Is Denial a River Running Through New York?
A friend and I were having a beer after work one Friday. He's a white man, a bit younger than me, middle class, also with a kid in public school. Educated and smart, he has his own business, rents the bottom level apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Kensington. He asked, "How long before we can't afford to live here anymore?"
I tell him until my daughter graduates college in 12 or 13 years. I am 52. When I'm 65, I'll retire from the Department of Education, take my pension, and get. So, I tell him, 13 years. That's what I want to believe. But really, I have no idea. I try not to think about it, just like I hope my landlord doesn't raise the rent until my daughter gets into middle school and I can move closer to whichever school that accepts her.
How did we get here, where two middle class, middle age white men--each with only one kid and more privilege and options than you can shake a stick at--cannot afford to live in New York, or not in the foreseeable future?
And how did I arrive at this place, where I make way more than my father ever did, more money than I could have imagined working for the city, seeing my chosen city growing into a luxury supernovae--where not only the 20% of the city living below the poverty line, or 45% living near the poverty line, but the middle class portion of the other 55% worry landlords will price them right out of their homes, or developers will demolish their block so they can build luxury condos?
I don't want to have to move away. No matter how obnoxious I can be--no matter how impatient I am when waiting on line, no matter how fast I walk, loud I talk, get the same cup of light-no-sugar coffee at the same deli, complain about the subways, eat my pizza by folding it, look at my phone in elevators, complain about the winter and the summer, fear the suburbs, hate the mayor no matter who he is, look down on New Jersey, search out cultural events that cost me only a subway ride, spend time in public parks. enjoy soup dumplings on Christmas Day in Chinatown and Ukrainian food in the East Village and certain hot dogs in Coney Island despite the fact they're hot dogs--no matter how much I affect the traits of a REAL New Yorker, I am not one. I was born in sunny Southern California, and didn't move here until I was 31 years old.
I followed Lady Luck to New York because I always dreamed of New York. I grew up a wiry, sarcastic Jew with glasses living in goyisha residential L.A. near the beach--a place where I never felt I belonged, and with a strong love of what I thought was real New York culcha: Annie Hall, Ralph Ellison, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday, the Ramones, stinky foreign food unavailable in my suburb, used bookstores, revival movie houses, all-night diners, lox and bagel. New York was art and brash and writers and crazy Lower East Side Jewish unionists that might have been one of my distant relatives (my Great Aunt Dora, whose portrait hung in my childhood living room, was an International Lady Garment Workers Union organizer). I fantasized about living here. While New York scared the bajeebers out of me, it turned me on at the same time: muggings on the subway, David Berkowitz and Bernie Goetz, graffiti-laden subway cars, porn theaters in Time Square, squalid tenements and accompanying squatters in the East Village and Lower East Side. The 1970s and '80s may have been a difficult time to live in New York--dangerous some say--but that didn't stop my romantic imagination.
I watched rappers from the Bronx on TV, read about punk bands at CBGBs, listened to John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard. Before I got here, I read The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, all of James Baldwin's books, Herbert Selby Jr., Jane Jacobs, Langston Hughes, Paule Marshall, E.L. Doctorow, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Claude McKay, Amiri Baraka, Grace Paley, Jim Carroll, Henry Roth, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. When my mother and I went to the Hollywood Bowl, in my teens, we saw Ella Fitzgerald and heard "Rhapsody in Blue" performed, not the Beach Boys or the Eagles (in my house, there was definitely no Peaceful Easy Feeling, but my parents' Alan Sherman records). And then there were the movies. Scorsese movies and Woody Allen movies and Spike Lee movies. The Godfather, The Warriors, West Side Story, After Hours, Desperately Seeking Susan, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Midnight Cowboy (I used to have nightmares that I was Ratso Rizzo).
Tepidly, though, I moved from LA to San Francisco, then to Washington D.C. In 1997, I finally went all in, as a friend and I put our possessions in a U-Haul and drove into Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, prepared to pay $900 a month for a small two-bedroom, down the block, I would later learn, where Biggie grew up (just a few months after he was shot and killed).
My family and some friends in California refer to me as a New Yorker, but, like I said, I don't believe I am one. I'm not a Los Angeleno either; I haven't lived there since 1984. What I am is a transplant, an American migrant and outsider, and like all transplanted New Yorkers, it seems, I have an affection for New York City as strong as the life force itself. I wanted to come to the melting pot, a term coined in the 18th Century for the United States, then used by Emerson in the 19th Century, and finally the name of a 1909 play, The Melting Pot--a term used to describe, however mistakenly, the amalgamation of cultures once people came to the United States and more specifically New York. I wanted to come to the "Gorgeous Mosaic," the term Mayor David Dinkins used in his 1990 inaugural address: "I see New York as a gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation." I wanted to come to the Emma Lazarus's New York, expressed at the base of the Statue of LIberty: "'Give me your tired, your poor/Your Huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost...'" The wretched refuse. I could relate. I wanted to feel free, and, even at 31, to have the anonymity, the cultural and social latitude to figure out who I am--a free space I never felt in most parts of California. Maybe that's a privilege to move myself across the country to discover who I am (as opposed to, say, running away from Cossacks).
