NYC, Today & Tomorrow (with Jessica Lappin)
Where is New York right now, and where is it headed?
“The firmament that is New York is greater than the sum of its constituent parts,” writes Lucy Sante in Low Life, her masterpiece about the Big Apple. “It is a city and it is also a creature, a mentality, a disease, a threat, an electromagnet, a cheap stage set, an accident corridor. It is an implausible character, a monstrous vortex of contradictions, an attraction-repulsion mechanism so extreme no one could have made it up.”
To her point: The same city that produced Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Jeffrey Epstein also gave us Anthony Fauci, Robert Mueller, and Sonia Sotomayor. And Bernie Sanders and AOC. And Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And [checks notes] Boris Johnson.
New York is at once a microcosm of the country and a place unlike any other—in the United States, or the wider world. It is the center of finance, of advertising, of book publishing, of media, of fashion, of theater, of sports, of the art world. It is the headquarters of the United Nations. It is where the New Year has been rung in since 1907. It is where Babe Ruth played, and Joe DiMaggio, and Lew Alcindor before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It is the birthplace of Nas and Biggie and Tupac and Jay-Z, and of hip hop itself. It is home to Broadway, Lincoln Center, MOMA and the Met. It’s where the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, and Chris Rock learned how to make us laugh. It is where Hamilton was written and where Hamilton is set and where Hamilton, no italics, made his name. It gave us Bob Kane and Bill Finger and Stan Lee, and thus Batman and Spider-man and an army of comic book Caped Crusaders. It is where Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano joined forces to organize crime.
It is the site of some of the most consequential events in the history of this country, good and bad: Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union, which effectively gave him the 1860 Republican nomination; the opening of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; Black Thursday, Black Monday, and Black Tuesday, those dark days on Wall Street in October 1929 that brought on the Great Depression; the Harlem Renaissance and the Summer of Soul; the Stonewall Riots; the 1993 WTC bombing; 9/11; Occupy Wall Street; and what Politico called “the escalator ride that changed America.”
New York is a Promethean liver of a city, constantly in the process of regeneration and rebirth, indestructible. Many times it has risen from the ashes, stronger and more durable: in the first decade of the 20th century, when a crash in residential real estate combined with the construction of Penn Station in the old Tenderloin neighborhood created the perfect storm for Harlem to become the hub of New York’s Black community; during the Great Depression; in the 70s, when the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, as Gerald Ford sneered; in the aftermath of 9/11, when the absence of the Twin Towers stood out like two missing front teeth in the famous skyline.
Today, New York is in the midst of another of these points of inflection. Two and a half years ago, in the days before masks and vaccines, Gotham was the epicenter of the covid-19 pandemic. As happened during the Great Plague of London, New Yorkers with means fled the city. Commercial real estate nosedived. Restaurants and small retailers in particular suffered. The future of New York—of urban living in general—was in doubt. Now, the city is recovering from the effects of both the pandemic and the quarantine. As usual, NYC is pulling through.
What’s strange this time is that, unlike in past crises, the residential housing market remains strong as ever. If there was a lull in the real estate market, a good time to buy, it ended almost before it began. Despite all the defections of residents, the average rental price in Manhattan is now over $5,000 a month—a staggering figure, a new all-time high, and a 23 percent increase over last year. And as Jessica Lappin—president of the Downtown Alliance, former New York City Council member for the 5th District, and today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast—points out, there’s only so much the city can do, in terms of policy, to combat the rent being too damn high. At the end of the day, landlords know that because of limited inventory, their tenants can and will pay the extortionate bill. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.
Me, I worry about the prohibitive housing costs driving out the artists, the writers, the actors, the painters, the musicians—the creative types who give New York its artistic character. The city was insanely expensive when I lived there 25 years ago, but residents now look back wistfully on the late 90s as a less pricy era. When my kids’ generation is in their fifties, they’ll no doubt look back on the 2020s with similar nostalgia—when rents were affordable, before the gondolas replaced the bicycles. Surely there was a time when the Village really was was cheap enough for artists to come in droves? When, as Paul Simon sang, $30 paid your rent on Bleecker Street?
Not really. As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace write in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the city’s “vaunted opportunities are, as they long have been, largely limited to those with the means to seize them. ‘You can live as many lives in New York as you have money to pay for,’ ran a contemporary judgment in The Destruction of Gotham, an apocalyptic novel of 1886, which also recorded the maxim that the ‘very first of the Ten Commandments of New York [is]: THOU SHALT NOT BE POOR!’” In other words, the rent has been too damn high since at least the first administration of Grover Cleveland. Folks figured it out in the nineteenth century, they figured it out during the Great Depression, they figured it out in the 90s, they’re figuring it out now, and they will continue to figure it out long after all of us are dead and gone.
“I’m bullish,” Lappin tells me, when I ask about the future of New York. The city’s future, she says, “is bright. I think the city will continue to attract talent. It will be a place of the vibrant exchange of ideas. I think unfortunately, because our liberties are under such massive attack by the Supreme Court, we will become more of a beacon. And I think about this from a human perspective, and I think about it from a business perspective. If I’m in my 20s or my 30s and I’m working for a big company, and I have the choice to be in Nashville or Austin, where now I have no rights, or be in New York? Well, I want to work for their office in New York.”
She continues, “I’m thinking of that through the prism of women’s rights, but there will be more, unfortunately, I believe, with this Court. And so, I really do think we’re going to become even more of a haven. And that’s sad to me, to think of the country in that way, but I think unfortunately, that’s where we’re headed.”
I agree with her. Odious Sam Alito and friends will continue to chip away at our rights. And New York will continue to thrive—now more than ever. It is the East Coast capital of Blue State America, a sanctuary for immigrants, for the LGBT community, for the persecuted, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the bullied, for all the cool people who want to get the fuck out of Oklahoma City and Louisville and Wichita. Tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free—that isn’t a message associated with Texas or Florida or Ohio. New York is the most diverse city in America, and from that diversity its greatness derives. That’s something the prevailing fascist politicians in the former Confederate states seem to neither appreciate nor understand.
“You never bet against New York,” Lappin says. “People have been coming for 400 years. And they will continue to.”
How is New York City faring in the post-pandemic period? Greg Olear talks to his friend Jessica Lappin—president of the Downtown Alliance, former New York City Council member for the 5th District (Midtown Manhattan), and a consummate New Yorker—about the past, present and future of NYC. They discuss the lingering effects of the pandemic and quarantine, the commercial and residential real estate markets, and the challenges the city faces going forward, and she shares her thoughts on Mayor Eric Adams, DA Alvin Bragg, former mayor Bill DeBlasio, and Governor Kathy Hochul. Plus: yesterday.
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Photo credit: GMO.