Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

White Flight

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A personal narrative I thought was more or less substantively true, one that was promoted by the last three mayors or so of the phoenix-like resurrection of New York City from a den of sin and depravity to a modern, crisp, attractive destination, is the effective reversal of decades of White Flight – the domestic emigration of middle-class white families and their tax base due to racism, from federal subsidies for home ownership in newly-constructed yet segregated suburban townships to overt red-lining covering entire districts straight on from the LaGuardia administration in the 30s and 40s. The narrative, it goes, is that once violent crime started going down in the Dinkins administration straight on to historic lows in the Bloomberg administration in the new millennium, domestic immigration of the white, taxpaying types started up again, revitalizing – and gentrifying – neighborhoods en masse, such as Williamsburg and Park Slope. Indeed, Amanda Burden the former commissioner for the Department of City Planning under former mayor Bloomberg was an avowed cheerleader of gentrification, and indeed volunteered her rather contemptuous opinions of current mayor de Blasio’s emphasis on affordable housing – after all, her doctrine was more on real estate values, which meant getting the ‘right people’ into those houses, not getting the right houses for the existing people.

I say “thought” and not “think” because, despite this narrative, White Flight never ended. According to the US census, the non-Hispanic white population of New York peaked in 1940 – the first year the city differentiated between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white people – at 6.8 million out of a total New York population of 7.4 million. It’s at this time that the red-lining efforts were mostly discussing an “infiltration” – the actual term on analytic documents of the time – of undesirable Greeks, Jews, Italians and Irish, as there were only half a million Black residents and only 150,000 people of Hispanic descent. For the narrative to be completely true, one would imagine that the white population would have bottomed out in the 1990 or 2000 census, and then seen an uptick since then. However, between 1990 and 2010, a further loss of 450,000 white residents of New York was still tallied – the last census has the lowest number of white residents in 70 years of unbroken decline at 2.7 million out of a total of 8.1 million, meaning that while the city on the whole only gained ~700,000 people between 1940 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the city went from being 92% of the total to 33% of the total… and is still falling, both in ratio and in raw numbers, though perhaps not as fast as it once was.

There is some weight to the narrative of yuppies moving into certain gentrified neighborhoods – aside from Manhattan, Brooklyn is the only borough that saw an increase in the white population between 2000 and 2010, gaining about 40,000 (for an equal loss in the Black population of Brooklyn, which statisticians have argued represents a trend in which they’re leaving the area entirely due to high cost of living and relatively low employment rates and remuneration, rather than a white population that simply relocates to the suburbs) which lends support for a narrative of population replacement, though the city itself noted that domestic emigration, not immigration, remained paramount, and that population numbers were buoyed by childbirth, longevity and international immigration, so those broad statistics can be interpreted in part by the relatively high childbirth rates of orthodox Jewish communities in South Williamsburg and Borough Park as much as homesteading by white yuppies in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

There is also a more holistic interpretation in that the city is and has always been an entrepot of international humanity, which it then disseminated to the rest of the nation, in which case the truth hidden in the statistical data of a declining white population is that in the first half of the century the largest batch of immigrants were white though of Catholic and southern European heritage, who then flocked to Yonkers and New Jersey and Long Island, and that nowadays the largest batch of immigrants come from Asia and Latin America, who will in turn homestead in the suburbs. Of course, this other narrative somewhat glosses over that so-called ‘white ethnics’ can also be racist and bound by tribalism – the character Archie Bunker was, after all, modeled after creator Norman Lear’s Jewish father and played by Irish Catholic Carroll O’Connor – and so too can new Asian immigrants.

It’s also true that our now-President started his career in racist exclusion in New York real estate, and whose son-in-law carries the torch of a current real estate business model of aggressively harassing New York tenants in order to flip their housing for more ‘desirable’ clients. How to reconcile the prevalence of this practice with current demographic data requires a more in-depth set of interpretations about who exactly is benefiting from such, what the numbers are – what people are moving in and how many, what people are moving out and how many – and where they’re doing these sorts of practices, but a cursory conclusion is that there are still great swaths of the city avoided by capital investment, the people benefiting from such rapacious activities are not very numerous and the people moving out under duress are far greater in number, but not so many as to offset those filling in every bedroom in Bronx and Queens – still areas that are ‘terra incognita’ for the sorts who left half a century ago and never returned.

