Some Random Thoughts on Gentrification and the New New York

Earlier today, I came across an interesting article on Fast Company.

In short, photographers James and Karla Murray captured the same storefronts a decade apart, and show how much New York has changed over the past several years.

The piece, being told mostly in pictures, is really fascinating, and stirs some confusing emotions for me. Here’s an example:

We definitely needed another bank.

As you can see by that photo and others in the article, Manhattan is a radically different place than it was ten years ago. Sure, it’s cleaner, safer, and by most accounts a nicer city; it’s also gotten somewhat sterile, comparatively bland, and exponentially more expensive.

Welcome to the new New York, where gentrification is not just a necessity for a major metropolitan area, but seemingly the goal itself.

Before I go any further, let me make plain that I’ve long been of the mind that gentrification is in many ways essential to make room for the burgeoning population of a city, while creating profit in areas where there once was none. While I can’t say that I have no emotional qualms about the displacement of lower-income residents that usually comes part and parcel with gentrification, I can say that from a perspective of coldly detached logic, the process tends to make a city safer and wealthier.

And I will unequivocally say this can be and often is a good thing.

For example, as a New Yorker, I hate Times Square for what it is. But, I have to admit that I think it’s better (and infinitely more profitable) for the city as a whole that tourists and TGIFridays’ have taken the place of peep shows and drug dealers. I have to believe that.

While that example is probably one most people can agree with, being in favor of gentrification is an unpopular opinion, particularly for long-time New Yorkers, and most especially those of us who come from, as Dickens might put it, humble beginnings. A recent example might be that of Spike Lee, who went off on an emotionally-charged anti-gentrification rant that one might describe as a rambling diatribe.

For the most part, I agree with his points, even if I think that, had they been more artfully made, they could have had greater impact. There is one major issue I disagree with: he makes gentrification about race, rather than money.

But really, I have no right to make any sort of argument against that stance, because I am not the displaced–I’m the target market. And to be honest, gentrification has been good to me: it allowed me to live well and (relatively) cheaply, while at the same time getting to experience the rush of a changing cityscape. To establish context, I’ll give you the rundown.

When I was 26, I managed to escape the bizarrely strong gravatational pull of Long Island, which seems to ensure that most people are born and die in places no more than a few miles apart. As much as I love(d) Long Island, the time had come to make the move into the City. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and one that had profound effects on me, not least of which was that I got a first hand look at the gentrification.

To that, you should know that for the great majority of the years I resided in Manhattan, I lived in a neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. If you’re not from New York, you’re not aware that 10 years ago, that declaration would have brought a gasp to most lips. If you are from New York, you probably know where this is going.

Here’s the truth: for the better part of two centuries, Hell’s Kitchen was one of the most violent, disreputable, and disdained neighborhoods in the City (and perhaps, by extension, the world). The minds of non-New Yorkers always drift to Harlem or the Bronx when you talk about the darker side of NYC, and to be sure those are historically rough places. But only Hell’s Kitchen—the long time home of Irish and German gangs, low-level mobsters, and pretty much all of the prostitutes West of 5th Ave—was actually named for how rough it was.

But that was then.

Now, Hell’s Kitchen is one of the most up and coming neighborhoods in New York. Or, it was a few years ago. Now, HK is so established that it’s more of an “up-and-came” area than anything else, as it’s been called up and coming for a dozen years or more. These days, Hell’s Kitchen has more or less become North Chelsea: it’s full of trendy restaurants, bars specializing in craft beer, and beautiful glass high rises full of young professionals and tiny dogs.

I know this, because I was one of them—and like the rest of the current population of Hell’s Kitchen, I got there because of the rapid rate of late-stage gentrification.

When I moved into HK in late 2009, it was a changing neighborhood. I moved into a brand new building: 39-stories of ultra-modern, ultra-luxury made of steel, stone, and envy. I was the first person to live in my unit—a 2-bedroom panty-dropper that cost about 30% less than a comparable apartment just 20 blocks to the south (an older one, with an outdated lobby and shittier appliances). Despite being at least 20% bigger than the average 2-bedroom, the base price of my apartment was much less. And then on top of that, in order to fill the building, the incentivized residents by tacking two months of free rent onto the lease.

In short, I got a great fucking deal. And had a great fucking time.

Fourteen months later, I moved across the street into the brand new sister building of the one I lived in. It was even more awesome than my first apartment—in addition to larger bedrooms and an additional bathroom, the lobby looked like a hotel, and it had a roof deck was made for closing. I was also the first person to live in my unit. This time, they gave me just one free month of rent. Still, it was boss.

Again, I lived out my lease and left.

Just thirteen months later, I moved three blocks away, into another brand new high rise.

building #3

This one was even more modern, even more badass. It was a 75-story monolith of made of sleek black glass and impossible aspirations. Now that stainless steel appliances and modern appointments were no longer enough to stand out, the over-the-top amenities of this building also included a basketball court, an indoor swimming pool, and a dose of self-satisfied haughtiness owing to the fact that the entire building was LEED certified. Evidently there comes a point when living in style just isn’t enough; you have to be reducing your carbon footprint while doing it.

Because the building was so big and had so many units to fill, the management company turned to the age old trick of giving free rent. This time, it was four months—the net effect of which meant that I was actually paying $200 less than my previous apartment. Winner, winner.

The long and short of it is that I was able to experience incredible luxury and live in the kind of apartments normally reserved for the super wealthy. Although I was doing financially well when I moved into Manhattan and even better when I left, the fact is that people at my then age and income bracket can’t typically ball the fuck out in the way I did as a direct of the gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen.

