America’s Middle-Class Squeeze-Out

The crushing of America’s Great Middle Class continues apace with new statistics on the soaring death rate among middle-age whites. But the pattern is also visible in Greenwich Village where middle-class life is being squeezed out by the luxury of the One Percent, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

The Chinese restaurant across the street from me one of the last, reasonably priced joints in the neighborhood closed last weekend. Their lease was up for renewal and the rent increased from $5,000 a month to $25,000.

Such an enormous jump isn’t unusual here in the West Village, part of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, which has become such an expensive and trendy part of the city that I may soon be kicked out both for violating the fashion code and skewing the curve on median income.

Mr. Moneybags from the "Monopoly" game

Mr. Moneybags from the “Monopoly” game

The restaurant owner, who had run his place for three decades, was remarkably calm about it. “I understand,” he told the dining blog, Eater. “The property values are really high in this area.”

That’s an understatement. Much of Bleecker Street, for example, once a Village thoroughfare of bohemia immortalized in songs by Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and Iggy Pop, is now a mini-Fifth Avenue of upscale boutiques and chain stores from the likes of Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers and Coach. Gone are most of the delis and funky, mom-and-pop shops that gave the area its distinctive style.

Gone, too, are many of the community services that make a neighborhood a neighborhood, replaced by expensive housing and other amenities for the rich whose desires are obliterating the very things that made this area an attractive place to live in the first place.

Just a block north from that now-shuttered Chinese restaurant is the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, founded in 1849 by the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic teaching hospital that over the years treated everyone, rich or poor, and everything from cholera to AIDS (it was a pioneer in HIV-AIDS care). Survivors from the Titanic and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were brought there, and on 9/11, its medical staff waited patiently for casualties.

But five and a half years ago, St. Vincent’s flatlined and closed, awash in bankruptcy and whispers of alleged collusion with developers eager to get their hands on some prime real estate. The New York Post even reported, in 2011, that the Manhattan district attorney was investigating “whether honchos purposely tanked its finances so it could be sold.”

Nothing ever came of the story or the rumors and now, rising in on land where healing and compassion were once the be all and end all, are grand luxury condominiums.

This weekend, The New York Times reported that the first two condos had been sold: “An eighth-floor unit went for $19,528,202.36 and was the most expensive closed sale of the week, while another, four floors below, sold for $16,320,623.57.”

In each case, the buyers are anonymous. The Times continued, “The pricier of the sold apartments has four bedrooms and four and a half baths spread over 4,537 square feet. The unit, with monthly carrying costs totaling $15,800, also has a library with a fireplace, a home office, a large utility room with a washer/dryer and a centrally located gallery. There is an open living/dining area with beamed ceilings, dark-stained herringbone floors and custom wood trim.”

According to the development’s website, “These handsome spaces bring to mind the cachet of an Old World private club.” No doubt the kind where Gilded Age tycoons like Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt and Whitney escaped the madding crowd and from the windows flicked their cigar ash at worker bees and slum dwellers.

So there goes the neighborhood. These new apartments next door to the empty Chinese restaurant are what economists call “local indicators,” further proof that the one percent would prefer the rest of us to vanish into the woodwork excuse me, the “custom wood trim.”

As colleague Bill Moyers reported a year ago on Moyers & Company, “Among our largest, richest 20 metro areas, less than 50 percent of the homes are affordable.”

In New York City, he said, “Inequality in housing has reached Dickensian dimensions. The middle class is being squeezed to the edge as the rich drive up real estate values and the working poor are shoved farther into squalor wealth and power get their way without regard for the impact on the lives and neighborhoods of everyday people.”

And here’s another twist of the knife in the back of the rest of us. In August, Laura Kusisto at the Wall Street Journal wrote:

“Even though construction of multifamily rental properties is running at the highest level in decades, the overwhelming majority of new units, more than 80% in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, are luxury, according to CoStar Group Inc. Construction costs are generally too high to justify building new complexes for low- and middle-income tenants, experts say, contributing to the scarcity.”

Meanwhile, the now vacant building where the restaurant operated becomes just one of many empty storefronts here in the Village, a paradoxical phenomenon related to our ongoing gentrification known as “high-rent blight.”

Even though this pestilence can destroy the character and stability of a neighborhood, owners may hold out for months and years in the hope that the space will be sold to build yet more deluxe apartments or that a bank, national chain or top-of-the-line, overpriced boutique will show up to pay top dollar, as so many others already have.

