The Vanishing City: a movie review

Early on in The Vanishing City, we hear the voice of Mayor Michael Bloomberg saying, “Over the past five years we have re-zoned over 4,000 city blocks in dozens of neighborhoods to allow for growth, and preserve community character where appropriate.”

The Lower East Side, Harlem, Downtown Brooklyn, Gramercy Park, south and east Village: All of these communities have felt the impact and hardships of the city’s re-zoning and development laws.

Interviews with Bettina Damiani, Good Jobs New York; Tom Agnotli, former city planner; and Julian Bresh, author of The Bloomberg Way, all give testimony to the lopsided, unequal housing laws in the city and state that favor development of luxury housing over good planning that would preserve the essence of what makes New York a great city.

City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and part of the Upper West Side, testifying before the city planning commission, sites a recent development in her district: “An international British company bought up 50 rent stabilized buildings for $250 million. The company considered this a solid investment. Why? Because the housing codes in the U.S. are so lax that they see turning a profit very soon down the road.” The council woman gives passionate and moral testimony as to why the city and state must change the housing laws so people young and old are not displaced from their homes of many years.

Nellie Hester Bailey founder Harlem Tenants Council talks about rezoning in Harlem. “In Harlem, 71 businesses on 125th Street are being evicted. 2,500 unites of luxury housing is part of the ‘redevelopment’ plan. Where will these people and their businesses go?”

The documentary is a wakeup call to all New Yorkers. Imagine, if you will, a bill that allows a developer to build luxury real estate on a property – but pay only property taxes on the original property, not on the new, more valuable, structure. That is Senate Bill 421.

City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn explains why this bill was passed and made law in the 1970s. There were 45,530 such units in New York City. I found Mr. Lander’s explanation of this bill and its consequences astonishing.

Willets Point in Queens has been targeted for redevelopment. Willets Point currently has no sidewalks or sewers. In times of heavy rain, flooding is common. The area is very industrial and is filled with auto repair shops, scrap yards, waste processing sites, and similar small businesses that employ hundreds of people. This has been a viable revenue source for the city for years. “The area has denied city services for years” as Joe Bono a small business owner for over 40 years explains. “And now they [city] want to come in here like the savior and take away our livelihoods.”

Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown in Manhattan, comments on the importance of preserving these original ethnic neighborhoods like her district, which also includes Little Italy. People have settled here for many generations and feel connected here. They are also favorite tourist stops, brining in revenue to the City’s treasury.

If present city housing policy continues, only 8 percent of new housing units will be allocated for non-luxury housing. That means only 40,000 to 80,000 units will be considered “affordable” housing in NYC.

There is much to be learned from this 55-minute documentary, including on the issue of eminent domain. Most important is the fight back, which has emerged due to, as State Senator Deborah Glick says, “There are [in this administration] lawyers being paid lots of money to take apart the remaining housing and Rent Regulation laws.”

It’s going to take communities coming together to elect representatives who will fight the likes of the Bloombergs.

Movie review
The Vanishing City
Directed by Fiore Derosa and Jen Senko
2009, 54 minutes, Unrated


Gabe Falsetta
Gabe Falsetta

Long-time social justice activist Gabe Falsetta writes from New York City.