26 April 2007

New York Then And Now

A couple times a week I walk the mile or so from my place to Greenpoint, and no matter which route I take, I seldom fail to marvel at the number and size of new buildings going up. Who do they think is going to live in all these new apartments, I wonder, knowing all the while that they'll be quickly filled, and at astronomical rents no less.

It's not just my neighborhood; a similar story is unfolding over large parts of Brooklyn, not to mention Queens, the Bronx and anywhere someone can find a sliver of buildable space in Manhattan. It's predicted that a million new people will soon be living in New York; during the 1970s, when many people believed the city to have entered an irreversible decline, the population dropped by nearly that much.

Movies like Warriors and Escape From New York painted the city as a nightmarish dystopia, a viewpoint shared by many Americans and more than a few New Yorkers. People left in droves, with some neighborhoods being more or less abandoned. In 1968 some squatter friends and I had our pick of dozens of empty buildings on the Lower East Side; on the site of one we occupied there now stands a block of new condos starting in the million dollar range.

If you want a clue to what changed, here's one: I noticed on my walk yesterday that many of the new apartments are being built without bars on the windows, not even at street level, something that would have been unheard of in the New York of old. I passed one window where a young man had left his curtains open: I could see him sitting placidly in front of about 20 grand's worth of computer and musical equipment. On warm nights people sit out on their stoops with expensive laptops on streets where once only the very brave or foolish would have risked walking.

There may be be many reasons for New York's booming population and economy, but it's hard not to believe that its having become the safest big city in America isn't one of the most vital. Which begs the question: what happens if things turn bad again, if a new mayor drops the ball, if an economic downturn takes us back to the era of ruined neighborhoods and endemic crime?

Optimists like to believe that couldn't happen; that the city's turnaround is so complete that whatever it was that went wrong before is a sheer impossibility. These days you'll find more people worrying about gentrification than its opposite, for which there isn't a universally recognized word, but which I'm prone to call - only slightly flippantly - slumification.

Many people, especially those who can no longer afford New York's skyrocketing rents, or who fear being displaced from neighborhoods where they've lived for years, view gentrification as some unholy plot hatched by the mayor in collusion with property developers and the artsy-fartsy white hipsters who act as their shock troops. But gentrification is not purely a white issue; this afternoon, Mary Pattillo, author of Black On The Block: The Politics Of Race And Class In The City, was on WNYC talking about how the black middle class has had a similar effect on formerly depressed black neighborhoods.

In a perhaps unguarded aside, she said there was a general sense that the affected neighborhoods, while going upscale, should "remain black," and I couldn't help wondering what sort of outcry would result if another community leader expressed the notion that his or her neighborhood should "remain white." It also put me in mind of what might be seen as a deliberate act of "slumification," which it could be argued helped precipitate the decline of many New York neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s: Mayor John Lindsay's policy of plunking down huge housing projects, heavily populated by African-American welfare recipients, in what had previously been stable white working or middle class areas.

The resulting friction, exacerbated by soaring crime rates, was dismissed by Lindsay and his brain trust of elitist Manhattanites, as atavistic racism which had to be confronted and rooted out by any means necessary. But as Jim Sleeper points out in his excellent The Closest Of Strangers: Liberalism And The Politics Of Race In New York, the conflict was not so much about race as about class. Lindsay's quest for social justice (or, if you prefer, his desire to pander to minorities) led him to make the classic racist mistake: seeing people only in terms of their skin color.

In the rarefied ideological realms where he dwelt, Lindsay was unable to see the difference between the gradual integration of a neighborhood by blacks whose educational, professional and social values more or less matched those already present, and effectively dropping a bomb on it by introducing thousands of new residents who had little or nothing in common with the existing residents, and were essentially being shifted about by a program of social engineering not wholly unlike South Africa's creation of little Bantustans during the apartheid era.

Is it over-simplifying to blame Lindsay not only for New York's decline, but also for the racial and political balkanization that ensued? Certainly the mayors that followed, especially the hopeless Abe Beame and the not much better Ed Koch, have to shoulder their share of the blame. The economic and energy crises of the 1970s couldn't have helped either. Similarly, those who want to credit Rudy Giuliani for New York's recovery or Mike Bloomberg for building upon it have to admit they were greatly assisted by the booming national economy beginning in the 1990s.

But New York's decline as well as its recovery were so dramatic, and so clearly linked to certain mayoral policies like Lindsay's failed liberalism and Giuliani's take-back-the-streets initiative, that it seems foolish to argue that it makes no difference who is mayor. And if that's the case, there's always the possibility, even likelihood, that some day we'll again see a mayor who's willing to tolerate high rates of crime and disorder in the belief that there's a constituency for that sort of thing.

Freddy Ferrer or Mark Green would, in my opinion, have been just that kind of mayor: like Lindsay, they see people primarily in terms of race, and because there's a certain portion of the minority community that does have a vested interest in a New York that soft on crime, politicians like these jump to what I see as the racist conclusion that minorities in general want less law enforcement and more tolerance for the intolerable.

On a more hopeful note, New York has changed so much that people now have come to expect safe streets and an honest, well-functioning city government. The politics of divisiveness and class envy that powered Lindsay and his successors into office may have trouble gaining a toehold again. In his review of Vincent Cannato's The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay And His Struggle To Save New York, Jim Sleeper points out that the ostensibly conservative Rudy Giuliani, in many ways the "anti-Lindsay," had helped bring many of Lindsay's liberal ideals to fruition while Lindsay himself left little more than ruin, despair and destruction in his wake.

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