Angela Carter was right

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Hell, cities have entire personas. Paris is a beautiful woman in her late 40s, once divorced and too smart and self-assured to enter another marriage, but is not against having relations with men on her own terms. New York is a barrel-chested Black transvestite in his early 40s, bombastic and highly theatrical, who doesn’t take shit from anybody. New York and Paris are friends, because of fucking course they are. Paris says some offensive shit sometimes, but New York is used to it and brushes it off as from a person who doesn’t change and can’t harm by it, and while New York openly steals Paris’ fashion choices, so too does Paris from New York, though she would never admit it.

London, eldest of the three and perhaps the most stodgy, yet often invites New York to inject life to his parties. They are business partners, after all, and while the witticisms of New York are almost ad verbatim borrowed by London in other settings, it is indeed London who set New York up in business in the first place. The relationship is far more mutual than that of, say, Chicago, who obsesses over all things New York minus, notably, the “Black” and “transvestite” part. London doesn’t care about such things, so long as the money flows, and indeed they have fruitful dealings and amicably compete over other London proteges, the brothers Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

It is an absolutely subjective observation to ascribe personalities to cities, but it shouldn’t and indeed can’t possibly be controversial to suggest that cities exude a form of cultural zeitgeist that defines and differentiates them – from the banal “standing in line” versus “standing on line” to far more deep-seated issues concerning acceptable norms and tolerances pertaining to them – and with that it’s less a form of accurate depiction as it is a narrative that penetrates to the core. How, after all, does a city where the gay rights movement was launched with a street fight between cops and minority transsexuals (a circumstance that Los Angeles attempted to whitewash, but Los Angeles always was a hater), that founded a musical genre and cultural movement named after submissive male prostitution and oozes gender and sexual fluidity (a distinction London completely missed when copying it, natch), whose most famous mayor’s sexual orientation was left intentionally vague, end up producing our current Commander in Chief, who is almost diametrically opposed to all of that: A crude, incurious, insecure, jealous womanizer?

It’s no surprise Trump hates New York – he seems hell-bent on destroying everything about it, in whole and in detail – but it is a surprise that people are surprised that New York hates Trump, a native son. That’s where the personality comes in: New York is well-adjusted and confident, but that doesn’t mean New York is secure in his position. New York is a savvy businessman, a ruthless pirate, a firebrand intellectual, sometimes broke and often lonely. New York is in love with himself because nobody else is, but New York also brokers straight deals with aplomb and has affairs everywhere. New York is always of two faces, between two realities, where even doctrinaire Marxists learn to hustle; where Know-Nothings share neighborhoods with new migrants who then become Know-Nothings; the only city in America where women have a harder time in the dating scene than men because men are intimidated by aggressive, professional women.

That duality pervades everywhere: Where a law and order mayor can show up in drag one day on a lark (and be promptly molested by Donald Trump), where hoodrat nightclubs that are responsible for fully half the murders in the area have at least one gay night a week, despite a self-reporting localized gay population of less than two percent, and it’s by far the most lucrative night. Where doctors working for the CDC have to ask very specific questions to macho, ultra-masculine alphas who don’t think they’re homosexual so long as they’re giving, not receiving. Where a meat market specializing in one gender by night lends its street frontage by day for butt-augmenting lingerie for the other gender, right on the main strip in a heavily-Catholic sleepy residential neighborhood. New York encompasses all types, and does it in full stride while heading to the office, laughing along with the stupid, misogynistic jokes just so the deal can be struck. New York needs to make that face in order to conduct his business with the world, has made peace with that understanding – London taught him well – but carries on without giving a fuck with the rest of his life.

