Monday, August 11, 2014

Vanishing NYC an Apparition Instead?

Several years ago, when she was still living in New York City, my aunt went to an art show in Manhattan, and then out to eat with friends.

They were dining at a chic new restaurant near Union Square, when somebody behind my aunt bumped his chair into hers.

That being New York, and my aunt being a native, she barely acknowledged the disturbance, but the man in the other chair hurriedly got up, turned to my aunt, and apologized profusely.

Maybe that's the kind of behavior you expect from your fellow restaurant patrons wherever you live, but my aunt was shocked.  Shucks - to her, it was a story worth repeating to me; she was so amazed at the behavior of the young man.

"I don't think I've ever had that happen to me before," I remember her laughing.  Not that she'd never had somebody bang their chair into her, but that somebody in New York City apologized for doing so.

"New York is changing, isn't it," I replied, aware of the many articles online chronicling the evolution of Gotham's ethos from a city of grit and rudeness to a city of polish and civility.

Or, at least, a version of civility that is new to New York.

Last week, the Daily Beast ran an article lamenting what the writer, Tim Teeman, believes to be a wholesale rebranding of the city from a bohemian pastiche of raw personalities to a sanitized playground for well-funded hipsters.  In a city that used to be quite rough around the edges - with a fair amount of rotten spots in its core - a new atmosphere of standardized commercialism seems to have taken hold.  It's a form of intense gentrification that is gobbling up all of Manhattan and invading its outer boroughs, much to the dismay of longtime Gothamists.

Granted, throughout New York's history, each of its generations has decried the next era to transform the Big Apple - starting with the people who lived there first, who never were New Yorkers:  the Native Americans.  Their hunting grounds were dug up and replaced by military structures, wooden huts, docks, and that infamous wall after which a street eventually was named.

I recently met a lady here in Texas who told me that one of her ancestors sold his farm on Manhattan Island and went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush.  Part of that former farm of his became the depot that became Pennsylvania Station, which sits in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, right next to Madison Square Garden, down the block from Macy's.  But that farmer had finished with New York City back in the 1800's - too much change, too much civilization, and not enough adventure!

Isn't it simply the same story, different chapter today?  Only this time, the Daily Beast's Teeman isn't lamenting the loss of wide open spaces for farms, but the ouster of seedy dive bars from neighborhoods that used to be exceedingly dangerous, and now are fashionable hipster districts, thanks to gentrification in overdrive.

He quotes Jeremiah Moss, keeper of the blog "Vanishing New York," as saying that not long ago, “you needed chutzpah to live in New York.  Now, you just have to be very rich."

And certainly, most of New York City's story remains inextricably linked with the reason for its very founding:  money.  If it wasn't for New York's location on this continent, it wouldn't have been as appealing as it was to the European investors who funded its "discovery."  And if it wasn't for Manhattan Island's geography, its real estate wouldn't be so valuable, since it's so limited.

Nevertheless, another significant element of New York's DNA has always been its unique attraction to individualists, and its celebration of unique people, even if - despite its millions of residents - it can seem like the loneliest place on Earth.  One of the things I've always admired about the city is its uncanny juxtaposition of opposites, from its diverse architectural styles to its diverse employment base to its diverse cultures and languages.  Of course, plenty of other cities enjoy diversity, but New York used to thrive on it, with tableaux that would elicit the exclamation, "only in New York!"

By way of full disclosure, I haven't been to the city in years, but I read about it daily, on a variety of websites, and I can tell that the city I see online isn't the city I left in 1993.  Everything looks a lot cleaner, from the taxi cabs to the sidewalks.  There's a lot more glass, as if bricks and masonry have been outlawed.  Cacophonous streets have been "tamed" by bike lanes and pedestrian islands, and Times Square looks less like the "crossroads of the world" and more like a theme park.

Not that the city didn't need to get safer, or cleaner, or more polite.  When I lived there, sometimes I thought a lot of New Yorkers were rude simply because they could get away with it, since they lived in New York, and had an image to maintain.  People littered because everybody else did, and New Yorkers seemed to enjoy complaining about it.  Culture snobs coddled graffiti as a legitimate art form, even as they paid big money for contractors to clean their apartment buildings when they were tagged.  Vandalism was an art form, but only when it was perpetrated in poorer neighborhoods.

On the one hand, it's a bit amusing to read people like Teeman and Moss, complaining about the "old New York" of twenty years ago, disappearing right in front of their eyes.  Like the city's evolution was supposed to stop at some arbitrary point, like right after they first arrived on the scene.  "Yeah, take me back to the good old days, when the city was still cool, edgy, and had this great grunge vibe."

"But don't take me back to the 70's, man - that was way too dangerous."

Sure, back in the day, the city was more affordable than it is now, but was it really as good as we remember?  Hey, I can be as much of a sentimentalist as anybody else.  I hate change, and nostalgia can be exceedingly comforting to me.  But of all the places on the planet that are as unique as New York City, could anybody ever identify the perfect spot in time in which all five boroughs should've been frozen?

On the other hand, of course, are the valid concerns people like Teeman and Moss expose.  It does appear as though the city has passed a tipping point, where money may finally neuter New York's attempts at community.  And it's not just stratospheric rents we're talking about.

The super-luxury apartments stuffed into Manhattan's towering glass boxes may be selling for top dollar, but not everyone buying them intends to become invested in Gotham.  Many of New York's newest property owners are instead making a financial investment in Manhattan real estate, and don't plan on using these sky palaces as their primary residence.  Developers and the city's tax coffers benefit from such transactions, but local businesses on the street don't.  Teeman and Moss point out that a lot of mom-and-pop businesses are being shut down because of skyrocketing rents, and that no new businesses are replacing them.  One reason no new businesses are filling all of these increasingly vacant storefronts is because New Yorkers are realizing that these pricey new apartments are being sold, yet are sitting empty for most of the year.  You can't build a year-round business on part-time residents.

Empty apartments do not a vibrant city make, even if these empty apartments are completely paid for, their taxes and utilities are paid for, and they're lavishly furnished for the few weeks out of the year when anybody is actually occupying them.  Sure, it's a great gig for their doormen, who get to sit around most of the time, instead of hailing cabs and hauling shopping bags for their steady stream of active residents.  But these apartments take up space and drive up prices in a process that exacerbates the availability and affordability of housing quarters for people who want to live and work there.

To a certain degree, it's a phenomenon that's always been at work in New York City, but now seems to be unfolding at an unprecedented rate and scale.

Still, the game will probably continue, and in another couple of decades, the millennials who today are getting most of the blame for naively participating in the city's current changes may be the folks lamenting what was... back in the good old days around 2014.

And we'll have this debate all over again regarding whether New York's changes ever bring anything good along with them.

When I worked in Lower Manhattan, back in the early 1990's, a group of us were having an ordinary workday lunch at a restaurant on Water Street, when the chair of a young woman in our party was bumped from behind.  She turned around, and her purse was gone.  We all jumped up and high-tailed it after a short woman who was running to the door, but we lost her in the crowds on the sidewalk outside.

Ahh, the New York of yesteryear!


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