Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The natural order of society

The fight against gentrification is 1% about keeping rents low enough for people making not so much money, and 99% about all sorts of other things, some of which I've enumerated here, and which The Onion dealt with far more elegantly here. The Onion was dead on about "aristocratization," only the aristocrats are never the new arrivals, but the rich who, in a given neighborhood, preceded the very-rich. Somehow the struggle of the wealthy to maintain the sanctity of their neighborhoods gets mixed up in the collective urban consciousness with the battle against gentrification. When the two are really not the same thing at all.

The NYT provides several examples of this trend. To start, there are letters from West Village residents who feel the "soul" of the Village will be lost if a new hotel is built in the area. If the NYT letter-writers own and do not rent, they could make use of the neighborhood's newfound glamor, sell their apartments and leave for somewhere more authentic but also architecturally charming, say, the South Side of Chicago.

Then there's the next article, about someone whose name sounds like Van Der Woodsen, but who's actually a real person, the president of the Carnegie Hill neighborhood association, who's leading the fight against making a really big townhouse out of several... big townhouses. It's apparently "'extraordinarily conspicuous consumption'" to live in a really big townhouse, whereas to live in just a regular old $10-million one is tasteful and understated. We also learn, if we didn't know already, that "'Part of the joy of having a brownstone in Carnegie Hill is having one of those rear yards.'" Oh is it, really? I'm intrigued. This is a cause the masses can get behind. Then there's this gem: "To radically alter the rear of the three town houses, [a neighbor] said, would 'be as if someone added a line to a poem by Wordsworth or a new act to a Shakespeare play or two new floors to the Flatiron building.'" Yes, yes, we get it, having a nice house in a city in which everyone else lives in a non-metaphorical closet isn't about life being unfair, it's art.

And finally, in case you weren't concerned, the very laws of physics are being defied by one man's attempt to build a very big house out of several other big houses: "But Mr. van der Valk said this tussle was something different, in part because he feared it could be a harbinger of a possible new trend in which the richest of the rich would try to defy the natural limitations that come with choosing to live on the island of Manhattan by combining single-family brownstones." A "single-family" unit in NYC is, remember, the size of at least four apartments.

So to conclude, I'm not (contrary to above-expressed sentiment) a communist, and think it's wonderful and fair that those with the good sense to find banking interesting get a bigger place than those who are drawn to less lucrative fields. What is a problem is when concerns among the rich about property value or even just the prettiness of a neighborhood they feel to have been invaded by richer people, or the nouveau-riche, become one and the same in people's minds as the fight to keep NYC livable for people who do something other than work on Wall Street. Again, not the same problem.

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