Trump is at times that face, and that face is what some see New York as, but New York is not that face. New York has many faces for business: Among equals, New York had Morgan, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Bloomberg. New York invented Trump to fleece the rubes, the schmucks – after all, New York wants an empire, and you don’t get an empire by playing nice or fair – but Trump was never meant for New York. A city whose arguably best mayor was called Little Flower, who accepts all and embodies all, who is more than a little dirty and likes it that way, while still emanating class and rarified distinction: This city understands the use of masks because it has to, it always had to; even those of arrogant bullies, but that arrogance drawn inwards simply cannot be. It can be sloughed off and discarded when it has lost its use.

Signature Works

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Allison Arieff, pundit of the Think Tank SPUR, lamented on the New York Times why we don’t build, in her words, “great urban design projects,” the foremost example of which she gives as the Golden Gate Bridge. To this end, she criticized America’s pattern of deferred maintenance and presented Atlanta’s BeltLine as a creative, visionary model we should aspire to.

I would like to know how Ms Arieff got published in the Times without actually defining what she means by great projects, explaining why there is a strong community-oriented NIMBYism against major projects, or even why major projects like the BeltLine deserve praise. In short, I would like to unpack the assumptions in her article.

What is a Great Project?

To me in the City of New York, home of many grand infrastructural projects, such is not only patently obvious but absolutely necessary to our continued existence. First and foremost among them is how we get our water. The aqueducts and water tunnels that feed New York City are perhaps our greatest urban design project to date and the largest such infrastructural complex of its type in the world, solving once and for all a necessity that has most of the West Coast in dire straits. It’s taken for granted in every home in the city and is lauded as the reason for our famous bagels and pizza.

High Bridge, Washington Heights

An infrastructural gem in an understated form

Furthermore, it’s not one we’ve ignored. We have added a third water tunnel under the tutelage of our last mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a project he sank billions of dollars into and is perhaps one of his most uncontroversial positive legacies and certainly one with the potential to be the most long-lasting. It perhaps isn’t sexy, but the benefits are clear as the water in our taps.

We have our bridges – including the George Washington Bridge, still to date the busiest car bridge in the world – and our subways, one of the most comprehensive systems in the world and still the most extensive by station count, and they indeed define us. However, they are also our limitation: We haven’t had a major addition to the subway since the Second World War, and our Hudson River crossings are truly what are limiting our growth as a city and as a region.

Why, then, is there pushback on Great Projects?

This, much to my dismay, is an aspect of the article I found sorely lacking in an article by someone who lives in San Francisco, and thus must have heard of the Freeway Revolts. How can a mention of the Golden Gate Bridge as part of the proactive force of visionary authorities not then mention the Embarcadero Freeway project to link it to the Bay Bridge?

A mention of NIMBYism is incomplete without mention of the force of Robert Moses – by far the single most powerful city planner in America – and of the community revolts under the auspices of writer Jane Jacobs. Moses, who racism and unprecedented unelected power was made infamous thanks to reporter and writer Robert Caro, had great plans in a unitary vision that have defined New York for generations to come, and it is nothing short of a miracle that he was not able to enact more of them. From the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, a project that took the power of FDR to finally kill, to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which elevated Jane Jacobs to fame and international regard as the face of its opposition, the Bushwick Expressway and more, “great” does not automatically confer “good.”

What he did build ensured the destruction of great swaths of the Bronx, the segregation of Long Island, the displacement of the poor and minorities, and major infrastructural hurdles for decades if not centuries to come. It is no wonder that the unitary authority of visionary planners isn’t more regarded.

Penn Station LIRR Delays

The legacy of Robert Moses

The issue of what should be built now has a significant community backlash, for better or for worse: In the fear of great ills – highways blasting through poorer neighborhoods, the very terms “urban renewal” and “housing project” being stigmatized as pejorative – almost all new projects are viewed with a jaundiced eye. The only things that seem to get past the Community Boards are projects that propose a lot of green space, which brings us to the BeltLine.

What projects should we be promoting?

It is no secret how the Second Avenue Subway line has become a running joke in New York politics as to how grand public works projects almost inevitably wind up as giant albatrosses without end in sight, but it wasn’t so long ago in America that a Great Project was built, and that was the Transbay Tube in San Francisco, the lynchpin of the BART system. Insufficient as it is – it’s not exactly a subway and it’s not exactly commuter rail – it’s been an important part in the development of the Bay Area since its opening in 1972, a reverse of the decision to turn the Bay Bridge into a highway-only bridge (similar to the opportunity lost to turn the lower level of the George Washington Bridge over to rail) and a boon for the whole region. Its continued expansion will allow needed growth and define the Bay Area for generations to come.

