by Tim Verlaan
Living and working in the city that never sleeps, as the dictum goes, can be an exhilarating experience for visiting scholars. In particular for an urban historian with only two months of research time on his hands. After all, as another dictum goes, New York City has 8 million stories to tell. I will limit myself to the most important one of our time: gentrification.
For one who is interested in all four letters of the MKDA acronym of the Arts & Culture bachelor Media, Kunst, Design en Architecture, contemporary New York has a lot to offer. For Media students, the recently installed LyncNYC kiosks might be of interest. In an effort to provide low-income residents with free internet and phone chargers, the city converted dozens of disused phone booths into Wi-Fi stations. New Yorkers make good use of the service, with some of them pulling out sofas on the sidewalk, drinking and doing drugs while watching pornography in the open. These impromptu living rooms demonstrate how new media might influence the use of public space in often unintended ways. As for Kunst students, they would be pleased to hear that the mysterious Alamo Cube on Astor Place is spinning again after a two-year restoration. On weekend nights, the 820-kilogram steel sculpture gets surrounded by intoxicated friends and strangers pushing and shoving the cube as if their lives depend on it.
The Design disciples at our department should take note of the Lowline, a proposal for the world’s first underground park near Delancey Street, where the mouldy interior of a former trolley terminal is to be transformed into a vibrant public space. Last but not least, the Architecture aficionados can bask in a heated discussion over the rise of Midtown’s supertalls. As construction work moves on, the skyscrapers on New York’s ‘Billionaire Row’ cast increasingly longer shadows over Central Park. Much to the chagrin of the park’s users, who consider the condominiums of the superrich as an infringement of their right on free sunshine. One can see a whole range of interesting research topics here, in particular for those who are interested in the uses and experiences of public space.
This upgrading of New York’s public spaces and increasing construction activities are connected by one single leitmotif: gentrification. The g-word is on every New Yorker’s lip at the moment. Even mayor Bill de Blasio is acknowledging the preposterous cost of living and increasing rents, which are pushing life-time residents far beyond the city boundaries. While most buildings on my block in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district were still rent-controlled, a neighbouring townhouse was on the market for a staggering 2.8 million dollars. Even the once infamous South Bronx, which I had to cycle through on my way to Fordham University, is now becoming a hotspot for private developers and real estate agents.
The borough that has seen most urban and social change over the past two decades however is Brooklyn. Once considered an industrial slum or at least a place to stay away from by most New Yorkers, now it is a consumerist landscape of hip bars, yoga studios, and beautifully renovated, wildly expensive brownstones. Movie director Spike Lee immortalised the ‘upgrading’ of his hood in Do the Right Thing (1989), in which an Afro-American Brooklynite screams out ‘Man, motherfuck gentrification!’ to a white newcomer on his block. In his book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, urban historian Suleiman Osman locates the origins of gentrification in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. By dating the roots of this process to a much earlier time than geographers and sociologists, Osman sheds a new light on current events and supposedly recent urban phenomena. He is not the only one to do so. Elise Vleugels, one of our newly-graduated Design students, demonstrates how Brooklyn’s authenticity is as much an aesthetic expression as it is a marketing tool.
When investigating gentrification, both Osman and Vleugels direct our attention to notions of cultural taste and authenticity. It is a promising research direction, not only for New York, but for Western-European cities as well. Just why did we consider Amsterdam’s working-class districts ripe for redevelopment until the 1980s? How and why did the middle-classes begin to feel attracted by The Pijp, Staatsliedenbuurt and other nineteenth-century neighbourhoods, and how did the newcomers mingle with a ‘native’ population of migrant workers and born Amsterdammers? New York was a great environment to ponder such questions. Your architecture department is working hard to come up with some preliminary answers soon.