New York, like Rio, like Mumbai, seems to be flourishing – but who exactly is it going well for? To build a great city, a just city, we have to look at who’s included and who’s excluded, writes Suketu Mehta
I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York’s Coney Island, because it’s the capital of fun, the people’s playground. If you sit on the Boardwalk in Coney Island and watch the everyday carnival of all the races of the earth strolling together without knowing much about each other – the hipsters in leather, the Bangladeshis in hijab, the Russians in bikinis – then you realise the great secret about why Coney Island works. It’s not that everyone is included. It’s that no-one is excluded. It’s not that you’ll get invited to every party on the beach. It’s that somewhere on the beach, there’s a party you can go to.
New York, like Rio, like Mumbai, is booming. Things seem to be going well for these cities. But who exactly is it going well for? To build a great city, a just city, we have to look at who’s included and who’s excluded. Then we should follow three principles: don’t exclude anybody from the law. Don’t exclude anybody from the conversation. And don’t exclude anybody from the celebration.
There’s a store near where I live in New York, in Soho, where you can buy a Swedish bed made of horsehair for $135,000 (not including delivery). It’s called the Vividus, and it comes with two metal plates affixed to the mattress, in your choice of nickel or brass, inscribed with your name and your bedmate’s name – so that, if you stumble home drunk, you can look to see which side of the bed you’re supposed to be sleeping, like a place setting at a dinner party, and who you’re supposed to be sleeping with.
Chinatown apartments, New York. Photograph: Godong/UIG via Getty Images
The cost of excluding large parts of a city can be political upheaval like De Blasio’s election, or large-scale protests like the ones we’re seeing in St Louis or São Paulo, or just simple street crime. One way of understanding crime is to think of it as another kind of revolution, one murder at a time.
But the targets of crime are most often the excluded themselves, or newcomers, or women. The 2012 gang-rape and murder in a bus in Delhi of a young Indian woman studying to be a physiotherapist shocked the nation. Her attackers were lower-middle-class men from a slum, excluded from the promise of mobility that the woman’s education and profession represent.
The same story repeated itself a few months later in the gang-rape of a young intern for an English-language magazine in Mumbai. The rapists, again, were men in a slum who had been preying on ragpickers and other poor women; it was only when the middle-class intern had the courage to walk into a hospital and report the rape that they were caught. These men had been excluded from the glitter of India Shining, and had lashed out against the most vulnerable.
Activists march to New York’s City Hall to demand more affordable housing options for the homeless and poor. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Activists march to New York’s City Hall to demand more affordable housing options for the homeless and poor. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
The most important form of exclusion these days is in housing: who gets to live in a city? The great success of New York also begs the question: what happened to the good people who stayed through the bad times? What happened to the people in Fort Greene, Astoria, Bedford-Stuyvesyant, who kept faith with the city through decades of crack, bankruptcy, and garbage strikes?
When I lived in the East Village in the 1990s, the area still had a number of squatters who were living peaceably in the buildings abandoned during the crack epidemic of the 80s. But crack was on its way out, and so the squatters had to be too. One day the NYPD brought in a platoon of cops in riot gear, some of them riding in a tank, and cleared the hippies out. The parking lot next to my building turned into a luxury condominium, rented out to energetic young white people. In the morning, you could see the women stride out in suits and sneakers; they would exchange the sneakers for heels once they got to their offices further downtown. The lobby of the condominium displays giant black-and-white documentary photographs of the grungy lower east side, of the squatters and derelicts that the building displaced.
Finding a new home can be like taking a new lover – without leaving your current one
Real estate brochure
All around lower Manhattan, older buildings – often rent-controlled tenements, artists’ lofts, or garment factories – are being torn down, and condominiums coming up: in the West Village, on the Bowery, in SoHo. And across their facades, in prominent fonts, the city’s inequality – and your poverty – gets rubbed in your face: “12 INDIVIDUALLY CURATED RESIDENCES STARTING AT $3 MILLION”.
Where thousands once worked, a dozen will now get to live. And they won’t even live there full-time; many of the owners have multiple such residences around the world, so very few of the lights will be on in the building at any given time.
The text in the ads for these buildings makes for fascinating reading, like a love letter addressed to you – if only you had more money. A brochure for a real estate firm, Corcoran, slips out from my morning paper. Among the offerings is a 4,000-square-foot apartment in the Time Warner Building for $50 million. “Finding a new home can be like taking a new lover – without leaving your current one,” the brochure says. “There is nothing like falling in love …”
New York, 1995: a lone protester resists the NYPD’s squatter evictions in the East Village. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
New York, 1995: a lone protester resists the NYPD’s squatter evictions in the East Village. Photograph: Carolyn Schaefer/Getty Images
In the New York Observer, a developer had some advice for the newly elected mayor De Blasio: “Just get out of the fucking way … The fact that the city has become unaffordable is a sign of progress,” he said. “It’s what we call a good problem.” He had no apologies to make for his role in creating this unaffordability. “I’m sorry I created so many jobs,” he said sarcastically. “I’m sorry so many people want to live here.”
