New York City

New York City is alive and well

The July cover of Harper’s mistakes the southern half of Manhattan for all of New York City.

People cross the street in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx.

People cross the street in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx. Andriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

As happens every few years, a long lament for New York City’s lost character has gone viral: Kevin Baker’s 13,426-word cover story “The Death of a Once Great City” in the July issue of Harper’s has been popping up across the social media feeds of New Yorkers for weeks. Its popularity reflects the fact that many longtime New York City residents feel the pain caused by their city’s growing appeal to affluent outsiders. There were 62 million visitors last year, more than double the number in 1990, making famous restaurants and sites like the Brooklyn Bridge too crowded for actual residents. The cost of housing rises at twice the rate of wages each year. Increasingly, storefronts on Manhattan’s commercial streets south of 96th Street are inhabited only by national chains and luxury brands. “What is the point,” Baker wonders, “of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else?”

This is a longer, more elegantly written variation on the common complaint – from celebrities like Moby to amateur photographers like Vanishing New York’s Jeremiah Moss – that the city has lost its soul. (The related genre of parting shots from writers leaving New York is so abundant that it has been anthologized in a book and spoofed in The New Yorker.)

While there is some truth to it, the complaint says more about its exponents than it does about the city. Only someone who neglects to venture the tiniest bit off the beaten path, where New York is more diverse and alive than ever, would think it’s truly dead.

The assertion that New York is particularly adrift also mistakes national and global phenomena, chiefly capitalism and growing inequality, for something distinctive to New York and within its own control. Baker would have you believe that New York was killed by its own elected leaders, rather by forces largely beyond their reach. But, whether the culprit is deindustrialization, globalization, or modern architecture, City Hall lacks the power to arrest it.

Baker wishes, for example, that New York would be, “A city of people who sell books on the street – and in their own shops.” That book stores are going out of business is a terrible loss to the city’s culture, but it is hardly Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fault. Baker seems to think that it is driven by a lack of commercial rent control – and commercial rent control might keep more book stores in business a bit longer – but Baker never mentions or apparently considers the existence of or e-readers and e-books. Blaming the New York City government for the disappearance of book stores is like blaming it for the demise of Blockbuster at the hand of Netflix.

Invariably, death of New York missives would have been improved by a modicum of self-awareness. Baker – like Moss and every blogger who ever has written a send-off to New York while packing their bags for Los Angeles – is an educated professional who moved to the city from elsewhere as an adult.

And that demonstrates the flaw at the heart of these complaints: If people who move to New York think the city has been ruined by more people like them doing what they did, whose fault is it?

Baker – to his credit, and unlike the authors of less-serious pieces on the subject – attempts to actually analyze the relevant public policies and find culprits. He makes valid criticisms of some specific projects and programs, especially those of former Mayors Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, that deliberately encouraged and publicly subsidized the city’s corporatization. He is right to deplore the privatization of the public realm and the erection of cost barriers to public goods, such as the fact that it costs nearly as much to visit one of the city’s zoos as it does to attend a professional baseball game.

The use of public subsidies for private gain is especially galling. As Baker points out, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn was made possible through the MTA choosing a low bid for the development rights to the land from a politically connected developer. And then there are the tax abatements for new housing construction, such as 421a, which allow the well-heeled residents of luxury buildings to pay virtually nothing in property taxes. Baker also notes that New York massively subsidized the new Yankees and Mets stadiums. This is especially perverse and ill-advised, since New York – unlike, say, Detroit or Cincinnati – suffers no lack of popular entertainment and tourist attractions and hardly needs to subsidize its wildly profitable teams to ensure that they don’t depart for greener pastures.

But on other aspects of the urban economy, Baker seems confused. Throughout the piece, he decries the rise of generic glass towers, from the far west side of midtown Manhattan to Long Island City in Queens, while simultaneously bewailing the rising cost of living. One can hardly blame Baker for finding the boxy glass and metal designs tacky or disappointingly generic. But, outside of totalitarian regimes, government does not dictate every aesthetic choice on private buildings. And why are skyscrapers – which have defined New York and glorified its skyline for a century – inherently a bad thing? Like many anti-development activists, Baker offers no reason, other than shadows cast on Central Park by the towers on 57th Street. He simply treats it as fact that height is bad, that new development compounds gentrification and unaffordability and that new offices or apartments are unnecessary.

