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A reunion of sorts took place today.  Along with my wife and 7-month old son, I joined two of my high school classmates, their kids and their husbands, at the playground in Peter Cooper Village.  The kids had fun (right now, my son thinks anything with people is fun) and the adults, who have stayed in contact over the years but are not super-close, caught up with each other.


The three of us grew up in Manhattan, and the three of us want to continue living here.  But the truth is that my two classmates cannot stay, nor could I but for my parents and landlords being one and the same.  I feel it reasonable to say that we are all successful, and were able to withstand the real estate inflation of the 80s and early 90s.  We recognize we need to spend more, even in inflation-adjusted dollars, to live in a city that is far cleaner and safer than it was when we grew up here.


But the last four years or so have put Manhattan, and indeed many parts of Brooklyn and Queens, out of reach financially for most people with families.  Between rent or mortgage and maintenance, not to mention schooling, New York has become the increasingly exclusive domain of the ultra-wealthy.  The alarmist rhetoric of ten years ago and more has proven uncannily accurate.


Even Peter Cooper Village, where my erstwhile classmates live (and one grew up) and Stuyvesant Town have become expensive.  Originally established as affordable housing for veterans of World War II and forever places known for their long waiting lists (up to 15 years) and low rents, Cooper and Stuy Town have effectively converted into luxury rental developments.  I didn’t even see one of the famously friendly squirrels.


In general, I support free market economics and am not a fan of protectionist policies.  But I know full well that this city’s historical strength has been its sometimes almost overwhelming diversity, both of ethnic and economic strata.  And if New York becomes the exclusive domain of the moneyed class, its very fabric, its core, will disintegrate.


Indulge my perhaps Utopian analysis, but I believe New York has bred an ambitious, high-functioning, successful citizenry precisely because many of its members started with little and lived side-by-side with those who had more.    Many, though certainly not all, of the wealthy in this city have traditionally encouraged and admired those with high ambition and achievement and little monetary means.  That symbiosis has been the story of this city and is what has made it invincible.


Invincible.  Through gang wars, through unimaginable political corruption, through a fiscal crisis in the 1970s that made everyone want to leave and almost destroyed a now century-old subway system.  Invincible.  Through every horrible facet of what happened here when the planes hit the buildings and attacked all of us.  Invincible even through the political dissonance that has followed those attacks.


But perhaps New York will not be invincible in the face of its own success.  A success that makes people want to live here who might once have been afraid even to visit.  A success that brings the city, in fact, to evict its champions, its advocates, its lifeblood.  Surely we are smart enough to reconcile our success with our strength, our attractiveness with its contributors and architects.


Surely we can do better than outright self-betrayal.

Posted on Monday, May 2, 2005 12:17 AM | Back to top

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