Is New York Dying?

Thursday, July 27, 2017


A lot of New York-centered culture these days looks backwards. For every work about twenty-somethings looking for love in a city of eight million, there are three or four about decadence and depravity at Studio 54 (check out AVENUE’s July cover story for more!). The majority of the books, movies and TV shows that have chronicled this turbulent time in the city’s history have covered the city’s dark ‘70s days—starting roughly with the sanitation and teacher’s strikes in 1968, peaking with the twin horrors of the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975 and the blackout and Son of Sam in 1977, and finally ending some time in the early ‘80s. To name just a few: The Flamethrowers, City on Fire, The Get Down, Vinyl, Another Brooklyn, The Deuce, Stonewall, The Walk, Blood Ties, Tuesday Nights in 1980, Let the Great World Spin, Good Girls Revolt, The Changeling, A Most Violent Year and American Hustle. (And that’s not even counting memoirs, like Just Kids, or all the period pieces that just miss that cutoff, like Mad Men).

What emerges from nearly all is a sense of the city as the center of the world, its dictates followed everywhere from Paris to Peking, its veins coursing with apocalyptic energy and pulsing to the sounds of new music. In these works, New York is a place where business gets done and art gets made, where the city’s bars and restaurants are crucibles of change. I’m not the first person to notice this—“Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?”, wondered Edmund White in a 2015 T magazine piece. White’s rundown of creatives breathing life into the derelict city’s ruins is pretty standard, as these things go: at Max’s and CBGB, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, Klaus Nomi, Sid Vicious, Television and Patti Smith were inventing punk. Further uptown, Susan Sontag, Jasper Johns, George Balanchine, Robert Wilson, Richard Sennett, Richard Howard, Richard Poirier, John Ashbery and Robert Mapplethorpe were redefining high arts in a low culture era. Although these scenes were discrete, a few figures, like Mapplethorpe, “with his lubricious African-American nudes, portraits of society ladies and still lifes of ‘New York flowers,’” bridged the gap between the highfaluting literary critics and the crassly transgressive punks. And everybody, it seems, was reading the New York Review of Books and Interview. “Could such a phenomenon occur today?” White asks, “Maybe in Berlin. But not in New York.”

White’s remembrance hits on something important. Implicit in all that ’70s nostalgia is an awareness that “New York” is no more. The Empire State Building may still stand, the subway may still run, but that city where penniless artists holed up in lofts could change the world is gone.

But if it is gone, what’s replaced it? And how has it all gone down? To understand that, there’s no better person to talk to than Jeremiah Moss. Since 2007 Moss has written the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York A.K.A. The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct. In one mordant post after another, Moss chronicles the neighborhood institutions—decades-old restaurants, bars, bookstores, pharmacies, flower shops, shoeshine stands and more—forced out by rising rents and a changing city. Somehow, he’s managed not to become inured by the unceasing pace of business closures—each post feels fresh in its contemptuous sorrow. Now, he’s taken his project and turned it into a book. But where his blog mostly covers the demise of individual businesses, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul focuses on how that change has happened.

“People like to say that New York is always changing—that nothing out of the ordinary is happening to the city, and that it’s a natural process with no alternative,” Moss tells me at Peter McManus Cafe, an 80-year-old bar that’s been teetering on the edge of closure for a while now. “I’m combating those ideas, which I think are false. Yes, New York is always changing, but this kind of change is new. And drastic. And it is the outcome of policies. It’s not natural.”

Moss’s story is complex, and has many moving parts. Indeed, if there’s a problem with Vanishing New York, it’s that there are simply too many things going wrong to focus on any one. There’s the displacement of poor, non-white New Yorkers; the transformation of working class neighborhoods into clublands and tourist traps; the destruction of blocks of low-lying brick buildings and the erection of anonymous glass towers in their place; the mass influx of chain stores and banks into the city; “high-rent blight,” where landlords allow stores to stay vacant for years while they hope for a rich tenant, hurting the commercial prospects of entire neighborhoods; the unaffordability of the city for artists and thinkers, and their replacement by boring office drones; and the fact that today’s city-dwellers don’t realize that much of this is a problem, and don’t have any feel for the joys of city life.

