Monthly Archives: May 2012

Nostalgia for Nothing: NYC’s Great Gentrification Circus

I wasn’t alive when Times Square was a place you went for cheap peep shows and cocaine generously cut with Arm and Hammer. My first experience there was typically adolescent: I took my California cousins who were visiting my family in Greenwich, CT to the sidewalk directly below MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL) studio where a still youthful and dog eyed Carson Daly hosted a show where young people simply called in and asked for a video to be played, a system more or less identical to how radio DJs had been doing things since the 50′s except for, you know, being on television. Somehow that made the show seminal. So we took Metro North to Grand Central and grabbed the shuttle subway the few blocks crosstown to wait under an early fall sun and feign convulsions when the cameras panned in our direction. It all lasted about five minutes, then the energetic mirage was shattered and we realized that MTV was mostly a sham with rhythm.

The emergence of Times-Square-as-saccharine-family-jamboree is a relatively new evolution, but represents the most public shift in New York’s image over the last three decades. Tourists wandering away from the pulsing neon into Hell’s Kitchen don’t need to hold their valuables close anymore, nor do they need to worry about little Timmy’s eyes wandering longingly into the “Private Video Booth” branded porn shops—he has a laptop and wireless internet at home, anyway. Times Square was the epicenter of Giuliani’s New New York, a place that was family friendly, semi-sterilized, safe, and very expensive. (Giuliani, who would claim the credit for reducing crime rates to historical lows through a particular brand of tougher policing [popularly known in urban studies as “broken windows” or “order maintenance” policing] and shipping all the homeless to the outer boroughs, had less to do with the reshaping of the City than he thinks; see herehere, and here.) Soho became the bohemian enclave of the super rich; Brooklyn was inundated with young, white, and “broke” suburbanites; the Bronx stopped burning. And then, almost instantly, there came the nostalgia for the days of gritty New York where unflappable creatives could flop in Sullivan Street lofts for a fistful of dollars, propelled and inspired by the muck and milieu of a ragged and, in what is perhaps the most annoying urban platitude, “real” city life.

 Nostalgia for Nothing: NYCs Great Gentrification Circus

Nostalgia, of course, is based on an ironically imperfect memory of days past. In New York, where 36.8% of residents were born abroad and another sizable chunk are recent domestic emigres, that imperfection becomes especially skewed—indeed, how could people who were not here for the “old New York” pine for it? For many, the specters of gentrification and Disneyfication are theoretical in threat, a multi-pronged attack on a traditional New York that most of them have never seen outside of a Martin Scorsese flick.

A portion of the outrage comes from a generally good place in people’s hearts. Railing against gentrification is, for most people, an act of magnanimity (the other side of the coin are cultural luddites who endorse a really oddball brand of racism where people should stay where they are, an interesting stance in the same way that Ron Paul is an interesting thinker: trendily ignorant), whereby privileged people can speak for the disenfranchised minority communities in the outer boroughs who are being priced out of their neighborhoods by young and typically white newcomers. A morally valid argument. There’s no doubt that the neighborhood I moved to in October (Prospect Heights) has had at least a financial and cosmetic facelift in the last decade due in large part to a shifting demographic and an influx of relatively moneyed residents, while former community members have been forced into cheaper neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy where an inexplicable dearth of mass transit options and, by proxy, economic opportunities exist. Gentrification in my neighborhood also means that those residents are being pushed to communities with higher rates of violent crime—a quick perusal of this map from the Times illustrates the pronounced difference in murder rates between a neighborhood like Prospect Heights and communities due East where rent is much cheaper.

I won’t argue that there isn’t anything wrong with relatively deep-pocketed newcomers obliviously driving up real estate prices, and the influx of $20-a-plate restaurants in a community where 37% of the people are receiving some sort of government financial assistance seems particularly tone deaf. (I want to share that Justin, a bartender/owner of the Bearded Lady on Washington Ave. said they keep their prices low “because our neighborhood isn’t a $10 drink kind of a place.” I’m sure some will jump straight to cries of condescension but I thought that was particularly insightful.) But the idea that people should be relegated to neighborhoods that fit their particular demographic and financial profile is culturally backwards and, well, a little bit stupid. But the real problem with the collective arguments against gentrification is that they are attacking a symptom and not the cause—which I’ll be discussing in part two.

