Monday, August 29, 2016

Vacant New York

If you look around the city, or follow this blog, you know that New York's small businesses are being wiped out by unregulated sky-high rents. The spaces then sit empty for months, sometimes years, warehoused by landlords who let the streetscape die while they wait for big chains to move in. At #SaveNYC, we've been pressuring City Hall to do something about a problem that Tim Wu at The New Yorker dubbed "high-rent blight."

Now Justin Levinson has added ammunition to the fight--an invaluable tool called "Vacant New York." It's an interactive map that shows where the high-rent blight is. In short, it's everywhere.

Justin is a 34-year-old computer programmer who has lived in the city for 11 years. He and I chatted over Facebook:

JM: What prompted you to do the project? What was your "final straw"?

JL: I think the anger and upset that you and I feel about the changes in the city were an undercurrent and a driver, but the last push was curiosity. I had been digging through the open data sets that the city puts out, and saw all the building footprints. I had been wandering around and saw favorite places that were closed and replaced with nothing. I wanted to see if it was really as bad as it looked.

JM: How has the response been since Vacant New York went out to the public?

JL: Surprisingly positive. I've gotten e-mails from the usual news outlets and such, but also from a lawyer, a chef, store owners. It's clearly something people are already aware of and passionate about. The project has been kind of a lightning rod for the issue, but it's clearly in the air. I just saw the Tribeca Citizen's new crop of vacant storefront photos, and the Times just put out an article (quoting you) after Tekserve went.

JM: People are frustrated about it, but no one knows what to do. One of the myths I've been trying to fight is this idea that it's just "natural," due to "market forces."

JL: I ran up against the not knowing what to do problem as well. Early feedback I got in a sneak preview was: “Right, but so what? What do we do?” And I didn't have a great answer. “Write your senator” seems ineffective.

JM: I do believe something can be done. But I can’t figure out how high-rent blight can make sense financially for landlords. What’s the incentive? I’ve heard there’s a tax break for commercial vacancies.

JL: I haven't heard about a tax break per se, but I do know that if you have a portfolio of properties bringing in revenue, offsetting it with anything you can find brings your tax bill down. So those “losses” on the vacant storefronts would reduce the company's net income, but I'm not sure how that's calculated.

JM: So the empty storefronts are “losses” that reduce income and that reduces the taxes? I am no accountant.

JL: I have a couple of accountant friends. I should buy them lunch and go over this. I'm sure it's a specialized and esoteric set of tax laws. The other possibility is they've got enough free cash to weather the minor maintenance of an empty property in the hopes that a bigger fish coming in later is going to make it all worthwhile.

JM: We're not talking about the mom-and-pop landlord, but major developers and hedgefunds.

JL: If you happen to own one building, your approach is very different. The landlord of the place where I work and run a community space is an incredibly stand-up guy who inherited the building from his father and is hell-bent on creating a real community in his building. He 100% could not weather more than a couple months without a tenant in the retail space.

JM: So what do we do about high-rent blight? London, I think, might be trying something.

JL: That is the multi-billion-dollar question. There's obviously not an amazing, simple answer, or we would have done it. I come from a startup and tech background, so I'm a big fan of small experiments. Trying to make a sweeping regulatory change across the city is going to be hard and politically difficult, so I'm wondering if there's a way to give something a shot in a district or two and see how it goes.

I think the blight is also different in different areas. The reports I got from readers about Smith Street in Brooklyn say it's common there, but I bet the ownership looks different than SoHo. We'd need to tailor a solution to the neighborhood.

JM: It seems like it's happening in neighborhoods where hyper-gentrification happened first--or fast. SoHo, the Village, the Upper West Side. I'd like to see a city-wide tax on storefronts left vacant for longer than, say, 6 months. But you're right, the administration isn't going to go for that. We are in a political and economic climate that is hostile to small business.

JL: It's happening lots of other places, too. My girlfriend grew up in Toronto and I went to school in Rochester, so I've seen some pretty sweeping changes there. The downtown core is a canyon of glass and steel.

JM: It's definitely global. In the course of writing my book on Vanishing New York, I've come to the conclusion that this is the impact of globalized neoliberalism--the whole anti-regulation, "free market," "trickle down" problem that's caused such a mess in the world. It convinces people that "this is natural and inevitable," when it is really the result of specific policies.

JL: I really want to see something tried. Start with some place that already has a strong sense of community--Park Slope, the East Village, Tribeca--and see if we can swing the tide backwards. Put in a vacancy tax, give breaks to businesses who own less than X outlets, something.

There's only a couple of tools that I see the administration having--taxes and regulation. And regulation takes forever to implement and always gets watered down.

