01 March 2008

"The Nature of New York Is Change"

People say this to me a lot whenever I start bitching about this development or that condo tower or a lost landmark. Not sure why they say it, or what immovable truth they think the comment contains. Perhaps they think its a nugget of insoluble wisdom which can't be shaken by any fact or argument. Perhaps they just don't want to think about what I've just said and want the bat away my grievances, because the line at Starbucks is getting long and they've gotta go.

Gentle readers: I know that change is a part of life in New York City and ever was. I embrace the idea. It has given us the varied, endlessly fascinated jigsaw of a metropolis we have today. It has made Gotham the greatest urban archaeological site in the nation.

But the people who like to employ this phrase are not thinking about that. Neither are they looking for a discussion or argument. And this is one of the reasons why I object to the comment. It's meant as a shut-down switch, as a brick wall against which the preservationist must flatten his nose. It says "There is no greater validity to any other civic idea than that of change, so don't even try."

The phrase seems to stop the people who say it from thinking further, or thinking at all. If they did, they might consider a few things. For one: Yes, the nature (or one of the natures) of New York City is change. But does that mean it is always good? Should we accept each proposal or development that comes along simply because it represents "change"? Or should we look at who's putting forth the idea and what they plan to change? Is the thing being looked at better changed or better left unchanged?

The statement is often presented in a revised version that goes, "Change is inevitable in New York." This wording is more objectionable because it seems to indicate that whatever the change that is coming, we shouldn't even try to resist it. We should behave ourselves, accept our fate and let the forces of power and influence roll right over us. I just don't understand this. Moses' Mid-Manhattan freeway wasn't inevitable. The destruction of Grand Central Terminal wasn't inevitable. They were ideas for change, and bad ideas, too. The people was right to reject them.

Another thing: I've long suspected that when people trot out this retort, the word "change" is used only as a euphemism for "money." For most of the changes that occur in the City and are argued in the press and on the sidewalks are motivated by money. Developments that will make the builders money. New chain store branches that will make their corporations money. Landlords who jack up the rent, forcing out valuable businesses, so they can make more money. And people don't like it when you get in the way of their cash flow, whether you be an individual, a neighborhood, a community board, an activist, a mayor or a mere blogger. "You object to my new development? Why, you dunderhead, don't you know that the Nature of New York is Money, er, Change?"

This phrase needs to be retired for good. The statement does not confer an air of wisdom on the speaker. It is a gigantic and insulting shrug that shows you don't care a whit for the City, and aren't willing to lift a finger on its behalf. You've got a proposal to change some part of New York? Fine. Change is welcome here. We're all about change. But tell us why your change is good, why it will profit the City (and not just you). Don't just tell us it is good because it is change.


Anonymous said...

You hit it right on the head with this one. People who usually say change is inevitable tend to be the very people who stand to benefit from the changes happening in New York i.e. the loft-dwellers, rent hawks, etc. We can't allow all these changes to happen, but I also fear that this is a way to destroy the native New Yorker. That might be just me, though ...

Marco said...

Carry around a picture of Penn Station in your wallet. Flash it when you hear this thoughtless crapola. You don't have to say anything.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I like the way you think, Marco.

Marco said...

Thanks. I'm a New Yorker at heart and soul. Last night I watched Radio Days and commented on a blog of a guy who lives in the Blue Mountains. Since he has friends on the LES, he visits the city often. The film capture and the New Yorkers comments are very New York. We love the city and I wish we could afford to live there. Hey, you never know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I needed an antidote to the comments on Curbed. Especially the crude heartless ones that inevitably pour out in response to anyone who dares to question unfettered development or believes landmarking can be a good thing. Expect to be called a dried-up, bitter, old NIMBY who does not deserve to live and should move to Montana. (Also expect the person criticizing you to call you the worst insult of all...RENTER!) Change always bad? No. Change always good? No.