Interviews

The Aesthetics of Gentrification, and New York’s Top-Down Approach to Change

Mapping New York today, Jeremiah Moss hits the high notes of the city’s dance with neoliberalism.

Jeremiah Moss is the pen name of Griffin Hansbury, creator of the blog Vanishing New York (photo by Erika Sequeira, February 2018)

“It just feels like one of those places of, like, go there while you can.” Jeremiah Moss is describing Joe Junior, the diner at 16th Street and Third Avenue where we met to talk about gentrification. His book, Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul (HarperCollins, 2017), is loosely arranged by neighborhood, with Jeremiah Moss as a guide. He points out landmarks, stories of small-business battles lost in the area, and, significantly, the layer of invisible political and historical context at work on these neighborhoods. It can be read as a song of grief composed to memorialize vacant buildings that hold space for personal history. But Moss’s passion is not a simple affection for the past; it’s also a crush on what those empty spaces could be, if only New York could forsake its neoliberal ways and stop tourist-proofing everything.

Moss brings multiple perspectives to writing. When not publishing a blog that shares his book’s title, he works as a psychotherapist under his given name, Griffin Hansbury. Since 2007, Moss has built an audience for his reporting on struggling and shuttered businesses in his East Village neighborhood, as well as broader discussions of hypergentrification in New York. In book form, Moss has room to explore more deeply why beloved small businesses keep losing battles with New York. In explaining why, Moss weaves urban history from the ‘70s fiscal crisis to the policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg into his stories from Chelsea, Little Italy, and Greenwich Village in a way that moves the book beyond personal remembrances and nostalgia to really get at the what, who, and how of gentrification. It’s a process that has much in common with colonization, in the ways it takes space from one socio-economic group and offers it to another. And this is what I wanted to ask him about.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Robin Grearson: In Vanishing New York you use the term hyper-gentrification and specify that it’s man-made. Can you explain?

Jeremiah Moss: Hyper-gentrification is tied up with late-stage capitalism, neoliberalism. If gentrification originally was kind of bottom-up, this is definitely top-down. It’s rezoning, Bloomberg’s use of rezoning. He rezoned almost half the city to bring in development. It’s corporate welfare going to developers. Tax abatement. The chains aren’t just coming in because of market forces, and this is what we always hear about, market forces. Which makes it sound as if it’s simply this natural process and it’s what consumers want. Really they’re given millions and billions of dollars. That kind of thing came out of the 1970s and Mayor Koch. The city was going bankrupt and the idea was, in order to keep businesses here, we have to give them, um –

RG: Stuff?

JM: Stuff. We have to give ’em goodies. You could maybe argue that in the past, but you can’t argue it now. The city does not need to be giving billions of dollars to developers and corporations to keep them in New York. It’s like the Amazon headquarters deal, right? It’s that stuff. It’s disgusting.

Jeremiah Moss advocates for commercial rent control to protect small businesses like Ray’s with his book, Vanishing New York, and the SaveNYC project. (photo by Erika Sequeira, February 2018)

RG: Does gentrification have an aesthetic? If so, what effect does it have on residents versus tourists?

JM: Hyper-gentrification definitely has an aesthetic. It’s anything that is sanitary, shiny, and new. It could be these anonymous glass buildings that all look the same. That’s one aesthetic. There’s a sameness, a monoculture to it. So when it crops up in a more local-feeling way, it sort of co-opts, in Brooklyn more but also in Manhattan, it co-opts the idea of the rustic and the real by putting in Edison bulbs, white subway tiles.

RG: Reclaimed wood? Chalkboards?

JM: That’s it. Reclaimed wood, chalkboards, right. That’s supposed to be the smaller, quainter aesthetic. It’s textural, it’s authentic – except of course it’s none of that. And it’s very cookie-cutter.

RG: Is the aesthetic used to retrofit new into old without attracting a lot of attention?

JM: I think it’s signifying. I think it’s very intentionally signaling this is your space newcomers, this is your space. This is a safe space for you, we’re speaking the same dialect. Right? And then on the aesthetic end, it’s also trying to sort of fly under the radar, saying, we’re not corporate, we’re not glossy and glassy. We’re this other thing, right? We’re this –

RG: We’re small?

JM: We’re small and we’re rustic and we’re human and all of this.

RG: Mentioning it as a safe space, I used to live in Bushwick and when I talk to people who grew up there, they don’t feel comfortable or welcome.

