Sunday, January 31, 2016

The new politics and reform

Maybe I haven't made clear the first fact to know about tenement history: the very first apartment building was built for the immigrant labor ghetto at a time when every respectable New Yorker lived in a house. Apartment buildings did not exist until the ghetto. It is a creation of the ghetto and of ghetto real estate, the abandonment of land value by its owner for the exchange value of exploitation. Times change, of course, but it is worth remembering that nearly everyone today dwelling in Manhattan -- which was New York City before the consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898 --  now lives in a structure invented specifically for landlords and developers to exploit labor. Meet and greet yourself. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most exploited of them all? New Yorkers, fool, New Yorkers are exploited, all. 

Back to history. Before New York became the nation's industrial center with a vast immigrant labor force living in it, politicians were elite patricians, stewards of the entire city, not representing one or another constituency. They were somewhere between a pastor and a business owner. Of course they did represent their elite business interests, but the paternalist view held that the elite knew what was best for everyone, not just for some.

With the growing mass of voting immigrant labor, the possibility of winning office by appealing to a particular constituency emerged. A Democrat politician, Fernando Wood (he was named after a fictional romance hero, no ethnic implication), seized the opportunity, becoming New York's first populist mayor, winning election by catering to the working class.

This was a new kind of politics, a new kind of rule of administration and a new game of playing one group against another. It incited fierce political divisions since the interests were no longer ordered from the top, but pitted against one another, wealth against poverty, top against bottom, native against immigrant, laborer against owner,  and in the fray every interest in between had now a card to play. Fernando Wood was the first modern New York politician.

He's usually depicted as a racist opportunist. He was, of course, but this is a naive view. He was first and foremost a champion of labor. He created the first public works project to give immigrants jobs at a time when those immigrants were mostly Catholics and deeply despised, disparaged and resented. No doubt for him it all fed his opportunism, but that's modern politics, isn't it? Constituency opportunity -- that's what he brought to the table. No more Platonic paternalism of the wise elite ruler, politics is now sheer power of numbers of the voting block. It was a political revolution, for better or worse.

It led to violence and a bitter antagonism between the city and the state, which was not interested in the city's Catholic working class. Following the police riots -- the city police force fought with the newly created state police on the steps of City Hall -- New York was left spectator to police rivalry until it became lethal in the Dead Rabbit riots in the heart of the ghetto. The entrenched antagonism between immigrant and native, Catholic and Protestant, labor and elite, Democrat and Republican, recast the meanings of New Yorkers and the profile of the city's character and fate. When Wood first took office he found it an ordered, integral city of class distinctions of rich owners and poor laborers; he left it a battle ground of class struggle and complex political divisions based on that struggle.

He was also an anti-abolitionist. During the Civil War he recommended the city secede from the Union in order to remain neutral in the war and to continue trade with the South. How could he be so progressive on labor and still support slavery? The South was New York's biggest trade partner. Labor -- white labor -- relied on it.
Today Americans wonder what happened to the Republican Party that had been the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and is now the party of Bushes, , Cheney, Kochs, Cruz and even Trump. But there really was no change -- it's our perception that has changed. The Republican Party has always been the elite party even when Lincoln was its candidate. Abolitionism among whites was an elitist movement. Labor was against it. Labor viewed it as divisive and therefore unpatriotic, destroying the unity of the nation. It was also perceived as bad for labor in the North which depended on the clothing trade and cotton. Labor saw abolitionism as a moral extravagance of the wealthy who lectured overseas on the moral turpitude of American society (see Burroughs&Wallace's Gotham). In short, labor viewed abolitionists as traitors who cared more about slaves than wage-laborers.

These differences erupted in the Draft Riots, a race riot cum attempted labor revolution. Following the riots, the Democratic Party seems to have recognized that Christmas turkeys did not suffice to buy labor's vote. Tammany Hall had to produce. The result was a series of housing laws to improve the quality of living in the ghetto. It was the beginning of the transformation of the tenement culminating in the New Deal, those nation-wide reforms first initiated in NY -- all from its origin in the Draft Riots, probably the most important event in the city's history and certainly its turning point and perhaps a turning point for the progressive movement towards the modern welfare state; without the Draft Riots, no New Deal.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Summary so far: internal design vs external design -- unrelated motivations, unrelated principles

So the principles that govern the external appearance of the tenement are not about money or class, but fashion and function (it's a residence not a bank, gov't building, church or commercial office); the principles that govern the interior of a tenement are exclusively about money, class and purpose (reaping profit from others using it rather than using it or living in it oneself).

Purpose is the underlying motivator of the ghetto and its most enduring gift to New York, the apartment building -- in legal technical terms, tenement (I'll have a post on the interesting  and complicated permutations of the meaning of the word later on). If you build a house for yourself, you yourself will attempt to ensure that it will be pleasant, sanitary and sound. If you build for the free market, you will attempt to assure that what you build will appear to be pleasant, sanitary and sound to attract the highest possible rent -- the goal is not to live there but to profit. But if you build for a captive market, then you ensure only that it stands.
Constructing for oneself (poster made for the Chinatown Working Group) 
Constructing for profit (also a slide for the CWG)

That's the history of the ghetto in New York in brief. Where there's more money to be made, there's more grasping for it. As demand increases, the grasping becomes more frenzied. New York City is that frenzy of exploitation.

When land owners chose to give up on a piece of land as a place where he or his extended family or friends or his associates -- in other words, his class -- might live, he turned from the land to the structure built on it for rent. From that moment, the internal structure was determined by class, purpose and money-seeking. The external design remained slave to fashion and function.

You can see this distinction today. When a landlord prepares to sell an apartment building, he will spiff up the entryway and the hallways. He will not fix your plumbing or your ceiling. The external and the internal are two different games.

You can also see the significance of purpose today. Increasingly, apartments are owned by remote corporate giants which are ever more difficult to deal with. The law requiring a super living within 200 feet of the premise is gov't's attempt to mitigate the dangers of remote ownership. As more landlords skirt that law, more renters suffer loss of services more frequently and for longer periods of time.

Summing up this series so far:

The External Principles

1. Rich vs poor was not a design distinction in architectural ornament. Even when the rich tried to distinguish themselves from a common style, the ghetto immediately imitated them.

2. The degree of lavish ornament among tenements does not correlate with rich or poor but with history. The streetscape is a jumble of unrelated historical period styles, not a swimsuit competition.

3. Function, however, was very much a design distinction in architecture. Banks and gov't buildings are the most obvious examples (except for churches, which in my haste I failed to mention; they are the most purely affective structures, intended either to inspire or comfort and often to signify sanctuary by being distinctly archaic or harmonious or grandiose or all of those). If banks propagate public confidence in stability borrowed from  Roman lack of fashion changes, the gov't building to impress and intimidate, and the church to inspire or comfort, the residential building provides a stylish surround, consistent with the cultural norms of decor.

4. The history of modern architecture is a fabric of fashion, not money or class. (In this, architecture is distinct from attire. The male gentry uniformly dressed in puritanical, dignified black, their women in exuberant extravagance. Male labor flaunted wild colors while their women, to avoid being mistaken for streetwalkers, dressed like humble peasants. Again, cultural function trumps fashion.)

