Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Monday, January 02, 2006

New York Story #4

southside commercial space
Originally uploaded by jUSTINYC.

For New Yorkers, real estate is a consuming obsession. Whether they rent or own, virtually everyone has a tale of triumph and/or horror to tell, and tell they do. The three--or rather five--only factors that really count in this equation are size; price; and location, location, location. But what consitutes the quality of a "location" in New York, especially in the past 15-20 odd years and counting, is subject to change. And that is a vast understatement.

Twenty years ago, you didn't have to be rich to find an apartment in Manhattan. But even back then, "old timers" who'd lived for years in rent-controlled or stabilized buildings had deals so sweet that newcomers would be green with envy. But still, in those days, if you swung into town, you could find a cheap hotel--not the Ritz, but a place to stay. Even bums could always find a Bowery flophouse for a pittance.

Today, on the other hand, in order to move to Manhattan you have to be wealthy or reside in one of the residential dorms owned by NYU (downtown) or Columbia (uptown). The cheap hotels have either undergone luxe renovations or been demolished altogether, and the typical stay in a Manhattan hotel will set you back about $300 a night. The Bowery, which for more than a century was synonymous with the last stop for alcoholic bums on the skids, is now developing into a new art gallery district, with pricey restaurants and bars to match. Virtually all the flops are on the way out or long gone.

In roughly the past three decades, especially during the boom, New York City began to experience an amazing renaissance. As the city emerged from a horrible financial hole; the subways and streets became more user friendly, and crime went down dramatically. Manhattan's major parks, which had devolved into hellish havens for drug dealers and even squatters, were renovated and are now safe, clean, and hospitable for residents and tourists alike.

In due time, Manhattan became the place where everyone wanted to be. Hotels and high rises continued to spring up, and old buildings underwent luxury renovation. Commercial rents were unregulated, so an old mom and pop store or downscale bodega could be driven out of business overnight when their lease expired and their rent doubled. In their place came more upscale offerings suitable to artists, hipsters, and yuppies.

As more and more people clamored to live here, neighborhoods that had once been unfashionable and/or sketchy became gradually gentrified. For those who knew how to read the signs, it was no surprise when even the sketchiest Manhattan neighborhoods--as well as those in the once unfashionable outer boroughs--began to transform into the new places to see and be seen.

It was back in the eighties, I'd guess, that the horror stories began. More and more friends and coworkers told of landlords trying to force them out so they could empty the building, renovate, and either charge the higher rents that renovation allowed or turn the building into a luxury rental or coop. Some stubborn folk got large payoffs to move. Now that New York was starting to boom, things were starting to get ugly, and long time tenants could not longer take for granted that they wold be able to endure the rising rents and cost of living in their newly revamped 'hoods.

Having lived here so long, and having seen these changes take place in area after area, nothing surprises me anymore. From Harlem to Chelsea, from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, from SoHo to DUMBO, neighborhoods that most thought were impervious to gentrification have become playgrounds for the hip and prosperous. The beginning of the cycle may be hard to discern, especially for the newcomer, and it may take years to come to fruition, but once the course is set, gentrification is well-nigh inevitable.

In the interests of brevity, I'll leave the analysis of how these areas change for another post. For now, I just wanted to address the subtle but definite changes that are happening in BG's northwest Bronx neighborhood--an area that is currently occupied chiefly by Latino immigrants and working poor. In some ways, this is terrific progress. But what happens to those long time residents when the newcomers with more money and privilege move in?

Shortly after the Great Crackhead Incident of 2005, BG's Bronx building changed landlords. Things seemed to be looking up soon after. First, video cameras were installed in the mail alcove. Then, floodlights were set up outside the building leading up to the entrance. An announcement was posted that pets would not be allowed for new residents, and current residents could only keep their animals if they did not let them damage the apartments, as some apparently did. Two new sets of entry doors were put in--each with their own intercom buzzer. In short, the landlord seemed to be concerned with making the building safer and nicer. Generous of him, don't you think?

Over the seven odd years that BG has lived in his building, the 'hood has taken a decided turn for the better. When his brother came up to visit the first year BG moved in, he wryly remarked, especially on weekend evenings, that it was "getting very Bronx" on the streets in the evening. Lots of loud music, partying, and boom box music emenating from SUV's. The whole works.

But as the years went by, things started to get cleaner and quieter. The park closest to BG's building got renovated. A new state of the art library is scheduled to go up in about a month's time. And the weekends are often so quiet that you could easily forget you were in New York City.

