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New York, New York

Credit: Steven Guerrisi

Cities Don’t ♥ Us

Our urban future is upon us, city planners tell us, but residents’ on-again, off-again relationship with their surroundings makes them want to say goodbye to all that.

Each day in New York an army of street-sweeping trucks fan across the boroughs purportedly inhaling the litter and waste that parks itself in curbside crevices along residential blocks. (Commercial districts are typically cleaned overnight.) If you’ve ever seen one of these massive contraptions you’ve probably wondered how much they truly clean—rather than just disperse the dirt and debris to another location for the next day’s job—and whether they do more environmental harm than good. And if you happen to be a car-owning New Yorker, the sound of a street sweeper even one or two blocks away can easily trigger a chain of panicked questions starting with “What time is it?” followed by “What day is it?” before landing on “What side of the street am I parked on?”

Alternate-side parking is a part of life in New York City. Both for New Yorkers and the city they live in, which relies on parking violation revenue to provide city services. Last year alone the city raked in $70 million from 1.2 million alternate-side parking violations at $55 a pop. Is it any wonder the Dept. of Sanitation fought a recent proposal that would allow car owners to re-park as soon as the street sweeper finished its work—rather than waste countless hours idling just to honor the official parking rules?

New York’s parking wars embody the modern city’s twisted relationship with its dwellers. Officials know street sweeping is largely ineffective and environmentally harmful. They know the fine bears no relation to the underlying offense (spare me the “social cost” argument) and targets working people living in the low-income outer-borough neighborhoods where parking is tight and cars are essential since mass transit is less available. They know that even if everyone earnestly tries to follow the law, there aren’t nearly enough spots for everyone during alternate-side parking times. They know the average urbanite has zero sympathy (disdain is more like it) for drivers even though the billions the city rakes in each year from bridge and tunnel tolls subsidize their train and bus commutes.

The suggestion that alternate-side parking fines exist for any reason other than revenue is vulgar and pretentious. Yet no official, elected or otherwise, will ever come out and admit alternate-side parking rules have been engineered to extract what amounts to a backdoor tax. Doing so would undermine the movement heralding the smart city as humanity’s redeemer. Cities, we are told again and again by the sustainability expert, are our destiny.

 

I left New York City a year ago for a suburb 30 miles north of the George Washington Bridge after it dawned on me that my choices weren’t simply: a) accept one insatiable property management company’s annual rent hike; or b) look for a new insatiable management company to extort me for the privilege of calling myself a New Yorker. Nevertheless, my life and livelihood have continued to revolve around the city. I work in both Newark and New York City, which means most mornings I commute to one of two (and often both) major urban centers.

The irony of my departure has never been lost on me. Each morning I drive up a winding mountain at the summit of which sits, on most days, a clear view of the Manhattan skyline. I’ve spent many a morning marveling as much at the picturesque vision as at the fact that I can be so near and far from the city, so free from and yet so dependent upon it, before plunging down said mountain and, ultimately, into the fracas.

Toward the end of my tenure I found myself envying noisy kids on trains, knuckleheads who blasted their tinny music from their phones—basically anyone who refused to fall in line.

The year of distance—of coming and going on a daily basis—has given me some perspective on the city and the end of my time living in it. I left angry. I’d paid my dues and was making a solid contribution to the city, yet I remained as expendable and replaceable as the day I arrived. I didn’t have enough capital, clout, or connections; therefore I was a tenant to be gouged, a taxpayer to be wrung dry, a daily commuter to be squeezed under an armpit on a stuffed train, a consumer to be consoled with drink, food, art, or some other balm at extortionate prices, a car to be fined with impunity. Toward the end of my tenure I found myself envying noisy kids on trains, knuckleheads who blasted their tinny music from their phones—basically anyone who refused to fall in line, quietly accept their lot, and continue being trampled on while maintaining a stiff upper lip. It was the rest of us, the dutiful ones who take the daily abuses like a badge of honor, like Fight Club fundamentalists, that I abhorred. I considered it no small coincidence that everywhere I turned kitschy derivatives of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster were on display. It was as if we’d all decided to make a joke of our hardship. It made me feel sick.

