Thursday, May 20, 2010

Atlantic on the City

This month's Atlantic magazine has a special report on The Future of the City, and it is loaded with apologias for gentrification, a sort of anti anti-gentrification backlash. It was bound to happen, especially now that we're in the Bad Old Days and people are feeling nervous and angry about lost investments.

There's one piece in which a blogger insists, in all caps, "NOTHING STAYS THE SAME." In another piece he says, "nostalgia alone should not be understood as a rational evaluation of the present and its merits." And the anti-nostalgia continues in "Gentrification and Its Discontents." They even stick in an article written by Robert Moses.

But the most strikingly fierce and frightening statement about the present moment comes from an interview with Andres Duany, the father of New Urbanism (which means making Stepford towns like Disney's Celebration). He's talking about Miami, but it sounds so familiar:

"There's this generation who grew up in the suburbs, for whom the suburbs have no magic. The mall has no magic. They're the ones that have discovered the city. Problem is, they're also destroying the city. The teenagers and young people in Miami come in from the suburbs to the few town centers we have, and they come in like locusts. They make traffic congestion all night; they come in and take up the parking. They ruin the retail and they ruin the restaurants, because they have different habits then older folks. I have seen it. They're basically eating up the first-rate urbanism. They have this techno music, and the food cheapens, and they run in packs, great social packs, and they take over a place and ruin it and go somewhere else.

I've known for 10 years about this destructive monoculture that's condensed in the suburbs. These people would normally be buying real estate by now. And we designed for them. We kept saying, 'Aha, these kids, between 24 and 35, will be buying real estate.' Guess what? They aren't. Because they can't afford it. But they're still using the cities--they're renting and so forth. The Gen-Xers also discovered the cities; they're buying in a proper way. The Millennials are the ones we're talking about. And they love cities desperately. And they're loving them to death."


Andrew said...

I love that outsize 'sponsored by IBM' bit. They really are a bunch of corporate whores these days, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

LOL. Oh noes, advertising! In a magazine! By a... corporation!!!! This would never fly in circa 1980s East Village. This blog and its commenters really are beyond parody.

Seriously, "corporate whores?" Do you even understand how magazines make money?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to this article. Man, this guy really has your number.

"Mostly, though, such political solutions seem quaint: all this bellyaching about authenticity and lost soul. Sorkin and Zukin, sentimental progressives, need a bracing dose of Marx. Manhattan is the primary locus of global capitalism, the most voracious force for change in history. Best to pick a different place to try to render fixed and solid that which inexorably melts into air."

Not that this will convince you, obviously, but this whole article says it so much better than any of your commenter critics ever could.

Nathan said...

The "Gentrification and its Discontents" article was fairly horrid. There was no logic, no reasoning....just a string of poorly thought-out and unsupported rationalizations for why people should stop complaining about the changes to the city. Seems like a fairly unimpressive display of writing for a magazine of the caliber of the Atlantic.

Caleo88 said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people who hate Jeremiah's opinions continue to read this blog and then take the time to post a comment about how much they hate his opinion about the city. For God's sake, if this blog hurts your feelings or gives you the creeps...STOP READING IT. Or better yet, write your own blog about how dynamic and wonderful the city is now, and how spectacular all the condos look on Friday night when you're out bar hopping. Oh I forgot, you already have cheerleaders for the New NY in every newspaper and local channel on TV.
Obviously this blog is touching a raw nerve amongst the haters. And it's not because what Jeremiah is saying is factually wrong.
It's because, just maybe, he's making the luxury loving locusts take a look at what they are helping to destroy...and they feel a twinge of recognition.

Anonymous said...

Print journalism is suffering terribly these days; newspapers and magazines are shrinking or folding all the time. So they make money how they can. But let the reader be warned: when a "special report" is sponsored by a corporate interest, that's more than just an ad. You can be pretty sure the corporation dictated the content of that report. So much for objective journalism and independent opinion.

Anonymous said...

"You can be pretty sure the corporation dictated the content of that report."

Source? Link? Cite? Evidence?

If all you are relying on is common sense, well then, my common sense suggests that many times it's just a larger, more prominent billboard with more lights around it. After all, what interest does IBM have in the gentrification of the East Village? Or in articles about Shepard Fairey? Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, IBM wants to sell products and services to the kinds of readers the Atlantic attracts, regardless of the particular content it happens to run?

Anonymous said...

