Last May, thousands of curious customers lined up along Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, braving an unseasonably cold and rainy Friday night to witness the grand opening of Apple computer’s first 24-hour retail store. According to a Wired magazine article, dozens had camped out overnight, many had come from places as far away as Scotland, and the line eventually grew so long it snaked around the block and added hours of dull anticipation to the lives of literally thousands.
These weren’t just tech-hungry teenagers either, or geeky Apple fetishists living on the margins. By all accounts, it was a perfectly mainstream event consisting of perfectly normal, mainstream professionals – two of my friends among them. “Back in the 80’s,” one friend overheard someone say, “we used to wait in lines like this to see rock bands. Now we do it to get into stores.”
Most New Yorkers understand this thought implicitly. It captures most people’s ironic ambivalence toward a process that the editors of a new book call, accurately if unoriginally, “The Suburbanization of New York.”
On the one hand, we like the abundance of restaurants and stores on almost every major street and avenue in Manhattan, as well as the revitalized Steinway Streets and Flatbush Avenues in the outer boroughs; we like the lower crime rates that come with more street activity and the lack of noxious fumes emitted by a dwindling manufacturing sector. On the other hand, we’re concerned about skyrocketing real estate prices, gentrifying neighborhoods, and the slow disappearance of mom-and-pop stores in favor of brand name outlets owned by multinational corporations.
But it’s worth thinking more about why these things bother us so. To some, like Mayor Bloomberg, complaints like these are bound to sound a bit rich, like the moanings of a 3-year-old who has a sour stomach from eating too many sweets. “If you want to solve the problem of gentrification,” he and Doctoroff like to say, “then you should have crime go up, the schools get worse, and the parks get dirtier.” And they’re right, at least, to suggest that the burden of proof is on those of us who have a problem with high real estate values and an abundance of capital investment. Think of the alternative.
This is the explanatory gap that “The Suburbanization of New York” seeks to fill through 14 essays by a varied group of authors. Artists such as Lucy Lippard and Maggie Wrigley give first-person accounts of the gentrification of Soho, the East Village and the Lower East Side (and their own unwitting participation in it), while cultural theorists and urbanists such Neil Smith, Marshall Berman and Michael Sorkin – heavy hitters all – provide a more analytical perspective.
Sorkin, director of the graduate urban design program at CUNY, points out that New York has done a better job than most cities of protecting historic buildings and keeping its urban fabric mostly intact. And if Manhattan is steadily decreasing in density – as measured by the number of people of who actually live there – its vibrant street life is not likely to diminish anytime soon.
“If suburbanization – or globalization – threatens the city,” writes Sorkin, “the main danger comes not from the physical side of the equation, the introduction of specific alien architectures from suburbia – big boxes, ranch houses, shopping malls, etc. – but from the content side, which has proven adaptable enough to remain independent of the constraints of its setting.”
Take 125th Street in Harlem, for example. At one time it was the cultural and political heart of the African diaspora, teeming with street vendors selling wares to locals. Now, in the eyes of many of its older residents, it’s looking and feeling more and more like a traditional suburban mall. But it's not because the streetscape has been leveled or the building types altered.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton designated the area an economic “empowerment zone,” which paved the way for outside corporate investment, according to another contributor, urban anthropologist Robin Kelley. In October of that year, Mayor Giuliani forcibly removed all the “illegal” street vendors – many of them immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean. Later, Magic Johnson’s multiplex theater moved in on one end of the street, while a major supermarket took up residence on the other. Sorkin gives us a map, and the 2007 result truly does conform to the commercial model of a traditional mall – a strip with anchor stores at either end and a whole host of brand-name stores such as Footlocker, the Gap and Starbucks filling the space in-between. Sorkin goes so far as to compare the subway stops to mall entrances.
But, again, why should we care? Why not chalk it up to the inevitable price of success?
The obvious answer, of course, is that most longtime residents won’t be able to afford to live there much longer. In 2002, the Village Voice reported that a person would have to earn $90,000 per year in order to afford what, in the new Harlem market, is considered moderate-income housing. And with new luxury condos on the way, the market doesn’t show signs of slowing. But the less obvious answer is that over the long run even those who can afford it won’t want to live there anymore. They won’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s not really a neighborhood, where homes are little more than investments and the local businesses come and go with the vicissitudes of a capricious global market.
Perhaps the strongest link between the suburbs and the recently remade commercial strips like 125th Street and 42nd Street is the emphasis on branding. But the brands go far beyond the products in chain stores, or even the chain stores themselves. In today’s marketing world they can encompass whole neighborhoods and cities. For instance, if you read “Suburban Nation,” the 2001 handbook of the wildly influential New Urbanist movement, you’ll find a lot stress being put on the way things appear: a street that “gives the impression” of intimacy, a neighborhood that “seems” safe, a town that “feels like” a community. This is because images and impressions can be controlled, repackaged and sold much more easily than the real thing. Harlem may still be far away from the Disney-built, -owned and -operated community of Celebration, Florida, but its “history” and “culture” are definitely already being marketed in a similar way.
Of course many of the authors in this much-needed book has his or her own prized elixir, something about New York in particular that works against rampant consumerism and the forces of simulation. For Sorkin, it’s the brute fact of our streets and sidewalks. For Berman, it’s our vices (say what you will about seedy porn shops, but they’re at least Disney-proof). For Mathew Schuerman, it’s our small but still vibrant light industry sector. And for Robert Neuwirth (a City Limits contributor), it’s our immigrants.
According to Neuwirth, the city would be shrinking, its tax base eroding, were it not for the 1.2 million immigrants who arrived during the 1990’s alone. While many of us in “the white-collar” professions stand in line for hours on end to get a good look at the new generation of iPods, new arrivals in Cypress Hills, Jackson Heights and Jamaica are busy opening small businesses and building communities from the ground up.
This book is not likely to change Mr. Bloomberg’s perspective on gentrification. But he and Doctoroff – and of course anyone else interested in the fate of New York’s communities – should at least take a look, as it meets their challenge to explain what’s sometimes wrong with it. Let’s just hope the conversation continues and that there are more books like it are on the way.