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City of Glistening Surfaces
As is my habit, I try to chart the ups and downs of New York's fortunes by exploring neighborhoods, and reading a variety of sources. I recently took a walk in the South Village, which roughly runs from Washington Square Park on the north, to Sixth Avenue on the west, Canal Street on the south, and West Broadway and LaGuardia Place on the east.
The neighborhood consists primarily of tenement buildings (with a few town houses) that evoke its past history as an Italian-American immigrant and working class enclave. The area served also as the center of Village bohemian life in the 50s and 60s that included gathering spots like the San Remo and Reggio and clubs like The Bitter End and the Gaslight where Bob Dylan sang.
Today it has a markedly different character; bohemia as it was once constituted no longer exists; its center, MacDougal and Bleecker Streets, lack energy and allure. There is nothing on those streets funky or idiosyncratic to respond to. Still, in the area south of Houston Street, I see a remnant of old Italian-American neighborhood ladies using walkers and overhear their fatalistic talk about funeral homes. The massive 19th century St. Anthony of Padua Church on Sullivan Street (the earliest Catholic Church established to minister to Italians) remains in place but with a greatly diminished congregation.
However, the neighborhood has gentrified. The stores that define it deal in Tibetan jewelry, gourmet tea, and art framing. There are upscale Italian restaurants and French ones named Les Pescadeux. The families playing with children in the totally renovated local playground are upper middle class, and relatively small luxury apartments have replaced some of the exhausted two/three story buildings that dotted the streets. In fact, a new expensive seven-story, mixed-use building is soon to break ground on Spring Street. There is no returning to cheap rents and the working class/bohemian ethos of the past.
The only hope for the conservation of neighborhoods like the South Village lies in landmarking. Otherwise, it will turn into a sea of outsized nouveau-riche towers like Trump's grotesque 45-story "condo-hotel", derisively looming over the rest of the neighborhood's buildings from a few blocks away. It's what the passionately committed head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Andrew Berman, has proposed for the South Village, but so far only one third of the area has been designated, and the section south of Houston has not yet been considered for discussion.
In a city where developers covet every desirable and even undesirable space to build on, some limits have to be set. Landmarking is sometimes the only option. For New York continues on one level to prosper, and one of the best ways to make big money is to build apartment towers, offices, and hotels. In a study released Tuesday by The Economist Intelligence Unit, New York City was seen as the world's most competitive city and will remain at the top of a global list of cities at least through 2025, according to a new analysis. It was first among 120 global cities ranked by their ability to attract capital, businesses, talent and visitors. And international demand for its business services continues to increase.
The city's flourishing side can be seen these days on the Bowery, where the high-end French apparel brand APC is planning to open a location at 49 Bond St. APC's appearance in the area comes at a time when the Bowery is evolving into a retail alternative to Soho, especially on the extremely chic, architecturally self-conscious Bond Street. And SoHo, with most of its art galleries and reasonably priced, arty restaurants long gone, is now a global destination for European tourists. Driven to consume they cram its sidewalks on weekends. The Rem Koolhaas designed Prada store pays more than $1,000 per square foot for its 10,000-square-foot space. SoHo has also become the downtown location for luxury retailers like Tiffany and Co.
So, the parts of the city that glitter, gleam, and emanate privilege are what most casual visitors to the city tend to see. Most tourists rarely seek to go beyond those glistening surfaces or ask questions about what lies beyond the Upper East and West Sides, and a downtown filled with bars, cafes, and people who look at ease in the world.
Nevertheless, the newspapers every day print stories that tell us about the other New York. In the more desperate city, because of federal sequestration, the New York City Housing Authority will be forced to make drastic cuts to its staff and programming. Reductions are expected to have a dire impact for some of the more than 650,000 New Yorkers who rely on the agency for an apartment or a Section 8 voucher.
One of the Housing Authority's projects, Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville, was built forty years ago in accord with an experimental design which was focused on giving residents a greater sense of control over where they lived. Supposedly it was to result in less crime. But over the years it failed to insulate the residents from neighborhood poverty, and the project became a center for gang-related violence. It's that ominous reality that confronts many inhabitants of city housing projects daily.
There is also homelessness, which has risen under Mayor Bloomberg with 50,000 people living in shelters (21,000 of them children). I see them in affluent NoHo, with their tattered bedding and soiled bags of clothes, sleeping under building sheds. But although I am conscious and critical of how the city tilts towards the wealthy, I merely absorb the fact, and like most of the other comfortable people around me go on drinking my latte.