January 03, 2008

Even the home you hated is gone

Thomas Wolfe knew what he was talking about. Like it or not -- and I detested it for the 15 years I lived there -- the town where I grew up has no resemblance to the town that currently bears the same name.

The places I lovingly considered home, in Lake Placid and in Haiti, are both gone, one lost to fire, the other to political anarchy. Even Paris, where I lived as a grad student, bit the no-smoking dust, as of yesterday.

The true title of this post should be, what the fuck? However, I'll let The New York Times tell the story, with all italics mine, and bold italics my commentary.
January 3, 2008
White Plains Journal
Urban Success Story, With Hint of Unease for Poorer Residents
By Fernanda Santos

" The heart of the downtown here spreads out like an oddly shaped T — from west to east for a half-mile along Main Street, and from north to south down a shorter stretch on Mamaroneck Avenue, where new restaurants, pharmacies and wine stores seem to sprout by the day.

"Downtown" White Plains used to consist of 4 blocks of Mamaroneck Ave., with maybe a block on either side of the four avenues that bisected it. Woolworth's, which occupied huge space on that avenue, was where my mother, who worked in a private psych hospital, "took the [looney] 'tunes to town."

There was a deli, several pizzerias, and a Chinese restaurant for your nutritional enjoyment. The Army-Navy store was popular, as was a jeweler specializing in silver, a couple of men's wear shops, Macy's, Sears, two movie theaters, and my favorites, an outpost of Hammacher-Schlemer and several book and record stores.

Our family pharmacy and liquor store were in walking distance of our house, about four miles away from "downtown." We had house accounts there, at our corner deli and the gas station. The only place I saw money exchanged was if my mom went grocery shopping at the supermarket.

My father was a great fan of the house account, and I learned to say "charge it" long before anyone needed a credit card. I suspect he single-handedly kept the before-its-time Gourmet Shop in business.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, pre-mall days, White Plains was a shopping mecca, with department stores ranging from the now-defunct discount Alexander's to Saks Fifth Avenue, which has since been demolished, to Neiman-Marcus, now linked to an "upscale" mall.

" The steady drone of cars, once an aberration of sorts within the city’s nucleus, is now intrinsic to its fabric. And pedestrians, a rarity after dark just a few years back, stroll around at all times, amid the concrete-and-glass towers that rise like shiny exclamation points into an otherwise barren skyline.

Growing up there, I never saw a building taller than six stories, unless it was federally subsidized housing, and that was plain red brick. There was never a reason to be "downtown" at night. My parents ate out every weekend, and never in White Plains.

In junior high, at night, we hung out in residential parks, sharing bottles of cheap sangria or Boone's Farm strawberry hill country-fresh wine and chain-smoking cigarettes.

" “I like to say that I live in a small city with a big-city vibe,” said Jordan Bachelder, 29, a financial adviser who traded a rental studio apartment in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan for a one-bedroom condo here in 2004.

I'd say he's delusional. The last time I was in White Plains, in the late 1990s, the vibe was, shop here and get the hell out. This guy is still so far off Broadway that he couldn't sing a show tune to save his life.

"At the time, [early 1990s] the area’s most memorable landmark was the vacant site of a former Macy’s department store, a cavernous hole at the corner of Main and Mamaroneck.

We shopped at Saks, where my mom didn't have to pay for parking, but as teenagers, almost my entire junior high shoplifted at Macy's, where we never went because my mom would rather pay Saks' prices than feed a quarter into the meter elsewhere.

I preferred the higher-end stores, because they had no security in place. Bergdorf Goodman and Brentano's Books were the five-finger discount targets my teenage self focused on.

"Today, downtown is a study in contradictions, a place where brands as popular as Wal-Mart and Target and as exclusive as Trump and Ritz-Carlton occupy prominent spots in a newly developed strip spanning four city blocks.

The Times, late to the story as always, could have made this observation 35 years ago, albeit by citing considerably lesser extremes. Have any of its reporters looked around the neighborhood where they are employed? Or where they live?

