Monday, April 6, 2015

They can't go back to Ohio

One of the nastiest aspects of NIMBYism in New York City is the scapegoating of people who moved here from somewhere else. For years I've heard complaints about "people from Ohio" or "from the suburbs," and a veneration of "native New Yorkers." I can sometimes escape these complaints because I was born here, but if they say "lifelong New Yorkers" I don't qualify because my family yanked me out of here when I was a toddler, and apparently it doesn't matter if I came back as soon as I could. My father, who moved here when he was in his twenties and never owned a car, would not have qualified either.

Even Jeremiah Moss, who rages against the "suburbanization" of the city, acknowledged that he comes from the suburbs, and got a "dose of my own vitriol" in 2008 when Danny Hoch raged "Go home!" at non-natives. Moss gives a list of non-lifelong New Yorkers who have made the city great (to which I would also add Billy Joel, Donald Fagen and Jane Jacobs), and ends with a great quote by E.B. White about "three New Yorks," with the greatest being that of the non-natives: "the settlers give it passion."

In typical No True Scotsman fashion, Moss's commenters leap to draw a distinction between White's "person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something," and the "moneyed masses" that they were yearning to hate. Some people call them "hipsters," Moss previously called them "yunnies" for "young urban narcissists."

I think the difference is mostly exaggerated. Moss asks, "while there were probably always normal tensions between natives and newcomers, today it feels like a war, soaked in hate. as a long-timer, i look at newcomers with, at the very least, suspicion. so what happened between e.b. white's days and today?" I'll tell you what happened, Moss: now you're on the "long-timer" side of the war. The hate runs mostly from the long-timers to the newcomers, and at worst the newcomers regard the long-timers with contempt. Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg weren't narcissists? Gimme a fucking break.

And yet there is a kernel of truth there. While my dad, and Patti Smith, and Lou Reed, came to New York because it was the center of the world and they wanted to be there, a lot of people who are here now would be happy in other places. But they are here in New York because there are no other places for them.

A lot of the people I know would be just as happy in Saint Louis or Schenectady or Syosset or Saugerties. They wouldn't mind living in another big city, or a medium-size city, or a suburb, or a small town. But despite the breathless articles about suburbanites driving in Manhattan, most of them want to live someplace where they don't have to drive everywhere, or at all.

Here's what life is like for most people outside of the city, especially parents: drive the kid to school, drive to work. Drive to pick the kid up and bring them to soccer. Drive to shopping. Drive to the doctor's office. Drive to dinner. Drive to visit friends. Drive home. Drive drive drive. This is life for both parents, and for the kids (if they don't kill themselves driving drunk), and for the grandparents (if they don't kill themselves driving while disabled).

All this driving is killing us, and it's killing the planet. We want people to stop driving. We want them to live in walkable neighborhoods. But my wife and I tried living in walkable neighborhoods in two other cities, and we still felt the constant pressure to drive. Even if we could walk to work and to some restaurants, the stores and offices and friends were still far away and not well served by transit. So we moved back to the city, along with thousands of others.

This is the thing that pisses me off the most about the vicious scapegoating from Moss and his friends: these people are doing what we want them to do! They walk to shopping, and to visit friends. They walk the kids to school. They take the train to work. They take the bus to the doctor's office. So what do we do? In San Francisco people throw rocks at their buses. In New York we call them dirty hipsters and tell them to go back to Ohio.

They can't go back to Ohio. As Chrissie Hynde pointed out, their cities are gone. Even if they manage to find a reasonably safe place where they can walk to work and their kids can walk to school, there are hardly any jobs, and those jobs are an hour's drive out in the suburbs.

If we really want to keep the people who come to New York because it's New York and get the rest to go away, bringing rents down, we need to give them what they want elsewhere. That means bringing jobs back to the downtowns of Saint Louis, Schenectady, Syosset and Saugerties. It means tearing down their bypasses, reconfiguring their one-way pairs, reforming their zoning and undoing all the other changes that have turned their centers into parking craters. It means reconnecting them to the rest of the country with trains and buses that go downtown.

It means solving the underlying problem instead of wasting a bunch of people's time in a counterproductive attempt to stop the symptom. It means looking at these "hipsters" and "yunnies" as people making more or less rational decisions, instead of as faceless monsters. Are you up to the challenge, Jeremiah Moss?


Atrios said...

kids get off my lawn

Doug said...

The fact that so many old-timers seem intent on preserving the ultimate in suburban-style living - cheap and easy access to automobiles - seems lost on Moss.