The Internal Principles

5. The back house is an indication that the landlord has given up on the value of the land, replacing it with the value of the structure on the land -- a shift from a personal dwelling in a desirable neighborhood to a commodity for others to rent in a ghetto for those who cannot rent elsewhere. That shift is pervasively explanatory. If I build for myself, I'm going to be sure that it's pleasant, sanitary and sound. If I build it just to make money from a captive consumer, the I care only that it's sound.

6. The captive market results in declining amenities as demand and rent increase, the opposite of a free market. At first, tenements were built with natural light and fresh air along the model of a townhouse, just taller. As demand increased, space, light, air and privacy were increasingly lost to rent-seeking -- packing the immigrants in as densely as possible.

7. The height and depth-in-the-lot of the tenement correlates closely with the growth of the city's population, especially of labor growth.

In short, the lesson of ghetto real estate is the shift from land value to structure value -- personal dwelling (amenities assured) to money-making for a captive consumer. The result is the inverse law of ghetto real estate: as exchange value increases (rent and demand), its use values declines (the amenities of space, privacy, light, air). It's the opposite of the free market where exchange values and use values rise together. Once the landlord doesn't want to live there, it's just a business. Ownership from afar is particularly harsh on housing. We see this today, where landlords are increasingly giant corporations remote from the needs of renters.

Okay, we're about a third way through this series. We've still got to look at why the first tenement built was also the tallest -- it seems to have held the longest record (40 years?) for tallest building in the city, although I don't believe it is recorded in the Museum of the Skyscraper; how laws changed the tenement structure; why corner buildings are usually built after 1901; when historians shouldn't be trusted; when writing on the wall should be disregarded; how to tell one period from another; why preservationists don't know the difference. That'll keep me busy for a couple of weeks at least.

Next up: gov't intervention in this inversion of the market. It begins with Fernando Wood and the often misunderstood elitist origins of the Republican Party prior to the Civil War.
Slide of my favorite terra cotta the cultural complexity of which will occupy its own post

Friday, January 29, 2016

The inverse law of ghetto real estate

Prior to mass transit trains across the five boroughs, the labor force were compelled to dwell near their source of work, back then mostly concentrated around the docks of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Growth could not then spread horizontally like suburbia or a Los Angeles. It could grow only vertically to preserve proximity. As a result, the increasing population of the labor force is directly reflected in the bulk and height of the successive structures that housed them.

At first town houses were refitted for multiple families, often expanding the fourth floor servants' quarters attic into a full floor for two apartments. As space became dearer, the houses were built higher with an additional backhouse behind the one facing the street. Why build backhouses rather than building even higher or building deeper into the lot? Either of those options would have saved the space of a second stairwell and a second backyard space.

The design of a town house allows natural light into the front room and the back room, each about twenty feet deep. If the building is built deeper to accommodate more rooms for more families, the interior room would have no light at all. Who would rent such a space, when there are other town house rooms elsewhere with natural light? A dark interior room would have no market, so the only benefit to a deeper structure would be deeper rooms, which would give more space to a renting family, but not more families to rent.

As long as the demand for naturally lit rooms did not exceed the supply, there was no reason to build deeper. It made more sense to build a back house with naturally lit rooms. That would allow more families to rent, more rents per lot.

When the labor population increased demand for local residences, the civility of natural light could be disregarded. It became marketable to build one structure deep into the lot, with only one stairwell and only one small backyard and with dark interior rooms for poorer families or borders.
The white section represents the building footprint, the blue is the backyard space
It was only after 1901 that a progressive housing law required adequate natural light and yard space. Until then, the story of housing followed a monopolistic law. If the consumer is captive, the market is not "free" to follow amenities with their money. In a free market, amenities attract higher prices with the result that the market reflects a range of values. In housing, that plays out with a range of modest houses to magnificent mansions. But where the consumer-renter is restricted in place, and the supply is restricted as well, the developer can jack up rents without offering any amenities. The history of the tenement show the opposite of the free market character. When demand was lower in the 1840's, amenities were reasonable -- natural light and spacious rooms. By the 1880's, during a huge increase in labor population, the rooms were smaller, darker and more crowded with more families living together, despite the higher rents. As demand increased, price increased and amenities lowered. The range of housing remained unchanged. In the 1880's and 90's tenements were built at the rate of about two thousand per year, all of them designed on one model. The interior of the tenement was as uniform as the exteriors were wildly diverse.
The ghetto law of a captive market:
S/D=S/P=A (as supply decreases over demand and price, amenities lower).
In the ghetto, as rents go up, amenities like space, light, fresh air and privacy go down -- the opposite of the free market where money chases amenities upward. This desperate exploitation of a captive market -- immigrants not only had to live near the workplace, but as immigrants were not welcomed in "respectable" neighborhoods -- eventually led to successive housing reforms, though not until after the four-day immigrant labor uprising known as the 1863 Draft Riots. Along with a political revolution led by the populist mayor Fernando Wood, Tammany Hall, relying on Catholic labor for its constituency, recognized that housing was the essential problem to be solved for New Yorkers. Plus ça change...

The politics of housing requires its own post.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ghetto real estate

I'm cheating here. I posted this about a year ago, but it fits into the series exactly right here, and I'm short of time anyway. It starts the story of how landowners --the original New York City gentry -- encountered a vast landless immigrant labor force drawn to an industrializing city...

Concerning the history of real estate in the slum

Trying to attribute gentrification to the real estate industry, Neil Smith came up with an analysis that distinguished ground rent from building rent. It's an echo of David Ricardo, whose brilliant analysis of rent distinguished the value of the land from the value it produced in an agricultural economy. Smith's distinction is inventive and imaginative, but maybe not reflective of any economic reality. I think he conflated potential with real. To explain why I think so, I'm going back in time to the roots of slum real estate.

In her Manhattan for Rent (Cornell 1989)Elizabeth Blackmar recounts how Henry Rutgers, in the 18th century, leased out a piece of his land to a contractor, specifying exactly the size of the house the contractor could build. Too small a house might attract poorer tenants, too large might attract boarders, in either case altering the character of the neighborhood for the worse, degrading the value of his land.

In old New York, the gentry leased land to a contractor who would build a structure and rent it out to a single-family tenant. The building owner then extracted the rent on the residential tenant and in turn paid rent on the land to the landowner. Rutgers' specifications recognize that the value of land depends not just on the rent of whatever structure is built on it, but on the value of the land itself. For Ricardo, the value of the land depended on the demand for the best soil for cultivation. In a city, and for Rutgers, it's the demand for the best neighborhood, the cultivation of preferred neighbors.

So far Smith's analysis works well. The value of the land can be discussed independently from the rent of whatever is built on it. What I question is whether the value of the land can differ from the value of the buildings on it or their revenue.

The drawing at the top shows the Five Points neighborhood, lower Manhattan's notorious slum of the mid-19th century. The artist gives the impression of the topsy-turvy discord of the place, a kind of bizarro-New York. Wooden houses are sinking into the ground at different rates, street fights abound, a white gentleman is kicking a woman, presumably a prostitute, into the street while the only dignified character is the black gentleman in a top hat. Prominent among the incongruities is a tenement building, standing like a Trump Tower amidst a tattered Detroit street.

Here's a photo of the same street taken probably a few years later. You can see that the shack next to the tenement has sunk even deeper. In the drawing it's a two story structure, but the photo shows the ground floor window below the street level.

