can a “loft” in Manhattan change your way of thinking?

or, just provoke a gentrification rant?
I missed this last Thursday (I was on vacation), but there is a fascinating web-only New York Times piece in the Living Rooms section of the Opinionator blog, Our Buildings, Ourselves by Elizabeth Hawes.

It is fascinating in its own right, as a meditation on the author’s personal experience of how moving from a classic prewar apartment on the Upper West Side to a Tribeca loft changed the way she thought about space; indeed, changed the way they lived. The piece is well written and thoughtful, by someone who is informed and sensitive enough about how spaces impact public living to have written a book about it. But it is equally fascinating for the on-line commentary it generated, much of you-inauthentic-blankety-blanks-ruined-loft-neighborhoods, not just in Manhattan, but everywhere.

in her own write
In just nine paragraphs, Hawes reflects on how the contrast between the difference in "apartment" space and "loft" space changed their viewpoint, and offered some general history references, no doubt informed by the work she put into her book, “New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City, 1869-1930".

First, life in that classic prewar apartment:

Without realizing it, we depended on the well-defined architectural structure of our Upper West Side prewar apartment to impose order on our chaotic domestic lives: doors to close on sleepy children or work-at-home parents; halls to separate the public quarters from private bedrooms; a progression of formal rooms to shape gracious living. Even the names of the rooms — the entrance gallery, the parlor, the dining room, the maid’s room — conjured up a respectable if rather quaint life. The interior decoration, which was conspicuously elaborate, with classical moldings, a marble mantle, two brass chandeliers and inlaid flooring, had promised a certain station in life, as it was meant to in the early, uncertain decades of apartment living in Gilded Age New York.

Second, adapting to life in a Tribeca loft:

We live casually and without ceremony in the loft, which is in the nature of the space and one of its lessons. Like an early generation of apartment dwellers, we have been unshackled from tradition. Without the formality of carefully named rooms, home is flexible and accommodating and ever more expansive. With the line of eight-foot casement windows along our north wall, the streetscape is always in view, and part of our lives as well. The small loft buildings across the way are of the same era and very beautiful with their rosy old brick and verdigris trim, especially late in the day, when the slanted rays of the sun suddenly shoot down the block. For as long as I’ve lived here I’ve watched at night as a woman works on the sculpture of a man’s head. I’ve never met her, but I feel a connection nonetheless.

There’s more, of course (you should read the entire piece; it’s short), but this contrast represents her family’s experience with two kinds of space. Yes, there is the implied invitation to consider her family’s experience as representative, if not typical. The personal narrative, and the focus on how space is experienced, are aligned precisely with the series of which the Hawes peice is a part.

My emphasis is added to the NY Times description of the Living Room segment of their on-line Opinionator series:

A house is more than just a shelter from the storm. How we shape our homes, and how we behave within them, speak volumes about our history, our values and our way of life. Living Rooms explores the past, present and future of domestic life, with contributions from artists, journalists, design experts and historians.

die! Yuppie scum!!

Maybe I am overly sensitive, having been a gentrifying yuppie in Tribeca back in the day (see, February 21, 2009,

1981 to 2009: progress, or not so much?

), but I found that part of the commentary that followed to be both fascinating and (often) churlish (or worse). Here’s one, that notes there is a theme to earlier comments and that rejects the premise of the series:

Go with a bouquet or a brickbat? I am afraid it is the brickbat. A truckload. David (second post) hit the nail on the head, as did subsequent critical-writers. There is something precious and cloying about these sorts of tales: how the well-heeled, haute bourgeoisie) live their pleasant lives, foraging among the fine offerings of the city.

I should think that a far more important difference in a life is which city you live in, and whether you have the minimal means – psychological, cultural and/or financial — to benefit from being there. Given the minimum, I wouldn’t think that whether you lived in an expensive apartment building (entrance gallery, indeed!) or an expensive loft would matter more than slightly.

The lifestyle of the haute bourgeois (at least the way it is presented in these pages) is more about surface, style and decor, not substance. Perhaps their lives are loaded with substance, but that doesn’t seem compatible with the focus of articles like this one.

