How Craigslist Has Changed New York

Photo: Associated Press

Five years ago this month, Craigslist New York went live. Founder Craig Newmark, a 52-year-old Morristown, New Jersey, native, says he “had some trepidation” about launching the New York version of the San Francisco–born site, fearing the personals section, in particular, would breed harassment, or scammers would dominate sales transactions, but he says that never came to pass. “The moral tone of New Yorkers is very high.” The site averaged 200 posts every weekday in 2001. That grew to 2,200 the second year. Today, it’s more than 50,000, and Craigslist has changed New York in all sorts of obvious, and covert, ways. Here are a few.

Reality TV Got its Virtual Casting Couch
Is Craigslist to blame for The Biggest Loser? NBC, the WB, and the Learning Channel all regularly post Craigslist ads trolling for reality-TV cast members. Ashton Kutcher’s Beauty and the Geek is another show that’s had Craigslist contenders, according to Craig Lechner, casting director for Impossible Casting, although he admitted that some people who respond to such ads are “sketchy.” And The Tyra Banks Show recently posted an ad looking for women who are in love with gay men. “People express themselves more honestly” through Craigslist, says TLC’s vice-president of production, Michael Klein (who himself “had great success selling a washing machine” on the site), adding that his network is looking for people going through “life stages,” the same sort of people he thinks head to Craigslist when they’re in the market for a new girlfriend.

It Helped Set Offthe Vintage-Furniture Craze
Is it coincidence that Craigslist’s ascendancy dovetailed with the rise of midcentury-modern mania? “It’s like a giant yard sale,” says Andrew Eutsler of Cosmo’s Cosmos furniture shop in Brooklyn, whose best finds include six Saarinen tulip chairs for $75. And it’s not just midcentury stuff. An employee at Steven Sclaroff in the West Village tried in vain to snag a mahogany T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings chest for $15. (A refinished one at the store costs $3,225.) “People don’t know what they’ve got, and then it’s gone,” says Eutsler. But sellers are wising up. A few years ago, he slipped and told some how happy he was to get such a great deal. They raised prices on the spot. Buyers also realized better deals can be had from Eames-era grandmas with DSL. Craigslist’s a “threat,” admits David “Jake” Jacobs, of Two Jakes in Williamsburg. It “probably has blown the bubble on things that we as retailers could’ve gotten more money for.”

It Simplified Apartment-Hunting (Sort of)
It dealt a crippling blow to some print carriers of real-estate advertising. In its pre-Craig, May 4, 1999, issue, the Village Voice listed 821 rentals and 88 sublets. May 4, 2005, saw 430 rentals and only 8 sublets. (On Craigslist, rentals and sales listings are now at about 20,000 and 2,000 per day, respectively.) And it allowed more owners to sell or rent sans middleman (no fee!). Before long, though, the pros got into the action. Brokers have, in a sense, co-opted Craigslist by cluttering it up with duplicate listings so they stay at the top of each search page. Some have have gotten so good at bait-and-switch schemes that Newmark is considering charging them to post—a company first. “When I’m in New York and I pass a brokerage firm I know, I introduce myself,” he says. “The first reaction is usually panic. Maybe they don’t think I really exist.” After that, “they often want photos of them and me together.”

It Made it Easier to Hire Human Lab Rats
Of the 175 Craigslist sites in 34 countries, none has the variety and quantity of ads for focus groups that New York’s has, including, at any given point, studies for HIV patients, glaucoma sufferers, gum chewers, magazine readers, and drivers with parking tickets. But Craigslist doesn’t necessarily make for good science. Since participants who respond to Craigslist ads include only online folks, researchers can’t really get random samples. Also, it’s that much easier for “professional” guinea pigs to sign up repeatedly. “Some people keep on going and going and going,” says David Hurvitz, a cognitive scientist whom brands like Trident gum hire to study the “psychology of consumer perception.” He uses Craigslist to recruit participants for dummy studies, which he then analyzes to design real experiments. (The Craigslist respondents are none the wiser.)

Being a Pimpless Escort Became a Snap
Once dependent on small, expensive ads in the back of certain local newspapers and magazines, erotic-service workers like Jason—whose post reads “hot hung very tough horseman from texas”—love Craigslist. They can post more pictures on it, for one—but the anonymity factor also works to their advantage. “And it’s free.” A “sensational, sensual, erotic, busty blonde,” who gives “a ‘real’ massage with lots of sensual, erotic, and sexual teasing,” adds, “At one point, New York Magazine was the only place that you could really advertise under ‘erotic services,’ but you guys raised your prices so much, it became ridiculous. Now Craigslist is the way to go.”

How Craigslist Has Changed New York