Charles Dickens had visited this very corner only seven years prior. He complains about the knee-high garbage in the gutter, and that's actually how this photo can be dated. The streets of Five Points were so filthy the city decided to "scrape" them clean in 1855. The story goes an Irish immigrant commented on seeing the newly washed streets of her neighborhood, "I had no idea there was cobblestones down there."

The cleaning of the foulest quarter of New York must have been quite the news. Five Points was not just the city's troubling social problem -- no one had ever seen such poverty, density or desperation in the city before, not to mention the concentration of Catholicism -- the place had also become a curiosity, a circus-like attraction. This photo was the instagram of its day -- The streets of Five Points have been cleaned?!? Definitely got to check that out and record it! -- and here it is, Five Points recorded ironically at its only clean moment, no doubt misleading many viewers today to think "It wasn't as bad as the literary accounts of it." Among the misled may be the viewers of Scorcese's Gangs of New York which reproduces dusty but barren streets, very much like the one in the photo. Here's what the streets of Five Points normally looked like:

Easier to see with this photo of a nearby East Side street lined with ca.1865 tenements, taken prior to 1894 when Colonel Waring finally got the streets of New York clean:

Not pretty. Dickens' complaint was no literary exaggeration. (Btw, if you look at photos of NYC streets in the late 1890's, you'll typically see cute little piles of horse shit here and there. They don't indicate that the streets weren't clean effectively. They're actually the mark of Waring's success. Priorly, you couldn't tell the horse shit from the heaps of excrement of all types, as above.)

Now take a close look at the tenement in the Five Points photo and drawing, in particular, what's behind the tenement in its lot. There's a back tenement -- a smaller tenement behind the main building. That little building tells all. I'll say a lot more about the reason for and the structure of the back tenement, but for now, let's just consider the mere fact that it's there.

In his contract, Rutgers also specified that there be no back house in his lot. A back house was guaranteed to bring a bad element. Who would rent in a back lot? Who would live in a front building with no back yard?

The mere existence of that back house says unambiguoulsy that the landowner has lost faith in the neighborhood as a place where he would ever consider living in. He's abandoned its use to the exchange value of its building. That shift will send both the land and its building floating onto the current of exchange, of industrialization and immigration, and eventually to legislative reform.

And that's why it's so tall. At a time when the tallest townhouse was was three and a half stories, these tenements were the skyscrapers of its day. People of means spurned apartment buildings. Multiple dwellings -- they called them tenements, but they were just apartment buildings -- were for immigrant Catholics, not for dignified society. The decent lived in a house.

And it wasn't the tallest. But I will finish this story later. The real estate market, immigration, density, the lack of public transport, and most important, the owners' relationship with his land -- all influence the character of construction and of neighborhood. It's a story of an inverse relation between use value and exchange value that characterizes slum real estate, exactly the opposite of the non slum market where use and exchange and demand all rise together. In the slum, demand and exchange rise at the expense of use. The more demand, the higher the price, the worse the conditions and the greater the density. It explains the uniformity of the slum and its diversity over time. More soon.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Banks, Romans, fashion-mongers and modernism

Banks prior to modernism all looked remarkably alike and remarkably unlike all other buildings except for government buildings. Why?

A bank building is a form of advertising -- really propaganda -- designed to entice you into giving them your precious money without any commodity to exchange. Instead of giving you anything but a promise, as soon as they get your money, they lend it to someone else whom you do not know and never will know. And they do this entirely on your faith in their respectability and stability. Until the New Deal, their respectability and stability consisted exclusively in that faith -- without that faith, they'd be empty scamming shells. So banks invest in appearances of respect and stability. And what's more stable and respectable than a Greco-Roman temple?
I'll have more to say later about Stanford White's surprising structure
Well, nothing is, but why is the Roman temple so stable-appearing? No doubt it's the empire association, its antiquity and its grandeur. But there's a more important reason that's almost too superficial to notice.

What is the characteristic architectural structure of our culture or our city? Is it the skyscraper? Which skyscraper?
The Empire State Building-Chrysler style romantic futurismo?

Or the blunt minimalism of the WTC buildings rising without any articulation upwards?

Or the precious postmodernism of the Sony Building?

Or the computer-generated Money-Is-Freedom (or is it the Freedom-Is-For-The-Moneyed) Tower that replaced the old WTC?
Or the haute couture of Gehry's tower downtown?

Truth is, we just don't have a single emblematic architecture. We're too full of fashion. Every ten years, our architecture shifts. That's not recent either. It's been shifting every decade -- sometimes more frequently -- since the 1850's at least.

Now think of Roman architecture. It's all columns, arches, domes, entablatures and grand staircases. The emblem might be the Greco-Roman temple -- classical entablature over columns with a dome behind. Why is it so easy to identify Roman architecture? Because it never changed. 500 years, half a millennium and no change.

The Romans were very different from us. They thought their culture was the greatest in the world. And, Far East Asia except, they were right. Why should they change? The notion of progress was not one they seemed to have understood at all. When Hero of Alexandria invented the steam engine in the first century, did the Romans use it to improve their wretched agriculture or speed chariots over the aquaducts, or employ them in military ventures or for digging or building or anything useful to their economy? None of those. They used the steam engine to make statues move their parts to impress the barbarians. Their lack of agricultural innovation is one reason for their collapse -- it took those ignorant, simple-minded Middle Age peasants to figure out effective crop rotation and harnessed plows. Not so ignorant and simple as it turns out.

Modernism is the opposite of Roman stability. Individualism, Enlightenment skepticism, the independence of the town-dweller, the competitive model of enterprise -- all of these promote the notion that time is change and change in time is progress. It's hard for us to think about the future without assuming it will include progress. The notion of time passing is for us a progress of sorts. Fashion is the essence of that notion bare and pure: the new is better simply because it is not the old. Fashion is little more than progress divorced from improvement.

Where does modernism get its obsession with fashion? It's a familiar story. Under feudalism, when Church, lord and serf were fixed in a rigid system, the townspeople -- craftspersons, merchants and most important, the bankers -- were independent of the structure. With the rise of these independents and their competitive commerce, they instigated the new ideology of protest, revolution and enlightenment unsettling the old and replacing with the ever new. The sciences thrived by rejecting accepted wisdom, and soon lent the industrial revolution its steam. Drafting the serfs from the land to the factory entailed a new ideology of freedom, individual rights and self-ownership. The serf must liberate himself from the lord and possess his own labor which he could sell then for a price in town. Each for his own, and everyone serving capital ownership under the model of democracy -- balancing the state through the aggregate of individual self-interests. It's as far from Roman civic duty as could be imagined. And it's no surprise that suicide shifted from the Roman expression of honor and dignity to the modern expression of anomie, depression, alienation and unbearable lonely sadness.

So it's not just the associations of empire, antiquity and grandeur, but its own stability and resistance to any fashion, which allows it to be the single emblem of an empire extended in time.

