NYC as Global City: A Decade of Change

A recent Facebook conversation about the proposed plans for the WTC PAC brought the performing arts sectors’ lack of systemic understanding glaringly to light, most notably that so many Facebook commenters focused on the idea that NYC was becoming a Global City. That ship has sailed, kids. New York is a Global City. It’s a done deal, get with the program, this has been happening for over twenty years and really kicked into gear in 2004.

Here’s a rough 20 year timeline I hacked together for a lecture I gave recently at NYU:


The idea of the Global City was originally and most clearly articulated by Saskia Sassen in her book, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo published in September, 2001. In 2012 Aaron M. Renn published a thoughtful essay on “What Is A Global City?” on the website New Geography. After offering a survey history of the term’s evolving definitions, he identifies four basic ways to look at global cities that include:

  1. Advanced Producer/Services Production Node
  2. Economic Giant
  3. International Gateway
  4. Political and Cultural Hub

Renn notes that over the past decade or so “the game has changed. Rather than attempting to look at specific global economic functions, the global city game has become effectively a balanced scorecard attempt to determine, as I like to put it, the world’s ‘biggest and baddest’ cities.”

Furthermore, upon reviewing the methodology the various “global city” evaluations, he notes that, “It’s also interesting to see what was included vs. not included in quality of life type ratings. For example, items like censorship, media access, the rule of law, and the environment are listed. But measures of upward social-economic mobility or income inequality are not.” And he offers that “a number of the rankings suggest a self-consciously elite mindset, such as shopping and dining options. As with many quality of life surveys, these seem to orient them towards expatriate executive types rather than normal folks.”

Sound familiar? It should.

Those of you who live in NYC prior to 9/11 (and that’s less of you than one might imagine, I’ll get to that in a minute) will recall that after 9//11 and the recession of 2001-2002, the economy was anemic at best. But in 2004 the global economic recovery finally picked up steam and virtually every major economy in North America, South America, Europe and Asia was growing.  New York, always a world financial capital, was flush once again.

Prior to 9/11, Giuliani – and I know people will argue ad nauseam about this – made NYC safer, cleaner, more economically stable and “growth-oriented” than it had been in decades. But Giuliani was still Old School New York, his personal manner and his management style the embodiment of the tribal, pugnacious, no-nonsense attitudes that characterized New York for most of its history.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, came into office already a globally connected billionaire, a mild-mannered technocrat more comfortable at Davos than in Da Bronx. And though he learned to “perform populism” – with his mangled Spanish and his subway rides – he was less interested in that kind of politics than in the kind of system design, planning and technological innovation that characterize his businesses.

Bloomberg’s first term as mayor was mostly focused on bringing the city back to its feet economically and psychologically as it recovered from 9/11, but by 2004 the city was not only stable but starting to prosper, the global economy was picking up steam and Bloomberg could move on to his grander ambitions. If Bloomberg’s global vision had been previously understated, it was readily foregrounded when NYC hosted the Republican National Convention in August 2004 and when, in 2005, he launched a proposal for a West Side Stadium as the centerpiece of NYC’s bid for the 2012 Olympics.

Over the course of his three terms Bloomberg would implement many programs that were specifically designed to foster technological and entrepreneurial innovation. From upgrading the city’s website and information systems to his strategic deployment of the quasi-governmental NYCEDC to helm major redevelopment projects (often skirting the bothersome bureaucracy of official government), Bloomberg change New Yorkers experiences and expectations of the city. He introduced 311, designed ambitious long-term initiatives like GreeNYC and PlaNYC 2030 and regularly exerted his influence on the national and international stage.

NYC has always been a media capital and Bloomberg aggressively courted Hollywood, incentivizing commercial film and television production.  Surely someone will write a doctoral thesis on the implications of the changing character of New York City as portrayed in police sitcoms from Barney Miller to Brooklyn 99.

Bloomberg incentivized New Media entrepreneurs by creating start-up incubators, luring Google and other tech giants to the city. The creation of The Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute at Cornell Tech, to be headquartered on Roosevelt Island, served as a visible centerpiece for Bloomberg’s ambition to turn NYC into a capital for STEM, diversifying the city’s revenue base beyond the financial and media sectors.

In August 2004 Choire Sicha became editorial director of Gawker Media and served as the New York face for British Internet mogul Nick Denton. Media industry gossip became a spectator sport. In May 2005 Accel partners invested $12.7 million in Facebook and in July 2005 MySpace was acquired by News Corporation for $580 million. In retrospect that seems ridiculous, but at the time MySpace still seemed viable, and social media was a brand new business. The dawn of social media and the ubiquity of handheld devices not only spurred another Internet boomlet but fundamentally changed New Yorkers’ relationship to physical place.

