The creep of gentrification flattens any city’s charms

Deborah Lindsay Williams muses on the changing cityscapes in New York and Abu Dhabi.

Gentrification is driving out the charm and character of old parts of Manhattan, writes Deborah Williams. Photo AFP / Brendan Smialowski
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The other day, as I walked up University Place in Manhattan, I saw a big “closed for business” sign on the door to Bowl-Mor Lanes, which had been in operation at that site for 76 years. It may seem funny to claim iconic status for a bowling alley, but Bowl-Mor was, in fact, a city institution, a long-standing fixture in a place where stores and buildings, entire city blocks, seem to transform overnight. The Bowl-Mor building, like so many other Manhattan buildings, will be turned into luxury condos.

I am sure that these condos will be advertised as being in the heart of Greenwich Village, famous for its charmingly crooked streets and Bohemian history. Of course, the artists and writers who gave the Village its character are long gone, driven out by relentless rent increases that are the consequence of what is sometimes euphemistically called “gentrification”. The people who buy into the Bowl-Mor building will be getting an advertisement campaign, nothing else: the particularity and grittiness of the neighbourhood have been erased by the very buildings that tout themselves as “Village” residences.

Even though I don’t much like bowling, the closing of Bowl-Mor makes me sad. It’s another in a long line of Manhattan institutions to close its doors and it seems as if the only things being built to replace these landmarks are either chain stores or condos. Commercial real estate landlords don’t have the same regulations as residential landlords, so it’s not uncommon for rents to double or even triple, to prices that only a conglomerate can afford. I’ve become one of those people who walks around the city pointing out loss: “That’s where the automat was, that’s where there used to be a bookstore that only sold mysteries, that used to be the bar where Jackson Pollock got into fistfights.” My children noticed that something had changed last summer, when they realised that one of our favourite coffee shops had closed, but otherwise they find my attention to a vanishing history less than enthralling.

To my children’s ears, I’m sure my stories sound like those of a cranky old lady muttering on about “back in the day”. As far as my kids are concerned, however, my stories happened back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. To me, my stories are an attempt to illuminate and remember a city that once seemed unlike any other but increasingly seems like just another crowded US city full of outlet shops, restaurant franchises and glossy high-rises.

True, it’s still possible, if you look, to find New York’s quirky corners or to wander the parks where the oddballs converge – the man wearing an outfit made of empty aluminium cans and riding a unicycle, the woman who pushes her cats in a pram, the ranters who warn that the world will end for any variety of reasons. There are still neighbourhoods that call themselves Chinatown and Little Italy, although you’re more likely to meet a fashionista in Little Italy than a mamma mia, because the locals have long since moved away.

Everywhere I go in Manhattan, I see signs advertising new apartment buildings with apartments equipped with every amenity you can imagine and some you probably can’t. (Need a swimming pool for your dog? A rooftop beach complete with sand?) The variegated texture of the city is being ironed over, regularised.

On many levels Abu Dhabi and Manhattan couldn’t be more different, but I have to say that when I walk around Manhattan these days, I am reminded of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi doesn’t have the depth of urban history that New York does, but in both places it seems as if the shiny new glass buildings are walling over the uniqueness of each city. Before I left Abu Dhabi this summer, I took pictures of the sweeping open expanses on Saadiyat – open space that is harder to find in some parts of the city – and I’m sure that when I get back in August, at least some of that empty space will be filled in by yet another luxury resort.

I wonder who is going to stay in all these exclusive resorts or live in all these luxury buildings – and who thinks a doggy swimming pool is a necessity? Will it be the same few thousand people, do you think, who will buy all these properties and then swan around from one to another while the rest of us toil below, searching for a place to have a cup of coffee or, you know, go bowling?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her novel The Time Locket (written as Deborah Quinn) is now available on Amazon