JM: Absolutely. So safety for the newcomers, who are mostly white and mostly middle or upper class, becomes the priority in the hyper-gentrified city. That means fighting crime with things like broken-windows policing and stop-and-frisk and all of that stuff that came out of mostly the Giuliani administration. Creating a kind of psychological safety. And the psychological safety comes in the sameness. So, the chain stores. I’m certainly not pro-crime. But when you have a city that’s dirty and edgy and a little risky, you attract people who are not afraid of risk, right? Or people who need to be in the city. People who will tolerate risk –

RG: People who need New York City?

JM: Yeah. They’ll tolerate the risk because they’re desperate. They’re desperate either because they’re fleeing oppression or they’re fleeing America and their fear or they’re oddballs or whatever it might be, right? But when you take the risk out of the city, you attract the risk-averse. What does a city become when it fills up with risk-averse minds?

RG: That’s where we get the monoculture?

JM: Absolutely.

RG: Gentrification creates psychological safety for one type of consumer. But when thinking about people who move away and come back, the process erases history, and their sense of place, that this is where I come from.

JM: Mm hmm. Or the people who are still there. In a very real way in neighborhoods of color, you have white people move in, and young men of color are hanging out on the stoop or on the corner. And then white people are calling the police, and there’s more danger from the police for existing populations.

RG: The word pioneer is often used with gentrification. A quote in your book is: “People refer to youth moving into gentrifying neighborhoods as pioneers who make neighborhoods livable.” Livable for whom?

JM: Livable for whom. That’s what I find myself repeating a lot. Because people will say, well, isn’t it nicer now; isn’t it safer now; isn’t it – whatever now? And I’ll say, well, for whom? Who is it for? The trees that they’re planting on the median. Who are the trees for? Trees are nice. People can all agree, trees are good.

RG: It’s hard to take the anti-tree stance, sure.

JM: Right. Yeah. Trees are good. But who are they for? And what is their purpose? So we have to think critically about this stuff. A lot of people don’t want to think critically about it. They just want to enjoy the trees and they want to enjoy the increased sense of comfort and access. Because now they feel they have access to neighborhoods that they didn’t have access to before, because they were afraid to go there.

RG: There was no barrier to access except their psychological barrier?

JM: Right. Because if you’re from a mobile population, you have the money, and you have the privilege to have mobility, you can go wherever you want.

RG: Is Mayor DeBlasio doing anything to move against Bloomberg’s policies? Like, his original campaign claimed New York was a Tale of Two Cities. Early in his second term, does New York have a progressive mayor?

JM: I don’t think so. I think he’s done some progressive things. Universal pre-K. He did really reduce stop and frisk dramatically. But when it comes to gentrification, when it comes to real estate, he isn’t doing anything. If anything he’s continuing to help developers and to rezone for development. In some ways I want to say I don’t blame him, but I think that as a culture, we have moved far away from the more socialist or democratic socialist policies that we had in New York in the beginning and the middle of the 20th century. And it’s hard to even talk about it with people because they have been so brainwashed by neoliberalism – I talk about them as memes. There’s a way in which there are these memes that get into us around things like, you know, “this is how it’s always been,” and “there is no alternative,” which is a Margaret Thatcherism. You know it’s “market forces.” This idea that it’s natural and that it’s normal. I talk about commercial rent control with people, and they flip out.

RG: Because private property is sacred and the ultimate thing a city should not control?

JM: Right. And then I’ll say to them, New York City had commercial rent control for 20 years, and then they blanch, because it’s inconceivable that was ever a reality. As humans, we used to think, well, you know, we have to regulate the market and we have to regulate the banks and we have to regulate the government, and we have to help people. And it’s about equity. I’m not saying America was ever an equitable place. But there was a mindset that had space. And that mindset has been wiped out. I think of Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, really, there’s a youth movement that is pushing for this. And of course there’s the nationalist backlash going in the opposite direction. That’s another topic. But, there is that kind of hope.

RG: Speaking of commercial rent control – there’s an example in your book about a “gentrifier” restaurant who itself was getting pushed out, the landlord sought to increase rent from $6,000 a month to $50,000 a month. Is that why New York has tons of empty stores everywhere?

JM: Mm hmm.

RG: There’s this mismatch of supply and demand. There’s demand and there’s supply but landlords aren’t lowering commercial rents to meet the market. Why are they not acting in their own interests? A program was announced recently, not commercial rent control, but the city is trying to make noise around a program that offers legal counseling to help small businesses negotiate with landlords.

