President’s Letter: November 2019
When I was deep into planning my return to NYC, a friend told me that no one would care about the experience I have amassed from other cities. “Don’t mention San Francisco or Los Angeles because New Yorkers know the city is unique.”
Although I was inclined to think this was a ridiculous prohibition, it did cause me to wonder what it is that makes New York feel so unique, or at least, so uniquely itself. The New York we all love is not bland, it is full of sizzle. It may occasionally be a little spicier than we want but it is never bland.
The City’s diversity is often mentioned as a factor in its uniqueness but Toronto, Singapore, and Istanbul are pretty diverse and, certainly in the latter case, diverse for many centuries longer than the others. In fact, New York City shares some characteristics with Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Singapore as cities that are heavily influenced by the cross-world trade that shaped and formed them.
I kept coming back to the idea of New York’s vibrant neighborhoods—places that are distinct in character from the one next door, often because of the dynamics of architecture, culture, community, and street life. Long ago I told a friend who was visiting me in Fort Greene that you cannot begin to understand New York City without thinking about it as many city-sized neighborhoods, side by side, cheek to jowl.
What is our obligation in this day and age to think about neighborhood character? I know I’m not alone in feeling that there is a distinctiveness about our city that feels like it is slipping away. I recently heard someone quip that New York is becoming more like everywhere and less like itself.
Neighborhoods are molded by many forces: the architecture both private and public, the parks, and the quality of the streetscape, to name but a few. But perhaps more than anything else, they are shaped by the cultures and communities of the people who inhabit them. When displacement pressures change the population of a neighborhood, the neighborhood itself is changed. Are there any places left where multiple generations of families still live in New York City? Some areas of Staten Island, perhaps. Maybe Bay Ridge? The fact that I have to stop and think about it tells me there is a problem.
That said, I am fascinated by the places that have undergone great change without losing the of flavor of the generations of people who made their homes there—I’m thinking of parts of the Lower East Side, the Central Bronx, Corona, and City Island. There must be choices we can make to protect neighborhood character and communities without standing in the way of increased density and economic prosperity that benefits existing residents and new ones. We certainly don’t have the answers yet, but I don’t think I am alone in feeling an urgency to confront the challenge.
So as we all dig deeper to think about this challenge, I want to leave you with one concrete thing you can do to support New York’s distinctive character this month, and it’s as easy as visiting a local shop in your neighborhood. November 30 is Small Business Saturday. From bodegas to barber shops, New York’s local retailers are our neighbors and they are one of the greatest assets we have for building strong, lasting communities. They give rise to walkable, vibrant streets—the places where people connect and where we build social trust. When people talk about New York’s “New Yorkness” slipping away, the loss of local retail is a big part of what they’re experiencing.
So this weekend, make a point of shopping small. This season of thankfulness is the perfect time to invest in the neighborhoods we call home.
And speaking of thanks, THANK YOU for all your support of MAS. We appreciate you everyday!
The Municipal Art Society of New York