I’m putting it out there: folks fighting for fair housing and lower rents in New York have dropped the ball. Just in the past few months, we saw a series of inept, boring or ineffective protests calling for better rent controls, preservation of historic neighborhoods, and a stop to huge government led gentrification processes, all to no avail.
First: at the Rent Guidelines Board meeting that finalized drastic rent increases for rent stabilized tenants (the largest since 1989), activists opposing the hike attempted the OK strategy of disrupting the meeting by blowing whistles – OK, except when considering that strategy failed already in 2006, and the most activists got out of the meeting was meaningless pontificating by Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer (whose job description seems to be nothing more than meaningless pontificating)
Second: The Die Yuppie Scum protests – a two parter, targeting… well, something that folks just don’t like about the Bowery. These protests seem like an effective strategy (menacing landlords), but taking into consideration the overbearing influence of the NYPD on the protest’s actions and direction, the latest iteration of the Slacktavist’s rage looked and felt more like a parade of the old LES preserved behind bars than a real threat to neighborhood change. These protests tried too much of the “Stop! No!” style that ignores the incredible cultural cachet of the new-New York, and the organizational difficulties of assembling a good fightin’ crowd for battle with the police these days. The “Die Hard” protest did a fine job ginning up interest through theatricality, but the execution fell flat on anything other than interesting sloganeering. The upshot: I don’t think anyone is betting against a further Varvatos-ification of the Bowery.
Third: Chinatown/LES rezoning and protest. I think this is an interesting story – in the beginning, anti-gentrification folks rallied for the rezoning, with testimony in early zoning meetings focusing on NYU, the bar-ification of the East Village, and the need to include anti-tenant harrassment planks in the rezoning proposal. Then, somewhere along the way, things got lost. The Bowery and 3rd Ave, originally targetted for downzoning got written out of the proposal, allowing for a continued up-sizing and up-scaling of a key thouroughfare for the east side. Inclusionary zoning made its way to Delancy, Houston and Avenue D, paving the way for more lux development.
And most importantly, folks outside the propsed rezone area saw the writing on the wall and realized they were next should the neighborhoods covered limit development. That began the backlash. There were screaming fights at Community Board 3 meetings, direct accusations of racism, and more. At the same time, community organizers for people left out of the rezoning have refused to target landlords, instead calling for a ‘me too’ mediocre response to a big problem, leading up to… this – Another sign waving, speech making ‘protest’ asking to ‘preserve’, standing in front of a civic building. Their demand makes only limited sense – even if rezoning happened for all of CB3, it would give no guarantee of low income housing, and more likely sneak in more inclusionary zoning or worse – turn Chinatown into the West Village, a historic neighborhood under glass.
To me, the LES/CB3 rezoning debacle points out the inherant flaws of approaching zoning and real estate from the perspective of preservationism – it favors affluent communities (73% of CB3’s white residents are in the rezoning), and fails to take into account the social justice componant – namely, spillover effects that potentially displace other communities. It also shows the flaws of a government-focused approach, producing a problematic rezoning law, and a probably more problematic response to that rezoning.
The one brightspot is the Union Square pavilion fight, where community activists seem to have turned the tide a bit, stopping the resturant in the short term, and lauching the Community Improvement District idea in the longer term. With a narrow focus and popular opinion clearly agains the proposed changes, this was perhaps a winning battle from the get go.
Still, it shows the usefulness of theatricality, and a serious engagement with the culture of New York – the Union Square ‘CID’ employs historical figures intimately connected to New York – George Washington, Emma Goldman, etc. – to make an argument about preserving a contemporary space. That’s not enough – they also take it a step further and mix in the Reverand Billy factor, using participatory street theater and well planned media actions to draw attention to their cause.
Here’s the upshot – anti- gentrification and fair housing advocates need to do a better job ju-jitsuing the myths, lies and media mockups surroundign New York.
Don’t preserve the past, turn it into an argumetn about the future. Like Andy Warhol? Well, he certainly couldn’t rent out that nice loft space any more, thanks to gentrification – maybe if there was serious funding of housing for artists, New York could stumble upon the next Warhol in the rough. Same with CBGBs.
Don’t just condemn the people selling New York, make their pitch part of yours. How about Sex and the City? A tough one – clearly a product designed to sell glitz and glam New York – but who designs all those clothes? Not just Donna Karan, there’s a hoarde of underpaid staffers and interns making those fashion choices possible – they certainly can’t get by in a red hot real estate market.
Even government ad campaigns to sell the city can be flipped – all those Welcome to New York, Just Ask the Locals ads? Bet you DeNiro, Chuck Close and Julianne Moore didn’t start out in $3 Million apartments.
Rising rents in New York are driven by the cultural product of the city – the skyline and nightlife sold in dozens of movies, hundreds of TV show episodes, and by the government of New York itself. That image has gone global, and makes it possible for foreign investors to pour capital into the city by puchasing buildings wholesale (as is happening in el Barrio), or buying up apartments for vacations (as is happening… well, everywhere). Cheap rents and rent control made New York’s globe-spanning cultural products possible in the first place. (think grafitti, Jay-z, SoHo artist lofts, Punk Rock, New York’s literary avant guarde, etc.) Fair housing and anti-gentrification movements will only get off the ground and into serious change by starting with the popular idea of New York and using those cultural norms against the rapid transformation of New York City into a playground of the rich.