By Sabina Mollot
While the events taking place in Stuyvesant Town ever since the historic sale to Tishman Speyer have hardly lacked for headlines, from the point of view of a former resident, the story that was not being told — at least not nearly enough — was that of how the aggressive attempts to turn over apartments impacted individuals.
Lisa M. Morrison, along with two other people, have since written a book on the subject, called Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods. The book, published by NYU Press ($28 paperback), was released on March 15 and is available at nyupress.org and on Amazon. Co-authors are Rachael A. Woldoff and Michael R. Glass.
The book includes 50 interviews with residents of all ages and situations (from seniors, some of whom are original residents, to younger people with families to singles, including college students.)
“It has a lot of different angles and kind of looks at the issue from different perspectives,” Morrison said. She also suggested the book is complementary to Charles Bagli’s Other People’s Money, which offered a behind-the-scenes look at the infamous $5.4 billion deal and the real estate feeding frenzy that led to such a speculative and ultimately predatory investment.
“Our book focuses on the community members’ experience, since I don’t think any other book has that,” Morrison said. “And the idea of being priced out of a community. It’s something that’s happening all over. It’s something a lot of people can relate to.”
While gentrification and affordable housing is a subject that’s often talked about, Morrison acknowledges there are no easy answers. She noted the book does offer some suggestions and she also thinks the recent preservation deal in ST/PCV is helpful to renters. But, she added, “I don’t think we have a magic bullet.”
Morrison, who lived in a market rate apartment in Peter Cooper that she moved to in 2008, was, like her book’s subject matter, “priced out” pretty recently. This was after sizing down from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom within the complex, after the great mid-lease rent hike of 2013.
But at the time she first moved in, “it was a historical moment or at least it sort of felt that way,” she said. Soon, however, the economic downturn and other factors led to an increased pace of deregulation at the property and consequently, mass panic within the tenant population that was impossible to ignore.
Still, Morrison didn’t think about writing a book about it until one day when she got into a conversation with an older neighbor as they rode the M15. They ended up talking for an hour before parting ways and it was that conversation, about the way things had changed, that inspired Morrison to hear the stories of even more neighbors.
“As a sociologist,” said Morrison, “I was just concerned about how these changes were affecting the people that I talked to on the playground and how it affected their children and their schools.”
She added, “I thought it was such a unique community in the sense of New York City being so transient.
“I loved the community I loved that you could meet someone and ‘oh, you live in Stuy Town?’ and have an immediate connection. I have a daughter and we’d go to Playground 8 and she basically grew up there.”
Among the tenants who were interviewed, rising rents and/or fear of being pressured out of their apartments seemed to be a nearly universal concern. The influx of students and other younger people and resulting quality of life concerns was also a frequent topic. Meanwhile, the interviews conducted with the newer generation Morrison said she hopes will offer a balanced view.
The book also offers some background on the property’s history from the days of racial segregation to the struggle for tenants of color to be accepted to more recent developments like the tenant payouts from the “Roberts” settlement. Another topic, learned through the interviews, was the rigorous, and sometimes deeply intrusive process would-be tenants underwent when seeking an apartment during the Met Life era. Questions about people’s lifestyles and even prying eyes into cabinets were what some tenants tolerated in the quest for acceptance into Stuy Town, and if they were really feeling lucky, Peter Cooper. Some lingering elements of racial discrimination over the decades were also recalled by a couple of people of color interviewed.
In terms of policy, the rent stabilization system is also explored with Morrison noting what is painfully clear to any newer tenant of ST/PCV. “Just because it’s rent stabilized doesn’t mean it’s cheap.”
Morrison began the process of interviewing residents in 2009, with her co-authors later joining in the process. With Morrison also working full-time as the senior economic affairs officer at the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the book was a side project since then. It was completed recently enough to include information on the sale of Stuyvesant Town to Blackstone.
As for the other two authors, Glass is a geographer and lecturer on urban studies at the University of Pittsburgh and has also co-authored the book, Performativity, Politics and the Production of Social Space. Woldoff has previously written another book on neighborhood demographics, White Flight/Black Flight: The Dynamics of Racial Change in an American Neighborhood.
The Gotham Center for NYC History will hold a forum on the new book on May 10 at 8 p.m. Copies will be available for signing and purchase. Seating is first come, first served. The center is located at 365 Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets