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Another gentrification discussion, the hard to find "sweet spot," and the "public realm"

It's getting a little frustrating to hear, as on yesterday's Brian Lehrer Show, yet another lament/debate about gentrification without any discussion of policy responses and solutions like investing in the "public realm"--transportation, parks, etc, as detailed by planner Alexander Garvin--to share the benefits of growth.

Yesterday's episode featured Fort Greene/Clinton Hill residents Rosie Perez (actress, etc.) and Nelson George (author, etc.), in a preview of a live program slated for Thursday at 10 am at The Greene Space called The Places that Bind: Examining Preservation and Culture in a Changing City.

Brownstoner, which hosted a lot of comments on the show, found George's "nostalgic but realistic take" interesting, while calling Perez on her lack of nuance in lamenting how few people she knows today.

After all, if people fight over access to tennis courts in Fort Greene Park, how much worse is that than, as a one-time transplant to Brooklyn recalled, having a brick thrown at you.

Where to go now?

George, recalling the heyday of black artists in Fort Greene in the 1980s and 1990s, expressed "nostalgia for this period where emerging talent could find a home and find a community."

A caller named Manny, who grew up in the Lower East Side and Washington Heights, expressed understandably mixed feelings.

"Is the city safer, yes, but at what cost?" he asked rhetorically. "To have $90-a-plate food [at restaurants] on Avenue B is crazy... It's good, but it's also bad, because the poor people at the end have to pay."

Well, that's only if the city allows developers and homeowners to share the benefits of rising property values without any sharing the wealth--redistributing tax money in the form of "public realm" investment, requiring subsidized housing as a tradeoff for increased density, and making non-gentrified neighborhoods more attractive thanks to better transit and parks.

(Oh yeah, what's the connection to Atlantic Yards? Had the city been doing this all along, a project like AY--essentially a private rezoning--wouldn't have been seen as a savior by some and wouldn't have been so polarizing.)

An aside: on Avenue A

"My city used to be beautiful too at one time," booms East Village rocker Handsome Dick Manitoba, frontman of punk pioneers The Dictators, in the 2008 video below. "Had a lot of character. A lot of fun things to do. But sad to say: all that's gone way downhill... The whole neighborhood's gone way downhill. But especially a place called Avenue A."

(The song "Avenue A" is from an album released in 2001 and, as Manny's report from the front hinted, it's already out of date. The lyrics: "taking the edge off a beautiful day/with a Frappuccino and a crème brûlée.")

The program Thursday

The program Thursday will be broadcast on WNYC, which is a good alternative for those of us not able to make it to The Greene Space that morning or to shell out the gentrification-level admission fee of $25.)

The blurb requests listeners to "[c]ome shape the agenda by joining the audience and talking about your favorite places you want preserved during these turbulent times... Rosie Perez will moderate an audience driven discussion on how to preserve (and when not to preserve) the socially and culturally important places in our lives."

On the radio yesterday, Perez reminded listeners that it would be a discussion, not a chorus. Most of the speakers lean toward the preservation line. Speakers include Nelson George; preservationists Vicki Weiner of the Pratt Center and Marci Reaven of Place Matters/City Lore, and community organizer Damaris Reyes of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES).

Also present will be Bob Tierney, Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, who, as a member of the Bloomberg administration, is by no means a reflexive preservationist, and real estate consultant John Alschuler of HRA Advisors, who, Perez said on the radio yesterday, "believes people like me are wrong."

Alschuler is no theorist; his firm has its hand in an enormous array of major projects in the New York City metro area, and nationally, including PlaNYC, the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corporation, the HighLine, and affordable housing and development in Newark.

NY's disappearing face

The live show Thursday also will offer a version of Jim and Karla Murray's hyper-realist photo slide show on city store fronts from their book "The Disappearing Face of New York."

The best quote is "I speak 3 languages. English. Spanish. And Motherfucker," from the owner of a now-closed candy store owner from Bedford-Stuyvesant in the book and in their terrific Counter/Culture – The Disappearing Face of Brooklyn’s Storefronts (now closed) exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Finding the sweet spot

In the February 26 New York Times, an article on the reversal of "bohemian sprawl" in Los Angeles, headlined When the Next Wave Wipes Out, offered this observation:
It is hard to think of many on-the-verge neighborhoods that, historically, have been able to stay on the edge. In New York, SoHo and Greenwich Village aren’t the artistic havens they once were. And other neighborhoods, promising to be the next best thing — well, the “next” never arrived.

“Neighborhoods go through what you call a sweet spot,” said Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History,” who is a critic of some forms of gentrification. “It’s safe, it’s a nice place to live, it still has unique shops and hangouts.”

But this mix rarely lasts forever. “The ecosystems of these neighborhoods are very fragile,” Mr. Kotkin said. “Over-stimulation, and, in a recession, under-stimulation, and you have dangers.”

Finding the sweet spot

Kotkin was focusing on retail, as does the article, but the issue is broader.

As I wrote in October 2007, responding to the book New York Calling, "Perhaps we’re remembering some kind of 1980s-1990s interregnum, when neighborhoods got ‘nicer’ but not overpriced, safer but not sanitized, and it was easier for some New Yorkers to live a bohemian life. And we don’t quite know how to get that back, or what comes next."

(That probably should've been late 1980s.)

Maybe, as retail and residential rates recede, we'll get closer to that sweet spot.

The New Jersey solution?

Or maybe it requires some policy. Here's one not-so-joking solution to the gentrification laments: connect the PATH system, at least the subway-like trains in urban New Jersey, to the New York City subway.

That would make it much easier for people to live in Newark and Jersey City and work (and play) in New York City. It would stimulate construction in places that are far less ambivalent about gentrification than Fort Greene.

And given the large pieces of empty land, a city like Newark could absorb new middle- and upper-class residents with far less jolt to the system--and much less of a zero-sum game-- than Brooklyn.

"Avenue A," in Cleveland

Below is another Dictators performance of "Avenue A," in which Manitoba disses Avenue B (home of his bar Manitoba's) as "Avenue Bistro," laments seeing a New York University dorm go up where AC/DC opened up for the Dictators, and snarls, "Give me back my fuckin' neighborhood."

But the irony is that he has to ask, "Is that happening here in Cleveland?" Because Cleveland, in a zone of foreclosures and blight, might not mind having more people who could afford Frappuccinos--at least as long as there were some "public realm" investment.


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