international analysis and commentary

New York City: still a beacon as the pendulum swings

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Forever associated with the Statue of Liberty, these lines from Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet still speak to New York’s stature and image 136 years later.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

 

However, today, the image as a safe haven to international immigrants is under threat and the New York lauded for its legendary resilience is experiencing some changes both big and small.

A 1877 map of Manhattan and Brooklyn

 

Just two and a half months away from entering a new decade, New York is shaping up to be quite different from the city it was in 2000. People are moving out of the city, crime is going up and real estate prices have dropped. To a large extent, these recent shifts are due to the successes experienced in the past 10 years. The previous decade saw a huge growth in population – gaining 600,000 people – a monumental reduction in crime and unprecedented increases in real estate prices that made New York the most expensive city in the United States for the last four years.

Prices for buyers and renters reached incredible peaks until just recently, and the declines are happening in a large part due to a surplus in units on the market due to a huge amount of developments built to capitalize on the outrageous price points. The surplus of units has also occurred as foreign buyers – particularly the Chinese – have become less present due to circumstances in their own domestic policies or economic downturns, said Steven James, President and CEO of Douglas Elliman’s New York City Brokerage.

James reported that this quarter was the first in the past 10 years in which the number of sales and values fell. “Around the country, the consumer has lost confidence in the market place,” he said. “This is certainly the conclusion you would draw from New York City.”

Rising costs in recent years have pushed poor people to the outer edge of the metro area, and have led to empty storefronts in the center of the action.

“Public housing is the most stable in the city because nobody ever leaves. Not because it is great, but because there are no alternatives,” said Philip Kasinitz, presidential professor of sociology at City University in New York. The city boasts of about half a million public housing units – far more than anywhere else in the country.

Public housing buildings on the Lower East Side

 

Retail spaces have become untenable for small and large businesses alike. Experts worry about what the fall of the mom and pop store means for New York as a city. As retail space turns over to big businesses and banks, stability lessens. A big business sees a loss in profit and they leave the storefront, whereas the local business is less finicky and tends to be invested for the long haul.

While crime is back on the rise, the city is almost unrecognizable to what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, Kasinitz said. “People who came to the city in early 2000s have little concept of how crime avoidance impacted people’s lives – particularly lower income people,” he said. “Now, there is hardly a neighborhood so fearsome that you can’t imagine it being gentrified.”

The New York of today, though changing through gentrification, remains segregated both in neighborhoods and in schools. By offering quality programs, New York’s public school system has seen an increased enrollment of middle class children, but parents and activists argue these improvements are too exclusive and do not reflect the diversity of the city.

“At this point, New York City schools have become more segregated than where people live,” Kasinitz said. “The current administration is beginning to attack this for the first time since the 1960s and this is somewhat of a sea change. It is also a change that has been fiercely resisted.”

This “segregation map” of the New York City area (by Matthew Bloch, Amanda Cox and Tom Giratikanon) show the ethnic prevalence in the different neighborhoods

 

The feeling that there is a broken system that needs to be fixed is pervasive in politics throughout the city. Look no further than the victory of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). This second generation Puerto Rican Bronx native took on Democratic stronghold Joe Crowley who held the seat since 1999. AOC’s grassroots campaign unexpectedly mobilized people who had been otherwise demobilized for years. Other local elections further indicated a shift away from the old guard, including the victory of Jumaane Williams, a second generation Muslim American to New York’s City Council.

“There is definitely a progressive movement that is crossing racial boundaries,” Kasinitz said. He speculates that an optimistic projection of the city in the next ten years belongs to people like Ocasio-Cortez and Williams – children of immigrants. People who either moved to New York with immigrant parents, or who were born in New York to immigrants now outnumber native New Yorkers.

“They come from all over the world, but come with group consciousness,” Kasinitz said. But his pessimistic outlook for the city is tied to the fact that New York’s economy is still far too reliant on the financial sector. “Any one industry town is very vulnerable,” he said.

But Wall Street also plays a large role in the city’s level of disaster preparedness and ultimately resilience. Perceived safety heavily influences who is willing to do business in any given city.

So, in terms of preparedness, New York is one of the best big cities in the world, in part because of the legacy of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 which led to the city institutionalizing and de-politicizing preparedness policy.

“The problem is that history is a decreasingly valuable guide to what we are going to face in the future,” said Ryan Hagan, post-doctoral research fellow in sociology at Columbia University. “How can you be prepared in a world that is going to be completely different? The infrastructure we depend on is more complicated and deeper reaching into our lives than ever before.”

The current deep distrust of the government and media paired with the potential for the rampant spread of disinformation is a scenario for real disaster, especially in the event of a threat to public health. Even so, in the event of a disaster, those in neighborhoods that are interconnected and dependent should fare better than others, research shows.

“The important thing is not whether you have resources on hand, but your ability to solve problems. This is about knowing your neighbors and multiplying your efforts,” Hagan said.

In this sense, New York is heading into a new decade as a city of neighborhoods with great potential, and a good deal of risk, on the decline, but seemingly as robust and welcoming as ever.

… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”