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The Future of the City

To Whom Do Neighborhoods Belong?

Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I lived in (hardly gentrified) Chelsea and used to explore the gritty areas south of NYU when in graduate school there in the late 1970s: Soho, Tribeca (not called that yet??), Chinatown, the areas around the WTC. Got married and moved from an Upper West Side rental to a loft in Tribeca at the end of 1980. We had friends from NYU who said they'd never visit us "down there". As I said, this was part of the first-wave of yuppies (and we *were* yuppies).

There were still lots of artists down there, lots of 'grit', lots of funk. It was exciting, in part because it was unconventional. (We bought a finished 1,600 sq ft loft with no interior walls, then added 2 BRs). Canceled a trip to Hong Kong and we thought we'd never eat out again (our mortgage was 16.5%!!). My daughter was 5 or 6 when PS 234 was to open down there, but we could never get anyone to answer the phone in the school office, despite calling at different times nearly every day for a week, so private school it was. (We were eating out by then, but never did make it to Hong Kong).

It was quiet down there, with a lot of light, and we could walk all over lower Manhattan from there quite easily. It shortly became obvious that NOTHING STAYS THE SAME. More and more strollers were on the sidewalks, Washington Market Park felt over-crowded with 4-year-olds, shops catering to 'us' opened with more frequency, but the pace of change was nothing like in the late 1990s. (Our local bar was on Franklin St off Greenwich, and in the early 1980s the street would sometimes be completely blocked at night by a semi-truck delivering or picking up on the block ... just a fact of life.)

I did a blog post 2 months ago, collecting articles about The Growth (changes) in Tribeca from 1983. I didn't find an article for *every* five year period, but I am pretty sure that the NY Times ran more or less the same article every five years about How Tribeca Has Changed. http://www.realtown.com/sandymattingly/blog/loft-neighborhoods-tribeca/quote-for-the-day-2000-edition

You hit the nail on the head with the question: to whom does a neighborhood belong? The ONLY answer that makes sense is that it belongs to whoever is living there at the time, and that this group *will* change. East Harlem was Italian working class before it was Puerto Rican. Central Harlem was Jewish upper-middle class before it was African-American upper-middle class. Far west Chelsea was full of longshoremen (and hookers) before it became a gay enclave (and is now a destination for art galleries). The area around the armory in the mid-20s on Lexington was a haven for prostitutes in the 1980s, now Baruch dominates and Curry Hill proliferates. Schwartz talks about Jacobs as The Gentrifier in "her" West Village.

What people forget is that PROGRESS IS NOT LINEAR. The fact that the gentrification trend-line has been positive (in the sense of continuing) for the last 35 years does not mean it will continue. The city was bankrupt ("Ford to NY: Drop Dead"), jobs were fleeing Manhattan (as were the white middle class), so the seeds of Soho's transformation were sowed in barren ground, with Tribeca to extend the model in different architecture.

Sooner or later, the general trend line will reverse.

Back to my narrative.... With a new family structure (2 step-daughters) I was in the market for larger space in 1993. We looked at everything available in Tribeca, but could find nothing we could afford that was big enough, so we moved to a new fringe area: 26 St between 6th + Broadway, at that time a *very* non-residential block that was dark and deserted at night. The loud and obnoxious (drug-filled??) night club on the corner of 26th at 6th had just been closed after neighborhood outcries, and The Flower District was in full swing. Flea markets abounded. The Ladies Mile on 6th Av from 17th to 21st Streets was not yet big-box stores.

The only reason we could afford a 2,200 sq ft loft was that it *was* a fringe area. Oddly a fringe, considering it was in the middle of 'everything'. Almost mid-way between the central Village and the theater district, or from Tribeca and Central Park. We didn't displace anyone when we moved there, but within 15 years the new 6 or 8 35-story apartment buildings from 23rd to 27th Streets on 6th Avenue displaced a great many retail stores and low-rise buildings. We felt somewhat under siege by the weekend visitors to the fleas and to the "wholesale" clothing stores on and around Broadway.

With our kids out of college inn 2005, we moved again. This time we were in the second-wave (at least) of gentrifiers, buying a house in Fort Greene. Fort Greene is undergoing *exactly* the kind of change that your Middle Village guy-with-missus decries, but seems to me to be pretty stable in doing so. In the five years we have been here, Spike Lee moved out, a half dozen restaurants have opened within 4 blocks of us, and real estate values have (again) increased to the point that we could not afford to buy here now.

But my block (and neighborhood) is far more diverse racially, economically, age-wise and culturally than any block in Manhattan below 96 St. Old-timers complain about some of the changes, of course. But not about the fact that, compared to Back In The Day, Brooklyn Tech students do not get mugged regularly to-and-from the subway, or about the gunfire that one no longer hears. Most of the new people on our block are (like us) white, as are *some* of the old-timers. We like it that patrons of many bars and restaurants here are far more diverse than any place we were used to in Manhattan.

Again, Progress Is Not Linear. The 35-year positive trend in Tribeca and Soho is only a 10-year positive trend in Fort Greene. Rents are up here for residential and commercial space, so property owners are doing well. Some people and businesses get displaced for economic reasons, in some cases tragically. But I don't see a way to 'protect' such people without harmful stasis.

No question that the trend line, if continued, will price most of Manhattan below 125th St out of the reach of the middle class (we used to say, below 96 St). That is not a Universal Good, but I don't see an effective way to address that without forcing stupid unintended consequences. (The city's program to require an "Affordable" component to new condo development is a sensible approach, but the scale probably isn't there, and the developer community seems pretty effective at fighting off such programs.)

I see I have gone on, and on, and on here, possibly without much coherence. I look forward to reading further of your ruminations on this point, and any (more concise?) reader narratives. For your sake (and my sanity) I will stop now.

Whatever your city, send your story to conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com.



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