Sunday, December 2, 2007

The World's Greatest City?

I recently read the volume The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? , Jerilou and Kingsley Hammett ed, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) The book is a collection of essays decrying gentrification and what the authors describe as suburbanization, disneyfication, or malling (mauling?) of Manhattan, the rise of chain stores, Wal-Marts and Home Depots on the urban grid, and the hyper-capitalism of contemporary New York City.

I am in sympathy with the aims of the book, and there are some excellent essays, including a fascinating essay by my friend Suzanne Wasserman on the rise of generic street fairs in the city. But I must say my general feeling I took away from the volume was one of annoyance. It starts with the subtitle—the book as also dedicated to “New York, the Greatest City in the World.” I know it’s a silly superlative claim, but just how is New York City the greatest city in the world? Are the authors saying it is somehow “greater” (whatever that means) than London, Paris, Berlin or Beijing, that its history is richer than say, Rome, Istanbul, or Kyoto, or more beautiful than San Francisco or Sydney? I suspect that these all left-trending intellectuals would never associate themselves with a book that called the United States “the world’s greatest nation” and would rightly attack that as an act of jingoism and know nothingism; my country is better than your country. Why does it make for any better history to make this ridiculous claim for NYC?

But in fact this claim is central to the book’s aims. The essays traffic in New York City’s uniqueness. The argument seems to be in part that it’s okay if every other city in the United States has to deal with the depredations of big box stores like Wal-Mart and their ilk, and the decline of locally owned inner city commerce, but that somehow New York City should remain above the fray. These are complex problems—Wal Mart thrives in part because it provides reasonable quality products at reasonable prices, and attracts a vast numbers of poorer shoppers—but surely the effort to challenge the unquestioned hegemony of capital in America today calls for a national if not a global solution, and not simply worries about land use patterns in Manhattan.

The essays in the volume also to some extent fetishize the decades of the 1970s and the 1980s as edgy and uncommercialized, when the downtown arts scene flourished, and untrammeled individualism thrived. But surely this period in the exception, not the rule in New York City’s history, when bad economic prospects, high crime, and a declining population led large companies to shun investment in the city. The pattern since the 1990s, when capital and urban development in the city have a cozy relationship, is far more common.

In any event to speak of the suburbanization of New York City is to miss the point of Manhattan in the era of hyper-gentrification, when people in droves are moving to the suburbs precisely because NYC has become unaffordable. The need for affordable housing in New York City is acute, but neither it or the other problems that face the city can be addressed or solved from the assumption that NYC, being NYC, ought to be immune to the social forces that have transformed other American cities.


Rob Snyder said...

I am in complete agreement with Peter's posting. Let me add two more points on the emptiness of attempts to describe New York's present troubles as "suburbanization."

One, if suburbanization is defined by low-density, single-family homes, then New York contains plenty of suburban sections in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and even the Bronx. These areas are not a detriment to the city: all of them contain large, stable areas that housed working and middle class people in the bleak years of the Seventies and Eighties. Thanks to consolidation, they are part of New York. If you want to see what happens to a city that could not encompass its inner suburbs, look no further than Newark, NJ.

Second, as a Brookings report pointed out, many older suburbs share the same problems as the cities. And if you add together the population of cities and inner suburbs, you come up with a big chunk of people that could be a political force to be reckoned with.

New York and its suburbs should join forces. The city has nothing to gain by spurning its closest neighbors.

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