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The Embers of Gentrification

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Red Hook, R.I.P.: the 360 restaurant in 2003, left, and in 2007, right.   

Gentrification in New York has gone from an implausible economic rejuvenation to an unstoppable social juggernaut to a widely held article of faith. We’ve come to assume, based on all available evidence, that we’re in the midst of a continuous viral cycle, passed from neighborhood to neighborhood like a flu, and by now we know the symptoms very well. What once seemed unthinkable (a luxury hotel on the Bowery?) now seems inevitable, and the only thing that surprises us is how unsurprising it’s all become. Hell’s Kitchen rising from the ashes? Well, duh. Hipsters colonizing Bushwick? Those plucky pioneers! A million-five for a rowhouse in Red Hook? What took so long?

This wave has proved so irresistible that urbanists are looking for a new word to describe it. "The old, modest kind of gentrification is no longer happening in the same way, on the same scale,” says Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The Cultures of Cities. "Some people are now calling it super-gentrification: rich people replacing slightly less rich people." Of course, you might say that the current housing-market crisis and the layoffs on Wall Street are all about to bring this to a juddering halt—or you might say that now’s the perfect time to get in! After all, in 2001, the financial district suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack and the market dipped only for a moment; now, six years later, André Balazs is selling it as the forward thinker’s Soho. Do you really think a few failed mortgages and a couple of thousand jettisoned bankers are going to hobble this robust market? This isn’t a downturn! It’s an opportunity.

Just look at the past. There have been hiccups before. Remember Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side in the mid-eighties? It was supposed to be the new Madison Avenue. Stores flocked there, and rents shot up—and then everything started to close. They even whispered that nasty word: degentrification. But look what happened. What store wouldn’t want to be on Columbus now?

Or consider "Manhattan Valley," the small Upper West Side neighborhood that was poised to boom in the late eighties, then fizzled. If you dig up the clips, you can read about one frantic gentleman trying to unload his apartment with Central Park views at 96th and Broadway. He was asking $330,000 but found no takers. Reading about it now, you wonder if he ever managed to sell the place and, if so, he also managed not to jump off a bridge in the ensuing ten years. "As the dust settles, we can see that the areas that underwent dramatic turnarounds had severe limitations," an urban-planning professor told the Times in 1991. "Rich people are simply not going to live next to public housing." Hello, professor? This is hindsight speaking. Guess what: Rich people are, in fact, going to live next to public housing. And they’re going to pay a million dollars to do it.

“Red Hook was changing so quickly. I saw these two girls mincing down Pioneer Street in tapered jeans and flats, and I thought, ‘I’m done.’ ”

Because gentrification, as we all know, is a self-sustaining cycle that by its nature will never peter out—it only grows stronger. It creates its own spores. Scruffy bohemians land in some far-off neighborhood, plant a few cool bars and alluring galleries, make the neighborhood safe for the coming army of strollers, then, priced out, politely pack up and move on to start the whole cycle again. As for the local residents who preceded this invasion, they usually meet one of two fates: If they’re owners, they cash in, their long-held properties converted into winning lottery tickets. If they’re renters, they’re chased out, exiled to some even bleaker border town to await the coming of the spores once again. (Hey, East New York! Don’t unpack your bags!)

This cycle has transformed Soho and Williamsburg and Bushwick and, who knows, may one day swallow Crown Heights and Canarsie. The only reason it hasn’t been going on since time immemorial, spreading the boundaries of New York City all the way to Plattsburgh in the north and Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the west, is that the city went through that pesky period of lawlessness and chaos and blackouts and bankruptcy in the seventies. And that’s not going to happen again, right? I mean, can you imagine punk-rock squatters taking over the Richard Meier condos in the Village? Or crack dealers running the bankers and celebrities out of the blue-glass tower on Astor Place?

Of course not.

But imagine this instead.

What if gentrification isn’t self-sustaining after all? What if, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: a self-extinguishing phenomenon? What if it’s less a flood than a forest fire—wild, yes, out of control, absolutely, but destined to consume itself by burning through the fuel it needs to survive?


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