Gentrification: A History in Six Decades

Castle in the sky one mile high
Built to shelter the rich and greedy
Rows of eyes disguised as windows
Looking down on the poor and the needy
Miles of people marching up the avenue
Doing what they gotta do just to get by
I’m living in the land of plenty and many
But I’m damn sure poor and I don’t know why

—Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, New York New York

The 1960s: My parents meet in the late ‘50s and get married in 1961. Neither of them lives in the East Village, but rather in the more respectable Gramercy neighborhood to the northwest. My mother lives with her aunt, uncle and cousin on 16th Street right off Third Ave and my father lives with a roommate on 18th Street between Third Ave and Irving Place. When they get married, they move to a small tenement apartment on East Fourth Street between Second Ave and the Bowery. They are not hippies, artists or drug addicts; my father is getting his MSW at Hunter and has gotten a job in the Welfare Department, then located in the Christodora building on Ave B. They move to the neighborhood because my dad wants to be able to walk to work.

After several years of break ins by junkies (my mom’s engagement ring, stereo and records are all stolen), the young couple is ready to look for other options. As it happens, at that precise moment the city begins to build Village View Houses on First Ave, originally planned as low income housing but upgraded to middle income at the more-or-less last minute—my dad used to joke that they just added doorknobs and bathtubs to make the grade—and my parents apply for and get an apartment at 60 First Ave on the corner of Fourth St. Because you have to pay more for a higher floor, my mom sneaks into the tenement across the street so she can figure out how high they’d have to go to have a view over the rooftops. The neighbors in the building are mostly Jewish and Italian couples and families, along with a handful of Asians and African Americans, some of whom had been displaced when the city knocked down the tenements and replaced them with the Village View towers.

Could it be that replacing tenements filled with Italian butchers with cement block high rises for the middle class was the opening salvo in the gentrification wars? It’s worth noting that the word “gentrification” itself was first used in 1964.

When I am about two years old, my dad takes me to see Pete Seeger in Tompkins Square Park, sitting on his shoulders, laughing. The park is full of hippies and beatniks, the sun is shining on the tops of their heads and the skinny banjo man plays songs my parents sing to me.

Average NYC rent[1]: $200/month

The 1970s: My first moment of political consciousness: the McGovern campaign button, black background, simple white print “McGovern” and a rainbow. Tailor made for the tastes of a 5-6 year old. The other choice is Nixon, and I’ve seen the posters wheat pasted on lampposts out on First Ave: A skeleton wearing a crown, holding a Nixon mask in his bone fingers. Everyone agrees that Nixon is scary, but my dad is voting for him anyway because he has a premonition about the Watergate scandal, but he is not the sort of person to rub it in when it comes true.

McDonald’s decides to put a restaurant on First Ave. The community opposes it, fights and loses. This is the first attempt at a corporate incursion on the East Village, unless you count the A&P supermarket which is not very corporate at all.

On the late 70s- when things start getting interesting for me- I take violin lessons at the Third Street Music Settlement (on 11th Street, ha ha), play in my first orchestra, get hit on by strange men. One afternoon I watch a man out front very methodically separate a parking meter from the sidewalk and then bang the top against the curb hoping the coins will come spilling out and eventually they do. No one stops, comments or tries to stop him. No one calls the police.

I remember hippies very well, real ones: A couple walking hand in hand, dressed in identical fuchsia jumpsuits and ass-length hair in Tompkins Square. Super 8 movies of people having sex on rooftops. Lofts with tents set up inside them and motorcycles by the freight elevator door. Slowly they give way to a new, more minimalist aesthetic that the poets and musicians are embracing. Black and white. More film noir than psychedelic. Even though I’m only 12 they take me places like the Ear Inn, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the Entermedia Theater. I babysit for young parents, out at CBGB’s, spending my Saturday nights hanging around their apartments reading their Kathy Acker novels, listening to their Patti Smith, Ramones and Kinks records.