Aside from the bank, also the gov't building uses this signifier of stability but exaggerated several times. The gov't building, by its sheer size, intends to intimidate. It says, "don't even think about trying, you're a nothing in comparison with the magnificence of the state."
NY State Supreme Court, Centre St. above
The Federal Courthouse next door, right

If the function of the building is reflected in its form, what is the form that suits the residence, the tenement? It's something akin to living-room decor -- the latest artwork ornamenting the walls, something appealing but not scary or stern; a delight, charming, ingratiating and colorful. And that's exactly what you see especially in the 1890's when terra cotta let the designers loose to pour out their imaginations unfettered by stultifying principles of classicism. It didn't last long, but it changed the character of New York.

Next up: the origins of the slum in the abandonment of real estate value.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

An outlier hypothesis

When I gave this talk at the Neighborhood Preservation Center/Historic Districts Council a friend objected that she knew the true reason the tenements in the 1890's erupted in terra cotta. The new immigrants, mostly from Italy and Eastern Europe, were illiterate. Landlords designed distinctive buildings so they could find their way home. I mention this hypothesis not because of any intrinsic merit, but because its author still insists on it, and a falsehood repeated with insistence is often mistaken for truth. So I feel the need to put it to rest conclusively. 

Granting the odd notion that landlords would care about their tenants' confusion, I pointed out to her that such a purpose would be fulfilled by a single distinctive mask, floral or faunal figure over the entryway, sparing the landlord the expense of covering an entire façade with them. Besides, one needn't be literate to tell the difference between the Arabic numerals, one of the beauties of which is their design distinctiveness. I added that since tenements built in different periods had structural differences sufficient to distinguish one from another by any untutored eye -- ceiling heights vary, some have a stoop, others not, likewise basement apartments, storefronts, position of the doorway (earlier to the side, 1890's in the middle), the brick bond (the pattern of the bricks),
the number of floors (an important marker of economic and social history as we'll soon see) -- no ornament would be necessary to distinguish one structure from another. 
And, of course, the immigrants prior to the 1890's may not have been Eastern European or Italian, but they were no more literate, and yet you can find a dozen 1860 tenements all in a row, all identical. Her response was, well, we'll never know for sure, will we? All hypotheses about history are all equally valid. 

A picture is worth a thousand futile words:
This is Pitt Street just south of Houston. The buildings are ornamented with terra cotta masks throughout. The three entryways have all been altered, but you can clearly see that these are three sister buildings on three lots and they are identical. In other words, contrary to the hypothesis, wherever a developer built adjacent lots, they were built identically in all its details. This is not an aberration. It's actually quite common.
The tenements made famous by Led Zepellin's "Physical Graffiti" album are twins. The most complex terra cotta are hard to see -- they are way up top over the top floor, not the best way to provide directions for the resident on the street. I could easily multiply examples of such building twins. 
On the left, 11th Street. Two buildings, identical; not hard for me to find these: I live in the one on the far left. And there's another such pair down the block. 

If it's so easy to find series of identical adjacent 1880-90 terra cotta tenements, why would someone come up with a hypothesis not just counterfactual, but directly opposite to the facts -- that so far from building distinctive designs to make each unique, the designers made every effort to make their own buildings identical? Because people don't bother to look. This should be a deeply disturbing fact about us. Our pet ideas are more fun than the banal facts. 

So the explanation for differences in ornament lies in fashion for the most part. The other part lies in function. Even though rich and poor, expensive and cheap all chased the same fashions created by the designers of the wealthy trying to run ahead of the vulgar, the function of a building was more important even than fashion. The purpose of a building is reflected in its style. The next post will delve into the meaning of the relation between form and function, our notion of fashion and progress itself, and the deep differences between our culture and the culture of Classical Rome, where we must go now to understand the bank and the courthouse before we get back to the residential apartment house or tenement. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

De Blasio's difference

For the last decade, the progressive left has been begging for a mandatory inclusionary housing program in New York City requiring that all new residential buildings include a quantity of affordable housing. The mayor has proposed exactly such a plan. The community boards and the progressive left have rejected it. Why?

First, compare the mayor's plan with the Bloomberg model of inclusionary zoning. Bloomberg rezoned 120 neighborhoods in the city. Each one contained significant upzonings -- greater allowances for larger buildings, a give-away to developers. In addition to the upzoning give-away, Bloomberg offered developers the option to build even more space if a portion included affordable housing. Usually the bonus -- the added market-rate housing that the developer could build above the affordable component -- wasn't enough for the developer to bother with, so they didn't.

However, affordable housing non profits, which manage the affordable housing component and get their funding for doing it, and whose mission is to create or promote the creation of affordable housing, were the advocates for the inclusionary program. So you'd see the irony of progressive community-based non profits selling development and upzoning to the communities with the promise that the affordable housing would benefit the community. Carefully not mentioned was that the development would raise real estate values, the market rate housing attract more money, and landlords, seeing an opportunity to cash in on the upscaling of the neighborhood, would harass tenants in a thousand ways, and the result would be community displacement and a net loss of affordable housing, particularly steep if the developers didn't even bother with the inclusionary bonus.

Of course, the affordable housing wasn't for the community in the first place. The housing was delegated by raffle, and the housing wasn't often affordable to the locals anyway. So this model of community stabilization or preservation was what I call the Invasion of the Body Snatchers model of community preservation. The community is replaced with other individuals who purport to be just like them with respect to income. But they are not the community. And since the housing isn't affordable to the prior community, it's not even Body Snatchers, it's just wholesale snatching.

Mandatory IZ doesn't solve this conflict between the creation of affordable housing through development and gentrification/displacement. That's one reason why the community boards haven't cottoned to it. But you'd think that the progressive non profits would still be advocating for it. And here's a big difference in the structure of the mayor's proposal. Instead of rezoning neighborhoods one by one, his proposal changes the zoning law itself, so the city would be upzoned automatically without any further process. Community boards would have little say and the non profits would be left out as well.

Under Bloomberg, it was possible for the communities to ask for additional perks in the form of funding for the non profits -- legal services to help evicted tenants, for example. Under de Blasio's proposal, there's no opportunity for the community to leverage such additional funding.

More important, the de Blasio proposal doesn't kick in until there's an upzoning, so in effect, his proposal is just as voluntary as the Bloomberg model. With a little difference: since developers, prior to any upzoning can develop now without including affordable housing, we should expect them to lose interest in upzonings. It has been well observed that mandatory inclusionary housing has this kind of dampening effect on development. We should expect to see the non profits still advocate for upzonings, and less upzoning advocacy from the developers.

The Bloomberg model placed the developer in the drivers' seat, drawing the non profits onto the developers' bus for the sake of the affordable housing and their legal services funding, while they all throw the community under the very bus they're driving. De Blasio's model takes the developer out of the driver's seat, leaving the non profits on a bus going nowhere.

The irony is even more stark -- we should expect to find that the only people advocating for upzoning, gentrification and displacement would be the progressive non profits under the new model.

Anti-Catholic architecture, anti-Catholic town

Before I get to the inverse law of ghetto real estate and the social history of immigrant exploitation, I'm going to start with the face of the tenements themselves. It's a long story, but it says a lot about our culture in broader terms than just 19th century New York.

A common explanation for the expensive, lavish appearance of some tenements has an appealing simplicity and naturalness: the landlord was seeking to attract a better tenant who might pay a higher rent. On this theory, the expense of ornamentation is an investment in future rents, a gift that keeps on giving. I've known many otherwise intelligent and informed urban observers who've endorsed this explanation.