What’s happening here is happening in other urban centers. As Tim Wu noted in a May issue of The New Yorker:

“The fate of small businesses in the West Village may be a local issue, but it is one with large implications. For one thing, cities remain major drivers of economic growth, and small businesses continue to form a larger part of G.N.P. than their larger cousins.

“But there is a deeper issue as well. Since the nineteen-sixties, when Americans faced an extreme wave of urban blight, they have understood rising property values as a reliable measure of recovery. But everything can go too far, and at some point high property values may begin to destroy local economic activity.”

There was a time, Wu pointed out, when the great urban critic and author Jane Jacobs who lived just a few blocks away from me thought that Greenwich Village was the very model of an ideal city neighborhood, precisely because, in part, local merchants did business with one another and looked out for each other and their friends and customers who lived nearby.

What’s more, it had eclecticism and diversity, and as she wrote more than 50 years ago in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “The point of cities is multiplicity of choice.”

Jacobs worried about a future in which the sense of community was lost and the elite isolated themselves from everyone else in their stately pleasure domes of beamed ceilings and dark-stained herringbone floors. “We expect too much of new buildings,” she said, “and too little of ourselves.”

She would look at what’s happening today and first despair, then fight like hell, for as Jacobs knew, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.

21 comments for “America’s Middle-Class Squeeze-Out

  1. Wm. Boyce
    November 7, 2015 at 00:41

    Ms. Sigley’s story above is not unusual. That’s the real tragedy – it’s not unusual. Medical bills were the number 1 cause of bankruptcy in the USA for YEARS. If Mr. Obama has a legacy, it will be the ACA, as imperfect as it is. I saw 40 percent of my business disappear in the collapse of 2008, but my medical premiums kept rising. Rising to the point where I couldn’t pay my taxes one year recently, which led to some bizarre and interesting encounters w/the IRS. But I don’t rank my story anywhere near Ms. Sigley’s, or millions of others, I am comparatively lucky. We are not headed in a good direction.

  2. Steve Naidamast
    November 6, 2015 at 16:15

    I have a lot of empathy for this article’s author as my wife and I experienced something similar in Austria though we did not live there.

    We first traveled to Austria in 1993 and I immediately fell in love with the country. The traditional culture and history was everywhere apparent. The people everywhere maintained this sense of history. Franz Josef, the great Austrian emperor had his image everywhere along with his just as famous wife Sisi.

    Since that year my wife and I traveled to Austria on a yearly basis. My dream was to live in some affordable outskirt of Vienna.

    However, a number of years ago I noticed a change in the atmosphere as the first of our favorite traditional haunts closed down due to a lack of business. With each passing year since another fragment of this very historical society was whisked away into the ether of time being replaced by a sterile incarnation of a some new chic enterprise.

    Then the people themselves changed from being formally dressed to the jeans attire that has become so common place these days; a sense of casualness that derides any sense of inner substance.

    Finally, one of the oldest coffee houses in all of Vienna suddenly disappeared one year. Express Am Stephenplatz had been around since the first world war and still had a very vibrant clientele, though to most it seemed like nothing more than a “dive” stuck in a wall of luxury that seemingly derided its very existence. This little coffee-house was replaced by a very sterile wine-bar, which whenever we passed never had any customers inside.

    Like so much else we older people have become somewhat used to taking for granted in the daily scenery of our lives, Austrian culture disappeared into the midst of the mindless, empty sterilization of society that is apparently being fostered everywhere.

    My wife and traveled to Austria for 22 years when last year we finally realized that the Austria we were coming for was no longer…

  3. WG
    November 6, 2015 at 12:14

    Is the $15,800 / month for condo fees? Because there’s no way that’s enough for a mortgage payment on $20 million.
    The bottom 20% of the US lives on less than that per year. Check out an excellent article by Paul Craig Roberts on the subject.

  4. November 6, 2015 at 10:27

    To Lorrie Sigley,

    After reading your post, I was taken aback by the plight of your situation.

    For those of us who feel inclined to pen and present our ‘big-picture’ views about the State of Uncle Sam’s Union, and sometimes do so without sufficient consideration of the impact that present reality (along with the factors that have contributed to it), has on ordinary Americans, your poignant story brought this “reality” home to me in spades.

    As both a parent and grandparent — and someone who treasures very much the good life we enjoy here in the “Lucky Country” (aka Australia) — your story gave me pause to appreciate what my family and I has even more so. I say that though whilst recognising it may not be of much consolation to you.

