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Sunday, February 13, 2005
New and Old at a Neighborhood's Edge

Gentrification in New York City has been overwhelming and relentless in recent decades. Time was when a segment of the young, well-compensated and upwardly mobile people who drive large segments of the city's economy would have had to live in a swath of the East Side from Murray Hill to Yorkville. Now Chelsea is fine for them and the derelicts have been removed from the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. SoHo, DUMBO, TriBeCa and increasingly the Meatpacking District are for living in, not manufacturing. People of means can choose from a panoply of new neighborhoods in Brooklyn that they would have scoffed at or feared decades ago: Park Slope, Carrol Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boreum Hill, Fort Greene, Greenpoint. A friend and I recently walked the length of the L train to determine the exact point where the wave of Williamsburg gentrification had reached into Bushwick, or, ahem, should I say East Williamsburg. (It's at Montrose Avenue, unmistakably, if you judge by the number of curtains visible in the windows of old loft manufacturing buildings and a WiFi-equipped hipster coffee bar inside an idle industrial fortress.) Meanwhile, Red Hook is dubbed "Liberty View," for its sightlines to the Statue, Hell's Kitchen is renamed Clinton, Alphabet City is called the East Village and new areas like NoLIta are carved out of previously indeterminate areas.

In light of all these changes, I've been surprised to see that the edges of the Upper East Side itself, that queen of all inner city neighborhoods of wealth, have hardly changed. In part because of the Metro-North viaduct on Park Avenue but moreso because of Robert Moses' creation of immovable dull barriers of the concentrated poor, the Iron Line of 96th Street has been pretty much inviolable on the East Side, even as gentry from the Upper West Side have crept northward to meet those in Morningside Heights. Even today, walk along Madison Avenue from 95th Street to 99th Street and in scarcely four blocks you travel between two different planets.

That is changing. Finally, inexorably, Carnegie Hill is creeping into El Barrio. The photograph above is of 1500 Lexington Avenue, between 96th and 97th Streets, one of two buildings in the Carnegie Hill Place development. It towers over its aging neighbor, 1488 Lexington Avenue, the way a crisp $100 bill, folded and stood on end, towers over a nickel.

Fifteen Hundred Lex is a $50 million, 22-story luxury rental tower that opened in May 2003 with 211 apartments and ground-floor retail space. It occupies a long-vacant lot that was once seven separate 25-foot-wide lots on which in all probability stood a series of low-rise apartment buildings like the one remaining at the corner. Now, people pay more than $2,500 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment with one east-facing exposure, even as corner apartments next door go unused.

By replacing a vacant lot, the building displaced no one, but because it represents a sea change for the area, it was predictably welcomed with less than open arms. In a cover article in The New York Times's City section on Feb. 23, 2003, the writer Ed Morales wrote:
Whispered buzzwords of gentrification like Upper Yorkville, Carnegie Hill North and SpaHa (for Spanish Harlem), are creeping up from the south. The specter of new luxury high-rise developments with tony names like the Monterrey and Carnegie Hill Place are pushing back the ghetto flavor. The Spanish Harlem of the mind, dotted with the world's greatest cuchifrito stands (fried Caribbean snacks), stickball clubs and old-school piragueros, men who sell flavored ices from pushcarts, is threatened with extinction.
I don't think the neigbhorhood is threatened with extinction, but clearly, change is on the march.

Next door is a reminder of that neighborhood. Fourteen Eighty-Eight Lex is a 9,555-square-foot old-law tenement with an assessed value of a paltry $71,555. It has room for 11 apartments, four of which would command corner views over a busy intersection. Most of the building has a highly desirable southern exposure. Yet despite these things, and the building's prime location on top of a station served by the most frequently run subway line in the city, the landlord would apparently rather invest nothing in the upper residential floors and instead just milk off the profits of the ground floor retail. And at present, this retail consists of a tawdry cluster of tiny, low margin shops and one of those ubiquitous New York City cell phone stores.

It's amazing that so many uptown tenement owners keep their buildings heated and inhabitable simply for the ground floor retail space and leave the potentially lucrative floors above vacant and deteriorating. Somehow, that's what the economics of the pre-gentrified city supported. This phenomenon is a little more understandible in a run-down neighborhood, but here, the building next door proves that people would be willing to pay a lot of money to live in these vacant rooms. It would cost some money to renovate them, cetainly, but clearly there is no question that that investment would be returned many times over.

This building is a reminder of the tough 1970s and '80s, when buildings like this one were everywhere, and the Koch administration gave building owners those famous decals of wooden shutters and potted plants to make it at least appear that the buidlings were inhabited. One wonders whether the owner of 1488 Lex was approached by the developers of Carnegie Hill Place about buying the decaying little building. While we must wonder what motivates this landlord, because it apparently is not the promise of certain enormous profits, we should be tremendously glad he or she refused to sell and has left the building stand as is.

Those ratty old stores need a place in the city, and 1488 Lex provides it. The old tenement creates a place that supports the diversity of uses that makes this city the vibrant place it is. As usual, Jane Jacobs put it most clearly:
If a city area has only new buidlings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. . . . To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. . . .

A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normal granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year by year, are replaced by new ones — or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types.

Because of the old and new construction in evidence here, the same city block allows the coexistence of Bonanza Wireless, Tony's Variety Store, 96th Candy & Magazines, and an unknown number of six-figure account executives and securities analysts. How much richer the city is for having this vivid juxtaposition of old and new — a reminder of the old city and a forerunner of the city to come, standing cheek by jowl at East 96th Street.

How long can these buildings coexist like this?
- Posted at 5:43 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Interesting note about the L train walk + gentrification. I looked at apartments on the Montrose stop over two years ago and decided against it because of the lack of other residences in the area.

Apparently most of the buildings at that stop are illegally-converted.


mfs at mikebot dot com

By mike, at 2/14/2005 3:02 PM  

I'm tired of when people act like East Williamsburg is really Bushwick.

I live in Bushwick. I love Bushwick. And I feel like people want to act as if East Williamsburg isn't really East Williamsburg simply because it's more grimy than Bushwick ever WILL be.

Get your facts straight. The Bushwick/Williamsburg border happens at Flushing Ave.

The Monstrose and Morgan Ave stops are in East Williamsburg (not Bushwick...never WAS Bushwick) while the Jefferson Street through Halsey Street stops are in Bushwick.

Thank you.

~Laney B.!

By Anonymous, at 2/19/2005 4:11 AM  

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