As in any rapidly expanding area, new buildings were going up all the time, creating vacancy and competition; this, in turn kept rents sane. Well, sane for New York.  While it’s typical for rent in Manhattan to increase anywhere from 7.5% to 11% annually, the average rent in HK spent a few years hovering as close to stable as is possible in NYC, with new buildings charging only incrementally more than those that had been around for a year or so.

This is one of the intended effects of gentrification: younger people with promising careers and a more-than-modest-but-not-overly-impressive income get to inhabit impressive living quarters and drool-worthy amenities for the tradeoff of living in in an area that’s too far from anything to make it worth coming to, ensuring that your friends will never visit you, even though your apartment is nicer way than theirs. (Or maybe that was just my friends.)

Of course, the very name Hell’s Kitchen still carried some negative connotations at that time (realtors had been ineffectively trying to rebrand the area as “Clinton” for years), and given that such things can have a profound effect on the perceived safety and value of an area, HK continued to be fairly inexpensive whilst I was there, at least in a comparative sense.

None of this, of course, even begins to touch on the greater effects gentrification can have on an area as a whole. During my nearly four years living in Hell’s Kitchen, I saw the neighborhood change rapidly. There’s an obvious appeal to luxury housing that is somehow bearably affordable, and with new buildings going up at breathtaking rates, the population swelled. As a matter of course, new businesses opened to accommodate them.

This happened so quickly I can’t properly describe it. The best I can do is say that every time you walked down 9th Ave, you’d spot a new restaurant opening, or one that you hadn’t seen before. You’d say “wait…was that there before?” almost as often as, “oh, we should try that place.”

Strangely, this happened so quickly that many of these places opened over one another. It’s a strange thing: to fall in love with a brand new restaurant, only to have it close and reopen a month later as something completely different.

This happened with my favorite sushi place, my favorite dive bar, and my favorite Turkish restaurant—all within three months of each other. It was enough to piss you off, and make me second guess my admittedly smug appreciation of gentrification.

So I did some digging. People—and by “people” I mean me—tend to think gentrification happens overnight, but in my research I began to see that it was a fairly slow process. The seeds are planted well before you see the fruit, and if they don’t take hold you’ll probably never know.

In the case of Hell’s Kitchen, this began roughly a decade prior to my arrival. Between 1999 and 2002, several high rises cropped up, mostly on 12th ave. These buildings were nothing like the shining gems of urban luxury like the ones I described earlier, but they were new, and they were nice. As Hell’s Kitchen was still an undesirable area, they were also very cheap.

A few pioneering real estate developers—most notably Silverstein Properties—saw something in this much-maligned area: potential. Well, that’s just speculation on my part. I can’t tell if you they saw potential, but at the very least they saw underutilized space. They gambled and thought that if they were conservative and patient, they could help redefine the area. If they have been wrong, those buildings would simply have remained, but likely become rundown with less care; the investment would have taken longer to break even, but rent and limited vacancy in manhattan being what they are, it would have happened eventually.

But, of course, they were right: a scant 15 years later, the area is hardly recognizable.

Interestingly, short a time as 15 years is in the grand scheme of things, the area has changed more in the past 5 years than it did in the first 10. Gentrification has a sort of geometric progression—the bigger it gets, the more quickly it can continue to grow.

As I said, I do tend to fall in favor of both the practice and the process. I love the fact that a city as old as New York changes day after day, year over year. I know that gentrification is one of the things that has made New York a wealthier and more prosperous city. And I feel that for the most part, a 60-story high rise built with some architectural flair is less of an eyesore and of more benefit than a six story tenement.

I more or less believe these to be true…but as the pictures in the Fast Company article pictures illustrate, they do not come without cost.

The most heartbreaking of these is the lead photo for the article: world-famous CBGB OMFUG, the storied underground music club where everyone from the Ramones to the Police got their start, is now gone. And that is a tragedy unto itself.

e tu, CBGB?

I could write an entire article about the disappearance of small music clubs and how it’s damaged the music scene I love, but that’s for another day. For now, it is enough to say that it’s hurtful in the extreme to be reminded that CBGB is no more.

There is small comfort, I suppose, in knowing that while it’s been replaced with a retail shop, at least that shop is a John Varvatos store. If there’s one designer who personifies rock and roll, it’s Varvatos, and by his own admission he’s doing his best to keep the spirt of the place alive. And, as many musicians who used to play at the club have themselves intoned, at least it’s not a Starbucks.

So, I guess that’s the price gentrification has on the so-called gentry: guilt. Which is not as bad as displacement. But you’re responsible. Or, rather, I am. At least in part. When old neighborhoods become new, and poor areas become wealthy; when luxury shops open on the bones of historic music venues; when the culture of the area changes with it’s population, and it becomes ever-more the case that only the wealthy can live comfortably in Manhattan, I am at fault.

By and large, I think that the world, Manhattan, and even New Yorkers are better served by filling Times Square with a crowds of tourists dining at the Olive Garden than it would be by a bevy of hookers soliciting johns. But that cannot be said of all of the changes that have occurred over the past decade and a half.

Because I can tell you honestly, as much as I’ve benefited from and contributed to the changing landscape of the City, I can’t help but feel saddened by the inevitable loss of character this brings to these individual areas, and New York City as a whole.

I don’t think we can stop it, or even that we should necessarily want to. But I think we can all admit that it’s a sad day in Manhattan when at least it’s not a Starbucks is the best that can be said about anything.


About The Author
John Romaniello is an author, consultant, and coach who helps people and brands find their voice through writing. He's published hundreds of articles, dozens of courses, and one New York Times bestselling book. Might wanna check out his Instagram, he's pretty easy on the eyes.