Monday, September 11, 2017

Greater Than Ever?

In their last issue, New York magazine published an eye-opening interview with Dan Doctoroff, former Mayor Bloomberg's deputy mayor of economic development and reconstruction.

The occasion for the interview was Doctoroff's new book, Greater Than Ever: New York's Big Comeback, about his years working to rezone nearly half the city after 9/11, a Robert Moses-level act that made the city glitter as it helped to boost vast inequality and unprecedented levels of hyper-gentrification.

Doctoroff at Hudson Yards. Photo: Kyle Dorosz

In the interview, Doctoroff acknowledges this. A bit. "The city grew faster than we expected," he says. But he holds to the belief that "You have to treat citizens and businesses like customers." It's a basic tenet of what urbanist Julian Brash has called The Bloomberg Way, "a notion of governance in which the city is run like a corporation. The mayor is the CEO, the businesses are clients, citizens are consumers, and the city itself is a product that’s branded and marketed. And New York is a luxury product."

To create that luxury product, the Bloomberg administration relied on two types of zonings: up and down. They are not equal.

Upzoning opens territories for higher rents and bigger development, while downzoning preserves neighborhood character by limiting growth. As Sarah Laskow pointed out in Politico New York: “Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership.” That meant “more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were.” Less privileged people got upzoned out.

In his book, Doctoroff argues that this massive rezoning “changed the physical nature of the city in ways that will undergird prosperity for decades,” while attracting new “dreamers and strivers."

Interviewer Carl Swanson calls these people "the new New Yorkers who, while they might claim they long for some filth Camelot of the busted 1970s, happily throng this implacably gentrifying customer-service metropolis."

For Doctoroff, says Swanson, nostalgia is "practically an epithet." Of course. Nostalgia as epithet is a strategy used by pro-development people to discredit and dismiss those who want to preserve the city as a diverse and affordable place. "You're just nostalgic" has become a cliche of the pro-growth mindset.

But it was this bit of the interview that really grabbed me:

"Doctoroff also writes in the book about how he never really liked New York City, much less wanted to live here, which is an odd thing for someone who served for six years as its deputy mayor to admit. When he first visited with his family, in 1968 — he was 10 and a resident of Birmingham, a well-off suburb of Detroit — it was 'hate at first sight.' He moved here in 1983 after his wife got a job at HBO — Doctoroff had been only three times and it never grew on him. The self-described 'creature of the suburbs' helped remake this city, in some ways, for his own maximum personal comfort."

Isn't that what many of us suspected?

It brings to mind something that urbanist William Whyte wrote on the urban renewal of the 1950s and ’60s. While more people were moving into cities and rebuilding them, he said, it was “not the same thing as liking cities.” The people doing the rebuilding “don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and the dirt and the congestion. They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tension, its hustle and bustle.”

And what about the new "dreamers and strivers"? Do they love New York? Or do they love the suburbanized town remade for the personal comfort of a certain class of people?

Doctoroff calls himself a "creature of the suburbs." Throughout the 2000s, we've witnessed the suburbanization of New York City. This shift is not expressed only in the proliferation of big-box chain stores, it also comes in the hearts and minds of many (not all) newcomers.

As Rem Koolhaas has said, "The city has twice been humiliated by the suburbs: once upon the loss of its constituency to the suburbs and again upon that constituency’s return. These prodigal citizens brought back with them their mutated suburban values of predictability and control."

125th St. after a Bloomberg rezoning

Under Bloomberg, the city’s poverty rate rose to its highest levels in a decade. More people became homeless. The income gap in Manhattan rivaled sub-Saharan Africa. By 2016, New Yorkers were spending 65.2 percent of their total income on rent. Small businesses are in crisis. Neighborhoods are hyper-gentrifying -- and re-segregating along race and class lines.

As Michael Greenberg recently wrote in his important New York Review article on the city's affordable housing crisis: "We speak nowadays with contrition of redlining, the mid-twentieth-century practice by banks of starving black neighborhoods of mortgages, home improvement loans, and investment of almost any sort. We may soon look with equal shame on what might come to be known as bluelining: the transfiguration of those same neighborhoods with a deluge of investment aimed at a wealthier class."

Is this really "greater than ever"? As always, we must ask: Greater for whom?


Scout said...

I think, as a New Yorker of 37 years, that what is being called "The Bloomberg Effect" has been something every mayor post Abe Beame has practiced.

I moved here in 1980, but visited a lot between 1975-1980; NYC in that period experienced its worst fiscal crisis ever - weeks worth of garbage was left on sidewalks, police service was heavily curtailed, the subways were antique, unreliable, and dangerous. People were aware of swaths of the city where one never walked alone after dark (and sometimes during the day).

Sadly, in order to remedy that situation, the balance has shifted too far in the other direction. But where is the leader who can fix that without pushing NYC back into near-bankruptcy? I know of no such leader at present. Unfortunately, it seem that the majority is comprised of those who are perfectly happy to see NYC become a glossy corporate megalopolis. At least, that's what the voting record suggests.

Brian said...

