Saturday, June 23, 2018

a piece at Harpers intones the death of New York City

New York has been my home for more than forty years, from the year after the city’s supposed nadir in 1975, when it nearly went bankrupt. I have seen all the periods of boom and bust since, almost all of them related to the “paper economy” of finance and real estate speculation that took over the city long before it did the rest of the nation. But I have never seen what is going on now: the systematic, wholesale transformation of New York into a reserve of the obscenely wealthy and the barely here—a place increasingly devoid of the idiosyncrasy, the complexity, the opportunity, and the roiling excitement that make a city great.

As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.

By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.


To playfully put a twist on a phrase penned by the lately departed Tom Wolfe, when the affluent of New York considered the question of how "you don't think the future knows how to cross a bridge?" people with the power to do so zoned the possibility of crossing that bridge out of existence for people without the means to afford to stay, after crossing the bridge.

The immediate cause of the increase in poverty doesn’t require much investigation. The landlords are killing the town. Long ago, the idea that “rent is too damn high” in New York was so thoroughly inculcated into the city’s consciousness that it became a one-man political party and a Saturday Night Live sketch. But the rent is too damn high, and getting higher all the time. Whereas the old rule of thumb was that your rent should be one paycheck a month, or about 25 percent of your income, the typical New York household now spends at least one third of its income on rent, and three in ten renter households pay 50 percent or more, according to the latest New York Housing and Vacancy Survey.

And the situation is getting rapidly worse. According to the same survey, the price New York landlords wanted for vacant apartments from 2014 to 2017 increased by 30 percent, while the median household income for all renting families from 2013 to 2016 went up by 10 percent. The burden has fallen hardest on those who can least afford it, according to the real estate database StreetEasy, with rents rising fastest on the lowest wage earners in the city.


The rent being too high in cities like New York or Seattle seems like something we should have anticipated over the decades.  If anything it would seem like those who openly advocated for the "Urban Archipelago" over against all the red-state voting morons in fly-over country should have seen this coming. No matter how big a city is still a city, cities have limits, and it's nearly axiomatic that the more progressive the city is in its political sympathies the more confining its zoning customs are. Nor can it be said that arts interests correspond well with the interests of regular working people as anyone who has read coverage of the zoning battle in Boyle Heights could recall. 

If an American arts scene has a place for a Jeff Koons why should it be a surprise that a city like New York can end up overpriced, gentrified to the point at which it's too expensive for regular people to live in, and in some way a hollow shell of the art scene it may have once been? 

But having grown up all my life on the West coast I have not been won over to the art religion of New York as the center of the world.  I met an aspiring jazz musician decades ago who matter-of-factly declared that if you could make it in New York you could make it anywhere.  I asked, "Why don't you just make it anywhere first and then go to New York if you feel like it?"

All the alleged awareness of "the one percent" at this point seems moot if the upper twenty-percent considers themselves to have not and have never contributed to the situation. 

And the rest of us may have, without thinking through the implications, Amazon-delivered our regional culture away.

Now while I've got my objections to the legacy of German idealism and 19th century European art religion I am not so sure that a newer era of intersectionally-informed poptimist culture is necessarily going to be better.  I like animation and I enjoy a range of popular music from the 20th century.  I'm a classical guitarist but I can appreciate that hip hop has become "the" dominant popular music in terms of raw sales across the nation and change happens.  Given the lag between formalized theory and musical practice (with the former dragging behind the latter for maybe a half a generation or so in musical historical terms if we don't count all the 20th century avant garde bids at prescriptive theory from Schoenberg through the total serialists and so on) we may not have a clear or concise range of theories of what takes for a solid hip hop number that can make its way into a music education textbook for another generation.  The racial ideological narratives are still too front and center in the realm of educators who want to discuss the music.  I'm not saying that part doesn't need to be discussed, it's just that when I consider the messages I heard and read from Civil Rights leaders it seemed like sustaining a purity politics wasn't necessarily foremost in the minds of King and others. 
But then the assumption that hip hop can only traffic in misogyny and anarchy and anti-establishment thought seems far too glib, too. 