The Stubborn Middle: Why Progressive Transportation and Urban Policy Will Always be a Local Thing

The branches on either side of my genealogy snake quite a distance before they reach my brothers and me. My mother’s side comes from southern Honshu, diminutive middle-class Japanese folks with a taste for canned sardines and a disdain for low-sodium soy sauce that they’ve passed onto their American cousins. My father’s relatives are half-cowboy and half-redneck, hailing from Wyoming and Colorado with mainly a taste for Coors and two-bit whiskey. They’re hearty, almost universally killed off by old age when liver failure and lung cancer should have cut them down—something about the Rockies and open spaces might prove to be a better panacea than AA and Nicorette. I was visiting my father’s parents in Colorado Springs (COS), a city that their relatives and ancestors put on the map as a city of prospectors and cowboys, in order to talk to my grandfather about his 85 years and hoping to put together a blood history and maybe even get commissioned by the city historical society.

The interviews with my grandfather didn’t take as long as I thought they would. Stories, I’m starting to realize, may take their shape over hours and days but can be relayed in a matter of minutes. It was a depressing personal revelation: sharing our realities with another person tend to disappoint unless you’re blessed with the controlled quicksilver abilities of a natural storyteller. I spent a lot of the time looking around the different parts of COS while my grandparents were shuttling me between nostalgically significant geographies, my grandfather’s motorized picaresque.

As far as small cities go, I’d forgive you if you mistook COS for Des Moines, Iowa or Waco, Texas; it’s memorable for personal reasons and dotted with architectural Americana like the Broadmoor Hotel and the Colorado Mining Exchange. Colorado College flanks either side of Cascade Avenue and looks like most bucolic cloisters of American liberal arts—on an especially sunny spring day in May (coeds drinking Fat Tire on their above-market rate porches) the backdrop made me miss college and lazy afternoons. It’s a city that wouldn’t look odd if it was rendered in grainy black and white.

One other thing about the Springs: almost everyone drives everywhere. While Colorado is still the healthiest state in the nation by both statistical and anecdotal metrics, there is still the feeling that outside of the token bike lanes used mostly by the under-30-and-oft-bearded demographic there is not a desire in much of suburban America for anything outside of the current vernacular of urban planning. Too much traffic? Build more roads. Not enough housing? Build more housing. There isn’t a desire for anything different because necessity hasn’t dictated taking a different look in how things work in places like the Springs. People are generally happy with current planning practices because there aren’t diminishing returns for additive infrastructure—it’s vanilla planning for people who like vanilla.

That isn’t to say that my paternal homeland is somehow backwards or stunted (OK, maybe a little backwards). Necessity has driven places like New York to develop (and keep developing) stringent safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists, or Boston to link its mass transit system in a way that moves as many people as efficiently as possible (still in progress). For the middle country those driving mechanisms haven’t really presented themselves in any intractable way outside of marginally higher gas prices. (Yes, gas prices are at historical highs nominally and effectively but the financial affect on the vast majority of Americans is constantly and grossly overstates and those histrionics are probably the main reason that our interstate infrastructure is in such shoddy condition). Why would they need to change the equation if it’s working just fine for them?

And that’s why transportation changes will always be a local game. Infrastructure development is something that needs to be planned for the long run but is almost always dictated by immediate needs. In a standard small city like Colorado Springs, and indeed most metro-areas that don’t have any geographic bounds, the immediate needs are not going to include progressive infrastructure for another decade at least.  Movements like Complete Streets may have taken off in cities that were already geared towards that sort of politic, but there will be a much tougher contingent to deal with in places like the Springs.