Just one problem -- and a moment's thought exposes the weakness of this explanation. Take a look at the photo above. If the builder of the tenement on the right covered it with ornament in order to draw better tenants, what was the owner of the plain red one seeking? Worse tenants? Rowdy, dangerous tenants? Deadbeats, low-level criminals?

Obviously not. No landlord chases after the bottom. So why build plain at all?

In looking at the history of tenements, I was surprised to learn that architectural style and appearance does not discriminate between rich and poor. Expensive buildings may be on a grander scale, and may show a greater sophistication of design, but the elements of style in buildings constructed in the ghetto are drawn from the same stylistic elements as those current in the wealthiest neighborhoods. Architecture is a fashion. Even when someone attempts to break out of the mode, as the wealthy periodically did, probably to distinguish their homes from the vulgar, the architects of the common immediately imitated them. There is no escape from fashion in our culture. There is a cycle of change that begins with avant-garde that, through imitation, leads to fad and competition ending in innovation, at which point the cycle repeats.

Architecture was not always such a slavish fashion, and when I get to the distinctions between function in which architecture in our culture does discriminate, we'll look at Roman architecture and what it says about not only fashion, but our sense of time, progress, our relationship to our society and our sense of self. It's all in the architecture. As I say, architecture is the undeceiving record of history -- not just an art, but a record of living, thought and identity.

To answer the topic question: tenements were built at different times under different fashion modes. One might object that maybe the earlier modes were simple and the later, more elaborate modes were chosen to compete for better tenants. That would avoid the absurdity of imagining a landlord seeking the bottom. But if architecture is a fashion, the better-tenant theory is superfluous. And a quick look at the fashions in the 19th century shows that the ghetto was a faithful reflection of the fashions of the day.

Early American architecture avoided all ornament except Greek motifs, partly to resonate with Greek democracy, but more important to the colonials, to keep at arms length from the extravagances of the Catholic Church. The colonies, and the new republic, were deeply Protestant and anti-Catholic. They were more suspicious of Catholics than they were of Jews, Muslims or Africans. Much of the ground-laying migration from Europe to the New World occurred during the Thirty Years War's devastating strife between Catholic and Protestant, and the sense of independence and Protestantism were tied closely to one another. Puritanical architecture prevailed. Wealth was marked by dignity, not opulence.

When the Astors had LaGrange Terrance built, also known as Colonnade Row on Lafayette Street, they were criticised for its extravagance, one critic complaining that the whole point of the development was the columns, and they obstruct the view from the windows, those silly rich folk.
Competing right around the corner
from LaGrange Terrance
Nevertheless, they started a trend which spread to townhouses, reflected in the Greek motifs in tenements as well. The columns on the Merchant's House townhouse were added after the rest of the building was designed and built in 1832, just as La Grange was being completed. So, as anyone who's been there knows, the bell ringer is almost inaccessible behind the column.

Same mode, not so upscale,
scarcely distinguishable
from the tenement at the top
The plain red building in the middle in the top photo shows minimal ornament, and it's all Greek. The lintels (the 'eyebrows' over the windows) are miniature architraves.

By the 1890's New York City was full of Catholics, both Irish and Italian, and architects were following a British fashion for terra cotta with designs stolen from the Italian Late Renaissance and Maniera. It made no difference whether you built a palace for one of the spectacularly wealthy New York entrepreneurs or for the immigrants in the ghetto, you built it in style. In fact, the wealthiest family in the city, the Astors, a third generation of Protestant money, were one of the few real estate developers who refused the ostentatious fashion of 1890's, preferring to build with simple dignity. So you'll find the Astors in the 1890's building plainly, the immigrant landlord building opulently.

Mitchell Grubler, an eminent preservationist in the City, has pointed out to me that architects in the ghetto did create their own vernacular styles distinct from the mainstream. This is certainly true, and we'll see just how they developed their own signatures especially in the 1890's when ornament took precedent over principles, freeing designers to experiment wildly. But the elements of their signature styles are all cobbled together from the fashion currents.

Next: another intriguing theory, also false but also instructive.

Friday, January 22, 2016

New series: The Tenement Puzzle, a social, cultural, economic and architectural history

Why are some tenements -- built in the ghetto for poor, immigrant labor -- so elaborate, covered with expensive terra cotta and glazes, stone and tinted brick while others are simple and plain?

Over the years I've heard several speculative explanations, often ingenious, but always wrong, always misled by a simple deception of the streetscape. Unlike an archeological site arranged in chronological layers each earlier than the one above, the street shuffles the history together in one jumble. Each style of tenement belongs to a structure of a particular moment in the city, not to its neighbor on the street.

Why is the city streetscape so varied with big and small, plain and ornate, dull and colorful? Why are some old neighborhoods lined with narrow buildings, others with only expansive, stately buildings? Why are corner buildings in those narrow-lined neighborhoods typically more grandiose than the midblock buildings?

The real estate of New York is a direct reflection of the social and economic growth of the city, including the government and cultural ideological response to that growth. Unlike any other aspect of the history of New York, the architectural history is in plain view -- if you can read it. This series intends to show how to read it, and to show where the documentary record misleads: the only way to read the history is through experiencing the history itself, and the buildings are that faithful historical remnant. Architecture does not lie -- it's history presented in brick and stone. The subtext of this series is "don't believe everything you read." Look -- with informed eyes.

I'll start with two speculations about why some tenements look so lavish. one, landlords looking for better tenants; the other, landlords accommodating illiterate tenants. The actuality reveals a much deeper cultural relation between rich and poor.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cooptation of the Left and the permanent shadow government at the local level

Underneath the community boards' rejection of de Blasio's zoning proposals lies a practical and familiar issue: money. Bloomberg's 120 rezonings each went through the arduous public process in which community boards -- and crucially its members -- played an important role. De Blasio's proposals bypass the community level by writing the upzoning directly into the zoning law (called "the zoning text"). The Blaz's proposals eliminate any local leverage for funds that local community non profits might obtain. 

Affordable housing built by developers to meet zoning requirements must be managed by a non profit community-based organization (CBO). It's part of their mission and they get funding for it. As a result, CBO's are often the most vigorous proponents of development at the local level. Without the market rate development, no affordable housing -- the market-rate housing "subsidises" the "affordable" housing (a deceptive expression -- the housing is often beyond the means of local residents). That's the Inclusionary Zoning/Inclusionary Housing model -- 80% market rate, 20% "affordable." The non profit becomes complicit with gentrification and displacement. 

Displacement is difficult to quantify. Unless a tenant died, the reason for vacating an apartment is anyone's guess, since it's not recorded. Affordable housing is eminently quantifiable, which is one reason why politicians romance it and parade it. Same with CBO's. If  the market-rate housing raises real estate values and landlords evict tenants wholesale, as long as the affordable units are built and occupied, no one will be the wiser even though the net affordable housing in the neighborhood has declined. 

CBO's have a long life in the neighborhood. Their members often sit on the community board. There they often create a consensus of what is "right" for the neighborhood, which too often means colluding with developers to obtain the "affordable" housing the CBO's will manage. 

The political opportunists that cohabit the community boards recognize the going game, and, being political opportunists, play their game. The community board, and underneath the CBO's, are the permanent gov't at the local level. Given that the CBO's are receiving funds to implement the policies that the community boards vote on, the CBO's can also be described as the shadow gov't at the local level.

