A few years back, when the New York real estate market still looked within reach of, say, itinerant op-ed writers, I got to spend some quality time touring houses in a then-unfashionable part of Brooklyn.
My most vivid memory is of the basements. One had a warren of cubicles surrounding a filthy hot plate; in another, the landlord proudly showed off the tiny rooms he’d built (“That’s craftsmanship! This rent roll is a gold mine!”) in a windowless sub-basement 20 feet underground. It was a rare glimpse into the other New York, the one where its 1.5-million-and-growing poor live.
I was reminded of this recently when I visited Bushwick, the once-unfashionable Brooklyn nabe that realtors like to call “Far East Williamsburg.” Bushwick’s land rush hasn’t gone far — the condo tower that tried luring Manhattanites with a YouTube music video about “the memory of us, sitting in Washington Square” is still mostly vacant — but it’s wreaked havoc on those who live there. I heard tales of landlords who, smelling hipster cash, tried to force out their mostly poor Mexican tenants by shutting off heat, leaving the front door unlocked or ripping out walls.
Why is this important?
Because all signs are that New York is only getting more like Bushwick. Wall Street bonuses are back, but now paired with 10 percent unemployment. One of the city’s fastest growing careers is home health aides, a job with such notoriously awful pay that some live in homeless shelters.
This is the challenge for Bloomberg’s third term: how to make New York not just fashionable — at a recent press conference, the mayor burbled happily about how his out-of-town friends now ask to go out to eat in Brooklyn when they visit — but actually livable for all the busboys and store clerks who keep the city running so the rich can play in it. His record here isn’t great: Much of his new “affordable” housing is for folks making $100,000 and up, and last year his Rent Guidelines Board OK’d surcharges on the city’s cheapest apartments. But even old mayors should be able to learn new tricks.
– Neil deMause can be contacted at demause.net and on Twitter @neildemause.