“It’s the flip side of the 1970s, where there were empty buildings and nobody wanted to live in them,” says Will Hermes, the author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, a book that details the special alchemy that created great music ranging from the Talking Heads to the birth of hip hop in ’70s New York. “There was a flight from the city, which left buildings open for people to do cool stuff.” Now, Manhattan’s empty buildings are vacation homes, or full of expensive apartments that no one actually lives in, and neighborhoods have been ceded to tourists. “It’s like a mall and a giant hotel, and everything’s booked.”
For Hermes, the magic that led to New York’s 1970s scene came from rent control. “It ensured a mix of economic backgrounds, and now we’re dealing with the rise of condominium culture and the erosion of rent control,” he says. Some of Manhattan’s ghost-city status, Hermes says, has to do with Brooklyn’s rise as a new center for the arts. That happened because of the huge difference in affordability between Brooklyn and Manhattan — but these days, Brooklyn is getting just as many new condos with foreign money.
What’s happening in New York in general, and Manhattan in particular, is not germane to just this city. There are other places in the world that are mostly hideaways for the one percent, from Doha to London. But it’s emblematic of a worrying trend. When cities cede their limited space to empty buildings and empty money, they lose vibrancy in the process. A city is at its best when it has a community of people, alert and engaged, committed to its functionality and its energy. What’s happening in Manhattan these days feels connected to what goes on at the end of capitalism; the world’s great cities are reduced to ghost towns and tourist-villes, malls that close at 6 PM, hotels that are mere liminal spaces between here and some other place. The real action is happening elsewhere.