Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Q-and-A with Richard Ocejo, author of 'Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars'

Richard Ocejo, an assistant professor in sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, is the author of the new book "Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars" (Princeton University Press).

As we're cutting-and-pasting from the news release:

The product of four years of fieldwork in the East Village and on the Lower East Side, "Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars" in New York City uses nightlife as a window into understanding urban development and explores what community institutions, such as neighborhood bars, gain or lose amid gentrification.

Ocejo considers why residents continue unsuccessfully to protest the arrival of new bars, how new bar owners produce a nightlife culture that attracts visitors rather than locals, and how government actors, including elected officials and the police, regulate and encourage nightlife culture.

Ahead of a panel discussion on the topic tomorrow night (see details at the end of this post), we asked Ocejo a few questions via email about his research.

Why was this topic of particular interest for you to explore?

I started by studying one bar, Milano's, on Houston. It was an old Bowery bar, until the area started to gentrify and newcomers — artists, students, writers, musicians — started moving in, around the 1980s and 1990s. These folks joined the homeless men who had been going to the bar for decades, until they began dying off or simply leaving as the Bowery became less of a Skid Row and more of a place for downtown luxury.

Then, in the 2000s, the "newcomers" were mainly people who wanted to visit the bar because it was a "dive." I was fascinated that these three generations of customers were all hanging out at this place, while the neighborhood was completely changing.

As a sociologist, I was taught to look at the larger context to truly understand what happens to specific people, small groups and places. So I decided to learn more about these changes in the surrounding area and in the city to see if there was any connection to what I had been observing at Milano's. It led to me exploring how downtown's nightlife scenes grew, who was involved with their growth and who was effected by it. I was really interested in what I thought was a unique form of gentrification, namely an advanced level in which forms of everyday life become upscale, as examined through the lens of bars and nightlife.

You spent four years in the neighborhood doing legwork for the book. How would you describe the changes that you witnessed during that time?

In that time I witnessed a lot of piecemeal changes — old businesses closing and new ones opening, old buildings getting renovated and new ones going up, community groups fighting gentrification both dissipating and forming. These changes happen in most neighborhoods, but what they look like and how they occur always vary.

I would describe them in these neighborhoods as like a slow death, I'm sorry to say, more so than a rebirth, as gentrification is often characterized, although these neighborhoods certainly have a lot of life in them, of a certain sort. It's both, and I came to appreciate many of the new cultures in these neighborhoods now. But I felt I was witnessing the spirit of downtown fading over the years. The new people and cultures don't have the same spirit.

Vanishing New York blogger Jeremiah Moss describes what happened on the Bowery as "the quintessence of hyper-gentrification." What do you think of that assessment?

I agree with him, and I believe his term is similar to my "advanced gentrification" concept. The British geographer Loretta Lees has also used the term "super-gentrification" to describe when really wealthy people gentrify an already wealthy neighborhood — certainly a possibility in these neighborhoods.

A difference between them, I believe, is their emphases. Bowery (the avenue) is interesting because historically the avenues and streets to its east gentrified earlier and more gradually than it did. I think it took a while for it to lose its Skid Row stigma. But once Bowery started to transform, it really went into hyper-drive. My concept deals with the result of the gentrification enterprise in a neighborhood. But I'd agree that what's happened on Bowery happened at a pace and scale unique among streets in the area.

Why do you think the Bowery is so appealing to developers, restaurateurs, bar owners, etc.?

Well, its zoning allows for tall buildings and mixed uses as of right. It's also right in between SoHo/NoHo and the East Village and Lower East Side. I'd like to say that its historical importance as a place for working-class culture is what attracts people there, but at this point, I think its history is insignificant to the people building and opening businesses there, at least in the sense that it doesn't seem to play a role in the places they open.

Early newcomers, like B Bar, at least referenced the street's past (not very delicately, but still). Now new bars, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses draw from a broad array of themes when they open their establishments, many of which point to upscale forms of leisure and consumption.

What can local residents and preservationists do, if anything, to slow down this nightlife gold rush on the Bowery?

The conclusion I reached in my book is, not much. They can certainly have little victories, like reducing a business's hours or altering its method of operation or even withdrawing from the space. But we haven't seen many examples in New York of gentrification reversing itself, if we've seen any at all (slowing down or stagnating, sure, but not reversing).

This pattern of growth is quite entrenched in New York politically and economically; it's what most officials and leaders feel it needs to operate.

So where do you see the Bowery in 10 years?

Barring some major economic catastrophe, I see the street becoming even more upscaled. Perhaps more so on the lower parts of the street, which still have lighting stores, jewelry stores and a strong Chinese presence.

But with many new Chinese immigrants living in less-expensive areas of the city, with increasing rents in Manhattan's Chinatown, and an aging Chinese population, it's likely that Chinatown will shrink further, giving way to similar developments we see on the upper parts of Bowery.


