Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cleaning Up Canal Street

In the Times today, an article celebrating the gentrification of Canal Street is getting strong reactions.

This type of article is a long-time staple for the paper. For years, they've sent writers into "up and coming" neighborhoods to highlight the new shops and eateries. As a record of the changing city, these articles are invaluable--I relied on them when I wrote my book, Vanishing New York. But they also help to hype the changes.

And in all of them, someone makes a statement about how the old neighborhood was dead and the new one is alive, how "no one" was there before and now it's full of "people."

In today's piece, the owner of an upscale new jewelry shop says, “I think people were afraid of Canal Street for so long, and now they’re recognizing there are just so many advantages to the area. I think we’re just beginning to see the neighborhood come alive."

In the hyper-gentrifying city, where City Hall works with developers and corporations to rezone and "renew," where more and more upper-class white newcomers move into working-class neighborhoods of color, we hear this sentiment all the time. It is what one writer referred to as colonial myopia. In her book Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts recalls sitting in a new Harlem cafĂ© listening to a conversation between two white men. One lived in the neighborhood and one was visiting. “This is fabulous,” the visiting friend exclaimed. “Really, you have to do something to get the word out. There need to be more people up here!” As Rhodes-Pitts points out, the men were “afflicted by that exuberant myopia common to colonists.”

Bloomberg's Planning Commissioner, Amanda Burden, was famous for this affliction. She told the Times in 2012, “We are making so many more areas of the city livable. Now, young people are moving to neighborhoods like Crown Heights that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been part of the lexicon.” Livable for whom? Which young people? Whose lexicon?

We know who.

In the lead photo for the Canal Street article, we see two young, fashionable, well-heeled white women walking into Canal Street Market, a kind of clone of Chelsea Market, that hyper-gentrification machine.

Behind them are at least five people of color, not fashionable and not well-heeled. But they are not the focus of the photo. They are not the stars of this story. They are in the background, as if already fading into the past. They have been coming here for years, shopping for the bargains that Canal has long been known for. But they are not here. They are not part of the lexicon.

Like much of the city, Canal has recently been high-rent blighted. Bloomberg cracked down on counterfeit handbag sellers. Legit shops were forced shut.

In their place are coming new shops for a new population of people who want their spaces controlled, curated, and very clean.

But the wild and vital messiness of New York life still hangs on here.

The aliveness of Canal Street are the crowds of bargain shoppers. The diversity of its clamor. The gray-market merchants and knock-off artists. Canal Plastics and Canal Rubber. (It was, until very recently, the crazy spillage of Argo Electronics. And Pearl Paint. And the Cup & Saucer.) It's the Chinese vendors with their carts of fruits and vegetables and delicacies sending up steam. It's the t-shirts with their "New York Fuckin City" slogans next to "I Heart NY."

This place has been alive for a long time. And now it is being killed by the same force that is killing so much of the city.

On the Times article, the vast majority (if not all) of the comments are critical. Readers are angry.

Tony says, "Seems to me this story is saying in all sorts of coded language that Canal Street became reputable once it became less Chinese and more white. Shade, anyone?"

(Some of that coded language, with a reference to Mandarin, was removed in an online edit last night. The original headline, "Canal Street Cleans Up Nice," was changed to "The Gentrification of Canal Street.")

Scott says, "This article is incredibly tone deaf. Chinatown locals are being pushed out by rising rents, and these writers are celebrating the means by which this is happening."

Bronx girl says, "Real people lived and shopped and went to work and created crowds on Canal Street... This is so distressing. Bye home."

BB says, "Having lived a blocked removed from canal Street for the past 4 decades, Canal Street was the livliest are for as long as I can remember, filled with real people living and working as normal people do most parts of the world. That NY Times would write 'I think we’re just beginning to see the neighborhood come alive,' is offensive to those of us that's lived and enjoyed our real neighborhood."

It goes on.

So maybe it's time for the Times to retire this feature. No more celebrating gentrification. No more selling the corporate white-washing of New York's neighborhoods. The tide is turning on gentrification. People are simply tired of it.


