August 17, 2007
The Suburbanization of New York? Editors Are Taking Questions
By Sewell Chan
JERILOU HAMMETT AND KINGSLEY Hammett [are] the editors of “The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?”
The book is a collection of 14 essays about the economic and social changes that have swept the city over the past two decades. (Reviewing the book in The Times, Liesl Schillinger wrote: “Some essays are coolheaded, some shake with hysteria, some are memoirish, others didactic. But all of them provide great fodder for argument if you’re looking to inflame your next dinner party.”)
The Hammetts, who are husband and wife, run DESIGNER/builder magazine. They argue that gentrification has transformed once-unique Manhattan neighborhoods: Harlem, Little Italy, Hell’s Kitchen, the Lower East Side. In their preface, they wrote:
Today New York is on its way to becoming a ‘theme-park city,’ where people can get the illusion of the urban experience without the diversity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that have always been its hallmarks. Like the suburbs New Yorkers so long snubbed, the city is becoming more private, more predictable, and more homogenized.
The essays in the book are provocative, but not monolithic; several of the contributors note that gentrification has occurred at the same time as vast improvements in public safety and quality of life.
Neil Smith, an anthropologist, and Deborah Cowen, a geographer, traced the gentrification of the city through seminal events: the opening of the Manhattan Mall at Herald Square in 1989, Disney’s entry into Times Square in 1994, and the exhibition of “The Gates,” the public-art project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in 2005.
About half the essays in the book examined particular places that have been transformed.
Maggie Wrigley, an Australian writer and artist who moved to the city in 1984 and was part of the Lower East Side squatters’ movement, wrote: “Change is inevitable — it is how the city lives and breathes. And I don’t begrudge a safer neighborhood — no one wants to dodge bullets or have to fight off a mugger with a two-by-four or a kitchen knife or a gun (as I did).” But she added:
I feel sad and angry that the only newcomers to Manhattan from now on will be those rich enough to buy their way in. No new immigrants will bring their ways and flavors and styles to our neighborhoods. No poor artists or writers or musicians will come here and fight to prove their worth. No struggle, no adventure — just pay to stay.
Eric Darton, a cultural critic, wrote that the opening of the Time Warner Center in 2004 “announced that the suburban ethos, long ascendant, had finally breached the core of Manhattan.” Lucy R. Lippard, an art critic, maintained that Lower Manhattan’s “downfall began when ‘loft living’ became fashionable and doctors and lawyers arrived in the early 1970s.” The political theorist Marshall Berman reminisced about the gritty — if sexy — Times Square of his youth, while Katrina Lencek-Inagaki, a student, decried the disappearance of the “villagelike” atmosphere of TriBeCa, where she grew up.
Amy Zimmer, a reporter for Metro New York, described the changes along Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, where her great-great-uncle Teddy Eckstein opened a dry-goods store in 1916. (The store closed in 1998.) She wrote that the neighborhood “devolved from a gritty bargain center into a largely abandoned haven for drugs and prostitution, only to emerge in recent years as a target for speculators anxious to turn this ethnic enclave into another upscale neighborhood.”
Several of the writers focused their criticisms on the demise of small and independently owned businesses.
Robin D. G. Kelley, a historian, noted that as early as 1925, the poet and critic James Weldon Johnson asked, “Are the Negroes going to be able to hold Harlem?” Dr. Kelley wrote that “there is nothing inherently wrong with rising property values,” but added that without an affordable-housing strategy, the increase in prices and rents “leads inevitably to massive displacement.” Dr. Kelley argued that small businesses were devastated as an indirect result of two events in 1994: the creation of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which gave chain stores and retail corporations incentives to open in Harlem, and the Giuliani administration’s decision to remove street vendors from 125th Street, which reduced pedestrian traffic on the thoroughfare, harming mom-and-pop stores.
Susan S. Fainstein, an urban planner, assailed the Bloomberg administration’s plan to open “big box” retail stores at the New Deal-era Bronx Terminal Market, even while conceding that the deep discounts associated with such stores are popular among the low-income communities that live nearby.
Using the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Red Hook as examples, Matthew Schuerman of The New York Observer argued that the city’s remaining industrial businesses are being crowded out by residential conversions and an insufficient commitment by the city to retain manufacturing jobs. “The paradox of New York’s economic resurgence since the 1975 fiscal crisis is that as more people want to live here, more employers want to move to the suburbs,” he wrote. The city hands out subsidies to big investment banks while ignoring the plight of small businesses that employ low-skilled minority workers who need jobs.
Another group of essays pointed to aspects of gentrification that are less commonly discussed.
Suzanne Wasserman, a historian and filmmaker, contended that street fairs had become generic and bland. Robert Neuwirth, an author, blogger and community organizer, asserted that immigration, not gentrification, was the true engine of the city’s rebirth in the 1990s and that immigrants are now at risk of being driven out by pricy housing. Michael Sorkin, an architect, argued that the chain stores, bank branches, fast-food outlets and Starbucks coffee shops that have filled Manhattan are proof that preservationists have been too narrow in their focus: “We save the faces of our buildings but have little concern for their human content.”
The book’s final essay, by Francis Morrone, a writer and architectural tour guide, asserted that the proliferation of cellphones and iPods has led to the collapse of etiquette, as preoccupied pedestrians bump into each other, eroding the quality of public space.
The ideas in “The Suburbanization of New York” evoke varying responses. To some, the collection might seem like a reasoned analysis; to others, a scolding diatribe. Readers are invited to discuss and debate the themes of the book with the Hammetts.