info 06.5.06

Here Was New York

We don't mean to pick on the NY Times…well, actually we do a little, to make a point.

Exhibit A: It was in late April when their architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff took on urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs. Waiting until she died to do that struck as cowardly, and his tone was thoroughly patronizing. What Ouroussoff wanted to make us understand was that in the Jacobs v. Moses dialectic, we should remember how much Moses did for New York (did to New York, is how some of us see it). Ouroussoff put his fingers on the scale on behalf of a top-down, patriarchal civic structure for the city. Now that takes moxie!

Exhibit B: John Tierney's column published this Saturday, called "Delusions of the Rich and Rent-Controlled," is of a piece with the Ouroussoff article, since Tierney takes up the cause of the city's beleaguered landlords by setting up a meretricious argument: Because Nora Ephron lived in a rent-regulated apartment at the Apthorp, paying $1,500 a month for an eight-room apartment on the UWS, Tierney writes, "No matter how much you love your rent-stabilized apartment, no matter how smug you feel bragging to your friends about your deal, in your heart you know it's not fair you're paying so little. It's like buying stolen goods: you can revel in the low price, but you know it comes at someone else's expense."

A self-described 'recovering rentocrat,' Tierney makes no distinction between Ephron's situation and the broader benefits of rent regulation. Let's stipulate as a basic issue of fairness that people of means should not be the beneficiary of the New York's rent regulation system. (And, in fact, Ephron lost her rent protection when her income exceeded a set amount). But that's a very narrow lens through which to view New York's rent regulation system.

Just because some people benefit unfairly from it, and because that aspect is unfair to landlords, it's not the logical conclusion (at least not to some of us) that, as Tierney implies but does not state, that the city would be better off without such regulation. If you're a free-market absolutist, then the market alone should dictate how the city evolves.

But the result would be a Manhattan that is no longer a magnet but a centrifuge. Manhattan would be recast as a rough-edge-free playground for the wealthy, with everybody else out of the pool and into the other boroughs. That's already the trend, even with rent regulations — but removing the controls would accelerate the process. Just yesterday, (Exhibit C), an article in the Times' Real Estate section reported that "there are plenty of one-bedrooms renting for $1,000 to about $1,150, and they are better than decent." The trouble is, as the article lightly noted, that these are not in Manhattan. "No, they aren't on every street corner in Manhattan…" this article chirped.

We'd be interested in hearing from any reader who has rented, or who knows someone who has rented, a better-than-decent one-bedroom apartment for $1,000 on any street corner in Manhattan in, say, a decade. All you have to do is browse the real estate ads and you know how misleading this is — studio apartments in Manhattan are $1,500 and up. On the website Natefind, we found a total of three 1BR apartments currently listed for $1,200 or less in Manhattan. The Times' own listings show 153, but closer examination reveals that a substantial number are sublets, some are stabilized, and virtually all of them are in the upper reaches of the island. Nothing wrong with that, but for those who work and play in midtown or downtown, Brooklyn and Queens may be equally or more attractive alternatives.

The argument that deregulating all Manhattan apartments would lead to a boom in new housing, including middle-income apartments, defies any shred of common sense, at least about real estate in New York. But we're not writing a defense of rent regulation, per se. It's really about where the city is going before it's too far gone.

Some people might consider a Manhattan composed entirely of the rich as their version of fantasy island. Our version of Manhattan, though, is something closer to the New York we found when we got here: rich, poor, black, white, young, old, multi-national, gay, straight, artists, suits, not just end-users of a service economy, but those who provide the service, too. It may be a construct of this city that's freshness dated, the idea that an astonishing mix of people work, play, and live in Manhattan. If one morning we morph into the Brooklyn User's Guide, you'll understand why.
Seen, Heard
Mayor Bloomberg, looking very dapper, dining with girlfriend Diana Taylor last week at Rain on the UWS. The kitchen, under the charmingly-named Gypsy Gifford, is better than ever…Last night, Manoel Felciano rocked the house at Joe's Pub. As we've written, this guy is clearly a star on the rise. In the audience, Oskar Eustis, the theater's new artistic director. Is the Public going to develop a show for Felciano? They should…We hear Wagamama, the popular Asian noodle bar chain from the U.K., is heading this way.


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