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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

There Goes the Neighborhood

By Tom Phillips

When one has lived a long time in one place, any kind of change is worrisome.  Home is ideally the most stable part of your world, but all around, other people are messing with it, never asking your permission.  Morningside Heights, where our family has lived for 35 years, is in a continual process of change, and nothing new happens without a frisson of fear.  Even the plunge in the crime rate, which began in the 1990s and continues today, is cause for concern -- it's one of the factors that have driven real estate prices to astronomical heights, and brought in a whole new demographic and life-style.

Some day, we'll reach the tipping point where the old neighborhood is no longer recognizable.  And it may be just around the corner.  A block and a half from our house is rising an ultra-luxurious rental residence, a colossus of conspicuous consumption.  And it's rising on the very grounds of our most hallowed neighborhood institution, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.  They call it the Enclave.

The Enclave -- renting in fall 2015 -- advertises a "complete array of amenities," including an art gallery, an outdoor garden and a roof deck.  It's the second phase of the Cathedral's "Real Estate Initiative" and architecturally, at least it's not as bad as the first.  The Avalon went up a few years ago on the opposite corner -- a massive glass and steel apartment house that manages to be both squat and too tall.  Its ugly, flat posterior now dominates the southeast quarter of the grounds, blocking the sun in winter.

While the Avalon looks like an insult to the Cathedral, the Enclave at least makes a nod in its direction.  The upper facade is tilted back toward the church, hinting at an arc that would vault over the roof and come down at the other end of the grounds.  However its glass and concrete exterior is cold and alien to the cathedral's intricate sculpture and brickwork -- almost like a piece of Soviet modernism, as in Moscow where the vast, drab Hotel Rossiya mocked the onion domes of St. Basil's.

The Enclave consists of two buildings with a passageway in between -- just wide enough to accommodate the transept, the crosspiece of the cathedral that remains unbuilt after 120 years.  Maybe the millions that the Real Estate Initiative brings to the church will be enough to at least start construction during these 99-year leases.  But even if the transept is built, it will be squeezed between two luxury apartment houses, starved of the natural light that's essential for a sacred space.

Still, that may not be the worst of it.  The architecture of the Cathedral and Morningside Heights can survive these blights.  But what about the neighborhood?

A word in praise of Morningside Heights: It has "character," which it draws not so much from buildings as the people who live and work in them. Columbia University is here, of course, with its world-class scholars.  But right across the street, homeless people line up for lunch at the soup kitchen of Broadway Presbyterian Church, and a couple of blocks away is a single-room-occupancy hotel used by the City as temporary shelter for homeless families.  All this is right next to Riverside Park, where on the benches it is entirely possible to see two people, one homeless and the other a Nobel laureate, and not always be able to tell which is which.

The Cathedral is a major attraction for tourists from all over the world, but for Americans, it's not the area's hottest photo-op.  That's one block away at Broadway and 112th -- the exterior of Tom's Restaurant, with the neon sign that everyone recognizes from the opening shot of "Seinfeld."

This is supposedly where Jerry and  his friends hung out, and it's surrounded by the kind of middle-class apartment buildings where the characters lived.  Amid the housing shortage after World War Two, these buildings came under strict rent controls imposed by the city -- controls that kept rents artificially low and landlords and developers at bay for decades.

Rent control was essential to the lifestyle of the Seinfeld characters.  (There's an episode about it in Season Two.)  A cheap apartment in a prime location can easily become the main motivation in one's life.  It discourages any kind of growth or change -- to start a career or a family would put your housing deal at risk.  A dead-end job, a casual job, or just an occasional hustle was usually enough to pay the minimal rent.  Thus the Seinfeld characters were able to lead lives of nothingness -- hoping, but only half-heartedly, that their lives wouldn't end before they figured out what to do with them.

These characters were appealing because they were real, drawn from the life of the Upper West Side. They still exist.  Many hang on in the remaining rent-controlled apartments of the neighborhood, and hang out in Tom's and the Hungarian Pastry Shop.  They are militantly underemployed: artists and would-be artists, part-time academics and amateur scholars, professors emeriti and demeriti, communists and other theorists, milkers of the public purse, superannuated second-career seekers, subway buskers, tutors and tipsters, dog walkers, lottery investors and streetside hawkers of used books and records. When they go, and their apartments are sold or re-rented at market rates, they are being replaced by a very different kind of resident.

The marketplace is working its magic, and nowhere is it so potent as places like the Enclave.  The net result of this development is not in doubt: It will make the neighborhood more densely populated and less economically diverse -- two more blows to the quality of life.

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

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