Friday, October 06, 2006

$170 on 170th!

Via Gawker, I just found Alex Kuczynski's fascinating article about what happens when a white person risks it all to verify that you can, in fact, overpay for jeans above 96th Street. A Gawker commentor correctly points out that the referring to Harlem's gentrification as "stretching the boundaries of humanity" implies something not so fantastic about what Kuczynski thinks the species is of those who arrived before gentrification. Also worth noting: Kuczynski runs into a group of white women, New Yorkers who are nevertheless in Harlem as tourists, and refers to herself as being, in their eyes, "also clearly from lower Manhattan." What does it mean to be "clearly from lower Manhattan"? Lower as in below 96th Street? Lower Manhattan makes me think of either Canal Street or the Financial District, maybe SoHo, but certainly not the Upper East Side, which is the only neighborhood that could possibly think to send tour buses from one part of the city to the next.

Which brings me to what's annoying about Kuczynski's article. It isn't that she is white, that she's discussing gentrification, or that she dares--as a white person whose primary qualification appears to be writing about luxury shopping--to mention race. It's that she's writing from the classic 57th-96th, 3rd-5th perspective. As in, if something falls outside the bounds of the Upper East Side proper, it's inherently suspect, dingy, or, at best, "funky."

The more gentrified the city overall becomes, the more outdated and frankly confusing such an interpretation of New York becomes. Rich, skinny, well-dressed white people--and the accompaying stores, restaurants, and so on-- are everywhere; of this group, the 57th-96th set is just one category. It's a category that's more America than New York, that embraces a country-club rather than hipster aesthetic, and that doesn't realize it's much cooler to pretend not to be intimidated by going all the way to Avenue C or Williamsburg (Brooklyn, oh no!) than to cringe at the mention of anything more than three blocks from where you went to prep school. Kuczynski's discussion of Harlem could just as easily be about the East Village-- it's not so much about race as about provincialism. Her article is from the perspective of somebody stunned to realize things aren't so different once you walk a couple blocks in the other direction.

No comments: