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A City With No Soul

A real estate agent friend told us that young home buyers were looking for the whitest white bread homes imaginable. “No wallpaper,” she explained. “White walls, white furniture, white bread.” What was it, I wondered, that made young people care nothing about style, history or varying from the plainest of vanilla? My real estate agent friend had no good answer, and said only “that’s what they want.”

In a column bearing the headline, “I want a city, not a museum,” Binyamin Appelbaum provides some insight into the plain vanilla mindset.

I take pleasure in wandering around this museum of family history, but it also makes me sad. The buildings survive because New York is preserving the corporeal city of bricks and steel at the expense of its residents and of those who might live here.

Like other American cities, New York has erected layers of laws to protect existing buildings and to impede the construction of new ones. The result is a shortage of housing. That is the reason the rent is too damn high, the reason so many people who grow up here cannot stay, the reason the city is struggling to accommodate an influx of immigrants that once would have seemed like a drop in the melting pot.

New York City’s housing stock is a wreck, mostly because its development has been guided by the same influences that cause Appelbaum to denigrate its being a “museum.” At any given point in time, there was some crisis in need of a quick fix. After a swell of complaints, the government would respond with whatever was the fastest, easiest solution possible that seemed to solve whatever transitory problem gave rise to the most grievance.

In the process, the problems it would cause would be ignored. Sure, we knew that building projects, as low-cost housing for minorities was called, would ultimately become ghettoized dumps ridden with crime, filth and misery, but they needed to be warehoused now and so they were. Cans were kicked down the road and the immediate crisis was solved at the expense of sustainable long-term solutions.

The historic housing that remains fails to provide the million new cubicles needed to warehouse New York’s latest unhoused stock, from young people priced out of apartments to an influx of vast numbers of migrants for whom there is no housing. It’s one thing to use vacant and parking lots to put up housing, and if that’s what Appelbaum was talking about, it would still raise problems, but nothing New York City hasn’t seen before.

But he’s calling for the demolition of history as well, and that’s a very different thing. History, once destroyed, is gone forever. The beauty of brownstones, of neighborhoods whose character has somehow survived decades of poor choices, is what gives the city a soul. Appelbaum cares about housing the people who need a place to stay. Fair enough. But he cares nothing about the soul. Indeed, he sees the moment’s crisis as justification to demolish the soul.

So what does this have to do with white rooms? Like demolishing the old buildings to build enough housing to cover the crisis of the moment, it reflects the lack of any sense of style, beauty, soul. It gives the appearance of being clean and functional at the expense of having any distinguishing feature that reflects beauty and humanity. It’s far easier to pick white than to choose colors and styles that require thought or effort. Maintaining the old, from building to furniture to walls to decorations requires a level of interest that has been lost in the zeal to buy Ikea furniture that can be thrown away when the particle board breaks.

That the historic housing in New York City isn’t worth keeping, despite the problem of finding housing to fix the transitory problem of the moment, is akin to the plain vanilla style of people who would throw away grandma’s antiques because they were too brown or required polishing, care and love. Effortless life and effortless answers are far easier when history ceases to matter and become old and in the way.

But when the day comes that they wonder what became of our history, our old buildings, our antiques, our legacy, will they care that they threw it out because it wasn’t easy and plain vanilla? Will they remember that they were willing to give up their soul for the quick and easy solution?

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