I began to feel the slam of gentrification in 1977. At the age of 21, I moved into my first apartment at 74 West 68th Street near Lincoln Center. The rent seemed high—$230 a month. A year or two after moving in, my favorite Irish bar, Chinese laundry and Italian vegetable shop were gone. Each had ominously turned into a branded boutique or trendy bistro. Stores selling Things You Don’t Need. They’d survive a couple of years, replacing establishments that had served the neighborhood for decades. Working-class Puerto Rican families were driven out by rent hikes. Mere yards from my window, the TV network ABC began construction on their new skyscraper that would forever block my building’s sun and view down Columbus Avenue. Construction workers urinated over railings into our courtyard, which became infested with their trash.
At this juncture in construction history, tower-rig crane operators began to command six-figure salaries. Working Joes transformed into gold chain-wearing baboons. Sewer workers, guys like Ed Norton on The Honeymooners, suddenly had the job status of neurosurgeons. Their unions were run by guys right out of The Sopranos. Any tenant with the audacity to complain to a foreman about the noise, the smoke, the piss or even the wolf-whistling that hounded young women who walked by, was greeted by shovel-wielding cement laborers in hardhats. They laughed at complaints. Mayor Koch, responding to the land grabs, claimed “Upper West Siders love it.” I watched the old soul of Columbus and Amsterdam avenues whittling away.
To play devil’s advocate, I will now concede an upside to all this: Manhattan still exists. A billionaire’s empty-apartment money-laundered property haven, perhaps. A corporatocracy of high-rent blight. But with a pristine Central Park, a working infrastructure, the best tap water and the lowest crime statistics. Subways are no longer racial tinderboxes, construction workers seem more polite and they no longer beat up hippies. All of that is a miracle. In the 1970s and ’80s it seemed a sure bet that New York would unravel into a hopeless wasteland of crime, blight and ruin. That may happen again, but as of now, New York didn’t become a Mad Max movie. At least a small degree of civility returned.
All this at the cost of its soul. But millennials don’t know what the old soul of New York was, and they could care less. You can still catch glimpses of it in Chinatown after midnight, in the Heights of Brooklyn or Grand Central or a thousand other disappearing mirages. Today, New York is being destroyed by wealth.
The newest neighborhoods begin at 60 stories high. These nosebleed living quarters will ultimately have their multi-million-dollar views obliterated, as someone else’s mega-million view is built next door. These cheap glass towers will not age well. They will someday become unimaginable slums of the sky. When the city goes bust in the future—and these cycles are inevitable—hundreds, maybe thousands of ugly glass buildings will empty and rot. Their maintenance will become impossible. When the power goes out, servants will carry water bottles up and chamber pots down, at least for the first few weeks. Then all bets are off. The City of New York will pay a heavy price for destroying its history.
In 1985, I wrote the screed below for an obscure paper called the Soho Arts Weekly, which nobody read. An immature rant, it reflected a process that has gone into hyperdrive. New York is so vast that it takes decades to dismantle. We didn’t know Donald Trump would someday be president, and even he wasn’t the worst of the real estate men. I cringe at the Jewish names that appear, but New York was, after all, an Irish-Italian-Black-Puerto Rican-Dutch-German and very Jewish city.
Dream of the Dead Developers (from Dec. 1985)
The New York City real estate industry. At the bottom rung are the soulless swine that scratch out commissions at brokerages. The real estate broker is a useless middleman who exists only to extract a $2000 fee—an obstacle between you and your living quarters. Apartments could just as easily be listed by a city agency or newspaper.
In the upper crust of this reckless market are the developers, speculators and mega-landlords. The “heavy hitters” of commercial real estate. Fellows whose sheer greed, environmental abuses and disregard for humanity represent a megalomaniacal compulsion to own more and more real estate—more than they can responsibly manage. Forget about supply and demand.
They are like fat, spoiled babies in highchairs, reaching out to grab everyone else’s food, knocking over bottles, flinging their diaper shit and mauling the cat. Except these are grown power brokers, grabbing up “air spaces,” knocking down solid old dwellings to erect multi-unit monstrosities. Causing thousands to lose their homes, and driving up inflation.
No one fights back. People have full-time jobs and can’t match the organized lobbying and bribery systems developers use to overcome zoning laws. They grind out cheap, inflation-era high-rises of thin plasterboard and glass, made up of “units.” One obstructs the view of the next. New York’s reigning architecture is a vision of corporate ugliness, leaving a toxic trail of pollution, noise and unenforced construction violations in its wake. Not visionary architects, but calculating snakes run this industry, men who know the desperate value humans attribute to land—just as humans would water, if speculators could turn it into a similar commodity.
Real estate pigs have become celebrities in this new era when businessmen are presented as cultural icons. Men celebrated for the money and holdings they have amassed. Their horrid faces grace the covers of popular magazines like rock stars. New York brandishes the hemorrhoidal Harry Macklowe on its cover, waving atop the skeleton of his new 78-story monstrosity on 57th Street. (Had he only stepped back a few paces.) The cover story, “Mr. Big,” gloats over his dreams of surpassing the $700-per-square-foot value of Trump Tower. Manhattan Inc. drools over the multi-billion dollar land holdings of the Tisch Bros., primped and pancaked on the cover as if a mortician had made them up. It’s only a matter of time before Donald Trump makes the cover of Rolling Stone.
The rogues’ gallery of real estate cannibals annihilating New York includes scum like Harry Helmsley and his porcine “Queen” Leona, Trammell Crow, John Portman, Sol Goldman, William Zeckendorf, Daniel Brodsky, Paul Milstein, Larry Silverstein, George Klein. The tax incentives for them to build and build and over-develop have been fat during the Koch years. The city Buildings Department is kept lax and incompetent. Citizens’ complaints go unanswered, even block associations can’t get inspectors to monitor construction violations. Our mayor, who honeymoons with developers, seems only to gain in popularity, even though this over-development in condos and co-ops is commensurate with a murderous cost-of-living increase. Until the 1980s, a quarter of your income went toward rent, by rule of thumb. Now, Manhattan landlords commonly command half or three-quarters. Yet the land barons only see what they can’t yet get a stranglehold on. Trump tells the Times that this city discourages development. And in City Business, Larry Silverstein, developer of a $400-million third World Trade tower currently in progress, sees his cut of the pie dwindling: “I thought we real estate men were the ones who had kept ahead of inflation, but we’ve been far outdone by the lawyers.”
Every gay greeting card on Columbus Avenue, every $30 baby shirt, every scoop of Tofutti—the inflated price tags on these ephemeral items go toward a super rent, not a storeowner’s profit. Frivolous boutique doo-dads are not even worth half their price. Unfortunately, the pizza parlor and the shoe repairman’s shop must also pay these runaway rents. The sense of getting so little for your money constantly depresses the spirit.
In the wake of these super rents are ravaged neighborhoods. Gone are the old-world tailors, Italian vegetable stands, Chinese laundries and candy stores with wooden floors. The last bowling alley on the Upper West Side is about to be razed on Amsterdam Avenue. The oldest photo portrait studio in the city, at Amsterdam and 87th Street, closed this summer. The 95-year-old woman who ran it alone since 1912 begged for a break when the landlord doubled her $1000 rent. No dice. No rent control for commercial leases. In its place will be, perhaps, an overpriced cookie franchise or a trendy boutique. Or yet another Tofutti or gelato parlor.
Each old neighborhood store is like the last print of an old movie. What do we need old films for if we can generate more money with new ones?
© 2016 Josh Alan Friedman