Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Hyper-gentrification turned renegade Manhattan into plasticine playground. Can the city find its soul again?
Cities change. The neighborhoods we fall in love with as natives and newcomers can metamorphose slowly, or overnight. Those who can stick around shoulder the loss and move on, hardened to the next wave of inevitable transformation.
But if the latest tide of urban change seems different—too glassy, too uniform, too corporate to be natural; more like a siege than a shift—you’re not alone. In Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul (Dey Street Books, $28.99), author Jeremiah Moss nails a valuable argument: New York City’s current state of “hyper-gentrification,” as he calls it, is no passive turn of the free market, but the culmination of a calculated takeover by elites decades in the making.
Since 2007, the pseudonymous Moss has eulogized the disappearance of the people’s New York on his popular blog. Mom-and-pop diners, sagging-shelf book shops, leather bars, punk lairs, workhorse clinics and filthy SROs: Moss (recently unveiled as Griffin Hansbury, a social worker and psychoanalyst) has long borne witness to these spaces, lovingly and crankily chronicling their demise as rent hikes and development schemes put condos, chain stores, and corporate banks in their place.
Spinning his digital jeremiad into paper, Moss charts the waves of gentrification that turned an iconoclastic Manhattan into plasticine playground. Where immigrants, minorities, radicals, queers, runaways, and everyday workers once built an island of tolerance, grit, and creative verve, Moss shows that tourists, college bros, and the superrich now occupy a bland-ified fortress of consumption.
There is much embitterment, snark, and rhapsodizing about egg-creams to satisfy the downtown romantic here. Hansbury is also a poet by training, and through Moss, his humanist odes to bygone businesses can move a reader to tears. (Of an owner running his hand along his doomed cafe’s countertop, Moss writes: “He was caressing it—for the ten thousandth time, for the last time—lovingly and compassionately, with his whole palm, the way you’d stroke the neck of a good horse whose time has come, helping to ease it to death.”)
But the book is much more than a nostalgia trip. Moving across the boroughs, Moss traces the racist, money-hungry “real estate magnates, financiers, planners, and politicians” who sent immigrants packing and kept down minorities in the twentieth century. Apart from the ghastly deeds of Robert Moses and his ilk, Moss tells of lesser-known power plays, such as the 1970s housing commissioner Roger Starr’s influential notion of “planned shrinkage” and an earlier city policy that intentionally deprived poor communities of firefighting services.
Widespread, purpose-built gentrification began in earnest in the 1980s, with Mayor Ed Koch’s business-friendly “renewal” policies driving out low-rent pickle shops, tenements, and dive bars. Deviants, bohemians, and the very poor were squeezed further by Rudy Giuliani’s crackdowns on jaywalkers, strip joints, and street vendors—on top of his demolishing squats and armoring NYPD officers with military-grade equipment.
But for Moss, it was Michael Bloomberg who served hyper-gentrification’s kiss of death to the vulnerable post-9/11 city. This book delivers an unflinching indictment of the growth-above-all ethos the billionaire mayor fashioned in New York and now spreads to downtowns around the world. Bloomberg rezoned an incredible 40 percent of the city and demolished nearly 25,000 buildings in a quest for wealth-oriented redevelopment, Moss writes; for all their good, the expansion of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and the High Line are implicated in the displacement and culture-suffocating effects of the era. Bloomberg above all, Moss declares, was how New York became a city of absent oligarchs, super-talls, and poor doors; of a historic homelessness crisis and Taylor Swift as tourist ambassador; a “Potemkin village of what the city used to be,” where landmarks are put out of business and have their names commodified for outsiders. Above all: a city that is longer changing, but may be hardening in its Dickensian inequality.
What can be done? “Neither natural nor inevitable,” hyper-gentrification can be treated, Moss writes. He concludes by swiping at a few remedies. Some are more familiar to European cities, like restraining tourism, limiting chain businesses, and imposing vacancy taxes. Others are flashpoints of urban politics in the U.S.: including communities in development decisions, strengthening rent controls, and building meaningful affordable housing.
Moss also asks newcomers to his vanished city for a certain respect and curiosity, a willingness to look through its mall-like façade to find unpredictability, oddness, and discomfort. Much of the book is not so sympathetic to recent transplants; Moss sometimes seems unwilling to extend the humanity he offers to displaced shop owners to the iPhone-loving gentrifiers he sees clogging the sidewalk.
But they are here, they are people, and they must mean hope. If it is to be saved, New York “needs to be seen and loved” by new generations, Moss says, and fought for by them and old-timers alike. Hyper-gentrifying San Francisco, D.C., Boston, and L.A. might use the same tough love. This book is a radicalizing guide.