Doctoroff brags that, if anything, he was too successful in his strategy. The sad thing about NYC is that the lower middle to upper middle class got priced out and then their supporting institutions got wiped out too. Doctoroff strategy of preserving wealthy neighborhoods and targeting poor neighborhoods for development that supported expansion by the wealthier classes killed neighborhoods and bypassed the most people in the middle class.

Cosmo said...

Confirmation that Bloomberg et al hate us. They hate the city and its people. When I look around at all the generic glass garbage highrises going up, I'm filled with rage. They are actively destroying everything that represents the love of NYC. Citizens as consumers...this is beyond insulting. But this is no surprise. We've been protesting this for years. Now the truth is out.

samadamsthedog said...

My own personal experience of gentrification is much more positive, but my view is still nuanced. I lived in Hells Kitchen for over 20 years as it gentrified. When I moved out, only a few months ago, it had gone from being a poor and in some areas a dangerous community to being a very diverse community.

Similarly, in the '80s I used to ride my bike from the East Bronx, where I lived, to Columbia University, where I worked. The devastation of the South Bronx continued as I crossed Harlem. The area around 118th street and 8th Ave. looked like the worst of the South Bronx: boarded up buildings, graffiti everywhere, and nary a smile on the face of any of the very few people you saw on the streets. Now, due to gentrification, it's a very mixed neighborhood. Everyone is smiling, Black and White. It's a mixed neighborhood, and everyone seems to get along.

People deplore the fact that in NY we tend to live in racially or at least ethnically segregated communities. The most powerful force taking us away from that is -- guess what? -- gentrification. In both of the above cases, what used to be called "integration" has resulted from the movement of upwardly mobile white people into minority neighborhoods. And for the most part, this has taken place by means of the rehabilitation of ruined housing stock which was not in use, except perhaps as crack dens and by a few squatters.

On the other hand, I remember Soho when it was an industrial district, and watched artists move in when industry left (probably due to the rise of container shipping), and then the pricing out of artists as designer shops opened. I'm watching similar things happening to Williamsburg, though that actually seems to be rather a mixed community at this point. And Crown Heights and Bushwick are now racially mixed communities, when (except for Hassidim) they were not so previously.

So far, in my personal experience, gentrification of poor communities is predominantly a force of diversification.

Mark said...

I read this when the interview was originally published and it made me physically ill.

It's horrible to have proof that what you feared was happening actually did happen and was encouraged to happen.

Filth Camelot? He should be so lucky.

Brian said...

A force for diversification where minorities are displaced and wealthier Caucasians move in?

Unknown said...

I recall some of Bloomberg/Doctoroff's fantastically stupid ideas, like bringing the Olympics to NYC and building a football stadium over the West Side railyards.

As for gentrification bringing diversity, I guess it does if you go by demographics, but it definitely doesn't bring people together--if anything, the wealth/wage gap Americans suffer is brought right into the homes of the soon-to-be displaced. "Hey, you can't afford to live in your own neighborhood any more. Here come the rich, usually white, people."

James said...

There are some great comments here. All I can add is the historical sense that the powerful have been pushing around the quotidian citizen in Manhattan for decades, going back to the end of WWII. There was a good episode of "Car 54 Where Are You" (with Molly Picon - ex-Yiddish theater stage) where she resists the city's onslaught of high rise apartment projects helped along by the Wagner administration. She's expected to vacate her lovely home in a walk-up and manages to fend off a tower with her passive resistance, at least for a half-hour of story. There are fewer stories (fictional or otherwise) like this now, as it is not so much eminent domain that clears out the blocks of our city, but offers of cash which few resist. We know what landlords have been doing in the face of that - looking after short-term bounties, beyond long-time relationships that ultimately come to nothing. I only wish someone would look at all these store fronts featuring banks and hyper-inflated food chains and say "enough". But who has that kind of presence of mind, and who can opt for modesty over riches (while our latest bubble gorges itself)?

Tom Sganga said...

Eat the rich!

Scuba Diva said...

Quoting Rem Koolhaas:

"These prodigal citizens brought back with them their mutated suburban values of predictability and control."

Plus their mutant children.


How easy it all was because no one was looking. Post-9/11, it was clear to me that the momentum of bourgeoisification was intensifying but I was blind to its causes!

NYCBkborn said...

Dan Doctoroff was the mayors main representative for the operation of demolishing the former Deutsch Bank tower at the World Trade Center site.

After a warning by the NYC Dept of Investigation that the chosen contractors were associated with organized crime Doctoroff forged ahead anyway. In Aug 2007 a fire at the building killed two NYC firefighters Joe Graffagnino and Robert Bessie. A subsequent investigation faulted numerous city agencies including the office of Dan Doctoroff. He has the blood of two fine people on his hands. Never acknowledged any responsibility or regret. Doctoroff's book portrays a self absorbed ethically challenged ambitious soul. It's an accurate portrayal.

He failed to bring the Olympics to NY and he failed to ram a stadium on the West side but he succeeded in making Ny a playground for the wealthy and a major challenge to everyone else. He's a disgrace.