Tourism Is Eating New York Alive
Image by Lia Kantrowit
Jeremiah Moss has been chronicling the ever-changing face of New York City for the past ten years on his blog, Vanishing New York. Today that blog lends its name to a new book by Moss, published by Harper Collins and available for purchase here. Below is an excerpt from Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul concerning the unique relationship between New York and the people who visit it.
Grousing about tourists has long been a New Yorker's right and social obligation. Historically, the rube in sandals with a camera around his neck was a mark, someone gullible enough to buy a watch from a thief's open trench coat or get suckered into a game of three-card monte. In Neil Simon's 1970 film, The Out-of-Towners, it's a laugh riot when Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis's suburban Ohio couple goes through the New York wringer of muggings, garbage, and exploding manhole covers. In 1975, cops and firefighters used tourists as cannon fodder in their war with City Hall. When Mayor Beame planned to lay off thousands of officers, their unions took revenge by printing up a harrowing leaflet designed to make New York's 16 million tourists very nervous. "Welcome to Fear City" featured a grim reaper on the cover and told visitors to stay off the streets after 6 PM and "never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever." There was nothing sacred about tourists. Then the city government remade New York, putting the needs and desires of tourists over residents.
With Milton Glaser's new "I ♥ New York" logo in hand, Mayor Koch made the seduction of tourists, along with big businesses, an essential strategy in the reconstitution of New York for the globalized age. In her book Branding New York, Miriam Greenberg reveals how, for the first time in history, New York began to fervently market itself in the late 1970s, selling a cleaned-up image for the purpose of commodifying the city for a new clientele of middle-class suburbanites and corporations. To reorient the city after fiscal crisis, as Greenberg explains, "the standpoint of the out-of-towner and the imagination of the average tourist became overwhelming preoccupations for the established and emerging leadership of New York." Especially when Ronald Reagan pulled federal funds for cities. The resulting rise of mass tourism, like gentrification, was planned. Through a grand campaign, Greenberg says, the city was reframed, packaged, and branded as "one that was almost entirely white, Manhattan-centric, and decidedly not working class." It was another maneuver in the battle for New York, another advance of the neoliberal shift.
In the early 2000s, after 20 years of popularity, an iconic T-shirt vanished from the streets. "Welcome to New York," it read. "Now go home." Its disappearance mirrored the disappearance of a caustic attitude. In Bloomberg's city it was no longer kosher to complain about tourists. We were told we needed them after 9/11. With the Americanization of New York after the attacks, with Ground Zero turned into a morbid attraction, and with the mayor hyperfocused on increasing tourism, out-of-towners made themselves very comfortable. They began pouring in, slowing down the trains and clogging the sidewalks. Fran Lebowitz had earlier complained, "What a nightmare! No one who isn't from New York knows how to be a pedestrian. Pedestrians don't mosey. And they don't walk five abreast. I'd like to make New York unsafe for tourists." But it was too late. During the 2000s, the impact of mass tourism—bringing touristification and "tourism gentrification"—would do its part to change the psyche of the city's streets.
New York, Bloomberg kept reminding us, was a brand, a product that everyone around the world should consume.
In 2006, with the creation of the tax-exempt corporation NYC & Company, Bloomberg pledged $15 million to the already $22 million launch of a multipronged marketing plan to bring a record-breaking 50 million tourists per year to New York by 2015. The plan, called "50 by 15," was headed by a branding and advertising exec who'd previously worked for clients like Disney and Coca-Cola. New York, Bloomberg kept reminding us, was a brand, a product that everyone around the world should consume. At 42 million, the city's tourist numbers were already high, but Bloomberg wanted more. His aim was to make tourists feel at home in the city—and to make New Yorkers give them respect. In 2007, reported New York magazine, Bloomberg said to the head of NYC & Company, "New Yorkers think tourists are just a pain in the ass. We have to do something about it." So they created the "Just Ask the Locals" campaign, "designed to get New Yorkers to be nicer to visitors." We were to be on our best behavior. The campaign posted ads of local celebrities, like Robert De Niro and Ivanka Trump, giving tips on how to hail a taxi and use the subway, while volunteers stood on street corners to help tourists with their questions.
