The Scourge of Service

The Scourge of Service

A few weeks ago, Jeremiah Moss wrote a piece on the plan pushed for by Transportation Alternatives for 14th Street when the L Train shuts down. If you haven’t read Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York before and you like what we’re talking about over here at Think Urbanism, I recommend you check him out. Not because I agree with him or think that his work is particularly worthwhile; I don’t. I do think he’s worth reading, though, because he identifies many of the same problems in contemporary New York (and, more broadly, American cities) as I do. He laments rising unaffordability, the loss of small and local businesses, and the commodification of public spaces. Almost without fail, however, his proposed solutions would actually make things worse than they are now. For that reason alone he’s an interesting foil for my thinking on urban issues – I respect his ability to really identify and lament problematic trends in the city, and I respect his desire to make things better. We just disagree, however profoundly, about what ought to be done.

In the piece I referenced above, Moss attacks what is a wonderful proposal for solving a looming crisis in New York City. For those unfamiliar with the impending L Train shutdown, a quick background. When Superstorm Sandy struck New York in October of 2012, many of the subway tubes underneath the East River flooded (these tubes connect Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn). The East River is not in fact a river at all, and is a body of salt water. Salt water and electrical wiring don’t play nicely, so much of the infrastructure eroded before the flooding subsided. This happened in each of the East River tubes, and if you’ve visited the city in the past few years on a weekend you’ve likely had to deal with wacko reroutes because the MTA has been intermittently working on repairs. The Canarsie Tunnel, through which the L train runs, was damaged worse than any of the others, and so the MTA is waiting to do it last, hoping to have learned from the experience of fixing the others. They have announced that, starting in 2019, they’ll be shutting down the entire line for 15 months as they work to repair it. The line currently carries roughly 225,000 people between Manhattan and Brooklyn on an average weekday; each of those quarter-million folks will need to find a way to get to work without their ordinary train. Needless to say, many people are scrambling to come up with proposals – though I think it’s safe to say we’ll see neither gondolas nor a “giant inflatable condom.”

The Transportation Alternatives proposal for 14th Street doesn’t directly deal with the issue of getting people over or under the East River, though they are actively involved in that conversation, too. In Manhattan, the L train runs underneath 14th Street, making stops from 1st Avenue on the East Side to 8th Avenue on the West. When the Canarsie Tunnel is closed, this section of track will be closed, too. Trans Alt has proposed shutting down the entire street to private automobile traffic, and instead limit the stretch to bikes, buses, and pedestrian infrastructure. The argument is based on simple geometry – cars take up a lot of space. In case you’ve forgotten the following picture:


Jeremiah Moss has a problem with the proposal, and it’s not what you’d expect an opponent to say. He argues not that this would create huge amounts of traffic (it won’t) or that it’s somehow unfair to car users (it isn’t – 225,000 people need to move across the city, and they won’t fit in cars). He says, rather, that the proposal is unfair to current residents because it will lead to gentrification. He acknowledges that the plan is a good one –  so good, in fact, that he expects it to lead to a surge in demand for housing in the area that current residents won’t be able to afford to live there any longer.

Needless to say, his piece got a lot of rightly deserved scorn from the Twitter world I’m part of (roughly, urban economics meets NYC politics meets urban design folks. We’re a hoot). Doug Gordan over at Brooklyn Spoke had an excellent response to Moss’s piece, and I recommend you read it. I don’t want to go too deeply into why Moss’s piece was so dumb, but I’ll make a couple quick points:

  1. The idea that 14th Street is some gritty, un-gentrified area is absurd. Been to Union Square? You’ve seen 14th Street. Been to the Strand Bookstore? You’ve (basically) been to 14th Street. Been to the southern end of the High Line? You’ve been to 14th Street.
  2.  Building transportation infrastructure that prioritizes folks without cars is progressive policy. In most parts of the country, people who use public transit or bike are poorer than folks who drive in their cars. Even in Manhattan that’s true, but the divide is less here simply because the vast, vast majority of people, right and poor, rely on public transit.

The argument that Moss makes that I’m most interested in, though, is one that pops up often in conversations concerning gentrification and displacement. Displacement is a big issue in American cities, and it’s something that we need to think through in serious ways. Moss, however, takes the easy way out by suggesting that improving the quality of life for lower income families leaves them worse off. Certainly, improving public spaces and access to public services makes an area more desirable. And this city has done a bad job at times of understanding how increasing public amenities can be detrimental to local communities. The High Line park is an excellent example of this, as Stephen Miller explored in a great piece in the Village Voice last week. The city harnessed private money to create a beautiful public space that paid absolutely no attention to the low income residents living nearby. This led to skyrocketing real estate prices, and the immense amount of development going on along the route now. Though the original creator of the park has recognized that they hurt the existing community by not bringing them in at the time of development, there is only so much that can be done now to mitigate the impact.

Recognizing that there is an incorrect way to implement public improvements, however, does not lead to the logical conclusion that all public improvements are bad for low income individuals. Imagine, for instance, that there was no regular garbage collection in some neighborhood in Manhattan. This would likely also be a poor neighborhood; wealthier neighborhoods are more successful at lobbying for public services. Let’s now imagine that the city wanted to start collecting garbage that had previously been piling up in the streets. Would it make sense to resist that initiative because streets clear of filth make for a more desirable neighborhood? Would we say that we’re doing well by this community because we’re making their lived experience so wretched that there’s no demand for the neighborhood, so prices stay low? This is an extreme example, obviously, but the logical extension of what Moss and other opponents of public investment are arguing.

This argument comes up all the time when people talk about gentrification. Whether it’s the extension of City Bike into a new neighborhood, new service provided by the Second Avenue Subway line, or even the addition of public parks in poorer neighborhoods. The people making the argument are well-intentioned; they want to ensure affordability and fight displacement. But the core of a demand-focused strategy for fighting rising rents is always perverse at heart. It always says that improving the quality of life for residents leads to their eventual displacement. This is an unacceptable position for a public servant to take, and a cowardly cop out. What we need to do is grapple with the real challenge of improving the quality of life for residents and also maintaining affordability. You know what I think – I think this can only be done by focusing on increasing the supply of housing and finding strategies to spur increased supply to match the increased demand that results from higher quality of life. Do we need to be careful and make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the High Line? Absolutely. But we also need to be courageous enough to take on the really difficult questions, and find ways to make life better for all of our residents.

What do you think?

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