The Suburbanization of New York edited by Jerilou and Kingsley Hammett

April 18, 2007 at 8:17 pm (architecture, essays, mixed bag, nonfiction, urban studies)

New Yorkers are extremely possessive of their city. Each and every one of its eight million residents think it belongs to them and them alone. So when some vital aspect of their individual concept of New York changes they feel personally attacked, encroached upon, and above all, scared. I am no different. Having been born and raised in Manhattan I have always walked the streets as though I owned them. New York is the column upon which I’ve built the rest of my identity.  And, like most residents over the age of twenty-five, in the last few years I have started bitching about how My City has turned to shit. I’ve ranted about how unnecessary it is to have a Starbucks on every other corner. I’ve railed about the astronomical cost of housing. I’ve wistfully remembered the crack house that was across the street from my elementary school, now replaced by condos. I am not happy about the changes occurring in the city, so when I spotted The Suburbanization of New York, a collection of essays exploring these changes, I purchased it hoping to find empathy, explanation, and a reason for my anger within its pages.

As the title suggests the overarching argument made by the contributors is that New York is becoming economically, socially, and spatially suburban, losing many of the cultural and architectural attributes that make it unique. It begins The Suburbanization of New Yorkwith a couple of essays vividly recalling the New York the book mourns. In “Love and Loss in New York City” Maggie Wrigley takes the reader on a punk rock and drug fueled tour of the Lower East Side of the 80’s. She describes the many small neighborhoods that exist below 14th Street in detail and captures the feel of the streets perfectly. In “News From Nowheresville” Eric Darton chronicles the rise of 59th Street‘s Time Warner Center through personal journal entries.

Though both present a sharp picture of pre-millennium New YorkI found the tone of both essays troubling. As they go on about the opportunistic developers who have gentrified all the character out of these neighborhoods the writers come off as bitter. The image that popped into my head was that of the crotchety old grandparent rocking in a rocking chair vehemently renouncing all that is modern and romanticizing the past. The arguments put forth by Wrigley and Darton are fueled by emotion rather than fact and are unconvincing for that reason.

Lucy R. Lippard’s “Seven Stops in Lower Manhattan: A Geographic Memoir” is another essay that fails to provide a convincing argument. In it Lippard recalls the many neighborhoods and apartments she has lived in over the past twenty years. She goes on a walking tour of her old stomping grounds to see how much they have changed. Though also emotionally driven Lippard sends out such mixed messages it’s hard to tell exactly what she is trying to say. The tone suggests she is taking the position that gentrification is bad, that it white washes a neighborhood, but the observations she makes on her walking tour don’t exactly back up that hypothesis. For example, when she visits her first apartment over on East 9th and Avenue A she finds the neighborhood to have changed very little. The graffiti, funky boutiques, and run down buildings are exactly as she remembers them. In this case the New York she knew is still intact, and she can’t blame developers for ridding it of its character because they haven’t yet.

Lippard also falls into the trap of romanticizing aspects of her old neighborhoods that weren’t very great. On page 82 she writes “In the 1960s, when I took [my son] to the playground [in Tompkins Square Park], I had to sift broken glass and hypodermic needles out of the sandbox. Now the play equipment is new and shiny, a list of rules is posted…but in the middle of the day, the playground was firmly locked.” My first thought upon reading this was “The playground has been made safe for children…and this is a bad thing?” Not to mention that keeping it locked during the day when all the neighborhood children are probably in school or day care probably helps keep it clean and safe. I could not understand why she failed to see these improvements as positive changes that were actually good for the community. 

I realize I fall into this same trap every time I remind people that the part of the Upper West Side where I grew up used to be considered the ghetto or mourn the loss of the aforementioned crack house across from my old elementary school. But, honestly? The last few years when I’ve walked over to the school to cast my vote in elections, I’ve felt way safer than I ever did walking there as a youngster. The decrease in crime is good. The eradication of substandard housing is good. I like the positive changes that have been made to my old neighborhood. And what’s good about the Upper West Side is since the area has always been residential there are more tenants living in rent controlled apartments then there are in areas like TriBeCa or Soho so many long time residents can stay in the neighborhood and enjoy the improvements.

Why have so many New Yorkers slipped into the habit of pining for the things they once railed against? There a line from Denis Leary’s classic stand up comedy special No Cure For Cancer that sums it up for me: ” …[P]eople who live in New York, we wear that fact like a badge right on our sleeve because we know that fact impresses everybody. ‘I was in Vietnam.’ ‘So what? I live in New York!’ ” What the authors of the more emotionally driven essays are afraid of losing isn’t the City’s diversity or old economy but the gritty image that has always conveyed a degree of street cred upon all who live within its limits. They are terrified that gentrification will erase New York’s tough image, and by doing so turn them into regular people like those residing in any other gated community; bland, safe, suburban. Surviving in the New York their essays recall made them special. If the challenges that made them special suddenly disappear or are replaced by a new set of challenges they lose a unique form of social capital.

