Last night I went to this talk sponsored by the Municipal Art Society as part of their Jane Jacobs extravaganza. It was a sold-out full house with a line of ticketless people waiting for the chance to get in. A lot of New Yorkers wanted to be part of this discussion -- but most of the people, I noticed, had gray hair or no hair at all. The man sitting next to me wore one of those WWII vet baseball caps with the name of his battleship embroidered on the front. Quite a few folks hobbled in on walkers and canes. I hope this doesn't mean that the "Greatest Generation" will be the last to really care about the soul of our city.
The moderator was Clyde Haberman of the Times and the panelists were Alison Tocci of Time Out publications, Darren Walker of the Rockefeller Foundation, writer Tama Janowitz, and Rocco Landesman of Jujamcyn Theaters.
Haberman started off by saying there is an implied "yes" to the question of the night, New York is losing its soul. "You feel it in the relentless bulldozer of homogenization," he said, "as one small shop and one small restaurant after another are ground down and replaced by more banks and more Duane Reades. People on the Upper West Side are nearly in revolt, but they won't revolt because they'll just go to Starbucks and take care of that. ...We have an administration that hasn't yet met a developer to which it will say no."
Tocci thinks were losing NY's soul. "The volume of anger is so much more pronounced from small business people and artists--it's louder now than I've ever heard it before." Later she said, "How do you know you've died and gone to Hell? There's a Starbucks on every corner...If the Bloomberg administration were as aggressive in its support of small businesses as it is in its support of big developers, there might be more balance."
Walker worried that New York is losing "its organic messiness and controlled disorder. Unlike in the rest of America, where they talk about tolerating difference, here we actually celebrate difference. But there's been a growing inequality and for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, there's a widening gap between the rich and poor." He also worries about the loss of African-Americans and about homogenization, "When I go to Lenox Avenue, I want to see Lenox Avenue, not Columbus Avenue."
Janowitz talked about finding steel-cut oats at her Brooklyn supermarket, "a sign of gentrification." She sees resources and homes for artists and working-class people rapidly dwindling. "The city has time and again betrayed the people. It's not just that the glass is half full, it's totally empty." Then she hid behind her copious hair for much of the night.
Landesman (who, I must mention, wore banana-yellow reptile-skin cowboy boots) mourned the loss of Times Square's sex trade, "New York was always the sexiest city in the world and Times Square was the center of that. We're now experiencing a de-libidinization of our city." He said city planning has become prudish and the gentleman's clubs, where women dance topless now, are so tightly regulated and packaged, "they are no different than all the Duane Reades."
To which Clyde said, "So we're not just losing our souls, we're losing our bodies too."
I would agree with that--we're losing the fleshiness of this city, the way that bricks are fleshy and flawed, unlike glass and steel. We're turning into a robot city.
The panel offered no solutions, but a few came from the audience members who were invited to write questions on notecards that were then passed to Clyde. He skipped one important question, "Why does the New York Times partner with Bruce Ratner?" declining to answer by saying, "I'm just a wage slave." One audience member's card suggested a flip-tax on big businesses that would go to support small businesses. Another recommend rent-control for small businesses. But these were hardly discussed.
At 7:45, Haberman ended the session early. A woman in the audience objected, standing up in true New Yorker style to insist, "Why are you ending now, we're supposed to go until 8." So we continued. But the audience, seeing that their questions were not being answered, was becoming restless. They wanted to get in on the conversation. They waved their hands in the air. Some of them just shouted out. They clearly wanted a forum for their anger and their solutions--but this was not that forum.
There was a lot of passion in that (mostly) gray-haired crowd, and a lot of good ideas for how to regain New York's lost soul. These are our city's remaining rabble-rousers, with their walkers and their WWII mementos, they have the love for our city and they know the price of its loss. I hope that someone with the power to do it will organize a space in which these people can be heard -- before they all pass away or get pushed out of the city by rising rents.
For more on this event, the Times City Room followed up later today with their own coverage here.