So, when I first saw that there was an article on the homepage of the New York Times headlined “Lone Rangers,” featuring a middle-aged white couple, and captioned: “When a neighborhood gentrifies around you, what do you have to do to hold on to your old way of life?” I paused a moment before clicking. I mean, did I really need a hate-read so early in the morning? Don’t I have better things to do than read about how a couple of white people feel like their neighborhood is changing too quickly? Aren’t there better things to read in the Times? (There are!) But then I paused again and wondered if I was being too quick to judge. I mean, what if this couple had been in their neighborhood for 40 years and were fighting off rapacious landlords and developers? What if, despite what it looked like in the photo, this couple wasn’t wealthy at all, but rather was just scraping by? Maybe—despite the headline which insensitively alludes to an inherently racist TV show/movie—this article wouldn’t be that bad and I shouldn’t automatically jump to conclusions and I should just get over myself and read it, you know? So I did. And, well, let’s just say I won’t feel bad about jumping to conclusion based off a headline and photo EVER AGAIN.
The article profiles the experience of Soho dwelling couple Michele Varian and Brad Roberts, who have been the sole residential occupants of 496 Broadway for the last three years, as the building has changed hands from one developer to another. Varian, who owns a high-end home goods store nearby, and Roberts, who is the lead singer for the band Crash Test Dummies (what’s up, 90s), describe feeling “battered and overwhelmed by the construction that has erupted around them” as the building’s latest owners, Thor Equities, prepares the rest of the buildings units to go on the market as luxury loft rentals priced at up to $12,000/month. Varian and Roberts have a $3,000/month lease on their rent-stabilized unit, which Thor has tried to buy for $400,000, but Varian and Roberts are asking for $4 million.
But so, here’s the thing: Just as I was about to start feeling sympathetic for this couple who are fighting to stay in their longtime home, it was revealed that they hadn’t been living there for 40 years or 30 years or even 20. They moved to the apartment in 2000—well after Soho one huge outdoor mall, full of Victoria’s Secret and Old Navy and H&M and Banana Republic—and the only reason their rent is stabilized is because Roberts bought the lease from a friend (Varian moved in not long after) for $100,000. So it’s not like this wealthy couple (Varian’s is the kind of home goods store that sells $200 tie-dye pillows; the Crash Test Dummies had that one very big song) moved to Soho when they were poor and struggling and watched gentrification go on around them. They are the gentrifiers! They paid $100,000 for a rent-stabilized lease at a time when tons of other more-deserving people were getting pushed out of their homes because they had no such lease protection!
But perhaps the most tone-deaf part of the article is that the writer seems to be implying that the Varian/Roberts household is an example of the old Soho, a place where Basquiat tags decorated front doors and people left the doors there rather than immediately trying to claim and then sell them. One of the people quoted in the article is “Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive of Miller Samuel, a real estate appraisal and consulting firm,” who confirms that prices in Soho have risen by 125% since 2000, in comparison to the 115% rise in the rest of the city. He laments this reality because he admits that even though he has four kids and lives in Connecticut, “My goal in life was to have a loft in SoHo that had spray paint everywhere on the outside and inside was a huge open box. Now that grit is all gone.”
Well, Jonathan Miller—president and chief executive of Miller Samuel, a real estate appraisal and consulting firm—who do you think is responsible for it being gone? It is people like you who have encouraged the rampant development and price escalation in this city, who have welcomed businesses like major chains and banks who can afford to pay wildly high commercial rents. So stop pretending that you wish you had “grit” from your perch in Connecticut. Because there’s still plenty of “grit” in this city, it just hasn’t existed in Soho in decades. The article ends with Miller wondering if Soho has “peaked, value-wise” and with a quote from a Tower of Power song: “What’s hip today/Might become passé.” But, of course, the thing of it is, Soho hasn’t been “hip” for a really long time. Those luxury lofts that Thor is renovating are probably going to be snapped up by wealthy foreign investors who will live in them for mere fractions of the year. Varian and Roberts are either going to wind up staying in their well-below market apartment or get bought out for anywhere between six- and seven-figures. And none of that has anything much to do with the real problems of gentrification in this city. So, yeah, if you want to read something good in the Times today, skip this, and go read about Norman Goodman. Nobody needs to feel as much rage during a hate-read as I did this morning. Nobody.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen