For those who missed it, take a look at “Is New York ‘Over’?” – Part One.”
It often seems to me that the typical New Yorker is never satisfied. No matter how well off they have it, and despite living in what is (to me at least) the greatest city in the world, their complaints are legion. One of the ways this perpetual dissatisfaction manifests itself is via the ever-changing state of the neighborhoods residents live in or once lived in. The long-ago metamorphosis of SoHo is one prime example. The typical scenario goes something like this:
Young urbanite finds that s/he is priced out of a “desirable” area of Manhattan – or later, even Manhattan itself.
A few brave souls, often artists, decide to explore “uncharted territory.” Many decades ago, artists began moving into formerly industrial areas such as SoHo to avail themselves of still cheap and generous amounts of space. The area was dark and unwelcoming, with virtually no residential amenities.
After the artists had given it their stamp of approval, others became drawn to the now-hip ambiance of the area. Soon SoHo became a mecca of the new arts scene, and restaurants and bars sprung up to accommodate the residents and myriad tourists who came to visit what had become a charming enclave of converted loft spaces and world-class galleries.
The beginning of the end of the SoHo “scene” commenced when its main drag, West Broadway, became clogged with retail outlets. My friend D used to say everything on West Broadway was a “gallery” — a clothing gallery, a shoe gallery, a jewelry gallery.
Eventually the area became too expensive for all but the most successful artists, and the more monied non-artists who could afford to bask in their reflected glory. The main art scene and the biggest storefront galleries such as Mary Boone moved from SoHo to Chelsea, and other struggling artists looked elsewhere for sufficient space in which to live and work.
My boyfriend BG, who first came to the city in the summer of ’69, often reminisces about how accessible and affordable Manhattan used to be. After returning from his periodic “sabbaticals” at his brother’s or parent’s places in Louisiana or Wisconsin, he could get off the bus and within an hour or so be set up in a cheap hotel. The per-day rate at the Bowery flophouse BG used to frequent when he was too poor to get an apartment is now too steep for him to ever return to.
The Bowery has been renovated and now harbors, in part, tourists who are looking for cheap accommodations, since a typical Manhattan hotel can run into hundreds a day. Down the block, the legendary club CBGB has closed its doors for good. Pricey bars and restaurants now abound, and a new museum is scheduled to be erected here.
So as Manhattan became out of bounds for artists and the hipsters who followed them — as well as ordinary folks who didn’t have much money to begin with — Brooklyn started to become the next big thing. Park Slope, which as I recall used to be rather dangerous, is now chiefly home to yuppie families with young children. Brooklyn Heights, a hairsbreadth away from Manhattan, is now just as pricey, though more spacious and grand.
As I mentioned in Part One, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — once an enclave for the ethnic poor and Orthodox Jews — became a true hipster haven within a few years’ time. Artists began to discover it, and soon young people looking for cheap rents followed.
At first, the new residents had to endure the same lack of amenities and crime as the old-timers in the area, but when things started to take off, businesses sprung up to accommodate the culture and lifestyle of the mostly young, mostly white new residents. Bars, restaurants, and other necessities of bourgeois New York life began to emerge rapidly.
As neighborhood rents inevitably started to rise, would-be hipsters and scenesters ventured further into the depths of Williamsburg, starting the whole cycle again. The irony was that those who came there to experience the grittiness of a semi-gentrified ‘hood began to complain that the rapid commercial growth of the area had leeched all the original “character” from it. Though these folks’ presence was the primary reason for this change, they now complained bitterly that the Williamsburg scene was officially “over.”
A recent New York Times piece entitled “The Duel Over Cool” illustrates the insecurity of nouveau outer-borough residents. Since deep in the heart and soul of most New Yorkers is an enduring envy of Manhattan, those who leave the “island proper” compensate by declaring their neighborhood to be as good, if not better, than the city’s epicenter. This article described the rivalry between residents of Long Island City in Queens and Williamsburg over which was the most happening place to live.
When I was in the process of putting my Lower East Side coop up for sale, I eagerly scanned all the real estate websites and blogs I could find. One of the best is Curbed. Updated several times daily, Curbed is the place to learn about real estate and housing trends all over the city. It is here, in the comments section, that one can find the snarky, even downright nasty grumblings and comment feuds of the perpetually dissatisfied and/or insecure New Yorker.
