I figure the best place to start this string of ideas is where I started last year, not long after moving to New York. I moved to Flushing, Queens and I knew absolutely nothing about NYC. NOTHING. I received multiple assignments during my first week. I was managing the installation of street trees and within five days I was stationed in the East New York ( the “bad” part of town), Williamsburg (a quickly gentrifying Brooklyn hipsters neighborhood) and the Upper East Side (fairly monied but not outrageously so in Manhattan terms). These where vastly different areas and I ended up working in many other equally differing places citywide. From building types, the colorful faces and clothing, the number and types of businesses and residence and surprisingly the varying degrees of acceptance or outspoken rejection of the trees and sidewalk improvements we where working on. The city was immediately painted as a diverse tapestry of people, culture and streetscapes.
My first few month consisted of learning the lay of the land via my automobile and getting into the gritty detail of the street and sidewalk network via tree planting during the week and taking the subway to some random destination (most often near lower Manhattan) and walking for hours on the weekends (and sometimes kayaking on the East River thanks to a new-found friend in the city Erik Baard). I instantly became a student of the city as well, reading anything I could get my hands on from official city documents like PlaNYC and the cities green infrastructure plan to city paper articles and local rag news (often the best!) related to urbanism and the city in general. I’d go to lectures and symposium about things like the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance planning meetings, brownfield info sessions and community meetings about proposed development like Bloomberg’s baby in Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yards (which we will talk about a bit more in depth in a future post). It was all a very eye opening experience that I continue still today that has put me in constant engagement with this ever-changing and turbulent city. The thing is I had no historical context as a reference point for any of it. Which is why I think it is important to share my thoughts about the future of the city as an outsider looking in purely through a lens of current events.
Although I viewed the city as a continually evolving organism made up of various moving parts, I never claim to have understood it then and I still don’t today. As I begin to search the histories and read older writings or retrospectives (The Power Broker,, The Suburbanization of New York, etc.) by and about long time residents and urbanists, I’m beginning to scratch at the surface of the historical context I have missed out on. I love the fact New York presents an entirely different reality to the millions of people that call the city home. At the same time the incongruous views on things can be a bit jarring. From the super rich to the severely underprivileged and everyone in between. The differing realities are vast in scope and it all seems to come so much more clearly into focus by simply taking a trip on the subway to the farther reaches. Every stop has it’s own story, it’s own neighborhood, income, race and ethnic diversity. It is quite an amazing study.
So I developed this base-line idea of how growth is occurring in New York. To be sure, this is somewhat irreverent and completely uncritical but I saw it as more of a matter-of-fact notion than one developed through active change based on contention or reference to historical precedence. Basically I saw New York City as a vast metropolis radiating out from the originally colonized area of Manhattan (I’m not speaking directly to neighboring New Jersey shore but probably should and could be rightfully shamed for this commission, nevertheless…). Over the years outlying areas have been folded into the city and the original boundaries of the city has grown both vertically, horizontally and in wealth and culture. As wealth increases in the downtown and core of Manhattan, the working class and disadvantaged populations are displaced to outlying areas (classic gentrification) and this is now referring to areas even further such as Harlem. This is a pattern of growth that is not unique to New York but one big difference is that, in this most popular of cities, the area that the wealthy wants/needs to inhabit seems inexhaustible. So the growth of gentrified areas continues to spread without collapsing in upon itself and forming a broken inner city slum. This growth has now expanded throughout Manhattan and jumped off of the island altogether into Brooklyn and parts of the Bronx and Queens.
I posit that this widespread gentrification will continue. After all, much of mid and lower Manhattan are already hyper-gentrified (hyper-gentrification could be described as extreme or excessive gentrification that is detrimental to unique neighborhoods due to it’s crippling uniformity or dysfunctional relationship to the local inhabitants social and economic needs) and several other neighborhoods are in the process of hyper-gentrification. It is illogical to assume that this hyper-gentrification could continue, but this city seems to regularly defy logic. As the middle to upper-middle class folks move into working class neighborhoods, thus raising rents in search of a discount, they start the gentrification process, (and it often ends at that), but in hypermarkets such as Manhattan (and increasingly NYC as a whole) the next phase is for the super rich and multinational corporations to move in, thus displacing the middle and upper-middle class folks. When these individuals and families have to move on, they inevitably gentrify the next neighborhood and the cycle begins again. In fact it is accelerated by the influx of the “creative class” into thriving cities today, whereas these where the same folks fleeing the inner cities in the 1970’s and ’90’s they are now repopulating cities in massive quantities. I hope to touch on this idea in a future post as it is part of a recurring cycle that should also be addressed in this series of thought: diaspora of the white collar + rejuvenation by the working-class and artist = segregation but reintroduction of the white collar to the now working class neighborhood is not integration it is suddenly “gentrification”. This happens in cities and is now happening in fist, second and even third ring suburbs.
This sliding shift and seemingly unending propensity to hyper-gentrify communities and neighborhoods in NYC is leading to the inevitable overbuilding of Manhattan. In the not-to-distant future, I see an island full of crystal palaces and super elite shopping and entertainment destinations. The the regular consumer/tourist will effectively be priced out of the island as a whole, barring the quaint bus tour or obligatory trip to one of the city parks in Manhattan (which are/will also increasingly be(coming) privatized). As the super rich colonize Manhattan with their Spring/Fall loft apartments, fancy city meeting spaces and shopping destinations. All the while the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and even Staten Island, especially outer borough areas with immediate access to the city via short subway and ferry trips will become increasingly gentrified with upper middle class folk. The service workers who man the shops, eateries and front desks of Manhattan and to some degree the newly established posh areas along the East River, will be pushed even further into the outer boroughs and in fact begin to colonize the first ring suburbs in Long Island and even Westchester County North of the Bronx.
So that, in nutshell, was my basic understanding of development in New York. My ideas are constantly evolving as more information is absorbed. I look forward to expanding on some of these ideas and introducing specific examples of others.