New York Got Richer, Weirder and Angrier in 2014

The rent stayed high, hip-hop stayed strange, the police stayed awful and a lot of people wanted Taylor Swift to stay away.

by Harry Cheadle and Wilbert Cooper
18 December 2014, 6:00am

Photo via Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Way back in 2010, Patti Smith told starving artists to stay the hell out of this town – "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling" was how she put it - and 2014 was the year when even the most starry-eyed, Kool-Aid drinking transplant had to come to the conclusion that she was right.

New York remains the continent's brightest nexus of art and money; it's still teeming with world-class bars, restaurants, clubs, bands, bakeries, galleries, newspapers, sports teams, rappers and noise; we've still got the best public transportation system in the country. But New York City is also a microcosm for the rest of America, i.e. it's mostly only fun when you're rich. Despite the election of Bill de Blasio, the city's most progressive mayor in two decades, poor people continued to get pushed out to the edges of the five boroughs, the cops continued to treat brown people differently than whites, and New York continued changing into a sleeker, cleaner, more Disney-fied version of itself. Fundamentally, the rent is too damn high, but the problem runs deeper than that.

The city always changes, of course; there have always been old groups being pushed out in favour of the new, architecture is constantly being torn down and put up without much regard for nostalgia. Maybe we're getting old, but this time it feels different. It's not the familiar narrative of one immigrant wave being displaced by a fresher one – it's foreign millionaires buying Manhattan apartments and leaving them empty, it's neighbourhoods with long histories being rebranded as luxury enclaves, it's East New York, of all places, being openly targeted for gentrification. Williamsburg has been an offshoot of Manhattan for years – at this point, the neighbourhood is basically just a bunch of northern European tourists taking selfies in front of branded murals – but Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and Bushwick are now also unaffordable for any recent transplant who doesn't already have a good job, or the bankrolling of some generous parents.

If you're young and broke, you'll have to find housing on the city's periphery, in Staten Island or the Bronx or the outer reaches of Queens – perfectly fine places to live, but far from the gleaming New York City ideal of undergrad imaginings. It's still possible to move to this town as an eager striver with more dreams than money, but the meritocratic version of New York that gets sold by the media has never seemed further away.

The homogenising power of wealth wasn't the only story in the city, though arguably it was the most important. Here are the other things we saw happen in New York this year – some of them, believe it or not, even give us reasons to still feel good about living here:

Photo by Pete Voelker

Last year, de Blasio talked the progressive talk as a mayoral candidate, emphasizing that New York had become divided into "two cities": one rich and protected by the police, the other poor and persecuted by them. Some law enforcement reform advocates hoped that his election would mean that things would finally change - then de Blasio appointed William Bratton as NYPD commissioner. Bratton's trademark zero-tolerance "broken windows" approach to crime led to crackdowns on subway panhandlers, graffiti artists, and turnstile jumpers; it also might have been the reason officers approached Eric Garner, and we know how that ended. Cops are still brutalizing civilians for what seems like very little reason, they're engaging in intense surveillance operations in poor communities, they're reportedly still spying on Muslims - oh, and just last month Akai Gurley was accidentally killed by a police officer in a public housing complex for no reason at all.

Policing a large, complex city like this is a monumental task, and the NYPD is far from the worst department in the country. We've even seen progress in some areas, like the softening of the cops' draconian policies toward weed. Still, as 2014 comes to an end huge chunks of the city, especially minorities and the poor, don't trust police officers, and the NYPD hasn't given them much reason to. That's a pretty huge problem.

First it was a center of finance and business, then it was a tragedy, then it was a hole in the ground - now the World Trade Center is back, a glittering phallus of steel and glass we can't help but gawk upward at. It's just one more step in the slow fading of 9/11 from an unimaginable tragedy to something you learn about in history class. The next step is to get rid of all those rats living in the building.

A man looks up at the new World Trade Center. Photo by Matthew Leifheit

Speaking of rats, a ton of restaurants shut down thanks to things that go squeak in the night. Our favorite Chinese spot Congee Bowery was closed because of rodents, and the Dominique Ansel Bakery, the home of the cronut, was temporarily shut down after the discovery of hundreds of mouse droppings. But we've learned to shrug at the idea that our favorite places probably have tiny filthy animals scurrying around inside them, and restaurants can survive rodent invasions if their food is good enough - for instance, Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese just opened back up in Lower Manhattan.

In non-rat-related news, David Chang's new incarnation of Momofuku Ko boasts his most expensive tasting menu yet, the Grand Central Shake Shack finally started serving the famous breakfast sandwiches that used be exclusive to the chain's outpost at JFK, and the city's bourgeois foodies got really into doughnuts.