New York desperately needs subway extensions. New York desperately needs Hudson River crossings, especially since our current fare are reaching the end of their lifespan, but greenways seem to get the most attention and support. Governor Chris Christie, governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio all like to make plans for projects based on their political expediency – an airtrain that nobody wantsanother airtrain that goes nowhere and a streetcar that goes nowhere, respectively – and this can be viewed as a necessary reaction to the heightened cynicism of local citizens, but the major needs go unfulfilled for fear of stirring up the hornet’s nest.

Meanwhile, greenways such as the current High Line project or the proposed QueensWay project get green lights and easy funding, even if they contribute little to nothing towards the long-term prospects of the city or the region. They are indeed like the BeltLine in that they are parks built on railroad Rights-of-Way, which present a low-investment return on unused space at the cost of potential growth in the future. That, to me, is not a Great Project, but the tacit admission that no more great projects are feasible.

They are the opposite of visionary plans, and instead mark the craven chopping up of future generations for an easy fix today; a Boomer solution to what was ultimately a Boomer problem to begin with: Deferred maintenance and lack of investment in municipal infrastructure, something Ms Arieff complained about in the first place. If anything, what is needed is a new paradigm, and unfortunately, as with the fad of New Urbanism, if the current think tanks are any indication, one is not forthcoming.



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3:15PM. Saturday. 57th Street and Broadway. Light rain, stepped over a sleeping homeless man, less than forty feet from the hole in the ground that’s soon to be Robert Stern’s contribution to Billionaire’s Row, a super-tall super-luxury affordable to perhaps sixty people in the world. Thirty more feet, stepped over another homeless man. Another homeless man another thirty feet later, outside the subway entrance. Two more inside before seeing a uniformed policeman, protecting two bank men in body armor emptying a Metrocard vending machine of its cash reserves.

The nation has just had a heady day, watching Obama sing Amazing Grace at a funeral and laud the Supreme Court verdict on Gay Marriage back-to-back; emotional and surprisingly emotive moments from our president to hang atop our collective consciousness while we continue on our daily toils, though not without inevitable backlash. Obama himself remarked, with little rancor but with deep candor,

“I know change for many of our LGBT brothers and sisters must have seemed so slow for so long, but compared to so many other issues, America’s shift has been so quick.”

A subtle reminder of recent events, highlighting the endlessly re-opened scar tissue of the American fabric, yet still not immune to base punditry, where some ask “what must the African Methodist Episcopal preachers behind Obama during his eulogy have thought about the confirmation of Gay Marriage?” (Quick answer: They are too busy reeling from a Good Ole’ Boy’s salvo towards the last generation’s cultural war – or is it? – to concern themselves with this one.) But such issues can’t help but feel muted in the face of what still needs to be done.

3:30PM, standing on the Uptown IND platform at Columbus Circle, coming home from work installing the equipment of some sixty peons who have been relocated from Connecticut as the vanguard of some six hundred more, holdouts moved against their will to balance some department spreadsheet. Working under a foreman whose wages were cut more than half in the past year, lost his mortgage and stands to lose his job altogether – though even at half his wages he’s still making more than I am. Working above perma-temps who know not to work too fast because these are all the hours they’re going to get, working because any of them would not hesitate to leap and grab my job, even as they remark pityingly about how tenuous and underpaid it appears to be. The corporation posted an 80% boost in profits last year. The corporation also laid off half my department. They’re going to keep waiting. Can I come in early on Monday? Of course I can.

It’s a new experience, to say the least. I’ve been under bosses who would attempt to move heaven and earth so as not to cut staff. “Oh, can you forego raises this year? Oh, can you take a 10% wage cut? Oh, can we have a Friday furlough? Please, I’m trying.” I’ve been under bosses who would rationalize and justify, if to nobody but themselves, the necessity of layoffs. “Oh, she had a bad attitude anyway. Oh, she really didn’t fit in here. Oh, she didn’t act like she really wanted the job.” I’m now under bosses for whom there is no emotive reaction to impending layoffs. They are cheerful coming in, they are cheerful coming out, they do not need excuses, they do not offer any.

