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June 8, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

June 8 , 2006

Upscale In The South End

As urban property values rise and suburban economies collapse,
the poor will have to leave town

I opened the email from neighborhood activist Steve Winter and clicked on the link. Then I nearly fell out of my chair.

Then I read a few more paragraphs of the linked article and got angry. White hot, searing fury, mad enough to want to go burn down a suburban tract house on some stupid curvilinear dead-end street in Clifton Park. Just for fun. Just to make the world a better place.

Fortunately, for legal reasons, I didn’t. The link was for a Capital District Business Review article that concerned a building in our neighborhood that The Wife and I have taken a particular interest in over the years, 142 Morton Avenue. We know it well. We had several excellent opportunities to buy it, but for practical reasons decided not to.

The building is located down the hill from us on Morton, half a block “below Stewart’s.” This is the invisible line in most people's minds between upper Morton, “the good part,” and the blighted lower part of the Avenue. Another long half block runs from 142 to Eagle Street, where begins the section of Morton where the Albany City government and private concerns have partnered to create an artificial slum which supports a thriving crack and heroin dealership.

Now, a smart fellow named Eric Moses has bought 142 Morton and is renovating it. Unlike most City officials and local real estate agents, Mr. Moses evidently has heard that there is a critical shortage of rental units in Albany. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, decent newly renovated apartments rent instantly for top dollar. He clearly realizes that buying an empty fire damaged building with 13 one bedroom apartments in my neighborhood is a wise investment.

Renovation costs aside, Mr. Moses paid $213,000 for the building. The Wife and I could have had it for less before it burned. Oh well. We had other buildings to renovate, up the hill.

I’d guess that Mr. Moses is encouraged by the steps the City has been taking to reverse the South End blight that they have worked so hard to cause. Certainly he has been encouraged by the folks who have been quietly buying and moving into well-built but dirt cheap two family houses nearby. And, if I may say so, he has no doubt been encouraged by the visible renovation and beautification of the two blocks of Morton above the Stewart’s.

I would also guess that unlike the editors of the Capital District Business Review, he understands that the smart thing to do is to buy low and sell high. A smart investor does not wait to buy until everybody is desperately scrambling for South End real estate and frantically paying exorbitant prices. Smart folks invest in affordable urban real estate BEFORE suburban property values collapse. Never to recover. Ever.

But see, the editors of the Capital District Business Review are a bunch of backward looking suburbanites. That’s why they printed that nasty, slanted anti-Albany article about 142 Morton in their May 19 edition.

How dare those sleazy suburbanites call my neighborhood “hardscrabble.” What the hell is that supposed to mean, anyway?

I’ll bet the smirking editors of the Business Review couldn’t come up with a coherent definition of “hardscrabble” off the top of their heads. All they could tell you that it’s a negative put down.

They could tell you that the editors of the Hearst-owned Times Union, another bunch of uninformative suburbanites, encourage their content providers (“reporters”) to slander my neighborhood with that... that word.

Note how the Business Review article casts a negative light on Mr. Moses and his foreward-looking business acumen. Most of the individual slanting techniques in the article are low key. Most of them. But there are so many nasty slants that the total effect is like a hammer to the skull. Indeed, the negative effect of the article borders on hysteria. (Just for fun, try counting the negative sounding phrases in the article. How many can you find?)

Thus my rage over this anti-urban suburbanite propaganda. I immediately banged out this incoherent frothing reply. Fortunately, I came to my senses and didn’t send it. I’m sure that if the editors of the Business Review copy slanders like ‘hardscrabble” from the Times Union, they also engage in the Hearst trick of editing letters to the editor to their own advantage.

There’s another reason I didn’t send the letter. Why am I displaying such joy over the impending economic collapse of the suburbs? Just because I’ve endured decades of listening to snotty suburbanites degrade my neighborhood, just because they have done everything possible to destroy my city, just because I have been subsidising their unsustainable economies with my tax dollars is no reason to laugh at their impending distress as their property values sharply decline.

