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A Long Walk Through New York

Yesterday I walked across half the width of the city. To walk across New York City is to see a study in contrasts. The ambitious skyscrapers of the real estate bubble and the declining working class neighborhoods being eaten away at by Halal markets and mosques. It is also to witness the prolonged death of the progressive vision for the city.

New York is not a large city in space. It is walkable if you have the time and the energy. Its largeness is vertical. The buildings push upward around concentrated real estate bubbles. A dozen blocks in a hot zone can be completely torn down and rebuilt into an unrecognizable mini-metropolis in only a few years. While a dozen adjacent blocks remain stagnant and unchanged since the 50's. Much of this has to do with zoning regulations. Some of it with the ridiculous trends of 90's gentrification. But seen from above it is undeniably strange.

Walk across one of the bridges between Manhattan and Brooklyn, dodging bike riders with messenger bags speeding across, and you see the narrow strait of the East River, once filled with shipping, now a recreational lane for light yachts and water skiers, and the occasional barge carrying garbage or rubble from some construction project. The industry is mostly gone and the shipping with it. And the city's working class districts have become an eyesore. Like so many other northeastern towns and cities they are ghosts of their former prosperity.

The city's new wealth comes from its centrality. New York City is still a nameplate brand. And it attracts creative people. It is not the flow of Third World immigrants, so often namechecked in mayoral speeches, who contribute anything to the economy. There is little for them to contribute. Without much in the way of manufacturing, there aren't many jobs for them. Cheap labor is handled by the ubiquitous Mexican illegal alien who can be found toiling even in Chinese stores and marts, where mutual linguistic incomprehension is overcome by grunts and emphatic hand gestures.

It is the creative industries which account for the city being the largest regional economy in the country. This is still the city of magazines, tall buildings and the finance sector. It is where news organizations and foreign corporations set up shop to have a presence and recruit from the pool of talent drawn here. They are the ones who drove up real estate prices and financed the construction of unsightly new skyscrapers that look like a Picasso took a nose dive into a swimming pool full of concrete.  

Bloomberg's three term role at the helm is a sly concession to where the money is really coming from. The financial sector and the media. The new "immigrants" who come bearing wealth are graduates of MIT and Princeton, they are the European companies who have set up shop here, and the Muslim sheiks who have gobbled up portions of its prominent skyscrapers. But this is something that the city rarely admits to itself.

The Old New York City, the one seen in movies till the 80's, notorious for its adventurous decay and seedy danger has given way to a playground for its new wealth bearers, a city that caters to tourists, and whose natives no longer really belong. It was only 18 years from Taxi Driver to Friends. But that 18 years has changed its destiny. Given it a second lease on life. That second lease may be a boring one, a mashup of slow urban decay subsidized by high taxes leveled against major corporations, but it is better than being Detroit or Chicago.

New York has become Tokyo on the Hudson, A city of glittering corporations and limited margins. The old working class aspirations are an illusion now. Immigrants rarely get off the boat and make something of themselves. The system doesn't work that way anymore. The new immigrant is an aid client for the city and its associated charities. A reliable voter for the corrupt Democratic party machine which lives off the imported prosperity. A few hit on a winning business and work until they make it. But Chinatown is a testament to the limitations of such hard labor.

The old city of manufacturers, laborers and workers lives on the margins of the new city. And the new city does not need strong arms, it needs high end college degrees and creative minds to give a veneer of credibility to the latest mad corporate venture. There is little crossover between these two cities. Few lines of connection. The old Carnegie formula of working your way up has no relevance in a system where working is already a dead end.

On the one side, the new city of creative arts and million dollar contracts, on the other is a city of immigrants. There is nothing romantic about this second city. It is an empire of housing projects, towers of ethnic enclaves where drug dealers and housing cops pass each other on the graffiti splattered stairs of twenty-story buildings. It is filled with dingy supermarkets full of expired food that take in most of their money as food stamps, and abutted by endless social services centers, city hospitals and ads urging residents to sign up for more free things from the government.

Squashed between them is the old city. The working class houses of Brooklyn that have not been turned into carefully preserved tributes to the 19th century by celebrities or into crack dens by the children of the welfare state are the old city. The one that still makes an effort to plant flowers without being ostentatious about it. That sets flags waving on the fourth, has a family history in the city that dates back to the 1860's and a houseful of curios and antiques. But even they work for the city, often as not. And if they don't, then the odds are some of their children do. Even if it's only for the fire department or the police department, but most likely filing papers in one of the countless city buildings.

The city employs a quarter of a million people. Its school budget alone is higher than the GDP of half the world. And it is a tribute to the effectiveness of its political machine that the new governor has managed to move cuts through without the unions doing much to hijack the process. The New York difference is not a lack of corruption. Its pols are cunning enough not to tolerate incompetence for very long. The city's budget is too impossible for it to be any other way. The economics of a massive city which can never hold on to enough of its money are unworkable otherwise.

New York is the home of the country's oldest political machine. Tammany Hall has always known how to step aside and let reformers take over and keep the city going, so it could rob them blind. And the machine allowed Giuliani and Bloomberg to fix and then hold together what they broke. But sooner or later the machine always takes over again.

If New York City is not nearly as dangerous as it used to be in the bad old days, that is a combination of police work and gentrification. And the police work of the Giuliani era was impressive. Its disregard for civil liberties in pursuit of even the pettiest quality of life offenses was not the new philosophy some made it out to be, it was an application of time honored Latin American ruthlessness to subdue and intimidate a restive population. But the gentrification would not have been possible without it. The city as a playground for white liberals who can take their children to see The Lion King on Broadway or fearlessly cycle through Brooklyn Heights owes it all to a police crackdown on the things that irritated or endangered them.

