Suburban War

Olive Garden - Chelsea

Olive Garden – Chelsea

One of the perks of being a cabdriver is getting to meet people from all over who come to the Big Apple to visit friends, family, and of course, relax. From New Jersey to New Zealand, there’s hardly a country or corner of the Earth that hasn’t sent at least one person my way since I started driving for a living. Being that most of these people are unfamiliar with the city, I get asked a lot of questions, with one of the most common being one of the simplest as well:

“Where should we go eat tonight?”

I don’t mind answering this one even though my time spent imbibing is usually at Gray’s Papaya or from something on four wheels. What I read about and have tried in the past will go into any answer that I give along with one simple caveat:

“You better not eat at the Olive Garden – that’s not why you came to the Big Apple.”

Sure enough, I have to drive up 6 Ave. practically every shift to cruise for fares or to get people uptown and there hasn’t been a shift where I didn’t cringed just a wee bit when I went past the neon sign shown above. To add insult to injury, it’s on the same block as a Cosi and just a stone’s throw from Home Depot and Best Buy.

The running joke in New York now is how everything is located near a Starbucks, Duane Reade or Chase but lost in the shuffle is the fact that you’re more likely today to run into a Subway restaurant than an actual Subway station in Manhattan and that cannibalization no longer refers to an eating practice but for individual units in a franchise that are competing with each other instead of the competition. Indeed, the first TGIFriday’s was an actual singles bar that opened on the Upper East Side in 1965 but when you hear that name now, only place comes to mind as it’s natural location:

The Suburbs.

Most people reading this don’t know it but indeed, that’s where I grew up and still call home to this day. Suburbia was once the urban hinterlands of America but later took on an identity of its own when it became the home of these chains, along with tract housing, single-use developments, and loads of commercial buildings that popped up in the decades following V-E Day. Most importantly, it was the site of much of the growth in America in the middle of the 20th century and the final  destination of  those fleeing older urban areas during the years of forced integration and racial strife; helping to coin the term “white flight”. What current demographers are noticing now has been a reversal of that trend and nowhere is this more evident than in the Big Apple.

While much of the Outer Boroughs and edges of Manhattan fell into disarray during the decades of demographic upheaval, old industrial areas like SoHo were the first neighborhoods that underwent gentrification. Cast-iron industrial buildings that were abandoned due to an economy that was moving in a postindustrial direction were taken over by artists, LGBT’s, and squatters. New restaurants and shops followed as as rents increased, these urban homesteaders were forced out in search of cheaper pastures in which they could set up their wares, and the cycle repeated. Chelsea, TriBeCa, the Upper West Side, and other nether regions of Manhattan saw this process repeat itself but in the 21st century, there have been some changes to this pattern that are still worth noting.

The primary difference today is where these changes are taking place. Much of the Outer Boroughs that resembled war zones are now the sites of these latest rounds of gentrification from the ground-up. Long Island City, Williamsburg, “The Hub” in the South Bronx, and Bushwick are wthe ground zeros that the artistically hip and cutting-edge of young society are now setting up shop. Whether the ripples will radiate all the way out to East New York and Co-Op City remains to be seen but the edge of the “City” of New York still remains fluid even though the borders of the 5 Boroughs have been fixed for over a century now.

Second are the types of dwellings that the new residents are calling home. While adaptive re-use is still the preferred mode of redevelopment, glistening new towers on the waterfront or around transit hubs like Jamaica have shown that all new construction need not be confined to the Island of Manhattan. Land prices have risen so much that any site can be prime for redevelopment as long as zoning allows for the right type of building to allow for a return on investment. The Citi Tower in Long Island City was all alone for nearly 20 years but threatens to sit in a field of moderately-sized developments on the drawing board. Manhattan will still be the heart of Gotham when all is said and done but there were be pockets of developments that will rival the main island in terms of density and cutting-edge high-rise design.

Third are the types of retail developments that accompany the boom in housing. As a cabdriver, there’s very little as strange a seeing Toys R Us, Kohl’s, and Wendy’s in a suburban-style big-box development while taking a passenger down the Belt Parkway out to Coney Island or Manhattan Beach. I’ve lived within a stone’s throw from all of those for years, with all of them easily found on the local “strip” that could also exist on any 4-lane highway in America and conveniently, those 3 are within a mile proximity of each other, on my way to the Big Apple. Which brings me to my fourth point and the reason why I felt compelled to write this post…

Of course, that would be the trust fund babies that are populating much of the new growth in New York. Right now, nothing hurts me more than seeing how much money I owe the banks and the folks in Washington for the education that I worked for at Columbia. Time and time again, I hear passenger’s conversations about how unaffordable the rents are in New York and where everyone is going to go next, if they even want to stay in New York. One look at the glass-walled buildings and the neighborhoods they stick out of always brings a sneer as they discuss how the people that occupy them are living of their parents money while they shop at vintage clothing stores and take over parks and public spaces in Manhattan under the guise of bringing the 1% down. People in the ’60’s and 70’s were protesting old money, wealth, and the establishment while living in buildings that may have lacked heat, plumbing, or even permits. These days, everything comes complete with three month’s deposit along with access to the roof deck. Pushing the edge was never so easy since the new neighborhood was so much like the one back at home that would now be left behind. What better way to remind one of the old life left behind than to bring the familiarity and comfort of the ubiquitous chain with them?

As I have said time and time again, the New York that I grew up with in the 80’s has been relegated to pile of old photographs (remember those?) and books that I have up in my attic. Once in a while, I will pull them out and reminisce at how the city and its inhabitants used to look. While change is inevitable and a sign that the city is still economically viable and healthy, I wish that so much I loved about those days was still around with me today. While my Taxi will no longer be washed on the way to Yankee Stadium while waiting at a red light or will have to dodge the rotting pillars of the defunct West Side Highway, it would love to come across an automat, a vinyl record store, a NYNEX truck, or a three-card monte player. Instead, it’s more likely to come across a Target, Applebee’s, IHOP, or Walmart, even though the latter has yet to open within the city limits. Most importantly, I’d like the ride that I take during work to be quite different than the one I take during my rare off-night here in Jersey. While I can’t guarantee that my life’s path will ever see me reside in the Big Apple, I do hope that city won’t sell its soul in an attempt to appeal to everyone who wishes to live there. Chains are everywhere but there will only be one place good enough to be nicknamed Gotham and the day it becomes just like everywhere else is the day that moniker needs to be retired; for at that point, the city will no longer deserve to stand out amongst its peers.

Looking north to yet another Subway - Williamsburg

Looking north to yet another Subway – Williamsburg

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