JM: Regulation gets watered down in this anti-regulation system we're in. But it wasn't always that way.

JL: When was it different?

JM: Things really changed in the 1980s. The city was restructured after the crisis of the 1970s. Before, New York took care of its people. After, New York took care of big business, developers, and tourists. That's a very different approach.

The economic environment we're in today is not the only one we've ever had. There is an alternative. When I've suggested commercial rent control, people flip out. “You could never!” But we did. New York City had commercial rent control for years after World War II.

JL: Wow, I did not know that.

JM: The city implemented commercial rent control as an emergency measure to protect businesses. Do you think, after making your map, we're in an emergency today?

JL: Not an emergency in the four-alarm fire sense. More of a climate-change emergency. It's been a long, slow process to get where we are, and we're tracking towards a disaster if we don't shift course.

A problem is that, while nobody is fine with sea-level rise and major storms, there are plenty of people who seem to be fine with nothing but bank branches and chain restaurants.

JM: How would you characterize that coming disaster? What future do you see for New York if we don't make a change?

JL: Having unaffordable vacancies is effectively the same as having no vacancies as far as small business is concerned. There's no space to get a foothold. So nobody can take risks, and we get nothing but the tried-and-true businesses (i.e., chains) that seem to be taking over. It's like Hollywood. Movies are so incredibly expensive to make that we just get reboots and sequels.

There’s a strange dichotomy between the image of New York as a place where you can be your own weird self, and there's space to do that, versus all of the weird and unique stuff slowly being squeezed out.

JM: What brought you to New York? I'm guessing it wasn't the chain stores.

JL: Gravity, I think. I grew up not far away, and I remember coming into the East Village in the ‘90s to see shows, shopping at Yellow Rat Bastard, and taking a class at SVA where the teacher suggested we steal our books. To a teenager from the suburbs, that all seems awesome. I moved here after graduation for a terrible corporate job, but I could do what I wanted after hours: midnight bike races, weird DVDs from Kim's Video, and Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam in the basement of Cake Shop.

It was the fact that, no matter what you were into, there were a few hundred other people that loved it, too, and you could be part of that community.

JM: I think sometimes that many people come to New York now because there's a Starbucks on every other corner. People seem to want that.

JL: It really is weird to me--coming all the way here and spending insane amounts of money to stay in a hotel and eating at the same Olive Garden as back home?

JM: That is something I'm trying to get my head around. Okay, last question: What do you hope your project will achieve?

JL: Ideas are much harder to grasp than concrete examples. We're seeing isolated reports and grumblings from around the city about the blight problem, but it's easy to dismiss that as existing in isolation. If this project can get people--citizens and government--to say, "Wow, that does look pretty bad. We should fix that," it's a big step. If there's a push at the policy level to implement changes, even on a trial basis, and they point to evidence that includes this map as their reasons for doing so, I'd be ecstatic.

It's hard to not throw your hands up and say it's unfixable, there's too much money, etc. But that seems like tossing in the towel, and the encouragement I've gotten from just a couple of small business owners in response to this says it's not time for that yet.

Get involved. Visit Vacant New York and go to #SaveNYC where we've made it easy for you to write the mayor and more.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I regret that I never went into Asti, closed in 1999 after 75 years as "one of New York's most beloved and treasured restaurants."

You may remember, it was the place on E. 12th Street where the waitstaff sang opera while they served Italian dishes. Said one baritone at the time of the closure, "In the last decade, our customers either died, retired, or could no longer afford to come regularly."

If you missed it as I missed it--or if you just miss it--watch this extensive video report I recently came across:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Save 11th Street

You may have heard by now that the Lightstone Group with Marriott Hotels, in collaboration with Ikea, is planning to put a Moxy Hotel on E. 11th Street. In order to do that, however, they'll be tearing down five "landmark eligible" buildings containing 75 residential units. The City recently approved the demolition.

Moxy Hotels are aimed specifically at millennial tourists. They come with "communal ironing rooms" and "elevators that act like photo booths," along with free booze and pillows on the bed that say, "I woke up like this." Marriott is planning to open 150 Moxies over the next decade.

photos from a reader

Yesterday, New Yorkers joined The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) to protest the demolition.

Speaking to the group (click for Facebook video), Andrew Berman put the responsibility on Mayor Bill de Blasio--citing Lightstone Group as his allies and political contributors. The hotel, he said, will go up for "globetrotting young people with disposable incomes, who are here for a few days and then gone." He added, "We love tourists--they're great, they're important--but they're not quite as important as long-term residents."

Tell the mayor to stop this demolition. GVSHP made it easy for you. Just click here, put in your name, and push a button.

