7.08.2018

kevin baker in harper's: "the death of a once great city -- the fall of new york and the urban crisis of affluence"

Everyone who cares about cities, about privatization, and frankly, about humans and our ability to live on our planet, should make time to read the July cover story in Harper's magazine. New York writer Kevin Baker unpacks "The Death of a Once Great City -- The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence".
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

This is not some new phenomenon but a cancer that’s been metastasizing on the city for decades now. And what’s happening to New York now—what’s already happened to most of Manhattan, its core—is happening in every affluent American city. San Francisco is overrun by tech conjurers who are rapidly annihilating its remarkable diversity; they swarm in and out of the metropolis in specially chartered buses to work in Silicon Valley, using the city itself as a gigantic bed-and-breakfast. Boston, which used to be a city of a thousand nooks and crannies, back-alley restaurants and shops, dive bars and ice cream parlors hidden under its elevated, is now one long, monotonous wall of modern skyscraper. In Washington, an army of cranes has transformed the city in recent years, smoothing out all that was real and organic into a town of mausoleums for the Trump crowd to revel in.

By trying to improve our cities, we have only succeeded in making them empty simulacra of what was. To bring this about we have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve. The urban crisis of affluence exemplifies our wider crisis: we now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the systems we live under.
The article unpacks the trend I was lamenting in the 1990s, worsening each passing year, until it finally drove us out in 2005 -- the City paying diminishing returns on the "why live in NYC" equation, finally allowing me to defect from the whole mess of the United States. Since then, of course, it's only gotten worse. But no longer seeing the City on a day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground level, I had no idea how much worse.

This is not nostalgia. And it's not an inevitable act of nature. It's the result of deliberate choices by the ruling class. And it's happening all over North America.

I'm still reading the story. With every paragraph, my heart breaks a little more. It's a long, depressing, essential read.

If you can't access it through the Harper's website, try using your library card to get it through rbgdigital or hoopla.

6 comments:

laura k said...

I'm still reading it. Every paragraph, my heart breaks a little more.

laura k said...

Post edited a bit.

The Mound of Sound said...


Vancouver is succumbing to a similar plague. There's no longer one gas station in the core. Guy goes to retire and finds no one can afford the land but condo developers. A friend's doctor set out to retire at 75. He listed his practice for sale, the whole operation. When he hit 80 he began offering cash to any young doctor willing to take over. When that didn't work he quit, age 85. Every patient received a letter to give to their next physician, if they could find one, advising how to get their file.

Friends from Ottawa just got a nice co-op 2 bedroom. Small, very small, but quite nice. $2,400 a month and they were very lucky to get it. Restaurants typically have a "help wanted" sign in the front window. They can't get wait staff, busboys, etc. The going wages for those jobs are much too low to cover the costs of living in the city.

Quiet neighbourhoods of 1960's vintage ranchers have been leveled to make way for three, four or five floor condos.

Vancouver was a magical place in the 70s. Now it's overcrowded, hopelessly congested, and, in a way, frantic where once it was truly laid back. I hate having to leave the island but my kids live on the North Shore. When you drive off the ferry, everyone is going much too fast and, as you get into Vancouver itself the place seems, to me at least, hot. Walls of concrete. Hot.

How does a city function when even essential professionals steer clear of it? My doctor referred me to a thoracic surgeon. I figured I would be waiting forever. I got an appointment for the following week. Young woman, fresh out of UBC medical school, interned at Vancouver General. I asked her why, when there's so much demand in Vancouver, she didn't practice there. She said she couldn't afford the housing costs. She felt she would wind up working 6 days a week forever in order to afford the cost of something basic whereas, in Nanaimo, she got a lovely waterfront view house overlooking the BC Ferry terminal at a truly affordable price. And, she's on a 4 day work week.

I lucked out when I left Vancouver for the island.

laura k said...

Toronto too, although not as bad yet. (Though don't try telling Torontonians that.)

I don't think cities need to be laid back. There's nothing wrong with Vancouver being fast-paced. That's not for everybody, but a major city isn't meant to be laid back.

But I would separate "magical place" and "laid back" -- which seem nostalgic -- from this trend, where a city becomes a playground for billionaires and tourists only.

impudent strumpet said...

Nah, I've been hearing people say the same thing about Toronto since I moved here (although with more emphasis on tourists and chain stores and less emphasis on billionaires - although my stomping grounds aren't cool enough for billionaires to be interested)

laura k said...

Chain stores -- a result of out-of-control commercial rents -- very quickly render a city unremarkable. When we first moved to the GTA (2005), I was amazed and so happy to see that Toronto had resisted this trend. Now several neighbourhoods I really enjoyed have become wall-to-wall Shoppers Drug Marts, banks, and chain restaurants. I find this very sad.

It's true that people have talked about this for decades. I've been talking about it re NYC since the 1990s. It bothers each of us at a different point in the transition -- but eventually, it hits a tipping point, and the city more closely resembles the faceless suburbs, just with more people.