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A Tale of Two New York Cities [excerpt]

New York is a city of many things to many people. But more and more those people are being divided. Those who have the means to live in comfort and splendor, and those struggling to survive in a once vast urban landscape that grows smaller and smaller with each year. In this excerpt from his book The Creative Destruction of New York City, author and urban scholar Alessandro Busà, gives us the lay of this new land where all are welcome, particularly if they can afford it.

Now let me tell you another tale of two New Yorks, circa 2017. There’s a gilded-age city of gleaming glass towers where Wall Street managers, Hollywood celebrities, exiled Russian oligarchs, and Middle East billionaires live their glamorous lives or stash their offshore cash. And then there’s a city where even the professional middle class is one rent hike away from eviction.

It’s a city of creatives, freelancers, students, artists, teachers, nurses, clerks and firefighters struggling with exorbitant rents; of store owners living under the constant threat that their businesses will shut down; and of thousands of families coming in and out of the shelter system. And these two New Yorks, where the rich devour more and more of the urban space, while ordinary citizens are stuck, are growing further apart. A brand new global class of city consumers has been born, and they’re ousting the rest of us — the working classes, the middle classes, and even the upper middle classes — from the city we love. The sheer scale of their consuming power is entirely changing the rules of the urban development game, which today seems focused exclusively on producing a city that is more custom- tailored to their ostentatious consumption demands.

In the process, ordinary New Yorkers are pushed further out of this gilded city of unaffordable rents or left to observe their neighborhoods while they gradually morph into exclusive enclaves for the super- wealthy. Meanwhile, the power of city producers has never been greater. Those who count in real estate, banking, and finance have managed to ensure that their interests are safeguarded at city hall, in Albany, and in Washington. They have ensured that, regardless of who sits at different levels of government, the fundamental rules of the game (opening up more avenues for profit and being subsidized in the process) will remain untouched. Their ambitious agenda, based on a relentless use of rezoning and branding, is driving an era of unprecedented urban transformations and prompting the physical, social, and symbolic re-engineering of districts and communities across the board, from Flushing to East Brooklyn, from Staten Island to the South Bronx. No corner is off- limits to capital: the whole of the city is up for grabs, and new spectacular tides of creative destruction are on the horizon.

City producers and city consumers are transforming the city into a repackaged wonderland of lavish real estate, dotted by pockets of poverty where a new urban underclass lives its daily struggles. New York, like no other city, encapsulates the contradictions and inequalities that surround the process of neoliberal urbanization: it only takes a subway ride from Billionaire’s Row to Spanish Harlem to get a visual reminder of the way the rich and poor live in the city. Even though a trend toward a concentration of wealth among the city’s top earners goes back at least four decades, it has widened precipitously over the last 15 years.

By the end of Bloomberg’s tenure, the top one percent of earners in New York City brought in 40% of the city’s total income. And things have only worsened under de Blasio’s watch. Today, New York has among the highest levels of income inequality in the United States, concurring globally with the likes of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. And the most unequal of all US counties is unsurprisingly Manhattan.

Here, the average apartment in 2015 was priced at a whopping $1.95 million. In this island of wealth and inequality, median rentals have increased consecutively for years, and today, at above $4,000 a month, they are among the highest on the globe. And things aren’t much better in Brooklyn and Queens, where rents are at around $3,000 a month. Prepare to see more of the same happening soon in the South Bronx, where residents in Mott Haven have recently learned that their neighborhood is currently being marketed as “the Piano District” to hip newcomers, courtesy of developers Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group New York’s harsh social inequalities have come a long way, and de Blasio won’t be able to change the rules of a game that was established way before he moved his first steps into the world of politics. They are the result of a political turn that, grown out of the “neoliberal euphoria” of the laissez-faire economics of the early 1970s, has morphed into a system of crony capitalism, where an ever larger government is there to give blessings to well-connected special interest groups. It is a system that through corporate welfare, financial deregulation, and the public financing of private losses, has made sure that inequality was built into it, at the federal as much as at the local level.

This system, which certainly hasn’t changed after the 2007/ 2008 financial crisis (and the ensuing government-sponsored trillion-dollar bank bailout), has traditionally translated into a chronic shrinking of federal spending on housing, services, and infrastructures, at the same time when government was handing out special tax privileges and public funding to big private ventures. In cities, it is a system in which the enormous sway of city producers (the local elite) and city consumers has changed the rules of the game entirely. Those cities that won at the game, like New York or San Francisco, keep attracting top industries and global consumers, and have gradually morphed into citadels where the most outrageous wealth at the top clashes with unimaginable poverty at the bottom. Those that didn’t make it are sinking in a downward spiral of poverty, disinvestment, and population loss: these are cities like Youngstown, Ohio, where almost 40% of residents live below the poverty line, or Flint, Michigan, where even tap water can kill you.

Featured Image: New York City by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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