I'm preparing a talk for Occupy Wall Street Altbank Group about zoning and how gov't coopts the Left through community-based non profits. I want to present this in the context of the amenity dilemma: every material improvement made in a low-income neighborhood attracts wealth and its whiteness, raises real estate values, increases pressure from landlords to evict and yields displacement. Maybe the only solution to the amenity dilemma -- remain in poverty or be displaced to poverty elsewhere; all things accrue to the top -- is protection. So the talk will include a defense of rent regulations, the defense I've made here and elsewhere many times. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Money laundering and affordable housing

The Treasury's decision to investigate money laundering through NYC real estate might actually save New York from wholesale gentrification.

Constructing a lot of new housing can keep rents low by adding supply. Because it's expensive to build, developers prefer constructing luxury housing to get the quickest and highest rate of return. If the wealthy move out of older housing stock or locations further from the city center into these new luxury units, they free up housing for the less wealthy, who decamp from their older and further locations in turn freeing up housing for the even less wealthy and so on down the line. This is the one good reason for de Blasio's Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) -- allow new units to have higher ceilings to attract the wealthy out of less appealing older models.

But if the luxury housing is being bought by foreign speculators or money launderers who have no intention of living in the apartments, new construction does no good for the housing market. It turns the city's real estate into a non housing market crowding out the housing market. It's a disaster for the resident citizen, especially the low-income and immigrants.

(You might think, well if we eliminated rent regulations, the market would be flooded with vacant apartments, but this is both empirically and theoretically wrong. Most people who would be pushed out of deregulated apartments don't -- and often can't -- leave the local rental pool. They just move to a lower income neighborhood where they create a tighter market and push out lower income tenants who in turn move to lower income neighborhoods evicting people there, again, all the way down the line until at the bottom immigrants huddle up in substandard housing crowded together in dangerous conditions. At the top, landlords renovate the vacated luxury units and hike the rents there. Iow, deregulation doesn't free up the market, it's just a game of musical chairs, destabilizing everyone and raising rents everywhere. This happened in Boston when rents were deregulated, so we know that it's not just a theoretical speculation-- it's reality.)

The alternative to constructing luxury apartments to ease the housing market is constructing affordable housing. But if the monied are still coming to the city and searching for apartments, the pressure on gentrification in outer boroughs will be greater than the creation of affordable housing can accommodate.

It's easy to show that the current model of affordable housing creation is necessarily inadequate. De Blasio's Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, for example, would require one affordable apartment for every four luxury unit. But as we know from Occupy and presidential campaigns and memes everywhere, the ratio of the wealthy to the struggling is not four rich folks to each struggler, but more like 1:99, and that's actually generous. 1:999 would be closer to reality. So the current model is beyond inadequate -- it's preposterously inadequate.

So again, the affordable housing model can only work if the luxury housing doesn't become a place for billionaires to park their money. It's got to be housing, not speculation, otherwise the entire geography of the city will be distorted into empty speculation at its center without even a tax base.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Artists don't cause gentrification

Last year Rich Ocejo published his book Upscaling Downtown, an excellent description of the changing bar scene in and around the Bowery/EV/LES, the nightlife pressure towards commercial gentrification and residential pushback against it. It's an important case history of a neighborhood in transition.
While it's a great read -- he provides a broad view of the many divisions within the community and it's fun to recognize the many locals he interviewed -- the theoretical background assumptions inherited from the standard academic literature on gentrification occasionally undermine the specificity of the case history. This is not Ocejo's fault; it's the failure of the academic theorists.

It's assumed that because gentrified neighborhoods are preceded by artists and other marginal white misfits, that their presence causes gentrification. But if you look at the facts of history, you find a different and more complex story. When artists and marginals arrived in both the Bowery and the Lower East Side (including what's now called the East Village and Alphabet City), the neighborhoods continued to decline. The artists and misfits did not attract money or commerce. They attracted more misfits and artists.

To blame artists and marginals (Vietnam veterans, the homeless, substance abusers, prostitutes, ex cons, the chronically unemployed, lost youth) for gentrification on the grounds of having preceded gentrification is like blaming the rain on dry streets because dry streets precede rain. The academic theorists have invented a mechanism employing the classic fallacies -- confusing correlation with causation and post hoc ergo propter hoc. In their desperate search for a grandiose theory that will explain all instances, they've drawn hasty, blanket conclusions without looking carefully enough at the details and specificity of the context.

Unfortunately for the big theory, the Bowery attracted misfits for two centuries without seeing any gentrification. For most of those two centuries, it declined right up to 2005 with not a hint of gentrification. What changed the Bowery was city planning, in particular, the Chrystie Avalon complex. Not artists, not misfits, not wayward white youth slumming. City Planning: government.

The theory of gentrification comes to us from classical Marxism, a pre macro-economic theory. It attributes all to market forces and none to government intervention. It's certainly true that the accumulation of capital in excess of any market demand for productivity could be a pressure towards gentrification. But the avenues of speculation depend on what government incentivizes. Buying luxury apartments on Central Park South is the current means. But the gentrification of the LES did not begin with big capital. It started with small time investors. Big capital didn't want to take a chance on a crime-ridden, marginal neighborhood full of weirdos and resistant anarchists.
The assumption has been that whiteness itself attracts money. So Ocejo calls whites who moved to Alphabet City in the mid to late 1970's "early gentrifiers," although for years they watched as their streets continued to decline replacing older residents with shooting galleries (for heroin users), drug dealers replacing families with growing children. More complicating, while these streets declined and buildings were abandoned, burned and the remnants demolished, other parts of the neighborhood were gentrifying. The early marginals and artists did not contribute to it. On the contrary, most of them had to be displaced in order for gentrification to spread. What drew gentrifiers to those parts of the neighborhood were their amenities -- a park view or in the case of Christodora House, spectacular panoramic views. Again, not artists, nor the artistic scene.

If you look through the NYTimes archive, you'll find stories from the Bowery 1880's, the years when it began its steep decline, stories about the death of a resident who lived as a pauper but was escaping from his wealthy family. The millionaire living like a pauper-in-rags is not an urban myth. These people lived on the Bowery and in neighborhoods like the LES. To call them early gentrifiers indicates that the theory has gone astray. The notion is incoherent -- it provides no principled distinction between white people who draw money and white people who repel it -- and it's falsified by history.

Again, contrary to Neil Smith's theory, the neighborhood did not decline in order for developers to buy them cheap, nor is there a universal cyclic law of neighborhood decline followed by redevelopment. The LES declined because it was abandoned by labor when public transit made it possible for labor to leave. It's not a grand conspiracy or a cycle of capital disinvestment. A neighborhood with money need never decline -- investors renovate the housing stock or redevelop it. Contrary to Smith, landlords don't seek disinvestment, although government does -- to create ghettos in a program of segregating races by "providing" affordable housing through the market. Here Smith is particularly incoherent: he sees renovation as a means of gentrification only after the neighborhood reaches rock bottom. He forgets that renovation was always an option.