The past 12 months of shoveling, mowing, and raking have done wonders for my psychological well-being. As have Saturday morning hikes, drives north to nowhere towns on a Sunday, and sitting at my kitchen table staring at the stubby mountain two clicks east on a gray Monday morning. I’m not so angry anymore. Not always on my guard. Not always restless to do something or go somewhere. And while I may have traded in the city’s limitless opportunity for “sudden rejuvenation,” I’m consistently awestruck—and rejuvenated—by the Hudson Valley’s natural beauty.

The year hasn’t been perfect. I drive a lot more and spend a lot more money on gas, tolls, and auto repairs than I ever have. I still don’t know all of my neighbors, though the ones I’ve met have been supremely cordial. I don’t have any close friends within 30 miles. It took me 10 months to find a decent barber, 11 to find an authentic West Indian spot. I can admit I’ve hung out at the mall once or twice on a Saturday night. And yes it stings when one of my friends jokes about me going soft in the suburbs, perhaps all the more since I’m turning 40 this year. Mostly, though, I’ve been content in a way I couldn’t have anticipated, and it’s caused me to question the exaltation of urbanism.

 

Not long ago I appeared on a HuffPost Live segment to discuss black upward mobility. One of the other guests had written a piece about her experience in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. I’d lived in the same neighborhood a decade earlier so I was eager to hear her commentary. What she said struck me: She resented being mistaken for a neighborhood native and not a gentrifier simply because she was black. It had been no small feat for her to acquire her middle-class status. She’d been the first in her family to attend college, then law school. She wanted to be appreciated for who she had intentionally become: someone who could afford to live in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood for its many benefits, just like her white gentrifier counterparts.

This plea to be understood is both emblematic of an individualistic age that holds sacred personal freedom and control, and a consequence of an online marketplace that allows us to both optimize and specify with a click. It isn’t much of a leap from curating every aspect of one’s online life to curating every aspect of one’s real life. Where we live morphs from a matter of convenience, affordability, and proximity (usually to work) to an expression of one’s character, a demonstration of one’s freedom. Being able to live in the neighborhood of one’s own choosing is, in itself, evidence of our self-actualization. But that freedom (along with the price one pays to flaunt it) is invalidated if one’s choice goes unnoticed, hence my colleague’s desire to be branded a gentrifier notwithstanding the label’s negative connotations. If my white peers benefit from the gentrifier label then darn it I want a piece of the action too! What, after all, is the point of upward mobility if one can’t enjoy the statusticial fruits of one’s labor? I admired the audacity of her declaration.

Yet this is the crux of urbanism’s shell game. I don’t believe white urbanites are an inherently favored species. Stock images of attractive white couples may adorn the latest luxury condo, but not because urbanism has a special place in its heart for them. It’s economics, pure and simple. This, of course, contradicts the prevailing propaganda pumping out of government public relations offices across the country. The modern city cares about our health and wellness. It wants to be livable, sustainable, and walkable—vibrant. It wants to provide us with amenities and opportunities to experience culture, food, and community. According to the urbanist, the city wishes us to believe it can be both affordable and upscale. That it is invested in our children’s education, our safety, our careers. It is all things to all people. It has a heart.

The city will sometimes tease us. The train you desperately need will arrive on time. There will be parking on the block, an open table at a new restaurant. Your favorite artist will be playing in the park, for free.

And in fact, the city will sometimes tease us. The train you desperately need will arrive on time. There will be parking on the block, an open table at a new restaurant. Your favorite artist will be playing in the park, for free. In that moment, you will believe that things could not be any better than they are. You will feel the soothing satisfaction of having made the right choice in life. You will forget the infinite frustrations and heartaches you endure. You will rationalize your overpriced micro-dwelling as a social good. You will believe the life the city offers has been created to suit your unique and discriminating needs and tastes. And you will be wrong.

Here’s what really happens. First, a city hires a think tank to come up with a revitalization plan (pdf). That plan typically entails attracting young people with skills and education and retaining slightly older people with money and small children. Case in point: Washington, DC, in the early 2000s. As I’ve written elsewhere (pdf), in 2001Brookings Institute economist Alice Rivlin published a report entitled “Envisioning a Future Washington” in which she mapped a revitalization plan that became a blueprint for gentrification. Urban planning and design firms are then hired to figure out how to make a city more desirable to these people. They conduct surveys, mine the data, and issue reports that award these people a flattering label like “creative class” and pronounce what they are looking for and how cities can attract/retain them. What we see happening in cities across America is the result: an unmitigated backlash against the era of sprawl and its accomplices—strip malls, subdivisions, and big-box chains—nothing more, nothing less.

