New York City

"The Tyranny of Nostalgia": Landmarking Businesses Won't Preserve NYC's "Authenticity"

Professional nostalgists advocate for regulations that actually make life more difficult for small businesses.


Louis C.K. famously told Conan O'Brien, "Everything's amazing and no one is happy." He was referring to the now taken for granted technological miracles produced in the capitalist system such as plane travel and digital phones, and how everyone is miserable despite life in the developed world getting safer and more prosperous by the day.

What's better than this?

You could say the same of the folks I refer to as "the New York City authenticity police," professional nostalgists who long for a rose-colored image of the past, and who want to preserve that image in the present by having the government freeze time so that dive bars which no longer draw a sustainable clientele can stay in business.

In a new op-ed for the New York Observer, I write:

The keepers of "real" Gotham are certain their preferred moment in history was the perfect time to be alive. And it could have lasted forever if not for you meddling uncool people. These strident nostalgists demand the charming sleaze of early Koch-era Times Square and signage from long-defunct companies, but lest you think they're hopelessly stuck in the past, they also want the safe streets, functioning subway system and smoking bans of modern-day New York. They want the grit, but not the things that create grit.

Forget the obvious contradictions that make such conditions impossible. This is a dangerous kind of nostalgia. If taken seriously, as policy rather than a cultural argument, it will hurt the very people the nostalgists seek to protect by institutionalizing rose-colored longings for the past, at the cost of the present.

Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with shining a light on beloved (if sometimes forgotten) businesses that positively contribute to the unique character of a neighborhood. But too many urban preservationists fail to understand the correlation between the policies they advocate for, meant to keep failing businesses afloat, and the economic conditions those policies create, which make it harder for small businesses to remain viable in expensive cities.

I also ruffle some feathers by examining the politics of urban preservationist patron saint, Jane Jacobs:

The sign/shirt/slogan reading, "More Jane Jacobs, Less Marc Jacobs," is a popular mantra among New York's authenticity police. It refers in the former to the West Village activist who defended her beloved neighborhood from being destroyed by Robert Moses' proposed superhighway (which would have connected New Jersey and Brooklyn by way of the Village), and in the latter to the high-end fashion designer's stores.

It completely misses the point. Yes, Jane Jacobs was an urban preservationist, but she was fighting top-down government planning of what the city should look like, not advocating for it. In the book Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Jacobs is cited as describing the combination of government and the private sector as a "monstrous hybrid" and likened it to organized crime. In an interview with the Toronto Standard, Timothy Mennel, co-editor of the book Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, said, "Jacobs tended to oppose the state but endorse the economy—at least local economies—making her more of a libertarian than a socialist."

Read the whole thing here.

NEXT: Here's How Mitch McConnell Can Help Rand Paul Run for President and Senate

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I’ve read more than one account by people waxing nostalgic about not feeling safe when walking through Times Square at night back in the 70s.

      1. I guess “je ne sais quoi” means “the odor of urine.”

        For long-time New Yorkers, the city has lost some of the je ne sais quoi that made it special. Sure, it’s safe, and anyone who bought an apartment 30 or 40 years ago is sitting on a valuable investment indeed, but the grittiness of Old New York is no longer with us. It’s too safe; it’s too sterile; it’s too much of a playground for the rich. The cleanup efforts that started under Rudy Giuliani culminated in a 12-year Bloomberg mayoralty, and today, New York is a big booming city that’s pushing gentrification into areas that, 10 of 15 years ago, seemed impregnable and immune to the coffee shop-and-kale expansion.…..-new-york/

        1. Je ne sais quoi literally translates to “I don’t know what”.

          1. Next time someone asks me what Je ne sais quoi means, I’ll tell them, “I don’t know what.” (I’m 100% sure I’m the first guy to think of that).

        2. it’s too much of a playground for the rich

          This is certainly true – and it’s why I don’t live in Manhattan any more, nor particularly want to. My untrendy corner of Brooklyn is more “authentically” New York than Manhattan is.

      2. Not surprised in the least that prissy douchebag Hamilton Nolan wrote that piece.

  2. Mr. Moss’ beloved Gray’s Papaya was indeed faced with a significant rent increase. But there is another perfectly good reason the West Village outpost of the “iconic” hot dog and fruit juice chain shuttered its doors: Not too many people eat hot dogs anymore.

