Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is Manhattan Too Smart For Its Own Good?

Our Town downtown
August 21, 2006

Let’s start with something that happened nearly 30 years ago. In Ohio. A friend of ours when we lived there had to go to Boston for an urban-planning-grad-school-related conference, and we worried that she might never want to come back. When she returned from her trip she announced to our surprise and relief that she couldn’t live in Boston. She said she couldn’t live in a place where everyone watched ‘Saturday Night Live’. She wanted more variety of thinking.

According to the latest numbers from the Census Bureau, she couldn’t live here either. (Actually she married someone else and now lives in Lake Tahoe, which makes sense—on both counts.) According to the new figures, Manhattan is becoming more educated all the time. More residents have degrees than ever before. Those who don’t have degrees are going to find it harder to get or keep jobs that pay enough to live here.

That’s the bad part; that the non-degree folks are leaving. With them goes some of that variety of thinking. With them go muscles that didn’t come from the gym. With them go experiences that didn’t come from grad school and web sites and Netflix. Do you want to live in a place where everyone watches Seinfeld and Jon Stewart? Thank God for the doormen, who already don’t live in Manhattan, for just being around us with their experiences that aren’t ours. You notice it when you see them out of uniform. They don’t dress like collegians. They don’t read the Times. You can tell some tenants crave to touch the working energies and class resentments (how could they not have them when they see the packages from Crate and Barrel arriving in mounds every day?) that the doormen and the porters bring into a building. Some folks will hang by the desk and talk the doormen’s heads off. Are these tenants lonely? Or do they miss something of their past, the city’s past, when people of different incomes lived closer to each other. Maybe they’re from Ohio. It’s a good thing the maintenance men in the building. Do you think the guy next door to you in your building could fix your drain? Could you?

Downtown still has working class people. You don’t have to rely on doormen for your dose of reality as much as people in other parts of Manhattan do. But there will be fewer and fewer of the working class all the time. Rents go up here. Jobs leave. They leave. In moves Donny Deutsch. Crate and Barrel boxes, too.

There’s nothing wrong with college grads rolling into town. There’s certainly nothing wrong with them (us) per se. It’s the displacement that’s the negative part of the trend. In most towns and cities--and in earlier Manhattan--you can rub up against economic variety in the neighborhood. A guy down the street might be working on his car. A neighborhood kid throws the paper on your porch. In winter he shovels your driveway. Here it’s not that way.

When George Bush got re-elected, the next morning a few people were talking in the lobby of our big apartment building. One of them said it’s time New York secedes. Ok, so that person was by nature annoying, but none of the group dared say anything in contradiction. They smiled in accord, assuming that everyone within ear shot or between the rivers would certainly feel the same way. And whether they would feel the same way is not the point. The point is that in a town where every one watches Saturday Night Live, a certain like-mindedness is assumed. It’s like being students at Oberlin.

Manhattanites take pride in their politics and their cultural awareness. One of the perks of living here is to not be in Ohio anymore. But to have too much of the same mindset is not good. If too many working class people leave and are replaced by bloggers and Onion readers, the result could be a sameness that could turn this part of the city into its own gated community.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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