Still, what unites them all is rampant overdevelopment, and the way that the city has let its duty of ensuring successful business growth turn into abetting realtor greed. Moss chronicles the fawning relationship that the Bloomberg administration had with property developers and chains—for the developers, rezoning sleepy working class neighborhoods so that forty-story condominium towers could go up; for the chains, giving them tax breaks allowing them to relocate to newly desirable neighborhoods for pennies. 

Moss makes an important distinction between gentrification, which is a natural process with a relatively long history, and hypergentrification, this new beast that’s emerged. There’s a different between what happened over decades in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, where rich people began to buy apartments in grand old crumbling buildings, gradually raising property values and displacing the original residents, and what’s happened in places like Williamsburg and the Meatpacking District, where in less than ten years, rezoning has turned largely residential neighborhoods into chain-filled pleasure towns with more nightclubs than laundromats.

Key to this hypergentrification, and part of what makes it all so horribly irreversible, is the way that it reshapes the very architecture of the neighborhoods it destroys. “They’re putting up these glass boxes everywhere,” Moss tells me. I interrupt to point out that we can see two of them out of Peter McManus’s windows. “I think it signals luxury to younger people. There’s an element of being seen—you’re in this translucent box, in which your wealth can be seen by strangers on the street. On the High Line, they’re putting a lot of these up…I think that wealth used to have a privacy. You kept it inside. This is a much more exhibitionistic display of wealth. Which I think comes with conspicuous consumption. This is conspicuous.”

Conspicuous overkill, like greed, is one of the trends that runs throughout Moss’s text. Moss cites example after example of the almost capricious callousness behind the past decade’s development. The rezoning of 125th, for instance, came about because former City Planning Director Amanda Burden was dismayed that she couldn’t find a nice enough restaurant to eat at after a show at the Apollo—as if a dearth of ultra-high end restaurants somehow warrants changing an entire community’s way of life. It’s of a piece with so many other instances of neighborhoods destroyed by fiat. It’s the same conspicuousness that enables buildings like 432 Park Avenue to go up—buildings that do nothing for their neighborhoods, that blot out the sun for everybody except their residents, buildings that are so removed from their surroundings that their windows don’t even open. No wonder that most of the apartments in that particular building are owned by out-of-towners who leave them empty for most of the year.

Moss doesn’t hold back on this last point. In his view, the Bloomberg administration’s craven courting of foreign investors—whether the emirs who own apartments at that building, or the tourists who visit the city every year—is one of its biggest failings. “Jane Jacobs said that cities can be destroyed by oversuccess. And that’s definitely happening here. Bloomberg wanted a lot more tourists, so he encouraged that in various ways. This is an overcrowded city. It’s not just overcrowded with residents. There are too many tourists here. You know, tourists have always been a part of New York, and they’re always going to be, but we don’t need 65 million. That’s crazy. And this is also a global problem. In Barcelona, they’ve established a moratorium on hotel construction. In Venice, they’ve banned cruise ships. I think we should do it in New York. I think we should find ways to help citizens more than tourists. Tourists are prioritized over citizens, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

The city’s prioritization of tourists over residents, Moss laments, is slowly turning it into a bland extension of Middle America. Chain stores have proliferated in no small part because they give the big city an element of suburban familiarity. Moss’s picture of New York’s future is probably something like Mike Pence visiting the Times Square Chili’s, forever.

And that sudden appetite for generic chain stores causes even more problems. One of the worst things that Moss talks about, and the primary focus of his blog, is the rise of “high-rent blight.” As once-quiet neighborhoods become invaded by new developers, residents and tourists, landlords realize that they can make a lot more money renting to faceless chain stores than to unique local businesses. So they raise rents to unrealistic amounts, forcing out independent mom-and-pop operations that have been there for generations. And then, they wait. Thanks to local tax laws, landlords can keep their prohibitively expensive commercial spaces empty for years, writing off their vacancies as a loss until some deep-pocketed conglomerate is willing to rent the space.