In order to feel empathy for other people, first you must recognize them as people. There is a pure, raw, untempered amorality at play here, one which the armies of lowly peons find it hard to adjust to. A tall, lanky young man in a bowtie, a rare white elevator operator, asks me on Friday about my hair. He asks if I ever cut it. I don’t. He admires being able to hold that stance; toying with his bowtie uncomfortably, remarks that he’s sick of the uniform he’s made to wear, admires my freedom. That same day, a security guard remarks that he used to have a mohawk until he interviewed for this job. He can be dismissed at any moment, and many often are, but that hair doesn’t come back so quick.

These are the first overt remarks made about my hair since I started working here, but everybody on all floors recognizes me by sight – the one with the hair. It is, indeed, not de rigueur in the corporate sector, and it has been noted. I am not wearing the uniform. No matter; I’m just as disposable as the rest. Hell, my boss’s boss is the only true non-contractor in our section, and he’s as desperately trying to prove his relevancy as anybody else.

The security guard asks me what I’m doing this weekend. Drinking, I reply. That’s what he does every weekend. A chuckle. There is no future, few talk of the past. There is the grindstone and we put our noses to it; the cultural wars raging on seem so pi in the sky. A place where nobody has careers, we all just have jobs. “You’ll know when my plans come to fruition because I just won’t come in anymore,” explains the field boss, repeatedly. In the meanwhile, the holding pattern.

3:40PM, a D train rolls in, a petite young Muslim motorwoman at the helm, swaddled in a hijab in official MTA blue. The new blue collar working class, coming into a previously black jobs enclave, thanks to the EEOC, the city’s civil service exams and racism in the private sector. The next generation. Progress. Visible progress. As one issue gets addressed, another comes, and another; the admixture being what we call society.

Our illustrious mayor is reduced to applying palliative care with our ongoing job prospects and housing problems thanks to the callous indifference of the governor and the inability for the president to intervene in any meaningful way, but we all yet try to make do, and there is movement here and there, around the edges. Last month Muslim holidays got put on public calendars. Last week Chinese holidays got the same. Two days ago the Supreme Court confirmed the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, Gay Marriage. I go home to shower and change and prepare for the night’s drinking. I drink to commiserate. I drink to celebrate. I drink.

A Letter to a Fellow Street Cyclist

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To the black dude in the pink bike shorts and the lime green road bike:

Sorry I had to cut off our reverie bombing up Broadway, but the cop two blocks behind us with the flashing lights heading up the wrong way is a known entity who has likely had a hard-on for me ever since I beat four of his tickets two years ago. By splitting up I at least kept his attention away from you, and by keeping my nose clean as he followed me zig zagging through the neighborhood I frustrated his efforts. The hoods on my block found much merriment watching the squad car prowl by, and were quick to remind me that it’s approaching the end of the month.

To your question as to whether you’ve seen me before, you have. We once shared a commute up Riverside Drive where you got into some altercation with some lady in a car with Jersey plates for not giving you enough room on the shoulder – though, to be fair, on Riverside Drive, despite being an official “bike route,” there is no shoulder – and you had asked me the same question you asked me this time: How can I act so “zen” riding a bicycle on the streets of New York?

As to that question, when you find much to complain about people’s driving habits in this city, it’s not so much about taking it personally as it is about never expecting people to do right (and thus never being disappointed by their behavior), and as such reducing everything and everybody to base equations of velocity and direction. I’d liken it to video gaming, but I often find video games frustrating because the computer cheats. You can’t cheat physics.

I hope you made it to Riverdale alright, and I’m kinda surprised at the serendipity of seeing you (I think) along with a dozen other dudes bombing up Sixth Ave right as I got out of work, swarming the yellow cabs and express buses in our trek to the far north, occupying the space between the pragmatic application of the law and the reasonable acceptance of the public – that grey area where everybody actually lives. As I continue to play the corporate whore, and as gentrification threatens to swallow us whole, it’s heartening to have a little slice of the city which I can call my domain; to leave my mark.

