of inviolability—that the UN is in many respects outside the jurisdiction of local courts and police—is only discussed in the context of building codes. These might be less tangible concepts than the ones that Hanlon tackles, but they are fundamental to understanding how the UN works, not just in New York City but also in the world.
They are central as well to critiques of the UN, such as Claudia Rossett’s screed, What to Do About the UN. Rossett, a former member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has been a prolific critic of the organization for several decades; she vehemently objects to the UN’s special status, which she says contributes to a culture of impunity. “While proposing to act as moral arbiter and shepherd of peace and prosperity for the planet, the U.N. is itself exempt from law and justice,” she writes. “These immunities also translate into a considerable degree of secrecy at the U.N., which cranks out endless information on its labors for humanity but has no compelling incentive to answer questions it doesn’t like.”
Many of Rossett’s objections are political: She believes that the United Nations and its backers enable “despotic” regimes through the “moral equivalence” of equal representation. “When tyrants or their ministers parade across the U.N. stage in New York at the General Assembly opening every September, sandwiched between the speakers from America, Britain, and Japan, before a golden backdrop, one of the implicit messages to their oppressed populations back home is that their rulers, in the eyes of the world, are legitimate,” she writes.
But more fundamentally, she sees no good reason for the UN to be shielded from criticism—and legal action—simply on account of a charter written many decades ago and based on events from the previous century. If Rossett had her way, the Trump administration would adopt a hard line on funding the UN’s continued presence in New York, start planning an exit strategy, and bring capitalist and free-market values to the humanitarian organization to make it less wasteful, more effective, and, presumably, closer in line with the goals of its biggest donor, the United States. “A basic element of the democracy and capitalism that made America great is competition,” Rossett writes. “Are things really that different in world affairs?”
While the inviolable and monolithic nature of the UN—the site of historic speeches, epic meltdowns, and landmark agreements—was never intended to be a great example of free markets at work, it did leave an economic footprint on the city. It now employs some 11,000 people in New York—a statistic that would have been felt more significantly in a smaller or poorer locality.
The big city (and its proudly blasé population) did serve as a fitting, even cinematic backdrop to some of the UN’s biggest scandals and controversies. In the 1950s, the red scare swept the Secretariat, and a number of employees were accused of being communists. In the 1960s, traffic, parking, and congestion pitted locals against diplomats, provoking angry Daily News editorials and headlines declaring that “Laws Are Meant for Other People.” In the 1970s, New York Mayor Ed Koch, along with much of the city’s sizable Jewish community, was furious that the General Assembly had declared Zionism a form of racism in their own backyard. Koch became known for his vitriolic barbs against the UN (to the point that several delegates worried that the mayor’s 40th-anniversary gift to the organization—a Tiffany paperweight in a baby-blue box—might be a bomb), and he once declared that “if the UN would leave New York, nobody would ever hear of it again.”
By 1995, as the UN was preparing to celebrate its 50th year in New York, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali characterized the relationship as a “romance”—but in the eyes of some New Yorkers, they were ready for a breakup. “Long gone is the heady post–Cold War glow of the early 1990s,” writes Rossett. “That notion was eclipsed in short order by the genocidal slaughters of the mid-1990s, while U.N. peacekeepers looked on, in Rwanda and at Srebrenica. Any lingering faith in the U.N. as a guardian of world integrity should have been smothered by the global cloud of graft that mushroomed out of the U.N.’s 1996–2003 Oil-for-Food relief program for Saddam Hussein’s U.N.-sanctioned Iraq.”
The Secretariat building itself also needed an overhaul—its heating, electrical, and ventilation systems were badly outdated—but the renovation costs hovered around the $1.6 billion mark. Enter Donald J. Trump, at the time an opportunistic developer who owned a tower up the street, at 845 United Nations Plaza (the condo’s World Bar remains a popular hangout for UN employees). Trump declared that he could renovate the building for around half the projected cost, and in February 2006 his contractor, HRH Construction, set up shop in a UN conference room to analyze the plans and find a way to slash the bill. They failed to produce a lower estimate, and, as Hanlon reports, “for a while, at least, Trump’s public boasting stopped.”
Trump moved on to bully new targets; meanwhile, the renovation took seven years to complete. Photographer Nancy Davenport was there almost the entire time, interviewing construction crews, immortalizing graffiti and debris, reminiscing with staff, and memorializing the “skeleton” of the structure before it was built up again. Davenport’s photographs help to excavate parts of the UN’s institutional memory that don’t make it into the history books: inside jokes among the construction crews, an interpreter’s confessions about her high blood pressure, the blank stares of bureaucrats at the General Assembly juxtaposed with the focused gaze of the janitorial staff. Scaffolding features prominently in these photos, reminding us that the institution has not only propped up genocidal regimes but has also provided the structure for a kind of peace, or at least stasis. The sheer physicality of her subject, then, contributes to Hanlon’s project: a grounding, or territorialization, of the UN.
Davenport also reminds us about the people without whom the UN would not exist, and in transcripts and portraits she notes a certain idealism that has endured in the hearts of much of the staff—if not in the institution itself—over the years. One of her images, at once touching and kitschy, shows a Benetton-esque group of children with their hands on a globe, posing earnestly for the camera in what appears to be the early 1990s. These are the children who sell postcards at Christmas and trick-or-treat for small change on Halloween, collecting pennies that, Claudia Rossett implies, are just as likely to be siphoned off into the pockets of corrupt foreign officials as they are to help feed starving orphans.
Icould have been one of the kids in that photo. I am entirely a product of the United Nations: Both my parents spent the majority of their careers working there, I attended UN-adjacent schools, and I spent sick days wandering the halls of the Secretariat in Geneva and marveling at the building’s hidden doors and sonorous hallways.
I’ve also spent my whole life in UN cities: Geneva, Paris (home to UNESCO and other agencies), and New York. Today, I call the UN my country and New York City my home—yet I’ve also grown sympathetic to the idea that New York in particular brings out the worst in UN people: vanity, self–importance, snobbery (these are qualities that New Yorkers and international civil servants share, to some degree). At the same time, the UN feeds New Yorkers’ cosmopolitan provincialism: the feeling that New York is, in some sense, its own country.
Hanlon casts the symbiotic relationship between the organization and the city as a net positive: In good times and bad, the UN would not be the UN without New York, and vice versa. But while she’s absolutely right in pointing out that the relationship is mutually beneficial, there’s also a compelling argument to be made that it would have been better for the city, the country, and the world—not to mention for the organization itself—if the United Nations had taken up the Great Smoky Mountains on their original bid.
Would we have world peace? Probably not. Would the enthusiastic internationalism of the postwar years have prevailed? It’s impossible to tell. Would Donald Trump be president? At the very least, his renovation contractors would have been out of a gig. It’s not particularly useful to dwell on these hypotheticals, but it’s still hard not to wonder where we’d be had the UN settled in a red state or a rural region, and shared its considerable institutional gifts—multicultural values, a sense of engagement with what’s happening abroad, and, crucially, lots and lots of jobs—with a host city that resembled its country far more than New York ever will.
That’s why it’s a shame that the UN made its headquarters in a city that was already about as worldly as can be. Forgive the arrogance, but: We don’t really need it. And the UN? It doesn’t much need New York, either.