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Creative destruction or the creative age?

As the centre of the world’s financial system, New York is in a pivotal position to act as a model for how many of us are going to work and live in the future. The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism progresses through ‘waves of creative destruction’. Now that IT may be reaching maturity the hunt is on for the next ‘big thing’. Professor Richard Florida, author of the influential ‘Rise of the Creative Class’ thinks what he calls the ‘Creative Age’ offers the way forward. In an article on Ever Resilient New York he reports that by looking at New York’s top 50 occupations, ‘the large majority were in the creative sectors of arts, culture, design and entertainment’. Indeed there are neighbourhoods in Lower Manhatten and adjacent parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey where they account for more than 80% of jobs. The President of New York University goes further in saying that the future is not FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), but ICE (Intellectual, Cultural and Education).

So how has New York managed to reinvent itself after the shocks of both the collapse of some major banks, the 9:11 destruction, and Hurricane Sandy? Much of the credit is given to Mayor Bloomberg, who used his personal wealth to rise above local interests, and as a result changed the face of the city. A New York Times article on his legacy, said ‘Recognising that manufacturing was not coming back, Bloomberg poured money into rejuvenating the decrepit waterfront. He restored and expanded parks and other public spaces – not just landmarks like Central Park and upscale novelties like the High Line… He rezoned not just plots but neighbourhoods – a quarter of the city! – promoting growth in transit-rich areas, sustaining local character elsewhere, occasionally putting too much faith in developers but generally imposing order on chaos’. Incidentally he raised property taxes early on, to keep the city afloat, as once before New York had faced bankruptcy.

The City has played a proactive role, because it has access to capital funds that exceed its revenue budget. The resurgence of the City is clear, not just in the gentrified parts of the Lower Eastside or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but in how the streets and open spaces, such as Bryant Park feel safe and pleasant (even though Bloomberg failed to get congestion charging approved at State level, and had to rely on raising parking charges instead). Unlike my former visit over 30 years ago, the subways are now graffiti free. The ethnic background of the residents has also changed, as Hispanics and Asians have taken over from Afro-Americans in the basic service jobs, such as in bars and taxis. Those squeezed out of Manhattan by escalating property prices may be making some adjoining areas more vibrant, but they also may be adding to conflicts in others.

Unfortunately the creative ‘oases’ that have emerged tend to serve the few rather than the majority. One English émigré responded to my probing by pointing out that Apple had managed to patent the corners on its Ipods, and somewhat inevitably it tends to be the lawyers who gain most. A trip out on train up the Hudson River to the little town of Beacon Falls discovered some high quality bars and shops, but the major employer, a large packaging plant, had been superbly turned into the largest art or sculpture gallery in the world, DIA. What was once a working class town was becoming an artistic centre (where incidentally Pete Seeger lived), not unlike English towns such as Stroud and Hebden Bridge.

New York City, even more than the rest of the USA, has regained most of the jobs lost in the recession, but the new jobs are relatively low paid being part-time or in the health and social services, and tourism sectors. House prices are rising, though not as fast as in other metropolitan areas, and the latest immigrants are packed ever more tightly into properties that are rented out in the less attractive residential areas. Chinatown now occupies much of the space formerly associated with Little Italy, while Ukrainians have apparently vanished from the East Village, and possibly been replaced by Asian students at New York University (NYU), which dominates the heart of Greenwich Village.

Undoubtedly great cities like New York foster ‘creative milieus’, where people can meet up with others just like themselves, aided by the new ‘social media’. In turn, as young people start to favour urban living, and reject the suburban car-based lifestyles of their parents, new life is being injected into the older urban areas that are well-connected. An injection of urban quality, such as the restoration of Bryant Park or the opening up of a linear park along the old freight line that served the meat packing district, can transform an area’s image, and give confidence to both occupiers and property developers, who can benefit from the upswing in the property market once space is released. Projects such as the development of the Hudson Park railway lands should therefore reinforce New York’s intrinsic advantages. But they are unlikely to do much good for the people or places that have lost out. A Business Improvement District in an area where no one has any money to spend cannot achieve much. Furthermore, the price of a career in New York is taking on more debt than many can expect to pay off.