Diversity and Gentrification

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You can’t swing a dead cat around without hitting an article about the ills of Gentrification, but they seem to lack a state of understanding as to what is desirable in its stead; once done, explaining why it is hurtful would be much easier. The real question of Gentrification is what a neighborhood should look like, for which the easy answer is that a neighborhood should be diverse. That, however, is split into “what do you mean by diversity,” and “why is diversity important?” The latter should explain the former:

I’ve sported throughout my life what would probably ungraciously be termed a jewfro. When I was a nerdy child growing up in the “hood,” far up in upper Manhattan, despite being in what was, at first glance, a hyper-macho conservative Catholic neighborhood, I was “shorty with a Jheri curl,” by older hoods who hung out on my block. I was simply a “faggot” out in semi-suburban, ostensibly multi-ethnic northern Queens, by crew-cut white kids tooling around in their mother’s sedan. In the suburbs beyond the city, I was beaten up regularly. The message was the same: “You’re different,” but the conclusion was different: “You’re different, but that’s entertaining,” “you’re different, and that makes you a target,” “you’re different, and we’re going to do something about that right now.”

I started studying City Planning because I noticed that the most tolerant and inviting places tended to be the places where different peoples were situated cheek to jowl with one another; where they were forced to interact on a daily basis. In this environment, I observed, it was difficult to broad-stroke characterize otherness because it would not only be proven verifiably false fairly regularly, but it would also incur the direct ire of those characterized. From the city to the ‘burbs, it seemed that the more people could be segregated – willingly or unwillingly – from one another, the more bigoted their purview.

The general gist of what I wanted to accomplish under City Planning was to figure out how the most accommodating of such circumstances could be writ large; turned into a stamp and stamped all across the nation and beyond. It’s no surprise that cities tend to be far more liberal than their suburban and rural surroundings, nor is it a coincidence. But what it means is fostering, through policy and economic guidelines, an environment that maximizes exposure to otherness.

That otherness may be ethnic, economic or philosophical, and generally speaking it should be all three, but the more exposure to it the more rounded each individual becomes and the more tolerant the society becomes as a whole. As all politics are local, it matters a great deal that on the street level this mixing does occur. When it doesn’t through the choices of its citizens, it becomes a gated community, which hurts everybody: Those within the community lose their purview of the world, those without the community lose insight into that community. In their stead comes resentment. One can see this with both Riverdale bluebloods and Borough Park Hasidim. When it doesn’t despite the choices of its citizens, it becomes a ghetto, which hurts everybody: Those within the community are left with a legitimate grievance to fester, and those without the community are left with a distorted view of events.

It’s in the latter of these communities that what we refer to as Gentrification is occurring, and it’s turning them into the former of these communities. But to describe the issue requires describing how Gentrification is not like other urban changes. To do so we can look at Bed-Stuy, originally a middle-class bedroom community of German, Italian and Irish small homeowners benefiting from new subway lines and cheap construction until the Great Depression, when aging housing stock and real estate steering brought in an influx of upwardly mobile southern Black families as well as those from Harlem into the neighborhood. A racially segregationist policy of redlining, a disinvestment in city services due to a fiscal crisis as well as unequal subsidies for homeowning in newly-built suburbs in Long Island contributed to a general White Flight, turning the neighborhood not only into the single largest Black community in the United States but also a massive ghetto.

It’s that neighborhood that is currently undergoing Gentrification, which is itself a confluence of economic circumstances: As the outlying suburbs of New York City have essentially been in a building freeze commensurate to the population for decades, and due to the housing crisis the city has been in since the Second World War, neighborhoods of decent housing stock and ready infrastructure access have been sought after again, despite decades of neglect. The only problem is that the people who have been living in those neighborhoods have two claims to them: One, they’re already there and have built a community in spite of everything, and two, they’re there for the same reason they’ve always been there – they have nowhere else to go. While racial segregation is de jure gone, it de facto remains due to economic segregation, which said Gentrification stands to turn into a crisis.

