Monday, May 11, 2015

Which New York?

For the 50th anniversary of the Landmarks Law, Justin Davidson at New York Magazine talked with me and Nikolai Fedak, blogger of the pro-development NY YIMBY. While mostly polite, it was a spirited conversation, at times a grudge match.

An abbreviated version appears in the print edition of the current magazine, and a longer version appears online.

An excerpt:

NF: ...In East Harlem, you have a proposal for a 50-story tower on top of the Target, which is going to be fantastic. People in the neighborhood object, but they can’t do anything about it.

JD: So powerlessness leads to a good result?

JM: I want to go back to something Nikolai was saying earlier and question the idea that New York has to compete, that the city has to keep growing, that it has to be the best. That’s a very corporate notion, and it’s a foreign concept to me. If we just keep growing and competing and winning, where do we end up, ultimately? With a city filled, from borough to borough, with nothing but gleaming skyscrapers. And then the city will die. At what point do we say that’s enough?

NF: But how could that actually happen —?

JM: It already is happening. Julian Brash wrote the book Bloomberg’s New York, in which he described how Bloomberg changed the way we think of the city. He talked about it as a luxury product and about himself as CEO. He treated New Yorkers like consumers rather than citizens. That is a very different way of thinking about people. Citizens speak up and fight for their rights. Consumers don’t.

JD: Fighting for your rights and interests is obviously an important part of citizenship, but it also creates the adversarial situation that Nikolai was describing, in which the wealthy will always have the upper hand. A lot of planning takes place through litigation, which can be democratic without being fair.

JM: Sure, in an ideal world, everyone would have equal access and power, but if they don’t, that just means they have to fight for it.

NF: There’s room here for everyone if you build adequate housing for them. Prewar neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have buildings that don’t meet the standards of 2015. Why should the poor live in such places in order to preserve the architecture?

JD: There are plenty of wealthy people living in old buildings with creaky plumbing, too.

JM: So, Nikolai, do you have a fantasy that if you tore down and rebuilt all those buildings, the people who live there would be able to move back in?

NF: My fantasy is a New York where everyone has access to comfortable housing.

JM: Well, yeah, how can I disagree with that? My apartment is a shithole. But I have to hold on to my shithole. I have to fight for my shithole.

NF: That mentality is what makes it impossible for the city to accommodate more people.

JM: I don’t want to accommodate more people. There are too many fucking people here already.

NF: There! That’s the difference between us. I think the city needs to evolve, and Jeremiah’s nostalgic for the city of the past.

JM: What I’m nostalgic for is the city of the present...

Click here for the full discussion


Gojira said...

I read this in the magazine, did not realize there was a longer version. Jeremiah, I don't know how you stopped yourself from throwing up in Nik's lap, but the entire time I was reading it I wanted to punch him - repeatedly - in his smug face. Loathesome little tool.

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah, you omitted a huge chunk of history to suite your position. People who settled in Boston did so for religious freedom, people settled in New York to make money. That's been the reason many, many generations have come to the city. The Dutch didn't come here to be queer or oddballs.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. So you think there are too many people here. Do you advocate closing the borders? Keep all those immigrants out? Racism and Xenophobia? Nice. And you dont have the balls to use your real name? Cowardly. So you blast others and hide. Move back to Ohio.

Anonymous said...

A 23 year old blogger with no other job and a $2,300 a month apartment.

Pretty easy to see why he doesn't know anything about reality.

Caleo said...

Anon.10:36- The Dutch might not have come here to be queer or oddballs, but port cities, historically, have been notorious for a high quotient of weirdos and outlaws, and New Amsterdam and later New York were and are no exception.
Anon.11:30- You must be trolling, because your fake outrage and baseless accusations of racism and xenophobia aren't supported by anything JM has written during the entire history of this blog. Quite the opposite actually.
Anon.12:13- That about sums up how much weight anyone should give his opinion. A trustafarian living in a fantasy world.

Anonymous said...

To write him off as simply a "blogger" is to underestimate the power of his blog and his voice.

Anonymous said...

