Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Michael Gross, Paul Goldberger and changing cities

In a small out of the way nightclub on West 16th Street in Manhattan, New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger and author Michael Gross came together last week to talk about buildings in New York City.  They called their tete a tete "Manhattan's New Gilded Age."

Gross and Goldberger

Gross has just written House of Outrageous Fortune about the new building at 15 Central Park West, designed and built for New York's uber-wealthy.  His story is shocking in its excess, the sheer gluttony of fortune of the very rich and their every need.  No, not need.  Whim. It's gold bathing in gold.

Goldberger, on the other hand, is milder mannered.  He's a thoughtful man who understands the strain that global wealth is putting on the city.  On the one hand, he states unequivocally that cities need to change or die.  On the other, he recognizes that the extremely wealthy (of whom there are many) park their money in New York real estate because it is a good investment, a "safe deposit box in the sky" he quipped. They have little or no connection to the community where they own.  They could have chosen London instead.

The crowd that evening was young, educated and white.  They might be the same people who would go to that club on a Saturday night, but it was a Wednesday and they were there to relax with a drink and listen to two writers talk about their city.

New York was in many senses a much smaller place back in the 1970s, for the white middle-class at least, Goldberger rightly pointed out. Much of the city was out of bounds.  The parks were off limits at night, not by any ordinance but by the rougher rules of urban life.  The Bronx could have been the moon.  Manhattan's Soho itself was artsy but ungentrified.  Walking down lower Broadway was as an aggressive experience.  Stores spilled out onto sidewalks, selling piles of jeans, or piles of shoes.  History informs.

A woman raised her hand.  She looked like she was in her early thirties. She said that she had lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for ten years, but had moved out recently.  By the time she left, she said, her community was unrecognizable.  She was angry about it.

It wasn't clear to me who was supposed to solve this problem for her.  In my eye, she is the gentrification she is cursing.  The uber-wealthy are an interesting phenomenon, but they are the gilded peacock in a cage. Exotic, but not the norm.  The broader story is about a real estate market chasing this woman, and all her friends and everyone else who came to that talk that night.  Williamsburg changed because she moved there.  If she wanted it to remain as quaint old working-class industrial Williamsburg, she should never have been part of the trend that redefined it.

It struck me how many of the same themes are true in Cambridge too.