New New York:
Growth and its Discontents
By Fritz Tucker
One must be careful when talking about New York. “New York is beautiful in the spring.” “New York is dangerous at night.” “New York is the greatest city in the world!” Each of these statements begs the question: for whom? New York is so multitudinous that people who have lived here their entire lives have trouble making sense of their own experiences, let alone those of different races, genders, classes, and communities.
New York is bigger than anybody can imagine. Since the Dutch arrived, New York City grew until it enveloped five counties: New York, Kings, Queens, Bronx, and Richmond. Now New York has gotten too big for its municipal britches, as what constitutes New York City conceptually extends far into Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A tourist who says, “I saw New York last summer,” might only have seen ten streets in Midtown Manhattan over the course of a few hours, one subway car, a few miles of the Hudson River, and Liberty Island.
Throughout the last year, I have studied the history of New York from economic, political, sociological, and geographical angles. The physical growth of New York, the rising rents, the increasing corporatization, and the expansion of governmental authority all fit within the narrative of progress. The City’s constantly shifting demographics, however, more closely resemble the ocean’s tides—communities flowing into an area, developing distinct cultures, then ebbing as other communities replace them.
The constant creation and destruction of community is a byproduct of New York’s economic growth cycles. The sounds of a generation give way to new sounds when one generation ages out of the network’s target audience. Seasonal fashions demand even more rapid appropriation of what is cool through a process that is inherently un-cool––a fact that, lucky for the industry, demands ever new kinds of cool. A migrant leaves the motherland to work in New York, settling in the same ghetto that everybody else from his or her town settled in, the same ghetto they’re all trying to get out of. Damned if they do, they move to a suburb where they’re alienated from their old community and not accepted by their new one; damned if they don’t, they’re eventually priced out of their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Only by constantly moving up the economic ladder can they afford to stay put. New York inevitably grows. Everything in it eventually dies.
Initially, New York’s potential as a city was as deep as its harbor. “No other seaport [in America] could claim the combination of the short, seventeen-mile-long sea approaches... the roomy interior anchorage that provided sanctuary from the winter storms... and the interior trade route up the Hudson River” (Hood, p. 32). In order to compete with other cities—some of which had existed for thousands of years—New York’s proponents used their growing economic clout to overcome the city’s geographical limitations. In the early nineteenth century, New York merchants diverted the American-European cotton trade, making New York the midpoint of this journey (Hood, p. 32-3). New York profited from the cotton going to Europe and the immigrants who made the journey back (Hood, p. 33). By 1825, the Erie Canal had been constructed, undercutting Canada and establishing New York as the new intermediate between the Great Lakes of the Midwest and the rest of the world (Hood, p. 33).
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, New York could no longer be contained to Manhattan Island alone. Spurred by a complex combination of public and private investment—with most of the profit going to the private sector, and ownership over the infrastructure held by the city—New York was transformed (Hood, p. 71). A city of islands became a city of bridges and tunnels that connected New York’s new boroughs to Manhattan by way of the fastest and most extensive rapid transit system in the world (Hood, p. 155-9).
Throughout the twentieth century, the commercial interests that dominated New York varied era by era, but each expanded the scope of the City in its own distinct way. In the pre-war, liberal era, private investors built subway tunnels to New Jersey (Hood, p. 145). As motor vehicles proliferated in the New Deal era, the municipal government—facilitated by federal dollars—destroyed enough of New York to renew it in a car-friendly manner, further incorporating Westchester, Rockland, and Long Island (Hood, p. 227).
During the industrial era, New York became America’s largest manufacturing center (Freeman, p. 8). Post-war New York is not often regarded as a manufacturing powerhouse, in part because New York did not primarily produce longer-lasting goods like cars and electronics. New Yorkers manufactured goods that were consumed almost immediately, and predominantly by New Yorkers—newspapers, clothes, and food (Freeman, p. 9). This concentration in non-durable, daily and seasonal items helped New York not only survive deindustrialization, but thrive as the world’s leader in art, entertainment, and fashion (Currid, p. 10).
While mass production enables the outside world to consume the fruits of New York’s labor, the immediate consumption and rapid turnover rate of so many of New York’s products demand one’s presence in New York to keep up with the latest trends. The street-level interactions and social networks that exist in New York make it hard for people to produce and sell sufficiently trendy art elsewhere in America. This attracts young, hopeful artists to The City, further cementing New York’s status as a center for the arts.
By the time of the dot-com boom at the end of the twentieth century, New York’s business elites were so entrenched that predominantly internet-based businesses were drawn to the City. Despite the fact that the internet had eliminated space-time constraints on human communication, online companies were willing to pay New York’s high rents just to access the New York labor market and rapidly evolving trends. As the twenty-first century approached, approximately 140,000 New Yorkers were employed by almost 4,000 ‘new media’ firms (Neff, p. 312). The shift to online trading in the financial world has similarly not weakened New York’s status alongside London as the world’s two leaders in finance.