Can a city be too successful for its own good? Where the crime is low, the subways run on time, the culture is world-class, the restaurants Michelin-starred? Yes, for that means you won’t be able to afford living in it. It is one thing to be excluded if you’re a newcomer to the city; it is another to be excluded in the city where your family has lived for four generations, by people who are just getting off the plane from Berlin or Paris.
I recently walked around a slum close to the river in Istanbul, which is fast gentrifying. I spoke to the owner of a long-established cafe there, who told me: “I want my kids to be the fourth generation to be born here.” That seems unlikely, because right across the street from him was another cafe, popular among artists and the new arrivals in the area. He told me that the artists have their own cafes; they don’t mix with the neighbourhood.
A view from inside ‘New York by Gehry’, Frank Gehry’s 76-storey residential tower in Lower Manhattan. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A view from inside ‘New York by Gehry’, Frank Gehry’s 76-storey residential tower in Lower Manhattan. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
That made me think: if I were living in a rent-controlled apartment in a rough neighbourhood and I wanted to make sure my rent would continue to stay low, I would shoot the first artist that moved into my block. Because after the artists come the bankers that want to date the artists, and pretty soon your rent doubles.
It’s not just poor people who are getting excluded from the city. “When you have the second child you’re out,” an upper-middle-class friend of mine in Brooklyn noted. “It’s become punitive,” said another friend, a relatively well-off mother who can’t afford private schools and doesn’t trust public schools.
Will the children of subarbanites, after they find a mate in the city, stay in the city when they have their own children? Cities like San Francisco and Berlin are finding that families with children are fleeing the city, to find bigger houses and better schools. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of children below 14 actually dropped in US cities of over half a million residents. The biggest drops were in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles; Chicago has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it did 10 years ago. A city without children is a melancholy thing, like a forest without songbirds.
I met a veteran journalist and magazine editor who had a big expat apartment in Hong Kong. But then the news magazine he worked for imploded and he moved to London. “My son, who’s 17 and is six foot five, has to share a bunk bed with his 12-year-old sister,” he told me. In the luxury building opposite his apartment in central London, he said, “I barely see the lights on in two of the flats.” He’s now leaving London for Westchester, where he and his family will have to live with his in-laws.
Should a city cede control of its limited real estate to people who don’t actually live there? According to the Census Bureau, 30% of all apartments between 49th and 70th Streets, from 5th to Park Avenue, are vacant at least 10 months a year. We are seeing this phenomenon of empty quarters within cities all over the world. The causes vary: rents frozen by law in Mumbai at 1944 rates; apartments bought by overseas speculators in New York and London that they prefer to keep empty; the takeover by social protest movements of whole buildings in downtown São Paulo, buildings which everyone else then flees from.
Rio’s ‘Pacification’ programme has liberated favela residents from the despotism of the drug traffickers, and made these areas safe for gentrification. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Rio’s ‘Pacification’ programme has liberated favela residents from the despotism of the drug traffickers, and made these areas safe for gentrification. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images
In Rio, there are lots of guards now in the newly pacified favelas. The state’s “Pacification” programme, which has liberated the favela residents from the despotism of the drug traffickers, has also made them safe for gentrification. Rents in some cases have tripled after pacification. I’ve met young Europeans and Americans who’re living in Cantagalo and Rocinha, enthusiastic about the great views and the vibrant cultural scene. All that is wonderful; the favelas need to be more integrated into the rest of the city. As long as the young Europeans and Americans – and the young Brazilians from outside the favelas – don’t push out the people who kept them alive and vibrant when they were dangerous and drug-infested. “Gentrification is like cholesterol,” points out my friend Amanda Burden, who, as head of city planning under Mayor Bloomberg, re-zoned one out of every five blocks in the city. “There’s good gentrification and bad gentrification.”
We need to take a look at who is included and excluded from the law. Great cities flourish when they permit an accomodative illegality. The problem right now is that the law can be stretched or even outright flouted by the rich – as we see in the epic land grab taking place in the Mumbai mill areas, a land grab retroactively approved by the supreme court – but is inflexible for the poor. The poor live in a state of permanent legal insecurity, never knowing what law will be enforced when.
