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Memo From Manhattan: Age and the City

By Sharon Zukin

At some point during the past few years I realized that my friends and I are often the oldest diners in a restaurant, especially when we break bread in one of the trendy gastrodomes of downtown Manhattan.  Sure, we still wear black and think of ourselves as hip but the trendier the resto’s vibes the more our gray hairs stand out in the crowd.

My daughter, a college student, laughs at me when I complain that the talk or music is too loud.  I just try to avoid the places with high-decibel ratings alongside high ratings for food (and I wish the New York Times’ restaurant reviews would include ambient noise ratings as other towns’ papers do).

Imagine my shock, then, to discover that age rage is also common among the young—with younger diners complaining about people like me!  “Here’s the sad thing,” says a recent Yelp! review of a small French bistro in the West Village, “the ENTIRE place was seated with senior citizen couples, with the exception of two grandparents behind us with a mom and a loud little kid.  I’m talking people in their eighties.  Not exaggerating…It was all very strange.”

I’m not in my eighties but I’ll tell you what’s “very strange”:  the population of New York City is going to get a whole lot older very fast.  The city’s age spread is now about the same as that of the U.S. population.   Around 7% are children too young to go to school, almost 25% are under eighteen years of age and half as many (fewer than 12%) are over sixty-five.

But according to demographers’ projections, after 2010 New York will be a rapidly aging city.  Some reasons for this are natural (baby boomers aging), others are social (medicine and changes in cultural practices keeping us alive longer) while still others are a mix of both (fertility rates declining).  All in all, though, the city’s older population will increase dramatically in the next twenty years.

Daily life as we know it will be turned upside down.  Carrie Bradshaw and her friends will trade in their Manolo’s for walkers.  Whole Foods Market on Union Square will be empty by 3 p.m.  The doors on the L train to Williamsburg will stay open longer to allow for a collectively slower pace and a weaker ability to shove.  For Manhattan – where residents’ median age has long been the highest in the city – is also slated to age the most dramatically.   It may be hard to sustain the island’s reputation as “the fashion capital of the world” when the number of residents over sixty-five rises by 60%.

Let’s look at this another way, not as a competition for restaurant tables or fashion cred, but as a competition for publicly funded social services.  During the baby boom that followed World War II, there were twice as many school children as New Yorkers over 65.  By 2030, the two groups will have roughly equal numbers.  Does this suggest lowering the chronically underfunded schools budget and shifting money to the also chronically underfunded public hospitals and senior centers?

A couple of years ago the mayor’s office joined the New York Academy of Medicine to jump-start the creation of an “age-friendly city.”  While refusing to solve a major problem for many senior citizens—affordable housing—the mayor and other elected officials say they want to make the city more “walkable,” with more reliable public transportation and places to sit and rest in public spaces.  These improvements would help all New Yorkers and fit the mayor’s environmental agenda.

But other initiatives to help older people would require the state to use its considerable powers to raise revenue and make new rights.  Long awaited bike lanes signal the city government’s gradual efforts to encourage non-carbon-producing transportation but pedestrians, especially older ones, fear being struck by cyclists who commandeer the sidewalks or run red lights.  The rising homicide rate among young black men is connected to some degree with the large percentage of grandparents in Manhattan and the Bronx who are their primary caregivers and cannot keep track of what, or who, incites them to violence.  In the national economy, not just steel and auto workers but also computer engineers and human resources executives over the age of 50 face what they fear is permanent unemployment.

When the New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg mourns the disappearance of his longtime barbershop or I write about how the city has “lost its soul,” are we just getting old?  Or do we all face major problems in political and economic life that demand a re-centering on local jobs and housing?

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

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