New York is all about change, and real estate. At the corner of Change and Real Estate is the New York neighborhood. Your neighborhood defines who you are, which is why people hate it when their neighborhood changes. Neighborhoods do change, and sometimes very quickly. There are New Yorkers who don’t expect their neighborhood to change, ever. These people often have a touching belief that a permanent rent freeze (starting with them) would accomplish this.
History teaches us that it won’t. You can try to freeze your neighborhood’s character forever in amber, but then you get Venice, where the original residents exist to serve as a backdrop for my vacation. There are few actual real Venetians in real neighborhoods any more — it’s just a very authentic theme park filled with priceless treasures. What do you call that thing? Oh yeah – a museum.
New York already has museums, so we don’t need to become one. On the other hand, it’s sad when a neighborhood dies. There are two ways a neighborhood can die: it can decline and fall, becoming more run down, having less services, experiencing more crime. People who can move out, do. We’ve seen that cycle play out, as NYC hit rock bottom in 1975. But there’s another way a neighborhood can die: it can become a museum or a very authentic theme park, just like Venice.
Take the Upper West Side. Between Columbus Circle and 96th Street, the whole area has become a dead neighborhood. How do I know? There’s no place to buy a carton of milk – not even a carton of soy milk. No bodegas, no hardware stores. There’s just Trader Joe’s and Fairway. Well, that blows!
A moment of silence, please, while I go into a nostalgic rant. For decades, the UWS had affordable housing. There was hardware, there were housewares. Subway and buses propelled people to jobs in midtown. Who lived on the UWS? Families, single people, grannies, students, musicians. There was a thriving middle class who could afford 6 room apartments. Mom and Pop shops lined Broadway, where you could get a roast chicken, a shoe shine, a pair of pants, a pet bird, a bagel, a colander, a tailor to fix your hem. The rule of thumb for a month’s rent was one week’s paycheck, after tax. The streets weren’t the cleanest you ever saw, but there was art, music, street life.
Now, it’s all gone.
I’m not going to blame the tourists for this one – I’m blaming the 1-percenters who were watching “Sex and the City” while Daddy was stashing away 65 percent of the world’s GDP into a trust fund. Suddenly, they’re 21 and want to live the dream, so they start plonking down 2 million bucks for a nice studio on West End Avenue. Who needs a hardware store, when you only visit your apartment for 2 weeks a year? Suddenly, every studio apartment on West End Ave is on the market at the bargain price of half a million clams. The shoe stores, the nut shops, the bagel makers, the barbers – they can’t afford it, so off they go to other neighborhoods. Pretty soon, no one lives there who used to live there. Although there’s low crime, there are no services, either. It’s a dead zone.
What’s the solution? Sorry, pal, there isn’t one. If you freeze rents and pretend it’s 1975 all over again, you’ve got two choices: either you tank the economy, thereby actually producing NYC in 1975, or you create a booming black market for rent controlled apartments. It’s called economics.
You can also build new residential high rises that include affordable housing in neighborhoods less freighted with “Sex and the City” location shots, but this also changes the character of the ‘hood, which is why all those old lefties are protesting when the Inwood library gets torn down to make way for a big Chinese-funded residential building. Problem is – no one uses the library except skeevie guys looking for free internet, but people would love to buy an apartment in Inwood. Again, economics.
You can zone your neighborhood for zero new residential towers, thereby preserving character and producing San Francisco, where rents are so astronomical due to high demand and low inventory that people who work in the “service” industries (gardeners, waiters, people who clean toilets) can’t afford to live anywhere near the place. Some of them end up living in cars or commuting over 3 hours EACH WAY. Again, not ideal.
Despite my nostalgia, a booming economy is a good thing, folks. Yes, you have to manage things so you don’t end up with new high rises housing more commuters than the subway can handle (so, none). Public services need to grow with population. Public monies should go to public services, not private pockets. Outer boroughs need services, safety, transportation options, and affordable housing to encourage an expansion of the middle class. Parks have to be maintained for the citizenry, and jobs have to be plentiful and close. If you get the right mix, you’ll again have a real neighborhood with old and young, families and hipsters, workers, artists, musicians, grannies. You’ll have bagel shops, halal food carts, corner bars, shoe repair places, grocerettes. Living there will be possible on a middle-class salary, and you’ll be able to commute to your job in midtown with ease.
Oh my God. I think I’m talking about Jersey!