Dear Caleo,

Speaking for myself, I try to stop reading this blog, because really, what's the point? I don't feel any happier reading it, and I'm sure Jeremiah could do without my comments. But too much other stuff I read links to it. And being a longtime resident of the area, the holier-than-thou "I know what's good for New York" righteousness really pushes my buttons. So yeah, I comment sometimes. This dude never lived in the projects, with the urine soaked elevators, and I wager he didn't get jacked for his shit every week on the way to elementary school. But it doesn't matter, all he sees are "yunnies" everywhere. It's paramount that we keep every single fucking bakery that's ever existed. When a new "fancy" bakery opens inside an existing bakery, without changing the sign, it's "problematic" and results in angsty hand-wringing. To have this guy's problems! I know, I know, the choice between safety and "grittiness" is a false choice. Is it though? That's not really how it plays out in reality. Me, I just love the fact that I haven't had to look over my shoulder in more than 10 years. And I like bars too.

I just don't get why all you East Village nostalgists don't move to Bed Stuy and become the next Patti Smith or Joey Ramone over there. You can make your own little post-punk revival! Go do it! People will remember your era for generations! Go get hooked on heroin, create amazing music, and talk all day about what a corporate whore the Atlantic has become, and how you hate frozen yogurt and popped collars. Oh wait, I suspect if you were actually creating something awesome, you probably wouldn't give a shit about those things.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, that's interesting, I had a very different reading of this article. I thought it expressed its point quite well, which is that the "balanced" type of neighborhood which has a carefully curated mix of grittiness, working class, local stores but also artists and a smattering of "bohemian" professionals with just a touch of establishments that cater to the latter, far from being a natural equilibrium, is inherently unsustainable, and only existed, if at all, for a brief period of a decade or two in the history of this city. Therefore, lamenting such a neighborhood's progression towards a more upscale, fully gentrified state is like crying over a pile of carbon isotope as it decays right on schedule.

I don't think he was telling people to stop complaining. I think he's pointing out that such complaining is a bit like howling at the moon.

And I don't even think that Jeremiah would disagree. I'm not a religious reader, but I have never seen him actually suggest that gentrification can be stopped, or propose some sort of policy and assert that it will work in the long term. Nothing here amounts to much more than enraged howling and finger pointing.

Anonymous said...

Before I moved to the neighborhood in 1987, my one instruction to the realtor was, 'not in Alphabet City.' That was it. Naturally, he showed me an apartment in Alphabet City, convinced me it was a better deal than I'd get almost anywhere else, and I took it.

I sympathize with Jeremiah a lot, but I'm a realist. The city changes, sometimes more and faster than might be good for it in terms of character, but still. Places I've walked past for years close, and while it's sad to see them go, I never went in them, anyway, so not a huge deal for me personally. Others I miss, but I'm older now and wouldn't be going to them, anyway, probably.

The thing that's spawned the preservationist blogs is more radical. In the past ten years or so, the city has been invaded by hordes of young people who don't adapt to New York like the smaller numbers of past newbies. They, like Bloomberg, are demanding that New York adapt to them, and are changing it in ways that are more overt.

The 'douchebaggian' behavior of the fratboy contingent is my pet peeve, along with the establishments they frequent. It was clear travelling around the country 20 years ago that parenting skills were way down, and children's behavior and lack of respect for others was pointing the way to today's situation. We have a generation or two shaped in the 'greed is good' and non-compassionate legacy of our beloved leaders, an on-demand culture where empathy is truly unknown.

The most extreme of these types are a small minority, but they shade the times to a greater degree than their previous counterparts just by sheer number. What used to be considered incredibly uncool and borderline anti-social is accepted and reveled in. It's reflected in the crapitecture that's all over the city, the suburban-feeling bars and yogurt shops, the bank offices on every other corner alternating with Duane Reade. The feeling is more crowded, more belligerent, colder and harder somehow. It's the '80s times 100.

Nothing comes to us full-blown, the seeds of all of this have been germinating for a few decades now. The loss I think people like Jeremiah are bemoaning is not just a bakery or shoemaker or neighborhood diner, but the feeling of community and humanity that's dying faster than mom and pop shops.

I guess most every generation has felt that way, I don't know. There was a period in the neighborhood during the early Giuliani era that I now look back on fondly. It wasn't so dirty or dangerous or empty as before, but there was a nice balance of humans, bars and restaurants to square blocks. It was quieter. The privileged children came to town and lived on the Upper East Side, still kind of scared to come here, which was fine. This neighborhood was a bit more of a neighborhood, attracting a certain type of normal outsider who liked hearing the old ladies speak Polish as they walked by.

It was, in a word, nicer. And that's what we really miss. 25 years from now, maybe some of today's newer arrivals will stay and feel that way themselves.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon 12:06, you said it all perfectly.

in my book, there's nothing wrong with a few Gaps and Duane Reades, etc., here and there, a few lost bakeries, etc., that's life, that's expectable change.

but the past decade or so has had nothing to do with "a few." and it's so much more complicated that just economics.

to say that what has happened in the city is just because "everything changes" is to keep one's head in the sand and not see what's really happening.

