What Makes a Neighborhood? Who Creates a City?

Way back in 2001, I interviewed Tass Michos — Director of Photography for the “Death to Smoochy” movie starring Edward Norton and Robin Williams — for eyepiece magazine, the official publication of the Guild of British Camera Technicians; and while the interview didn’t start off well, we did meet at the fancied Union Square Cafe for our power lunch, and the best part of the meeting was that the Guild was picking up the tab for what turned out to be a discomforting meal in more ways than one.

Tass chose the Union Square Cafe for the meeting and I remember the space being incredibly small and uncomfortable and not well-suited for a formal magazine interview.  The upstairs seating area was hot and the service was slow and the food was expensive.

I remember not sensing that I really fit into the restaurant — or the interview — so I found it oddly refreshing to read about the imminent closing of the Union Square Cafe at the end of 2015 due to rent increases and a dissatisfied landlord:

Like many of the restaurants that opened during the first decades of the city’s rebirth, we have built close relationships with those who came to define our surroundings: greenmarket farmers, publishers, agents, authors, architects, artists, advertising executives, actors, neighborhood activists, civic leaders and a legion of families who moved into the nearby lofts that once held men’s garment manufacturers. Long before Starbucks popularized the phrase “the third place” — somewhere to interact outside of work and home — it was neighborhood restaurants that helped to define places like Union Square.

The Union Square Cafe was an elitist establishment even in 2001.  Few people who lived in the area below 14th Street were able to frequent the “cafe” on a regular basis if they were blue-collar working stiffs.

If you had money, and power — the coded DNA of separatist living in New York City — then you fit right in with the decor and milieu of the Union Square Cafe that was always more First Class airline lounge than corner buffet. It was not a place of the people, by the people, or for the people — despite what the cafe is trying to claim now on their way out.

It’s hard to lament the passing of the Union Square Cafe just because of what it represents — a 30-year founding, fragmenting, gentrification of a neighborhood and the systematic removal of its people — the place was always high-dollar and was not in business to feed the masses at affordable prices.

I have no problem withe the Cafe making money, I just find it hard to shed a tear over its closing in favor of a chain restaurant or another corner bank branch.  Chains or a bank will actually serve more people in a purely distinct ecumenical and egalitarian way than the Union Square Cafe ever did over a three-decade span.

What makes the foundation of a neighborhood?  I argue a neighborhood is not a business or a restaurant, but the people.  If the people are not rightly served, then they tend to leave in droves, and when the mainstream evacuates, businesses alone cannot fill the human void.  Businesses need people to thrive — and if the regulars are no longer around for the befriending — then the city tends to lean to anchor in a slow and decaying death of imperception.

That’s the problem with the current evolution of Manhattan — it’s quickly becoming no place for the living.  The ordinary people are being pushed out and bought away — and in their place are empty penthouses and vacant businesses.  I’m sure Manhattan island will one day not be a penal colony, but it will be a monumental gravestone to commerce chiseled without heart and made soulless by the lack of joyous people.

Manhattan will be all bright lights — but no city — and I’m sure the Union Square Cafe will have no trouble finding another neighborhood niche to take over and command the highest possible dollar for a plate of pasta and a smooch.

6 comments

  • Your thoughts are perceptive, and I wish city/urban planners understood the process. It seems to me that few understand that a city, no matter where it is or its size, is an organism that must be fed and nurtured — by people over a wide range of demographics and experiences. Too often it seems the planners’ city is one that reflects their particular current interests, their ages, their needs rather than the interest of a community. Until this is understood, neighborhoods will continue to be, as you so aptly put it, “a monumental gravestone to commerce chiseled without heart and made soulless by the lack of joyous people.”

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I’ve lived in and around NYC for over 25 years — longer than any any other place I’ve lived before — and the thing that strikes me is how many of my friends… good, smart, talented, people, cannot afford to live in Manhattan any longer.

      There are no new places for working class people to live. They are all silently, and purposefully, being pressed away into the outer boroughs — or out of State entirely — for what reason? So the old architecture can be torn down to build a another high rise condo or another commercial space?

      There needs to be a planned life for a city — everything can’t be about tax abatements and getting the skyrocket rent.

      I keep hoping this ridiculous money cycle will one day break — but now I’m not so sure it will ever happen.

      Manhattan real estate is now a perfect tax haven for foreigners with a lot of money to hide/burn — so there will never not be high demand for fancy places to live that nobody plans to actually live in. That’s how you create a dead city.

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      • David, it is happening in every city. I live in the Seattle area, and the same thing is happening here. I don’t know if it is symptomatic of the evolution of cities or not, but it seems to me to be driven by two handmaidens: Greed and narrow-view city planning.

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        • Yes, that’s a good point that this is the new way of the city. It used to be if you were to buy a place to live, you were protected — your “purchase in” guaranteed you a solid stay in the life of a city — but fewer people can afford to buy now and itinerant renters are the new way of the urban core, and that means rents are rising because of deep competition between lifetime renters and those who don’t want to rent, but cannot afford the downpayment to buy a place.

          So this vicious circle continues — the 1% don’t feel it and don’t care — and the city planners keep raising taxes and placing fees on city services and there’s quickly becoming no place left to hide because even the rural areas are being bought out by mighty foreign interests in desperate land grabs to create value asset protection.

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          • I see the problems, but I don’t know the solutions. It seems, though, that human society is just a continual cycle of build and churn.

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  • Cities have to make a dedicated effort to create housing units that the middle class want to afford to buy and rent — not section 8 houses or welfare condos — good, safe, well-made places to live and thrive that may not be cheap, but they will be affordable.

    These need to be right buildings set in the middle of the city core. It isn’t enough to have a “few” apartments reserved for “low renters” in big condo buildings. These need to be large, dedicated spaces that are guaranteed to be affordable for the next three generations. That sort of commitment to the people will be a massive draw and families will stream back into the cities where they want to, once again, belong.

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