Praising (and Burying) Neighborhoods

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, May 2, 1986

There’s an old adage that everybody talking about heaven isn’t going there. This thought poked its way forward as I was contemplating the idea of neighborhoods in New York City.

Only the State of Liberty gets bathed in more reverence these days than neighborhoods. Every politician with a street corner and a loudspeaker extols neighborhood values, neighborhood spirit, the strength of neighborhood bonds. Then how come the old neighborhoods are being destroyed all over the city to make way for the well-to-do?

So far, this scorched-earth policy has struck mostly in Manhattan, but parts of Brooklyn have also come under attack and it’s only a question of time before neighborhoods in the boroughs will be belovingly leveled.

I was sitting at a dinner table recently with a senior public official, and the subject of the city’s housing crisis came up. He asked me what I would think of a policy that set about raising perhaps $2 billion or $3 billion for low-income housing by auctioning off city land in Manhattan to the highest bidders. The highest bidders, of course, would be the major real estate developers — the same people who, with the city’s blessing, are erasing the old neighborhoods now.

My response was that such a program would be one of the most destructive community policies anyone could imagine. It would institutionalize what is already happening on an ad hoc basis — the economic segregation of the city.

It would say that working-class people, which means people who make less than $25,000 or $30,000 a year, could no longer live in Manhattan — even if they’re already living there and are part of a viable neighborhood.

The result of a policy like this would be to replace lively, mixed, spicy neighborhoods with boring, homogeneous, bland neighborhoods. And it would make a sneering, elitist, class-structure statement to the other boroughs.

In short, it would be a wonderful way to divide the city by official edict. Unfortunately, that division is being carried out right now on an unofficial basis.

For those who ask where the housing money will come from if we don’t put Manhattan land up for a gold-rush auction, the answer is that other money sources and financing devices do exist to produce low-income and moderate-income apartments. These sources and devices have been demonstrated for years by community housing groups. Some of these ideas are now being plagiarized by Mayor Edward Koch who, eight years late, has unplugged his deaf ears because the housing crisis has reach proportions that can no longer be dealt with by rhetoric.

Yet even the mayor’s plagiarism hasn’t altered his apparent view that the borough of Manhattan must be reserved solely for those who can afford the kind of heavily secured luxury building that can keep the homeless from wandering into the lobby to get warm.

People who like what’s happening to housing and real estate in this city respond testily to disagreeable comments such as mine by saying that change is inevitable, that neighborhoods are always in some form of transition and that getting in the way of these natural forces is like trying to hold back progress. (Progress — like neighborhoods and the Statue of Liberty — gets a lot of mythic adoration from the bulldozer crowd.)

Yes, change is an ongoing process and no community is exempt from its pressures. But what’s happening in New York is not natural change; it’s something quite unnatural — a forced, breakneck species of change, fueled by tax abatements and other real estate lures. It’s like a speeded-up soundtrack, with everyone talking like Donald Duck.

So cobblers and family grocery stores and corner diners with stools are all vanishing at high speed, to be replaced by designer cookie shops. I do like cookies, but there goes the neighborhood.

I was walking through one of these threatened neighborhoods, Clinton, on a morning this week, and, in the light of the early sun, the five-story tenements were a pleasant respite from the unimaginative high-ride boxes beginning to dwarf them on all sides. My intent is not to romanticize smallish walk-up flats, but simply to say that attention must be paid to human-scale housing.

I passed a block-sized parking lot where William Zeckendorf Jr. plans to create a new high-rise village of offices and expensive apartments. An impact study done by the city says the project will put serious stresses on traffic, subway facilities, air quality and, not least, “neighborhood character.”

For example, the study said, “The project would contribute to the general escalation of real estate values and rent levels on Ninth Avenue and could lead to some indirect displacement of existing retail uses.” Translated form officialese, this means that the residents and shopkeepers now in the area are going to become displaced persons.

In fairness, I must hasten to add that Zeckendorf is far from the most voracious developer in the city. In response to opposition, he has made concessions that include a promise to create some low- and moderate-income apartments in the neighborhood; and these modifications have won the local community board’s approval for his project.

But, still in fairness, the heart of the issue is that he has not reduced the size of the complex, and this means that the subways and streets will be overloaded and that there will be more displaced persons than need be.

I visited one of the displaced-to-be zones, a television repair shop at the corner of 49th Street and 9th Avenue. The building this shop is in is largely tinned up and the shopkeeper says his lease expires soon, adding that the landlord is not offering new leases and “wants everybody out.”

Asked if he was looking for new space in the neighborhood, he said, shrugging: “I’m looking, I’m looking. But I can’t afford the new rents around here.”

His assistant, Raymond Lopez, fearing unemployment, felt a deep need to speak. “Where are poor people like me supposed to go? Maybe to Jupiter or the Moon?” He smiled wanly. “We’re not asking for something special. We are working people. We work hard. It’s not nice.”

No, Raymond Lopez, it’s not nice. But it’s the new neighborhood policy.

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