The Bad Old Days

The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel BY Thomas Heise. New York: Columbia University Press. 321 pages. $30.
The cover of The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel

What should a crime novelist write about when there is not much crime to write about anymore? This question weighed on the minds of the crime writers Lee Child, Reggie Nadelson, and George Dawes Green during a dis­cussion in 2009 on New York Public Radio’s The Leonard Lopate Show. Invited to chat about “New York City Thrillers,” the three novelists found themselves instead musing about how the city had become less thrilling over the years. “It’s a very benevolent, peaceful place,” Child noted with a touch of sadness. “New York has changed, I think, in terms of crime. It’s relatively crime free,” he went on to say, adding, “It feels like a different city.” Nadelson, who grew up during the rough-and-tumble 1970s in Greenwich Village, when it was known as much for its muggings and derelict build­ings as for its rich social and cultural history, quipped in her gravelly voice, “It’s hard to find a crime these days.” “The problem with New York now is that it’s become such a sweet city,” Green chimed in, offering the most back­handed compliment one could give New York. When Nadelson was inter­viewed a year later by Salman Rushdie, she echoed Green’s sentiments, call­ing New York “sweet,. . . safer, more welcoming and polite.” Cleaned up by the law-and-order mayoralty of Rudolph Giuliani (1994–2001) and then rebranded as a “luxury product” by the developer-friendly administration of Michael Bloomberg (2002–2013) that followed, the new New York posed and continues to pose a problem for crime writers.

Lee Child’s remark that early twenty-first-century New York was “rela­tively crime free” seemed to imply that the city had less crime compared to earlier decades, especially the 1970s, the apex of the city’s decline, when it was an international symbol of urban dysfunction and violence. Yet another way of looking at his assessment is to understand the nature of crime as always relative. Crime is always a matter of perspective, its definition always an act of politics and power. Child went on to comment that today “the crime doesn’t happen when you step out of the bank. . . . The crime hap­pens while you’re in the bank.” In other words, the fundamental crimes of the new New York are not the crimes of passion, grievance, and despera­tion, which of course still occur, but the crimes of the financial sector and the other major sectors—real estate, tech, services, and culture—of the new economy. He was not suggesting, of course, that crime novelists write sto­ries about abstract flows of capital or transformations in the mode of pro­duction. Aside from a smattering of academics, who would want to read such stories? He was, instead, implying that they write stories about how such abstractions are felt personally by “you” when “you” are in the bank and when “you” step out of it and back into your life and your neighbor­hood. If while staring bug-eyed at your direct-deposit slip or the outstanding balance on your underwater mortgage you felt you had been robbed, you needed to do what any good detective had always done, Child suggested. You needed to follow the money.

In a 2018 article in Harper’s titled “The Death of a Once Great City,” the journalist Kevin Baker reflected on the irony of New York’s being a victim of its own successes. “New York today—in the aggregate—is probably a wealthier, healthier, cleaner, safer, less corrupt, and better-run city than it has ever been,” he wrote. Yet Baker went on to claim that “for the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.” The boredom Baker laments is a racial and class privilege, as is, conversely, the aestheticization of violence or urban decay as “thrilling,” but what is more important to recognize is that the new urban narrative of New York as the safest big city in the coun­try has been underpinned by socioeconomic and spatial transformations that have precipitated new urban crises or, one might say, new crimes. The subtitle of Baker’s postmortem underscores the point: “The Fall of New York and the Urban Crisis of Affluence.” “For all of New York’s shiny new skin and shiny new numbers,” he writes, “what’s most amazing is how little of its social dysfunction the city has managed to eliminate over the past four decades.” New York at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first cen­tury is a city of greater inequality, increased homelessness, more and more bankrupt mom-and-pop stores, increased cultural homogenization, and greater levels of racial, ethnic, and class displacement. Baker goes on to cite statistics that both startle and numb. In 2016, the city with the greatest num­ber of billionaires in the world had a poverty rate of 19.5 percent, higher than it was in 1970. Almost half the city lives at “near poverty . . . one pay­check away from disaster.” Thirty percent of the city spends 50 percent of its income solely on rent. Having doubled in just the past ten years, the homeless population has reached a historic high. In the 1970s, the Bronx was home to the nation’s poorest congressional district. In the 2010s, the Bronx was still home to the nation’s poorest congressional district. The “brand-new,” “sweet city” of New York is sour in old and new ways.

Despite these numbers, the boosterish narrative of urban revitalization and rebirth has been the narrative of New York since the 1990s, repeated ad nauseam by politicians, pundits, and police commissioners at the bully pulpit. “As we move toward the new millennium, we as New Yorkers can take pride in the fact our great city has regained its true stature as the Capi­tal of the World. Our crime rate is at levels not witnessed since the 1960s,” Giuliani boasted in 1997. “Four years ago, few would have dreamed, much less believed that these strides were possible,” he said, looking back to the date he was first elected. Versions of this narrative are also told indirectly in popular culture. In TV series such as Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and Girls, to name only a few, the absence of everyday crime in New York is the very precondition for plotlines about the anodyne and amusing foibles of bour­geois life and the personal and professional fulfillment of middle-class women. Sex and the City could not exist in the 1970s, or if it could, it would be a drama about prostitution and sexual assault. In other words, it would be something like David Simon’s TV series The Deuce, about crime and the sex industry in the pre-Giuliani-era Times Square, but without Simon’s early twenty-first-century wistfulness for a grittier, grimier, and purport­edly more authentic city. The crime crash of the 1990s and the development boom of the 2000s have spawned countless versions of a triumphalist urban narrative from all corners of the culture.

Yet the self-congratulatory narratives of urban revitalization are just one of the storylines of the new city. Recent crime fiction tells a different and darker, and certainly more ambivalent, set of stories. It tells stories of urban displacement, racial conflict, class grievance, community erosion, and cul­tural erasure, stories that are traceable in one form or another to the socio­economic transformations of the city. In recent crime fiction, many of these storylines are braided together into what I discern as a new development in the genre: the gentrification plot. Here, the word “plot” resonates with multiple meanings, all of them entangled. Plot refers, of course, to a parcel of land and the property associated with it, but also to the meaningful arrangement of events in a story, as well as to a secret scheme or criminal plan, which in recent crime fiction has meant machinations, frauds, and murderous plots involving real estate. The real estate industry comprises a complex set of interactive forces that remake the social and built spaces of cities, forces that include changes in tax policy, policing, popula­tion flows, the regional decline of industries and the emergence of new ones, and the global reorganization of capital and labor relations that have ushered forth neoliberal urbanism and the literature arising in response to it.

In short, these are books about place making and policing space, and they tell the stories that arise when one is uprooted from one’s place, forced off of one’s plot and compelled to plot another course for one’s life. At the radio roundtable in 2009, Reggie Nadelson remarked that “what’s interesting about there not being so much outright crime” is that “it has opened the door for a lot of us to do more interesting things.” It has made possible more interesting stories.

Excerpted from The Gentrification Plot: New York and the Postindustrial Crime Novel by Thomas Heise. Copyright © 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.