In “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” Louis Wirth writes about the social expectations of urbanites, and why they might find it difficult to interact with non-city folk. The “social interaction among such a variety of personality types in the urban milieu,” as he puts it, has psychological ramifications that urbanites are often unable to articulate even after they leave the city (Wirth, p. 101). Living in America’s most densely populated city, New Yorkers of different classes and races intermingle with much greater frequency than do suburbanites. These interactions can have a humanizing effect, introducing New Yorkers to members of varying social strata that they would not meet elsewhere (Wirth, p. 100). On the other hand, these interactions often lack the intimacy of traditional relationships (Wirth, p. 100). With so much of their social interaction mediated by transactions, New Yorkers often end up with a uniquely utilitarian and dehumanized view of others as ones who serve them, from waiters, to firefighters to bankers (Wirth, p. 100). Wirth also points out that urban density “tends to produce differentiation and specialization” of neighborhoods into commercial centers and residential neighborhoods that are further divided into ethnic enclaves, a situation that is exacerbated by the rapidity of the city’s transit system (Wirth, p. 100). Thus, as New York grows, New Yorkers come into more frequent contact with greater numbers of people whose life stories they are increasingly ignorant of. New York means a billion different things to ten million different people.
New York is in a constant state of becoming something it isn’t and of ceasing being everything it is. Unbridled economic and geographical growth has taken a toll on New York’s communities. Four hundred years after its entire indigenous population was killed or removed, New York became the most populated city in the world. Instead of being dominated by one slowly expanding ethnic group, the ethnic makeup of New York is a patchwork quilt cut from a map of the world.
In the eighteenth century, New York was Manhattan, which stopped well south of Canal Street (Anbinder, p. 14). In 1797, Newgate Prison opened in Greenwich Village, a suburb of New York City. After the War of 1812, typically poor European immigrants flooded New York’s ports at unprecedented rates, nearly quadrupling New York’s population between 1825 and 1855 (Anbinder, p. 43). Irish, German, and Polish immigrants began to settle on the outskirts of New York. What had been a bucolic suburb of New York quickly became the City’s densest neighborhood, Five Points (Anbinder, p. 15).
Despite noxious living conditions the immigrants made it their own, carving out ethnic enclaves. According to Tyler Anbinder’s study of state and federal census statistics, “In 78 percent of the tenements, one ethnic group made up 75 percent or more of the inhabitants” (Anbinder, p. 97). For almost half a century, a Little Ireland was created, with a culture so seductive that it not only attracted generations of Irish émigrés, but also writers like Charles Dickens and Fredrika Bremer, who toured Five Points embedded with police escorts (Anbinder, p. 34).
Eventually, the Irish were displaced by the next wave of indigent immigrants, Italians (Anbinder, p. 345). Though this group has since been replaced, their historic Little Italy is a staple New York tourist attraction. The next group to dominate the Canal Street area was the Chinese, whose Chinatown, curiously, remains there now (Anbinder, ch. 13). Skyrocketing real estate prices have traditionally led to the gentrification of successive ethnic enclaves, as the rich urban center expands and pushes the poor urban periphery ever outward. African-American and Chinese communities, however, faced so much discrimination and exclusion from upward social mobility that their ethnic enclaves in Harlem and Chinatown have endured well over a century (Anbinder, ch. 13) (Chauncey, p. 245). In this way, New York’s most oppressed communities share something in common with the Anglo-Saxons of the Upper East Side that no other social group does: a multi-generational sense of belonging in a historically continuous New York.
For most New Yorkers, neighborhoods are temporary. Puerto Ricans, for example, developed an ethnic enclave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the 1980’s, only to see it become increasingly Mexican in the 1990’s, a state that led to ethnic gang warfare (Smith, p. 34, 165-170). Mexican immigrants developed ‘transnational’ communities between their New York neighborhoods and their home villages. Dollars, gangs, fashion, and feminism transformed villages in Oaxaca into Little New Yorks, while Mexican politics, patriarchy, religion, language, and food turned New York neighborhoods into Little Mexicos (Smith, ch. 4, 5, 9, 10). Latino Sunset Park is now facing encroachment from the East by an increasingly Chinese Borough Park and from the North by an increasingly White Park Slope.
Park Slope’s working-class Italian population began to be replaced in the 1950’s by indigent Blacks and Latinos who, in turn, began to be replaced by upper-middle-class White ‘yuppies’ in the 60’s (Osman, p. ch 7). Park Slope’s predominantly White, ‘yuppie’ civil society fought to maintain the class and racial diversity of the neighborhood through anti-redlining movements and support of squatters (Osman, p. 241-2). What the ‘yuppies’ didn’t discontinue, however, was buying brownstones in Park Slope, evicting their poor tenants, and driving up the cost of living throughout the neighborhood, all of which displaced the very people they were trying to help stay (Osman, p. 241, 260-5).