    For some time now my own illusions about what made the United States great have long dissipated. And the irony here for me is that many of my fellow Australians still view America as the Land of Milk ‘n Honey (or some other mythical variation on said theme), and are completely oblivious to how much ‘God’s Own Country’ is fast disappearing down the S-Bend of history.

    Nowhere is this more evident than the disappearing American middle class, to say little of the substantially reduced opportunities of those who might aspire to such a status. Your story represents another nail in the coffin therein. America may once have epitomised the Land of Opportunity for all, but these days it is more a case of “It’s my land, and my opportunity buddy, an’ don’ you forget it!” The “Land of Milk ‘n Honey?” I think not. More like the Land of Bilk ‘n Money!

    In short, if we accept the simple, inarguable premise it was average, ordinary working and middle-class folks like yourself — and millions like you both past and present — that made America “great”, and who placed so much faith in its grand promise with the not unreasonable expectation they would experience — and be able to sustain — the “good life”, it beggars belief that this “Sometimes Great Nation” has allowed such conditions to prevail that have brought your own family to the point where you are at present. As much as I am able to, and for what it is worth, again I empathise with you.

    Like in America, our politicians, our corporate elites, our bureaucrats and our media mavens love to perpetuate feel-good myths all the while purporting to have our best interests at heart. But the subsequent realities of these earnestly promulgated myths do not serve the vast majority, which themselves often only reveal their true impact long after those who have shilled the myths have left office.

    An important case in point is Australia’s recent ‘subscription’ to the execrable Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of course there is little doubt it is these trade deals — along with numerous other dubiously beneficial neo-liberal aka free-market economic policies over the past 30+ years which have been foisted upon all of us — that have done so much to bring about the situation you and your family find yourself in.

    As indicated, Australia has often been referred to as the “Lucky Country”. To the extent that might be true, there are nonetheless important lessons herein for us Down Under. For in far too many ways I see we are following the same path America has traversed — especially from a socio-economic perspective — a “path” which has brought yourself and your family to this point. For my own sake, and especially that of my family and fellow Australians, I hope I am proven wrong.

    As hopeful and optimistic as I like to be, that hope may be of the forlorn variety, the optimism misplaced.

    I nonetheless wish you all the best though for your future and that of your family.

    Greg Maybury
    Editor / Publisher
    Perth, Australia.

    • Mortimer
      November 6, 2015 at 11:31

      The below excerpts from the 2009 edition of PROJECT CENSORED give clues to the planned devolution of the middle class by organized Globalists. The Brzezinski/Obama connection is put before us once again and the TPP is just another knife in the back of We The People.

      22. Obama’s Trilateral Commission Team
      Source: August,

      >>January 30, 2009<<

      Title: “Obama: Trilateral Commission Endgame”
      Author: Patrick Wood

      Student Researcher: Sarah Maddox
      Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips
      Sonoma State University

      Barack Obama appointed eleven members of the Trilateral Commission to top-level and key positions in his administration within his first ten days in office. This represents a very narrow source of international leadership inside the Obama administration, with a core agenda that is not necessarily in support of working people in the United States.

      Obama was groomed for the presidency by key members of the Trilateral Commission.
      Most notably, Zbigniew Brzezinski, co-founder of the Trilateral Commission with David Rockefeller in 1973, has been Obama’s principal foreign policy advisor.

      Trilateral appointees include:
      * Secretary of Treasury, Tim Geithner
      * Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice
      * National Security Advisor, Gen. James L. Jones
      * Deputy National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon
      * Chairman, Economic Recovery Committee, Paul Volker
      * Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis C. Blair
      * Assistant Secretary of State, Asia & Pacific, Kurt M. Campbell
      * Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg
      * State Department, Special Envoy, Richard Haass
      * State Department, Special Envoy, Dennis Ross
      * State Department, Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke

      There are many other links in the Obama administration to the Trilateral Commission. For instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is married to Commission member William Jefferson Clinton. Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner’s informal group of advisors include E. Gerald Corrigan, Paul Volker, Alan Greenspan, and Peter G. Peterson, all members. Geithner’s first job after college was with Trilateralist Henry Kissinger at Kissinger Associates.

      Trilateralist Brent Scowcroft has been an unofficial advisor to Obama and was mentor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And Robert Zoelick, current president of the World Bank appointed during the G.W. Bush administration, is a member.

      The original stated purpose of the Trilateral Commission was to create a “New International Economic Order.”