Here readers guess the asking price of glam Manhattan coops while declaring that only an idiot would pay those outrageous amounts, especially after the recent housing slowdown. Some praise their neighborhood as the best there is, while others quickly counter that that area sucks for one reason or another. Things can get downright vicious on the hot comment threads.
Recently, Curbed had a short blurb called “The Half-Life of a Trendy Neighborhood”. It linked to an audacious article in New York Magazine entitled “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Cool by Now” and it started off like this:
“Hot Neighborhood Entropy
Red Hook? Already over. Lower East Side? It’s hot — no, wait, it’s not. No, wait, it is again! The life span of a trendy neighborhood used to be measured in decades. Now it might not last long enough for you to make the subway ride out there.”
The gist of the article was that gentrification had accelerated so rapidly that a neighborhood could go from hellhole to cool to “over” in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, the author claimed that Jersey City, which seemed to be showing signs of rapid gentrification, would become the next hot thing — despite the fact that it wasn’t even part of New York City.
This provocative post set off an avalanche of comments at Curbed, with various folks sounding off on what neighborhood was cool and not cool. The comment string is well worth a look, but here are a few typical examples:
“The real estate boom and rags like NYMag have created the impression that you can take any poor non-white neighborhood, sprinkle in a few artists, add a yoga studio and a “brunch place” and blammo – the next cool neighborhood! It used to be (I THINK, anyway) that artists and musicians moved to a neighborhood because it was cheap and they wanted to create their own scene, and it was only later that the cool vultures came. Now people think they can make it all happen at once. But I guess the definition of what’s “cool” has changed too – turn your lifestyle into a brand, etc.”
“Greenpoint and Astoria aren’t on that graph, so that dude doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I think those two neighborhoods trump the South Bronx (SoBro? fck you) as far as the h*pster thing goes.”
“new york magazine is for recent transplants and brief reading at the gyno office. by transplants, i mean nonnative new yorkers (not necessarily from the midwest).”
Even though, as a typical New Yorker, I can sometimes be under the delusion that the rest of the country is nothing but an arid “wasteland” of cookie-cutter suburbs, I know other urban areas around the country have seen the same trend emerge. It’s just that as with everything else about New York, the trends seem to emerge earlier and be more spectacular in scope.
In point of fact, however, American suburbs are far from “arid, cookie cutter wastelands,” and their beauty and variety can put any urban area to shame in terms of space and leafiness and grandeur. Though New Jersey is often looked down upon by some New Yorkers as the antithesis of chic, some very wealthy and even famous people live in its posh, luxe suburbs. As for New York State, it boasts vast expanses of lush greenery and wide-open spaces in its suburban and rural areas.
Moreover, though it may seem to some that New Yorkers are insufferably status conscious and elitist, the fact is the status markers of real estate are a big, big deal in America, especially amongst the perpetually insecure middle class. The signs of status in the suburbs revolve more around space, while New York City’s are more about location.
When my ex-boyfriend and I put our downtown Manhattan coop up for sale, I started to watch the “real estate porn” on HGTV — the cable channel that features shows on buying, selling, and renovating properties all over the country and even abroad. I experienced a certain amount of culture shock when I realized the monetary value of our 800 square foot coop could buy a virtual “mansion” in other parts of the country.
For suburbanites, location certainly counts in terms of “good” neighborhoods with good schools, but in some cases this may also mean a longer commute into the urban areas where many go to work each day. The kind of car they drive, the size of their house, the condition of their lawns and gardens, and other accoutrements of the good life unknown to many urban dwellers (such as backyard pools and huge, state of the art kitchens and master baths) can proclaim status as well.
Many folks are walking a narrow financial tightrope trying to showcase their status by keeping up with or surpassing the Joneses or by taking on second mortgages rather than move to a more modest neighborhood they might be able to more comfortably afford.