Even as Bloomberg embarked on an ambitious program of economic growth, technological innovation and real estate development that changed the built environment and the city looks and feels, the demography of the city was changed as well.

Prior to the turn of the last century, in the late 1990s, NYC was still home to many public spaces conducive to serendipitous encounters and confrontation with difference. Restaurants, nightclubs, parks, bars, events and street life were rife with social interaction across classes, races, ethnicities and experiences.

But when the city’s economy was recovering in 2004,  the dollar was still weaker than the euro, and some of you may remember the influx of wealthy expatriate executive types buying up property in the newly trendy East Village and other neighborhoods.

In fact, investment in NYC by wealthy people from all over the world spurred a buying and building spree that drove prices ever higher and displaced the middle class, not to mention the working class or working poor – and artists. And as NYC became safer and more familiar to non-New Yorker Americans, the city attracted wealthy people – or their children – from cities across the country.

Long story short – a lot of rich, mostly white people moved to NYC and a lot of poor black and Hispanic people – and working class white people – left the city, which fundamentally changed the city’s topography, demographics and DNA. Spike Lee’s recent impromptu tirade on gentrification notwithstanding, this is fact, not hyperbole.

You can read the data yourself at the website for the Center for Urban Research, but the short version is that between 2000 – 2010 New York City’s population increased by 2.1% (166,855 people) and has just kept growing. In Brooklyn, the White population grew by 38,774 while BLACKS LOST ALMOST 50,000 PEOPLE. Not only that, but Black losses were substantial in several communities with historically large Black populations.

The Black population in Crown Heights was down 12%,  Flatbush -14%, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens -12% and Bedford -15%. In Prospect Heights the White population share increased from just over one-quarter in 2000 (28.2%) to almost half (47.2%) in 2010, in Clinton Hill the White population share more than doubled from 15% in 2000 to just over 35% in 2010 and in Williamsburg, Whites increased their share of the population from 34% to 52% while the Latino population declined by almost 25%, moving from a population share in 2000 of 57% to just under 38% in 2010.

While NYC has always been somewhat segregated, the density and diversity of the population, combined with its mobility within the city, tended to foster a kind of frenetic, generative heterogeneity. But the past decade has homogenized the population across all categories, not only along racial and ethnic lines, but also by class and income.

In practical terms this demographic shift means that there are many, many people living in NYC now who did not live here prior to 9/11 or even 2004 and have no lived experience of the city as it was. For better or worse they have no point of reference for a more racially, culturally and economically diverse New York.

From the smoking ban to bike lanes to The Barclay’s Center, the city has been transformed. David Byrne, Patti Smith, and all the rest of that generation of artists who bemoan the loss of the city they knew are right: it is changed. And with the possible exception of some unforeseen catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions, it is unlikely to revert to its previous self any time in the near future. It isn’t a matter of good or bad – it just is.  The people now living in NYC – artists, audiences and cultural gatekeepers – are as different now as is the city itself.

While New York has always attracted strivers and dreamers, it once attracted young misfits and aspiring bohemians who had to escape their stultifying hometowns to find themselves. That era is over. Those people can’t afford to live here, there is no such thing as bohemianism or counterculture, the reductive binary structure of “us” vs. “them” is wholly insufficient to the task at hand – there is only us, a vastly complex, interconnected web of individuals and ever-morphing micro-communities existing in dynamic relational structures and conditional hierarchies where art must situate itself differently than before, and so too, must artists.

This was an essential underlying point to my My essay “Considering Alastair/Questioning Realness”: Downtown is dead and has been for a decade. It is the insular nature of the “community” that keeps the corpse of “downtown” alive, brooks no dissent, admits no newcomers, and thereby hinders the development of new ideas, aesthetics or rigorous critical discourse.

Macaulay’s implicit assertion, with which I agree, was that American Realness – and by extension a considerable swath of “downtown” dance – proposes itself as “cutting-edge”, “subversive”, “challenging” and “experimental” when in fact its aesthetic is by now mostly conventional and familiar, safely re-enacting the “experimental” and “subversive” tropes of a “downtown” that has long since ceased to exist.

The real question we should be asking is, “What does a Global City demand of its artists and what must artists demand of the city to be able to make the work they hope to make?”

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