There is a difference between a law abiding city and a city with a low crime rate. New York City has never been law abiding, but today its crime rate still slumbers. It has been slowly rising, but not high enough to panic anyone. It is as if the criminals have forgotten how to be criminals. But it is rarely the criminals that you have to worry about. The criminals I have encountered were generally courteous. They were doing a job in their own dysfunctional way. And they wanted you to know that they were people too. The dangerous element has always been the teenagers gone wilding, smashing and beating for fun. The hardened ex-con with a drug habit, who can tell you about all the times he was in, fears them too. He fears them because they lack a fear of consequences. They are capable of anything.

East of Prospect Park, that charming imitation of Central Park, from the bygone days when Brooklyn was still independent, the first women in black begin to make their appearance. Along with Halal stores offering goat meat and phone cards to call countries whose name appear only as foreign script. The Muslim population in the city has been rising too imperceptibly for anyone to notice. Before 9/11 few in the city paid attention to basement mosques where food cart vendors went after work. And even afterward few notice.

The nearest enclave appears to be Bangladeshi. Men in white with twisted beards glare at you. Stores are fronted by baskets full of overpriced rotten fruit. Old women in black pass by muttering. This is the first of many of the developing no go zones in what was once working class Brooklyn. Its characteristic mood is sullenness. A mosque is going up across the street. Two concrete towers rise up from the street for a modest building that is still the tallest building on the block.

Further down there are neighborhood newspapers and liquor stores. But here there is only the sullen mood of angry people who don't want to be here and don't want us here either.

Thunder rumbles in the distance. A slow mumbling growl like a man who has forgotten what he is angry about. A cold wind blows through the heat soaked day and then it is gone. And the road leads straight on. Behind me lies the future of the city. Its towers of commerce. Its ad agencies and trendy bars. Its smart sets. And behind them still the no go zones. The young boys and young girls already covering their heads. A new generation with a Jihad waiting for them at the mosque door.

Ahead is a dead zone. Tired shops. Auto repair shops whose doors shimmer in the heat. Former factories turned warehouses or just boarded up. Discount stores. A few chain stores. A pharmacy that has been in the family for three generations with a neon sign that flickers intermittently. This is what is left of the city's booming industry. The industry has since moved on to China. A few holdouts remain behind dusty windows and metal doors. But most have gone on.

The story is the same in so many other places. This a city defined by its flights. Its haphazard scattering of luxury houses and tenements created as a part of a long race dating back to the 18th century, as the rich fled the poor and the poor followed after. And then the day came when the rich returned and the poor ran away. Uptown and downtown in Manhattan, from the days of Edgar Allen Poe to the present day. Now the numbers show that many of the young graduates are leaving the city. But it is not only the whites who are fleeing. The city's black population is registering a net loss.

The New York miracle was built on a reinvention of its myths. But that reinvention cannot be sustained. It depends on a division between two cities and such a division is unstable. Sooner or later it will fall. To be a New Yorker is to live within the myth of the city. To inhabit is to completely that it remains unexamined. That it becomes who you are. But like the American myth, it is also a story of an identity under siege. The city changed to meet a new millennium. But like so much of the Northeast it is haunted by what it has lost.


  1. Anonymous23/6/11

    knish -- you're a walker.

    me too. -- spanky

  2. dave s23/6/11

    You could be describing London - my capital city that no longer has a civilised future but has just not realised it.
    Good writing.

  3. Anonymous23/6/11

    The passages about the muslims sounds like Montreal, six hours north of NYC; a city whose people still believe that it means something.

    High taxes, terrible roads and more mosques, covered heads, phone cards, less and less young white people. The only industries here are govt, banks and insuance companies, cute software companies.

  4. This process seems to be common throughout the entire civilized world.
    Regardless, what a light shedding insight about the current condition of the most famous of cities.

  5. Thank you for this little stroll. There is no substitute for reports like this.

  6. Prospect Park is not an imitation of Central Park. It was created as an improvement over the design of Central Park. It is charming because it lacks tourists.

  7. spanky, walkers are the future

    dave, yes only at a slower rate because at least bloomberg never embraced the more absurd futurisms

    anonymous, yes it applies to much of the cities that once used to define modern civilization

    hermit, it's a fading myth. And I say that as a New Yorker who loves the city and has trouble imagining living anywhere else. New York has become a brand with fading ties to the reality of how it's run.

    Paul, from the streets

    chicken underwear, it's an improvement in some ways, but both central and prospect are scaled to their neighborhoods. prospect is a better everyday park, central is more comprehensive

    but the development of the area was certainly imitiative

  8. Anonymous25/6/11

    Mr. Knish - you're referring to Manhattan, NYC is made up of 4 other boroughs too.

  9. Indeed which is why I begin in Manhattan and move on to Brooklyn

    The Bronx isn't worth talking about and there's not much to say about State Island

    Queens is in decline, but it's a similar one to Brooklyn

  10. Anonymous26/6/11

    Mr.Knish as a lifetime New Yorker (almost 60 years), I see evidence that NYC is slowly but surely returning to the Koch/Dinkins years. The aggressive pan handlers are just about every where. Rudy was the best mayor we had because he recognized that quality of life offenses lead ultimately to felonies. Yes teenage wilding is the ultimate nightmare.


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