This year saw the usual stream of drama that fuels gossip blogs - Khloe Kardashian and French Montana had an on-again, off-again thing, Solange attacked Jay-Z in an elevator, Freddy Gibbs got shot at in Brooklyn - but we'd prefer to remember the music, and the music was in a freaky, inexplicable groove. NYC's hip-hop's biggest track of 2014, "Hot N*gga," blew up thanks to a meme of 20-year-old Brooklyn MC Bobby Shmurda doing a jerky two-step. A$AP Ferg dropped the Ferg Forever mixtape, enshrining his position as the most off-the-wall rapper in the game. Azealia Banks surprised everyone by releasing her debut, the stellar Broke with Expensive Taste, after being unceremoniously dropped from her major-label record deal. Nicki Minaj, who raps like she has multiple personality disorder, just released her career-defining album, The Pink Print, which was the most anticipated rap joint of the year and will likely be the most commercially successful. Wu-Tang Clan - some of the oldest weirdos in the game - dropped A Better Tomorrow, while Ghostface Killah came out with another lavishly produced concept record, 36 Seasons. Finally, Ratking finally perfected their chaotic and sample-heavy sound with their debut album, So It Goes, which has served as the perfect soundtrack to the police brutality protests that have been erupting all over the city. Speaking of which...

In spite of - or maybe because of - all the money and unfettered capitalism in the air here, New York has long been a hotbed for left-wing thought and action. And 2014 was the year that the American left's outrage bled out of the online journals and into the streets. In Manhattan we saw the largest climate march ever and a series of massive protests against police brutality just a few months apart, and there were also notable demonstrations against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics, and the global war on drugs. A lot of this reform-minded rage isn't reflected in the country as a whole - and it's easy to dismiss some of these actions as "directionless" or "lacking clear goals" - but it's still a powerful thing to see a bunch of kids out in the street willing to be arrested just because they're angry about injustice. If we put some of them in charge, maybe everything would be a little less fucked up.

A great deal of art is produced in this city, but a quick look at the most powerful shows of the year makes it clear where the energy is - and it ain't with the white guys. There was the Future Feminism exhibit at the Hole, which featured impressive women like Marina Ambrovic, Laurie Anderson, and Narcissister. There was the Killer Heels exhibit that brought transgendered twerking to the Brooklyn Museum of Art via a video and performance by Rashaad Newsome. There was also fashion label Hood By Air's invasion of the MoMA with voguing androgynous black models in skirts. Maybe most impressively, Brooklyn artist Kara Walker took over the Domino Plant in Williamsburg to create giant sugar sculpture that investigated race and power. Keep it up, everyone.

A view of Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo via Flickr user metacynic

There have always been a fair number of collabos in fashion, but this year labels were Game of Thrones -style incestuous. For the folks who still wear sweatpants outside of the gym, storied brand Helmut Lang linked up with Japanese retailer Uniqlo to drop a line of urban sweats that people greedily lined up for. Supreme had it's normal slew of collaborations with the usual suspects like North Face, Schott, Levis, and Vans. But the label's major coups were the two high profile releases it did with Nike - the Air Force One and the Nike Air Foamposite, shoes that were so hyped, the NYPD wouldn't allow them to be sold at Supreme's SoHo flagship for "concern for public safety." Meanwhile, Opening Ceremony linked up with Teva to make a mandel, Gareth Pugh collaborated with Lexus to bring his runway show from Paris to New York Fashion Week for the first time, ALIFE teamed up with PUMA to put out some soccer boots, and our friend Eddy Huang made an exclusive Dunk with Nike SB.

But the most hyped partnership of them all was Alexander Wang and H&M. The hip New York designer and the Swedish fast fashion retailer produced a boxing-themed collection of relatively affordable wears that managed to get the word wang plastered all over New York City buses, billboards, and subway stations - which is an achievement even if you don't care about the clothes.

But we're forgetting the arrival of the most famous, most insufferable New York newbie of the year. Taylor Swift, the beguiling, set-the-internet-on-fire-with-a-toss-of-her-hair pop songstress, came upon the scene like a one-woman swarm of NYU freshmen. She dropped $20 million on a penthouse, she Swiftsplained New York to New Yorkers by way of some taxi videos, she probably got David Letterman a bit chubbed by performing her calorie-free song "Welcome to New York" on The Late Show. She was, in short, about as obnoxious as your typical transplant, except that she didn't pass out drunk on the subway or Instagram her first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Welcome to town, Taylor. You're not exactly Patti Smith, but this city ain't exactly the nightmare fuel for Middle America it was back in the 70s. You'll fit right in.

Follow Harry and Wilbert on Twitter.

More end of year stuff:

​Five Things Men Utterly Ruined for Me in 2014

​The Internet in 2014 Was Basically Just Hackers, Misogynists and Kim Kardashian's Ass

​The Most Shocking and Depressing Racism of 2014