This guy thinks that Hawes‘ description of her own experience is "precious and cloying", but she was doing what The Times asked her to do: contribute how she shaped her home and how she behaved within her home. I have not read enough of the Living Rooms pieces to assess whether all contributors are members of the dreaded haute bourgeoisie, but this criticism seems an unfair response to Hawes.

And this comment is worse than churlish:

she should mind her own business and stop spying on her working artist neighbor

I suspect that


could have knowledgeably written something about how neighborhoods change, and how those changes impact some people negatively, and some more negatively than others. I have hit the gentrification button a few times, thoughtfully (with great links) in my May 15,

required reading: gentrification, preservation and King Canute

, and recently in my August 12,

Jesuits adapt to Lower East Side gentrification by moving; will lofts follow?

. There is a lot of interesting commentary to offer about gentrification, specifically in loft neighborhoods, but I never seem to find the time for an extended treatment.

Suffice it to say (for now) that change is a constant in New York (especially in Manhattan), that I personally preferred the Tribeca of the early 1980s to the current Tribeca of the


-condos (bringing with it


and wealthier people), that there is a need for some amelioration of raw market forces in some neighborhoods, and that much of the preservationist impulse has the (unintended?) effect of reducing economic diversity by driving prices higher by enforcing scarcity (I am looking at you, West Village). Complicated stuff. Books are written about this. But my personal perspective is just that: my personal perspective.

As I said up top, the comments are fascinating. Chiming in with yuppies-ruined-my-neighborhood may be cathartic, but not (to me) very interesting, unless there is some substance. Here’s some substance:

As a sculptor and art-writer I have watched changes like these transform and limit opportunities once available to NY artists. The rise of cyber artwork, computer generated work and video could be seen as a direct response to the diminution and lack of availability of workspace.

Interesting point, about which the commenter has direct experience that I lack. But I wonder if it is true. Opportunities for artists have always been limited in New York, by economic forces more than anything else. Inexpensive space with light in neighborhoods congenial to an artist lifestyle and physical needs always get squeezed in economic good times. Irrevocably so, unless one takes a very long view.

But that fact that

this other guy

can’t find affordable studio space in Manhattan and ‘has’ to "share a tiny, expensive East Village apartment with two roommates" is a present fact (unless he considers East 106 Street and north as "Manhattan"). I would like to think that it won’t happen in my life time, but there is no reason to think that at some point economic forces will not change direction, and presently ‘unaffordable’ areas will be come affordable again (remember the Upper West Side in the early 1970s?). And if not (at least for a while), That Other Guy may be right, and

At some point, we’re going to be pushed so far beyond Manhattan it makes no more sense to stay in New York. What are we going to do then?

I don’t know what "they" are going to do, but New York will definitely be a less interesting place if that happens. Different, definitely; less interesting, for sure. But that is what happens in New York (and, especially, Manhattan). Things change. I won’t like that change, if it happens. Other people will.

whose ox is being displaced?

From a very high altitude perspective, the early artist colonizations of Soho and Tribeca had little displacement effect, as the buildings they occupied (illegally, at first) were at least under-utilized, if not vacant. Very, very few residents were forced out in the early days. That may also have been true of DUMBO. That is less true of


. But the issue of displacement is an inevitable consequence of change in a neighborhood, and the issue involves more than residential space.

I hit on some of these themes in my June 25,

loft law extension / what’s the big deal? UPDATED w maps

. The fact that artists (and non-artist residents) have moved into


in the last 10 to 20 years, for example, creates political pressure on the local City Council Member to address their concerns and jeopardizes some of the relatively few suitably industrial zones in the city. Hence the conflict between the


Administration and ‘tenant groups" over the extension of The Loft Law and the ‘protection’ of Industrial Business Zones (protection from artists, and others!).

final comment

(I promise!) You already know that I find that


piece fascinating, along with the comments it spawned. My last fascinating comment is that precious few of the comments were from New York: 6 of 34, with just a handful more by people who clearly know the city. Yet another indication that The Old Grey Lady is not (just) my hometown newspaper.

© Sandy Mattingly 2010

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