You don't have to get on a train, or even take public transit to see that our city, perhaps any true city, is, by definition, a study in contradictions and contrasts.

"It is a place where luxurious condominiums stand near public housing projects that are home to many of the city’s working poor; and where mothers chat in Spanish at a Dunkin’ Donuts, while young professionals tap on laptops in a Starbucks on the opposite side of the street.

Sounds vaguely like the Wonderland I inhabit; the major news here being the rate of demolition for mom-and-pop corner stores to make way for 40-story overpriced condos, whose storefronts boast banks and chain stores as their tenants.

One mile uptown, and the demographics are vastly different, with low income subsidized housing predominating the zip code. On the other hand, you don't have to go more than half a block from my apartment to find numerous people for whom English is not their native language.

Those condos multiplying like rabbits are making us lose what made us special, the individuality our streets showed, which breaks my heart, not to mention adding great inconvenience to my daily life. Our nearest Chinese restaurant, with 25+ years across the street, has been replaced by Godiva chocolates.

The corner restaurant and adjacent butcher, cigarette/newsstand, and dry cleaner, are all on the verge of closing as the next block away from mine is razed for yet another overpriced and underspaced sun-blocking condo.

" “Our dream was to design a city that if you lived here, worked here or visited here, you didn’t have to go anywhere else,” said Mr. Delfino, a Republican who is now in his third term as mayor. “I think we’ve met that objective.”

No, a town of 50,000 can't pull that off, not where I grew up and fled, not at all. 50,000 equals the population of students at the university where I attended grad school.

Don't know what's in the water up there, but I wouldn't mind swilling a few gulps from that delusional bottle.

"But the pace and depth of the transformation, arguably the most remarkable traits of the downtown renaissance, have also been a source of concern to some low-income residents, who fear that they may be pushed out as the area gentrifies.

White Plains has been trying for an urban renaissance since I was in junior high school in 1973. Then, we were taking downtown to see "urban renewal" in progress (much to the embarrassment, I later realized, of my classmates (the "bus children") who lived in the area our middle-class teachers deemed suitable for a "field trip.")

In kindergarten I didn't know that the kids we called "the bus children" were poor; I just knew they lived in another neighborhood that wasn't in walkable distance from our elementary school, a building hastily and hideously erected in 1964 for the housing developments where we baby boomers lived.
The one thing I will credit White Plains for was the racial and socioeconomic integration of its school system, a rarity in Westchester County in 1965 when I entered public school.

" “I love the way downtown looks, but is there a place for working people like me in the new downtown? I don’t know,” said Darryl Jenkins, 53, who has lived at the Winbrook Houses, a downtown public housing development, for more than 30 years. “It seems that all the homes that have been built so far are for rich people.”

Jenkins is correct, and I rather doubt that tolerance was mixed in to any of the new construction projects, much less more than a minimal amount of subsidized housing for a town that may be losing its middle class as quickly as Wonderland is.

"In 2003, downtown White Plains saw the conclusion of its first significant development, a $325 million project called City Center, which replaced the abandoned Macy’s.... The complex includes a Trump Tower, where some condos have sold for more than $1 million; luxury rental units in a doorman high-rise; several chain stores and restaurants and a multiscreen movie theater, the city’s first since the early 1990s."

This is truly the what-the-fuck part of the story, the part that brings it into the 21st century boggle-my-mind section. Trump condos for $1 million plus? I've heard there's a sucker born every minute, and right now, they seem to be clamouring to live in a Disney-fied town.

The place seems more of a horror show than the one I fled close to 30 years ago, before every store was a national chain, before every store fled to the security of a mall for pedestrian traffic.

When I left, the only mall in town was anchored by a supermarket, and its most memorable tenant was McDonald's. There still was a downtown, with individual chain-free stores, there. I never realized how much that characteristic was something to appreciate.

" "White Plains is a whole different city,” said Louis R. Cappelli, who developed the Ritz-Carlton and City Center projects. “It’s a balanced city.”

