Just another sad gentrification story.
May 30, 2018 6:36 PM   Subscribe

 
Older, shabbier buildings are necessary for maintaining the humanity of a city. They provide low-rent spaces for activities that aren’t focused on expanding profit margins.

Nice post. Was not expecting the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to be one of the last remaining tenants.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 7:01 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


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posted by Slinga at 9:04 PM on May 30


This is a lovely piece of writing and a thoughtful memorial. I feel for the author's loss, and ache for the changes that will leave fewer spaces for artists and weirdos, therapists and archivists.

But the lack of thoughtful analysis in writing about gentrification is troubling. At least side-by-side with pieces that memorialize and mourn the changes that truly drive out those who were at least once "lower middle class" or "middle class", we must talk concretely about what policies we do want. Should our cities stay frozen in time? In the particular era our favorite writers happened to have moved there? It's no surprise that we long for the time when we personally discovered the SF queer scene, or the NY arts scene, or whatnot, and conveniently forget our own transformational role in the city. The author aknowledges that therapists and analysts were not the first in their beloved building, but don't seem to see themselves as gentrifiers, although they of course contributed to changing the class, race, ethnicity of those who occupied the space. None of us are free from responsability for changing our cities - because we are our cities. So let's do this with thoughtfulness this time, with care for those who are already here, but also with wise planning for those who are coming, whether we want change or not.

And buildings: I love old buildings. We should keep some, so we can feel, so our children and grandchildren can feel, the sensation of history and context one gets walking in them. But we can't keep all the buildings and still house everyone. The population of NY City has increased more than 5 percent, just in the last 7 years! Consider how many more people we need to make space for - for living and working - than we had to have room for when this building was constructed 165 years ago.

The great shame is not in losing some buildings - even if the loss is real. The great shame is not that our personal familiar textures and neighbors will change - that is inevitable and often positive (should only old people be allowed to live in NY? Only those who were born there or immigrated more than 30 years ago?)

We must accept that our cities will change. New buildings will be built. The new buildings will have to fit more people than the old buildings did, because there are more people now. Our neighbors will change. Younger people will move in. People from other parts of town, other states, other countries. They will sometimes annoy us or offend us. They will certainly have different businesses and styles and values than we do. This is inevitable, and though sometimes sad, it is often good. While we instinctually recoil at the change, it is not inherently unjust.

There is injustice in displacement, with certainty that is so: when there is nowhere for poor people (as poor people have ever more of their limited wealth expropriated to corporate greed), that is unjust. When people of color are pushed out of neighborhoods they built, shoved to distant outlying towns or onto the streets, that is unjust. So society must answer to this injustice.

My own belief is we must robustly build public housing. Sure, let's try Social Housing (mixed income, sliding scale, public housing). Yes, reserve a historical structure or two in each neighborhood - but admit we must tear down some buildings to make way for bigger housing for more people. (The alternative is suburban sprawl which is much worse for our environment). But we must change our neighborhoods. Buildings must get bigger, and denser. So accept that will happen, and advocate to ensure this new construction is just, is fair, is accessible to all. Mourn the changes, preserve some, but instead of holding on to something 165 years old, fight specifically for something concrete: inclusionary zoning, massive taxes on large businesses that currently leach off our cities to pay for subsidized housing, park maintenance, rec programs and schools, museums and archives large and small - like funding or space for a Spanish Civil War museum.

Personally, I'm done mourning buildings. I'm done mourning my personal frozen-in-time moment when the city was what I wanted. Our cities will change. That's what cities are. I won't fight the change. I'll fight to make these changes better for everyone.
posted by latkes at 10:14 PM on May 30 [40 favorites]


“Imagine a future Manhattan without shrinks. What will happen to the psyche of that city?”
Perhaps they did their jobs too well.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:38 AM on May 31


I know this building. Back in the '80s a friend of mine worked for a publisher whose office was down the stairs from Abraham Lincoln Brigade office.

