When I was 27, I moved to New York City to attend graduate school, having visited the island of Manhattan on several prior occasions, but never venturing to the outer boroughs. The experience of finding a Manhattan apartment is sheer madness. Most require going through a broker, and paying him or her a sizable fee once a room is found. Hunting around one sees $1500 dollar per month rooms so narrow that a queen mattress literally won't fit, where mere consideration requires a credit check, multiple references, and $3,000 in cash (first month's rent, last month's rent, and a deposit).
Luckily, two classmates from my undergraduate years were moving to New York City at the same time as me. They wanted to live in Brooklyn, so I agreed to join them, and benefited enormously when they found a three bedroom Park Slope apartment in a no broker building for $1,000 each per month. It had a kitchen with a professional grade stove and oven, a great backyard, a roof deck with a view of the Statue of Liberty, and a perfect location, near the corner of 7th Avenue and First Street, convenient to Prospect Park and ideally located for getting to all of the various subway lines serving the area (Q, B, F, 2,3, R, W, 6).
Despite its deserved reputation as stroller central, Park Slope is a great place to live if you're a single 27-year-old grad student commuting to journalism school at NYU. Plenty of writers around, a bicycle trail running through the park, lots of delicious restaurants, perhaps 100 bars within easy walking distance, nearby live music venues, safe streets, lots of young people. As a California transplant, the more laid back Brooklyn culture also made it easier to adjust. I spent two happy years in the neighborhood, visit most times I'm back in New York City, and encourage friends moving east to include it when they embark on a search for their first NYC apartment.
In other words, I'm the kind of guy who has caused JM a lot of misery. He's a reader who sent me this e-mail last week asserting that New York is a city for the young, the rich, and nothing in between.
My wife and I now live in Queens, having been driven out of Brooklyn by the young and the rich after making it a hip/safe place for them to live in. We commute into the city (I work in Manhattan and she works in The Bronx) and struggle with all the bullshit of mass transportation for a modicum of affordable (barely) peace and quiet. We are neither young nor rich anymore and consequently New York City has become a difficult place to navigate. We rarely go to any events in the city as it's a pain in the ass and too bloody expensive and sit and wonder, what the hell are we doing here?
I followed up, asking him to elaborate on how the young drove him from Brooklyn. He was nice enough to do so.
When I came back to New York (late 1999) I found a livable and affordable place to rent in Carroll Gardens on Smith Street which at that time was an assortment of storefronts filled with a myriads of oddball stuff and plain old junk. It was an incredibly diverse neighborhood- basically an old Italian neighborhood mixed with all sorts...on the fringe of tony BklynHghts and The Slope...first came the restaurants then the bars & then the culinary tourists and the final straw was the haute pizzeria opening up downstairs from me that stayed open until 2 am with an outdoor area...from there on to W'burg-not the North side but the outer ring of the original (again) Italian nabe...great space and affordable and then came the boom and I was forced out by the developers.
My wife had owned a brownstone in Greenpoint, was a true pioneer having lived there for 18 years and raised her son...Look, this is nothing new -- I'm not naive about the vagaries of urbanization, and I get what happens, but what does get lost in all this is the soul of a city, and frankly there is no soul in New York anymore. Take away the landmarks and it's just like every other place except more expensive...I grew up in a city of neighborhoods (Chicago) for better or worse, but each had it's own subtle character and quality and that was true of New York City as well. But like Time Square, it's all turned into a bloody amusement park with it's attractions and crowds...
Specifically as to the impact that the "twenty-somethings" had -- put simply, they are residential tourists and by that I mean that they move into neighborhoods and stay for a year and then move on. They don't participate "in" the neighborhoods--invest nothing either in terms of real capital or concern for their immediate environment, let alone the socio-economic or political health of their 'hood. They are essentially crashing...they treat their places of residence much as they did their dorms or shared places off campus.