      Two strong convictions guide the Commission’s agenda for the 2009-2012 triennium. First, the Trilateral Commission is to remain as important as ever in maintaining wealthy countries’ shared leadership in the wider international system. Second, the Commission will “widen its framework to reflect broader changes in the world.” Thus, the Japan Group has become a Pacific Asian Group, which includes Chinese and Indian members, and Mexican members have been added to the North American Group. The European Group continues to widen in line with the enlargement of the EU.

      Update by Patrick Wood: The concept of “undue influence” comes to mind when considering the number of Trilateral Commission members in the Obama administration. They control the areas of our most urgent national needs: financial and economic crisis, national security, and foreign policy.

      The conflict of interest is glaring. With 75 percent of the Trilateral membership consisting of non-US individuals, what influence does this super-majority have on the remaining 25 percent?

      Many European members of the Trilateral Commission are also top leaders of the European Union. What political and economic sway do they have through their American counterparts?

      But, the vast majority of Americans have no idea who or what the Trilateral Commission is…

      In light of today’s unprecedented financial crisis, they would be abhorred if they actually read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s (co-founder of the Commission with David Rockefeller) statement from his 1971 book,
      Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era, which states that,
      “The nation-state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state.”
      [And] this is exactly what is happening. The global banks and corporations are running circles around the nation state, including the United States. They have no regard for due process, Congress, or the will of the people.

  5. Lorrie Sigley
    November 6, 2015 at 03:57

    My family and I used to live a middle class life. We had pretty good income, a nice home, 4 happy healthy children and we were raising our children in a nice area. We had my husbands parents living with us and we were able to keep them out of the nursing homes. Everything was working perfect, until our 11 year old child got sick. Our child died at 12 years old. We were racked with grief and medical bills. We found out how awful our medical insurance was. My father in law started to become very ill soon after my child died and we found out how awful the veteriens insurance was, he died 5 months after our child died. Both died in my home with my other 3 children present. My husband lost his job soon after, due to the 2008 market crash. My daughter became sick soon after that. We lost our home soon after that, thanks to the 2008 mortgage crash. My daughter died. I lost my job due to lost time from work. I was trying very hard to care for my sick children and my greiving family. I found another job, but it did not pay much. I had no one to help me at all. I had to go on some public assistance. I was so ashamed. My youngest child became sick but at least I had medical asst. by then for him. My husband became a insulin dependent diabetic. I had lost another job due to trying to keep what was left of my family alive. I had FMLA for them, but the company did not care. They fired me anyway. The law did nothing for me. I be came an insulin dependent diabetic. I got another job but it pays even less. I can only work PRN because I am afraid of getting fired again. I work graveyard shift and I care for my very sick child and husband during the day. My child is to sick to go to school any more. He is home and hospital schooling now. He misses his sister, brother,grandfather, and home. He misses his healthy happy past. He misses the vacations we used to take. He misses the security we used to know. Now we live pay check to pay check. We know lost very well. We are one of the dead middle classes. THANK YOU MR PRESIDENT BUSH ! If we had proper medical insurance, if the crash of 2008 never happened, if the laws that were in place were made effective to protect my job, my family and I would not have suffered so much pain. Thank you Mr Bush.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    November 5, 2015 at 17:53

    The demise of the Soviet Union was the worst thing to happen to Western workers in the last 100 years.

    With the collapse of the USSR this meant Western capitalists were no longer under the threat of a good example. Since despite its faults, the old Soviet Union offered myriad life affirming policies to all of its workers: guaranteed employment, subsidized housing, relatively early and secure retirement, national health insurance, relatively decent wages, mandatory vacation time of 1 month each year for all workers, liberal paternity leave with full pay for up to 1 or 2 years, summer camps for workers and children, etc.

    The parasitic financial elite of Wall Street and the London market no longer have to compete with this model for the hearts and minds of U.S. workers of virtually all classes and collars. Ergo, we’re witnessing the great Rollback. The parasitic financial elite has been rolling back over the last 20 years all the gains of the New Deal and Great Society, attacking labor at every turn, instituting regressive taxes, and they have their greedy eyes dead set on eviscerating Social Security and Medicare.

    The demise of the USSR, despite all its faults, and it was definitely no utopia, has been an unmitigated tragedy for the world’s workers. And this is saying nothing about some (some) of the imperial behavior the Soviet Union helped keep in check on behalf of Washington’s warmongers. If the USSR was still around to this day there NEVER would have been any Iraq war. There never would have been any attack on Yugoslavia, there never would’ve been any attack on Libya, there never would’ve been a Ukrainian putsch utilizing neo-Nazis and other fascists for god’s sake!

