Magazine Preview: Our New York Nostalgia

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Illustration by Stephen Davan

From the latest issue of the Blue & White, Editor-in-Chief Liz Naiden’s essay explores the impact of a changing New York on Columbia students.

In a voice completely devoid of irony, say the following sentence out loud: New York used to be different.

This is certainly true—the city has changed dramatically, especially over the last 20 years—but to put it in such earnest, simplistic terms is trite. I still remember the genuine laments of friends from far away, who arrived as freshmen in New York City only to discover it was not the city they had expected. By their first spring at Columbia, they had gotten tired of talking about their romanticized yearning for an older, less gentrified New York. They eventually realized that Columbia professors and students, scholars and journalists, young arrivals and seasoned New Yorkers alike have been mourning the loss of “old” New York for at least two decades. The gentrification of New York has become a subject reserved only for academic settings and those ironic, casual conversations at parties where everyone giggles, gives a knowing nod, and then looks away.

We may no longer sincerely admit it, but nostalgia for an older, grittier New York is something that a lot of the city’s young people share, on and off college campuses. It is one reason that so many of us are drawn to neighborhoods like the East Village, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and even Harlem—these places still allow us to imagine a past that was less shiny and commercial than most of New York is today. It is hard not to feel nostalgia when you walk through neighborhoods that have undergone intense “Disneyfication”—the creation of the sterile, over-advertised, consumer-oriented aura that now defines places like Times Square and most of Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and SoHo.

The word “gentrification” was first used in the 1960s to describe the physical rehabilitation of London’s working-class neighborhoods. The flurry of renovation and new construction completed in New York since the late 1980s was fueled by the recovery of the city’s economy from decades of deep depression. Since then, money from a new global economy—anchored on Wall Street—has paid for the changes we see on the street. We sense a vague absence as we walk in the city today, what CUNY sociologist and gentrification scholar Sharon Zukin calls a “loss of authenticity.” But our investment in this nostalgia distracts us from the more important changes gentrification has wrought. The same economic forces that have remade the built environment of New York have put pressure on young people like us to make money or leave. Of course it costs more to live in a city that is, by any metric, more comfortable. Nevertheless, this nostalgia blinds us to the fact that when we leave college, we will pay a much higher price to live in New York than people our age did 20 years ago.

Since the majority of Columbia students have been living in the city for fewer than five years, we aren’t even expressing nostalgia, per se, when we lament the gentrification of New York. It is better to call it nostalgia-by-proxy: a yearning for something we never knew. Despite being a native New Yorker, I am the guiltiest of all my friends. I remember New York 10 years ago, but not 20. Like many people, I’ve put together the details I remember and the small transformations I witnessed, with things I’ve read or heard, creating a nuanced vision of the past—a New York that was somehow thicker, more stimulating, and more real than the one I live in now. A lot of young people who hang out in the East Village, where I grew up, have created their own mythology of that neighborhood and its history. Part of the mythology, though, may stem from the knowledge that living in the East Village is so expensive now. It is something to hope for and work hard for; something that drives your desire for a professional job with a decent salary.

I do not know exactly how many Columbia students stay in New York for the first few years after graduation, but it must be a fair number. The East Village isn’t everyone’s goal, but by the time Columbia students begin to compete for jobs in the city, we’ve gotten a rough sense of how much it costs to live within 30 minutes of Manhattan—a lot. A recent New York Times article, titled “The Price 20-Somethings Pay to Live in the City,” went to the trouble of collecting stories about the money, space, and amenities young people are willing to sacrifice to be in New York. Most of us, General Studies students excepted, have never supported ourselves on our own for very long. Because of our eagerness to participate in the cultural, intellectual, and economic life of New York City, we must come to terms with the necessity of the entrylevel professional job immediately after graduation. It’s that or grad school. We haven’t quite dealt with this reality consciously, though, because we’ve forgotten (if we ever knew) that it used to be much easier for young people to live cheaply in New York.

New York has always been expensive, but as gentrification has changed the city physically, the cost of living here has increased dramatically. Scholars of globalization, especially Columbia’s Saskia Sassen, have explained this trend in New York and other “global cities” as a result of the dominance of global corporations over the world economy since the 1980s. They need to be based New York, in no small part because of their reliance on the professional services—financial, legal, and consulting—that are also located here. As a result, the amount of money flowing through the city today is not 10 times more than in 1980, but 10 orders of magnitude more.