Obviously this depends on your definition. Last time I looked, Ritz-Carlton's rates (starting at $369 a night in not-so-scenic WP and rising to $5000 a night for some special penthouse suite) rather tilted the balance. Personally, you'd have to pay me $5,000 a night to stay there.

"In all, White Plains officials have approved the construction of 4,400 units of housing downtown, and more than half of them have been built — the first residential projects developed in the area since 1989, Mayor Delfino said. Most of the new construction is geared toward upper-class dwellers, a move the mayor said was necessary to balance the disparity in income among downtown residents.

I don't see them balancing the disparity in income in the part of town where I grew up, the house up the street from a then-working stable where my brother rode and roamed into what was then a completely wooded area.

The woods have long since been superseded by a million-dollar-plus single-family-home development. No, that nabe is secure in its zoning and prosperity, not to mention obscene property tax rates.

"John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, said that a resurgent downtown needed wealthier residents to support its retail base, but that the challenge was to retain an eclectic mix of backgrounds, which is vital to its city character.

Astounding, how retail in White Plains had been limping along with one of the five highest-sale malls in the U.S. before Donald Disney and friends came along to seduce people into mistaking White Plains for a real city. (I've been to that mall. It is walkable, a far cry in space from Minnesota's Mall of America, a spot I ventured to as reluctant anthropologist.)

As for "city character," take away a town's history, however benighted, and whatever character the town may have had is lost to the historical society.

"Rita Z. Malmud, president of the White Plains Common Council, said that the goal of the development was “not to turn downtown into a playground for the rich,” but that the area needed to achieve “the right mix.”

I don't see White Plains as any one's playground, save that of a lunatic. As for the "right mix," I shudder at the implications.

"She added, “What we have to make sure is that downtown remains a welcoming place to people of all races, all income levels and all stripes as we move forward.”

I can't help thinking that before the malling of suburbia, White Plains probably was far more welcoming, even to those like me who despised it, than it is today.

It was what it was -- a big city shopping mecca compared with its minute neighbors, a town with few overt pretensions -- primarily the covert ones belonged to the country-club set.

It was a postwar bedroom community for boomers' parents in what had been, before estate taxes ate up acreage, a country oasis for those who owned the large properties that later became housing developments. It probably always had its share of less affluent workers and families, some of whom minded the local shops or worked for the large landowners.

There are, I'm sure, those who are happy to call it home. I've just never been one of them.

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Anonymous teresa said...

Wow, just like The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the commentary outweighs the source material!

Sadly, White Plains' delusion can't be chalked up exclusively to 'burbs mentality. For a decade-plus, Angelenos have been told by politicians, city officials, and developers alike to watch for a Downtown renaissance. It's coming any minute now, and we'd better nail down our loft or restaurant properties now, before rents skyrocket! Nuh-huh. A city with a sum total of 30 miles of underground transit and endless above-ground gridlock is never going to get more than a handful of middle-class people to settle an area with no middle-class services. Many of them view jury duty at the civic center as a kind of anthropological expedition. Otherwise, most folks only venture Downtown for the Music Center, where visiting Broadway shows and the Metropolitan Opera play, or the Museum of Modern Art.

As for million-dollar condos in asinine locations, a developer is now (not) selling units in a high-rise complex erected in Burbank facing a 16-theater cineplex, which is in turn flanked by your Cold Stone Creamery–type enterprises—because nothing says "swank" like several hundred teenagers queuing beneath your balcony for the next screening of Stuff Blowing Up: The Final Chapter. What were they thinking?

1:51 PM  

Hey Alice, have you been to White Plains lately? Your commentary is hilarious, and if I didn't know the area so well I would say a great use of irony. But the truth is that I live right there and the changes are fantastic. It has made White Plains a real destination as opposed to a place that you get in, get out and hope your hubcaps are still on your car. After 9/11 a lot of big companies relocated up there so it stands to reason that upscale housing is just as necessary as affordable housing which is why there continues to be a fairly balanced racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix. Meet me there at Whole Foods one day and we can chat!

10:00 AM  

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