There is an interesting article in the New York Press this week about CBGBs and the gentrification of the East Village which brings to mind some of my own observations about living in New York. In spite of the fact that the city government and city developers are doing their damnedest to make Manhattan resemble an inhabitable Mall of America, Manhattan is still the only place worth living in New York City if living in New York is worth it at all.
Oh, I know I’ll get a lot of disagreement about this, but it must be said: if you were not born in New York and you are not going to settle down and have children, Manhattan is the only place worth living in New York City. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of interesting places in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, but none of those places posses the uniqueness of Manhattan. Pick any neighborhood in Queens or Brooklyn and I can find one not too different from it in Chicago, or Boston, or even Baltimore but Manhattan is one of a kind–there’s simply no place like it on earth. The only other borough that I find nearly as interesting and unique as Manhattan would be, in its own way, the Bronx–but that’s for another rant.
All the cool people are living in Brooklyn now, and they will vociferously defend it’s wonderfulness just as they defended the wonderfulness of the East Village/Lower East Side before they were priced out of it. The truth is, Brooklyn became hip because the hipsters could no longer afford to live on the Lower East Side, it has nothing to do with there being something innately cool about Brooklyn, it’s simply where the scene now resides–if they lived in Canarsie then Canarsie would be hip. The difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan is that Manhattan doesn’t need any particular group of people to be inherently interesting, it just is. I’m not a scenester and why I stay in New York has little to do with being in a social scene, so what I’m trying to say here may be lost on many people reading this. What I love about Manhattan is not just the obvious things like Central Park, or all the other parks, or the theatre, or the museums, or the wonderful variety of people that fill Manhattan’s streets on a daily basis, it’s also countless intangible things about living in Manhattan that you can only understand if you actually live there. I love the fact that almost everyone is from someplace else, there are lots of Manhattan natives, of course, but what’s amazing about Manhattan is that it is a city of expatriates–this is true of the other boroughs, of course, but not in the same free-for-all-of-humanity way that it is in Manhattan; it’s where the whole city comes together to work, do business, and play.
The problem with Manhattan is that most people can’t afford it anymore. I don’t live there anymore because I can’t afford it, and I really miss it, and if I can’t get back there I see less and less of a reason to stay in New York. People often tell me that it’s only a train ride away from the other boroughs, which is true, but it’s still not the same. I am not interested in quiet neighborhoods–there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not interested in it–and I’m not interested in being part of a scene. I miss the sense of feeling alive that living in Manhattan gave me. I still work in Manhattan, but it’s not the same, now I’m just another visitor like any other outer borough resident.
However, the fact that I can’t afford to live in Manhattan ties in very closely with another reason why I don’t want to live in Brooklyn or Queens. Though I’m not well-off enough to afford Manhattan right now, I can still contribute to gentrifying someone’s neighborhood who is less well off than me and I don’t want to be a part of that. Williamsburg used to be a mostly Jewish and Polish and Black neighborhood, a real neighborhood with all the good, bad, beautiful, and ugly things that come with a real neighborhood, but the former East Villagers who have moved in in droves over the last ten years or so have made it into a hipster Disneyland, driving out the previous lower income residents because the hipsters can pay more for rent so the landlords charge more–a lot more. What has happened in Williamsburg is simply a repeat of what happened on the Lower East Side/East Village years before. The Lower East Side/East Village used to be a shithole, ‘Alphabet City’ was once one of the scarier places in the city, now tony shops and cafes line the streets and all the poor people have been pushed out to the remaining tenements way over on Avenue D by the sewage treatment plant. How did this happen? Just like it happened, more or less, in Williamsburg.
Here is the process, it’s the same in New York as it is anywhere:
1) “Poor” white artists and activist types are attracted to the character (and cheap rents) of a pristine neighborhood. They love the neighborhood as it is, it’s why they came there. Lacking authenticity themselves, they seek it out in “authentic” places that they imagine they can be a part of without utterly changing the place forever. These people can be compared to early colonists, only these are unwitting colonists, they don’t want to colonize, they want to “assimilate”. By “assimilate”, I mean, of course, living in a cool character-rich neighborhood, lording it over other people that they live in such a cool character-rich neighborhood, and opening cafes, nightclubs, and galleries.
2) Unfortunately, the accidental colonists have made the neighborhood safe for white people/non-ethnic people; rents go up, some adventurous yuppies start moving in, rents go up some more.
3) The original colonists start to get priced out bit by bit, but the original inhabitants start getting priced out wholesale, as developers move in and start “renovating” old buildings and erecting shiny metal and glass apartment complexes. The end is nigh.
4) East Village/Lower East Side/Williamsburg/South Harlem circa 2005
Give me the Upper West Side any day, I actually love it up there and most of it has been gentrified since the 19th century. I do support anti-gentrification efforts and I wish they were far more effective, but I think the best thing I can do as an individual for people more worse off than me is not contribute to the problem by not moving into their neighborhood.
Even if I had the income to move back to Manhattan, the government, developers, and even many short-sighted residents seem so intent on destroying everything that’s good about it that I don’t know if it’ll be worth living there ten, or even seven, years down the road, but for now I’d like to enjoy what’s left of it while it’s still around.
Come Home to Syracuse — Although this site is a bit chamber of commerce-y, in the right hands, a project like this could be really interesting.
Instead of: “Look at all that our depressed, rust-belt town has to offer you! Come! Drink the Kool-Aid!” How about a little more honesty, like acknowledging that those who left had damn good reasons to leave. I love my hometown and I have a tenacious sense of loyalty to it even though I no longer live there. I love Syracuse for what it is: a weird rust-belt city that has been stuck in a permanent economic depression for the last 25 years and also happens to sit smack in the middle of some of the most beautiful countryside in the entire world. Like just about anyplace, Syracuse is populated by mostly jackasses, but these particular jackasses happen to be my jackasses. Furthermore, while growing up in that sea of jackasses, I found some of the most crazy, interesting, weird, wonderful, and decent people I’ve ever met in my life.
Unlike the boosters at Come Home to Syracuse, when I think back to when I was growing up in Syracuse, I don’t get nostalgic about going to any damn Orangeman games, or the times I spent in that absurd boondoggle called Carousel Mall. However, I do think about going swimming, as a kid, at Schiller Park, or how my brother and I used to spend all night drinking coffee at the Little Gem Diner when we were too young to drink alcohol. I think about getting drunk at the, ironically named if you’re a film buff, Lost Horizon nightclub and seeing everything from local hair metal bands to Fishbone. I can think of a million memories of growing up there, both good and bad, and not one of them have a damn thing to do with shopping (except for those memories of buying illegal fireworks on the Onondaga Nation Territory every summer).
How about asking people what they could do for Syracuse? How about leveling with people and telling them: “OK, you know why you left and we’re not going to act like you didn’t have a good reason, but if you’re visiting a site called Come Home to Syracuse and you’re not doing it to give your friends a good laugh, then let’s talk. We can’t make any promises that you’ll be a spectacular sucess here, but we want you back and we’re hoping that you and your hometown can be a success together. We want you to come back, but come back with the understanding that this is a reciprocal relationship.”
The project is, in essence, a good and potentially grassroots solution to revitalizing a depressed community, unfortunately it’s being implemented by people who apparently think that a giant shopping mall is going to make people come running back home.
Syracuse Then and Now
The Wallmen — the greatest band you’ve never heard of.
The Jerry Rescue
Syracuse and the Underground Railroad (see also here and here)
The Erie Canal Museum
Routes 5 and 20