Manhattan, in particular, is well on its way to becoming the new Hong Kong, namely: completely overbuilt with no thought given to infrastructure.

I watch with amazement as the 'traffic calming' measures taken by former and current mayors continue to cause WORSE traffic jams because of the random bottlenecks that are created.

To that, add all the work that causes streets to be dug up and/or causes multiple lanes to be closed to traffic (yes, intersection of 3rd Ave. at 34th Street - I'm talking about you, as this "work" has been going on there for nearly TWO YEARS with no end in sight).

Then there are all the new high-rises, whose construction requires that several lanes of a street be closed for a year or so.

It seems like just about everything that's done at street level (a) takes FOREVER, and (b) takes priority over car, taxi or bus access. I guess if I have a heart attack, I'm expected to either walk or bike to the ER and hope I make it in time.

I hate how this city is changing - all for the worse, unless you're in the 1%.

Anonymous said...

Caleo- he did say there were too many people here. He wants people need to stop moving here. Well despite the stereotypes perpetuated here NY state is losing population. Immigration is a huge reason why NYC has population growth. Therefore I take it he wants fewer immigrants. An I incorrect in saying that? If the Gov of AZ said there are too many people here would you brush it off as not racist? Sorry. This guy does interviews and has a media campaign and doesnt use his real name. Thats not trolling. Sorry.

Scout said...

Anonymous 5:12, Hong Kong makes New York look like Calcutta. Ramonat development paired with crumbling ancient infrastructure = NYC's slow descent into Third World status.

More rusting gas pipes will explode, subway prices will increase while the tunnels and tracks erode, streets will become more impassable with holes and plates and patches, and NYC will become a synonym for Dystopia, proudly flaunting her gleaming, shoddily-built, half-empty towers.

Anonymous said...

i was crossing sixth avenue on 14th street this morning and spent a few moments waiting for the light staring at 1 wtc. and it hit me. 9/11 killed nyc.

sure, things had already been getting gentrified and cleaned up. but 9/11 was the catalyst for a certain kind of corporate protectionism of new york city. this economic imperative to "save" the city, to reinvest, to show that america's -- and ultimately the dollar's -- muscle still reigned supreme.

that trickled down into having a corporate mayor, opening the floodgates to rezoning, businesses and chain stores to boost the economic power of the city. which in turn brought hordes of bland suburbanites, eager to feed from the trough of prosperity.

and when value goes up, those on the low end of the spectrum (be it culturally, politically, socio-economically) get pushed to the fringes or outright eradicated from the big picture. so now we've got a city of metastasizing mediocrity. and what better symbol of it than 1 wtc: the bland, sterile, middle of the road architectural replacement to what was once bold, brash, unorthodox and over the top, like the city whose skyline it anchored.

so yeah. it was painful to realize. but the terror attacks of that day did more than take 3,000+ of my fellow new yorkers and a symbol of our city's culture. they took the city as we knew it down as well.

Stuyvesant said...

Just a quick question about the debate which was an interesting read:
Who gives you the right to decide when there is enough people in New York?
Did you not move here yourself one day in the past?
Why are you here? Shouldn't you make room for the people that were actually born here?
You get the picture.

Anonymous said...

GREAT debate! You did an amazing job, Jeremiah. One part of the interview that really struck me was this statement made by Mr. YIMBY and your response...

NF: People come [to NYC] for the same reason they always have: to make as much money as possible.

JM: See, it didn’t used to be that way. Many people have come here to be authentically themselves, whether they were queer or oddballs or whatever. It had nothing to do with money.

Obviously, Mr. YIMBY hangs out with yuppy types and can't wrap his head around the idea that a lot of people (creatives, queers and oddballs like me and most of my friends) came here for the diversity and inspiration and energy -- not to "make as much money as possible." I've read his articles and websites, as well as the NYT feature about him, and I really don't think he "gets" New York. He's still a newcomer. He doesn't understand what makes this city great.

Caleo said...