An example of this is the debate around illegal basement apartments in New York. There are anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 spaces – basements, garages, and rooming houses – that are illegally rented in New York City. Up to half a million New Yorkers live in these spaces. Three-quarters of the new housing that has come up in Queens since the 1990s is illegal.
Gentrification is like cholesterol. There’s good gentrification and bad gentrification
The vast majority of these conversions are in the immigrant quarters of Queens and Brooklyn. Some are squalid tenements without air or light; others are places you or I could live in. Some are rented out by unscrupulous landlords preying on tenants who don’t know or can’t enforce their rights. Others – often when there’s a common ethnic background – are communal arrangements in which the tenant and the owner become one family, eating together, helping each other navigate the new land. Housing advocates estimate that at least half of them are perfectly habitable, and should be legalised.
Many of New York’s housing codes are absurd and arbitrary. If half the unit is above the ground, it is considered a “basement” and can legally be leased. If half is below the ground, it is considered a “cellar” and can never be rented. The landlord could be fined $15,000 or spend a year in jail.
New York State defines a “housing emergency” as a vacancy rate below 5%. The current vacancy rate in Manhattan is 1%. Half of all New Yorkers spend over a third of their income on rent; a third spend over half. They desperately need more, and cheaper, housing options. One of the more obvious ones is to legalise basement residences, but very few politicians want to touch the issue, for fear of alienating the Nimbys on the community boards. Mayor De Blasio has announced a plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade, at a cost of $41 billion, in huge towers all over the five boroughs. But there are 200,000 units of even more affordable housing that exist, right now, right under our noses. Let’s not exclude them from the law.
‘Don’t exclude anyone from the conversation’
The conversation around urbanism these days is like the Latin mass, laden with jargon, reinforcing the barriers around a professional guild. The debates of the planners sound like buildings talking to buildings. As a result, people don’t listen to good and smart planners in Mumbai or Mexico City, because the planners don’t speak in a language that people can understand. Or they speak only international languages like English and Mandarin, and not local languages like Marathi or Fujianese. I know of no joint programmes between university departments of urban planning and departments of journalism. I know of very few writers or journalists who really understand the workings of cities. And the ones that do don’t know how to translate it into a story that will grab ordinary readers leafing through the gossip pages. Meanwhile the real-estate developers invest in professional storytellers to sell their sugared dreams of swimming pools and towers in the park to an uninformed populace.
If philosophers or literary theorists write incomprehensible jargon, it might hinder the rest of the populace’s ability to comprehend philosophy or literature – but it’s not going to affect their daily lives. But when it comes to urban planners, their dreams could become our nightmares. The rest of us have to walk in them, sleep in them, live in them. We need to understand the story they’re selling us.
Central Mumbai: ‘The most freighted of all words in the story of a city is the word “slum”.’ Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Central Mumbai: ‘The most freighted of all words in the story of a city is the word “slum”.’ Photograph: Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images
It is critical for planners to go out from the academies into the public sphere, to tell people in Mumbai why you can’t fight traffic by building a giant new bridge, because all it does is get you to your traffic jam faster. Or to tell the people living in gated communities in Istanbul, one of the safest cities in Europe, that if they actually look at what they’re paying every month for security guards, they would realise it’s cheaper to get mugged every month.
I am arguing for the critical importance of the urban planner as public intellectual. Because without political will, all our grand city plans will remain on the drawing board. And political will can only be generated if we get the public informed and excited about planning. The public is ready, because they’re already excited to be in the city.
But in all storytelling, the choice of the words used in the story is crucial. And the most freighted of all these words, in the story of the city, is the word “slum”. What is a slum? As the architect Rahul Mehrotra once explained it: “You and me don’t like it so we call it a slum.” The word is loaded, overloaded, toppling. The people in the Mumbai slums have another word for it: “basti” – makeshift community. A basti abounds in community spaces – in the line to the toilet, in the line at the water tap, in the patches of empty ground where the kids play cricket, in front of the hundreds of little shops servicing every human need. The construction of the basti is crucial to the “spirit of Mumbai” that saves the city time and again, through floods, riots, and terror attacks.
Each room in the basti is exquisitely custom-built, every detail of it, including the walls and the ceilings. Each room is different and, over the decades, suited to its owners’ needs. They are endlessly flexible, with partitions and extra storeys according to the number of family members that live there. They are coloured, outside and in, to their owner’s taste. Look at a slum colony anywhere in the world: it is multicoloured. Then look at the public housing that replaces it when it’s demolished: it is monochromatic. It is also anonymous, generic, fungible; a triumph of anomie over community. Most of these buildings look exactly alike, not just in Mumbai but in São Paolo, Jakarta, Johannesburg.
