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.

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