April 18, 2010

Yr City's a Sucker


Last week, the NYC media was abuzz about New York Magazine‘s recent report on our great city’s most livable neighborhoods, a “quantitative index of the 50 most satisfying places to live,” complete with an interactive neighborhood ranking feature. Statistician Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight.com  weighted and rated each neighborhood against a dozen criteria, from practical concerns like affordability, transit and schools to a full range of cultural factors (Silver explains in more detail on his own blog).

via Very Small Array

Semi-relevant humorous graphic via Very Small Array

Park Slope takes first, followed by the Lower East Side and (surprise?) Sunnyside, Queens. My own ‘hood, Fort Greene, is 18th, representing a purportedly objective improvement over my previous home in Williamsburg (20th), though adjacent neighborhoods such as Prospect Heights and Greenpoint (which apparently did not lose points for prevalent vinyl siding) place ninth and fifth, respectively. The fact that half of the top ten is within the two miles east of my current home is an obvious testament to the city’s density—a 30-minute walk (or 5-minute bike ride) in any direction takes me across up to five distinct neighborhoods—while the disparity in ranking suggests that even adjacent blocks may be worlds apart.


Conversely, I find that ethnographic data is perhaps more telling than the pseudo-scientific approach. While it’s hard to draw grand conclusions from a 5,000-person poll (conducted in conjunction with Silver’s number-crunching), I tend to think that these pithy gems constitute a more accurate snapshot of present-day New York than the algorithmic approach. (There are too many fun facts to list here; I recommend viewing it for yourself.)

In any case, the content and information design is well-executed, though I wish NYMag.com gave the option to view full articles as a single page (and, similarly, view all of the comments at once as well). Technical issues aside, I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the content: as a conscientious urbanite, I am fascinated by both the social and cultural dynamics of city life and the concept of conurbation.

Lots of words with no images:

I am especially curious about outsiders’ perception of New York City: before I moved here, I thought of the city in abstract as a cultural epicenter, where subterranean genius in art, music, fashion, etc. might see light of day—a sort of Platonic ideal, which has been affirmed time and again with empirical instances now that I live here. However, I would imagine that much of the world at large regards the Big Apple as that place they see in movies and TV shows (i.e. the lowest common denominator of pop culture… not that there’s anything wrong with that), some absurdly fantastical pastiche of Spike Lee joints and Sex and the City drama, etc.

(Nevertheless, I was disappointed when Beijingers were not particularly impressed that I was from New York—I secretly hoped that this fact would impart an enviable Gothamite savvy upon my person, which I could ultimately parlay into some kind of renown. Instead, they were more impressed that I could navigate the capital city’s subway system, an ability that is certainly informed by my nominal NYC heritage but by no means characteristic of it.)

That said, the New York Magazine editorial is (cloyingly or otherwise) an insider’s look at the inner workings of our awesome metropolis, most tellingly in the revealing, if niche, article on “Hipsters, Hasids and the Williamsburg Street,” which is about as local as it gets.

The relevance of the article, for me, lies largely in firsthand experience of the conflict at hand—I was run off the road by a van in the heart of Williamsburg’s Hasidic enclave, while in a bike lane no less—which suggests that an inside/outside phenomenon occurs on every level in the urban setting. In other words, the city represents a macro-segmentation, where the differences between the boroughs, the neighborhoods and specific communities within them are far more essential to an individual’s character than merely claiming residence in New York City.

In other words, each neighborhood has a distinct identity (or lack thereof), a character that may be embraced, rejected, disregarded or altogether transformed by its denizens (Justin Davidson examines these historical and contemporary trends in a diverting, if somewhat ambivalent, essay for NYMag). Hence, the caricaturization of certain neighborhoods: Park Slope as double-wide stroller territory and Williamsburg as a sprawling hipster mecca, with colonies along an easterly frontier of L-train stops. As per the cliché, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: does one move to Williamsburg (or Bushwick, these days) because he or she likes art, music, etc., or did hipsters start moving there (20 years ago because/when it was still cheap) and make it that way?

The economics of real estate development and its cultural implications are far beyond the scope my knowledge (and, by extension, this essay), though I generally see the urban growth and decay as intrinsically organic, where the organism could variously be considered on the scale of the block, neighborhood, city, state, etc. For example, Atlantic Yards will certainly redefine its immediate vicinity for years to come, but the massive, purportedly destructive influx of wealth—concretely as edifices; abstractly as cultural capital—is not necessarily artificial: it represents the continued evolution of Brooklyn, New York City and the Tri-State Area as a whole.

But I digress: New York is the first city where I’ve lived and worked—in a word, been independent—for long enough to appreciate it for what it is. Someday, years after I’ve moved on to another city, I will return to find that this or that restaurant, bar, gallery, venue, etc., is or isn’t still there, that everyone now lives in Neighborhood X and no one lives in Neighborhood Y any more, or maybe just that it hasn’t changed very much after all. (See also: a technophobic Christopher Walken returns to Astoria for the New Yorker.)

Related by zero to two degrees:

  • Silver has written a lengthy addendum to clarify both the methodology and the intent: his data model provides “worthwhile information [to] complement one’s subjective take on the relative quality of different neighborhoods.” (Fivethirtyeight.org)

    Additionally: “The choice of neighborhoods, and the geographic boundaries assigned to them, were determined by New York magazine staff.” I suppose that New Yorkers’ colloquial demarcations are more fine-grained than those of the City. “It’s not trivial to include additional neighborhoods because a lot of this involves counting things—whether landuromats, toxic waste dumps, or murders—by hand. The 60 neighborhoods within our scope are not necessarily the 60 best neighborhoods.”

  • To my point about the scale of the organism [it sounds so pretentious out of context], Richard Florida deals with urban growth and decay on a national level, with mixed results. I have yet to read Rise of the Creative Class, but I would say that Silver’s rankings reaffirm the fact that NYC (and Brooklyn in particular) at once epitomizes, consummates and transcends the notion of urban renewal qua creativity [*cough, "Christ, what an asshole"].
  • GOOD has just released their own Neighborhoods Issue with a broader focus on (sub)urbanism, including a moderately interesting interview with Richard Florida, a Habana Outpost shout-out, and a blurb on a hypothetical, even more auto-centric NYC.
  • Dan Hill of City of Sound has a new take on the age-old question of the city of the future: 14 Cities, hypothetical metropolises for 2050 Australia.
  • The Upper East Side (#35) will get slightly worse (in terms of Environment), then much better (Transit)… thanks to the incredible machine pictured below. (Previously; MTA via Gothamist updates)


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One Comment on “Yr City's a Sucker”

  1. 1 steph said at 10:25 pm on April 19th, 2010:

    you wish you lived in ft greene! that’s clinton hill, son. check yo maps!

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