Neighborhoods are dynamic. They change over time. And as a real estate broker, one of the most important aspects of my job is to understand where a neighborhood has been, where it is, and where it’s going.
It’s a particularly important but colossal undertaking in a city like New York. More than any other major urban area in the Western Hemisphere, it is defined by the constant motion and migration of its ideas and its peoples, by institutions, buildings and businesses fighting to stay relevant when it’s so easy to be forgotten.
Major building developments along the West Side Highway are literally altering the city skyline. Important commuter hubs like Penn Station will receive important renovations within the coming decades. And rapid gentrification in neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Lower East Side have lead to new local cultural hubs- and major wealth gaps among community residents.
Socio-economic diversity has come to these communities quickly; in some cases, perhaps too quickly. It’s been such a quick and major evolution that Mayor Bill De Blasio has launched a new campaign for more affordable housing complexes in an attempt to prevent a potentially irreparable change to New York’s landscape: a city for only the very rich.
But when it comes to framing these complex urban changes, I always return to my own neighborhood, Murray Hill, for reference.
Dynamic Neighborhoods- The Four Pillars
In his study “Dynamic Neighborhoods,” Brookings Institution fellow Robert Weissbourd breaks down neighborhoods and their desirability among four distinct geographic amenities:
Physical layout: the geographic attributes of a neighborhood, including landmarks, parks and historical architecture.
Transportation: the location of a neighborhood relative to major centers of attraction and the infrastructures that facilitate those connections.
Consumption: businesses, restaurants, museums, and recreational facilities.
Social interaction: the “human” side of a neighborhood, or the way members of a community interact with each other.
Price change is driven by amenities. Price changes as a function of amenities in three instances: when the quantity of amenities change (ex. a new park in a neighborhood), when the unit value of amenities change (people value their park more than they used to), and when the expected growth rate of amenities change (there is a change in peoples perception of where a neighborhood is headed).
How a change in the quantity of neighborhood amenities affects housing
A walk back in time
My early-morning walks are sacred. I’ll stroll along Murray Hill’s rows of townhouses or along 3rd Avenue, and occasionally cut between the Empire State and Grand Central so I don’t forget to appreciate the city symbols that border my neighborhood.
From its Revolutionary War-era farmhouse to its rows of 19th century brownstones, The Bamberger Report has reported on Murray Hill’s rich past- and architecture- before. And because of its historically landmarked status, Murray Hill’s residential geography remains unlikely to change. That can be a huge benefit for homeowners.
According to a 2003 NYC Independent Budget Office study, local efforts towards historical preservation have been shown to have a positive impact on home value, while the presence of vacant storefronts, run down buildings, vacant land and so forth could have the opposite effect.
But Grand Central Terminal isn’t only an aesthetic curiosity; it’s an essential transportation hub for Murray Hill-ites. It soon won’t be the only one.
The Second Avenue subway line will soon join Murray Hill’s Park Avenue six trains when it opens in late 2016. In a final affirmation of Weissbourd’s thesis, it will be the first major MTA expansion in half a century.
Consumption: a history of the Murray Hill Meal
As the number and variety of consumption options available to neighborhood residents increases, housing prices should increase as well.
So when does history become history?
A recent poll in BBC Magazine found that a third of readers thought it began a second ago, with 28% believing that current events become part of history after a decade.
By that latter standard, Murray Hill can boast of one the oldest and most diverse restaurant landscapes in Manhattan.
Smorgas at Scandinavia House, the sleek Nordic offering on Park Avenue, opened its doors to the public at dawn of the millenium. Sarge’s Deli has been a local institution for over half a century. El Parador is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city, having served its first meal in 1959.
There’s something disorienting about interacting with historical places on such a minute, quotidian level. Perhaps we only realize the amount of diversity these storefronts bring when they are no longer with us.
“We used to have a lot more mom and pop stores,” said Diane Bartow, president of the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association.
Diane, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years, remembers that these local business owners had more personal relationships with community members. As opposed to major drug stores and coffee houses, these storefronts relied heavily on local clientele for survival, and made sure to personalize their services to keep customers coming back.
And as small storefronts make way for restaurant chains, Murray Hill residents have had to make way for a very particular kind of business: international houses.
When the United Nations headquarters opened its doors off of 1st Avenue in 1952, governments of foreign nations began to set up offices nearby. The Bamberger Report has explored the important foreign presence of consulates and missions in the past, as well as the influx of culture they can bring to the neighborhood.
But many of these international entities are often closed to the public; their primary role is to perform diplomatic services for the citizens of their nations. For a sense of public culture, Murray Hill-ites have been able to turn to the JP Morgan Public Library for talks and exhibits- and these days, there are few other options.
Consumption with An Artistic Component: Murray Hill’s Cultural Revolution
Sixty years ago, dinner and a movie in Murray Hill would have required a lot less travel.
A short New York Times piece from 1959 announces the grand opening of the 34th Street Murray Hill Cinema, formerly the Murray Hill Theater, which in turn was known as the Murray Hill Lyceum when the 600-seat capacity space was first built in 1893 and a frequent stop on the campaign trail for city politicians.
After several relocations, renovations and near-death scares (the ceiling collapsed during a screening of Psycho III in 1986), the theater finally shut its doors for good in 2002. Since then, Murray Hill has gone without a movie house.
But the history of Murray Hill entertainment speaks to a larger trend in geographic change: perhaps, in the early 2000s, there was simply little popular demand for a theater.
The Social Ingredient: A Key to Murray Hill’s Future
A New York Times article last August heralded the neighborhood’s growing appeal to families. And as waves of children have moved in, the area has rushed to meet new demands for day care centers and educational programs, with PS 281, a new elementary school, opening its doors in 2013.
As families continue to flock to Murray Hill, the neighborhood’s demographics will certainly change again; and this time, the change may be lasting. When parents begin enrolling their children in schools, it usually implies a long-term commitment to a home, a neighborhood, and a community.
A Word From Dan Bamberger and Valeria Rotella
If I’ve learned anything from studying neighborhood evolution, it’s that community change is the hardest to predict. I can see a new coffee shop cause buzz around the neighborhood, or watch as a new sky scraper alters the skyline, but it’s difficult to anticipate the new ways in which we’ll interact with the people who live around us.
At the same time, social interaction is by far the cheapest and easiest element we can control in our daily lives. A conversation with a neighbor has nothing to do with city bureaucracy or even finding the time to go to a nearby movie theater; it’s change by way of minimal effort. It’s astounding how a simple hello in the elevator can contribute to a larger have an impact on the way community members relate to one another.
It’s a beautiful element of city life- and one I want to encourage.