Here are two different visions for what a city ought to be. Vision 1: the city ought to be a hub of growth and innovation, clean, well-run, high-tech, and business-friendly. It ought to attract the creative class, the more the better, and be a dynamic contributor to the global economy. It should be a home to major tech companies, world-class restaurants, and bold contemporary architecture. It should embrace change, and be “progressive.” Vision 2: the city ought to be a mess. It ought to be a refuge for outcasts, an eclectic jumble of immigrants, bohemians, and eccentrics. It should be a place of mystery and confusion, a bewildering kaleidoscope of cultures and classes. It should be a home to cheap diners, fruit stands, grumpy cabbies, and crumbling brownstones. It should guard its traditions, and be “timeless.”
It should be immediately obvious that not only are these views in tension, but that the tension cannot ever be resolved without one philosophy succeeding in triumphing over the other. That’s because the very things Vision 2 thinks make a city worthwhile are the things Vision 1 sees as problems to be eliminated. If I believe the city should be run like a business, then my mission will be to clear up the mess: to streamline everything, to eliminate the weeds. If I’m a Vision 2 person, the weeds are what I live for. I love the city because it’s idiosyncratic, precisely because things don’t make sense, because they are inefficient and dysfunctional. To the proponent of the progressive city, a grumpy cabbie is a bad cabbie; we want friendly cabbies, because we want our city to attract new waves of innovators. (Hence a meritocratic star-rating system for ride-share app drivers is unquestionably a good thing.) To the lover of the City of Mystery, brash personalities are part of what adds color to life. In the battle of the entrepreneurs and the romantics, the entrepreneurs hate what the romantics love, and the romantics hate what the entrepreneurs love. In the absence of a Berlin-like split, there can be no peace accord, it must necessarily be a fight to the death. What’s more, neither side is even capable of understanding the other: a romantic can’t see why anyone would want to clean up the dirt that gives the city its poetry, whereas an entrepreneur can’t see why anyone would prefer more dirt to less dirt.
Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, based on the blog of the same name, is a manifesto for the Romantic Vision of the city, with Michael Bloomberg cast as the chief exponent of the Entrepreneurial Vision. “Nostalgic” will probably be the word most commonly used to capture Jeremiah Moss’s general attitude toward New York City, and Moss himself embraces the term and argues vigorously for the virtues of nostalgia. But I think in admitting to being “nostalgic,” he has already ceded too much. It’s like admitting to being a “preservationist”: they accuse you of being stuck in the past, and you reply “Damn right, I’m stuck in the past. The past was better.” But this isn’t simply about whether to preserve a city’s storied past or charge forward into its gleaming future. If that were the case, the preservationists would be making an impossible argument, since we’re heading for the future whether they like it or not. It’s also about different conceptions of what matters in life. The entrepreneurs want economic growth, the romantics want jazz and sex and poems and jokes. To frame things as a “past versus future” divide is to grant the entrepreneurs their belief that the future is theirs.
Moss’s book is about a city losing its “soul” rather than its “past,” and he spends a lot of time trying to figure out what a soul is and how a city can have one or lack one. He is convinced that New York City once had one, and increasingly does not. And while it is impossible to identify precisely what the difference is, since the quality is of the “you know it when you see it” variety, Moss does describe what the change he sees actually means. Essentially, New York City used to be a gruff, teeming haven for weirdos and ethnic minorities. Now, it is increasingly full of hedge fund managers, rich hipsters, and tourists. Tenements and run-down hotels have been replaced with glass skyscrapers full of luxury condos. Old bookshops are shuttered, designer clothes stores in their place. Artisanal bullshit is everywhere, meals served on rectangular plates. You used to be able to get a pastrami and a cup of coffee for 50 cents! What the hell happened to this place?
It’s very easy, as you can see, for this line of thought to rapidly slip from critiquing to kvetching, and Moss does frequently sound like a cranky old man. But that’s half the point, he wants to show us that the cranky old men are not crazy, that we should actually listen to them. It’s not a problem with them for complaining that the neighborhoods of their childhood are being destroyed, it’s a problem with us for not caring about that destruction. (See Leonard Nimoy talking about the tragic redevelopment of his vibrant multiethnic childhood neighborhood in Boston.) Moss is a psychoanalyst, and he does not see “nostalgia” as irrational, but as a healthy and important part of being a person. We are attached to places, to the memories we make in them, and if you bulldoze those places, if you tear away what people love, you’re causing them a very real form of pain.