JM: It’s such bullshit. There’s that and also the reduction or repeal, I’m not sure, of that rent tax. [These things are] helpful. But what they say to me is that City Hall is hearing that people are angry. New Yorkers are so pissed off about this, and they want change. But we’re getting these little Band Aids on a hemorrhaging wound. They’re not gonna stop the bleeding. So, look at this place, right? Would you say that this is busy?

RG: Yes.

JM: Would you say business is good here?

RG: Yes. [The restaurant is full.]

JM: Okay. When this place is put out of business, people will say, nobody eats in diners anymore, that’s what happened. And we’ll hear it again and again and again and again. And eventually, that will become the truth. And the truth is, this place is doing very well, business is great. But when the rent is quadrupled and this becomes a bank or a Starbucks, even though there’s a Starbucks right across the street, they’ll put another here anyway. That’s the story that they’ll drill into our heads.

So the online shopping thing. That is a real problem that we can talk about. But there is also a meme that gets attached to it, which is, it’s the internet, it’s the internet, it’s the internet. It’s the internet. And it’s just over and over and over again. Yeah, the internet is definitely taking a bite out of people. But it’s not putting people out of business. If the rents were affordable, these places that are put out would be weathering it. They’d be finding a way to survive. They’d offer something different that you can’t get on the internet. These companies, many of them survived the financial crisis of the ‘70s, the crime, the ‘80s, you know. They’re nimble, they can do it, if they can afford the rent.

RG: But you can’t quadruple the rent without quadrupling the prices on the menu to the point where it doesn’t make sense.

JM: Exactly. So I don’t resist the reality that the internet is a problem. I resist the way it’s used as one of these brainwashing memes to erase the complexity of the truth. Does that make sense?

RG: Okay, yes.

JM: I live in a tenement building in the East Village that was bought. Two of the apartments have been emptied and filled with new people. So far they only stay for a year and then they leave, and they’re paying market rents. Everybody else is stabilized, rent controlled. The new people in my building are younger people but I’ve heard this from other buildings where newcomers of all ages fill the hallways with boxes, because they’re shopping online. I’ve been there 25 years. I would see a package, you know, like, maybe once a month somebody would get something. Every single day there’s a stack of boxes and packages. Because these people will not go out into stores. They won’t go. So why won’t they go? What’s that about?

I was talking to a young woman who came to New York from Morocco, she’s 25 years old. Even though she was a young person from elsewhere, she was so perplexed and put off by this, that these 20-somethings from America were so terrified of inter-relational commerce. I don’t know where that comes from, but it’s really interesting.

RG: The psychological fear of going into someone else’s territory – they’re narrowing their own window of possible experience?

JM: [OVERLAP] Yeah, yeah.

RG: Then why come to New York?

JM: Really good question. I think they’ve been sold New York as a product and a brand that is Sex in the City and Friends and fun. And when I talk to a lot of young people who are interested in this topic who are socializing with young people who are not interested in the topic, they’re kind of like anthropologists in their own milieu. They say a lot of people want to do their three to five years and leave. And they want to make money, they want to have their New York experience, and then they want to go back to the suburbs and buy a house. They’re not coming here to be New Yorkers. They’re coming here to have a temporary experience and then go away. So how invested are you in a community in a neighborhood if you don’t intend to stay?

RG: Like co-living. Social communities form within households in gentrifying neighborhoods but they seem insulated from life in the neighborhood itself?

JM: You can talk about it as a suburbanized experience of detachment. The detached house, the detached car—you have a bubble. And you go from one bubble to the next bubble. I tend to think that this walking around on cellphones, too, is the same thing. They’re creating a quasi-invisible bubble. They’re not interacting with the world around them.

RG: Do you say “they” referring to millennials or folks coming from suburbs?

JM: Who are “they”? I almost don’t want to define it. It gets lumped into the sort of, these are the millennials, these are the people who come from elsewhere. But there are plenty of millennials and plenty of people from elsewhere who don’t behave this way. The “they” are the robots–I hear the word robot a lot from people.

RG: In terms of this coming from the top down, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said in a deposition last year that City Council members are “not that smart.” And a couple of years ago, she was giving a talk and basically said, some small businesses deserve to fail.

JM: Yeah, I was at that thing.

RG: Does she understand the pressures on small business, and does it matter?

