The Vanishing City: The Triumph of the 1 Percent

New York City has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation. The (now infamous) top 1 percent of earners in New York City, according to figures from 2009, bring in 34 percent of the city’s total income–much higher than the overall U.S. rate (17 percent), or the overall rate in Brazil for that matter. Any casual walk through Manhattan neighborhoods from Tribeca to Washington Heights provides a vivid contrast between the way the rich and poor live. The expensive boutiques, showpiece townhouses, and ubiquitous luxury buildings that permeate the cityscape from 96th Street to the Battery, and in much smaller numbers in Harlem, exemplify the city’s concentration of wealth.

The Vanishing City (2010), an hour-long documentary directed by Jen Senko and Fiore DeRosa, hasn’t yet received a commercial release but has been shown at many film festivals and screened before innumerable church and community organizations. The film explores how the city’s housing policies have been skewed under our billionaire mayor toward development for the affluent, through massive rezonings and anti-community initiatives. Current housing policy makes it harder and harder for the working and middle class to find decent, affordable places to live in the city, and for immigrants to find jobs. It’s a vision of the city, as director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Andrew Berman states, built on endless growth that turns out to be unnecessary.

The Vanishing City depends mostly on articulate, passionate people ranging from community activists and city planners like Tom Angotti to ordinary residents and sympathetic politicians like Village assemblyperson Deborah Glick, voicing their criticisms of high-end development and the destruction of stable, mixed-income neighborhoods. There are cutaways to new Manhattan luxury buildings, but the film centers on talking heads, not images. There is little attempt at critical balance; almost every one who speaks, albeit eloquently and incisively, sees New York becoming a greed-driven global city, a playground for the moneyed elite.

It’s hard to date when the ethos of the wealthy began to dominate New York, but every mayor from Robert F. Wagner, Jr. to Michael Bloomberg—Democrat or Republican—has collaborated, to differing degrees, with real estate developers. They are one of the major economic engines in the city. The film quotes Bloomberg announcing that “New York was not akin to Walmart but a luxury product”—although, with the financial sector and tourism already having replaced manufacturing, many New Yorkers work at low-wage service jobs to maintain our glamorous sheen. (In 1950, the city boasted nearly one million mostly light manufacturing jobs, but by 2007 that number had dwindled to 100,000). More than any other mayor, Bloomberg has been entwined with real estate developers, either encouraging them with tax abatements or refusing to put any breaks on their building plans. Though Bloomberg has made the compensatory gesture of promoting a relatively ambitious affordable housing plan, a variety of factors, including the loss of rent-stabilized units, have left the city losing more affordable units than it’s gaining.

The Vanishing City explores the consequences of these policies for a number of New York neighborhoods, from Harlem and Willets Point in Queens to Chinatown and the Village. They all face the danger, according to the film, of losing their distinctive character to gentrification and homogeneity.

Harlem has seen expensive condos built around Marcus Garvey Park, and one of its main streets—125th—now contains innumerable chain stores like American Apparel, H&M, MAC Cosmetics, the Body Shop, Starbucks, Old Navy, and Modell’s. Columbia University, using the often misused right of eminent domain, is building a seventeen-acre campus in Manhattanville (West Harlem) stretching from 125th Street to 133rd Street on the west side. All these changes have aroused neighborhood activists to rage against the gradual destruction of Harlem’s legacy and history, its small shops and affordable housing.

Clearly, there is a human cost to the gentrification, but the restored buildings and new businesses will probably help revive the economic life of Harlem, and by attracting whites bring some measure of racial integration. But the profound pain of displacement is real, though—given the number of public housing projects in Harlem—there is little danger of it turning into a white or primarily upper-middle-class neighborhood. Every neighborhood facing development is unique, and a blanket attack on all development makes little sense. The Vanishing City does not advocate the latter, but its criticism of almost all building projects is never questioned.

Too much of what is proposed as development is typified by the situation in Willets Point, where an unprepossessing den of car repair and other shops have long faced being wiped out by eminent domain to make way for a high-end neighborhood built around a gleaming convention center. Willets Point’s shops employ many immigrant workers (there are 1,000 jobs at stake) and have committed owners like Jake Bono of the family run Bono Sawdust Supply, which for almost eighty years has sold sawdust to circuses and horse farms. According to Bono, the neighborhood’s squalid appearance is a result of the city’s failure to put in sewer lines and storm sewers and to repave the streets. Beyond that, the film argues that since Governor Andrew Cuomo has already proposed to build a convention center at the old Aqueduct Race Track, the one proposed at Willets Point is totally unnecessary. Of course, the project isn’t being pursued for its own sake, but to provide some jobs for construction workers and give real estate honchos another way to make money.

When the film turns to my home neighborhood, the Village, it explores the plight of rent-regulated tenants living in a tenement at 47 East 3rd Street, which was bought by the ultra-rich Ekonomakis family for conversion into a private mansion. This story fits a pattern in which global investment firms have begun to buy other inexpensive properties, push the tenants out, and then convert them to luxury housing. The Vanishing City doesn’t touch on New York University’s twenty-year expansion plan in the central Village, perhaps the most egregious example of a real-estate corporation (or a not-for-profit university acting like one) aiming to shoehorn new high-rise buildings—dorms, hotels, faculty offices—on every available piece of land within their realm with utter disregard for any residents that may stand in their way or for the nature of the historic neighborhood.

The Vanishing City is a powerful call to arms against those moneyed interests who want to destroy the fabric of the city and turn it into a sea of luxury towers. But there are questions that the film fails to address. Cities, especially New York, have always been characterized by flux, with one ethnic group replacing another or one neighborhood rising because of an infusion of new people, money, and housing (or declining when people and capital flee). Soho has turned into an upscale outdoor mall dominated by chic boutiques, expensive furniture stores, and European tourists whose prime interest is consumption, but such a repellent development happens almost inevitably in neighborhoods where artists move into lofts and open galleries.

But it is not inevitable that New York City become a luxury enclave. The film informs us that current development schemes are aided by public officials who “upzone” areas under consideration, and by $3 billion in tax breaks doled out to corporations and upscale housing facilities—while working-class New Yorkers pay more than half their income in rent. In addition, The Vanishing City tells us that only 8 percent of new housing that has been developed in recent years is affordable, while in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side small businesses are being replaced by banks and Duane Reade pharmacies.

Development and gentrification, especially when affordable housing is included and green areas are preserved, do not need to destroy the soul of the city. If done with sensitivity and consciousness of the neighborhood’s existing character, it can improve the city’s tax base, bring back to life neighborhoods that are in severe decline, and add to a city’s variety. But an abject surrender to real estate interests is unconscionable, and that is what is happening in New York at this moment.

Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.

Photo: construction site for new Columbia campus in Manhattanville, by Joseph A, 2011, via Flickr creative commons