When I visit BG, I always pick up the local biweekly free Bronx paper called the Norwood News. It is here that one can read about the signs of change, progress, and economic growth that the Bronx is beginning to enjoy. Most of the news is heartening--an arts scene is burgeoning in the once horrific South Bronx; neighborhood businesses have banded together to keep the shopping areas cleaner and safer. A landmark movie theatre not far from BG's place has been restored to its former glory after languishing abandoned and forgotten for decades, and is being used for concerts and other cultural events.

But a series of recent articles made me feel uneasy about BG's new landlord and his attempts to improve the state of BG's building.

This area of the Bronx was considered very tony from the 20s through the fifies or sixties. Subway lines were constructed to allow easier access to those who worked in Manhattan and moved to the Bronx, as those who could afford it fled from the stultifying confines of cramped Manhattan tenements to the grander abodes now being built. BG's building, which was built in 1920, is one of a plethora of buildings on the Grand Concourse which sport grand architecural features, particularly in their lobbies and outer facades.

Though BG's building is now a bit worse for wear, and it is still a constant battle to remove the graffiti that keeps springing up on the outside of the building and, less commonly, in the hallways, the potential is there for an impressive restoration. And apparently, some landlords and realty companies have spotted a trend and are running with it.

Recently, a group of developers bought up a number of buildings in the northern Bronx and upper Manhattan. Their modus operandi seems to consist of trying to push long-time tenants out by intimidation. Their first step is to make improvements to the building, as BG's new landlord is doing. Then they often tack on part of the expense of this improvement onto tenant's rents. A large number of tenants have had their leases revoked for real and not-so-real "violations."

The goal seems to be to fix up the buildings, increasing their value, and then probably "flip" them over, selling them at a profit or turning the buildings into coops after the old, mostly poor tenants have been ousted.

So although I am happy, in one sense, that BG's building is being improved, I don't dare let on my anxiety about where this seemingly positive trend may one day lead. As I said to BG, rather cryptically, I doubt the landlord is doing this simply out of the kindness of his heart.

I suppose time will tell. Although it would be nice in a sense to see the neighborhood become more upscale, I can't help but wonder how many residents may be displaced by the change.

And as the artists, "urban pioneers," and hipsters jump on the bandwagon, initially drawn by the relatively cheap rents and more generous space, where will the current residents go?

Ah, there's the rub.


At 6:26 PM, Blogger !ce said...

What happened to the parties and hip-hop music? That's sad. Don't you miss that?

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Washington Cube said...

I read a really interesting book about Manhattan real estate last year called The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan, by Steven Gaines.

At 12:30 AM, Blogger Walker said...

It's the same everywhere.
The downtown core here has gone sky high.
I have always lived in the center of the city and a not bad 1 bedroom apartment goes for $1000 a month.
rooms in shity buildings are about 550 and you share the washroom if you dare.
The trend is to fix up old houses and sell them for a huge profit.
This is a form of segragation as well.
The poor have to move away from the center and be herded in parts of the city where they cannot be seen.
High prices also takes are of crime because they can't afford to live in these areas because of the high rents thus sending all of the criminals to the suburbs.
To feed off of the poor.
You my have noticed the crime increase in those areas.
My father bought the duplex we now live in for $26,000 30 years ago and today it will sell for $600,000.
Times change fast and people want to live where they work.
Every parking lot downtown is being turned into condo complexes and they are selling for $400,000 a pop and next to the parlament buildings a new complex for the people who can afford 1 million dollars for a 2 bedroom apartment is being built.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger BiPolar Guy said...

Been to NYC once. Loved it! Would love to live there some time. Or at least have a little apartmentto visit afew months at a time. But from what you say about prices - aint gonna happen any time soon.

At 7:25 PM, Anonymous justiNYC said...

Interesting take....highly accurate and true. I also LOVE the choice of images for the story. I'll throw this up on my blog as well....keep it up!

At 5:59 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


This 'hood doesn't seem to have the kind of parties you refer to. It's more of a working poor, family oriented neighborhood. If there were house parties, I wasn't invited--let's put it that way. That might be more of a South Bronx scene. In the South Bronx, which used to be an unmitigated hell hole (and is not exactly Brady Bunch territory now, but that's cool), there's cafe's, artist's studios, poetry readings, etc. I have been meaning to check it out myself.

At 6:00 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Washington Cube:

Sounds like an interesting read, and the name of the author sounds very familiar. Thanks--I'll have to check it out--if it's real estate related, I'm on it!