The implications of this vast increase in cash flow become clear if you consider the so-called “global professional class,” those who work for a multinational corporation or in an industry that serves those corporations’ needs. They have the money to buy an apartment in Manhattan, a more expensive silk button-down, and artisanal cups of coffee. Their million dollar salaries support cultural institutions, stimulate luxury industries, and drive up the price of everything they buy, especially housing, to the disadvantage of younger people.

But a richer, cleaner, often safer city, like our post-Giuliani New York, by opening more shops and high-end services, also attracts a mostly white upper-middle class and middle class population, the majority of whom would have been found hiding in the suburbs for most of the late 20th century. People of color, rich and poor, have traditionally been concentrated in inner cities. However, the attraction of revamped, gentrified American cities like New York has recently brought white, well-off people back into the city in droves, a phenomenon nicknamed “reverse white flight” by the Huffington Post. Over the past few decades, urban living has become not only safe and convenient, but also become culturally appealing—or, if you will, cool.

Before the return of demand for housing in American inner cities, young people could and did live in run-down neighborhoods cheaply. They weren’t pushed farther and farther from the center of town like young people—and all of those who can’t pay high rent—are today. It is now too expensive for many people to live or shop in Manhattan, or even near it. This pattern is typical of European cities: the rich live in the center of the city, near the culture and the action, while the poor are pushed toward the edges.

Why should this matter to you? Since when did young become synonymous with poor? If you’re an ambitious student graduating from Columbia, it certainly doesn’t have to be. Even if you claim you won’t make any money in your chosen profession, you’re likely to be entering a field with cultural or intellectual prestige, where you will interact in an upscale professional setting and social world despite your salary. Though perhaps no different from other high-caliber schools, the competitive job-seeking that Columbia undergrads engage in makes it seem like a professional lifestyle is not just one of many options—it is an imperative. Intellectual capacity and worldly ambition are not the only factors driving us toward this desire for professionalism. We fear irrelevance and poverty. The average Columbian is not well acquainted with either, but Columbia and New York City have also taught us to fear non-success and to equate it with failure. One of the reasons is that it is no longer easy in New York to live on the pay from a part-time service job, get a cheap place, and relax, think, and experiment after college. And so we are taught to have a plan and a trajectory, or else.

When I say “experiment,” I don’t mean with different careers. We’ll all have a dozen in our lives, says some over-quoted statistic. But New York used to be full of young people who weren’t sure if they wanted to be writers, or artists, or musicians, but who got a cheap place and messed around with their creative impulses for a few years after college. There is a place for those students who already know they want to go into music, or visual arts, or writing—those who are already competing for recognition in those fields, and who may begin to find pay for their work soon after leaving school. They will survive the difficulties of being twentysomethings in the city that the Times describes.

But those who just need a little money and some physical and mental space to play with paint, or a guitar, won’t find it in New York today. They will have to do their dabbling somewhere more hospitable to their youth and indecision. We may lose a few who would have made great contributions to New York’s culture and creativity. But what about those who never would have made it—the mediocrities? Don’t we lose something when they leave New York? And have we not lost something at Columbia when we worry constantly about competing for entry-level professional jobs, because we’re taught that if we want our own space outside of a parent’s house, that is the only option? Once we arrive at Columbia, privileged in our education if not in other ways, are we all effectively choosing pre-professionalism? You’d better hope so, because if you want a place in the society you see around you, you’ll have to work harder than anyone to get a job that will guarantee you a place in the new New York City.

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  1. interesting  

    nice article, though it's sad that this voice of nostalgia and complacency is the same one that prevents young people today from recognizing their power and acting to remold this city into a place that exists solely for itself and the people who live in it.

  2. Anonymous  

    If a student really just wanted "a little money and some physical and mental space to play with paint, or a guitar," she could still have that in New York City, and even in Manhattan, if she is willing to move (with some roomies) to one of the buildings more like those found in "old" New York. That is, one with a number of structural safety hazards, in an area with a higher crime rate and a lower white population. Maybe not "on the pay from a part-time service job," but it's harder to live off that in America in general, partly because of a shifting workforce and partly because we deem a higher standard of living middle-class and thus acceptable.
    But you're right, Columbians don't do that, ultimately because "We fear irrelevance and poverty."
    We drive the gentrification.

  3. Anonymous  

    Who wants to live in a grittier pre-gentrification New York? There are plenty of places like that left, and they suck. They are poor and have high crime. If you want to go live there, be my guest. Might as well move to Detroit if you will.

    There is a reason gentrification happens, consumers demand it! It's not like there is some imaginary force that makes neighborhoods whiter and safer at a whim.