When the real estate market did not remove poor people fast enough for New York’s elites, they used the powers of the city, state, and federal government to carry out ethnic and cultural displacement. In the early twentieth century, gay New Yorkers established enclaves in Greenwich Village and Harlem. In 1925, police used anti-prostitution laws to close all but three gay clubs in Greenwich Village (Chauncey, p. 238). White men found it easier to be openly gay in Harlem, a condition that resulted in an uncommon amount of interracial interaction (Chauncey, p. 244). The Committee of Fourteen, a moralizing proto-police organization, responded to the increasing racial integration of Harlem nightclubs by lobbying the government to enforce caste-like divisions, including outlawing interracial marriage and interracial boxing matches (Fronc, p. 103). Unable to pass Jim Crow laws, the Committee of Fourteen hired undercover investigators to report Harlem’s integrated establishments to the police, who would levy fines against the clubs for violating anti-prostitution laws (Fronc, p. 105-8). More aggressively, during the New Deal era, the powerful New York City municipal government—backed by federal funds—demolished entire neighborhoods and replaced them with public housing, Lincoln Center, and MetLife’s privately-owned, racially segregated housing project in Stuyvesant Town (Zipp, p. 19-22).
While each successive group of immigrants has a unique New York story, each shares the experience of having its story take place in New York. No matter what neighborhood a person moves to, the subway fare is the same, a slice of pizza costs about the same as a subway ride, the neighbors’ music is too loud, and “the rent is too damn high.” Everybody serves each other in some capacity, whether as social workers, cabbies, schoolteachers, or delivery boys, then takes the same train home––though each stop transports passengers to drastically different neighborhoods just half-miles away from one another.
The Final Frontier: New Jersey
For decades, New Yorkers developed a powerful civil society to combat government excess. Despite police repression, gay New Yorkers threw increasingly spectacular balls in Harlem throughout the ’20’s and ’30’s, and recently won the right to marry in New York. (Chauncey, p. 258). Groups like the American Labor Committee and Save Our Homes protested redevelopment around Lincoln Square, though were ultimately unsuccessful (Zipp, p. 204-7). “Brownstoners” in Brooklyn organized stroller rallies and fought for greater community control over investment in homes, and police patrols, with mixed results (Osman, 3-5, 242-49). Labor unions froze New York’s elevators, tugboats, and garment industry after World War II, and now have their own political party—the Working Families Party (Freeman, p. 3-5).
Two summers ago, I began working for the Working Families Party as a door-to-door canvasser. One of the first campaigns I worked on was an attempt to get Charles Hall the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Every day, twenty of us canvassers would eschew the public transportation system and carpool from Downtown Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge, through Canal Street, and into the Holland Tunnel like Robert Moses and Michael Bloomberg intended us to. Due to the illegality of New York’s Working Families Party campaigning for a candidate in a New Jersey race, midway through the Holland Tunnel we became The Friends of Charles Hall organization (or something along those lines). After a day’s work for a day’s pay—the hourly wage was apparently lost in the 1990’s—we’d make the sometimes hour-and-a-half-long drive back to Brooklyn, where most of us would travel forty-five minutes by subway back to our homes in the inner city ghettos we were helping to gentrify—Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick.
Long gone are the days when New Yorkers could walk a mile north to present-day Canal Street and find themselves outside the city limits, climbing Bunker Hill, taking advantage of the “breathtaking views of both the wildlife that gathered at the Collect’s shores and the expanding city to the south” (Anbinder, p. 14). Whether it’s interstate meddling in New Jersey mayoral races or international meddling in local elections in Ticuani, Mexico, New York is bigger than New York now (Smith, ch. 4). But in a way, that’s what makes New York New York.
Even the most arbitrary things that give New Yorkers a common identity fall apart when you stare at them too hard. New York’s professional football teams, the New York Giants and Jets, play their home games across the Hudson River in New Jersey. But look deeper still, and you’ll find that any large collection of pieces in the world is sure to bear the seal of New York in one way or another. The name of the football stadium is MetLife Stadium, the same Metropolitan Life Insurance Company that owned the first segregated housing project in Stuyvesant Town, and whose corporate headquarters loom over Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park. The players on the New York Jets and Giants are no more New Yorkers than any other professional football players, though the latest star of the Giants is a salsa-dancing Puerto Rican from one of the poorest, most distant urban outskirts of the greater New York metropolitan area: Paterson, New Jersey.
New York, however, won’t let New Jersey overshadow it. Downtown Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards sat empty for more than six decades, after the Brooklyn Dodgers opted to move to Los Angeles instead of the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. For decades, local civil society successfully lobbied and protested against successive proposals for renewal (Osman, 226-9). In 2009, to the chagrin of groups like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the New York Court of Appeals allowed the city to exercise eminent domain and seize the Atlantic Yards, as well as over thirty inhabited buildings in Downtown Brooklyn. The new development consists of sixteen skyscrapers and a new basketball stadium for the formerly New Jersey Nets: now the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn is the new Manhattan. New York is the new New York.
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