Indeed, the true genius of urbanism is that the marketing campaigns promoting it have seized upon a search for meaning that traditional institutions can no longer satisfy, promising, if only implicitly, to fill the gap. Just look at the shimmering, stylized artist renditions accompanying every new upscale urban development. Rays of light from the heavens above shower the newly paved sidewalks, reflecting boundlessly off the glass buildings and brightening the lives of the multi-hued populace carrying fresh fruits and vegetables in their canvas tote bags.

Urbanism has become the secular religion of choice practiced with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal tent revival, and the amenitized high-rise the new house of worship. It, after all, promises to fulfill or at least facilitate all of one’s needs while on Earth—with everything from rooftop community gathering space to sunlit Saturday morning yoga classes in the atrium.

This isn’t a new idea. In his celebrated and remarkably enduring 1949 essay, “Here is New York” (pdf). E.B. White addressed the spiritual life that a city offers:

Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city’s tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale … I think that although many persons are here for some excess of spirit (which cause them to break away from their small town), some, too, are here from a deficiency of spirit, who find in New York a protection, or an easy substitution.

White’s essay isolates the beauty of New York: It is a love letter. By all means, I invite you to be taken with it; I am. His city offers the range of rewards—sights and sounds and things to do. I marvel at the way White’s city operates, they way it manages to instill order and achieve artistry. In White’s capable hands, cities are humanity’s premier expression of civilization.

Urbanism, as well, has deftly aligned itself with human progress. It trumpets terms like “smart growth,” “sustainability,” “resilience,” and “scalability” to demonstrate both its concern with the quality of our lives and its progressive street cred. It champions urban “green space” as the solution for everything from obesity to asthma. But green spaces aren’t even parks. Often people can only use them during prescribed times and in particular ways—concerts, film screenings, seasonal outdoor markets. Moreover, they’re usually owned by a developer who likely built it as a concession for a sweet deal on the land. Yet this is what we celebrate? A paltry scrap of flora? Which just begs a question Thomas Frank posed in his Baffler essay skewering the “vibrancy” movement so many cities have staked their futures on:

… [W]hy is it any better to pander to the “creative class” than it is to pander to the traditional business class? Yes, one strategy uses “incentives” and tax cuts to get companies to move from one state to another, while the other advises us to emphasize music festivals and art galleries when we make our appeal to that exalted cohort. But neither approach imagines a future arising from something other than government abasing itself before the wealthy.

To be fair, in as much as cities can be said to have a consciousness, they fully comprehend their vulnerability. Urban planners know perfectly well that if the delicate balance between safety and prosperity is lost, then disinvestment and abandonment can strike. But they have also learned that people can be manipulated to identify with the city and thereby tolerate just about anything it dishes.

Take, for example, the campaign to save New York in the mid-1970s. The flagship city was in shambles so the state hired an advertising agency that in turn came up with the iconic “I Love New York” slogan, song, and logo. The campaign is widely credited with reviving the city’s tourist industry and endures nearly 40 years later; yet most Gen-Xers and all Millennials—the primary disciples of an emphatically anti-corporate, anti-mainstream movement—would be shocked to discover its commercial roots. Nor has it likely crossed our minds that Steve Karman’s braggadocious lyrics, “There isn’t another like it / No matter where you go” came at a time when, as “I ♥ NY” logo designer Milton Glaser put it, “Morale was at the bottom of the pit.”

All we know now is that any tourist can buy the shirt on just about any street corner, therefore the only way to simultaneously demonstrate the fealty, defiance, authenticity, and overall superiority indicative of a “real” New Yorker is through “real” battle in the crucible of urban combat. Real New Yorkers would never wear an “I ♥ NY” shirt. It’s beneath them, an amateur’s ornament. The mark of the real New Yorker’s love simply radiates from within. If you’re in the club then you’re in the club. Case in point: NY1’s “Real New Yorkers” promo campaign wherein the Time Warner-owned cable news network asks a series of rhetorical questions only a “real” New Yorker knows the answer to—e.g., “Why do you never tell the cab driver where you’re going until you’re inside the cab?”