Anon. 12:39- I agree whole heartedly, and have said as much for years. 9/11 was a watershed moment in the city's history for obvious reasons, but it represented a genuine turning point in the city's character and tone. 9/11 marks a boundary between old NY and new.
Anon.2:41- When I moved here a seeming majority of residents were definitely NOT here to make as much money as possible and nothing else. Quite the opposite, and even those who were here to do nothing but make money didn't question the reality that NY was a magnet for creative types as well as misfits and weirdos. That extreme diversity and allowance for many different types of life purpose was what made this the greatest city in the world.
All that was obvious to anyone who moved here, and that some millenial twerp doesn't have a clue that that was what NYC represented shows you how far we've fallen from that standard. He apparently doesn't even know that city existed. A pity.

John K said...

Caleo and others, do not forget the AIDS epidemic, which cleared the way for the gentrification that began in the 1990s and which accelerated into overdrive once Bloombucks became mayor. New Yorker Sarah Schulman wrote a brilliant book about this entitled The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Generation (University of California Press, 2013).

I highly recommend it.

BTW, I still believe that if he had not been coronated with a third term and Bill Thompson had been elected (all it would have taken is 40,000 votes spread across Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn!), we might have gotten a handle on this situation. But Bloombucks had four more years to lock in his horrendous policies and ethos, and now they've become normalized.

Anonymous said...

NYC used to be for both: for the money-worshippers whose fondest dream was an 80-hours-a-week Wall Street job as a path to riches AND the creative types who came here to feed off the cultural scene and its history, hopefully to add something lasting of their own to that legacy in due time. 12:39, you're right that 9/11 tipped the balance for the worse.

Ed said...

The points here about the population are interesting. My first decade of life was in the 1970s, when the population of New York City fell from 8 million to 7 million. It has since gone back to 8 million while still falling behind average US population growth (though to be fair, New York is just about the only city in the Northeast/ Midwest to grow during my lifetime).

I used to be fairly sad about this, since it means lower clout for the city in federal politics as well as culturally, and is interpreted in the media as a rejection of the city.

I've come to realize that there is just only so much space in the five boroughs, without putting people in Five Points/ old old Lower East Side style slum conditions. The city in its Manhattan-centric configuration probably can not handle more than 8 million people. You could make some of the suburban areas in the outer boroughs more urban so they can support higher density, but this is a big project and nothing like this has been on the agenda at all.

Further more, the world as a whole is overpopulated and this has gotten considerably worse than the 1970s. Globally, the areas that have experienced the highest population growth are basically sh--holes. The most developed countries have gone to negative population growth. Even within the US, its the more backward part of the country, that can provide cheap land to build on but little else, that have had the highest population growth rates. Downsizing to a more sustainable population level means taking big hits on economic growth (half of which is due to population growth), and clout that comes from a higher population, but you have to start somewhere. And I think the places where this happens first will wind up being better off compared to others in the next century.

Ed said...

I agree with the comments on 9-11. One thing about the aftermath is that it is very odd for the richest man in the city to be the mayor. Normally in the US, people like Bloomberg tell the mayor what to do, they are not the mayor themselves. I think the elite panicked, and became desperate to have one of their own number in formal political power, and to start the makeover of the city into a place that would be safe and comfortable for the elite, though not necessarily for anyone else.

It should be noted that "misfits and weirdos" are finding the going harder than before throughout the world, or at least throughout the US, and its become pretty common for cities to take on an atmosphere that in the 70s and 80s we would have associated with the suburbs. This means for "misfits and weirdos" the obvious strategy of moving away from NYC is not necessarily the best, there is really no place to move to, though you may still come out ahead if you can find a place that is less crowded and with a lower cost of living, if you don't need a car.

abfus said...

I usually side with Jeremiah in these kinds of debates, but I was pretty impressed with Nikolai. I thought he made some solid, well-reasoned arguments -- except of course for the part about preserving stone facades.

I definitely think we need to do more to preserve small business. Jeremiah is absolutely correct that big chains get enough subsidies and incentives through their corporate owners, making it even more difficult for small businesses to survive. But I think the debate on housing/landmarking is a lot trickier and that's where Nikolai's arguments were strongest.