I buy a pair of shoes, brown alligator pumps with four inch spike heels, at Shazam on the corner of St Mark’s and 2nd Ave. By the dollar movie theater- a dollar for a double feature. The “M” on the sign is a woman’s spread legs.

 

Average NYC rent: $335/month

The 1980s: The 80s kick off with my parents and a bottle of pink champagne in Times Square. I’m going to be a freshman in high school in a few months and we walk by my future school because it’s nearby. I start getting a $100 a month allowance plus babysitting money and a vintage clothing addiction, easy to satisfy because there’s an amazing store on every damn block and everything costs so little. I know Leon’s on 4th St, Andy’s and Cheap Jack’s on St Mark’s, the Kasbah on 2nd Ave, Shazam on St. Mark’s, Bogie’s on 10th St- all in a six block radius. Bogie’s is the best, you can buy a mink jacket for $50 and it’s the most expensive thing in the whole place. The clothes mostly just lie around in piles and you dive in and pull out what you want. When you’re finally exhausted, Bogie glances at your stuff and names his price. Believe me, you can afford it.

The Kasbah is more expensive but more deluxe. I buy black velvet bias cut gowns from the 30s to wear for orchestra performances and violin recitals. The more I visit, the more stuff the owner puts aside for me (I’m ashamed that I don’t remember his name). Along with the leather jackets, fisherman and mohair and angora sweaters, wiggle dresses and pencil skirts, and jeans pre-destroyed the old-fashioned way, I buy a gorgeous bronze silk velvet jacket with lovely wide shoulders and flowing sleeves, from the famous and long-gone Best & Co. department store on Fifth Ave. It’s probably from the 30s or 40s but it’s in perfect condition until I wear it to a party and ruin it, naturally, some years later.

The neighborhood remains shrouded in its seedy and dangerous reputation, and the people you see on the street smile and say hello, because we recognize that we’re living within something special, dangerous in some ways but untouched by many conventions, standards and pieties, the freedom of the ignored: Want to walk your slaves down the street in full bondage gear? Want to light a fire in a trashcan to keep warm? Want to write a poem on a wall? Want to buy a bag of anything…at all? Want to start a band?

And this is the delicious secret of the “Bad Old Days East Village”: It thrives because it is off the radar; so does the South Bronx as it creates hip hop and b-boy culture at the exact same time. Things have actually fallen into such bankruptcy and thinly stretched resources that no one can be bothered to go and see who is in control of these neighborhoods, abandoned by landlords and respectable people with the resources to be part of the great post-war migration to the stultifying suburbs all around us. In most cases, it is drug dealers, talented creative people, sex workers and counterculture entrepreneurs who come out on top- not necessarily in that order. If you can tolerate the occasional robbery, mugging or overdose, you can be part of it. And you can easily and cheaply do whatever you want. And everyone does.

But then two things happen that start to change it all.

The first thing is Jack Henry Abbott stabbing Richard Adan, a waiter and actor, to death at the Binibon, a hippie café on 2nd Ave. Norman Mailer’s involvement with Abbott’s parole makes the story national headline news in 1981. Abbott kills Adan for refusing to let him use the bathroom (they never let anyone use the bathroom).[2]

Immediately after this, the art boom. Who are these people? And where did they find their impeccable vintage clothes? Not at Bogie’s, I can promise. These outfits were pilfered from the closets of tony grandmas. Why don’t they look you in the eye when they walk down the street? So snooty, so perfect looking, so loaded with disposable cash. And a lot of the art they promote, and the lifestyle they market, is superficial and materialistic compared to the tough, whimsical outcasts who are soon to start dying off in droves around them.

By the time I get out of high school in 1984, everything’s changed. A crappy $150 apartment is now a $600 apartment. A $600 apartment is now a $1500 apartment. My dad tells me that if he had foreseen this crazy hike in real estate prices, he would have rented me an apartment the day I was born. My shitty fulltime job in a copy store pays about $200 a week…before taxes. So I move to Brooklyn for the first time. To a cab driver it might as well be Zanzibar.