P.S. What happened to all the residents who used to live in these buildings?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Gotham Book Mart Project

I really loved Gotham Book Mart. I loved walking to it past all the diamond shops on 47th, glimpsing their famous sign--"Wise Men Fish Here"--and feeling that rush, browsing through the shelves, always finding something wonderful and unusual. For years now, every time I venture close to its former location, I get a pang of sadness that I can't go there ever again.

So here's something.

After the shop closed in 2007, its entire contents--about 200,000 books and other items--were donated to the University of Pennsylvania by Edmondo Schwartz and Leonard Lauder. And now they're gradually appearing on a blog called The Gotham Book Mart Project.

Here are a few that seem especially special:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Left Bank's Replacement

The space that last held Left Bank Books has a replacement.

A shop called Hawkins New York is moving in. According to their website, Hawkins was "born out of a palpable void in the lifestyle market for quality, accessible, home goods." Their aim is to "incorporate the concept of artisanal collective production, while maintaining a modern sensibility in design."

I deeply miss Left Bank Books. They closed earlier this year after 24 years in business, explaining: "the costs of maintaining a brick-and-mortar used and rare bookshop in Greenwich Village are simply no longer tenable." The other small businesses on this block were pushed out by rising rents and the other inflated costs of doing business. Left Bank had moved to this spot after being forced to leave their old location on West 4th Street.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Troll Museum Resurrection

In June, I reported on the eviction of Reverend Jen and her Troll Museum. Now she will be resurrecting the museum, for only a short time, in a community art space called Chinatown Soup.

photo by Mr. E

She writes on the Facebook invite: "For years the LES Troll Museum made many people happy, made them feel like, maybe, the LES hadn't turned into a real-estate shitshow bedroom community for the rich."

The event will run for one week, opening tonight, August 16 at 7:00pm, at 16 Orchard Street.

"Expect a killer opening, weird performances, drawings, paintings, plays, a troll hair-dressing station, a troll-coloring book station, shit that's for sale, a 'Troll Parade' and informative monologues about the importance of Troll Commerce."

Monday, August 15, 2016

Zombie Urbanism

Jonny Aspen, Associate Professor at the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape in Oslo, Norway, coined the term "Zombie Urbanism" in 2013 to describe the way many urban environments are being designed today. I like the term, so I got in touch with Aspen and asked him about it--and how it applies to the redesigning of New York City, including the High Line, Hudson Yards, Times Square, and the new Astor Place.

Astor Place

Q: Can you give a definition of what you call "zombie urbanism"?

A: I’ve coined the concept in order to encircle what seems to be an increasingly more prevalent, and increasingly more worrying, phenomenon in contemporary urban development, namely the cliché-like way that many developers and designers talk about and deal with urban environments in general and public areas and places more specifically.

On the one hand I use it as a reference to what seems to have developed into an increasingly more homogeneous discourse, globally speaking, on what is believed to be important features of the so-called “creative city.” It’s a discourse that highlights the importance of cultural institutions, state-of-the-art architecture, and well-designed public places.

The concepts in use remind me of what the famous German sociologist Ulrich Beck has labeled “zombie concepts,” with reference to the social sciences. They are concepts that still are very much in use, but actually no longer fit the reality they intend to describe. As such the concepts are like the living dead, they are alive in our heads and our language, but not any longer useful for making precise propositions about the reality of the city.

On the other hand I use the concept of “zombie-urbanism” as a reference to how I experience many of the urban environments that come out from such a discourse, as built environments. What we can see is a kind of staged urbanism in which there is no room for irregularity and the unexpected, a well-designed, neat, and tedious urbanism based on a simplified understanding of the urban combined with more ideal aspirations about creating “living” and “people friendly” cities. You can see it in quite many urban redevelopment projects all over the world. Other examples can be found in strategies for remaking public places and plazas, such as for instance the recent developments of Times Square in New York.

Times Square

Q: What do you think is allowing zombie urbanism to spread across western cities today?

A: In general, the phenomenon is related to the current regime of neoliberal urban development and planning. This is a regime in which both developers and urban politicians quite shamelessly use urban features such as public squares and plazas as means for selling, marketing and branding. As such quite many aspects of “urbanism” have become subject to strategies of commercialization and capital manipulation. This development is of course also related to the seemingly never-ending spread of gentrification, or to what Neil Smith calls “generalized gentrification.”

The same goes, of course, for tourism, as an increasingly more important global industry.

Another important aspect, if not a cause in itself, is that quite many planners, architects, and designers seem to profit from such a development. They seem to have found themselves a new niche in designing urban tableaus of various kinds.

High Line, via urban75

Q: Where did you see these developments during your time in New York City?

