the perils of real estate porn, in Brooklyn about houses or even in Manhattan about lofts

NY Times reader frustrated with (lack of) context for neighborhood change (‘improvement’)
There is a fascinating letter to the editor in Thursday’s Home & Garden section of the New York Times, responding to a Location feature in the prior week’s H&G by David Hay about a German architect who bought (on Craig’s List) and renovated a house in Red Hook, Brooklyn. If you don’t remember the original piece (what … you confine your reading to lofts in Manhattan??), you should scan it quickly now, and even review the slideshow.

The guy did some nice work fixing up and opening up the house (described as “cramped” and “uninhabitable” when he bought it), but that’s not what this post is about.

That remarkable letter to the editor was written by someone who was quite familiar with the house, someone who had recently been given a post-renovation tour by the German architect / new owner.

I lived in that house from 2002 to 2008 with three friends in their early 30s …. It was neither cramped nor uninhabitable. In fact, that carriage house was the most spacious, affordable and habitable New York home in which any of us had ever lived. … we put a lot of love into that house; we built a recording studio, a video-editing suite, created spaces to make art, grew vegetables, hosted bands, artists and travelers from around the world, and screened films in the backyard.

The letter is not merely a nostalgia play, but an explicit condemnation of the editorial thrust of that section of the Old Grey Lady, which glories in the aesthetic of a home but (and?) is divorced completely from any broader considerations. This critique is unfair in the sense that the article he prefers would have been in the Metro section of the Times, instead of in the Home & Garden section, but is a useful plea to sometimes take a broader focus on this kind of real estate porn (my bold):

I find myself frustrated with articles about supposedly blighted buildings or neighborhoods being renovated by quirky, “pioneering” individuals. Such writing decontextualizes a larger story that is about development, race, class, power and money. I understand that Mr. Hay’s article is simply a profile of an interesting home in what’s perceived as an “up and coming” area of Brooklyn. But I believe it would be more responsible, engaged and interesting storytelling to dig just a little deeper and consider this home in the context of a changing neighborhood’s past and future.

The house used to be home to 4 creative people, and to support all sorts of artistic and social activity. Now it is home for a single individual, who accepts paintings from an artist in exchange for the artist’s use of a studio in the building. Chances are, the immediate environment is still daunting:  “vacant lots on either side, the large expanse of overgrown land behind and the neighboring house that appeared to be collapsing”. Change happens. The letter writer is offended that this particular change was celebrated, while his tenure in the house was (literally) trashed (“It was neither cramped nor uninhabitable”).

Anyone can wish things were different, but the role of the Home & Garden section of the Times in the Manhattan Real Estate Industrial Complex is to glorify individual houses, apartments or lofts. If readers find themselves intrigued by the beauty, or envious of the taste and resources used to create that beauty, or even lusting after the lifestyle that might be lived in space like that … so much the better for engaging readers (and selling advertising).

Any article that provided broader context would be found in the News sections of the paper, or on a blog dedicated to Red Hook more generally (I have not looked, but in the Borough of Bloggers there must be one, or several). Of course, Manhattan Loft Guy often presents loft porn, sometimes divorced from broader social issues, occasionally with some historical context.

In fact, one of the things that I have always appreciated about Manhattan history generally and about (current) residential loft neighborhoods in particular is that Stuff Happens, things were not always as they are now. Hence my fascination with the past uses of buildings, blocks or areas, evidenced by digressions such as in my February 8, is loft market at 722 Broadway irrational?  3 very different prices can be explained, which included a report of a (literal) political brawl in front of that building associated with the election of Lincoln as President. Or my series of references to Tribeca in the pre-”TriBeCa” period and in the developing-Tribeca period (before and after about 1977), such as in yesterday’s OYAToMLG. Or in the post about the new loft law and neighborhoods like Bushwick in Brooklyn, my June 25 loft law extension / what’s the big deal? UPDATED w maps.

I don’t expect the Times to change the narrow focus of feature sections such as On Location, Habitats or The Hunt, but I do appreciate being reminded once in a while that one man’s development might be another man’s displacement; in the case of this lovely house in Red Hook, the displacement of 4 people. If anything, this is a reminder that my occasional digressions can be excused as combatting the tendency of the Manhattan Real Estate Industrial Complex to "decontextualize[] a larger story that is about development, race, class, power and money"; you may have Todd C

handler to blame for future walkabouts.

You know, the real estate porn industry has social costs and context, just as the (other) porn industry does. And viewers. And enablers.

© Sandy Mattingly 2011

 

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