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River To River: Whose Downtown?

by Sharon Zukin, Mar 01, 2002
 

When most New Yorkers refer to the area of lower Manhattan as vibrant, they aren't talking about the commercial functions of the financial district around Wall Street. Rather, they mean the liveliness of lower Manhattan's street life, the well-kept green of the new Hudson River Park, and the museums that recently enhanced the area's reputation as a tourist destination-all of which are quite different from, and in some ways antithetical to, the old concentration of financial firms. Downtown has emerged as a place to live and spend free time, instead of a traditional office district where work is done. Rebuilding plans must take this into account.

Much of lower Manhattan's vibrancy, moreover, reflects the startling increase in the area's residential population. In 1970, the number of people living in the area from the Battery north to Canal Street was just 7,000. The number of residents doubled by 1980 and rose to 25,000 in 1990. By 2000, it reached 34,000. In the last three decades, lower Manhattan has become a residential area.

But who lives there? Lower Manhattan residents are young, childless, and affluent; they are the proverbial yuppies who were both envied and ridiculed during the stock market boom of the eighties. This is especially true of the 25,000 people who live in the new apartment houses of Battery Park City and the converted office buildings of the financial district-in other words, the downtown population excluding Tribeca. By 2000, according to "Downtown New York," a report prepared for the Downtown Alliance in January, 2001, 88 percent of these residents were younger than 45; 76 percent earned more than $90,000 a year; and 25 percent of the households earned over $210,000 a year, which is more than four times the regional median.

Not surprisingly, almost two thirds of these residents work in financial services. However, although there is a common belief that downtown residents live there in order to walk to work, almost two-thirds of lower Manhattan residents work in other areas of the city. Downtown is becoming a place to live and visit, instead of simply a place to work.

There is a "creative" connection waiting to be made between cultural businesses and downtown's new residential identity. The 535 stock brokerages in Tribeca already coexist with around 100 design services and a significant number of arts-related businesses: 36 theater, dance, or musical performance spaces; 35 independent artists, writers, or performers; 13 agents or managers; and 11 museums. And the number of these arts-related businesses is roughly doubled if you add in the adjacent neighborhood of SoHo.

Richard Florida's recent book, The Rise of the Creative Class, describes a group very much like the residents of lower Manhattan: a large number of men and women who utilize creativity in some way in their daily work and are generally associated with artistic, technological, or intellectual innovation. Though he doesn't discuss wealth and income, the creative class is a typical, contemporary upper middle class group accepting of social and cultural diversity. As different from the robber barons who built the first generation of skyscrapers on Wall Street as they are from hippies of the 1960s, the creative class likes a local scene of music and bars for socializing and tolerates, if not actively seeks, lifestyle diversity. Indeed, downtown residents express a desire to improve their neighborhood by bringing in exactly the commercial services this group needs. According to "Downtown New York," residents want "24-hour gourmet delis, greengrocers, video stores, and dry cleaners." They especially want shops that stay open past 6 p.m.

As chairwoman of downtown's Community Board 1, Madeline Wils has continually emphasized that the wishes of the residential community have to weigh heavily in the plans to redevelop lower Manhattan. She recently criticized the suggestion, which is frequently voiced by the victims' survivors' associations, that a large portion of the World Trade Center site be dedicated to a memorial. But it is not clear who should live in the area, or what would be its most valuable social uses.

The affluent, white residential community that has developed downtown in the past 20 years is not representative of all of New York City. Not entirely connected to the financial sector, yet heavily employed there, these residents could easily disappear if many of the remaining financial organizations moved away. Without building a larger, critical mass of cultural businesses and nonprofit institutions in lower Manhattan, we cannot make sure that residents would make a "reverse commute" to work in Brooklyn or New Jersey every day.

The powerful Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has spoken in favor of "vitality" and providing more commercial services for the residents who are now in place. This cannot be done if resources are spent to re-create lower Manhattan as a financial capital. By placing importance on culture over finance, there is potential to open the door to a more authentic, mixed-use community that stretches river to river and includes all of downtown.

Sharon Zukin is co-editor, with Michael Sorkin, of After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City (Routledge, 2002).


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Last Updated (Mar 21, 2012)