Big Smoke

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


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My ministrations today have brought me to the West Village, and every time I’m down in the area during the daylight (a rare occurrence) I continue my search for a dimly-lit coffee shop with ample seating – ie: a pub without the necessity of constantly re-upping my alcohol intake – so as to sit and watch the world go by. It took about half an hour of meandering along narrow, snow-covered sidewalks, but as I’m typing this indoors, I’ve located one. Don’t ask me to name it: I’m terrible with names and my mental map is completely shot without a street grid to work with. It’s just as well, anyway; the West Village is for wandering, and I wouldn’t deny anybody the pleasure.

I’ll never be able to afford to live here – I don’t harbor the conceit that riches exist in my future – but according to various dating-site metrics, apparently this is the most desirable place for young women to live in the city. This I find rather funny – it’s relatively underserved by rapid transit, by Manhattan standards, especially as you venture westwards. The streets practically guarantee gridlock. The housing stock is stately, but ancient, half-decrepit, too small by half, and further subdivided into bite-size parcels (as are the food options in this coffee shop, consequently). The neighborhood itself started out as a working-class eddy adjacent to but otherwise unscathed from the insatiable demand for everything in the drive of New York to build itself.

Paradoxically too rich for my blood

Bordered on the south by what used to be a warehouse district, bordered on the north by what used to be a factory district – complete with freight trains running on the streets – and bordered on the east by what used to be a light manufacturing district, the West Village has had rather inauspicious origins. Yet it exists now as one of the most desirable places in the country to live. Why does rent here start at $3000 a month and go up from there? Surely, if the prophecies about telecommuting were true, this country’s elites could live anywhere, and would thus certainly choose a chalet in Colorado or some modern townhouse on top of a hill with thrice the available square footage. Even now, the folks next to me are discussing a friend of theirs who lives in Virginia beyond the DC suburbs, marveling at the beautiful acreage this person managed to secure on the “cheap, but not Texas cheap,” yet confirm to one another that they would not make similar moves.

Displayed: Prime real estate

It struck me why, while walking around. It’s not so much about what these places have, in spite of Jane Jacob’s vigorous defense. It’s about what everyone else hasn’t.

I was reminded of Mencken’s screed against industrial Pennsylvania, provocatively named The Libido for the Ugly.

Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth-and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke. Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination-and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.

Mencken then went on to rail against the poor architecture and development, but even then, compared to now, the cities themselves had a relatively aesthetic, cohesive brick-clad form. I can’t help but think that, half a century ago, most of urban America resembled what the West Village looks like now. In fact, in terms of its urban form, it’s a basic American township. Similarly, fifty years ago, Hoboken and Inwood, to name two working-class “subway suburbs,” weren’t much to sniff at, and remarkable only for having the most bars per capita in the country. Now they’re supercharged, and rents have doubled twice over in the last decade. Everybody suddenly wants to pay top dollar to live in what were once cheap digs.

The reason is simple: We fucked up everywhere else. As Mencken complained of the meagre offerings despite the heady days of the 1920s, so too have we writ banality large in the riches of the 50s and 60s while at the same time methodically destroying our urban fabric. It’s not just New York: In Houston, where you can literally build anything anywhere, as they apparently have yet to learn about zoning laws, the most desirable and expensive place to live is what was once the Black slum – overlooked by the last generation’s urban renewal, and thus ironically livable compared to the schizophrenic suburban sprawl. Charleston was largely skipped over during the post-WWII development binge and thus now banks heavily on its “historic” character, relative to the parking-lot-and-stadium emptiness of most American downtowns.

Mencken recognized a problem that has since only gotten worse, and yet even seeing this for what it is, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it – what a destructive tornado money has wrought! I studied city planning because I grew up in Washington Heights and admired its urban reality – again, not especially enlightened a plan and yet subject to a musical, a TV series, and successive waves of gentrifiers – but the rarity of such is astonishing. There truly is no accounting for taste.

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