Manhattan: The New Suburban Sprawl


New York is a city with a soul, a living, breathing soul. That’s why New Yorkers come and never leave. That’s why kids grow up dreaming of moving to the Great Metropolis. The city also has a rich history of growth, change, and power. There have been many transformers of the city, some with great vision, others severely lacking it. But the new transformers of the city are an entirely different breed. They’re not the Carnegies or the Vanderbilts — they’re the bearded, birded, vintage cardigan-ed masses.

Now that’s a pretty bold accusation, I know. And don’t think that it’s lost on me that I’m part of the latter group. So bear with me. 

Today New York, Manhattan especially, is transforming at an alarming rate. It’s not political figures or government policies that are responsible for the most visceral of the changes anymore, though — it’s corporations. Despite codes, planning committees, and community, the private sector has become hellbent on ruining New York for the public sector. They’re snuffing out the city’s soul.

But just for some perspective, let’s look at a bit of history.

Robert Moses planned and built some of the most prominent and widely used landmarks in the city today, but also was convinced that a highway should be built through the West Village. Mayor Giuliani, who might have the most contentious legacy of any New York mayor, cut down crime but also obliterated any considerable magic that once existed in Times Square and ushered in the gaping tourist hole that it is today. In making room for Madison Square Garden to be the bastion of Bieber concerts that it is, the original Penn Station had to be torn down. Revered architect Vincent Scully famously synopsized the tragedy, “One entered the city like a God. One now scuttles in like a rat.”

The point of that curtailed history lesson is that even the most adept urban minds have often lost sight of what’s important as they try to expedite change and make progress. More succinctly put, it’s not your fault, hipsters. We’ve learned from the best how to abuse our great city.

If you ask anyone who lives below 23rd Street, above 110th Street, or in Brooklyn, The Bronx or Queens, I don’t think they’d be hard-pressed to tell you why they live there. Even leaving exorbitant rents aside, midtown and uptown Manhattan have lost a lot of their intrigue, so locals have gone elsewhere. Midtown is an inexcusable corporate sucknest. And despite the fact that uptown Manhattan will always have grandeur, beautiful architecture, Central Park, and high-class divinity of lore, the folks living there don’t like it when we poor loiter near their money.

So we went elsewhere. We went downtown and through the tunnel. We gentrified. This too is not a new concept. Lower Manhattan historically has been a haven for starving artists, starving non-artists, and the culture that comes with it all. But the people who have taken to lower Manhattan and the outer boroughs aren’t starving artists anymore, they’re middle-class artists. They went to Pratt, Parsons, and NYU. They own the hip restaurants. They work at the less hip restaurants. They never save any money, but they’re making ends meet in the new version of Bohemia.

Now big business wants to capitalize on the boom that we young, tattooed warriors have helped to develop. They see the bustling fair-trade cafes, and the artisanal hanky stores, and the bespoke dildo booths, and they want that. They want the prime real estate, bodies in the door, and the people’s money. That’s not a new business model, but what is relatively new is that model moving downtown and into the outer boroughs.

Corporate leaders know that their best opportunity to gobble up more money is to shove out timeless small-business staples, because the proprietors will never have the money to combat the challenge. They’re buying bodegas, they’re moving in on diners, and they’re taking down bars and eateries that have been there for decades. It’s pathetic. No one needs a pizza chain where Rawhide used to be, one of New York's most legendary gay bars. No one needs a Chipotle and a Starbucks where Motor City and Max Fish used to be, two legends of the Lower East Side. Max Fish will be relocating to Brooklyn, but owner Ulli Remkus told reporters that when he first acquired the space in 1989 his rent was $2,000 a month. It had reached $22,000.

You can’t fight change. You especially can’t fight change in a giant city like New York. New money will come, old money will invest in the new money, and the no-moneys will move. But it’s just devastating to watch the phenomenon of suburbanization take over Manhattan. If you’d like a daily dose of depression, check out the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a carefully curated daily report on New York’s changing landscape. Also, this Buzzfeed article on what some of New York’s most legendary venues and clubs have become is pretty pointed.

It’s a very complicated amalgam of mistakes and power grabs that has led to this quickening corporate takeover. And fingers should be pointing all over the place. But the largest group of finger-pointers are actually the group that made the real estate increase in value in the first place. Gentrifiers have to take responsibility for gentrifying, and until they can acknowledge that truth and harness its power for good, big business will keep replacing your bars with Starbucks.