Gentrification: Y2K to Today



Change is a constant in most cities, and it’s no surprise that a decade can yield dramatic alterations to a specific street or even storefront. Take this slice of San Francisco’s Mission Street, photographed by Eric Fischer, creator of the locals v. tourists photography maps, which he captured in 2000 and again just last year.

In 2000, the block was showing evidence of prosperity. The millennium bug hadn’t shut down “Y2K Furnishings”, despite its ominous name. And the space next door is decorated in retro-50s futurism, reflecting a latent desire to resurrect that decade’s optimistic streak. But what Y2K didn’t do to San Francisco, the dot-com bubble’s burst ultimately did. In 2000, Y2K Furnishings was already having a going out of business sale. Today, save for one floor of the building it formerly occupied, the entire block looks mothballed.

The story of Y2K’s block is fairly rare, but it’s not wholly unique. It demonstrates one way in which cities have defied the narrative arc of unremitting, sometimes totalizing gentrification that U.S. cities have been said to confront throughout much of the 2000s. At worst, the last ten years of gentrification have been more mild, and less sweeping, than many critics have assumed.

Of course, in many cases, that narrative is and was largely true: Y2K’s demise, for example, was not a fate shared across much of the city. Many other blocks appear to have been spruced up considerably since 2000, and even the buildings across the street from the former Y2K seem to have shared in the boom. As in most of the U.S., real estate boomed in San Francisco while the real economy sputtered. Gentrification accelerated as professionals riding the wave of speculation contributed to its unsustainable buildup in bidding wars.

The cycle was particularly intense in New York, though (and this was not exclusive to New York) cultural opposition to gentrification seemed more prominent than concern for its impact urban poor — perhaps because it mostly took place among gentrification’s first wave contributors. It’s notable that such protests took on a (tellingly) ironic paramilitary aesthetic in the “Defend Brooklyn” logos that had begun circulating in the city as early as 1996.

Others took to the internet to voice their dissatisfaction. Under the pseudonym Brooks of Sheffield, one New Yorker founded Lost City in January 2006 to catalog the dwindling number of ancien establishments and historical oddities in the five boroughs. Two similar blogs, Vanishing New York and EV Grieve (dedicated to “appreciating what’s here [in the East Village] while it’s still here”), sprang up around a year later.

Lost City’s tone was strident from the beginning. The blog described itself as “a running Jeremiad on the vestiges of Old New York as they are steamrolled under or threatened by the currently ruthless real estate market and the City Fathers’ disregard for Gotham’s historical and cultural fabric,” a sentence that virtually demands suspending one’s breath in anger in order to get through without pause. It composed guides to the lost (or soon-to-be-lost) quirks of the city’s neighborhoods, and, in its margins, tabulated “recently lost landmarks” (they include “the 21 Club’s tie requirement,” and even, shockingly, Lehman Brothers, the collapsed investment bank implicated in the speculation that shuttered so many other business on the list).

Even as it produced gap-toothed storefronts in the city’s shopping districts, the ongoing recession hadn’t, apparently, had much of an impact on Lost City’s endangered landmarks list. So it came as a something of a shock when, earlier this week, Brooks announced his retirement — and lamented the futility of his project. “I am ending Lost City,” he wrote, because “[m]ost of the City is lost after all—the good parts, anyway.” It was “losing its New York-ness, and gaining nothing but Subway franchises and luxury condos.” That was, of course, exactly what he had been fighting against, but he acknowledged that it was time to concede to the inevitable. Compiling his “jeremiad” had become “like writing a volcano report from Pompei; you know the communiques are going to end sometime”.

Lost City’s founder may have been too ambitious — he complains that the press paid scant attention to his preservation efforts and the city government none. He declared himself too tired and broke to continue an effort when “the last few living landmarks as they fall in this barren forest, making no sound that the City Fathers can hear.” But he also seems to have been fighting a rearguard action against changes more fundamental — and inevitable — than the opening of chain restaurants or banks. There’s an element of recalcitrant — even dangerous — nostalgia behind what he, and many other hyperventilating gentrification critics, lamented.