It is good that research is underway at NYU’s Schack Institute and elsewhere to establish how the various networks they are mapping can lead to new products and employment. But it could be a temporary phenomenon, as those with the most talent move to places that are not quite so hectic or costly. The current Mayoral candidates do not appear to be in the same class as Bloomberg, and New York is looked on with suspicion by the great majority of US citizens who come from small towns, and inhabit the middle of the country. It may be that it is good cities where people can live better lives rather than great places that attract tourists and students that will hold the keys to the future.

Mansion Hotel

Mansion Hotel

Replacement for the twin towers

Replacement for the twin towers

Working in Beacon Falls

Working in Beacon Falls

Volunteer in Houston community garden

Volunteer in Houston community garden

Upgraded subway system

Upgraded subway system

The next big thing

The next big thing

The DIA gallery in Beacon Falls, largest in the world

The DIA gallery in Beacon Falls, largest in the world

Suburb in Queens

Suburb in Queens

Extension to the Modern Art gallery (MOMA)

Extension to the Modern Art gallery (MOMA)

Eating out in Little Italy

Eating out in Little Italy

Concert in Central Park

Concert in Central Park

Communicating what 's going on

Communicating what ‘s going on

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3 thoughts on “Postcard from New York

  1. Great article Nick – a lot of ground covered in a little space and nice conclusion. A City of Experiences!

    Best wishes

    David

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. I was very interested to read this, as we are currently planning a trip to New York. However, even before departing I get the impression that New York’s new primary role is as a tourist destination. Having been nonplussed that New York hotel prices are on average about twice as high as London’s, I rapidly came to the conclusion that an apartment would be the answer. We trawled online through a large number of extremely small apartments – it seems that every New Yorker lucky enough to own any floorspace has been subdividing it into tiny holiday lets with settees facing partitions 2ft away and in some cases beds having to be climbed into through cupboard doors. Having selected an apartment on the British HomeAway website, we were diverted to the US agency website, where, without warning, the quoted price jumped 10% and a further 20% of booking fees, cleaning bills and city taxes were added on. What’s more, 55% of the price was immediately debited from our card and we were told we wouldn’t get the keys until they had the rest in cash. To add insult to injury, although as a British visitor you don’t need a visa, you have to pay £10 not to have one. Americans get into the UK for nothing. Rather than ‘Send me your huddled masses’, it’s a case of ‘Send me your money’.
    I hope it’s worth it when we get there!

  3. Yes it was woith it! (Though we didn’t hear much of the famous NY accent, and public signs are routinely in Spanish as well as English).
    Compared with my previous visit in 1970, I was impressed by the sheer number of extra tall buildings shoehorned into the Midtown district. Obviously Manhattan is still somewhere everyone wants to be. Ironically it is spiralling property prices and investor buying that is forcing everyone else in both London and NY to colonise and create liveable neighbourhoods in previously rundown areas with slightly lower prices. The effect of the High Line on regeneration in the Chelsea and Meatpacking districts is palpable.
    If the High Line had been in London I can’t help thinking it would have become part of the DLR, as the west side of Manhattan is some distance from subway lines. The subway system is brilliant, as it is so accessible from the surface and has express as well as local tracks. This means NY doesn’t have to contemplate Crossrail or RER type projects. In fact there has been no new subway line since the system was completed in the early C20. At last a major public transport project is underway in the addition of a Grand Central stop on the Long Island Railroad line from the airport which at present is only accessible at Penn Station on the west side of Manhattan.
    NY has been highway-dominated for too long, the elevated motorway blighting both river frontages, which are desolate following demolition of all the wharves. In view of the shortage of public open space, a river-front regeneration with river-facing apartments, cafes and walkways is long overdue. This could involve removing parts of the motorway collar, as in Birmingham.
    A welcome recent innovation is the closure of Broadway at its intersections with the grid, whose traffic junctions were in any case unworkable. These spaces have been colonised by pavement cafes which are something of a rarity in Manhattan, which up to now favoured an ‘on the run’ lifestyle of stand-up food counters and delis. However the kerbs and highway surfaces are still in place where the road has been closed, so clearly pedestrian-only use is regarded as only experimental.
    A short visit is not enough to scratch below the surface of a major metropolis such as NY. The skyline is impressively unique, but I feel London is a more exciting and intriguing city.

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