The underpinnings of gentrification theory are constructed for the convenience of broad theories that ignore the specificity of place and the serendipity of technological, political, cultural and legal transformations. The most effective law of urban development is the law of unintended consequences. A close second is government.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The mayor washes his hands on the backs of the homeless

Since de Blasio was voted in -- even before he was inaugurated -- the rich, the conservative and the middle-class comfortable have been more than grousing, more than worrying. They've been warning and predicting with the assurance of a street corner evangelist predicting Armageddon, that he'd bring New York City back to the "bad old days" of muggings and race riots.

Political executive office holders who win on a progressive ticket in this country feel compelled to show the rich, the conservatives and the comfortably middle class that their administration is not bent on destroying the fabric of society, increasing crime or allowing riots in the streets or desecrating their pristine neighborhoods.

Its a familiar story. Progressives overcompensate by being more reactionary than the reactionaries. I don't blame this on the progressive politicians. I blame it on the biased, bigoted, comfortable conservatives who complain about everything that doesn't directly benefit them and have zero faith in the potential of anyone but their own kind.

I received an email from the local councilmember passing along a particularly underhanded de Blasio effort to remove the homeless from sight under the guise of having the community "help" Homeless Services "help" the homeless. The administration wants you to identify homeless people on your street who might need "help."

To me this is just a way for the administration to harass the homeless while washing its hands of responsibility for it by blaming the community. The councilmembers no doubt can't push back against such an effort -- if they don't sign on, they look like they don't care about the homeless, and if they do collaborate, they gain the support of those who think the homeless are being helped by this city-wide street sweep of humans, as well as the support of those who just want the homeless removed from sight at whatever cost.

De Blasio already removed the homeless around the 9th Street walkway through Tompkins Square Park. Now it's getting anonymous residents to do the dirty work of fingering a homeless person so the administration can get credit for cleaning up the streets as well as "helping" the homeless.

In any institution or organization, those most vulnerable get pushed around. Denigrating them is often the license for the poor treatment. The homeless are the most vulnerable and the most easily denigrated. And out of sight, out of mind.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Authenticity in the East Village

I was also asked at the Columbia Urban Planning class to comment on the East Village as a semiotic neighborhood -- a neighborhood representing its image to attract clients, both residential and commercial. The circumstances in the EV couldn't be more different from those in Chinatown.

The East Village was once an ethnic enclave -- actually several ethnic enclaves interwoven together: Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and American-born Black ethnicities each had staked out their blocks, streets and buildings. Today it is a typically gentrified and much more homogeneous neighborhood. Its commerce caters to a different quantity of disposable money and, equally important, a different quality of money. 

Old ethnic shops are one-by-one being evicted as their long-term leases come due. The greater quantity of money available in the neighborhood drives up rents, but it's really the quality of the money that makes the difference. If the local hipster were willing to pay a high price for, say, authentic pierogies, the pierogy shop could jack up its price to pay a higher rent. But the hipster search for authenticity is compromised by the search for the new and discriminating that traditional pierogies can't supply. Vegan gluten-free wasabi peirogies are not within the range of the traditional. The quality of the money -- the kinds of purchases its possessor is interested in paying for -- determines the profile of the street commerce.

Hipsters prefer new commerce run by fellow hipsters -- or at least fellow middle-class young and attractive whites. Rich Ocejo pointed out to me the interest among hipsters in the authentic barbershop experience. But the old barber on Ave. C run by a 74-year-old Puerto Rican is way too authentic. Instead the barber has to be himself a hipster, preferably not hipper than the client, and comfortably downscale to provide just enough of a sniff of slumming "authenticity." 

Hipsterism has changed over time, becoming increasingly conformist, fashion-conscious, semiotic and commercialized. If you've read so far in these last few posts, you've got the point that the semiotic -- the use of objects to convey a cultural meaning -- because it is a form of communication, opens the door to deception. Utilitarian dress cannot deceive in itself. A hardhat worn by a construction worker at the worksite has a direct relation to its function. There's no room for deception. It's worn to protect from falling objects. To the extent that clothing is non utilitarian, it is available for communication as fashion. So rolled up jeans have no function but to identify a strain of hipsterism -- at the current moment. Similarly, the lumbersexual beard borrows the image of masculinity transferring it to fashion, contrary to the meaning of its raw, unshaven masculinity in which fashion purports to play no role. 

The constant search for authentic signs and the removal of the authenticity by recreating those signs as fashion is a characteristic of current hipsterism. It is not benign. Look at the ad at the top. Both men are conversing across the generations sitting on a shoeshine bench. The significance to the older generation man in the three-piece suit lives in a structure of meanings that belong to an old racist culture that assumed white superiority when black men served at the white man's foot. The significance for the hipster is merely a kind of play with fashion. 

And so fifty years of civil rights' struggle is effaced, erased, lost, dismissed and mocked, all in the interest of commerce, fashion and the search for distinctive identity.

The ethnic, political, and artistic history of the East Village has similarly been effaced, erased, lost, dismissed and mocked. But where Chinatown is endangered by inauthentic representations of its ethnic economic base, the East Village is recreating its own new authentic economy -- the authentic search for the retro, the fashionable, the distinctive, the slumming of elitism coupled with its upscale revision of it, the clean, expensive hipster slum with great, exotic dining and deserts and diverse nightlife drinking options. It is sustainable because the hipster has sufficient disposable money to sustain it. The sole threat is the landlord who demands commercial rents above what commerce can afford. 

It's difficult to describe the restructuring of meaning in hipsterism as deceptive. There's no authenticity to deceive beyond the desire to identify through consumption and display.

See also in this series:
Semiotic neighborhoods vs the authentic and anti-fragile: prestige and its deceptions and betrayals
Prestige and distortion in Chinatown
Suits and betrayal in Chinatown
The Mobility Dilemma and the Clearinghouse Effect

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The MobilityDilemma and the Clearing House Effect

The Asian American Federation, the group that studied Chinatown businesses I mentioned a couple of posts ago, also studied Asian poverty in New York City. Their policy recommendations point up what you might call the mobility dilemma: efforts to increase upward mobility run the risk of displacing their target populations. Here is one of their policy recommendations:

Economic development efforts in enclave economies that encourage a diversified, vibrant business community rather than a hypercompetitive, low-margin, narrow economy would help stabilize the local economy and raise wages and labor standards. 

By "diversified" they mean non local serving businesses: semiotic, outward-looking commerce -- in a word, tourism. To upscale a local-serving produce stand into a high-end restaurant -- necessarily non-local serving since the locals cannot afford it -- will allow, if successful, higher wages for the waiters (if the manager doesn't steal the tips, a wide-spread practice as I've mentioned). But it also crowds out local-serving commerce and attracts more upscale outward-looking commerce. As prices and profits rise, so do real estate values. Soon the neighborhood is in demand from outside and landlord pressure to harass and evict locals increases. Gentrification displaces the local community.

The dilemma is parallel to the urban amenity dilemma: every material improvement in a low-income neighborhood attracts investment that eventually gentrifies and displaces the low-income community. The two horns of the dilemma both seem unacceptable: remain in poverty or be displaced to poverty elsewhere.

The AAF policy recommendation seems to ignore the historical clearing house dynamic of Chinatown. Immigrants arrive there, work hard for several years, spend frugally, save resolutely, then leave for a prettier neighborhood. Upscaling Chinatown may provide higher wages for a few, but it eliminates it as a first destination for new immigrants.