Moss loves a lot of places, and because New York City is transitioning from being a city for working-class people to a city for the rich, he is constantly being wounded by the disappearance of beloved institutions. CBGB, the dingy punk rock music club where the Ramones and Patti Smith got their start, is forced out after its rent is raised to $35,000 a month. Instead, we get a commemorative CBGB exhibit at the Met, with a gift shop selling Sid Vicious pencil sets and thousand-dollar handbags covered in safety pins. The club itself becomes a designer clothing store selling $300 briefs. The ornate building that once housed the socialist Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, the exterior of which featured bas-relief sculptures of Marx and Engels, is converted to luxury condos. Its ethnic residents largely squeezed out, bits of Little Italy are carved off and rebranded as “Nolita” for the purpose of real estate brochures, since—as one developer confesses—the name “Little Italy” still connotes “cannoli.” A five-story public library in Manhattan, home to the largest collection of foreign-language books in the New York library system, is flattened and replaced with a high-end hotel (a new library is opened in the hotel’s basement, with hardly any books). Harlem’s storied Lenox Lounge is demolished, its stunning art-deco facade gone forever. Rudy Giuliani demolishes the Coney Island roller coaster featured in Annie Hall. Cafe Edison, a Polish tea house (see photo p. 32-33), is evicted and replaced with a chain restaurant called “Friedman’s Lunch,” named after right-wing economist Milton Friedman. (I can’t believe that’s true, but it is.) Judaica stores, accordion repairmen, auto body shops: all see their rent suddenly hiked from $3,000 to $30,000, and are forced to leave. All the newsstands in the city are shuttered and replaced; they go from being owner-operated to being controlled by a Spanish advertising corporation called Cemusa. Times Square gets Disneyfied, scrubbed of its adult bookstores, strip joints, and peep shows. New York University buys Edgar Allen Poe’s house and demolishes it. (“We do not accept the views of preservationists who say nothing can ever change,” says the college’s president.)
The aesthetic experience of gentrified places is horrifying to Moss. They are “glittering pleasure domes for the uber-wealthy,” places scrubbed of their authenticity. The “corporate monoculture” takes hold: new buildings are all glass boxes, full of grinning, shiny, happy people who don’t really know what it’s like to live. Moss talks about his first experience walking along the infamous High Line park; he was immediately told off by an official for getting too close to the plants. Moss was “creeped out by [the] canned, fabricated unnaturalness” of this “undead limbo”: “I felt like I was in the home of a fussy neatnik with expensive tastes.” A park should be a place to run around and have fun, not a museum, but the sort of people who live in the luxury condos around the High Line do not really understand the concept of unbridled joy.
They are people who shun all risk, who want corporations to take care of them and make them comfortable: Applebees, Olive Garden, Starbucks, and Target are soothingly familiar, and make it easier to come to New York City from elsewhere without ever having to feel as if you’ve left home. “7-11 makes me feel safe,” says one person thrilled about the chain coming to New York. It’s easy to criticize places like these as lacking “authenticity” compared to their counterparts: a tiny Italian restaurant in which actual Italians make third-generation recipes is simply more real than an Olive Garden. But I think “authenticity” is often a dubious criterion of value: there’s no reason a Serbian or Japanese family can’t open an Italian restaurant, if they can make the food well. The more important problems are those of centralization, homogeneity, and inequality. Starbucks is bad not because of its coffee (though the coffee is bad), but because Starbucks is turning the world boring and uniform, and power over how Americans drink coffee is concentrated in the hands of a single man, CEO Howard Schultz.
This complaint against the demise of the mom-n-pops and the takeover of chain retailers is now decades old. And it has its flaws: sometimes labor practices can be better at large corporations than at the celebrated “small business,” because there is actually recourse for complaints against abusive managers. If the only person above you is the owner, and the owner is a tyrant, there’s not much you can do. Still, the core critique is completely valid. Chain retail exists to make the world more efficient, but ends up turning the world uninteresting. I have actually noticed that I am less inclined to travel because of this. Why would I go to New York, when I can see a Starbucks right here? Monoculture is such a bleak future; local variation is part of what makes the world so wonderful. You can measure whether a place is succeeding by whether it’s possible to write a good song or poem about it. It’s almost literally impossible to write a good non-ironic poem about an Applebee’s. Compare that with nearly any greasy spoon or dive bar.