The same thing is happening in Chicago to some older buildings in the Loop that until recently were mostly occupied by medical professionals (mostly dentists and psychiatrists) running their own practices.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:16 AM on May 31


This isn't being demolished for housing, it's being demolished for another cruddy office tower, apparently leveraging off the not-well-thought-out "Tech Hub" to be built more or less around the corner on 14th St, a project I still don't understand. It is not going to improve the liveability of the city in the slightest. Nostalgia kills, and this piece evokes nostalgia quite a bit, but there are other reasons to raise eyebrows.
posted by praemunire at 8:47 AM on May 31 [6 favorites]


I was going to say that I work in historic preservation, and there's no reason I can see (from this article) that the building could not be protected, depending on what the city rules are. Except while the building has kept a lot of architectural details on the interior, the entire façade has been updated, which probably means it's lost too much integrity to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. Also, I suppose NYC has tons of buildings from this era, and the city Planning department may have decided they don't need to save any more.

Still, it seems like a real shame.

With regards to demolition, I hope that at the least they remove the beautiful old finishes like the interior doors and stairways. I don't have any expectation that they would de-construct the building, even though it would be a net benefit for the world in terms of energy and landfill issues. Most developers don't want to spend the money and would rather use a wrecking ball.
posted by suelac at 9:11 AM on May 31 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I totally get this specific building is being demolished for some trash to replace it, but I just think it's important that we focus our efforts on, say, abolishing racist single-family zoning or increasing property taxes or funding subsidized housing. The loss of an old building is sad, but it's not the actual problem.
posted by latkes at 9:25 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Re: the point about how the city is growing and we need more capacity— NYC currently has nearly 250,000 apartments vacant or only seasonally occupied. Population growth is real, but we can also do better with what we have.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:35 AM on May 31 [5 favorites]


The loss of an old building is sad, but it's not the actual problem.

It is possible for this and also racist zoning and financing policies and the shameful decay of the existing housing stock and the recalibration of Manhattan toward useless "Tech Hubs" and "innovation districts" and the general reorientation of urban cores toward the shelter of overseas capital to be issues all at once, you know.

Or — more precisely, and in a manner not dissimilar to the "only one Trump scandal" line of thought — for them all to be manifestations and facets of one single problem, with one underlying root cause.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:03 AM on May 31 [9 favorites]


"Re: the point about how the city is growing and we need more capacity— NYC currently has nearly 250,000 apartments vacant or only seasonally occupied. Population growth is real, but we can also do better with what we have."

I don't think the vacancy rate (11%, according to that link) is on its own a very good measure of demand for apartments.

Also, US population growth isn't actually that high, is it? (Less than 1% if my googling is right.) This is probably migration to urban areas, not population growth.
posted by floppyroofing at 11:56 AM on May 31


racist single-family zoning

Worth noting that there really isn't very much R1-R2 zoning in NYC, and (almost?) exclusively in the outer boroughs. (Zola is fun to play with!)

I think it's very important not to be suckered by the rhetoric of "hard choices for development" into acquiescing into changes that won't actually do anything to alleviate the problem. Like, people really really really want to think that if we just downzoned areas in NYC to allow more dense building, those buildings would somehow have an impact on the housing problem for the lower and middle class, when the vast majority of buildings built in recent years in zones that allow for increased density have been pointless "luxury" housing or offices. Developers have made their intentions extremely plain. Magical developers with good hearts and a healthy indifference to ROI aren't suddenly going to appear, summoned by downzoning. Insufficiently lucrative (from the market's POV) projects simply aren't going to get built. And the loss of a building, or several, isn't just the loss of physical fabric. It's the potential destruction of a functional neighborhood. Union Square is particularly at risk, in my opinion. When those chains on 14th St. decide they're tired of paying the high rent like they did on Bleecker St., you're left with blighted storefronts and empty high-end condos. If the Strand didn't (as I understand it) own its building, it'd probably already be gone.
posted by praemunire at 5:56 PM on May 31 [4 favorites]


nitpick: zoning for higher density is "upzoning", "downzoning" would be making the zoning more restrictive.