D. Ghirlandaio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shaun said...

Thanks for writing this. I was just talking about that article in the New York Times yesterday. I was raised in an "exurban" area, moved to Chicago after university, and am now in Vancouver, Canada getting a Master's degree. I can't wait to leave. Vancouver is a terribly boring city if you're not into nature and hiking, and are into architecture and more vibrant urban areas.

A lot of new developments in Vancouver feature chain stores that Moss laments. I really don't like it, but I am conflicted. It depends on what your priorities are. If they are to be more environmentally friendly, then you'll welcome people into the city where they can live without a car and do their shopping at the stores they're used to.

Whenever I read the tangents of people like Moss, I wonder if people like him are being as selfish as the "yunnies" for wanting to keep the city the way HE likes it. At this stage in our history, I think it's critical that we have more people living in cities where their environmental footprint is lower, even if that means shopping at chain stores (and far and few between are local businesses who produce local wares. A small hardware store is going to be selling the same stuff as Home Depot). You can go to cities around the world and find chain stores in varying sizes. Paris is still Paris, even with Carrefour City, a micro-version of the massive Carrefour grocery stores found at suburban shopping centres.

There's a lot of cognitive dissonance going on in my mind on this subject... Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

3sigma said...

First, I'll pick up on one specific suggestion you made: highway bypasses are excellent features to have when they are accompanied by a conversion of the city streets/avenues that served the route into something pedestrian-friendly. That is how European cities often did and do it regarding through traffic. You ought to want grade-separated bypasses that take traffic out of regular streets.

As for the main issue, I think there is more than urban form at play. The modern service-based economy on the one's hand is less reliant on physical production assets like factories; on the other hand relies a lot on soft agglomeration effects like Silicon Valley.

If you want a job in high finance, or marketing, New York offers unmatched opportunities. Many top employers in law and consulting are also located in New York. A handful of US metros (from Los Angeles to Boston) concentrate a lot of these business of this service-based post-modern economy.

So I think many people might not actually particularly like living in New York, but they put up with it because there is why their high-paying jobs are.

3sigma said...

Second comment: I've followed Vanishing New York's blog for a while. I think Jeremiah Moss proposes a flawed argument: that somehow the New York he grew fond of, that being the one of the 1980s, is the "real" one who ought to be frozen on time. Reading his texts, he often passes as bitter, condescending and hypocritically dismissive of other people's lifestyles, even as they accuse these same other people of being oblivious to the cultural tenets he particularly likes or longs for.

Unknown said...

The elephant in the room is nostalgia, a poison that concentrates in the brain with time and distance. People really got shot back in the 80s, and whinging about the conceptual violence of the latest generation moving to the city is nothing less than the fugu poisoning of someone pining for the good old days of golden memory.

Alex said...

It would also be nice to replace the dead industrial zones that surround downtown cores of many cities with mixed zoning high density residential areas to remove the separation of downtowns from the rest of the communities.

Cap'n Transit said...

Whatever you might say about highway bypasses, 3sigma, they're not "excellent features." In fact, I think they're horrible. They've destroyed a lot of towns here in the US, and if they haven't done that in Europe it's because there are lots of factors compensating for them.

If there are goods or people that we really can't have on our main streets, then they should be on the rails. That's the way to do bypasses.

capt subway said...

Good piece that pretty much hits the nail on the head, and pretty much is in line with what I'd been suggesting, elsewhere, all along. So many of our once great American cities (e.g. Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, the list goes on and on) have been hollowed out, are mere lifeless shells of what they once had been, full of not much besides a lot of depressing parking craters, and surrounded by lots of far flung, unwalkable, car dependent 'burbs.

The growing number of people who want to NOT own a car and who want to live in walkable, mixed use communities with good public transit have very few options outside of a few big, mostly coastal cities (all the usual suspects: NYC, Boston, SF, DC, Portland, etc). It's simple supply & demand. And places like NYC will never be able to meet the all the demand. Obviously the once great cities of the Heartland have to be made once again viable.

Adrian said...

Among other great transplants are Miles Davis, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Zora Neale Hurston, Alfred Stieglitz, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollack.

neroden@gmail said...

I went back to Ohio... but my city was gone!

Yeah.... amazing that that song is from 1984. Cities like poor old Akron are even more gone now.

At least Chicago survived and is recovering. The only real city left between the east and west coasts...

(Denver's trying to become a real city, but it's got an immense amount of sprawl to overcome.)

There aren't any real
(non-car-dependent) cities south of DC, either.

CComMack said...

Hi. Philadelphia here. We can take about half a million before we start getting toxic, but there's only one of us.