I didn't want to live where everyone looked like me, has sex like me, sounded like me, and had the same privileges I do. Not that LA isn't multicultural and diverse; it is. But growing up in the 1970s and '80s, New York's diversity was celebrated in every form of media and art I encountered. And that diversity and history attracted me like a magnet to steel.
I live in the city of my youthful dreams. I did not that want to make it anywhere else. I have a full-time job, benefits and a pension, an apartment rental, a New York-born daughter, a Long Island-born girlfriend, library cards for the BPL and NYPL, and a healthy annual disappointment about the Knicks (although I remain a Lakers fan). I've made it here, I guess. But looking around me, I don't know how long here will be here, and my suspicion is that soon, it will be anywhere.
But that New York is being replaced by high priced condos and big box stores--New York is beginning to look a lot like everywhere else.
Writer Jeremiah Moss (a pseudonym for Griffin Hansbury, also a 1990s New York transplant) is one of many people who calls those changes not just gentrification but hyper gentrification. Moss authors a blog, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, and also published a book by the same name, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul.
I feel a kinship with Moss.
My city is the city of dark moods, scrapyards, and jazz. Of poets, painters, and anarchists. Of dirty bookstores, dirty movies, and dirty streets. Of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” trumpeting over black-and-white Manhattan, and Travis Bickle’s taxi roving through the steamy rain, that grimy yellow splash. It’s the city of Edward Hopper’s melancholy rooms and Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that.” It’s also a working-class city peopled by men and women who love with a tough love, in thick accents and no time for bullshit. It’s a tuna sandwich at Eisenberg’s, an egg cream at Ray’s Candy, and sometimes lunch at “21.” It’s shoeshines, dive bars, and riding the subway all the way to Coney Island for a corn dog and the freak show. Your city may differ, but if it’s anything like mine, you’re grieving, too, because the stuff of it, the gut-level feeling of it, is vanishing fast. Too much has already gone. (5-6)
Moss mourns a city whose landmarks and people have been replaced by"outsiders." He finds hyper gentrification a symptom of an international malaise. "Hyper-gentrification, the term I use for the force that drives the city’s undoing—gentrification on speed, shot up with free-market capitalism—is a global pandemic, a seemingly unstoppable virus attacking much of the world. San Francisco is dying, maybe even faster than New York. You see it in Portland and Seattle. Austin and Boston. Paris, London, Barcelona, and Berlin have all been infected. The virus has spread as far as Tel Aviv, Beirut, Seoul, and Shanghai" (6).
Moss and I are a little precious. We imagined New York, found what we were looking for--even better than we had hoped--and are now watching that vision ebb into a chimera, "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us," as Fitzgerald wrote at the end of Gatsby. Moss tends to describe outsiders that flood New York with their money and advantages as monsters and frat boys, "the most excruciating people on earth" (51). I can see his point--we tend to move somewhere, resent the people who come after us, and experience them as "excruciating." Then again, except for perhaps the Lenape tribe, we all immigrated to New York City.
But there is a difference between migration and using great wads of capital to transform and destroy. Moss's argument, and one in which I find myself agreeing, is that New York's rapid capitulation to hyper gentrification comes not out an inevitable course of change that happens in good time to every city. It is neoliberalism that has gripped our city for the past three decades--neoliberalism that has rotted democracies and the environment and...cities.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning...Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. The organization of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
Neoliberalism, a reaction to New York City's near economic collapse in the 1970s, has been the engine that Mayors Koch, Giuliani, and most notably, Bloomberg, have used to turn New York City into a place where the rich thrive and the rest of us worry.
Moss uses the metaphor of climate change denial to explain, in part, the boarded up storefronts we see all over the city, the outsiders moving in to neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and paying extravagant rents, radical transformations of other neighborhoods like Little Italy and the East Village, rampant rezoning, the dozens and dozens and dozens of luxury condos and office buildings, and ultimately and most recently, the giveaway of Long Island City to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, Amazon.
Hyper-gentrification and its free-market engine is neither natural nor inevitable. It is man-made, intentional, and therefore stoppable. And yet. Just as deniers of global warming insist that nothing out of the ordinary is happening to our world’s climate, so deniers of hyper-gentrification say that nothing out of the ordinary is happening to New York, and that its extreme transformation in the 2000s is just natural urban change. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the weather, I’m talking about the climate, and New York’s climate has been catastrophically changed (7).
What's instructive here is that Moss says what is happening to us is "stoppable." Global warming, scientists have told us, is stoppable, if we act internationally and we act now. But just as President Trump uses a denial of global warming as an excuse to rollback environmental safeguards, all in the service of creating more wealth for the wealthy, we might be in denial that the free market in which we participate--yes, I watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with my Amazon Prime subscription--is inexorably ruining New York City.
Unless we stop it now.