Sari Botton | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)
In 2007, when a writer going by the pseudonym of “Jeremiah Moss” launched the blog Vanishing New York lamenting the closure of one iconic small business after another due to rapidly escalating rents, I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t long after, though, that I started to notice some major publications dismissing Moss as cranky, overly nostalgic, and naive about the inevitabilities of gentrification. I remember disagreeing with those assessments, and wondering whether I was missing something, or the writers of those pieces were.
It wasn’t until I read Moss’s new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, that I fully put it together: the difference between those writers and me was that I had lost my place in New York City. In 2005, when I was evicted from my apartment in the East Village so that a famous filmmaker could pay four times my rent, my foothold there, well, vanished. As a casualty myself of New York’s rising rents, I heard Moss’s message loud and clear.
Now I’m living in Kingston, New York, where, as was entirely predictable to me, a new tidal wave of what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification” threatens to displace me once again.
Last week I met with Moss — who recently came out from under cover in a New Yorker profile as psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury — at a Cafe in the East Village, to talk about his book (we have an excerpt), and how artists and creatives like me can hang on, and play a different role, when outside money starts rolling in to the depressed areas we move to.
So, should I be talking to you as Griffin or Jeremiah?
I think Jeremiah.
Is the main reason you used a pseudonym, and didn’t go to your own demonstrations, that you’re a therapist?
Not really. The time I started to blog I was working as a social worker at a LGBT community clinic and I was doing copyrighting and copyediting freelance on the side to make ends meet, and I was just starting to get my private practice off the ground. So that’s where I was. When I started to blog, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I was sitting on my bed one night and was like, “Oh, I could do a blog. I have all these pictures and journal entries and why not?” And I had written this novel that’s not published about a guy named Jeremiah Moss and I liked writing in his voice. I wanted to keep writing in his voice.
Is his voice very different from yours?
No, not really. But it’s distilled . I just put the blog and the book in his name to kind of keep it separate and not have to worry about. It’s just easier.
Your book is very pertinent right now, like, very personally for me, in Kingston, where the real estate market is suddenly going bonkers.
It’s happening everywhere. I mean, I get emails from all over the world.
Really? What are some places you’re surprised to be hearing from people?”
San Francisco is no surprise, but Pittsburgh, and cities in Ohio. It’s everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I call it “hyper-gentrification.” But it’s really neoliberalism.
How do you define neoliberalism?
Neo-liberalism is an economic philosophy, it’s a social philosophy, that comes with a set of policies. And the aim is, through privatization and deregulation, to basically redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top. That’s what it is — with the idea that the markets will take care of everybody and that money trickles down.
That sounds like Reaganomics.
Yes, Reagan was the one who popularized it. But in the U.S. it started in New York. Academics have written about New York as a kind of testing ground for the neoliberal project in America. It was to punish New York for being too socially liberal.
But I thought we already learned that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. And what’s liberal about neoliberalism?
In the U.S. liberal means left, but everywhere else in the world it doesn’t mean that. It means the freeing up of markets.
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That’s confusing. I’ve been getting into arguments with people in my area on Facebook about New York City developers coming to Kingston and buying up lots of buildings for two and three times asking prices, putting down cash, out-bidding people. I have this idea that we should be doing…something? That the city should have some way of maintaining some affordable housing and affordable commercial property. And when I start saying, “We need to get involved, figure out how to not have Kingston go the way of New York City,” even liberal people I know are saying, “Well isn’t it a free market?” And they’re saying, “That influx of money will help people!” And I think, haven’t we already learned that trickle-down economics doesn’t work? And in the Trump era, and in the era of social media, isn’t the problem of longstanding, growing inequality just so much more visible?
Aren’t we supposed to be awake now? Right? Well, one way neoliberalism works is — it’s very, very stealthy; I think of it as a meme — it has a way of getting into people’s heads and making them think it’s always been this way. It has all of these mantras, like Margaret Thatcher. Reagan and Thatcher were the ones who really popularized it in the 80’s, and Thatcher’s mantra was, “There is no alternative.” “It’s natural.” And the other lie is that in the free market, the government doesn’t interfere. That there’s a small government that’s not interfering with the market. It’s total bullshit. Because we know these developers are getting a shit ton of tax breaks and other incentives that are in the billions and billions of dollars. I mean, Trump wouldn’t be the president without the neoliberalization of New York. It would not have happened, because he wouldn’t have gotten as wealthy. Because he was given buildings, he was given tax breaks, he was given incentives, he was given so much by the city in the 70’s and the 80’s.