All of the afore-mentioned are results of proactive policy decision manifesting into economic realities: White families moved into this neighborhood because of a city investment in infrastructure and pro-development policy through multiple political consolidations. Black families moved in to this neighborhood because they were barred from most others. This neighborhood was affordable to them due to an economic downturn making it difficult for the existing families to maintain their housing stock coupled with a federal subsidy for them to move elsewhere. The ghettoification was due to a city that explicitly disinvested in the neighborhood in order to save more “desirable” neighborhoods closer to the urban core, as well as the institutionalized policies of racism. Gentrification is occurring due to the general region-wide disinvestment in infrastructure turning the remaining areas that still have such – even in a depreciated state – more economically desirable. However, the poor don’t just disappear.

The defense for Gentrification usually hinges on the fact that, for all the problems of Gentrification, the neighborhoods currently being Gentrified were already problematic. Indeed, Bed-Stuy was known for being a high-crime area on top of being a ghetto, and ghettos are pretty much the opposite of diverse neighborhoods. Having been a teacher for a few years in a public school in Brooklyn, I can see that it weighed on children when they saw zero role models that looked like them or came from their hood; stuck as they were in veritable deserts surrounded by the land of opportunity, mere blocks away from everything but worlds apart. But that Gentrification is not helping them: In this case, a rising tide does not life all boats.

The reasons are multifarious: Most working-class people in a neighborhood pay rent, and as such are quickly displaced when rents go up. Business that would cater to the needs of working-class residents would either change their stock to accommodate the new, richer clientele or die, leading to an exacerbated dearth of goods for the poor. Likewise, the new transplants, utilizing greater political power (due to more money, more free time, and a greater knowledge of bureaucratic protocol) often do not share the same desires for city services, and as such tend to defund or cut services they find “undesirable,” including social services, shelters, halfway homes, SROs, clinics or, indeed, anything else they don’t themselves use, in favor of services they use but may otherwise have an entry cost too dear for working-class residents. Instead of living side by side, one group supplants the other. The pendulum just swings between extremes.

This is distressing because in those brief moments between the extremes, we have had the greatest social vitality this city, country and world has ever seen. If this country’s claim to be a true melting pot, a grant social experiment, an exception amidst the world’s craven tribalism, is to have ever had any meaning, it is here and it is real. This city has led the nation in the purest form of civic- and public-minded pluralism yet seen and it is because we are all here together, working it out street by street. But this is a delicate balance, a sweet spot, and it cannot abide by extremes.

It all comes down to a zero-sum game: There’s only so much housing available, and so it’s going to go to those with the most means. The current policies in effect or discussed are mere patches on this reality: Rent regulation, which saves affordability for 45% of New Yorkers, is not a solution but a means to stave off mass-eviction until a solution may be found, and the current tax abatements for those who build a mere 20% of “affordable” housing among their market-rate apartments – in which “affordable” includes households making close to double the national average, leaving many working-class families out in the lurch – granting a mere trickle of housing units while losing billions in potential tax revenue, leading to laughably horrifying situations where 100,000 applicants vie for 100 units of new construction.

Gentrification is occurring because building is what we have not been doing, and as such it cannot be killed except through building or through eliminating the economic conditions that our lack of building has created. As such, the city has two basic options when it comes to policy decisions for our immediate future: Stay at the current population and impose price controls on everything, thereby preserving what diversity yet remains but killing the natural growth the city, or prompt an infrastructure and housing boom so large that the physical environment of the city is greatly transformed from its current state as to be almost unrecognizable, thereby preserving the human diversity by reinstating an economic equilibrium.

But ghettos and gated communities are the current obstacles to the latter option: The people of the gated communities cry that such building would disrupt the amenable lives they have created for themselves. The people of the ghettos cry that such would hasten their displacement for which they still have nowhere to go. The city can, through strong leadership, override these concerns for the greater good, for if it doesn’t, then the decision for the former option will be made for it by default, resulting in the eventual death of everything this city has stood for, diversity and all its benefits foremost among them.

© 2009 Big Smoke. All Rights Reserved.

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