Via the EVG inbox...

"Upscaling Downtown" book launch

Please join the University Settlement and the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors for a panel discussion to celebrate the publication of Richard E. Ocejo's "Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City."

Representing groups examined in the book, panelists will express their thoughts on its arguments based on their own unique backgrounds. A Q-and-A period will follow.

Where: University Settlement, 184 Eldridge St.

When: Wednesday, Oct. 15, reception at 6:30 p.m., panel begins at 7 p.m.

Free and open to the public

About the panelists
• Rob Hollander: Neighborhood Historian and Activist
• Bob Holman: Poet, Founder, Bowery Poetry Club
• Matt Krivich: Director of Operations, The Bowery Mission
• Mike Stuto: Owner of HiFi Bar
• Richard E. Ocejo: Assistant Professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
• Sara Romanoski, Director of East Village Community Coalition


Anonymous said...

All so true. I still miss saying hello to the hookers on the corner as I walked my dog each evening past the homeless and those less fortunate than most. The art scene of the '80s put the EV on the map again....and ruined it.

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

It's not about nostalgia for drugs, hookers, and grime 9:31 AM, it's that EV neighborhood institutions (restaurants, stores, etc) used to be aimed at the people who actually lived here. Not so much any more.

bowboy said...

Sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession. Maybe we can get a jazz band and march up the boulevard with black umbrellas. I love the panelists, but aren't they the same folks telling us the same stories that we already know and lived through? Are there no new voices who can read the writing on the wall? Please don't tell me to "rise up" -- that ship has sailed. How do we get beyond this cycle and onto the next Bowery?

Anonymous said...

One could argue that just about anything newly built, including parks, restaurants, museums and not to forget housing is for non-residents and tourists.
Money is the motivation not the desire to raise the quality of life for citizens. The speed of the changes we are witnessing is unbelievable and like nothing that has happened outside of towns built up around gold mines.
There are places, blocks and whole neighborhoods I purposely avoid to not see and be squeezed by tourists. I only eat at non-foodie restaurants (while they last) and visit museums not on most tour guides. Manhattan has become the mall on Black Friday every day of the year.

Anonymous said...

All of my beer mugs are stolen from Tom Milanos. I took them one by one back in 1987.

Mick Mykola Dementiuk said...

No one ever mentions my book, 100 Whores, it and I played our little parts on 3rd Ave in the 1960s http://www.amazon.com/100-Whores-Memories-Mykola-Dementiuk/dp/0975858181

shmnyc said...

Who put this panel together?

The small business/small property owner solution is no solution.

Anonymous said...

I think some of you don't get it. They are building neighborhood institutions for the people who live here. The old school EV residents don't matter anymore. This is the harsh reality. The Bowery hyper-gentrification will continue and Canal St is next. This cycle is get getting going.
It will be many years (barring some economic meltdown or major terrorist attack) before any of this starts to change.

Anonymous said...

Neighborhood activists working on liquor licensing have dramatically changed the landscape in the past five years despite insurmountable odds and belittlement.

It's a thankless second job to attend meetings, hearings, research, community organizing, photography, video, writing, speeches, pasting up flyers, meeting with applicants, law suits, policy meetings, policy writing, etc. It's every day plotting. They are experts.

Dozens of storefronts that would have been a bar or restaurant are not because of their work. Every storefront would be a bar/lounge/restaurant if they didn't step in and do something. There are also many establishments that have stipulations in place- such as reduced hours, closing of all windows and doors at 10, no backyards, etc.

This is a war. There are still so many people who want to stay here. Live here and work here.

retail diversity
protection of our community gardens
protecting TSP
protesting bad landlords and developers
preservation of affordable housing
class and ethnic diversity
no backyard dining
no illegal ventillation systems
support to tenants suffering harassment and gut renovations
Special thanks to NYCHA, Ageloff Towers and so many more buildings for making a conscious effort towards retail diversity in their buildings.

rob said...

I can't speak for the other panelists, but I assume the evening will be about Rich Ocejo's book and its description and analysis of turmoil between 2004 and 2008. I have no interest in reviving past struggles or recommending solutions to past problems that no longer pertain to the neighborhood as it is today, nor do I care to engage in a fight between residential gentrifiers seeking safe, clean, quiet, well-lighted gentrified streets and commercial gentrifiers who want to create or tap into a new scene or the scene of its future. There are much more important ideas in his book than those, imo.

Anonymous said...

So you read the book and we didn't. "There are much more important ideas in his book than those, imo."
Please enlighten us.

Anonymous said...

2:20 props! - from someone whose drinking glasses came from Mars

rob said...

@7:40am - Come tonight and hear (-;

C Wilson said...

Maybe I can invite the lady I saw this am who actually turned away from Lincoln Center to take a pic of her friend standing in front of a Lululemon store so she can explain just what the hell she's getting out of her visit here.