Essay | Gentrifying New York by Leonard Quart

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Leonard Quart


Gentrifying New York

The New York one walks through these days is unrecognizable from the city that existed a decade ago. New developments are occurring at a breakneck pace throughout the city, and while much of it is happening on an individual level, some of it is lumped into massive, overweening projects rising all over the five boroughs. They rise even in out-of-the-way and broken neighbourhoods which, in the past, one couldn’t imagine would attract expensive development. But now almost every piece of the city is ripe for development and profit – even in the impoverished South Bronx, large residential and retail project Bronx Point (offering affordable housing, a public plaza, and a multiplex movie theatre) will break ground in late 2019. 

Still, many neighbourhoods gentrify piecemeal without massive development. I took a walk in nearby NoHo, an architecturally distinctive area that in the 1880s and 1890s was dominated by manufacturing. But with its decline of industry, artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Chuck Close moved into its lofts in the late 60s. During that period I knew a photographer who lived with his family in a loft on Great Jones Street and who spoke with great enthusiasm of how wonderful loft-living was. However, I remained wary, for during that period – and into the late 80s – I recall walking NoHo’s night streets a tense affair as they were filled with shadowy huddles of drug dealers calling out their wares from doorways.

Once artists began to settle there, this small neighbourhood with its cobbled streets slowly gentrified, and by 1999 it was designated a historic landmark, saving many of its unique buildings like Colonnade Row.

Colonnade Row, Photographer unknown.

Given the architectural quality of the buildings, some of them were turned into distinctive luxury apartments, with other prosaic-looking luxury buildings being built as well. Since then, the area’s gentrification has seemed boundless — turning into one of the more in-demand neighbourhoods in the city — with actress Kristen Stewart paying $5.4 million for a raw space ‘artist’s loft’.

Gentrification has also led to pricey restaurants, and my wife and I have not been immune to the seductive quality of their food and service. But what strikes me most is the transformation of a physically unstable, uninhabitable building on Lafayette Street that for many years housed pacifists and Left organizations like the War Resisters League (who owned the building) and groups like Global Revolution TV, Socialist Party USA, and Paper Tiger Television. Like much of gentrified New York, it now houses upscale clothing stores. Even the decades-old, crumbling homeless shelter for women across the street has been sold to developers for 27 million to be turned into a building also selling high-end clothing. Lafayette Street and NoHo now shimmer with money and there are no drug dealers to be seen wandering about at night, just well-heeled young people seeking pleasure in buying expensive clothes they don’t need, and consuming elaborate meals at high-end restaurants. It does make for a more secure neighbourhood life that is superficially aesthetically pleasing, but one can’t avoid feeling a soul-destroying homogeneity in its transformation. 

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On another day, I took a walk through another small neighbourhood near my apartment – NoLita (North of Little Italy). Its streets were once part of Little Italy, but with the departure in the last two decades of most of its Italian-American inhabitants to Brooklyn, Staten Island and Long Island, it has become another upscale enclave of young urban professionals and fashionable-looking people who may or may not be artists. But, though the neighbourhood can’t avoid being self-consciously trendy for there are just too many chic shops offering unique designer goods like handmade jewellery, embroidered purses, sherbet-coloured shawls and silk slippers on its narrow streets, it still conveys genuine charm. Luckily few luxury tower blocks have been built on these streets.

The neighbourhood consists of renovated tenements, office and loft buildings, some senior housing, many small bistros and cafes, and even a well-stocked, literary bookshop that offers authors’ discussion of their recent books. The area’s most significant building is St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral which was dedicated on May 14, 1815 (with a cemetery full of old graves and tombstones), and that still serves some of what’s left of the neighbourhood’s immigrant and catholic population with services in Chinese and Spanish, as well as English. It also hosts a variety of arts and crafts stalls along its worn red brick walls. There is even a little sub-neighbourhood on the streets dubbed Little Australia, where Australian-owned cafes have popped up joining other Australian-owned businesses such as nightclubs and art galleries. The gentrification of existing neighbourhoods is a mixed blessing since character and community is often undermined, but usually, some of the past is preserved and the streets can remain a pleasure to walk on. 

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More ominously, entire stretches of the city are giving rise to new neighbourhoods where megaprojects reign. The biggest of the megaprojects is the still under construction – Hudson Yards, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history by square footage. The mixed-use development is estimated to cost its developer, billionaire Trump supporter Stephen P Ross, $20 billion, comprising 28 acres spanning parts of Manhattan’s Chelsea and Clinton neighbourhoods. To complete it, about $3 billion of taxpayer money was poured into infrastructure improvements targeted toward Hudson Yards in order to entice investment, including the extension of the number 7 subway line to 34th St. and 11th Avenue. The development is being built on platforms over the West Side Rail Yards, a storage yard for the Long Island Railroad that has seen many failed redevelopment projects.

The first phase was completed in March of this year, and the institutions that surround the Yards should only help its success. The tourist crammed, iconic High Line runs through the Yards and not far away is the new Whitney Museum, West Chelsea’s innumerable art galleries, and the renovated Javits Convention Center. The Yards itself now includes a condo tower, a luxury hotel, office buildings, a high-end mall, and a multi-disciplinary arts venue. The centrepiece is Thomas Heatherwick’s art piece and public landmark ‘Vessel’; a copper-covered, 150-foot series of interconnected spiral staircases intended to be climbed to provide different perspectives of the city.

‘Vessel’ by Thomas Heatherwick. Photograph courtesy of Dezeen.

When I visited the Yards on a sunny day, I saw streams of tourists aimlessly milling about the centre square taking photos. Besides Heatherwick’s ‘Vessel’, the other site of architectural interest is The Shed, which includes a retractable shell that creates a space, named The McCourt, for large-scale performances, installations and events; including a 500-seat theatre, and two levels of exhibition space.

I assume the crowds ultimately use the Yards many upscale shops – ones which could be found in a number of high-end malls. The Yards contains stores like Cartier, Nieman-Marcus (the first in NY), Dior and Piaget, and big-name restaurants backed up by big-name chefs. Besides tourists, they serve Yard residents who can afford to pay over $6 million for a two-bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment. For despite the Yards claim to be supposedly socially responsible, and having designed one-fourth of the residential units for affordable housing, most of the ‘affordable’ housing turns out to be studios and other apartments unsuitable for large families. Despite the amenities that are offered the lower/middle-income residents, I wonder how they feel living among the nouveau-riche, not being able to consume the baubles and gourmet dining on offer?

However, we know these developments are built, not to help create a more equitable and just city, but to garner immense profit for its developers. Still, it would be good that these projects could offer the consolations of a walkable, human-sized community – something that has a touch of an organic urban world. Instead, though it contains some striking architecture, it offers us many sterile towers, a great deal of alienated space, and another tourist magnet in a city that has no end of them.

Words by Leonard Quart
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Leonard Quart: Professor Emeritus of Cinema— CUNY and COSI; Contributing Editor, Cineaste; co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 —5th Edition (Praeger), and The Films of Mike Leigh (Cambridge University Press). Writer of innumerable essays and reviews of film and other subjects for magazines like Dissent, Film Quarterly, The London Magazine, and Logos.  


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