The most disturbing change, however, is the inequality. The Romantic city is a democratic city: everyone has their little piece of it, nobody can simply reshape the entire place in accordance with their preferences. But the emerging version of New York City is a place where a disproportionate amount of power is held by landlords and developers, who can essentially do as they please. If you run a little cafe, they can multiply your rent by ten and get rid of you. If you own a home, they can seize it via eminent domain and build a new headquarters for a pharmaceutical company. They alone decide whether or not any given paradise will be paved, and whether a parking lot or a Duane Reade should be put in its place.
Developers often insist that they don’t deserve their negative reputation. They wonder why some people hate them when all they do is build useful things that improve cities. But anyone who doesn’t hate developers clearly hasn’t understood things from the perspective of those who see their neighborhoods razed and beloved businesses shuttered. We know for a fact that, if developers were put in charge of the world, nothing would last if demolishing it would be profitable. I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans. I am dead certain that if someone could make $100 million by putting a skyscraper in the middle of it, they would. It’s only thanks to the influence of wealthy residents that the area is able to keep the things that give it its charm. Even then, the neighborhood has been gentrified beyond recognition: what was once a thriving multi-ethnic residential neighborhood has become a ghost town full of rich people’s empty pied-a-terre condos.
The very existence of landlords is staggeringly unfair. A person can live in a place 30 years, pay thousands of dollars a month in rent, and still have their home demolished without having any say in the decision. One thing Moss’s book shows very clearly is that a world of renters is a world in which people have little power to control what happens to them; those decisions rest in the hands of the people who actually own the properties. Eviction is an incredibly cruel and destructive process, yet landlords engage in it casually. Moss brings up a set of often-ignored victims of gentrification: the elderly people who have run their stores for decades, and are suddenly forced out. Many are bewildered and depressed by the sudden change, left without a sense of purpose.
The greed of landlords and developers is a prime reason that New York is steadily transforming into “Disneyland for billionaires.” But government policy also bears direct responsibility. Throughout New York history, city officials like Robert Moses have either neglected or waged active war against the ethnic populations that stood in the way of development. (“Look on the bright side… the city got rid of a million and a half undesirables,” a mayoral aide observed about the fires that destroyed countless tenements in the 1970s, allegedly partially due to the city’s intentional neglect of fire services.) But Michael Bloomberg was explicit in his commitment to making New York a city for the rich. Bloomberg’s city planning director, Standard Oil heir Amanda Burden, stated the administration’s aspirations: “What I have tried to do, and think I have done, is create value for these developers, every single day of my term.” Bloomberg himself was even more frank, calling New York City a “luxury product,” and saying:
“We want rich from around this country to move here. We love the rich people.”
“If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend… Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?”
“If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here it would be a godsend that would create a much bigger income gap.”
It didn’t even seem to cross Bloomberg’s mind that a flow of wealthy people into the city might not be such a “godsend” for the small merchants who would see their rents shoot up. The consequences of Bloomberg’s approach were exactly what you would expect: homelessness rates exploded and median rent is now more than $38,000 a year in a place where the median income is $50,000. Bloomberg’s solution to the homelessness crisis was for the city to buy the homeless one-way bus tickets out of town. He was critical of the very notion of a “right to shelter,” implying that shelters might be clogged with rich people taking advantage of the system: “You can arrive in your private jet at Kennedy Airport, take a private limousine and go straight to the shelter system and walk in the door and we’ve got to give you shelter.”
The increasing inequality in New York City has led to some absurd results. Brand new skyscrapers are filled with residential condominiums without any actual residents in them; the properties are owned as investments by the international super-rich, while homeless people sleep out front. Developers only grudgingly put affordable units in buildings, and some new construction has even included class-segregated separate entrances for affordable units and luxury units (the infamous “poor door”). At the same time, developers have been lavished with tax breaks and incentives; it’s estimated that Donald Trump, over his career in New York real estate, received $885 million in tax breaks, grants, and other subsidies.
The effort to replace poor people with rich people is often couched in what Moss calls “propaganda and doublespeak.” One real estate investment firm claims to “turn under-achieving real estate into exceptional high-yielding investments,” without admitting that this “under-achieving real estate” often consists of people’s family homes. (Likewise, people often say things like “Oh, nobody lives there” about places where… many people live.) One real estate broker said they aspired to “a well-cultivated and curated group of tenants, and we really want to help change the neighborhood.” “Well-cultivated” almost always means “not black,” but the assumption that neighborhoods actually need to be “changed” is bad enough on its own.
