Thursday, February 08, 2007

Major League Gentrification

Like all cities, New York has its ebbs and flows of people moving in and people moving out, and the city does a fairly good job adapting to the tides of both people and the economy. The city was a massive manufacturing hub for much of its incorporated history, and when those jobs faded away, melting to the south and then overseas, New York found a way to adapt (admittedly with some pain). The last bastion of manufacturing in the city, the Garment District, is slowly evolving into a high tech corridor as more garment shops close up.

When I was a kid, I could walk from my parents' apartment on the Upper East Side to a lumberyard (dad was a carpenter...go on, make the most of that!), a junkyard, several car dealerships, four gas stations, and three hardware stores. That neighborhood, almost exclusively working class, is gone practically, replaced by a jet-setting wealth beyond description. The humble little apartment that my mom and dad rent for under $500 is going at market for over $3,000, and that's in a crappy little walk-up.

For decades, it seemed as though the outer boroughs were immune to this gentrification, but I guess it was only a matter of time. Hold-out neighborhoods in Manhattan-- Harlem, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen-- were a bulwark for working class residents, a place they could live where they could work within a short bus or subway ride of home.

About a decade ago, due in some part to the anti-crime efforts of the police commissioners under Rudy Giuliani and giving credit and high marks to both David Dinkins and President Clinton for proposing "Safe Streets, Safe City" and for fully funding it, these parts of Manhattan began to gentrify, meaning people with a little more money were starting to move in, as police patrols were ramped up and crime dropped.

Working class folks were squeezed out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs and across the river to New Jersey. Although September 11 put a dent into the gentrification of the city as a whole, eventually like a dropped can of paint, middle class folks started pressuring the city to rezone business and warehouse districts in the outer boroughs to partial or even full residential districts.

Thus, neighborhoods like Long Island City and Astoria in Queens, and Williamsburgh in Brooklyn saw more and more middle class kids, literally, moving in. Artists, actors, students, because the rents were cheap but the commute short, began to move to these neighborhoods in droves, pushing the working class residents further and further out.

Comes the next phase of gentrification: losing businesses that were the lifeblood of a neighborhood. In Long Island City, for example, one could find plenty of warehouses and even some small factories that were ideally located near the Queens Midtown Tunnel for distribution, replaced by enormous condominium complexes. Even now to support these, office towers where Manhattan-based businesses, scared partially by the September 11 attacks and more fully by skyrocketing rents, are "outsourcing" their administrative jobs to Queens and Brooklyn. MetLife and Verizon both maintain large office complexes near Queensboro Plaza, and around these buildings, new condominium and co-operative apartment buildings are leaping up like mushrooms after a summer rain.

There are still pockets of the outer boroughs where one can find a car bumper, or buy a truckload of concrete direct from the "factory". Where lumber stacked four stories high is available for immediate purchase and delivery. Where you can buy fencing for your building by browsing installations on premises.

But soon a ballfield will be built...:
The stretch of Queens formerly known as the Iron Triangle is about to turn to gold. But not for the Sambuccis, who have been there for 57 years, or for the Feinstein Ironworks, there for 75 years, or for T. Mina Supply, Inc., which furnishes most of the city's sewer pipes but can't get the city to build sewers under its own building.

Their fear, along with the 200 or so other small businesses packed into the rugged 50-acre tract of landfill called Willets Point, is that soon, someone from the city will come bearing a declaration of eminent domain forcing them to vacate.

"The toughest thing about this is we haven't heard a thing from anyone," Thomas Mina Jr. said. "Not the city, not the Economic Development Council, not the borough president."

Tomorrow morning, a business forum at Queens College will hear from Mets exec Dave Howard, who will tell them how great this will be for the people and businesses of Queens.
It gets worse. Among the other projects going on in the Flushing-College Point area is a refurbishing and expansion of the Whitestone Expressway, which will necessitate closing at least four large scale construction related businesses (including ironically a concrete firm that is partially supplying the refurbishing of the roadway and the construction of Citifield).

Among the complaints about Shea Stadium was the smell that would waft into the arena when the wind was in the right direction. Why? There's a trash tranfer facility there. No plans have been announced for moving it to someone else's neighborhood, but...
The Mets are going to have their new ballpark and all the revenue that 42,500 high-priced seats and 54 luxury boxes can generate, plus $20 million a year in naming rights, without having to pay the city a cent in rent or property taxes. It will be great for them, all right.

[...](S)ome heavy real estate hitters have submitted proposals to the city for developing a wedge of land they wouldn't have been caught dead on a few years ago. Suddenly, the stench of oil and burning rubber has been replaced by the sweet smell of money.
Yea. That smell will be gone as quick as you can say "Donald Trump." Don't get me wrong, I love my Mets, have been a fan since 1962, but this makes me queasy.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall (who does have a heart, and has been instrumental with some requests I've made of her) has stated that a "business relocation plan" is in the works.

My only question is, where? Where in this great grand city that is slowly constricting the lifeblood of small businesses in favor of banks, Starbucks, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Duane Reades, will the Sambuccis of the world be able to make an honest buck without their neighbors complaining?