The Price of Living

by Barry Drogin

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The reason New York City’s economy is in such shaky shape is because the city has gone from being the place where people came to make money – if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, blah, blah, blah – to the place where people come to spend money.

The last of NYC’s labor industries – the garment industry – has now officially reached below critical mass and died. New York City is now about money; more specifically, about money changing hands, often conspicuously. Advertising is money that companies spend in order to entice consumers and businesses to spend their money. Finance is about lending money, trading for money, buying and selling stocks and bonds and currencies and companies and goods using money. Insurance is about giving a firm money not to bet against the house as in gambling, but as a bulwark against tragedy, the loss of more money. Tourism in Manhattan has always been about spending far too much money for the same garbage you can buy or see at home, but for the luster of being able to say that you bought it or saw it in New York. Fashion and art galleries and expensive restaurants have always catered to the luxury class. There are the dregs of some other industries still in New York – publishing, education, TV and film production – but these employ a very small portion of the 8.2 million (or 22 million “metropolitan region”) residents.

Just about everyone in New York is either independently wealthy from having made money elsewhere – or in a profession that in some way gives wealthy individuals or companies someone or something to spend that wealth on.

Conspicuous consumption has become THE raison d’être for New York City’s continued existence. People maintain a living space in Manhattan so that they can demonstrate that they maintain a living space in Manhattan. Companies set up flagship stores in Manhattan not because those stores are profitable, but so that the company as a whole can claim that it is successful enough to be able to maintain a flagship store in Manhattan. Performing groups perform in New York so that they can profitably tour elsewhere and truthfully claim that they have performed in New York.

Given this truth about New York – and it is a truth not because I say it is, but because it merely is - it is astounding how many people have not realized it yet. On occasion, people do still stupidly come to New York in order to test some new business model, when it would be safer and cheaper to try that model out somewhere else. Other people do come to New York to be “discovered,” and New York’s media industry does give some short-term recognition to the rare individual, but it is insular and unprofitable in the long run. I know a musician who hit a New York Times trifecta – three outstanding reviews about his work in three different roles (musical director, conductor, performer) within a one-month span of time – and a year later he was still struggling to find work, finding it mainly in Canada (today he still has a small steady foot in New York City, but his career is primarily out-of-town).

Another surprising thing about New York, again, given this context, is that the term “developer” has retained an evil luster, when development – the conversion of spaces into newer spaces that are more expensive – is not only the most essential part, but pretty much the only real part, of New York’s economy. Development does not strain city services, it is the only mechanism for the growth of city services. Development does not destroy neighborhoods, it saves neighborhoods. New York has never been affordable, and many would be wise to seek their fortunes elsewhere; in fact, many do. The number of people in the United States with a relative who once lived in Brooklyn is astonishing. The number of people who move out of Manhattan on a daily basis is astounding. The number of businesses with a New York shelf life that is less than a pickle is uncountable.

New York has developed its share of amazing amenities, from Central Park to the South Street Seaport to more recent projects like the Hudson River Park, the Highline, and other projects yet to be started. Tourism has Times Square and Lincoln Center and Museum Mile. Two skyscrapers that will top the Empire State Building, the Bank of America Tower and the Freedom Tower, will be erected, and I have no idea which business tenants will fully occupy them, but these will be offices that did not exist before, and will provide employment to the region, and result in real estate taxes, business taxes, and NYC income taxes.

New York reinvents itself every twenty years, as any tour guide will tell you, and I am certainly in favor of the preservation of a landmark or two to represent a reminder and artifact of every period of the city’s history. I went to college at an institution that had a unique property, a building whose exterior was landmarked – the insides were ripped out and modernized. That exterior is being flanked on all sides by glass high-rises, which reflect the 1859 façade intriguingly in their windows.

I have come to consider the establishment of landmark districts with suspicion; I used to joke that I lived across the street from one, which gave me a view of a mile clear across the 4-story brownstones from my fifth floor window; now some idiot has placed my building, which was built on landfill, into a new Far West Village “landmark” district. Frankly, everything west of the Avenue of the Americas was literally “the wrong side of the tracks,” the elevated train separating Greenwich Village from the jail, market, bars for sailors, railroad (which became elevated), meat market, and poor people who were its residents. I could see keeping Leroy Street/St Lukes Place, between Hudson and 7th Avenue South, intact (although the park it now fronts was once a cemetery), and keeping tour buses off of it is essential, but the neighborhood's zoning has only managed to turn all other buildings into multi-million dollar properties. I wouldn’t mind knocking many of them down to make room for schools, synagogues, parks, large and small businesses, and housing for even more tax-paying rich folk. I’ve never had a problem with Memphis Downtown, the Archive Building, Meier’s Charles Street tower and its companions, or even Schnabel’s “Pompeii red” palazzo, although I was a little nervous about the Hotel Gansevoort until the final skin came on to it (the same could be said of its massive billboard, which was shocking when empty but became less offensive when in use and when one realized how many other billboards were located so very nearby).

An appreciating brownstone does not serve the New York City economy as well as a new tower, and people should admit that there are beautiful towers and ugly towers, just as there are beautiful brownstones and ugly ones (and ugly 4-story buildings which, due to zoning, cannot be replaced with beautiful towers). As to light, views, wind, setbacks and public plazas, again, there are good and bad. If anyone really cared about preservation and use, then stoop gates would be banned and stoop sitting on private property made an inalienable right, noise and privacy be damned (I’ve learned never to live on the bottom or top floor of a building, and those who do do so at their own inconvenience). It certainly would help dissipate those non-anonymous alcoholics off of that Perry Street corner, and give those of us carrying groceries and such a place to rest and chat.

For every Trump tower, there is a St Patrick’s Cathedral; for every converted refrigerator warehouse, there is a modern architectural wonder – or mistake. Unlike other international cities like Paris or London, New York City is continuously reinventing itself, like Tokyo or the downtown core of Singapore. People do commute to Manhattan to make money, but the people who live in Manhattan do so despite the cost, or in flagrant disregard of the cost. A cheap New York would be a contradiction in terms; bargains in New York are still outrageous compared to elsewhere.

Of course, there is taste, both literally (much food outside of New York is inedible to New Yorkers), and in other fields such as architecture, interior design, painting, and music (not so much anymore in theatre, and New York fashion (black, black and black) only makes sense within its own grimy borders). For some of us, to live anywhere else in the United States would simply be too BORING. The price – again, literally, but also, as E.B. White observed, the “gift” of loneliness and privacy – is, to a rare breed of humans, worth the air quality, the ugliness, the garishness, the attitude, and the angst.

But it still all comes down to the price.

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Last Updated: September 1, 2007