I plead guilty as charged. As a Park Slope resident, I neither registered to vote locally nor read neighborhood publications, the Brooklyn Rail excepted, nor shopped at the food co-op, nor endeavored to meet the people in neighboring buildings, nor volunteered locally, nor invested in the long term civic health of that community in any way. I couldn't tell you the name of the mailman, or the nearest police station, or a single member of the community board, and I doubt either of my roommates could've done so either.
The reader goes on:
I sense that this may be coming off harsh but I watched too many neighborhoods suffer as a consequence of this urban phenomena... So the nice little $900 railroad flat becomes the $1600 crashpad that gets beat to shit 'cause tenants turn over yearly and the landlord (who has by now moved either to Bay Ridge or the Island) is trying to wring every sous out of the place having missed the opportunity to sell the 3 flat for a mil in 2003- this has an adverse effect on the future of this city (or for that matter, any city)...Patti Smith recently told "kids" not to come to NYC-no wonder...New York in the 80s and 90s was a crazy place and it was even crazier in the 60s and 70s when I used to come to visit...Now, it's just a big fucking high end shopping mall and it breaks my heart...I'm trying to be honest and avoid being sentimental and nostalgic and shit but I don't think I'm just a cranky old man with selective re-call...and this is all being said off the top of my head...I have watched the wave move across the East River over W'burg & Greenpoint, then Bushwick and Ridgewood and it has stopped where the missus and I now call home, Middle Village, Queens...single family homes with sweet little gardens and very limited public transportation-so no hipsters, no tourists and it's come to this...I'm living in the bleeding suburbs- swell, just what I wanted! We've come to the conclusion it's time to get out of Dodge but the bigger question then becomes, "where to?"
I regard residential tourism to be a pretty valuable enterprise!
In the bigger picture, the reader's e-mail raises a lot of thorny questions like, "To whom does a neighborhood belong?" and "Is it wrong for newcomers to transform a place in a way that residents who've lived there longer don't like?" In New York City, it's hard for me to side with him on these questions since he and his wife, upon their arrival in every apartment where they've lived, changed their new neighborhoods in ways that negatively impacted some of the people who came before them. Somewhere in Middle Village, Queens, there is a longtime resident saying, "I am so tired of these new residents who are fleeing changes elsewhere in Brooklyn -- they're raising rents, and the more of them who come, the less this place is like it used to be."
There is nevertheless a sort of civic capital that redounds to the benefit of a neighborhood. My landlord in Park Slope talked about living there back at the height of the NYC crime wave, when neighbors walked to the supermarket in groups five and six people big, and bars were on all the windows to ward off the constant break-in attempts. She was instrumental in planting trees on our block and a few surrounding blocks. She did all sorts of informal things that added to neighborhood life in a Jacobsian way.
Perhaps this kind of capital is too easily dispersed or destroyed as a side-effect of the dynamism of cities. As for suburbs and exurbs, I am convinced that the opposite is true -- there is a tendency for newcomers to buy a house, settle into a pleasant life, and proceed to restrict the ability of others to follow them. A new tract down the road? It'll add too much traffic. An apartment building nearby to improve the stock of affordable housing? It might bring crime, and it'll definitely lower property values. It is easy to see the benefit these people get from stable neighborhoods, and much harder to see the loss suffered by everyone who has to commute farther to their jobs due to a lack of rental units, or the generation that can't afford to live in the city where they grew up because housing costs have risen so much, and zoning laws prevent the construction of starter units or inexpensive condos.
Part of me thinks that "residential tourists" sampling cities in their twenties could do a better job taking part in the civic lives that surround them -- voting locally rather than by absentee ballot, for example. But I wonder whether that would make longtime residents even more upset, as the transient twenty-somethings began to exert more political influence. I should also note that this article in the current issue of The Atlantic bears on the questions discussed in this post. I'm still thinking through all these issues, and I'd welcome takes from any perspective by readers who've been doing the same (e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org). Narratives are especially encouraged.