On 14th Street
There is certainly a conversation to have about the effects bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and public transit have on gentrification, neighborhood character, and affordability, but I’m not sure Jeremiah Moss’ latest post at Vanishing New York is where you’ll find it.
One of the reasons I and many others reacted so strongly to Moss’ take on the 14th Street Peopleway, I believe, is because it cuts right through the heart of what has always been missing from Moss’ otherwise insightful writing and his well-intentioned #SaveNYC campaign. He rarely seems to consider the role reliable transportation and safe streets play in keeping New York City affordable, diverse, and full of character.
Before I go much further, here’s a disclaimer: I get every criticism leveled at transit and safe-streets advocates, and there were quite a few either stated or implied in his post. While I don’t always agree with his tactics or philosophies, I do appreciate that Moss, like me, is operating from a place of truly loving New York. It’s in that spirit that I offer up these criticisms of three parts of Moss’ post.
1.) 14th Street is already more gentrified than Moss lets on.
To the causal reader of Vanishing New York, it might seem as if 14th Street is only just now on the cusp of being gentrified and infested with soulless corporate chain stores.
I was just thinking about how truly remarkable it is that much of 14th Street, from east to west, has not been hyper-gentrified.
Yes, there’s the Apple Store at the western end. Yes, a Target and maybe Trader Joe’s is coming to the east. And Union Square is strangled in chains. But much of the rest miraculously remains Chinese takeout joints, 99-cent stores, other discount shops, diners, and one beloved doughnut shop. It attracts a diversity of New Yorkers, many from lower socioeconomic circumstances.
Yes, there’s an Apple Store at the western end, but there’s also the entire Meatpacking District, a neighborhood so hyper-gentrified that the Patagonia Store there probably counts as a discount clothier.
As you travel east you’ll find The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a 7-11, and a Bareburger, the kind of organic hamburger joint that is nothing if not a symbol of post-Bloomberg gentrification. There’s a CVS at 14th and 8th which is across the street from an HSBC bank. At 14th and 6th, there’s another HSBC bank, which is kitty-corner from an Urban Outfitters. Next to that is a Starbucks, which is next to a Five Guys, which is next to a Foot Locker, which is next a DQ. The DQ is a few doors down from Jack Rabbit Running and a Party City, a store more commonly found in suburban shopping centers than in urban cores.
Across the street from these chains are more: a Popeye’s Fried Chicken, a Potbelly’s Sandwich Shop, a Levi’s store, and a Guitar Center. East of Union Square you’ll find fewer corporate chains, but there’s still the occasional KFC, McDonald’s, and a Duane Reade, one of two of 14th Street.
To be fair, I understand the distinction Moss frequently makes between what most people recognize as gentrification and what he refers to as “hyper-gentrification.” Fast-food joints and chain stores aren’t the kind of hyper-gentrified establishments one sees in so many places throughout the city following an up-zoning or the colonialist-sounding “discovery” of a neighborhood by ravenous real estate agents. But while KFCs and Foot Lockers can easily exist side-by-side with discount stores and Chinese takeout joints, they aren’t exactly mom-and-pops. If Moss were more open about just how gentrified 14th Street already is — He doesn’t even mention the damn High Line! — I think he’d be able to write a deeper piece on how a new street design might affect its future in both good ways and bad. Who knows what effects the PeopleWay will have on 14th Street, but even in an alternate world where the L train wasn’t shutting down it was never going to be long before hyper-gentrification arrived.
2.) Moss barely mentions why the 14th Street PeopleWay project or something like it is necessary.
One of the criticisms of Mayor de Blasio’s pet BQX project is that it will gentrify neighborhoods such as Red Hook and Sunset Park, which have (mostly) kept the forces of gentrification at bay by nature of their relative inaccessibility by public transit.
Whether this is even a valid argument against improving transit is another subject altogether, but 14th Street is not Red Hook. 14th Street is one of the most transit-rich corridors in the city. The L makes it very easy to get from one end to the other. Five additional subway lines stop at various corners along the avenue. The M14, while not the speediest of buses at any time of day, is reliable enough.