What makes this fear amusing is that the grit hasn’t disappeared at all, it has just relocated. All of the outer boroughs still contain their share of drug, crime, and poverty ridden neighborhoods, as well as distinctive cultural enclaves. I live within walking distance of a few of them. Manhattan even contains the odd pocket here and there. Lippard herself even admits that her old neighborhoods aren’t entirely dead yet when she implores the reader to “Spend a day walking through lower Manhattan. The energy is still there, and it’s still seductive, even contagious.” The rhythm, the attitude, the surprise all three eulogize is still alive and well, just not in the places where they live.

I may have spent the last seven or eight paragraphs voicing complaints about the essays found in this volume but let me assure you The Suburbanization of New York does contain some really outstanding work. The essays that truly dazzle are those with a focus. For example, in “From Peddler to Panini: The Anatomy of Orchard Street” Amy Zimmer examines the evolution of commerce on the lower east side by looking at how the economic climate on Orchard Street has changed through the years. For over 80 years Zimmer’s family ran a whole sale store on Orchard, H. Eckstein’s & Sons, and her analysis is given a human quality as she recalls how each cultural and economic change effected the store and lead to its eventual demise.

Suzanne Wasserman’s “The Triumph of Commerce Over Community” is a highly informative read that explain how and why the City’s once unique, community run street and crafts fairs have become so disappointingly uniform, all selling the exact same novelty shirts and mass produced jewelry. Robert Neuwirth in “In the City of Perpetual Arrival” presents a convincing argument that it’s not gentrification that has revitalized New York, but an increase in immigration.

By seeking to answer very specific questions these writers are able to tease the big picture out of the details. They realize that we can’t blame the astronomical rents, loss of cultural and economic diversity, and influx of large chain stores that put mom and pop shops out of business solely on abstract concepts like “corporate greed.” Citizens are just as responsible for economic, and by extension, cultural shifts as the companies we put the blame on. We are the people who go to Barnes & Noble rather than Shakespeare & Company, to Olive Garden instead of Carmine’s. We buy clothes at K-Mart because they are cheaper than some of the thrift stores in the East Village. But the low prices that generate tons of traffic and profits for the big guys also steal business from smaller shops that then have to raise prices to survive. New Yorkers know this and yet they still complain about the loss of unique retail while browsing the clearance rack at The Gap. As much as we deny it, we want the chains. They save us money. Government wants the chains. They create jobs and can lead to corporate alliances that literally pay off at election time. If we are really so unhappy with the latest version of New York then it is up to us and our elected officials to change it. You can’t start with the corporations. You have to start with yourself. And if we are not willing to do the work required to push for more affordable housing, keep chain stores out of the city, and make the city safe and welcoming for newcomers then we need to quit complaining immediately.

Reading this book forced me to ask myself why I complain about the things I complain about, and why I feel the need to do so. It made me wonder if I was really upset about all the changes I’ve seen. In the preface, the Hammetts’ write “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.” Well, how do we define the term “urban experience?” There is no singular definition. There are as many unique urban experiences as there are city dwellers. And I’m not just talking about current residents, but past and future residents. You can’t say the urban experience is in danger of disappearing because change is the only constant in urban settings. The “negative” changes that we rage against now will be the next generation’s fond memories, just as our fond memories were someone else’s symbols of decay.

I started this book expecting it to confirm that New York is going to Hell in a tour bus, but I finished it convinced that the situation isn’t as dire as we all tell ourselves it is. The city is changing, but that’s what cities do. It’s what keeps them alluring. People do not flock here for one thing. They flock for tons of reasons and those desires sculpt the city. Sometimes it is the rich whose dreams are made reality, other times the poor. The New York we live in now is just one New York among many. It too shall change.

But would I recommend that you read The Suburbanization of New York, that’s what you really want to know especially after having made it through another one of my “reviews” that is really an essay. If you are a New Yorker concerned with issues of gentrification or simply interested in urban planning, yes. This is a collection that gives you a lot to reflect on. It was actually the essays that I disliked the most that got me thinking about and clarifying my own position. As hot and cold as I run on it, it sort of opened my mind. Go ahead and let it open yours.

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3 Comments

  1. Desktopjunk said,

    Thanks, always good posts on your blog!

  2. iread said,

    Thank you for the compliment. I really appreciate it.

    By the way, I am a HUGE fan of the Sims.

  3. justinnisly said,

    Just read through your archive a bit, and there is a lot of great stuff here! You’re exactly right about New York residency as a badge of toughness; also, I appreciate the unpretentious critical theory stuff, which is a bit hard to find. . .

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