Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nostalgia for auto-parts

Jeremiah Moss's nostalgia for the West Chelsea of recent yore makes for a nice bit of anti-High-Line contrarianism, but doesn't add up. Fair enough, 10th Avenue isn't Park Avenue, and yup, it's getting posher, but when, precisely, were its residents "working-class"? Certainly not just before the High Line arrived. Manhattan, esp. below 96th, has had its dingier moments (the pre-Giuliani era, which I kind of remember), but didn't become high-end out of the blue. Remember those other four boroughs of the city? That's where those priced out of Manhattan have been living since forever. There were some housing projects in West Chelsea, and having been there yesterday I can confirm there still are those housing projects. Market-rate apartments have been high-rent, I suspect, for a good long while.

Most amusing to me personally is that one of the restaurants Moss picks as representative of the dwindling, scrappy days-of-yore is La Lunchonette, which just happens to be where my now-husband and I had our most expensive meal out as a couple while living in New York. Like, so expensive that we talked for years about the time we had that crazy expensive meal at La Luncheonette. (I remember that we shared a half-bottle of wine, and nothing outrageous, so that wasn't what did it.) Not Per Se, but not exactly a dive.

There are other issues as well. For one thing, residents are drawn to the city for many of the same reasons as tourists. If the city's main draw were an auto-parts store, the very folks whining about tourists probably wouldn't be living there in the first place. There are allegedly people who move to the city because of "Sex and the City"; once residing there, they too count as New Yorkers.

And I'm not sure what use an auto-parts shop has these days in West Chelsea. I'm quite certain there's no vibrant tradition of working-class Manhattanites owning cars. I mean, it sucks for the people who worked at those businesses, but maybe this is something the center of the city doesn't need? A better example would be if places Real New Yorkers went to were closing, but last I checked, no-frills West Chelsea supermarket Western Beef isn't going anywhere.

For another, it's clear that Moss was basically OK with the Meatpacking District North being overrun by the glamorous, and that his real problem is with the kind of tourists who clog up narrow spaces. (Doesn't call them fat. Not in so many words.) "I’ve gotten close to a panic attack, stuck in a pool of stagnant tourists at the park’s most congested points," Moss writes, leading me to wonder why someone with this reaction to crowds would possibly think of living in New York.

In other words, the op-ed reminded me of the worst of the anti-NYU-expansion-plan arguments, the ones that focus not on legitimate concerns about what NYU will do with the space, or how the profs in faculty housing will deal with X years of loud construction, but on the ickiness of the plebs traipsing around their brownstones. It's not that no one should be allowed to complain about blandification, mallification, etc. It's that it's disingenuous to present these as gentrification complaints.

If what you don't want to see is a bunch of middle-American (or middle-class European) riff-raff sullying what you feel is your turf, don't present this as a social-justice concern. If you'd prefer a couture atelier to an Abercrombie, and you spin yourself as a supporter of small business, others will roll their eyes. See also: complaints about the waste of "fast fashion" that urge high-end luxury purchases as the alternative. Moss's op-ed, for all its populist angst, seemed to be of that genre.

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