In fact, one of the primary arguments used against preservationists is the excruciating two-word mantra: cities change. Since change is inevitable and desirable, those who oppose it are irrational. Why do you hate change? You don’t believe that change is good? Because it’s literally impossible to stop change, the preservationist is accused of being unrealistic. Note, however, just how flimsy this reasoning is: “Well, cities change” is as if a murderer were to defend himself by saying “Well, people die.” The question is not: is change inevitable? Of course change is inevitable. The question is what kinds of changes are desirable, and which should be encouraged or inhibited by policy. What’s being debated is not the concept of change, but some particular set of changes.
Even “gentrification” doesn’t describe just one thing. It’s a word I hate, because it captures a lot of different changes, some of which are insidious and some of which seem fine. There are contentious debates over whether gentrification produces significant displacement of original residents, and what its economic benefits might be for those residents. The New York Times chided Moss, calling him “impeded by myopia,” for failing to recognize that those people who owned property in soon-to-be-gentrified areas could soon be “making many millions of dollars.” But that exactly shows the point: Moss is concerned with the way that the pursuit of many millions of dollars erodes the very things that make a city special, that give it life and make it worth spending time in. A pro-gentrification commentator, in a debate with Moss, said that he didn’t really see any difference, because “people come for the same reason they always have: to make as much money as possible.” That’s exactly the conception that Moss is fighting. People came to New York, he says, because it was a place worth living in, not because they wanted to make piles of money.
Moss has suggestions for policy interventions that might help to reverse the troubling changes. They are: putting decisions over new developments and chain stores to a community vote, re-zoning the city to limit formula retail, instituting rent increase caps for small businesses, expanding landmarking to legacy businesses, vacancy taxes on pieds-a-terre, lowering fines for small businesses, and ending tax giveaways to developers. They’re all worth thinking seriously about, though Moss doesn’t go into much detail. But the more important thing is to at least get on the same page values-wise: New York City should not be a mega-mall, and should not look indistinguishable from Dallas or Toledo. He also wants to convince us of one thing above all: “hyper-gentrification and its free market engine is neither natural nor inevitable.” The belief that Development and Growth should be the goals of a city is a piece of propaganda. For one thing, these words are vacuous. Actually, “development” is a truly insidious word, because it automatically suggests that what developers do is progress. Who wants to “inhibit”? Everyone wants to develop. What that can mean in reality, though, is demolishing a beloved local library and putting up a high-end hotel in its place. Moss wants us to recognize that these are not the result of mystical forces, but of decisions made by human beings: landlords, developers, and city governments. When the Gap moved to the East Village, to much protest, a Gap employee observed that despite the protests, “like everywhere else, they will accept it.” And they were right: the Gap stayed, people moved on. This seems to always happen: people complain, then things change, then they accept the new reality. Moss wants us to refuse to accept it, to recognize that we don’t have to accept changes we don’t like, that change should be organic and democratic rather than imposed by the will of the rich. Vanishing New York calls for people to take their cities back.
I have to confess, I differ a lot from Moss in my conception of what a good city should be like. I have always found New York City to be something of an armpit, and not because it’s full of high-priced condos. Many of the people Moss adores, the bohemians and artists, I find fairly intolerable. Moss is a poet, and wants a city of poetry. I am not a poet, I generally detest poetry. Moss has a strange fondness for mean New York, the New York that told everybody else to fuck off. I thought that New York was kind of an asshole.
But that’s okay: the philosophy of Vanishing New York is that cities shouldn’t all be the same, that they should have different attitudes toward life and different cultures. If I am more New Orleans than Brooklyn, that means we have a diverse world in which New Orleans and Brooklyn are very different places. The one thing that we should all be scared of, wherever we live, is the collapse of those differences, the streamlining and homogenizing of everything.
And yet the logic of capitalism sort of demands that this occur. If efficiency is your goal, then you’re going to have chain restaurants. They’re just more efficient. If you must perpetually grow and grow, then you’re going to have to demolish a lot of things that people dearly love. If everyone embraces the pursuit of financial gain, then landlords are never going to cut tenants a break merely because their business is a neighborhood institution. In a free market world, everything you love will be eaten alive, unless you’re rich.
The great contribution of Vanishing New York is in showing what will continue to happen in a highly unequal world that places more value on innovation than romance. Unless and until social priorities change, the City of Mystery will be slowly destroyed, a gleaming, deathly boring City of Wealth rising in its place. We can have one of these, or the other, but we cannot have both. And I know which I’d rather live in.
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