Yesterday I attended a comic convention at pier 94 in Manhattan. I took the subway and disembarked at Columbus Circle, which was once a part of my daily life when I was a student at John Jay College. Because pier 94 is at 55th Street, I walked the long, cavernous part of the station that allows you to exit at 56th Street. It had been quite a few years since I walked through that part of the station and was appalled by what I discovered.
All of the thriving businesses that once operated there were gone.
Notably missing was a vintage style barbershop and a very busy newsstand. Also missing was a charming tiled mural created by grade school children titled, Hello Columbus. Instead, I found empty storefronts with homeless people camped out in front. The exception was an office called Turnstyle (a “clever” amalgamation of the words turnstile and style), where a business could rent out one of the storefronts.
The following day, I visited the Turnstyle website and discovered these nuggets of information: 30 shops, 22 million people. $135,000 average income.
Really? $135,00.00? I think the people who work at my alma mater, Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, Fordham University and the thousands of retail, hotel and restaurant workers that also use this station could contest this number.
What really burned me about the web site was how it implied that there was nothing there before. I have previously written about how the Giuliani / Bloomberg era created the current state of gross inequality in New York City while killing ethnic and local flavors. Turnstyle is congruent with this.
Once upon a time, the subway was the inexpensive way to get around. Lately it is catering to and fostering the wealthy. Did you know that the MTA is planning to do away with the MetroCard and implement some sort of bankcard? This means that in addition to the fare, you are going to have to pay fees to a bank. Cash is going out of “style”! Fare increases and stagnant salaries are already catastrophic to the working poor. This tactic reminds me of McDonald’s paying workers with debit cards loaded with fees. There is also a strong connection with gentrification and subway lines. Take out a subway map and circle any subway line with relatively easy access to Manhattan and you can almost predict where gentrification will happen next.
A recent article in The New Yorker about urban blight in the West Village notes:
“The fate of small businesses in the West Village may be a local issue, but it is one with large implications. For one thing, cities remain major drivers of economic growth, and small businesses continue to form a larger part of G.N.P. than their larger cousins. But there is a deeper issue as well. Since the nineteen-sixties, when Americans faced an extreme wave of urban blight, they have understood rising property values as a reliable measure of recovery. But everything can go too far, and at some point high property values may begin to destroy local economic activity.”
While I agree with this, I would like to SHAME The New Yorker for the accompanying photograph that further perpetuates the myth of urban blight as young men of color wearing hoodies.
As the Turnstyle website notes, there is no shortage of high-end stores in the Columbus Circle area. However, they failed to realize that the 1% who live in the neighborhood do not occupy as much space in the subway as the 99% who commute there. Turnstyle AND the MTA have likely created urban blight underground by forcing out the businesses that once offered an affordable haircut, shoeshine and local art.
High end is not necessarily a sign of progress.
Luckily, my walk from the train station to pier 94 was not a total loss because I did see this burst of real New York City personality on 56th street.