Heh heh.

But I digress. I strongly suspect that not one of the Business Review editors has more than a hazy notion about Peak Oil, and I’d bet cash money not one of them has heard of Peak Natural Gas. And I’m certain that they would all blink stupidly if you were to tell them that production of biofuels is dependent on fertilizers made from petroleum. No oil, no fertilizer, no farm product, no biofuels.

This is the end of “explosive growth” of the suburbs, which I consider to be a disease that has been spreading over the landscape. Growth will shift back to the City where it belongs. But this will bring a new problem, as recently explained by Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News on Democracy Now! for June 2nd. From the transcript:

I think that there is a national significance to what is going on, and it's a theory of mine that I’ve been developing now as I report on it and analyze the situation in urban America -- is that increasingly, especially now that we've reached a peak oil crisis, there is a concerted move to move the middle class and the upper classes, that moved out to the suburbs back in the ‘60s and the ‘50s and the ‘70s, back into the cities, that there are many people who are living in the exurbs who don't want to have to drive one-and-a-half hours to work every day in the city... to spend so much more money on gas.

Mr. Gonzalez is talking about what’s happening now in New York City. But what happens 150 miles down the Hudson River eventually ends up happening upstream where we live. He explains what we can expect soon in downtown Albany:

So what’s happening is real estate speculators are realizing that the market is ripe to re-grab the inner cities and to, in essence, create urban America as more in the European models, where the middle and the upper classes live in the central cities and the poor live in the suburbs, on the Parisian model, for instance. The immigrants or the poor in Paris live in the suburbs, not in the city.

And our city, as developed throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, was basically the central city as being the place where the poor lived. And so now there is a concerted effort to recapture the cities and to displace and to move out the residents that are there.

It may be hard to believe, but soon the South End will become the toney part of town, and Colonie will become the crime ridden “hardscrabble” dumping ground for the poor. But this change is not coming through “inevitable market forces” or the ebb and flow of fashion. Again, Juan Gonzalez:

...The problem is that government policy, rather than try to assure affordable housing and a good mix of poor, working class and upper class within urban America, the policies that local governments are pursuing now are really to assist these landlords and developers in pushing people out and driving up prices... I do not believe that what's happening in New York City is an isolated situation. I actually believe it’s happening, and I’ve been receiving emails from people in other parts of the country, in Chicago and other places... the same thing is happening.

There you have it, folks. Gentrification is coming to our neighborhoods, and the indigent and working poor are going to be pushed out to the “hardscrabble” suburbs to rot.

Well, I’m glad The Wife and I bought property in the South End when everybody told us we were crazy to do so. But I shouldn’t gloat about the coming suburban crash. Soon my neighbors will no longer be able to afford to live in my neighborhood. They will be forced to scratch for survival in crime-ridden Clifton Park.

I see the signs around me already in my own neighborhood. Rents are rising and the working class is feeling the squeeze. Juan Gonzalez is absolutely right, every city in America is about to evict their poor to the suburbs.

We have gone to one extreme, and now we are passing to the other. Why must the classes be separate? Wouldn’t it be healthier for everybody to live together, helping each other each in our own ways?

Perhaps this is a symptom of an empire in inevitable decline. What can we do but purchase urban real estate while we still can, and hold on as our society deteriorates?

UPDATE: Brian Nearing of the Hearst owned Times Union did a good story on 142 Morton Avenue that was positive in tone. Clearly, it is intended as an answer to the Business Review article. (Note that he reports the sale price for the building as $223,000.) Brian gets a lot of flack because a) he works for a scummy corporate monopoly, and b) he is effectively the only content provider that scummy corporate monopoly assigns to the entire City of Albany, and therefore misses a lot of events that people expect him to cover. Hats off to Brian for doing a bit of good work, and for not once using the derogatory slander “hardscrabble” to describe my neighborhood.

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