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 6, 2015 at 02:51
    • Brad Owen
      November 6, 2015 at 05:39

      Very well said. When the USSR vanished, practically overnight, my brother said “There goes the last thing that keeps us somewhat honest.” How true. He worked for Government, in the Labor Department, investigating compliance with & violations of contracts. Imagine such a job in the USA now; a land where “Govt is the problem” (for the “wanna-be” feudal Lords).

      • Drew Hunkins
        November 6, 2015 at 10:56

        Thanks for the kind words Mr. Owen.

        The people of the United States and the citizens of the world are paying dearly.

    • Ivan G. Vafkosky
      November 6, 2015 at 13:44

      The lower classes, the masses, the average person is much to blame for there own socio-economic demise and political marginalization. When they have bothered to vote, they have supported so many of the policies which have obliterated all that made a middle class possible, and so many average dolts are still falling for it. By this time next year, we’ll all be millionaires; millionaires of debt.

      • Drew Hunkins
        November 6, 2015 at 14:47

        Mr. Vafkosky,

        You speak of false consciousness, and the false consciousness paradigm does definitely play a part, no doubt. But too many Democrats, who I’m assuming you’d prefer these masses vote for, have been a bunch of ineffectual courtiers to power, not all of them of course, but far too many of them. Of course the GOP is a monstrosity.

        The rise of the DLC/New Dem types really started to take off once the demise of the USSR came about ca. 1990.

        • Norm DePlume
          November 6, 2015 at 18:53

          Many people, too many, think that they are very clever and believe that they see through all the falsehoods and obfuscations put forth by politicians and political parties and the “main-stream-media”, that they are somehow above it all, and believe that everyone else is trapped in the simplistic world of black and white, the binary choice of either/or, the left/right dichotomy, and that they place themselves in some position of intellectual superiority by claiming that the democrats are as bad as the republicans. The distinction between the two parties may not be great enough for one to feel good enough about, or to feel radical in casting a vote for. Though I would insist that republicans are radical. There being only the two choices, and we know what the one side prefers expressly, explicitly, and implicitly, and what that portends for all, what choice does one make? Do you vote for the guy that the media said you want to have a beer with?

    • Rob of Arc
      November 7, 2015 at 01:28

      I’ve had this thought before, that the removal of the counterbalance of the USSR was the beginning of the end of shared American prosperity. What I’m not sure of is whether this is the inevitable fate of all empires – to destroy themselves from within once there is simply too much concentrated wealth and the slick raiders are steering the ship of state.

  7. Joe Tedesky
    November 5, 2015 at 17:44

    The best story, I have ever heard, involving this ‘only for the rich’ mine set, goes like this. A well established investment firm, built a wealthy only community in Florida. From, the first time architectural drawings were submitted, all the way through, until the last board was nailed firmly in place, on these expensive homes, no one took notice, of the one obvious fact. That fact, was no nurses, no police, no food providers, no one under the minimum, of a $120,000.00 a year income, could even imagine living in such a large, and expensive neighborhood. Could this be the fate of New York City? Time will tell.

    • Roberto
      November 6, 2015 at 09:13

      San Francisco is having that exact problem right now.

  8. Rob of Arc
    November 5, 2015 at 16:36

    Ironically, when the richies push out all the interesting artists and middle-class people who created the original vibe of the neighborhood it just turns into a golden turd devoid of humanity. It’s amazing how obvious it is to everyone but them…

    • Roberto
      November 6, 2015 at 09:54

      Yepper, no fun at all.

    • Tom
      November 6, 2015 at 14:08

      Precisely. The same thing happened in the microcosm of Black Rock City, Burning Man’s temporary annual community in the Nevada desert. I was there ten times between 1996 and 2007 and watched it go from a beautifully dynamic collection of eccentric artists to a canned dick-measuring contest of wealthy donors buying mega-art for their concubines to frolic under. Ticket prices escalated until the poor and young artists who made Burning Man what it was were forced out. It’s interesting to note the same phenomena occur whether it’s a permanent real city or a temporary fantasy city — if it’s a cool place to be, the wealthy will eff it up.

      • Warren
        November 7, 2015 at 14:29

        Very good points. Sad world

  9. Roberto
    November 5, 2015 at 16:30

    Well yeah. Why would someone who loves art, music, or literature, for example, be driven by money. When death comes, it is forever. No man can afford to be wasting his time like that. The best city is the diverse city.

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