The value of urban vs. suburban amenities is often in the eye of the beholder. Some ex-Manhattanites who wax poetic about the extra square footage and cushier quality of life to be had outside of the city limits will leave hard-core Manhattan dwellers cold. Some who move to greener (and larger) pastures never look back – and wonder how they ever lived with almost non-existent kitchens and views of brick walls.
Often the move out of the city is a function of “maturity.” As one gets older, marries, and has children, the glitz of city living loses its allure. What value is there in living next to the hottest clubs when one needs separate bedrooms for the kids? How does one prepare a proper “adult” meal in a kitchen the size of a tiny closet, or worse?
Another point to consider is that not long ago, living in Manhattan was not a status symbol. When I told college friends in the ‘70s that I used to live in Queens but now lived in Manhattan, they were puzzled and asked: “Why would you do that? Usually it’s the other way around.” Indeed, in the ‘70s the city was a mess — dirty and dangerous — and most who could afford to escape did so.
In recent decades, of course, the pendulum has swung the other way. New York is now the safest big city in America, and a major national and international tourist destination. Thanks to Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, the quality of life in New York has done a total 360, morphing from dismal to desirable.
New York magazine’s almost-heretical notion that the city’s erstwhile hipness factor may have moved beyond the five boroughs and onto a neighboring state is, although semi-tongue in cheek, also telling evidence that Manhattan’s “status” continues to evolve, and even devolve over time. Fresh faced kids just discovering the city are blissfully unaware of what it meant to be a resident during the ‘70s. Back then, the graffiti strewn subways were akin to dangerous cattle cars; parks were the domain of drug dealers; crime was rampant; and most out-of-towners had no wish to visit a city that had become synonymous with dirt and danger.
A few nights ago, my boyfriend BG decided on a whim to go bar hopping in Manhattan, as we sometimes do, but as usual, the desire to capture the magic that was Manhattan had become a long-lost dream. Walking around Thompkin’s Square Park in the East Village, where the homeless used to dwell in cardboard boxes and one could readily purchase the illegal drug of one’s choice, he observed with some disappointment that the park was clean, “wholesome,” and mostly deserted – save for a few young yuppies walking their poodles.
He came upon a bar that had miraculously survived the decades, which used to be a rowdy place with sawdust on the floor. Now it was frequented by hopelessly young hipsters chatting in little cliques. It was painfully obvious he was old enough to be their father, if not their grandfather. He told me he remarked to the 20-something bartender that beers there used to be 50 cents, which didn’t seem to impress anyone. I told him, far from being awed by the fact that he had resided in Manhattan when it was “cutting edge,” they probably viewed him as they would someone’s old gramps, endlessly droning on about the old days before they had moving pictures and automobiles.
So he returned home to the Bronx, defeated and depressed, as he realized once again that for him, Manhattan was indeed “over.” The New York of his youth had been dangerous, but also exciting and colorful. It was a place where one could live and party cheaply. Back then, Central Park had fallen into serious disrepair, but in the days before it was restored to its former glory, one could come to the park with a six-pack and a few joints and hang out with impunity.
The sleazy Times Square where he used to be able to see a double feature for a pittance has morphed from a virtual red light district of XXX theatres and peep shows into a family friendly haven for out-of-towners who can afford to pay hundreds a night for a hotel and hundreds more for Broadway shows. New Year’s Eve in Times Square was once a chaotic, no-holds-barred scene of drunken revelry; now it is a tightly organized, alcohol free, multimedia affair.
I will miss Manhattan, but like BG, I realize that the Manhattan I once knew is, in large part, gone. And so, with surprisingly few regrets, I will soon be moving to the Bronx as well – an area that, until recently, was considered a national symbol of the hells of urban living. Having lived in Manhattan through good and bad times, I can clearly see the Bronx is on an upswing, albeit a slow one.
Meanwhile, the gritty Manhattan of yore where “only the strong survived” has reached such a tipping point of chic that it is rapidly becoming the sole bastion of the wealthy and privileged. One might even say the very things that made New York so attractive to young folks escaping the bourgeois “blandness” of the suburbs is rapidly ebbing away. The amenities of big-city life in the Bronx may still be lacking, but the cost of living is very appealing. So it’s on to the Bronx for me – in all it’s gritty, unhip, semi-pre-gentrified glory.