Which is why it’s so deliciously fascinating that Taylor Swift has been anointed the voice and face of the new city. Even as New York continues to trade heavily on its hard-edge/only the strong survive/organized confusion image to rally its loyal foot soldiers to suck it up and keep shit going because that’s what New Yorkers do, it has hitched its wagon to a pop star who’s vapid hit, “Welcome to New York,” is deliriously devoid of anything distinctively New York to anyone who has stepped outside of Times Square.

In fact, Ms. Swift’s New York is an apt analogy to the generic formula that so many cities seem eager to follow. Urbanism touts bike lanes, flash mobs, farmer’s markets, microbrews, smoke houses, small batch distilleries, maker spaces, confectionaries, night life, and art, lots and lots of art, as city saviors. And while each city claims to be unique, they all cater to the same cultured vibe that craves a side of vintage with its modern, a dash decadence with its purity, a smidge of camp to “complicate” its cosmopolitanism, just enough soot to veil its upscale airs.

There is nothing inherently progressive or virtuous about urbanism. Cities are still first and foremost places where goods and services get exchanged. Commerce is still the lead singer. Art and culture may play a solo now and then, but they need to harmonize with the moneyed class’s tastes to remain in the band. Which is why artist communities have sprouted north of the city in small towns like Beacon and Hudson. Which is to say, everyone and everything can be uprooted to make room for the money. A city’s eminent domain power guarantees this.

I can’t begin to count the number of hushed exchanges I’ve had about my departure this past year. At this point I can fairly accurately predict their arc. Usually, but not exclusively, my squinty eyed inquisitor, asks, “What’s it like?” At which point I say “It’s awesome” both because it’s true and, as I’ve discovered, it’s what they want to hear. Part of my charm—a term I use loosely and a little tongue and cheek—is that I exist as a kind of curiosity. “It isn’t awful, though?” they’ll ask, “Commuting? Driving everywhere?” In their mind, schlepping back to the burbs every night is grinding, slow death by monotony. It never occurs to them that my car might be Bluetooth-enabled so, while I’m in traffic, which really is just a modern inconvenience, not hell on Earth, I can call my mother, hold a conference call, listen to the new J Cole album or the new Invisibilia podcast. Or—and this really blows them away—I can just turn everything off and enjoy some alone time. It’s at that point that the conversation switches from interrogation to confession. They see the limits. They feel shortchanged. They don’t know how long they can hang on at this rate. It’s as if they’re asking for permission to look elsewhere.

What irritates me most about the urbanism movement is that it has cast this warped spell on us. Cities, ultimately, are incapable of caring for us in the ways we’ve been coached to care about them. They will endure at all costs, even at our expense. Yet urbanism has manufactured a crusade designed to invoke attachment and evoke a sense of community—we’re all in this together—even as the cost of living spirals out of the average community member’s grasp. I don’t believe anyone has permanent rights over the land. I just dislike the dishonesty. The hollow promise of “affordable housing.” The rhetoric of quality jobs. The jingoistic slogans meant to breed civic pride and loyalty that no city government has the will to reciprocate. The pandering to the prosperous. The assurance of total fulfillment: The city will keep your mind open, your politics progressive, and your taste up to date. If you’re too busy to go out, don’t worry, you’ll still be hip by association. If you get married and have children, not a problem, the city will keep you from becoming your uncool parents. The key is to stay, no matter what, because leaving is giving up. Leaving is waving a white flag. Leaving is an admission that, really, you’re no different than the vast and backward America lampooned on the liberal blog circuit.

I will always love the city. Why else would I write this? There’s nothing like a sturdy pre-War apartment with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a sprawling parlor, and views of the park. Some of the best scenes in my favorite novels—Another Country, for example—took place in a New York apartment. My favorite sitcoms growing up—Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons, even Good Times—all took place in New York apartments. But let’s not kid ourselves. The urban lifestyle, the one glorified for its walkability, may not come with a car note and a carbon footprint, but the square footage cost alone makes up the difference, and then some.

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