I don't think it's likely that new developments *create* their own demand. If (to make up some arbitrary numbers), a new development would sell 100 units at $1.2M each, failing to build those units doesn't make those 100 buyers disappear. Most of them are just going to take their $1.2M somewhere else--say, bidding up the price of older units elsewhere and renovating.
posted by floppyroofing at 7:40 PM on May 31


Yeah, developers are shits. The point I was trying to make, for it's flaws, was that nostalgia for a building misdirects our energy and analysis. In this crisis I propose we focus our energy on specific and concrete solutions. Nostalgia for a certain era (when we were in our 20s most often), leads to people who block all new housing, all change. In my view we should accept and embrace change, and lobby for a better future of LEED certified building, inclusionary zoning, land taxes, vacancy taxes, rather than freezing all construction, migration, etc where it is now.
posted by latkes at 8:09 PM on May 31


Dammit, I correct myself on that every time and every next time I mix them up again.

But I think you're wrong; I think they do create at least some demand, that previously suburban buyers, particularly retirees now eager to participate in the city life they fled in terror decades back, are attracted by new construction in urban areas who might not be as interested in older stock, as are buyers who are merely looking to discreetly stash some capital rather than to buy a home. Either way, softening up the market at the $1.2m level does not actually help people earning $35K/yr. to find housing. Except for the lucky few in lottery apartments, all that NYC building has done eff-all to alleviate conditions for the poor to lower-middle-class. It's just militated to a degree against the growth of prices for luxury condos and rentals.

As I said, I give nostalgia a wary eye, but it can serve an important function, signaling the function of a building in a neighborhood. Locations, tenants, and buildings are not fungible. Displacing middle-class professionals in favor of short-lived corporate tenants will have an effect on the character of neighborhood life. It will change (to the extent it hasn't already happened) the retail mix. It will change (ditto) the traffic patterns, how habitable an area is at night. It will affect (double ditto) rents. Embracing change for the sake of embracing change is just as silly as resisting it on that basis. And it will get you constantly rolled by developers, who will be happy to exploit your blanket embrace of change for their own purposes.
posted by praemunire at 10:16 PM on May 31 [4 favorites]


And it deeply misunderstands the nature of actual innovation, as opposed to the pallid shadow of the thing that currently goes by that name. Jane is still and ever right: new ideas need old buildings.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:49 AM on June 1


A *lot* of gentrification and displacement also happens by renovation of existing buildings.
posted by floppyroofing at 8:18 AM on June 1


Either way, softening up the market at the $1.2m level does not actually help people earning $35K/yr. to find housing.

Per here (numbers from Financial Times - I can't verify them as I don't have a membership to FT) Idiosyncratic Whisk Post from May 26 the median price per sq ft in NYC has fallen by 18% in the past year, and FT says that capital is becoming more coupled and synchronized, such that NYC prices can bring down London prices. So if you take that 18% decline to be true (possibly - Trulia says 12%) and the synchronization of the markets to be true (doubtful IMO, but needs more study) then building units of any kind can decrease housing costs, and thus we should build more.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:42 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Locations, tenants, and buildings are not fungible. Displacing middle-class professionals in favor of short-lived corporate tenants will have an effect on the character of neighborhood life. It will change (to the extent it hasn't already happened) the retail mix. It will change (ditto) the traffic patterns, how habitable an area is at night. It will affect (double ditto) rents. Embracing change for the sake of embracing change is just as silly as resisting it on that basis. And it will get you constantly rolled by developers, who will be happy to exploit your blanket embrace of change for their own purposes.

And it's fine if you think all these things are better than affordability and a relatively liberal building policy (for a large city in the US) but just say so. I mean, holding this building in stasis resulted in prices hitting records in December 2017, and they have fallen since. So just figure out what it is you want.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:45 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Economic & Social Inclusive Index

Final comment and I'll leave this alone: In the past 5 years, NYC has gotten less racially inclusive, and less economically inclusive and has increased its income segregation. Per this site, it ranks #197 of 274 US cities, and it's income segregation has increased dramatically while it's number of residents who are rent-burdened is exactly the same as the US average and its working poor is only 1% higher than the US average. I agree those last two are problems that need to be solved, but NYC is doing as well with them as anywhere.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:57 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


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