By the end of the 80s, Shazam has been replaced by the Gap (also protested by the community, again to no avail), the St Mark’s movie theater is shut and getting turned into condos and AIDS is ravaging the creative, gay and addict communities and opening up apartments for renovation, to be filled with NYU students and their rent-guaranteeing parents. Enough squares have now arrived that the police actually do have to respond to squatters’ parties, fires in trashcans and noise complaints. The Park is closed at night. The East Village is now mostly dead, it just doesn’t have the sense to lie still.

But I still get to see Iggy Pop at the Ritz with my friends. And perform in the last little storefront theaters. Publish poems. Start and end and join bands. It’s hard to let such a good dream slip away.

Average NYC rent: $1700/month

The 1990s: By the late 1980s, Peter Missing starts declaring “the Party’s over” for the East Village like some kind of anarchist John the Baptist. The freewheeling psychedelic art and party scene moves across the river to Williamsburg, and loft parties, Cat’s Head warehouse events and underground spaces like Rubulad and Keep Refrigerated stay one step ahead of fire marshals, gangbangers and the law in general. At the end of a night of partying, the brightly decorated freaks wander down to the edge of the river to watch Manhattan melt and glisten across the water, sitting on absurd remnants of piers, their concrete massiveness supported on burnt toothpicks of pilings.

I move to my first apartment in Williamsburg, a sort of floorthrough duplex with wide pine plank floors and a strange loading dock-like “backyard” space full of garbage. The upstairs neighbor is a Dominican grandmother who advises me to apply for a Section 8 housing subsidy- she had gotten one and therefore the whole building was eligible. She’s also dealing some sort of cocaine, powder or possibly crack, who knows. I don’t know how many people lived in her apartment full time, but on Saturday nights there are often tremendous drunken rows, and occasionally customers or grandchildren get out of hand. The rent is $650 when I move in in 1994; the landlord is a woman who lives in Shanghai and pays almost no attention at all to the building, which she likely inherited and cannot muster an interest in. When the building is sold in 1998, they try to raise the rent to $1300. On the streets around the neighborhood I keep running into artist friends who are leaving: “My landlord doesn’t think my $700 a month is sexy anymore.”

I decide to move to a more charming neighborhood: Fort Greene. I have a dog and she loves to play in the Park two blocks away, get walked along the treelined streets, keep an eye on the squirrels in the trees outside our parlor floor windows. This apartment is a floorthrough with a really charming 70s era bathroom- the Foxy Brown bathroom, with elaborate hanging light fixtures and extra long tub. I paint the front room persimmon red with white trim around the tall multipaned windows. The rent is $975 a month, but at least that includes heat. Which was not the case in Williamsburg.

There are lots of dog walkers in the Park, sometimes we hang out together at the benches at the top of the hill. The young strong fast dogs play tag, the older dogs lie around or slowly chase tennis balls. Sometimes I have to intervene if my young strong dog grabs an old dog’s ball. Mostly we talk. And real estate is a hot topic.

There is a Civil War buff with a beautiful 18th century townhouse on South Oxford Street and currently rumors are flying that houses like this in Park Slope are fetching the unheard-of price of $1,000,000. One million dollars! It seems inconceivable to someone who bought in the 1970s for a couple of dollars per square foot. This neighborhood has straightened up a lot since I was in high school and kids were buying weed on “Murder” Ave but it has no idea how far it still has to go.

In March 1999 my father dies while I am on the other side of the country and in May 2000 my landlords decide to raise the rent to $1350. I move back to Manhattan, East 7th Street, where I can share a tiny 3 room lightless ground floor apartment with a co-conspirator/bandmate/friend and reduce my rent to $450/month.

I begin the decade at a Public Enemy show at the World on East 2nd Street. I end it drinking the Macallan Grand Reserve scotch in a farmhouse in West Virginia.