What are some the things you’ve seen happen that have served as fuel on the already burning fire of gentrification over the years? I remember when I was living here in the later 90s, I was really mad at Rent, the musical, and then later, the Movie. I think Rent came out in 1995 or 1996. And then soon afterward, the double decker tour buses started coming around Tompkins Square Park. And then I was walking one day and saw these well-dressed older women and one said to the other, “It’s just like Rent!” And I wanted to scream. But then there’s also Sex and the City, and Friends, and social media and Airbnb.
There are all these pieces that built on each other. In the 70s you have Koch, and then you have Giuliani building on Koch, coming in with the muscle. Then you have Bloomberg, and I think of Bloomberg as that tipping point. Bloomberg came in with Robert Moses level change. I mean, he rezoned almost half the city, and the zonings were to up-zone neighborhoods where poor and people of color lived, and down-zone neighborhoods where middle and upper-class white people lived. Down-zoning is more protective, and up-zoning is about going and building more bigger buildings, more development. So I definitely think of it as the 2000’s. With 9/11’s role being to really kind of Americanize New York.
Here’s a question I think about a lot. I was a white, suburban Long Island kid — granted, a writer and a weirdo in my home town — who moved to the East Village in the early 90s when it was still grungy, as part of a wave seen by the people already there as interlopers. I didn’t have much money, but I had more than the old artists and people of color who’d been living in my tenement for generations, and my rent was set much higher than theirs. Now here I am making my home in Kingston, another long-depressed city, a place where even some who’ve been there as long as 30 years are viewed as newcomers. And I, in turn, have a sort of irrational disdain for some of the better off white suburban kids coming and co-opting these places after me, bringing the rents up even higher.
So my questions is, who is welcome?
Does it feel like a hypocrisy?
Yes, I feel a little hypocritical. And I wonder, who is ever welcome to migrate, anywhere?
Well, everybody’s welcome. I think the hard part about this is it gets into how do we recognize and talk about intention? Because if I were to move to where I could afford to live now, if I lose my apartment which could happen, and I were to move, I would absolutely be a gentrifier. I would be a professional white middle class man walking around. I would be a gentrifier. I don’t know where I would go, but wherever it is, I would be a gentrifier. So does intention matter? Does how you move through a space matter? I think it does matter. Now it doesn’t mean that I don’t have an impact on that neighborhood, a negative impact on that neighborhood, that I might not contribute to displacement, that developers aren’t going to see me and other people aren’t going to see me and code me a certain way in their minds and then use to do what they want to do. Which is take over the neighborhood. So I think knowing that, those of us with that privilege have to do work.
That was my next question. How do we as artists and writers play a better role. I’ve also been getting into arguments with people on Facebook because I keep posting these articles about how artists need to be better citizens in this cycle of gentrification and we have to be activists, and some of the artists have been so offended and they feel as if I’m blaming them for art-washing. And I’m saying, “I’m not blaming you or me, I’m saying let’s do this differently than it’s been done. Let’s speak up for the people whose neighborhoods we’re moving into. Let’s figure out how they can stay, and we can stay, instead of looking for the next frontier.”
That sounds a lot like the way white fragility is. Where the white person is saying, “Well not me, I’m a good one.” Right? We all want to be a good one.
I want to be a good one. So what do we do?
I think activism. I think you have to offset. It’s like, we all have a a carbon footprint that can’t be negated. We all have it. But what are you going to do about it? You have to do things to offset it, and it’s the same with this. Being a friendly neighbor, not calling the cops, all that stuff is important, but in some ways it’s a little bit passive. And I think that people need to be active. They need to show up. You need to go to your community board meetings and you need to speak up. And unfortunately, people in power are going to listen to the white people more than they’re going to listen to the black and brown residents who were there before. So working with the existing community. This is really tricky because a lot of white people will go in with that sort of savior mentality, like, “I’m going to take over and take control and tell you what you need.” But take a one-down position. Ask, what is needed? How can I be useful? And then be useful.
What’s a “one-down” position?
That’s a term from social work school. It means not putting yourself above the other people. It’s stepping back a little. Find out who the existing community leaders are in the neighborhood, introduce yourself to them, say, “I’ve moved here. This is my dilemma. What can I do? Let’s talk.” Offer what you have. Then pass the mic.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sari Botton is a writer, Longreads’ Essays Editor, and editor of the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY, and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.