Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Y’know, every once in awhile the NYT will run one of these frothy, zeitgeisty pieces, works of investigative assiduity that oh-so-fearlessly delve into the wacky lives of today’s young urban achievers. These tend to be collections of anecdotes presented as somehow representative of a cohort, sociology-lite attempts to take the pulse of a generational section as it passes through history, and they function primarily in support of the paper’s ideological police mission: if you don’t resemble these people…why not? (Although a rich vein of this tripe is generated for us by the Times, New York is, if anything, still more guilty of this kind of conduct. Remember “grups“?)

For the moment, my concern is not so much with whether there’s any point of resemblance between the trend the Times writer claims to discern and anything we’d recognize as reality. We can deal with that some other time. No, it’s simply this: who the hell are these people?

We hear from, among others, a 25-year-old software developer with “a smartly appointed studio in a full-service building in Tribeca,” a 28-year-old consultant whose dates “will drop comments on how much his sales team had made for the year,” and a 29-year-old lawyer who “has found herself clipping price tags off expensive clothes she buys on shopping binges.” Admittedly, these are fully human beings reduced to a sentence or two by a reporter with an agenda, and having been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment in the past, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. These women are probably nowhere near as vapid in real life as this piece makes them sound.

Still. Who the hell are these people?

I’m beginning to accept, with commingled relief and shock, that I must travel in very, very different circles – not merely from these poor women, but from the vast majority of the upper-middle-class people routinely depicted in this sort of piece. The people I know in their mid-to-late-twenties are, by and large, hardworking grad students, or similarly diligent midlevel designers and architects: not people who get to take a hell of a lot of vacations, let alone worry about what class they’re seated in. (At their age, while I was admittedly privileged in so very many ways otherwise, I got by on a sergeant’s pay.)

My inability to wrap my head around the fact that these are the people whose choices now shape the city I live in reminds me of my incredulity at certain comments I remember reading on a Curbed thread last year, comments that stated outright that women in my Manhattan neighborhood, Kips Bay, wouldn’t consider dating a man unless he had the right job, the right watch, and the right jeans (!).

Silly me, I used to grin at the apparent superficiality of those Chinese women I read about who had supposedly updated Mao’s “four musts” of bicycle, radio, watch and sewing machine for the twenty-first century, requiring that each of their romantic partners come complete with a Rolex, a plasma TV, a BMW, and his own apartment. Boy howdy, though, the gestalt that comes across in pieces like this is worse – tackier and more awful – than any Chinese attitude I’ve ever heard of. I mean, given the stark historical inflections they’ve lived through, Shanghainese women my own age can probably be forgiven for wanting at some level to get while the gettin’s good. I’m not so sure the same can be said of the average resident of Kips Bay – and not to single the women out, either.

Uh, what happened to, like, being with people because you loved them and responded to something ineffable in the makeup of their character? What happened to making do together, because it was the “together” part that was more important than how far forward you were seated on the plane? Thank god I’m shielded from having to please people like this relationshipwise, although I’m nowhere near as buffered as I’d like to be from some of the other consequences of attitudes like this.

I guess that’s the point of this rant. I don’t begrudge folks like the ones depicted in the Times piece the right to exist, not in the slightest. My resentment is simply that the city seems increasingly to be tuned exclusively to their needs and requirements, pushing other alternatives of the map entirely, almost literally, in some slow, grinding, horribly Greshamesque process of exclusion.

Have a look at Third Avenue between, say, 23rd and 34th Streets if you don’t believe me. It’s not a pretty thing. (The relationship between the spreading blight of sports bars, tanning salons and Tasty D-Lites and the increasing percentage of my time spent far, far from here is left as an exercise for the reader.) I know we’re not the only ones who feel alienated by and from this Newer York and the set of values that appears to govern it, at least for the time being. You don’t have to be Richard Florida, either, to speculate that at some point in the relatively near future, this alienation will have significant cultural and economic consequences.

7 responses to “Who are the people in your neighborhood?”

