For the record, I don’t care for shopping malls. Or Starbucks. In terms of my personal aesthetic preferences, I am with the contributors to The Suburbanization of New York, a new compilation of essays subtitled, “Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?”
But muddle-headed thinking is never so irritating as when it’s deployed on behalf of a cause to which one is sympathetic.
The book consists of 14 pieces by academics, writers, artists and New Yorkers. A few are smart, fact-based essays that tackle a particular aspect of the city’s transformation, such as the loss of industrial jobs; a couple more are light nostalgia pieces, describing, say, the slow decline of the Lower East Side garment district. The rest are emotional rants that collapse the thorny issues embedded in gentrification and concomitant suburbanization into a simple dichotomy between good and evil.
Good is represented by artists, activists and poor people (so long as they don’t like to shop at Wal-Mart and other low-cost, big-box retailers), and evil comes in the guise of real-estate developers, the vaguely ominous-sounding “global capital” and, naturally, Rudy Giuliani. Oh, and don’t let me forget “identically styled college girls and boys with Gap clothes and perfectly blonded [sic] hair.” (No cliché is too clichéd to find a home in these pages.)
Take contributor Maggie Wrigley, described as a writer, photographer and artist, who strings three sentences together in a paragraph. The first recalls Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant who was shot 41 times by police officers in 1999. The second tells of Timothy Stansbury, a teenager who was killed by a police officer in 2004. The third and final sentence? “My friend’s landlord went to jail in 1998 for hiring a hitman to kill her neighbor living in a rent-controlled apartment.”
What connects the first two sentences to the third? Nothing but a hysterical sense that police brutality, greed and murderousness are subsets of the same larger evil that has beset the city, and that is physically manifested in the Starbucks on the corner.
Would that it were so, and the issue of gentrification were as black-and-white as the contemptuous photographs of tourists, shoppers and chain stores that illustrate this volume. In reality, the problem of gentrification is far from simple, but is rather the surprisingly tart fruit of something for which liberals once yearned: the reversal of middle-class urban flight and dwindling tax rolls.
Who would have guessed, in 1990, when Time magazine ran a cover story entitled, “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” that today New York would be the safest big city in the country? Most New Yorkers would probably say that’s a good thing. (In contrast, contributors Neil Smith and Deborah Cowen rather mindlessly see crime reduction as part of the problem—emblematic of “the suburban fetish for safety.” Tell that to the families of the 2,262 people—largely non-white—who were murdered in 1990, compared to 596 last year.)
Of course, even those urbanites who appreciate the drop in crime realize that it’s come at a cost. Increased safety has made the city a more desirable place for many people, and that in turn has made it more expensive. Higher property values, great for owners, aren’t so great for renters, both residential and commercial.
The latter has given deep-pocketed national retailers a leg up over local businesses in the bid for space. To deny the adverse consequences of the city’s newfound prosperity is to have one’s head as deeply in the sand as those for whom safe streets appeal only to white-bread folks in split-levels.
Certainly, some policies aimed at promoting development cater to chains at the expense of other businesses, and that’s worth exploring, as a few of the book’s more incisive contributors do, particularly Columbia anthropology professor Robin D.G. Kelley, who writes thoughtfully about gentrification in Harlem. He notes that when African-Americans move into white neighborhoods, whites fear that property values will drop, but the reverse is true when whites move into black neighborhoods. “It’s funny how we never call this process integration; instead, we use the presumably race-neutral ‘gentrification,’” he writes.
This observation gets to the heart of what makes this issue so very perplexing; it’s the problem of unanticipated consequences again. In a very real sense, gentrification is integration—that is, what was envisioned by liberals in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Back then, the idea was that mixed-income, multi-racial neighborhoods would mean poorer residents would gain access to amenities that had been traditionally reserved for the middle classes. Well, that’s actually happened; here we’ve got these amenity-laden, mixed-income neighborhoods aplenty, but, as we’ve learned, this has brought its own set of problems.
Mr. Kelley’s piece, which looks soberly at both the positives and the negatives, stands out amid so much fuzzy thinking—if, indeed, “thinking” isn’t too generous a characterization for some of these diatribes.
One contributor, decrying the upscale gaucheness of the Time Warner Center, writes that, “the violent feng shui of the AOL [sic] twins fairly taunts passing jetliners to make their day. These $2-billion babies won’t just kill planes, they’ll castrate ’em.” What!?
You certainly don’t have to be a fan of the Time Warner Center to wonder what this guy is on.
Adelle Waldman is a writer living in Manhattan.
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