The cost of housing and office space in New York City shows more development is badly needed. New York has the second-highest residential rents of any city in the United States, after San Francisco, and the most expensive office space in the country. Demand to be in New York keeps rising, and supply must rise to limit the price increases. Baker claims allowing tall new buildings did “absolutely nothing to contain rents.” Rents have continued to rise, but Baker presents no evidence that they wouldn’t be even higher if the city had prevented new construction. It’s unclear if Baker – like many who think they are opposing gentrification when they actually advocating for policies that would exacerbate it – imagines the inhabitants of all those towers were conjured out of thin air from the developer’s imagination. In reality, they mostly are employees of New York-based firms. Without the new buildings, these people would not really be kept out of New York altogether. Most of them simply have done what Baker once did and moved into older buildings, thus driving up the rents there.

A transplant such as Baker should understand this. He did not grow up in New York City, but he complains at length about his adopted neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, losing its diversity, affordable housing and mom-and-pop shops, seemingly unaware that the neighborhood changed because more people like him – white-collar outsiders – moved in. The people who move there now are bankers, corporate executives and lawyers instead of left-wing writers, but that’s just because the suits stopped being scared to live there or they got priced off of Park Avenue, not because the local government cast a spell on them.

The other major flaw in any argument that New York is dead – and this is especially true of Baker’s – is the way it reduces New York City to the lower half of Manhattan. Manhattan south of Harlem has indeed lost most of its working-class and black or Latino residents, or even the artists and bourgeois bohemians who first replaced them. In their place, sadly, as Baker writes, are yuppie interlopers, rich out-of-towners with pieds-a-terre, and tourists.

But that’s only around one-eighth of the city. That Baker no longer can hear half a dozen languages in his apartment building does not mean they have been banished from New York. In fact, the city is far more diverse than it was when Baker moved there 40 years ago. In 1980, racial minorities were 47 percent of the New York’s residents. Today, they are 68 percent, a share of the population that has increased slightly in the new millenium. That’s because, simultaneous to the gentrification that has made the inner ring of the city of wealthier and whiter, there has been a continuing out-migration of whites from the outer ring of the outer boroughs. Native-born populations are leaving parts of southern Brooklyn, the north Bronx and many neighborhoods throughout Queens. In their place, new immigrants arrive daily from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Asia. How can a city with 3.3 million foreign-born residents, who chose to come there, be dead?

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Neighborhoods that the average Manhattanite may never visit feature restaurant rows of cuisines from countries that many New Yorkers couldn’t find on a map. Want Sri Lankan food? Go to Staten Island. If you prefer Pakistani cuisine, there’s Little Pakistan in Brooklyn’s Midwood, just a couple miles south of the Bangladeshi bakeries in Kensington. If an Upper West Sider wants to see diversity, and independent neighborhood stores, he need only go a few subway stops uptown to Harlem and Washington Heights, or across a river to one of the boroughs.

One diagnosis of Baker’s that is absolutely spot-on is that Republican state senators from the suburbs and upstate have wantonly used the state’s control over New York City’s powers to tax, spend and regulate rents to thwart the city population’s desire to introduce even a little fairness to these policies. As Baker writes, the city and state should change the laws to reflect the fact that New York City’s challenge is no longer attracting people with money, but managing a surplus of them. To address the residential displacement caused by escalating rents, Baker suggests repealing 421a and using the increased property tax revenue to build affordable housing.

The city could go much further and enact a broader property tax reform to remove distortions that under-tax single-family homes and luxury condos and co-ops, while disproportionately taxing rentals. A tax on pieds-a-terre would claw back some money from the undertaxed elite who park their money in empty luxury apartments in those new towers. A tax on vacant storefronts in the core of Manhattan would incentivize landlords to rent to independent stores instead of holding out for a CVS, Starbucks or bank branch.

But unless the U.S. becomes a communist country, its cities will be shaped by market forces. If inequality grows in the United States, it will grow even more so in New York, its largest city, where rich and poor alike come seeking opportunity. If an industrial, union-heavy workforce is supplanted by a financialized economy in which private equity firms buy companies to offshore their manufacturing jobs and reap windfall profits, that will be manifested in New York City. If Congress fails to properly regulate Wall Street, to tax its undeserved riches, and to invest in public goods like the New Deal-era public housing Baker praises, then those policies will be reflected in a housing market where the super-rich bid up prices while public housing has waiting lists in the hundreds of thousands.

One can see that New York’s predicament is not unique simply by glancing at other real estate the rich covet. Across the country, from the East End of Long Island to the Westside of Los Angeles, once-arty and charmingly modest enclaves have become obscenely expensive, their denizens and businesses fancier and more corporate.

This isn’t even limited to America. In France, despite its more left-wing, egalitarian political economy, Paris’s Left Bank lost its radical bohemian vibe or any semblance of affordability decades ago. In more recent years, the same has happened to once-hip or blue-collar parts of Vancouver, London and Berlin.

New York City can do a little to mitigate inequality – the state and federal government can do more – but it cannot help being too popular for its own good.