Bloomberg's "50 by 15" goal was surpassed in 2011, four years ahead of schedule. In every year since, the record has been broken again. In 2016, the number climbed to over 60 million, double what it was in the 1990s. With all those tourists, combined with a record-high population of 8.5 million, the city is being destroyed by its own so-called success. Cities are crowded by nature and density is an urban value, one that Jane Jacobs extolled. But when Jacobs celebrated density, she wasn't talking about a hellish human traffic jam. Today our public spaces are overrun. Locals avoid the city's art museums because they're jammed with tourists clamoring to take selfies with the masterpieces. Our parks on a temperate weekend afternoon are unbearable. The green-jeweled oasis of Central Park is "being trampled to death," as former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe told the Times in 2016. And still City Hall wants more. The latest goal is 67 million tourists per year by 2021. So many tourists are not good for a city. (In 2017, NYC & Company predicted a decrease in foreign tourism due to negative feelings about President Trump. Domestic tourism, however, would increase.)
Dear reader, if you are sometimes a visitor to New York, you might take some of what I say here personally. But why identify yourself with the bad tourist? Remember, there's a big difference between tourists and travelers. As Paul Bowles put it in The Sheltering Sky, an "important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking."
With mass tourism, it's not just overcrowding that's damaging civic life, it's the way mainstream tourists consume. Spending money only on the safe and familiar, imports from their own civilization, they help to leech New York of its more biting flavors, reducing it to a tepid broth that won't upset the unseasoned stomach. Even in its once most edgy neighborhoods, the streets of New York have been tamed by the same chain restaurants and stores you find in Anywhere, USA: Applebee's in Times Square, 7-Eleven in the East Village, Patagonia on the Bowery. This is where the tourists flock. Why would anyone come to New York to shop and eat in the same places they can find at their local mall back home?
"Present-day New York has been made to attract people who didn't like New York," said Fran Lebowitz. "That's how we get a zillion tourists here, especially American tourists, who never liked New York. Now they like New York. What does that mean? Does that mean they've suddenly become much more sophisticated? No. It means that New York has become more like the places they come from."
Travelers, on the other hand, are attracted to the true city. They seek out the local and the idiosyncratic. They comport themselves as guests should. They are ashamed to be taken for tourists, who behave these days as though the city belonged to them, barging in like bad guests who help themselves to the refrigerator and put their feet on the coffee table. At the 9/11 Memorial, tourists spill their Starbucks coffee on the names of the dead as they gather for grinning selfies—at least once with inflatable sex dolls in their arms (I'm not kidding). The Brooklyn Bridge has become a "Times Square in the sky," crammed with tourists. During peak hours, the Times reported, two thousand people crossed the bridge per hour in 2015, quadruple the number in 2008. The city's transportation department is considering widening the pedestrian walkway to accommodate more traffic. Meanwhile, parts of the bridge are languishing beneath the weight of tourists' "love locks," a reverse souvenir—instead of taking home some keepsake kitsch, they leave their own behind so New York can remember them. It's no wonder we've seen the arrival of a T-shirt that twists Glaser's "I ♥ NY" to say "NY ♥'s Me."
Cities need visitors, and visitors need cities to discover other ways of life that can open their minds, but a city engineered expressly for tourists ceases to care for its own citizens.
James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair, noted: "One key difference between the 70s and today is that in the 70s the tourists looked scared. Getting back to the hotel alive was one of the main items on their checklists. Now they beam as if they find everything on display cute and flaunt their bulging shopping bags like hunting trophies, their Midtown experience confirming all of their Carrie Bradshaw expectations."