New immigrants most need work they can assume immediately and housing that is extremely cheap so they can both earn and save. AAF concludes that "Making affordable housing more available is critical to alleviating poverty." But current affordable housing programs are all geared towards permanent housing, too expensive for the needs of new immigrants. Only transient housing meets the demand in an immigrant first destination. Permanence is unnecessary and too expensive.

Chinatown today is divided between two communities, one immigrant and transient, another American-born and permanent. Current affordable housing models would change Chinatown into all permanent, but the mobility it provides for the low-income immigrant is not upward, but outward, so the problem is not solved, in Engels' famous words in The Housing Question, "they are merely shifted elsewhere."
See also in this series:
Semiotic neighborhoods vs the authentic and anti-fragile: prestige and its deceptions and betrayals
Prestige and distortion in Chinatown
Suits and betrayal in Chinatown
Authenticity in the East Village

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Suits and betrayal in Chinatown

"It's so hurtful, it's just wrong!" said a Chinatown community "leader" to another Chinatown non profit director. They exchange mutual gestures of dismay.

Were they deploring restaurant management stealing hard-working waiters' tips? Complaining about a landlord allowing illegal conditions in his building so he could call the Dept of Buildings and evict all the renters overnight without any due process? Or the proposed legislation to exact punishing fines on street vendors for setting up in an illegal space instead of merely having the police ask them to move?

None of those moral crimes. They were deploring a labor organization calling a councilmember "racist." That's what upsets the suits in Chinatown.

White collar crime doesn't receive this kind of shock and dismay. A restaurant manager, donning a suit of clean and pristine pride for a photo op, stands next to a councilmember also in a suit, endorsed by the legitimacy of politics, governance and "leadership." They each lend the other its public display of respectability, shaking hands. Owning and controlling, they have nothing to complain or howl about, nothing ugly to say, nothing to taint the picture, nothing but smiles. And all the suits around are pleased.

But stealing tips -- stealing from low-wage workers who have no alternatives -- is nothing to smile about. It's vastly worse than calling a councilmember "racist."

The suit, like the semiotic neighborhood, is all about selling itself and selling out. It prides itself on its success at whoring itself, as if this were the only game worth playing.

There is no recognition among the respectable that labor stands at the bottom of the social scale, with little support, funding or clout. They have their voices and their unity, and that's just about all. To be heard, they've got to be more than loud in quantity of decibells. They've got to be loud in quality -- shocking, offensive, disturbing and disruptive, otherwise they are invisible. The cry of "racist!" whether true or not, is an honest, sincere, genuine and authentic cry about true management abuses and real living needs.

Forgive me for ranting on this, but I'm disgusted -- and I want those leaders to know that I'm disgusted -- by such displays of shock and dismay over labor tactics. In your comfortable easy chair, imagine yourself lying on the third level of a bunk bed, your only living room. Then imagine who respects your voice. Then, when you next hear "racist" yelled by labor, maybe, true or not, you'll cheer them for simply being heard.

Suits purport to be smart; suits purport to be educated. Then suits should know well the deep disparities of this world and should expect labor tactics to be loud and ugly. Here's how the game is played, and everyone knows it: power, in its echo chamber, will not listen to the disempowered unless the disempowered offend them. Then power deplores the disempowered for being offensive. I have no respect for anyone who deplores labor tactics.

I don't practice labor tactics -- I don't have the courage for it. But I recognize that, truthful or not, it gets justice. There would never have been a Chinatown Working Group were it not for the protests of Chinatown labor which included a lot of name-calling.

It's a shame, though no surprise, that in this upside-down and morally corrupt world, justice should have to be pitted against truth. But truth is merely information; justice is lived. Justice first, then truth will arrive in time. Without justice, truth will remain dressed in suits.

See also in this series:
Semiotic neighborhoods vs the authentic and anti-fragile: prestige and its deceptions and betrayals
Prestige and distortion in Chinatown
The Mobility Dilemma and the Clearinghouse Effect
Authenticity in the East Village

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Prestige and distortion within Chinatown

The Asian American Federation, a social services and research non profit highly regarded within Chinatown, published a study of Chinatown in 2008 in which they found that East Broadway, the center of recent Fujianese immigration and a low-income area, was one of the most resilient, vibrant and successful parts of Chinatown, while much of the rest of the neighborhood was ailing commercially. Yet the study's recommendations completely disregard its findings of fact. Their recommendations all favor tourism with no recommendations that support the ethnic community.

Most telling are the recommendation that waiters learn more English (useless for local-serving restaurants), and the absence of any recommendation that managers stop stealing waiters' tips, a wide-spread practice among restaurant owners in Chinatown. Stealing tips removes the most easily available incentive reward for waiters to improve services like learning English. Without tips for improved service, AAF's recommendation burdens the waiter entirely. The bias in favor of management is evident: compel the waiter to learn English but still take his tips. There isn't even a recommendation for free or supported English lessons.

The power of prestige and respectability is pervasive. Growth is viewed as outward-looking towards an upscale mainstream culture, not expanding and supporting the base. So, for example, here are their findings of fact:

A number of changes in the mix of residents in Chinatown also has altered the customer base for Chinatown businesses. Over the past 20 years, growth of the Fujianese population in Chinatown, due to new immigration patterns, has generated demand for businesses supporting their food, entertainment and service preferences. Newer Fujianese-owned businesses have sprung up along East Broadway.... A lack of nightlife in Chinatown also makes it difficult for restaurants to attract evening business, and garment-industry job losses and relocations have reduced restaurants’ traditional customer base. However, restaurants catering to Chinatown’s growing Fujianese population report brisk business.... The decline in the garment industry has decreased measurably the daytime population in Chinatown, a key component of the traditional customer base.  As this traditional customer base shrinks, the growth in Chinatown’s Fujianese population and the influx of non-Chinese and some returning Chinese immigrants and retirees have created a demand for products and services catering to these markets. 
 And their conclusions:
A general lack of customer service reduces the appeal of shopping and dining in Chinatown. Limited English capabilities of staff make it challenging for people who do not speak Chinese to patronize Chinatown businesses. Gruff service from a few businesses hurts the image of all Chinatown establishments. Many stores and restaurants operate on a cash basis, which discourages those customers
 The customers mentioned are tourists with credit cards, not local recent immigrants. And "image" is a problem looking to outsiders, not to locals. The sole source for this claim of gruff service and bad image comes from the Zagat Guide -- a restaurant guide published in English for English-speaking customers. There is no Mandarin, Fujianese or  Cantonese Zagat for New York. If you look through all their recommendations, you'll see that they are equally outward, not inward, looking. And this is characteristic of many such studies of Chinatown. Whether they are positioning Chinatown non profits to obtain government funding for development or attracting private sector investment, they ignore the economic base and their recommendations threaten them with unstable, fragile commercial gentrification.

Image and money are tied together. Semiotic neighborhoods pretend with an image for sale, much as a suit allows its wearer to pretend to an image of respectability. The base of the economy is disregarded, dismissed and invisible.

Next: semiotics and deception among the suits in Chinatown, and the struggle up from the bottom.

See also in this series:
Semiotic neighborhoods vs the authentic and anti-fragile: prestige and its deceptions and betrayals
Suits and betrayal in Chinatown
The Mobility Dilemma and the Clearinghouse Effect
Authenticity in the East Village