Feature

Now You See Me

Lower Manhattan's Changing Landscape

 My reaction after visiting Sally Young’s exhibit, “Landscapes,” was an emphatic, “Are you serious?” And it’s not because her work isn’t interesting or insightful. As I visited the Ottendorfer Library in the East Village last week, I asked one of the librarians where I could find Sally Young’s “Landscapes” exhibit, because I couldn’t find it myself. I didn’t see signs of what was advertised online; all I saw were students with their noses buried deep in their textbooks with headphones in, taking momentary pauses every now and then for a sip of coffee. The librarian pointed up to a group of paintings. Barely visible, there they were—right above all the students, hidden away on the upper left wall. Lo and behold, “Landscapes”! The fact that no one was paying attention to Young’s paintings isn’t so surprising. 

 Unfortunately, the message behind it doesn’t seem to matter to New Yorkers anymore. “Landscapes” deals with Young’s perspective on the ever-changing scenery of Lower Manhattan. As Young says in a statement on the New York Public Library’s website, her exhibit consists of a series of paintings whose subjects include “topographical maps with buildings, water-towers, tipping their perspective from looking up, or down, as if onto rooftops, fire-escape ladders rising to the top or descending below ground to areas that are below sea level.” 

 Like endangered species, small businesses are headed towards extinction, overtaken by shops that cater to the newest trends. It’s Darwinism at its finest—survival of the fittest, but in this case, survival of the richest. We think of the downtown area as Manhattan’s most desirable—long live the luxurious boutiques that smell like fancy perfume, the apartments with sky-high rents, and the city’s hippest and most expensive restaurants. But once upon a time, Lower Manhattan was much more than what we currently perceive it to be. 

 As Barnard visiting urban studies professor Sevin Yildiz remembers, “The Lower East Side and the East Village used be more quaint and bohemian.” Things have changed, though, and the cultural landmarks that gave Lower Manhattan its spunk have nearly all closed. 

 Sounds, Nicky’s Magazine Shop, and Mars Bar. These were sacred places of personality in Lower Manhattan that have now vanished into thin air, or are about to (Nicky’s Magazine Shop is being replaced by an organic bakery). In a city where we don’t stop to talk to one another out of an irrational fear of wasting precious time, these places hit the pause button and asked us to take a moment to enjoy the old records and books. 

 These businesses were more than products—they were places where you could casually talk to the owner only to learn about the time he met Lou Reed or the time he last read Four Quartets. But independent establishments like these are becoming a rarity. As Yildiz says, “The power of staying independent as a book seller is diminishing big time. The resistance to urban transformation is almost impossible in big urban cities like this one.” 

 Young, who’s lived on the Lower East Side for almost 34 years, says the decay and destruction she’s witnessed in her neighborhood since childhood inspired her to create her exhibit. She uses her art to express her despair at the drastic changes that have become constant in her community. 

 She explains, “There have been huge changes in our New York City landscape in recent years. Small low-rise and often historical buildings have met the wrecking ball only to be replaced by out-of-scale buildings that are often designed poorly and built cheap. They are, for the most part, greedy ventures that serve to increase the rent and reduce the affordability of our city; and, thoughts to any kind of contextual design in relationship to the neighboring buildings is rarely thought of unless they are built in an existing historic district where standards are required.”

 Like Young, Malina Welman, a Barnard junior and an urban studies major, laments the city’s transformations. Welman says, “I have always found the ever-changing commercial landscape of New York City equally intriguing and devastating. Small shops close, new ones open. It’s the cycle of life. Yet, the problem that has arisen over the last 20 years is that these one-of-a-kind stores are losing their spot not to the money hungry boss.” 

 She explains, “Owners would rather make an exorbitant profit by converting the space, for example, into luxury apartments, than keeping a literary landmark. All [developers] see when knocking down unique businesses is dollar signs.”

 According to Jeremiah Moss—whose popular blog “Vanishing New York” discusses the gentrification of the city—the cause of this destruction is rent. “Bookstores and record shops were never big money makers, but they didn’t have to be,” he says. “The real culprit in all these closings is the rent. Now, all over town, we’re seeing all kinds of thriving businesses, successful businesses, being pushed out because the rent isn’t just going up. It’s doubling, tripling, quadrupling.”

 “Who can afford $40,000 a month?” Moss asks. “A bank or a national chain store. That’s about it.” 

 Young agrees. “It is not technology or lack of interest in things like books and record stores that closes [these small businesses]. It is the rent, plain and simple,” she says. “People of all ages still love books and records as well as technology, need hardware stores, and like a cheap but healthy lunch that doesn't come from a chain operation. Rising rents are the problem, some of the rents have risen so much that expensive eateries can't survive."

 Columbia sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh isn’t optimistic about these changes and predicts that small businesses will continue to spiral downhill. “Don’t look for this to stop anytime soon. Manhattan has unfortunately become a theme park with many large chain retailers,” he says. “That’s not likely to end anytime soon, I’m afraid.” 

 While Yildiz and Young see a potential solution, it’s probably not one landlords would ever enjoy hearing. Young says, “I think serious legislation needs to be put in place like commercial rent-stabilization in order to keep the diversity of small businesses in our city.” Yildiz agrees, adding, “There could be strategies to keep cultural landscapes, like asking for rent control, or giving incentives in planning and zoning in city departments.” 

 But a solution doesn’t look likely. 

 As Moss explains, we just don’t care about our community the way that we used to. “This trend impacts the whole city, as it moves outward swiftly from the city’s center, and everyone in it. It does seem like many of the newer residents, including many young people, actually desire this new soulless version of the city. They want to replicate their suburban culture here in New York. It’s incomprehensible to me. Why would anyone want that?” 

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