JM: She’s from Goldman Sachs. We have a local government and federal government that’s filled with billionaires and bankers. That’s who’s running everything. So what are their values? We know what their values are, for the most part. At that [Municipal Art Society] event, we did a slideshow of photographs from James and Carla Murray, who have this great project, they took all these pictures of storefronts, they have a book, Store Front. Then they went back 14 years later, and they’re almost all chains and banks. One after another after another.

They were doing real-time polls of the audience at that event, people could respond on their phones or whatever. They did a poll saying, do you support commercial rent control? And some huge percentage of the audience said yes. And then Alicia Glen comes out and she says this thing. Which was basically, it’s survival of the fittest. It’s this sort of Darwinist mind. It’s insulting and she’s wrong.

If Joe Junior is doing the best they can and they’re busy and doing good business, and they’re put out because a developer kicks them out, compare that to Whole Foods being given millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives to open up in Gowanus. Is that a level playing field, survival of the fittest? No. It’s a rigged system.

RG: Yet the city obviously prefers the way it’s happening. If the landlord hikes rent from 6 grand to 50 grand a month, we’re not calling it eviction and displacement? You freely choose to close your business rather than pay the new rent.

JM: Right. That’s how it’s framed.

RG: Does that erase displacement?

JM: Absolutely. I call it eviction. It’s eviction by rent hike, it’s eviction by non-renewal of lease. I think the same can be said for residents. I keep wondering, how is displacement being defined? If displacement is being defined as a legal eviction process, that doesn’t describe maybe most of what displacement really exists. I wasn’t evicted [from my office]. I didn’t choose to go, I was forced out. In my home, they’ve offered me a lowball buyout, which I haven’t taken. If I took it, would I be displaced? Is that displacement? I would say, yes it is. If somebody is harassed and they choose to leave because the landlord has destroyed their kitchen and poked holes in the walls, where rats come in – and so they move in with a family member further out into the outer boroughs, is that displacement? Absolutely. It’s not an eviction.

RG: That’s where it starts to feel top-down. When Robert Moses uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, we could point to those large numbers and say, that’s displacement. But now the machinery has figured out a quieter, diffuse way of making it a gradual process?

JM: Right.

RG: When you talk to people about a single owner’s circumstances, it’s speaking to the whole cumulative problem but is it seen as– oh, this is just one business. Is it hard to connect the ideas in the public’s mind?

JM: It’s gotten easier and easier, I think, because I’m very repetitive. Since high-rent blight has become a bigger problem and it’s so visible where you’ll have a whole block or a whole, almost a whole street, that’s really tipped the public perception of what’s happening, and people are getting really upset. People will say to me, but other small businesses come in. Because other small businesses open, right?

And then you have to ask, who are they for? They have got their Edison bulbs and the $8 lattes and all that stuff. Much of the time, they’re there for a year or two, and they can’t hack the rent, and so they close. And then you’ve got high-rent blight that way. So you have a stable business who’s there for 30, 40 years. And then every couple years there’s another one and another one. They’re getting shorter and shorter leases. You used to be able to get a 10-year lease, standard. You’re lucky if you get five years as a business. How do you invest in your business on a two or three-year lease? You have got to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to put in a kitchen, put in equipment.

RG: What is cultural displacement?

JM: People not feeling safe in those new places, not feeling welcome. When you have an experience where your neighborhood where you’ve lived your whole life or for many years is suddenly and so radically and completely changed, there’s a profound sense of alienation. And maybe your friends and family have been displaced. And you feel like the only one left. And I feel this way in the East Village in a lot of ways when I walk around.

RG: This process is experienced on an individual basis, one apartment at a time, one business at a time. Is that why we’re not seeing the magnitude?

JM: Right. It’s an erasure of reality. There’s all this writing about cities and suburbs changing places. And suburbs being places where lower-income people, people of color, immigrants are moving. And white upper-income people are moving to the cities. It gets talked about as, all the low-income people of color want to move to the suburbs. Is there really that desire and how much of that desire is present, and how much is it really the pressure of displacement and the pressure of cultural displacement?

RG: Is there an analogy between online and offline culture? You acknowledged several local blogs in your book, New York Shitty, EV Grieve. Has blogging culture started to erode?

JM: There was this gentrification of the blogosphere that happened.

RG: What is that?

