In 1999, I told a friend that the bottom would fall out of the New York housing market eventually. The friend laughed and said it would never happen because rich people have always moved to New York, and they will continue to do so, buying up or renting properties. When my friend laughed at me, almost ten years ago, I said, “Just you wait. Something that is beyond our imagination will happen, and the New York real estate market will drop.”
Since I moved to New York in 1993, I have not paid more than $850/month in rent. I’ve paid as low as $600/month, and one time I even lived in this city for free (four months on the Bedford L train stop in an illegal basement studio with cockroaches the size of my thumb). And in those 15 years, real estate has gone up, up, up. I’ve never owned a car, apartment or house. A long time ago, I resolved that I probably would never own any of those three possessions while residing in New York City, unless I struck it rich.
Now, in the wakes of the mortgage and economic crises, it has happened. The bubble burst, but I’m still broke. During a time in which the market is dipping its hardest in 60 years, I still don’t have any money. On the upside, the best part about not having any money in an economic downturn is that your life doesn’t really change that much. Others, I’ve seen, are not as lucky. My mother, who dreams of retiring early and moving to New York City to be near her two children and new grandson, now cannot fathom leaving her home in Illinois because she cannot retire due to the damage done to her retirement fund. Even Europeans are shying away from the new real estate, for the economic downturn hits them, too, in this global economy.
The condominiums being built in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’ve held residency for ten years, have all but halted construction. As I sped along in a car on the BQE New Year’s Day, I looked at the lattice of would be condos and wondered what will happen to all of these buildings barley born. Do financiers have the money to finish the projects? What is happening to all the store fronts recently closed or going out of business? Will this city return to the shell it once was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, overrun by crack dens and squatters doped up on heroin? Hey, crack is cheap, and now that we’ve destabilized Afghanistan, smack is more plentiful that ever. It seems conditions might be perfect for a resurgence of the 80’s. If kids start killing kids for their Air Jordans, it’s over.
Much debate grows over the focus of how to create new jobs. President-elect Obama seems to be considering a new New Deal, which will provide jobs in construction in repair of interstate highways and bridges. This would be a good proposal, if the thousands of people being laid off were all in the construction business. However the fact is that unemployment in professional services outnumbered that of construction by almost 20,000 people in November of 2008.
We need to turn our focus to generating jobs in technology and other corporate infrastructure to get a large majority of the workforce off the unemployment line. “The Office” replaced “The Honeymooners” as a comedic reflection of the American lifestyle because there are fewer blue collar workers than there were 60 years ago. There are fewer farmers, too. Technology has taken over, and people who once would move to a different state to work construction on roads and bridges are not as prevalent.
President-elect Obama mentioned a “Technology Czar” (it seems as though we have czars for everything these days) as a possible addition to his administration, and I think this is a great idea. The only thing that seems to not be slowing is technology. More computer games, more social networking websites and more intensive business technologies are paving the way for a new perspective on what is important and how we can generate jobs to stimulate the economy. Plus, any new jobs that might be created in construction will take upwards of two years to even implement, so the only reason to work toward creating these jobs is to “promise” that the future will have more jobs. This will drive up stocks as it did with the promise of offshore drilling, which will take 10 years to implement. Building bridges and interstate highways are not an immediate fix to the current problem.
I’m hoping that the skeletons of metal and mortar rising in downtown Manhattan, Harlem and Williamsburg get completed. I never thought I’d say that, but I feel that when they’re completed, it’ll signify that our economy is on the upturn. I hope that the half-finished houses and empty lots across the country get filled up, for the farmland razed to make way for the pre-fabricated houses isn’t returning to farmland any time soon. I hope that we can generate technology based jobs, so the stock market and banks can see the unemployment rate dip down again, which will then give the capital to potential home owners who might purchase homes or condos. Then domestic construction jobs will return.
In the mean time, I’m hoping I sell a screenplay or win the lottery. If I can do that in the next year or so, I might be able to purchase some real estate. Quite frankly, if that happened, I wouldn’t purchase one of those glass monstrosities. I’m looking for a pre-war, classic New York apartment in a co-op building because the condo laws in New York City stink.
As a side note to all of this mumbo jumbo, I saw Danny Hoch’s TAKING OVER at The Public Theater just before the New Year. It’s a thoughtful and angry meditation (if mediation can be angry) on the gentrification of Williamsburg. My white guilt rose into my throat, and I came out of the show wondering if I were part of the problem. After all, I am a transplanted Illinoisan living in a neighborhood that was once filled with Hasidic Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans. When I first moved here, I raved about how I lived in the most diversified neighborhood ever. These days, most of the people getting off at my subway stop are of the Caucasian persuasion, and I am one of the few tenants on my street who still has a Puerto Rican landlord.
Finally, after much soul-searching (thanks Danny), I realized something: I’m an artist, and artists have been coming to New York City for over a century to make it in the Big Apple. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, right? Artists have also been at the forefront of the gentrification problem. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen before it was Clinton. I dwelled in Alphabet City when smack addicts would shoot up in the hallway of my apartment building and avenues A, B, C and D stood for “Aware, Beware, Caution and Death.” And, I had huge art parties in my loft in Williamsburg before many artists lived on my block. What I finally realized is the Hasidics, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans all came to New York City from somewhere else, too. If I weren’t still broke after all these years, I’d feel a little more guilty for my part in the gentrification process; but for now, I’ll thank my lucky stars that my rent is still affordable, I have my health, and know that when I “make it here,” I’ll purchase that perfect apartment.