Urban Change

Looking forward to the Urban Change Junta. We have our first film showing as a part of the Junta for this one, with some of the folks involved in the movie Vanishing City as a part of it.

I’m been skeptical about those who are quick to attack the way a city is changing. I remember first visiting Prague in the mid-90s and then moving there a few years later and hearing from the beginning “oh, you should have been here X number of years ago, it used to be so much better”. When we are fond of a place we automatically want it to stay exactly the same. For those in Prague it was that special moment after Communism fell, when there was a decrepit, gray aspect to the city that hid a decadent and at times beautiful soul. The dated and decaying aspect of the city was something that was so refreshing for expats coming over from their version of the US, dominated by slick malls, not rife with coal smoke, not infested with spider-like prostitutes hovering on so many street corners. It felt different, exciting, edgy. Over time many of the gritty corner markets, where bent-backed babickas would hunt for a tiny savings on crusty onions or hairy carrots, became big international banks. We came to feel that the Prague that was ours was threatened and people were offended by the city changing. So while I understood why some of my friends lamented those changes, I felt that asking the city to not change, to not evolve, was unfair. And I actually found the changes exciting, watching business grow, checking out the better restaurants that took root—it felt better to me to celebrate, or at least dispassionately observe, these changes then just complain about them and parrot the line “you should have been here back when, it was way cooler.” Maybe it was in some ways, but what’re you gonna do?

I hate wading through the tourists on Times Square and would consider declining a free meal at some of the chain restaurants in the area because they are so annoying. But was NY better off with Times Square as a seedy, dangerous area? I can buy into the beatnik memories of Times Square being edgy and full of character, but I think it’s just a rose-tinted memory, not a way for a city to grow and thrive.

Similarly, I’m living in Williamsburg in a new construction building—am I somehow causing the demise of what makes that area special? In the same way I didn’t begrudge the bank replacing nasty market, I don’t think it’s a bad a thing for a new luxury building to replace a derelict warehouse. I was at a new beer garden by the BQE the other night, until recently a dilapidated gas station and now a thriving venue—is this a sign that Williamsburg isn’t what it used to be? Or that it’s becoming all that it can be? Sure, some artists are being priced out of Williamsburg, but they’re moving to Bushwick and other places nearby and I think those places will now thrive in a new and exciting way, in fact they already are.

I don’t think that we should accept any new development or a Starbucks/Duane Reade/Chase bank on every corner of our neighborhoods. I’m aware that there are sad results of neighborhoods changing. Whites moving up to Harlem are displacing black families that have lived in the area for generations—that’s not necessarily a good thing. I like the blog that Rindy posted about, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and the faceless cafés that he mentioned, I love those kind of places, the anonymity they provide, and don’t want to see all of them vanish and become Starbucks. We shouldn’t shrug our shoulders and accept everything. But I feel often that it goes too far in the other way and we are automatically skeptical of changes.

When Rindy and I have discussed this particular Junta we have talked about how gentrification, urban change, could be seen as an analogy for changes and challenges to our own identities. How many times have we said “oh, so-and-so has changed so much?” Many times that change is for the worse—whether they’ve gotten rich and are now affected, or whether they had kids and are now boring—but the way I see it we should welcome change, not fear or attack it automatically, the question is in how we manage it, and the really interesting aspect of all of this is the gray area where change, growth, and development meet our desire to capture our lives and put them in a frame.

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