    Those artsy neighborhoods of time past were also largely white immigrant enclaves. They were the first to be gentrified because they were the closest to the safe white neighborhoods.

  4. "play with paint or a guitar"  


  5. wait...  

    "the amount of money flowing through the city today is not 10 times more than in 1980, but 10 orders of magnitude more"

    Can you quote a source? 10 orders of magnitude (10^10) is an absurdly large multiple: 10,000,000x

  6. b14  

    I think she just means to experiment and explore, not necessarily that those bent on an art career will be "playing" with their careers.

  7. ach

    this is really well written and the author is obviously talented, but the topic? done beyond death. gentrification is happening, has happened, it's harder to be a 20something artist in new york now...it's a tale as old as time, as the piece acknowledges, and then goes on to continue to tell.

    here's a question that's rarely asked by such pieces: should so many 20somethings really be aspiring to \play with paint or a guitar\? how useful are experimental artists to the world? this isn't an argument against art or artists, though it certainly seems like there's a set that can't admit that disincentivizing people from going down this route - or at least from going down this route exclusively, believing that they can only really produce art sans professional day job - might not be such a bad idea. it's also an honest plea as to why the romanticized artist's need for cheap housing near manhattan is so much more lamented in casual journalism like this than plenty of causes that could use someone with such good writing skills. it's a question of writers' priorities.

    • Anonymous  

      life is about more than what is or isn't useful. also, i think artists contribute a hell of a lot more positively to the world than ibankers

    • Anonymous

      Since when do the millions of doctors, lawyers, and finance douches out there contribute anything to the world?

      Artists and people interested in aren't don't always do it because they think it has some value to everyone else. Sometimes people do things because those things just make them happy. We only have so many years on this earth. Why waste them chasing after money and possessions and being inevitably miserable?

      This world needs more people who are willing to give up a midtown condo or a Park Slop brownstone in favor of being passionate and in love with life.

  8. anon

    I think a large part of why this issue resonates with us, or at least me personally, is because more than any conflicted feelings I may have towards gentrification, I am worried that this pattern has become inevitable. That no matter where innovative culture decides to move, it will be commodified and swallowed up. Just look at Austin, Berlin, etc... Worse is the suspicion that gentrification is actually what allows for all of our little cultural dabbles and whims. It's like a patronage system for the 21st century.

    addendum 1: As mentioned above, gritty "old" New York still exists, in Detroit. There are plenty of young, artistically inclined people who settled there. The reasons it seems so unappealing today is the same reason New York would have seemed unappealing the 1980s. Just ask Barack Obama how awesomely "authentic" his college experience in the city was. But his housing was affordable.

    addendum 2: This isn't just an issue for starving artists, living close to Manhattan is impossible for most of the young middle class who don't choose to go into a few select industries.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed. Mostly. But I think it's probably still impossible to live in Detroit unless you have some sort of outside income. There are no jobs there at all. Maybe in 5 years. Don't let the Levis ads fool you.

      It's actually still pretty easy to survive in a lot of cities, like Chicago or Portland, where even a job at somewhere like Whole Foods will allow you to live pretty comfortably. And don't discount the promises of smaller towns in upstate New York. You can always take the train in when you need something from the city.

  9. you can

    Always walk to the woods.

  10. Anonymous  

    Great article, Liz!!

  11. yeah  

    this is far-fetched. i took sassen's class. but it isnt far-fetched that it would be several orders of magnitude more though. GLOBALIZATION IS COMING

  12. Anonymous

    If you want to experience New York as it was, come to the Bronx.

  13. Anonymous

    The fact is that even these neighborhoods are ridiculously overpriced. I don't know where you live so I won't assume naivety, but I have my own experiences to go on. I live in a studio apartment with another person in Washington Heights. The ceiling is falling in and no one will fix it, there is mold growing in my sink, the lock on my door is half broken. Two months after moving in I was struck on the arm with a glass bottle at 7:30 pm and it was nearly broken. Just a week ago I witnessed a man fall (possibly pushed) from a sixth story window. I can't get more than 5 hours of sleep on a good night because it is so loud. And it's certainly not a cheap apartment. As someone committed to living my life without giving up my freedom for a professional job, I am definitely leaving the city when I graduate. One other thing to consider is that service jobs aren't even really given to Columbia grads here...

    Anyway, I do appreciate this article, there's a lot of truth in it.

    Though, since when are the East Village, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Harlem \gritty\, particularly the first two? These were super-gentrified long ago. Doubt you could find a one bedroom for under $2,000 there.

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