Looking back you have to wonder what I was thinking, but I actually moved into New York City in 1975. That was approximately the year when New York hit rock bottom. It was the year that New York City kind-of defaulted on its debt. Read the details of that episode in the New Yorker here. The kind-of default was in October 1975, right between when I took the bar exam and found out that I had passed. What was I getting into?
During the decade of the 1970s New York City lost more than 800,000 people in population, about 10% of the total, going from 7.89 million in the 1970 census to 7.07 million in the 1980 census. The sharp decline in population meant that large amounts of housing became vacant. The housing in question was concentrated in certain neighborhoods that were being rapidly overwhelmed by crime and abandoned by productive citizens. Fires in these neighborhoods became pervasive. This was the era of "Fort Apache, the Bronx" -- the title of a 1981 movie starring Paul Newman that memorialized that sad and dangerous time.
The neighborhoods in question were what we would recognize as classic "slums," characterized by a combination of deteriorated housing stock, high crime, vandalism, and destruction that included pervasive arson. You may recognize the names of some of these neighborhoods: the South Bronx; Harlem and much of the Lower East Side in Manhattan; and, in Brooklyn, much of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York and Brownsville. Two of the very worst areas were the center of the South Bronx and the most eastern part of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (the area of Avenues C and D). By the time the mid-80s rolled around, many of the buildings in these areas had been burned out and knocked down, replaced by vacant lots. Even as the city revived in the 90s and 2000s, new private investment in these areas was minimal to non-existent. The vacant lots persisted for decades. Put simply, nobody would invest private money in these places. It was seen as just too risky.
Which brings me to a couple of postings today at a site called New York YIMBY ("Yes In My Back Yard"). This site tracks news of any significant new real estate developments anywhere in the five boroughs of New York City. Today brings news of two new developments that struck my attention because they represent new private investment in the very hearts of two of the areas that burned out in the 70s and early 80s and have lain fallow ever since. If new private investment will now go into these locations, that means that there really is nowhere in New York City where it will not go.
Here's a rendering of one development located at 751 East 6th Street, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But not just anywhere on the Lower East Side -- this building is all the way over between Avenues C and D, closer to D. Even a few years ago, we still would have said this was the very "worst" part of the LES.
There are to be 82 rental apartments, all "market rate," i.e., non-subsidized. A rendering of a kitchen shows that there will be nothing second-class about this building:
The building is almost done, and they have begun to lease the units. You could live there!
Or check out this rendering for a prospective new building at 980 Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx:
This one is not yet built, but certainly looks fairly attractive. It is right next to the elevated structure that carries the number 2 and 5 subway lines through the middle of the South Bronx, a block from the Simpson Street station. If you had to pick ground zero for "Fort Apache," this address would be it. I'm old enough to have taken that subway line back when it was lined with 1920s/30s era apartment houses all along its length, and then seen them all disappear and turn into vacant lots. Here is what 980 Westchester Avenue still looks like today:
To be fair, this building appears to be receiving at least some sort of New York City subsidy or tax abatement (the YIMBY piece says that it will contain "30 non-profit sleeping accommodations for an unspecified organization.") Still, it is basically a private endeavor.
So, is there any real slum left in New York City today? Sure there is: the publicly-owned New York City Housing Authority projects!
UPDATE August 31: The New York Post reports today that some 1160 children living in NYCHA projects have tested positive for excess lead in the blood since 2012. If it was any private landlord, he would be going to jail!