In New York City,
I relax in the aesthetic
pleasure of the moment
To get a handle on the state of the city I continue to scour the newspapers and Crain's Business Report, and garner assorted bits of information. For instance, the Times Square district, whatever one may feel about its garishness (in fact, I myself take pleasure in its 230 hyper-real electronic signs that give the area colour and light), its swarms of gawking, bellowing tourists contribute one-tenth of all the jobs in the city or $110 billion in annual economic activity.
Its hotels serve the tourists who are one of the keys to the city's economy, and it contains giant office buildings where tens of thousands of lawyers, accountants, editors, and bond traders work. In the case of Times Square, redevelopment has worked. It has also given an impetus to the building of luxury towers on the far West Side where no market for housing had ever existed. Some may say Times Square's lights, mobs, and towers are ugly and dehumanising (and most of it has little appeal to me), but in my eyes it's a gain for the city without any of the development displacing thousands of inhabitants.
I also liked reading that the Bronx's version of Park Avenue – the Grand Concourse that runs about four and a half miles and has 11 lanes, and was my adolescent idea of prosperous living – is becoming more racially and economically integrated. In what was once a symbol of white flight, and the borough's collapse, middle-class professionals, mostly single people or young couples, have begun to buy handsome apartments for under $300,000. This has led to early signs of gentrification – a yoga studio and a new deli that sells croissants – that can only help stabilise the neighbourhood. Here is another example of gentrification that should be welcomed, not reflexively opposed.
Another fact that speaks well for the city's economic viability is that New York ranks first as a global business centre in a number of surveys of world cities. That judgement in one survey derived from an examination of 66 of the world's busiest commercial urban centres: assessing each on the scope of its business activity, labour force, access to media and information, cultural amenities, and political influence. Other facts: Midtown South office vacancy rate is 5.9%, the lowest of any central business district in the country, and overall rent in the area jumped 11% from a year ago.
Yes, these are positive achievements that help our tax base, and are, of course, trumpeted by Mayor Bloomberg. But they mask the city's other problems with poverty, housing, education, mass transit, which don't necessarily improve because some businesses, especially information and media companies, are doing well. Saskia Sassan, a Columbia urban sociologist, suggests that today's income inequality is brought on by growth, which means the expansion of high-income jobs, accompanied by badly paid low-income jobs to service them. In fact in NYC the now infamous top 1% of earners according to figures from 2009, bring in 34% of the city's total income – much higher than the overall US rate (17%), or the overall rate in Brazil for that matter.
It's a mild sunny day, and I'm moved both by the serenity of this populated street, and the view of the reservoir and Central Park that is filled with joggers, walkers, and bicyclists – old and young, solitaries and groups.
This creates an extremely skewed society that is obvious to the eye of anybody who wanders away from Manhattan and the large swath of hip Brooklyn neighbourhoods. So, growth is often only beneficial to the privileged minority. It's corporate growth, not educational excellence that is, for example, the impetus behind NYU's proposed elephantine expansion plan – that tramples over the lives of its residents and is devoid of concern for my community's (Greenwich Village's) historic character.
Given NYU's close links to real estate developers and Wall Street, the New York dailies have predictably written editorials supporting the plan. Murdoch's tabloid Post, which has never seen an outsized, destructive development that it doesn't exult in, has attacked the neighbourhood for trying to preserve, in their words, 'a long-outdated fantasy of bohemian Greenwich Village'. And the liberal Times, usually very critical of the actions of corporations on a national level (eg, the oil industry), has endorsed it with 'few caveats' that puts much of the onus on the proposal's opposition, including NYU's own faculty:
Many NYU educators are opposed to it, but we believe implacable opposition is misguided. NYU, along with other great educational institutions in New York, like Columbia, needs to expand. It's good for the entire city, and it's inevitable.
Of course, the Times when it comes to local politics has been a strong supporter of our plutocrat Mayor Bloomberg and, more often than not, of the city's business elite and policies of unlimited growth. The paper (which I usually admire, and is, arguably, the country's best paper) is an integral part of the New York establishment, and has never pretended to be a tribune of the people. So its response to the NYU 2031 plan, however half-baked, and dismayingly dismissive, is not unexpected.
However, though I'm politically repelled by the triumph of big money and development devoid of care for the lives and neighbourhoods it destroys, I still take pleasure in handsome parts of the city like the Upper East Side that have long been sustained by wealth. One late March afternoon my wife and I sit and drink cappuccino at a little outdoor cafe connected to the grand gothic Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth at 90th. It's a mild sunny day, and I'm moved both by the serenity of this populated street, and the view of the reservoir and Central Park that is filled with joggers, walkers, and bicyclists – old and young, solitaries and groups. In the distance, across the park, I can see the twin-towered art-deco, luxury apartment building, the Eldorado, ascending skyward.
Well-dressed people stroll by or sit down at other tables – mostly affluent European tourists speaking French and Italian, or comfortable Upper East Siders. I'm not quite part of this world, and I know that kind of elegance and money are often the fruits of an absence of economic justice. But I am not single-minded. I consist of varied, sometimes contradictory parts. So there are times I allow my social consciousness and conscience to take a back seat to the pure aesthetic pleasure of the moment.
Leonard Quart is a professor emeritus of American studies