The L train carries 200,000 passengers per day, including many who presumably work at or patronize the “Chinese takeout joints, 99-cent stores, other discount shops, diners, and one beloved doughnut shop” that Moss rightly celebrates. Without dedicated bus lanes and safer biking infrastructure, how will anyone move across 14th Street during the shutdown? If you can’t afford to take an Uber to work, don’t have a Citi Bike membership, or aren’t employed by a tech company that might run a private bus, what will you do? Sit in traffic on the M14? Massive gridlock hits everyone very hard, but it always hits people of lower socioeconomic means the hardest.
It is precisely because 14th Street is such a vital transportation corridor that some sort of solution to move a lot of people during the 15-month shutdown of the L train is necessary. Does Moss have any thoughts on this? They’re not in his post.
3.) If Moss has an argument to make against the PeopleWay, why use straw-men to make it?
As Ben Kabak points out, this part of Moss’ post is in bold for some reason:
We all know that one powerful way to hyper-gentrify a neighborhood, or a cross-section of the city, is through transportation alternatives, i.e., bike lanes and trolley cars. Pedestrian plazas, as Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn showed, made property values shoot through the roof in Times Square. These are proven tactics. Conservatives love them because they’re good for the rich. And liberals love them because they’re environment friendly. But they are not friendly to a diverse, affordable, and equitable urban environment.
As to Moss’ first bolded point, I don’t disagree entirely. Bike lanes and better transit can be used in exactly the way Moss describes. But he seems to have given no thought as to why “transportation alternatives” contribute to hyper-gentrification. It’s because our body politic sees them as amenities or extras and not as what they really ought to be: civic rights.
Enrique Peñalosa says it best:
I don’t think protected bicycle ways are a cute architectural feature. They are a right, just as sidewalks are, unless we believe that only those with access to a motor vehicle have a right to safe mobility, without the risk of getting killed. And just as busways are, protected bikeways also are a powerful symbol of democracy, because they show that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.
So long as safe and reliable transportation is seen as something that’s mostly given to those who forcefully advocate for it either with their time (as in the case of my fellow street safety advocates) or money (as in the case of powerful real estate interests) then such things will most certainly and very naturally accrue to neighborhoods that are in or even well beyond the process of gentrifying. “Advocacy,” as my friend Aaron Naparstek likes to say, “is a luxury product.” The solution, therefore, is to make such things as basic an expectation as running water and cable TV hookups. The more we do that, the less bike lanes and reliable transit will be perceived as something only rich people get.
Then there’s the idea that liberals love things like bike lanes because they’re environmentally friendly. In a world doomed by climate change, that’s certainly a selling point, but Moss uses this quality to dismiss and insult liberals. It reminded me of NBBL’s Louise Hainline who dismissed safe streets advocates by telling New York magazine, “They’re just holy. They really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to go to the food co-op.” Moss, you see, is neither liberal nor conservative. Like Hainline, he’s just a commonsense New Yorker who can see through all the bullshit.
Yes, I think more bike lanes are good for the environment, but that’s not why I ride a bike. I love “transportation alternatives” because private automobiles are the most inefficient and expensive way of moving people through a dense city. Even if cars were powered by air, they’d still take up too much damn space. So if Moss has an idea for an efficient way to move hundreds of thousands of people across 14th Street that’s better than bikes and buses running in dedicated lanes, a lot of “lefty bike advocates,” as he calls guys like me, would like to hear it.
Moss then says that such transportation alternatives and the means by which they are placed throughout the city “are not friendly to a diverse, affordable, and equitable urban environment.”
This claim doesn’t stand up to even a moment’s consideration. Here’s Ben Kabak again:
When all it takes to hold up a bus carrying over 40 people is one guy in a private vehicle pulling out of a parking spot, there’s nothing equitable about that arrangement at all. There’s nothing affordable about it either, as people waste countless hours in traffic when they could be at work earning money.
I share many of Moss’ concerns about hyper-gentrification, but if his goal is to keep the city affordable for more than just the 1% and preserve New York’s diversity in the process, keeping the streets clogged with noisy, space-hogging, pollution-spewing vehicles seems like a perverse way to do it.