It’s hypergentrification at its greedy worst—avaricious landlords willing to kill entire neighborhoods while they wait for their big break. Once-bustling retail corridors like Bleecker Street in the West Village have become ghost towns. And as vacancies pile up, neighborhood foot traffic goes down, imperiling other businesses. Eventually, a block that might have once had a corner bodega, a laundromat, a shoe repair and four restaurants suddenly has a bank and nothing else.

While Moss’s story focuses mostly on lower Manhattan, Times Square and Harlem, with bits of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx thrown in, the story he tells is one that resonates throughout the city, as anyone who’s walked up Madison Avenue in the past few years can attest. “There are whole stretches of the Upper East Side where there’s just one empty storefront after another, and that’s because of the high rents,” Moss says. “People up there have the power to preserve buildings, but they don’t have the power to keep small businesses in place. There’s no protection for small businesses, and it’s just as dangerous for the Upper East Side as it is elsewhere.”

Fortunately, there are solutions. Commercial rent control (which, as Moss points out, existed in New York until 1964). Changing current tax laws allowing landlords to write years-long vacancies off as losses. Supporting the politicians who promise to fight these things, and who will take a harder line against wanton overdevelopment. They’re the sort of things that take influence and muscle, but they can be done.

I ask Moss what he would say to the readers of this magazine. “There used to be a noblesse oblige,” he says. “It’s the guiding principle that built the Met and Central Park. It’s up to you to stop this. New York needs its affluent philanthropists and it always has.”

*    *    * 

Vanishing New York is the story of what happens when a few unscrupulous men and women can take control of a public good and hijack it to their own ends. The developer’s excuse is always that they’re simply playing to market forces (as if greed is something they have no choice in). But they’re not wrong. As long as we look toward New York’s past, toward its vaunted role as the birthplace of punk and hip hop, there will be developers willing to cash in on that. This is part of what makes this sort of nostalgia so sickening—it insists that everything needs to be glamorous.

All this month, in the latest episode of New York retromania, Film Forum has run a retrospective series of movies set in and made in the city during the ’70s. It’s a delightfully unconventional roster, mixing expected choices like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon with forgotten ones like Where’s Poppa? and They Might Be Giants. One of the best films in the program is Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, from 1970. The film tells the story of Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges), a rich loafer in his twenties who buys a tenement house in Park Slope—”this old ghetto area,” as he calls it. Elgar plans to force his tenants out, and turn the building into a hip bachelor pad.

Initially, he’s a fish out of water. Showing up to the building for the first time in a magenta shirt, paisley tie and a (literally) lily white suit, he gets chased down the street by his new tenants, and immediately drives back to Park Avenue in terror. But slowly, he begins to acclimate to the new neighborhood, first with smug condescension—”I’m three doors from Mom’s Chitlin and Rib Joint,” he tells his family between racist jokes—and finally with real decency toward his tenants. He gets involved with two African-American women, and abandons his family’s racism-with-a-veneer-of-liberalism.

Watching The Landlord, I found myself thinking about much of the same stuff that Moss talked about—the destruction of neighborhoods, landlords whose interests run counter to their tenants—and about the nostalgic ossification of “New York” as an idea. Returning to Edmund White’s elegy for ‘70s New York, it suddenly became hard to ignore that in a list of some 20 or so writers, artists and musicians, White couldn’t name a single person of color outside of “Mapplethorpe’s lubricious nudes.”

Maybe that’s specific to White—most other writers would have probably included Basquiat, at the very least—but it speaks to something fundamentally wrong about how we approach our city. If New York’s guiding myth, if its true spirit is defined as whatever was happening on the Bowery in 1976, then eventually it will turn into a dead theme park pockmarked by glass towers, while its increasingly alienated residents congratulate themselves for hacking it out in such a “gritty” city.

Why not nostalgize neighborhoods and hardware stores, like Jeremiah Moss? Why not try to preserve that? If all we think about is the rich white people who wrote for the New York Review of Books, or the soon-to-be-rich white people who played at CBGB’s, then all we’ll be left with is a city of rich white people. And New York is more than that.


Vanishing New York is on sale now.



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