A Mumbai high-rise stands next to the shanty homes of Dharavi. City rents range from more than $2,000 to less than $5 a month. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A Mumbai high-rise stands next to the shanty homes of Dharavi. City rents range from more than $2,000 to less than $5 a month. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
There’s a huge land grab under way in Mumbai called the SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) scheme, under which, if 70% of the residents of a neighbourhood designated a “slum” agree to have the colony demolished in exchange for project housing built mostly by private developers, the views of the other 30% don’t matter. As it was explained to me on a visit to the Jogeshwari slums: “70% is 100%.”
The people I knew when I was researching Maximum City in the 90s – who were active in the riots, in the underworld, in politics – are now all in real estate. The builders are distributing money to the tough boys with open hands, in order to cajole or force 70% of the slum’s residents to sign up. The deal between the builders and the governments is this: they get to build luxury housing for the rich, if they also build replacement housing for the poor.
Each replacement flat is a maximum of 270 square feet “carpet area”. That’s enough for a small living room and a small bedroom, divided by a small kitchen. Each flat has a private bathroom. All this sounds good. That is, until you speak to people who’ve moved into the flats. “Our sanskruti – our culture, our values – is not there in the flat system,” an elderly man explained sadly to me, looking around at blocks of tower housing. The doors in the basti are always open; the doors in the flats are mostly closed. Cities all over the world are tearing down high-rise public housing; Mumbai is building it in a frenzy, tens of thousands of these tower blocks.
Who builds these lousy structures all over the world? Somewhere on the planet, in a government planning office, must sit a mad architect, designing all the public housing in the world. We marvel at Lisbon’s old city; we pay a premium to live in Trastevere or the Marais or the East Village – all “slums” a hundred years ago. Our young people now want to live where the other half once lived. A young Jewish friend of mine in New York was looking for an apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. When her grandmother heard about it, she reminded her: “I spent half my life trying to get out of that place.”
Mumbai’s record flood of 27 July 2005 showed up the worst and the best of the city. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Mumbai’s record flood of 27 July 2005 showed up the worst and the best of the city. Photograph: Sebastian D’Souza/AFP/Getty Images
The greatest challenge facing cities worldwide is accommodation, in all senses of the word. Greater Mumbai has over 20 million people, and parts of the inner city have a population density of over one million people per square mile. How the hell do all these people live together? New York City is panicked because it’s projected that it will add a million people over the next 20 years; it will go from eight to nine million. Greater Mumbai adds a million people every single year.
I realised, when I was doing my book, that the way Mumbai survives is by a series of solidarity networks among the poor.
On 27 July 2005, Mumbai experienced the highest recorded rainfall in its history – 37 inches of rain in one day. The flood showed up the worst and the best of the city. Hundreds of people drowned. But unlike the situation after Katrina hit New Orleans, there was no widespread breakdown of civic order: even though the police were absent, the crime rate did not go up. That was because Mumbaikars were busy helping each other.
People from the bastis went to the highway and took stranded motorists into their homes and made room for one more person in shacks, where the average occupancy is seven adults to a room. Volunteers waded through waist-deep water to bring food to the 150,000 people stranded in train stations. Human chains were formed to get people out of the floods. Most of the government machinery was absent, but nobody expected otherwise. A Mumbai basti is an anarchist’s dream because all the services that the state is supposed to provide – water, electricity, transport, security – are in effect privatised. Mumbaikars helped each other, because they had lost faith in the government helping them. On a planet of city dwellers, this is how most human beings are going to live and cope in the 21st century.
‘Don’t exclude anybody from the celebration’
Cities today are enormously unequal places. The richest 5% of New Yorkers earn 88 times as much as the poorest 20%. The paradox is that in spite of this, moving to the city is the most effective way for the poor to improve their standard of living. In the US, cities like Detroit and Baltimore – places that don’t have a lot of diversity in terms of ethnicity, or that have tied themselves to a single industry – are stagnating. But cities like New York, which actively encourage immigration, are doing better than ever before.
Cities could be reaching out to immigrants, putting out the welcome mat. The value of ethnic diversity, like culture, is one of those intangibles that are difficult to measure in economic terms. But many of the software engineers and designers and the creative class that make cities attractive are widely travelled and want to hear many languages spoken on the street; they want a choice of pupusas or parathas for dinner. So ethnic diversity can revitalise these old industrial cities across the richer countries, and make downtown central again.