A: I saw such developments most clearly in newly built areas, and especially in ones that contain public spaces and facilities. One such development is the Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens. I am particularly thinking about the promenade along the East River. Everything here looks clean, tidy, and civilized. The promenade is also equipped with well-designed chairs and benches. So everything seems in order, everything seems to make for a lively urban area. But even though the scenery is outstanding, especially the view towards Manhattan, the whole area feels dull and boring.

This is what I mean by zombie urbanism. Everything looks nice and urban, but in terms of social life, it’s rather sterile and dead.

A similar example can be found a bit further down the river, on the Manhattan side--the East River Waterfront Esplanade, especially the new Pier 15 that opened in 2011. The whole development is imbued with a well-meant rhetoric of making the waterfront accessible for all people, improving qualities of life, sustainability, and community programming. But again, the end result seems rather lackluster and limited. My impression is that most of the esplanade primarily is made to attract conventional recreational interest of tourists and middle-class groups that now seem to have taken over most of Manhattan.

Much of what’s here said also goes for the High Line and the Times Square redevelopment, though those stories probably are a bit more complex.

Besides such examples, the most obvious features of what I call zombie urbanism can be seen in many plans and prospects for future buildings and developments, especially when it comes to visualizing all the splendid qualities that the project allegedly will bring to the area when completed. Visualizations of public space qualities seem to have become increasingly important in this respect. In this way planners and developers deliberately use public space qualities as a way of both legitimizing and branding a future project. By highlighting all the fantastic urban qualities a development will bring to the neighborhood or to the city as such, any objections and criticisms that people might have towards the project are also curbed. Because who could really be against the planning of a new public space or a playground?

This has become a global trend. Just take a look at the plans for the new development at South Street Seaport or Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

The "Seaport of Tomorrow"

Q: What are the hallmarks of zombie urbanism? How do we recognize it when we see it?

A: This is harder to answer, because it’s not so that zombie urbanism is something that can be clearly pointed out as something that exists like a thing in the world. Zombie urbanism is a theoretical concept that, in the way I seek to use it, represents an effort to capture and put into words some important changes in the way our urban environments are produced as well as experienced.

For me, the latter issue of how we experience the urban world is especially important. This is what I’m trying to find ways of describing. Issues of feelings, affects, and atmospheres then become important, though they are not easily captured or put into words. I don’t want to become too philosophical about this, but the issues here at stake also relate to what each and one of us believe to be more or less genuine and authentic.

Why does the new Starbucks on the corner seem to be less authentic than the old coffee shop that it has replaced? It’s easy to pinpoint a range of issues and features that makes it so, but what it is that really makes the big difference might be harder to identify. Much the same goes for the topic of zombie urbanism. In general, my argument is that our urban life world increasingly seems to be staged in accordance with global clichés about urban environments and urban living. This is what worries me, and this is what needs to be further explored.

Astor Place

Q: Recently, in the East Village, Astor Place has been redesigned. This was years in the making. They removed part of the street, widened the central square, planted trees, put in concrete slab seating, and tables with umbrellas. It is now used by corporations like IBM and Citibank to hold “advertainment" events.

I'm pretty sure this is a prime example of zombie urbanism. But some would argue that it's a good thing--those slab benches and tables are full of people. How do we claim this is not an authentic and lively urban scene?

A: I agree that the remaking of Astor Place seems to be a good example of zombie urbanism. I would have to make some reservations due to the fact that I haven't seen the end result myself. But from what I can see from pictures and descriptions on the net, the makeover of the area resembles much of what I would call zombie urbanism. So what makes it zombie-like?

The most telling point is that the overall design solutions seem to be very generic. The whole place seems to play up design schemes for public places that are quite similar in many parts of the world. It is the same ingredients that are replicated all over: widened sidewalks, new seating, more plantings, upgraded lighting and so on, plus an attraction or two, may be an artwork or something, that apparently is to make the area stand out as something unique and special. My experience is that such places more often than not make for a fairly limited spectrum of public uses and activities.

City life is about encountering the unexpected and the unfamiliar. I'm not quite sure Astor Place will be the right place to visit in that respect.

Such forms of public design, even though many might see them as improvements, are damaging in that they block more creative ways of going about making public places. Instead of taking on the challenge of really involving people and working seriously with how to make places that are both socially mixed and inclusive, one settles with established urban design solutions, often prescribed by international consultancies.

When it comes to New York it might be that it's such a dynamic city, one can live or cope with a few zombie-like design solutions, such as at Astor Place, just because the places often will be put quite extensively to use. As such, the places themselves will continuously be in a state of flux and change, despite the way they are designed.

It's comforting to know that people will overrule the prescriptions of planners and designers. That's what urban living is very much about.

Astor Place