I’ve just finished listening to Benjamen Walker’s Theory Of Everything podcast “New York After Rent” – he completed a three part series on Airbnb and the “commodification of every square inch of the city”. He posits that Airbnb (Air Bed and Breakfast), a room/housing short-term rental app service, which began in 2008 in NYC may be responsible for changing the face of entire blocks and neighborhoods of NYC – and of urbanity itself – for the worse.
The Broadway musical “Rent” which ended its run in 2008, is a running theme throughout the series, but for those who never saw “Rent” (which includes the producer/narrator and myself), it’s actually ancillary to this series. But for “Rent” and NYC fans alike, the famous, real-life Life Cafe featured in “Rent” and other beloved or famous NYC neighborhood icons are gone or going, and they are not coming back any time soon; and for that, we can thank the “sharing” economy and gentrification — which tends to displace 31+ original (yet, not aboriginal) flavors of people and their original (yet, not aboriginal) histories, experiences, art, talents, personalities and cultures with just two or three flavors – and instead offers, as a salve of sorts, the choice of 31+ fucking flavors of cupcakes, sushi, cronuts, artisan burgers and craft brews and welcomes ubiquitous retail chain stores – catering specifically to tourists and suburbia’s immigrant short-timers.
Authentic sharing, lest we forget, is borrowing a cup of sugar or a stick of butter, a tool, a ladder, or a bit of expertise or advice; giving away plant cuttings from a houseplant or a garden or a kitten from your cat’s litter; lending lawn chairs, an evening dress or camping gear for a weekend; subletting a room or borrowing an unused bike for the summer; raising a barn, doing a brake job, helping to paint a room or build a deck for a future quid pro quo; or dog-sitting or babysitting for a friend, neighbor or relative.
BUT the [false] sharing economy is an intentional misnomer — it is lucrative and far, so very far, from sharing. Instead of each transaction (whether a payment is involved or not) happening between two or more individuals or parties (acquainted or not), the app’s middleman claims his toll — a generous commission for connecting the user to an unknown party — because his app’s innovative design, cool interface and purported ease/safety of its use replaces the interpersonal, friend of friend, proximity, word or mouth, or bulletin board connection – or even the old-fashioned advertisement in the weekly neighborhood newspaper’s back pages (which now consists of mostly foreclosure notices). It’s about monetizing every possible type of transaction – and Wall $treet is all up in it — or $alivating ahead of future IPOs, for 525,600 minutes per year, every year, into perpetuity.
Walker and a few of the urban and sociology experts he interviews assert that the advent of Airbnb along with the continuing gentrification of NYC, i.e., the ongoing transfer of affordable housing from lower-incomed, but multi-faceted and diverse tenants to the “economically functional” who are willing and able to pay higher rents – those who are homogenized via income, education and provenance has resulted in the homogentricommodifization (my new, clumsy word) of the many once colorful, flavorful, cultural NYC neighborhoods. Because, what suburbanite immigrants – who claim to crave city life for a visit or to put down shallow roots after college until they eventually move back to suburban or urban perimeter enclaves – really want is mirror image neighbors, mirror image aesthetics and comfortable, suburban privacy and security, and that translates not into urbanity, but into banality.
Walker talks to Sarah Schulman, author of the 2012 book “The Gentrification of the Mind”, who argues that the “rampant suburbanization and commodification” of NYC is destroying its “physical and spiritual infrastructure” — that the diversification of experience, race, class, education, culture, sexuality, talent, religion, ethnicity and nationality anchored with the infrastructure of affordable apartments and public transit and buttressed with integrity in the city zoning and planning comprise the true “urbanity [which] teaches us every single second of every single day [of every single year — 525,600 minutes] that other people are DIFFERENT [from us] and that knowledge — is crucial for creating new ideas for the future …”
Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and ubiquitous cupcakes, mega-sports bars, Walgreens, Dunkin’ Donuts, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21s are the antithesis of urbanity or at least, supplant the familiar urbanity with something lesser — and which already exists in the suburbs: suburbanity.
This series is worth listening to for those who love cities or want to understand cities, and those who have bought into, reject, or question the “sharing economy”.