Average NYC rent: $3,200

The 2000s: My return to the East Village lasts only 4 months, I can’t take the new atmosphere. I can’t stand pushing past people waiting to eat brunch when all I want is to get my laundry done. Somehow watching a couple of college kids have sex on the sidewalk as I walk home from work one night is not as charming to me in the summer of 2000 as seeing homeless people’s feet sticking out of a refrigerator box as they have sex inside it on the bandshell stage was in the summer of 1987.

I move back to Williamsburg, a little further east than last time, into a 1,200 square foot loft in a former clothing factory. I almost refuse to come see it because it’s on Broadway where the elevated train runs but the Hasidic man on the phone promises the apartment is in the back so I get on the J train.

The apartment is a big empty box and I have to sign a lease swearing I won’t be living there even though everyone knows I will be. It’s a corner apartment with large windows on two sides and 12 foot ceilings. With the help of some friends, I build out two bedrooms and a small yoga room. The rent is $1,650 a month, some people I know think that’s outrageous. I’ve reached a point in my life where I can just barely afford it on my own, and when things change and I can’t, I get a roommate. By the mid-2000s, I’ve fallen in love and my boyfriend moves in.

Within the first four years in the Broadway loft, the rent rises another $170, despite the fact that the hallways are always filthy, the elevator doesn’t work, the laundry room is disgusting and the neighbors are almost exclusively post-college hipsters who aren’t necessarily the most responsible and considerate. I put my foot down and refuse to pay another dime until these issues are addressed. They never are, but the rent stays put.

I get a job that takes me to the Northside every day for the first time in many years, and I start to get a real sense of how everything’s changing. The building I’m working in is across the street from a big renovation project and even it itself has a limited lifespan: all the tenants will be evicted within 5 years. There’s a very lovely roof garden and an interesting mix of businesses and live/work lofts that will all be relocating.

In June 2008, some drunken fools stuff beer bottles down the sewer vents on the roof of my building down on decidedly down-market Broadway, causing the pipes to back up into my apartment and it takes several days to fix because the landlord refuses to call (i.e. pay for) a real plumber. During the week that the toilet, sink and shower are all broken, I am managing a fundraising gala at my job. My boyfriend is working for a software company and needs to be impeccable every single day. And of course the situation affects every single bathroom on our sewer line.

As the decade ends, I have given up any notion of going out on New Year’s Eve; I hunker down in my increasingly affordable apartment.

Average NYC rent: $3,800

The 2010s: I am in a bar in the East Village, having drinks with co-workers. One is a Cooper Union graduate who lives on East Third Street, just a block or so from where I grew up and where my mother continues to live. Everyone is more than fifteen years younger than I am.

Another Cooper graduate, friend of my friend, stops by, and they start to reminisce about their college years and their experiences in the neighborhood. And I realize that this is what downtown has become: Just another college campus, built on the old bones of the fascinating, the brilliant, the desperate, the dead.

And Williamsburg? There are so many ugly new “luxury” buildings that whole blocks have been rendered entirely bland. Don’t ask me where the nearest Starbuck’s is, unless you’re prepared to hand over $20. I still won’t tell you (there isn’t one- yet; go to the West or something, you schmuck); it’s just asshole tax.

From David Byrne to Amanda Burden, from Spike Lee to Fran Liebowitz and far, far beyond, “everyone” is suddenly concerned about vanishing businesses, skyline-swallowing skyscrapers and priced-out communities. This seems like hilarious timing from where I sit. Where were the campaigns to save the record shops, the bookstores, the hardware and vintage clothing and movie memorabilia emporiums and even Woolworth’s, a couple of decades ago when they might have done some good?

Average NYC rent: Who knows, by 2020?


[1] It’s worth keeping in mind that in the neighborhoods being referred to here, rents were way below average until relatively recently. Source: http://matrix.millersamuel.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Miller100yearsNYre.pdf

[2] Gary Indiana backs me up on this, see page 2 of One Brief, Scuzzy Moment, a must-read if you’re interested in the mid- to late-70s East Village scene: http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/features/10557/index1.html