Cities need visitors, and visitors need cities to discover other ways of life that can open their minds, but a city engineered expressly for tourists ceases to care for its own citizens. The streetscape of New York has been reconstructed for a transient population. Grocery stores, Laundromats, gas stations, shoe repair shops—the things locals need—are vanishing. In their place have come suburban-mall chain stores, along with businesses that cater to passing moments of fun, the sort of thing that people on vacation enjoy. Case in point: New York is drowning in sugar. Instead of local diners, we have a million ice cream shops. Instead of bookstores, we have candy shops. Instead of bohemians in cafés, we have people lining up for cronuts, the expensive hybrid of a croissant and a doughnut. Throughout the 2000s, a profusion of cupcake chains opened, some replacing decades-old local businesses pushed out by hiked rents. Penny Arcade asked, "How did New York go from people coming to New York because they wanted sex, they wanted glamor, they wanted experience, they wanted to expand their horizons, they wanted to reinvent themselves? How did it go from that to people who want to come to New York because they watch Sex and the City and they want a cupcake? New York's gone from being the Big Apple to being the Big Cupcake." The reconstructed city, dulled for the palates of out-of-towners, has become cute and consumable. Out with urban grit, in with sugary goo.
Coming down off their sugar highs, tourists need someplace to sleep. In 2011, Bloomberg announced that New York would soon reach a record number of hotel rooms—90,000—a 24 percent increase since he began his tourist-driving initiative in 2006. Our streets are blandalized by new jumbo hotels, while our SROs and flophouses are emptied of low-income residents, gutted, and turned into hipster boutique hotels.
The Chelsea was not the only artistic residential hotel to have its longtime tenants booted and its insides gut-renovated for deeppocketed tourists. In the West Village, tenants of the old Riverview, including many poor, elderly, and disabled people, along with several artists, received eviction notices as the building was converted into the Jane Hotel. At a protest against the new owners, one tenant said, "It used to be a good place to live. Nothing fancy. Just friendly. Now it's full of assholes. They come in and out of Socialista screaming 'fucking faggot' at people and peeing on our door." (Socialista was the hotel's swank café and nightclub—with a Cuban peasant theme.)
On Broadway and West 29th Street, for over half a century the SRO Hotel Breslin served as a rent-stabilized haven for artists—along with writers, transgender women, glove makers, people with AIDS, anyone who might not easily find a comfortable and affordable home elsewhere in the city. Then the former Tin Pan Alley neighborhood was rechristened "NoMad," for North of Madison Square Park, and the Breslin began its conversion into a luxury hotel under the ownership of the GFI Development Company. Tenants reported harassment, got organized, and posted signs on their doors that read: "We will not move." GFI publicly responded, "There are a small handful of tenants in the building that are spreading false information in order to attempt to get large buyout payments." The tenants went to court and lost. Alex Calderwood, founder of the Ace Hotel chain, took over management of the building in 2008. The Breslin became Ace Hotel New York. The fights went on, with the Observer reporting that tenants were "repeatedly hounded to accept a payoff and move out." Calderwood defended the conversion, saying, "we're trying to celebrate New York as much as possible." Soon, all of the old ground-floor businesses vanished. I walked around the block one day and counted 17 small businesses gone. Mostly perfume, jewelry, and clothing shops run by African, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants, part of the Wholesale District's hubbub, they were replaced by Ace's preferred businesses, upscale hipster mini-chains like Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Seattle-born Rudy's Barber Shop, along with an oyster bar and gastropub that took the Breslin name. Theme-parking New York's bohemian past, on the wall of the Ace Hotel's lobby hangs Allen Ginsberg's photograph of Harry Smith, "painter, archivist, anthropologist, filmmaker, and hermetic alchemist," on his last day at the old Breslin, where Smith resided until 1985. The Ace Hotel's website proclaimed that Smith's "spirit still speaks to us, within these walls." And if the boozing, pill-popping bohemian had been living in the Breslin when the Ace moved in? Good luck, Harry.
Even without Bloomberg, NYC & Company keeps pushing, hungry for more tourists. In 2014, they designated pop singer Taylor Swift as the city's "Global Welcome Ambassador." The campaign included billboards splashing the slogan "Welcome to New York: It's Been Waiting for You," the refrain of Swift's theme song. Many New Yorkers took offense. Swift had moved here just one year earlier. Weren't there better choices to represent the city? On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon asked, "How could we let a woman who's not even from New York welcome people to the city?" In the Times, Ginia Bellafante called the song "bloodless" and another reason to "despair over living in New York of late." In the Voice, David Colon wrote a scathing critique of the song's depiction of a New York "where anything interesting or difficult is smoothed away into digital handclaps and Auto-Tune. The New York of 'Welcome to New York' is what you would get if you populated it entirely with humans raised in the Times Square Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., then let them out into the world with only a penthouse apartment, an Amex black card, and leopard-print Prada luggage to guide them."