JM: I won’t remember what year it was, but, in the East Village there was me, EV Grieve, and then Bowery Boogie was focused more on the Lower East Side. And then NYU, which is a major gentrifying force in the neighborhood, started a hyperlocal East Village blog, now Bedford & Bowery. EV Grieve and I would talk about it as the gentrification of the East Village blogosphere. Suddenly there was this powerful force. They were teamed up I think at the time with the New York Times. And my blog is one person, EV Grieve is one person. NYU had a staff of students working for free. They had equipment, video equipment, and they were very competitive with us.

I’d go to a protest and they would be there. Or there would be some little micro-closure of something, and they would get to it before I would. Blogging is not my job. Then DNA Info came along. That was even more powerful because it was the whole city. So, I would feel the pressure. Somebody would tweet a tip to me, and I would hate it because these other people could see it, they would run out and follow up on it before I could get to it.

Or I would do something and they would follow up and do something more in-depth because they could. DNA Info in particular became a really good resource that I came to depend on. But initially it was really this sense of, here is this billionaire, Ricketts, of DNA Info, and here is NYU and here is New York Times, coming in on something that doesn’t make me any money, is a labor of love, is really a passion project.

RG: What does culture need to thrive as an ecosystem? It’s not that you just need your apartment, it’s part of a fabric. Like, how does one person try to build that — what basics does a culture need to thrive?

JM: What’s culture? How are you defining culture?

RG: Maybe getting back to that idea of risk, who participates?

JM: Low rent allows so much to happen. It allows people to take risks. Whether that’s creative risks, professional risks, sexual risks, political risks. When you don’t have low rent, you have people who have to be obedient, because they have to make a living in order to pay that rent. So they’re not gonna dissent. And they’re not gonna deviate.

RG: Low rent equals time?

JM: It means time and it means you can fail and survive. So if you can fail and survive, you can do all kinds of things. You can publish something incendiary. And if you piss some people off and it takes away from your bottom line, so be it. Because you’ve got low rent. You can make art that upsets people. You can have a political viewpoint that you put out into the world that not everybody’s gonna like. You can risk making people not like you.

RG: So does culture just get pushed to other boroughs and squeezed from there to – wherever? You mention the South Bronx in the book, the controversy around a “Bronx is burning” party. How are artists complicit or co-opted into hyper-gentrification? Staging an urban-blight theme party is part of it. Don’t artists at this point have to be aware of when they’re basically helping to get themselves evicted?

JM: I think they do.

RG: But they need the work?

JM: The artist question is so hard. I find it intellectually and emotionally difficult. Because I want a city full of artists – I mean, I want New York to be full of artists and writers and dancers and, you know –

RG: Risk takers?

JM: Risk takers and queers and – and these people have been co-opted by larger forces as the shock troops of gentrification, right? Some are complicit, some love gentrification. They do. And others have a more conflicted relationship with it.

RG: The staging of the Bronx through art seems particularly offensive.

JM: Yeah. That seems to be ground zero where a lot of artists, mostly artists of color, are fighting the whole co-opting there.

RG: You end the book on a hopeful note. Are you hopeful?

JM: Hope is not the word I would use. I would use a word like steadfast. I haven’t given up.

RG: You haven’t given up — on what?

JM: I haven’t given up on waking people up. I think my work is about consciousness raising more than anything else. I’m a psychoanalyst. I believe that people can become conscious, but you have to help them. We all have to help – and we have to help ourselves. I’m not saying that I’m totally conscious. I have hope for increased consciousness, and with increased consciousness can come change. But I don’t think you can skip the consciousness raising part. So that’s where my optimism lives.

Since the book came out but also throughout the blog, people write to me and they say, I had no idea. And now, oh my god, I see it. Those are the best moments. It’s like I’ve done my job. I’ve helped you to see something you couldn’t see before. That’s exciting.

RG: It sounds like you’re also talking about — it’s almost an argument that you might have with one of the robot-people about what gives life meaning, if not humanity? What gives our experience in life meaning, whether it’s in New York or in the suburbs, if not participating?

JM: I meet newcomers who are living mostly in Brooklyn who are really active and engaged and awake, and they care about this stuff. The young people who are coming to my neighborhood are robots. There are no non-robots coming in. They seem to want a curated, corporatized experience. They want the chain stores and they want the Edison bulb shops and they want the hallways full of packages from Amazon.

They want to be on their phones all day long, and they want to be tuned out. They want to be asleep.

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Vanishing New York features a great reading list and so I ended our interview asking Jeremiah if he could recommend a few titles. Here they are:

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