At 6:07 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Yes, thanks for the reality check--I know this is a trend in most major cities. It just seems more extreme in NYC to me because, well, I'm a New Yorker, and we always think we invented every disastrous trend anyway (lol).

Your point about the reverse exodus to the suburbs by the poor is well taken. In the fifties it was the exact opposite. Funny how things come full circle. And the renovation of the old houses sounds about right too--though I imagine you get more bang for your buck in terms of space and amenities than one would typically get for a coop or condo here. My 800 square foot one bedroom will probably sell for about $450,000 or so--and the walls are paper thin, just for starters.

I was also going to include an example of a small Florida waterfront town whose residents are being pushed out so the city can build luxe condos. The point I should have made is that this is happening everywhere, and at an alarming clip. You're fortunate that you and your dad have a great place and don't have to fight the bloody real estate battles going on--seemingly everywhere.

At 6:11 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Bipolar guy:

Yes, it's sad that the city has become so prohibitively expensive. That's why the Bronx seems like one of the final frontiers to me. Rents here are at least half what they are in Manhattan--and Brooklyn and Queens prices are already sky high too.

The only thing that "regular" (non rich) folks can do now is try to find those new frontiers which start out as places no one would choose to live in--and with time, become the new places to be. And then they become too expensive to be in, unless you've got your little territory dug out already. That's the trick.

At 6:20 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Wow, thanks so much for noting this post on your blog. You site looks awesome--looking at that photo of the loft space you posted recently was like cyber-real estate porn to me--lol--meaning I can't resist those beautiful shots of those dream abodes I could never afford.

Your colleage Loftninja's poster series is brilliant. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw them on Flickr. Awesome stuff all around.

Thanks again--I'll continue visiting your site for sure!

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Brink Craven said...

I can relate to what you write, E. The same thing is happening here in Austin. and while it is hard not to get caught up in the glorious and much needed "beautification" and development of the city(instead of allowing the delapidated sprawl to spread), its also makes me fear that I will soon be forced out into the burbs myself. a fate worse than death in my opinion... oh well I guess I'll just have to keep paying rent (which is still relatively affordable) but who knows how long that will last? My landlord has been trying to raise the rent since Ive moved in but the city says no. if it were up to him (which it isnt) he would price me right outta here, Im sure. well considering how much taxes have gone up, its no wonder. but I dont have much pity, he still pulls in a hefty profit every month. Bastard.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


I hear you. Guess this is going on in every major city--as the cities become more prosperous, more people want to live within the urban core. And I know what you mean about not wanting to go to the 'burbs--I have no kids and have no car, so it wouldn't make any sense for me to do that anyway.

BG's hood probably won't get really gentrified anytime too soon--though I think it will. Just a matter of how quickly, so you never know. The signs are there for sure.

And yeah, it sucks being in the middle--if you're in an affordable area that's kind of run down and without a lot of city services, you have to tough it out. But when it starts to get gentrified, people who have lived there when it wasn't as livable may find themselves being pushed out. Not fair! But if anything is unfair, it's the real estate game, right?

At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is it a good thing that this apartment outlawed pets? You think it is hard to find a reasonably priced apartment? Try finding a reasonably priced apartment that allows dogs. Too many people have felt that they had to give up their companions because they couldn't find an apartment, and these dogs are mostly executed in the shelters. Other dogs go unadopted and are executed in shelters because would be adopters can't adopt because of irrational apartment pet rules. Responsible people that live with dogs are good for a neighborhood because the dogs get them out walking in the neighborhood at all hours.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger elvira black said...


Yes, I knew I should have clarified that. No, I think it's horrible if a person can't have their beloved pet in their apartment, and the landlord's prohiibiting it is not a good thing per se.

The jist of the landlord's note was that those living in the building who had pets could keep them as long as they did not allow the animals to destroy the apartment. Apparently, some pet owners had moved out and their pets had done a lot of damage to the unit.

So the no pets clause would go more on the darker side of the gentrification equation--except for the fact that there were irresponsible pet owners who left their apts. in disrepair. Smelling dog urine in the elevator is about on par with graffiti in terms of destroying the ambiance of a building. I love pets, but I think owners have to be responsible for caring for and cleaning up after them. I know someone who has a number of cats and dogs, and does not walk the dogs but has them paper trained. This seems not only unsanitary, but cruel to the dogs as well.

The other point is that most leases prohibit pets (esp dogs) and some coops have a no pet clause.
But from what I understand, I think it's difficult if not impossible to kick out a leaseholder who already has a pet--but don't quote me on that.


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