  1. Andrew says :

    “the city seems increasingly to be tuned exclusively to their needs and requirements…”

    Uppercase that: “The City seems….” It’s not just New York, it’s any city that’s still growing while getting younger and richer. Hell, there’s not a single actual grocery store or hardware store in the whole of Seattle’s downtown.

  2. Abe Burmeister says :

    I sort of mystified as to how you could have been in NYC so long without encounter these people, especially since Kip’s Bay (and much of the far east side between 14 & 96th) has always been flooded with them. They certainly have been around NY since I was old enough to notice (maybe 7th grade?). The real thing that’s changing is that they don’t leave once they get married anymore. And yeah it’s a problem, but there is always Brooklyn…

  3. Christopher Fahey says :

    This is what I love about Brooklyn, and my neighborhood, Red Hook, in general: The idea of not living in Manhattan is alone enough of a turn-off that 50% of the douchelords (your term) you describe simply can’t bear to live here. And Red Hook is even more “exclusive” — you have to, no matter what, walk through a 15-minute gantlet of subsidized housing, dog shit, shady but active light industry, and a desolate Robert Moses DMZ, just to get to and from a subway train. This wipes out another huge percentage of douchelords, a bulwark against the possibility of offending one’s eyes and sensibilities during a neighborhood stroll. For better or worse, it’s a self-segregating urban infrastructure. What you have left, as with all segregations, are poor people (and people willing to live among poor people, i.e., early-stage gentrification). Many of these structural instruments of segregation are, of course, bad things that don’t make life for people who have little choice but to live here more dangerous and stressful, but these same phenomenon also make large charismatic apartments affordable to people like me. It’s a microcosm of the same phenomenon that saw the “Disneyfication” of Times Square — we New Yorkers who are well-to-do enough to survive and have a perverse appreciation for urban decay end up with mixed feelings about the social and structural changes (improvements?) that simultaneously make life better for the genuinely poor and then, subsequently, attract the douchelords.

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    I thought I’d add that I’ve met one of the people in the article and she was extremely talented and smart — so yes, these women are not all the superficial players the Times might unwittingly suggest they are. Can we really blame young people for accepting the success that the economic climate offers them?

  5. freyburg says :

    It’s the same here in Vancouver, except on a much smaller physical scale and with the added bonus of all the douchelords and ladies consciously trying to ape their betters in NY and, given that this is a film town, LA as well. My neighbourhood, Yaletown, is the nexus for most of the sizing up and wallet measuring, and is roundly mocked for its self-involvement. Not that the Main St. hipsters (our ersatz Williamsburg) are any better, they just have a lower credit limit.

    And I’m also lucky in that I’m shielded from 90 percent of this nonsense by a girlfriend who is none of the above, and a die-hard geek besides. She’d much rather pwn n00bs in WoW than parade about in whatever’s the latest designated must-have status accoutrement.

    On the other hand, these kind of articles are defined by cherry picking one or two specific superficialities of the individuals profiled and throwing them into sharp relief for equal parts admiration and tsk-tsking. They rarely actually reflect what’s really going on, and can be viewed as caricature at best.

  6. Bob Jacobson says :

    Los Angeles, my hometown, was nearly intolerable for me last year. The city was once a hotbed of boosters and anti-boosters, vast capitalist schemes and labor wars — and of course, the home to most of the world’s media. It’s now a mess of pretenders, with the cleavages less about race or culture and more about money. Money is now so concentrated there are neighborhoods where no drives other than a German or Japanese luxury vehicle — and then there is the rest of the city, where it’s honest grassroots dog-eat-dog.

    LA sucks — I’m writing this from Tucson, the town that time forgot — and preparing to move overseas, permanently. Nothing is going to fix LA so long as powerful people like it disorganized and dysfunctional for the differential advantage it creates for them, all tidy and well serviced by professionals. That’s no surprise. What’s hideous, however, is how the press dotes on this new fringe society of the nouveau riche and its aspirants. Have reporters and editors no imagination? No perseverance to dig deeper into the city’s problems? No personal sense of indignation?

    We bitch, but the publishers and producers, and those they employ, don’t care. It’s the very plushies whom they disproportionately cover who buy the things that their pages and programs advertise. What a neat and insane cultural tautology.

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