For one, Brooks had a special place in his heart for rapidly disappearing details lifted from earlier periods of urban life — the blog contains an entire gallery devoted to wooden phone booths, for example. Glancing, meanwhile, at the blog’s list of “classic, utterly New York places” Brooks believes can be salvaged through the shear force of patronage, one can’t help but think that the collection of ossifying, now tour-group-circuit Italian restaurants and steakhouses he’s compiled may be better off remembered for their heydays. Conjuring them makes me recall a bar I once stepped into on Madrid’s Gran Via, a Spanish Civil War-era watering hole that seemed as if new life hadn’t been been breathed into it since. Coasting on the fame it enjoyed because — it alleged — Ernest Hemingway once drank there, it was best described as dim, grim — and expensive. It probably conjured Hemingway’s scene much less vividly than than the overflowing tabernas in the back alleys nearby.

If, instead of hoping to save restaurants with limited lifespans, Brooks had devoted himself to fighting for the spirit of independence and localism he believed his preferred establishments embodied, he may not have been so concerned by gentrification’s boom-era steamroller. The onslaught of Subway outlets may have slayed a century-old deli here or there, but it had also made way for a number of Thai, Senegalese, or Peruvian stores, ships and restaurants — and any number of sometimes absurdly unique bar concepts — some of which, surely, deserve just as much chance to become such “classic, utterly New York places” as Grimaldi’s or the Carnegie Deli. The city wasn’t becoming indistinct as much as, for the founder of Lost City, it was becoming unfamiliar.

And instead of futilely fighting to preserve the specific details of time periods slowly fading from New York’s streets, Brooks might have marveled at how much, in such a rapidly evolving city, actually has survived. Its uncharacteristically stagnant third quarter of the 20th century aside, New York was constantly turning over its stock of architecture and street furniture to continue to accommodate greater numbers of people with real — and contemporary — needs. A more philosophically sound website, Forgotten New York, also chronicles the city’s anachronistic signs, streetlamps, and period details — but rather than naively lobby for their preservation, merely marvels at the fact that they continue to exist. There’s always a stock of rare, older models, anyway: by the time New York gets around to remodeling all its traffic lights or street signs in one style, its concept artists are already drawing up the next.

The contradictions of the cultural anti-gentrification campaign prevalent on New York blogs were avoided by political activists. But the latter made the mistake of reading omnipotence into their opponents. Written just as Y2K was going out of business, Rebecca Solnit’s book Hollow City: Gentrification and the Eviction of Urban Culture (2001) approaches tenant evictions in millennial San Francisco as atrocities; her narrative is illustrated by Susan Schwartzenberg’s haunting black and white photography, which give their stories of hardship and impending homelessness a sense of urgency normally reserved for efforts to halt ethnic cleansing.

It’s not necessary to dispute the veracity of Sonit’s and Schwartzenberg’s accounts to say that they might be surprised, today, by the resiliency of destitute San Franciscans. Nine years after their book was published, liberal social policies and the determination of San Francisco’s transient population have stood their ground, helping preserve once-unthinkable redoubts like the Tenderloin, a neighborhood of single room occupancy hotels deep in the city center. Here, the gentrification narrative doesn’t need to be reinterpreted so much as pared down: while New York’s equivalent, the cluster of SROs along the Bowery, was virtually erased in an onrush of velvet-rope bars, boutique hotels, and a chic new contemporary art museum, San Francisco was forced to throw up its hands and euphemistically declare the Tenderloin a “reality tour” zone (which, admittedly, may say as much about the state of tourism as it does about the state of gentrification in San Francisco).

Of course, the concerns raised by critics like Solnit and Schwartzenberg were — and continue to be — serious and real. The eviction of poor families from gentrifying neighborhoods has been a traumatizing experience for those involved, and it has shattered communities. But over the course of a decade, despite histrionic claims to the contrary, New York has become as different as “worse”, and San Francisco less different (or worse) than feared. The fate of Y2K Furnishings shows how even the most localized instance of stagnation or degentrification can complicate the smooth narrative of the bourgeoisie’s alleged hostile urban takeover. Cities are inherently too complex, too unwieldy and unknowable, to be completely reduced to such simplistic submission.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Saturday June 19 2010at 06:06 pm , filed under Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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