Mono Manhattan

Mono Manhattan

A demonstration against rezoning in Harlem, 2010.
Courtesy Jsenko Productions

The Vanishing City
A film by Joy Senko and Fiore DeRosa
Staten Island Film Festival
June 10

How can it be that the economy of New York City can grow, while the quality of life plunges for ordinary people? Look at the price of architecture, we are told. The culprit, according to The Vanishing City, an hour-long inquiry by filmmakers Jen Senko and Fiore DeRosa, is New York’s policy to incentivize luxury development, which erodes the tax base and shrinks the availability of affordable housing.

We are reminded that Manhattan is becoming a gilded ghetto in a documentary that is not a lecture, but a cri de coeur from a chorus of critics, most of them telling you the bad news that you know already. 

Readers of this newspaper may know the critics, too. Planner Tom Angotti, sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia, and Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society chart the process by which builders are rewarded for chillingly refined high-rises that rose before the Wall Street crash in what had been affordable neighborhoods for those of us who don’t work for hedge funds. The policy forces the rest of us to pay high taxes to finance services and drives the workers needed to serve this economy out of town, or at least out of Manhattan. If you have an ordinary income, you lose. You lose even more if you have children. And it’s all legal.

It’s a grim reality, and it’s the policy of the Bloomberg administration. One strength of The Vanishing City is that it takes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at his word, and quotes him. Bloomberg announced to New Yorkers and to the world that New York was not akin to Walmart but a luxury product. In comments like that, Bloomberg wasn’t just a snob with a tin ear. He was fueling the transformation of the urban landscape away from the mix of rich, poor, and everything in-between that gave New York its charm and vitality. Let’s not forget that the city voted to re-elect him—twice.

We get the majority of this message in PBS-style testimony that comes mostly from talking heads, with cutaway shots to shadowy Darth Vader-ish residential architecture, including buildings by Jean Nouvel in Soho and Chelsea. Regular people are shown being forced out of buildings where they have lived for years, by landlords who claim improbably that they need multi-unit dwellings for themselves. Once again, it’s all legal.

Critics like Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick and NY State Senator Tony Avella of Queens call for the public to fight back, although we don’t hear that a growing number of politicians are supported by developers who are part of the problem. We also don’t hear much from the other side, although we do see plenty of the new architecture, filmed as high-rise battering rams that are intended to frighten and intimidate. (Couldn’t there be high-rise affordable housing? Won’t it be necessary in any program to keep middle income New Yorkers in Manhattan? The analysis never goes that far.)

The Vanishing City leaves us in the early days of the financial melt-down, when construction halts led to a landscape of overbuilt and unfinished residences.

The real change is that The Vanishing City has been overtaken by events, which means that this documentary won’t be seen too widely. The economy has revived to embolden the very forces that this film attacks. New York is abuzz and bustling with yet more construction for the beneficiaries of what economists call the jobless recovery. Luxury spires are eating their way into Chelsea, Harlem, the lower East Side, even planned for Willett’s Point in Queens, where a hotel and convention center threaten to displace small businessmen. The city is vanishing now at an even faster rate than this call to arms imagines.