    Another perfectly good reason is that the owners of Gray’s Papaya signed up for that rent increase and turned around and subleased it to another concern for even more rent. It’s called cash flow. They don’t have to pay employees, buy hot dogs, or papayas any more. Instead, Gray’s owners can sit in their condo in Florida and cash big ol’ rent checks without ever touching another papaya again.

    People always think those “Lost Our Lease” closings are the work of greedy landlords. I suppose some businesses may lose their lease. But the solution to dramatic rent increases is to become the landlord. Average Americans don’t think this way because our financial literacy in this country is abysmal.

    1. But the solution to dramatic rent increases is to become the landlord.

      If you’re allowed to sublet by the actual landlord.

      Average Americans don’t think this way because our financial literacy in this country is abysmal.

      But it usually takes some money up front to sublet and it might not be worth the inevitable hassle of being the middleman between the actual landlord and the actual tenant.

  3. I was there in 1992, right before the transformation, and it was meh. I didn’t feel unsafe but it also wasn’t something out of a movie or anything. It was just grimy and stinky like most of the rest of Manhattan.

  4. We need Joe Bob Briggs.

  5. Jacobs is cited as describing the combination of government and the private sector as a “monstrous hybrid” and likened it to organized crime

    Reason‘s Robert Poole calls it utopia.

  6. I don’t care what they do as long as they protect the artisanal mayonnaise industry.

  7. I only knew Jane Jacobs as a market activist mentioned by other libertarians, so I was surprised when her half-century old book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was placed prominently in the front of a Barnes and Noble. I don’t recall if it was classified as Best-Selling Non-Fiction or some sort of “Classic” Non-Fiction, but it was smack-dab in the center. It was strange seeing an old book that I’d heard was radically libertarian given such a primo space. I knew it was influential, but still, it was surprising to see it there in 2014.

    Another amusing thing I noticed that day: Piketty’s “Capital” was stacked on the side of the rectangular table that had Best-Selling Fiction on one half and Best-Selling Non-Fiction on the other. As if it was indeterminate whether it belonged in one or the other.

    1. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was placed prominently in the front of a Barnes and Noble.

      It’s a wonderful book – influenced me hugely when I was a lad and wondering why so many of things I like about cities were turning to shit.

    2. Jacobs’ book is remarkably conservative and reactionary in nature, in that she advocated for small-scale, mixed use urban areas on the presumption that it would help foster greater community bonds (the latter a feature of high-trust rural America). Most cities, not just New York, in the post-WW2 era were grappling with the challenge of how to reintegrate returning war veterans into urban economies in a master-planned way, using the techniques and ideologies formed by the New Deal to implement various urban renewal schemes, and Jacobs was arguing that these guys completely missed the point of how strong communities were built.

  8. I was on the Guardian website a few months back and there was an article about how bad gentrification is. I said that “only in America” would economic progress and increased wealth be seen as a negative (as indeed it is, in many places in the USA, such as San Francisco).

    1. There’s a nonstop barrage of this in the Seattle area, too. The poor hipsters can’t rent a gleaming, hardwood-lined loft in a trendy neighborhood for $200 a month. Waannhh, nobody will let them steal the property of others. Gentrification is TEH TERRIBLZ because it builds all this cool new stuff that nobody gets to enjoy for free!

  9. The reason why expensive, luxury housing is being built in poor neighborhoods, outpricing the residents, is because of NIMBY zoning in rich neighborhoods. Libertarians are too callous to the poor; we should emphsize that zoning and occupational licensing laws are class warfare against the poor. Other great critiques of zoning, other than Jacobs’ masterpiece, are Donald Shoup’s “the high cost of free parking,” william tucker’s “the excluded americans,” jonathan levine’s “zoned out,” ryan avent’s “the gated city,” emily talen’s “city rules,” and matt yglesia’s “the rent is too damn high.”

    1. I think in NYC the rampant “historical districts” are an even bigger problem. They cover huge parts of Manhattan and basically freeze the city as is. Naturally, it’s where all the super-rich live.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.