But the purported demise of New York City seems like part of a larger trajectory I've been thinking about in the last few years.  The Atlantic-based circle of economic and political power-brokering has a shelf-life and while the rise of Trump is glibly taken as a sign that America is going to be fascist (and it could be, because democracies don't seem to really last that long if we consider the thousands and thousands of years of human history), it could betoken something else.  A declining New York could be just another potential indicator that the Atlanticist power dynamic that has governed the world for half a millennium is inching ever closer to some unofficial end of its shelf life.  There's no reason to think that people at Silicon Valley are less terrible in terms of the world-shaping influence they have compared to a place like New York, but I'm thinking, too, in terms of cultural-artistic paradigms.  If New Yorkers could think of themselves as the artistic-cultural center of the American universe that era can end, especially if fewer and fewer normal people can afford to live there.  If a high-end retailing arts district and financial district chain is what New York becomes then the insularly middle-to-highbrow can only go so long without becoming ... what's the phrase?  Decadent?  Maybe.

Of course I've lived on the West coast my whole life.  I saw the Seattle music scene emerge.  Meh.  I witnessed what I regarded as a renaissance of animation as an art form and that has been fantastic to observe as a lifelong admirer of the art form. Whether we're talking about the first eight years of The Simpsons, South Park over 18 years, Batman: the animated series, the emergence of a mainstream market for Miyazaki's works by way of Disney distribution, the development of Flash-based animation shows ranging in style and content from My Little Pony to Archer, animation has exploded with life. 

And ... a lot of the in-between and cel work gets done by studios in South Korea.

I've been thinking in the last few years how we may have already been shifting from an Atlancist to a Pacific nexus of power. If by some chance the Trump administration or whatever "deep state" power brokers sense that that is the change in the tide, then I don't feel a great need to bewail the demise ofa  New York city I've never had any incentive to visit. 

We seem to have a mythology popular among the liberal arts and journalists that if you just promote the liberal arts human liberty flourishes but there's no real reason to believe that has ever been the case.  If anything in geo-political and military terms it seems that the stronger and more stable empire is the context within which liberalization trends can emerge, but the culture-industry types or "culture-makers" keep thinking that the cart really must somehow come before the horse. 

When I was still in school I remember hearing and reading that the future of the American economy was in information markets and in service-based economies and that the days of industrial production were gone.  Well, here we are and it seems it sucks.  When Trump was running I didn't like him but if the rebuttal to "make America great again" is "America already is great" and "I'm with her", that latter slogan was the most insufferably smug slogan I've heard in thirty years.  If that was the best the DNC could do their failure is not altogether mysterious.  As Truman reportedly put it, if you give the public the opportunity to choose between a fake Republican and a real one they vote for the real one. 

But then with the current guy, I just don't see how fifteen to twenty years of the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee or even Rachel Maddow couldn't give us the emergence of someone from within the castes of television of someone like Trump.   If Reagan was our movie star president then Trump is our reality TV star president and yet the entertainment industry does not seem to have stepped back enough to recognize how it played a part in making it conceivable for such a man to throw his hat into the ring.  What if a leader like Trump can show America, and more particularly New York, what it has really been as distinct from what its people and its literati in particular have convinced themselves its supposed to have been?

In that sense, native Pacific Northwesterner that I am, I'm just not sure that the decline (perhaps more imagined than real) of New York City is automatically tragic because someone at Harpers has written about it.  It is sad, and Seattle is set to be too expensive for many of its lifelong residents to feel able to stay around. We have a comparable shift going on over there, too.  But that is, I think, the inevitable outcome of attempting to cultivate power and influence across that urban archipelago.  What blue state types don't seem to realize is that what this long-term policy nexus would encourage could look suspiciously like the emergence of powerful city states that are expected to (absent the existence of a functional Electoral College system) completely dominate the course of the United States. 

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