The mayor of Schenectady, New York, realised this in 2002. Schenectady is a depressed industrial city of 62,000 in upstate New York, heavily polluted by smokestack factories. When the factories left, so did the city’s energy. A third of its population – mostly Italian, German, Polish – fled. Its downtown looked like a disaster area. Then the mayor, Albert Jurczynski, heard about the enterprise of immigrant Guyanese in New York City, when he assisted a local Guyanese man in constructing a temple in vacant public housing. The Guyanese man said to the mayor, “We don’t believe in public assistance” – and the mayor, who was himself the grandson of Polish immigrants, responded, “You’re singing my tune.”
The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in the city’s ‘global liveability’ ranking. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in the city’s ‘global liveability’ ranking. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
So Mayor Jurczynski started inviting busloads of Guyanese from Queens to Schenectady; showing them around the city, taking them to his in-laws house for homemade wine. Occasionally, he personally went to Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, glad-handing the Guyanese, eating their spicy goat curry and drinking their rum. It costs the city of Schenectady $16,500 to demolish a home; it’s better policy to offer it to the industrious Guyanese for a dollar, on the condition that they refurbish it.
Now there are 10,000 Guyanese living and working in downtown Schenectady, fully 12% of the city. They own little grocery stores, insurance and money transfer businesses, and restaurants. There’s a Schenectady cricket league, and Guyanese politicians. They’ve helped the city turn around. Because the city accommodated a new spice in the mix.
And human beings like their cities spicy. Our young people come to cities in search not just of love, but of danger. They go out of their way to walk through the possibly threatening park, have drinks in the sleazy nightclub, live in the dodgy immigrant area. It is part of the thrill of urban living, to those who’ve grown up in a suburb where the greatest danger comes from cops raiding a party in search of potheads. These young people have grown up watching the policiers like Law and Order on television; it defines the city for them as much as Sex and the City. If they see a shootout on the street, it doesn’t freak them out. It’s just one more story they can take back to their small town during Thanksgiving to horrify and impress the rubes.
By this late date in human civilisation most of us in the safe, rich countries are bored. Suburbs are boring
When I moved into the East Village, close by Tompkins Square Park, in the early 90s, my mother came to check out the area before I signed the apartment lease. We sat at a sidewalk table outside a cafe on Avenue A, and my mother regarded the drug dealers, the pierced and tattooed polysexuals, the Latino teens with boomboxes walking by. Then she called my father, who asked her what kind of neighborhood it was. “It’s full of …” she said, and paused, thinking carefully, “… artists.”
Metropolitan excitement, a chaotic sense of possibility, flouting of zoning codes, shops spilling out into the sidewalk, a frisson of danger: all these things collectively make up what distinguishes a city from a suburb: hubbub. By this late date in human civilisation most of us in the safe, rich countries are … bored. Suburbs are boring. So programmed are they, so controlled by laws and codes and rules, that the human being withers.
Perhaps it’s an evolutionary need, to deal with the unexpected. Like exercise: why do we go to gyms and torture our bodies, do manual labour that we have spent most of our history as a species striving to avoid? Just as lack of manual labour makes us flabby and ultimately kills us, lack of hubbub dulls our brains and makes us stupid.
When I walk about the city, I am alert for the eccentric, the unpredictable, even the manageably unsafe. Every time I get mugged I get a story out of it. These chaotic encounters enrich my life-narrative, make me a more interesting person than someone who’s lived his life safely in a suburb. When I go to cities around the world, I seek out the hubbub.
The lists of the world’s “most liveable cities” compiled by the financial magazines are a joke: they are made for expat bankers. Seven of the top 10 cities in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Global Liveability Ranking are in Australia or Canada. The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in its ranking. “Hong Kong’s liveability has been hit by the disruptive protests that took place last year,” pronounced the EIU survey editor. So: democratic protest means a city is unliveable. By that standard, the ideal city would be Pyongyang.
Canberra, Geneva, Calgary are beautiful and deadly boring. They do well on the lists because they are mostly cleansed of immigrants, the poor, the necessary chaos that is the first marker of big-city life. The expectation that, in Joan Didion’s words, “something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” A great city has the ability to, as Bob Marley urges, “Stir it up.”
The city has never been a more exciting place to live. A migrant from Bahia or Bihar will feel the same thrill and pride in his city as he walks along the beach in Copacabana or Marine Drive as gringoes like you or me might when we visit. They want to be part of the celebration. The celebration must be like Coney Island: open, affordable and accessible.
Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and an associate professor of journalism at New York University. He is speaking at the Urban Age Global Debate, Narratives of Inclusion: can cities help us live together? on Thursday 3 December at the LSE.
Urban Age is a worldwide investigation into the future of cities, organised by LSE Cities and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society. Its 10-year anniversary debates are held in conjunction with Guardian Cities