For New Yorkers, real estate is a consuming obsession. Whether they rent or own, virtually everyone has a tale of triumph and/or horror to tell, and tell they do. The only three — or rather five — factors that really count in this equation are size; price; and location, location, location. But what constitutes the quality of a “location” in New York, especially in the past 15-20 odd years and counting, is subject to change. And that is a vast understatement.
Twenty years ago, you didn’t have to be rich to find an apartment in Manhattan. But even back then, “old-timers” who’d lived for years in rent-controlled or stabilized buildings had deals so sweet that newcomers would be green with envy. But still, in those days, if you swung into town, you could find a cheap hotel – not the Ritz, but a place to stay. Even bums could always find a Bowery flophouse for a pittance.
Today, on the other hand, in order to move to Manhattan you have to be wealthy or reside in one of the burgeoning number of residential dorms owned by New York University (downtown) or Columbia (uptown). The cheap hotels have either undergone luxe renovations or been demolished altogether, and the typical stay in a Manhattan hotel will set you back several hundred a night. The Bowery, which for more than a century was synonymous with the last stop for alcoholic bums on the skids, is now allegedly developing into a new art gallery district, with pricey restaurants and bars to match. Virtually all the flops are on the way out or long gone.
In roughly the past three decades, especially during the dotcom boom, New York City began to experience an amazing renaissance. As the city emerged from a horrible financial hole, the subways and streets became more user-friendly, and crime went down dramatically. Manhattan’s major parks, which had become hellish havens for drug dealers and even squatters, were renovated and are now safe, clean, and hospitable for residents and tourists alike.
In due time, Manhattan became the place where everyone wanted to be. Hotels and high rises continued to spring up, and old buildings underwent luxury renovation. Commercial rents were unregulated, so an old mom and pop store or downscale bodega could be driven out of business overnight when their lease expired and their rent doubled. In their place came more upscale offerings suitable to artists, hipsters, and yuppies.
As more and more people clamored to live here, areas that had once been unfashionable and/or sketchy became gradually gentrified. For those who knew how to read the signs, it was no surprise when even the most unlikely Manhattan neighborhoods — as well as those in the once unfashionable outer boroughs — began to transform into the new places to see and be seen.
It was back in the eighties, I’d guess, that the horror stories began. More and more friends and coworkers told of landlords trying to force them out so they could empty the building, renovate, and either charge the higher rents that renovation allowed or turn the building into a luxury rental or co-op. Some stubborn folk got large payoffs to move. Now that New York was starting to boom, things were starting to get ugly, and long time tenants could no longer take for granted that they would be able to endure the rising rents and cost of living in their newly revamped ‘hoods.
Having lived here so long, and having seen these changes take place in area after area, nothing surprises me any more. From Harlem to Chelsea, from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, from SoHo to DUMBO, neighborhoods that most thought were impervious to gentrification have become playgrounds for the hip and prosperous. The beginning of the cycle may be hard to discern, especially for the newcomer, and it may take years to come to fruition, but once the course is set, gentrification is well-nigh inevitable.
In the interests of brevity, I’ll leave the analysis of how these areas change for another post. For now, I just wanted to address the subtle but definite changes that are happening in my boyfriend BG’s northwest Bronx neighborhood – an area that is currently occupied chiefly by Latino immigrants and working poor. In some ways, this is terrific progress. But what happens to those long-time residents when the newcomers with more money and privilege move in?
Several months ago, BG’s Bronx building changed landlords. Things seemed to be looking up soon after. First, video cameras were installed in the mail alcove. Then, floodlights were set up outside the building leading up to the entrance. An announcement was posted that current residents could only keep their pets if they did not let them damage the apartments, as some apparently had. Two new sets of entry doors were put in, each with their own intercom buzzer. In short, the landlord seemed to be concerned with making the building safer and nicer. Generous of him, don’t you think?
Over the seven odd years that BG has lived in his building, the ‘hood has taken a decided turn for the better. When his brother came up to visit the first year BG moved in, he wryly remarked, especially on weekend evenings, that it was “getting very Bronx” on the streets. Lots of loud music, partying, and boom box music emanating from SUVs. The whole works.
But as the years went by, things started to get cleaner and quieter. The park closest to BG’s building got renovated. A new state-of-the-art library opened about a month ago. And the weekends are often so quiet that you could easily forget you were in New York City.
When I visit BG, I always pick up the free biweekly Bronx paper, The Norwood News. It is here that one can read about the signs of change, progress, and economic growth that the Bronx is beginning to enjoy. Most of the news is heartening: an arts scene is burgeoning in the once horrific South Bronx and “SoBro” is slowly but surely developing into an up-and-coming area; neighborhood businesses have banded together to keep the shopping areas cleaner and safer. A landmark movie theater not far from BG’s place has been restored to its former glory after languishing abandoned and forgotten for decades, and is being utilized for concerts and other cultural events.
But a series of recent Norwood News articles made me feel uneasy about BG’s new landlord and his attempts to improve the state of BG’s building.
This area of the Bronx was considered very tony from the 1920s through the fifies or sixties. Subway lines were constructed to allow easier access to those who worked in Manhattan and moved to the Bronx, as those who could afford it fled from the stultifying confines of cramped Manhattan tenements to the grander abodes now being built. BG’s building, which was built in 1920, is one of a plethora of buildings on the Grand Concourse which sport grand architecural features, particularly in their lobbies and outer facades.
Though BG’s building is now a bit worse for wear, and it is still a constant battle to remove the graffiti that keeps springing up on the outside of the building and, less commonly, in the hallways, the potential is there for an impressive restoration. And apparently, some landlords and realty companies have spotted a trend and are running with it.
Recently, a group of developers bought up a number of buildings in the northern Bronx and upper Manhattan. Their modus operandi seems to consist of trying to push long-time tenants out by intimidation. Their first step is to make improvements to the building, as BG’s new landlord is doing. Then they often tack on part of the expense of this improvement on to tenant’s rents. A large number of tenants have had their leases revoked for real and not-so-real “violations.”
The goal seems to be to fix up the buildings, thus increasing their value, and then probably “flip” them over, selling them at a profit – or else turning the buildings into coops after the old, mostly poor tenants have been ousted.
So although I am happy, in one sense, that BG’s building is being improved, I don’t dare let on my anxiety about where this seemingly positive trend may one day lead. As I said to BG, rather cryptically, I doubt the landlord is doing this simply out of the kindness of his heart.
I suppose time will tell. Although it would be nice in a sense to see the neighborhood become more upscale, I can’t help but wonder how many residents may be displaced by the change.
And as the artists, “urban pioneers,” and hipsters jump on the bandwagon, initially drawn by the relatively cheap rents and more generous space, where will the current residents go?
Aye, there’s the rub.