Mitch said...

Right on! I remember when the western half of Canal St was electronics row. There are a few vestiges of that left, but one of the best, Argo Electronics, closed recently.

The idea that Canal was ever empty or dangerous is total horseshit.

RMAN said...

I recall the old Canal street - with its military surplus stores and heavy industry, long before the counterfeit era became the sole existence. I came home with training grenades and a deactivated missile one time, back in '75 with my Dad. Also bought surplus raincoats from the Korean War (it started to pour). Within ten minutes the raincoats literally dissolved in the rain...

So now a further gentrification is underway - I recall the changes in the 90s, then 2000s.... Now this era will be the final knife in the heart of a once fun place to visit and shop.

JM said...

The Times is merely a tool of the capitalist running pig-dogs.

Really. That's all hypergentrification is all about. Money in the right pockets, tourists over residents, whites over anyone else. And NYT has come to personify all of it, even more than it used to.

It's disgusting.

Scout said...

Oh, you know what I really miss? Canal Jeans, especially when it was actually ON Canal, and for the first few years after it moved to Broadway.

It had the most amazing vintage stuff, and tons of it, all really cheap. And unique, strange new apparel, and boxes and boxes of mysterious stuff old and new, all for $1 or less.

From 1980-1989, I bought most of what I wore there. It sadly became a more or less plain old rich kids boutique in the early 90s, but in the 70s and 80s, it was truly spectacular. We'll never see its like again.

samadamsthedog said...

When doing my doctoral research in the 1970s, I would roam the Canal Street surplus shops for relays and similar devices to use in the equipment I was building. There were other ways to find hwat I needed, but Canal Street was an education: there were so many things in those shops that had no relevance to my project, but that I learned about. And it was a hell of a lot more fun than poring over catalogs.

By the way, just incidentally, I came across the following graffito on a construction site in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification:


(I think this was on 13th St. between 1st and A.)

eric said...

Regarding the NYT: The secret is that a neighborhood only really begins to exist when it starts to be visibly populated by the sort of people who would like nothing more than to see themselves and their money hustle mentioned in a Times feature.

Regarding the NYT photos: If I saw that Teen-Vogue-Faux-Punk girl in the leather and Docs on the street I'd probably bust out laughing.

Regarding the blog photos: What the hell is that on top of the boxy building? A Star Wars laser cannon?

Tal Hartsfeld said...

Of course everyone's tired of gentrification's become way too over-the-top exponentially omnipresent and ubiquitous.

"Invasion Of The Property Snatchers". A horror story indeed. And now playing in whatever city or large town you currently reside in.

Michael Penn Photography said...

That Times article almost made me throw up !

rongee said... if In years past, Canal Street was a vast wasteland; lives weren't lived, commerce never existed, no opportunity for employment, families weren't raised, dreams weren't fulfilled, laughter never heard, moments never enjoyed, memories never made.....

John K said...

So many good points and comments! The Invasion of the Property Snatchers and BLANDALISM are among my favorites. And let's not forget, The New York Times is notorious for promoting hypergentrification and the developers who are redrawing cities in the image of extreme wealth. Just the other day, the Times published a paean to the Kushner brothers, Charles and Murray, who are gaming the system and racing each other to erect luxury towers in Jersey City, which is being turned into a Brooklyn annex. The Times article even uses "gritty" describe what was once a working-class neighborhood; that's a sign that they want it to be swept clean for the yunnies, like the East Village, Williamsburg, Harlem, Canal Street, and on and on.

Unknown said...

Canal street is not "coming alive", it's merely becoming an extension of ghost town West Broadway.

Unknown said...

I'm disgusted and dismayed. NYC is fast becoming an "immersive experience" for those with the financial resources to drop in at will. I know that you offer avenues for making our voices heard, Jeremiah. My concern is that our voices are falling on ears that are turned in a different direction. The direction of greed and political back-scratching. If the powers that be are so far removed from the experience of "regular" people, what actions can we take that will actually result in the curbing of this cancer that seems to be taking over the nation?