Caleo88 said...

I completely agree with Anon. 12:06 as well. If a falafel stand replaces a used bookstore, then great, that's normal change. The massive architectural/commercial/demographic shift is what people find troubling and alienating. Manhattan was an island of distinct neighborhoods. That has been greatly diminished. And this tidal wave of over-served undergrads come from places with no street culture or intimate sense of community. And if they're even aware of what they are displacing (and most aren't), they won't be here long enough to care.
Change is implicit in nature...but what's happened here in the past 10 years is very forced and unnatural.

fifilaru said...

Actually, I felt that way when I lived in the Village in the 1980s. Swarms of bridge and tunnel kids coming in and decimating the place.

Caleo88 said...

Yes fifilaru, but the big difference with the bridge and tunnel crowd is that they WENT HOME at the end of the night. As in, back to Jersey and Long Island. These days the suburbanites have moved in, and don't appear to be leaving.

Unknown said...

A commenter above says: "Change is implicit in nature...but what's happened here in the past 10 years is very forced and unnatural."

Someone said that changes that occur before you turn 30 seem like progress; those that occur after you turn 30 seem like violations of all that is good and holy in the world.

That, more or less, seems to be the sensibility on display here, IMO.

Why are certain kinds of changes (those which happened before you arrived in the city, or while you were young) "natural", but those which happened later "forced and unnatural"?

Why? Because you got used to things being a certain way. You mistook your youthful experience of the city for its "natural" state. So the fact that it continues to evolve bothers you.

I thought the Atlantic piece about the historical accidents that created mid-20th-century Greenwich Village was quite insightful. It showed a reasoned consideration of urban dynamics.

Jeremiah, you lambaste Conor Friedersdorf for writing that "nostalgia alone should not be understood as a rational evaluation of the present and its merits." Does that mean that you think the opposite?

Jeremiah Moss said...

max, you make some good points.

though i think "lambaste" is too strong a word here, i hardly beat up on Conor. in a way, i agree with him--nostalgia is not rational. but whoever said it was? nostalgia is emotional.

i find the attacks on nostalgia, as if it were a dirty word, to be problematic, in general. it shows that there is a real split between thinking and feeling, as if they can't possibly go together, with the "thinking people" vs. the "feeling people."

without an emotional link to the past, what are we?

Unknown said...

Jeremiah, I'll agree with you that nostalgia, and more broadly, emotional considerations, have merit in urban planning. That's what all historic preservation is based on, really.

I just think we have to distinguish between buildings, districts, etc. that have large and enduring significance, and our personal nostalgia for particular places and times. Both can have value, but it's impossible to expect everything about the city to be frozen in amber to keep it the way we remember it.

My first experiences of NYC were in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just over a decade ago. When I go back there now, I see a dramatically changed neighborhood. There are a lot of things I don't like about it.

But I realize that for people moving there now, the status quo is what they'll come to regard as "the good old days". And the Williamsburg I experienced 10 years ago was someone else's watered-down, overly gentrified, pale imitation of what had existed at some earlier time.

Tim said...

Change by itself isn't necessarily bad, it's the type of evolution that we're witnessing in New York that is disturbing. The bland, homogenized and sterile look that affluent people tend to go for is showing up everywhere in the city and robbing NY of the unique character that the greatness of the city is predicated on.

Jeremiah Moss said...

ideally, change comes gradually. we have time to acclimate to it. in the past decade or so, change has accelerated in ways that make it very difficult to cope with. and it's not just in new york, or in urban centers. it's throughout western culture.

i think of James Gleick's book Faster, which came out in 1999, just as the "acceleration of just about everything," as he calls it, was really beginning.

so, yes, part of this is nostalgia, which any group of people might have as they get older, and part of it is this larger, cultural shift, this insane speed of massive change that does not allow for our emotional adjustments.

knowing which is which is not always easy.

Caleo88 said...

In response, I have never expected New York to remain frozen in amber or preserved as some historical relic. As I've said before, if a falafel stand replaces a used bookstore, fantastic. Normal change.
But don't tell me the flood of big box stores and high rise luxury condos at the expense of unique, distinct communities and neighborhoods is a normal, "natural" process. This onslaught is the work of a very small percentage of the population who can't seem to think beyond the next six months. And it is an exaggerated reflection of what's happening in the rest of North America. But NYC is a dense, relatively small environment, so the intensity of the renovation is magnified exponentially.