Thursday, June 10, 2010
Victims of Their Own Success: Nightlife as the Unwitting Agent of Gentrification
By Gamal Hennessy
West Chelsea used to be an isolated pocket of Manhattan with nothing but housing projects, warehouses and a post office processing plant. Now it has some of the most expensive condos in the city. This didn’t happen overnight. The area became desirable partially because the nightlife industry injected new life into it. But if nightlife can have such a positive effect on an area, why do the clubs in that area get shut down? More importantly, why would operators want to run a business in a city where they are punished for their success?
In the fields of urban planning and sociology, the nightlife industry in New York suffers from a concept called gentrification. This concept attempts to explain the changing demographic patterns of people who live in a certain area. Under this theory, middle class residents of an urban area begin to relocate to another part of the city or the suburbs. As people move and the price of real estate drops with decreased demand, immigrant and low income groups move into that area. They are followed by students, artists and other young people who want to live in the city, but can’t afford the higher rent districts.
The mixture of cultures and artistic energy sparks a period of creativity. Operators move into the area to capitalize on both the energy of the space and the lack of residential density, which provides opportunities to create environments that might not be attractive to the wider population.
When enough creative and nightlife people establish themselves in an area, it is “discovered” and changes from an unknown art district to “the next big thing.” The area is now ordained a desirable place to go. Using the vocabulary of Malcolm Gladwell in his book the Tipping Point, the area “tips” or, in more basic terms, the area is now “cool”. Younger professionals are drawn there to be close to their artistic peers and the venues they have created. Property values begin to rise. Real estate developers push to build new residences for people to buy and urge changes in the zoning laws to allow for more residences. More affluent groups move in and start families.
At this point, the newest residents who are paying top dollar for their condos, co-ops and brownstones, are unwilling to accept the conditions that artists accepted for the sake of expediency. They are unwilling to trade the quiet or space of living in the suburbs for the convenience of living in the city the way B&T commuters do. They want both. They take steps to change the area by removing the elements that made it desirable in the first place with community boards and other forms of political influence. Prices continue to rise. The low income, artistic and nightlife elements are forced out. The area becomes what some advocates refer to as a "bedroom community,” where little transpires beyond residents going to work and coming back home. The area stagnates. Living there becomes less desirable. The residents of the area begin to migrate and the cycle begins to repeat itself.
Keep in mind that the process of gentrification is not necessarily rapid nor does it apply to everyone who lives in a particular area or every neighborhood in a particular city. It might take decades for a particular neighborhood to gentrify and revert, but the process of gentrification has manifested itself - to one extent or another - in Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking District, and West Chelsea. It has even started in Williamsburg with the announcement of a new luxury condo building. Gentrification causes the “cool” neighborhoods to shift, which has a direct impact on nightlife in that area.
I’m not trying to imply that the process of gentrification is purely negative in relation to nightlife. A certain level of gentrification is desirable, and even required, for nightlife to grow since some operators and natives need a certain comfort level in an area before they move in. But using nightlife to build up and area and then re-zoning it to force the operators out is short sighted and detrimental to the city as a whole. New York City needs to have a healthy mixture of nightlife and residential buildings and both groups need to exist together. Operators won’t continue to dump millions into a blighted area if the reward for their efforts is constructive eviction. And if one group is sacrificed for the sake of another, the area will stagnate again and the cycle of loss will repeat itself.
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