Just look at the difference between the slogans "I Love NY" and "It's Been Waiting for You." In the first, the city is an object of affection to the outsider who takes the role of lover. In the second, the roles reverse. The outsider has become the beloved for whom the city has been pining like a lonely teenager waiting for the phone to ring on Saturday night. This is a gross misrepresentation of the city. New York waits for no one.
Writing on inhumane cities, sociologist Richard Sennett noted that spaces in the modern city are either "limited to and carefully orchestrating consumption, like the shopping mall, or spaces limited to and carefully orchestrating the experience of tourism." These two modes amount to a "reduction and trivializing of the city." And they are not accidental. In the 1990s, Michael Sorkin outlined the emerging characteristics of the modern American city. Its relation to the "local physical and cultural geography" had become destabilized, he wrote. Its ties to specific space had been loosened. "Globalized capital, electronic means of production, and uniform mass culture abhor the intimate, undisciplined differentiation of traditional cities." So the new city has been departicularized, filled with copies of copies and featureless façades, attracting people in search of a curated and controlled theme-park experience, all for the purpose of commodifying the city.
The outsider has become the beloved for whom the city has been pining like a lonely teenager waiting for the phone to ring on Saturday night.
Disneyfied and assembly-lined, twenty-first-century New York is becoming a pale imitation of its former self, a Potemkin village of what a city used to be. It is not alone. A symptom of globalized capitalism, mass tourism's homogenizing force is a worldwide pandemic—and it has stimulated a global backlash. "A rapacious tourist monoculture threatens Venice's existence," Italian art historian Salvatore Settis argued in the Times in 2016, "decimating the historic city and turning the Queen of the Adriatic into a Disneyfied shopping mall." In cities like Barcelona, Reykjavík, and Amsterdam, leaders are taking steps to slow the influx of tourists, and city dwellers are doing their part. In Coping with Tourists, Jeremy Boissevain observed Europeans engaging in "covert, low-key resistance" to tourists, that is, "sulking, grumbling, obstruction, gossip, ridicule, and surreptitious insults." In Berlin, the anti-tourist outcry has been especially fierce, with protests and graffiti slogans that say "Tourists Fuck Off" and "No More Rolling Suitcases." In a backlash to the backlash, tourist sympathizers argue that tourists are just like immigrants or refugees, and that antitourist sentiment is the same as xenophobia, casting protesters as fascists. This is a false equivalence. Tourists and immigrants/refugees occupy very different positions of power, and people on vacation do not come to cities seeking sanctuary. They come seeking selfies and souvenirs.
Compared to Europeans, New Yorkers have been mild in their response to mass tourism. Maybe it's because we pride ourselves on being an open city. Maybe we confuse tourists with immigrants. Or maybe Bloomberg's pro-tourism propaganda really worked.
On a spring day in 2010, the performance art group Improv Everywhere used white landscape chalk to divide a length of Fifth Avenue sidewalk into two lanes, one stenciled TOURISTS and the other NEW YORKERS. Actors disguised as Department of Transportation workers directed people into the appropriate lanes. Many New Yorkers, desperate for their own space, applauded the lanes. In the Daily News and on AM radio, Mayor Bloomberg denied that the sidewalk prank could have come from frustration with the growing number of tourists. He insisted that the prank was "a nice thing to do" for visitors, generously giving them their own lane, and anyone who thought it was a criticism of tourism had to be "a pretty sick person."
As for me, I once tried to do my small part by walking around Times Square in a "Go ♥ Your Own City" T-shirt. But it didn't scare anyone. Emboldened tourists just laughed and asked me to pose for selfies.
Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul is out today from Harper Collins. Order a copy here.