Can a Neighborhood Be Instagrammed to Death?
Two years ago, Prokopis Christou, a scholar of the social and psychological dynamics of tourism, published a paper that sought to determine whether people who took selfies at popular destinations tended to marginalize the destination itself, focusing instead almost entirely on their own image.
Interviewing dozens of European tourists visiting Cyprus and closely examining the scale of the photographs taken, Mr. Christou and his colleagues identified what they called the “attraction shading effect.” Basically, the images that found a home on social media rendered the ostensible scene — a beautiful, abandoned hotel on a peak near Mount Olympus, for example — inconsequential or at least oddly nebulous.
What was the significance of all this? Researchers hoped to lay the groundwork for other academics to look at the ways in which a mounting social narcissism was intersecting with travel; a pursuit traditionally driven by wanderlust now seemed beholden to an indifferent self-absorption. If historic sites and sacred spaces were catering to this reorientation, marketing themselves merely as backdrop, if the lives of people around the world living in proximity to these intrusions were disrupted, then what we were witnessing, arguably, was the slow erasure of cultural heritage, a spiritual plundering of civic character.
To the extent that New Yorkers have always felt a special antipathy for the couple from Tulsa in town for a week of big ticket theatrical revivals and unhurried walks up Seventh Avenue, the return of tourism after a long pandemic lull has, in one sense, restored rather than chipped away at our identity, reviving a familiar disdain. The city agency tasked with tracking visitors estimates that more than 54 million people will have come to New York by the end of this year, a figure amounting to 85 percent of 2019 numbers, an important boon to an ailing economy. Demand for hotel rooms has been on a steady upward climb since January.
This would hardly come as a revelation to anyone who has spent time around the far western stretch of Washington Street in Dumbo, along the Brooklyn waterfront, where the arch of the Manhattan Bridge framing the Empire State Building in the distance dominates the view. Aside from Covid’s interruption, for several years now the block has served as a cherished spot for self-documentation — people showing up to record themselves in workout clothes, in regular clothes, in wedding dresses, with dogs, with children, with sonogram images announcing future children. According to Dumbo’s business improvement group, during May and June pedestrian traffic nearly tripled, to 48,000 people, on this stretch over the same period in 2020.
Late last month community members gathered at a town hall to express their displeasure with what had become an untenable degree of congestion. “We have seen tourism approach prepandemic levels, and people are working at home and seeing it from a different perspective now,” Lincoln Restler, the city councilman serving Dumbo and fielding many of the complaints told me. “This is one of the most photogenic spots in New York if not the world, but it’s a lot for people living there.”
The problem wasn’t simply the resurgent flood of humanity but also in part the economy that had evolved around it — the parade of food trucks, too many of which, neighbors maintained, were parked illegally and dumped trash with abandon. Navigation was already compromised by a renovation of the sewer system that had torn up various roadways; at the same time the city’s Department of Transportation had closed off a section of Washington Street adjacent to the popular tourist corridor to traffic, as part of the open streets program.
The current unease points ultimately to a broader problem, a long-term failure of city planning — an unwillingness to recognize or engage with what a once industrial neighborhood, bordered by a park decades in the making, would surely become. It had happened in New York and so many other cities where cobblestone streets, loft buildings and money converged at the water. Dumbo outgrew its infrastructure, and things had come to a boiling point.
Several years ago a group of residents organized to try to address some of these problems. As Mallory Kasdan, one of the founders put it to me, “I really just want to know that I can send my 12-year-old down to the store knowing a driver won’t go off the rails. Things have gotten pretty aggro around here.”
Twenty years ago, Dumbo, carved out of a rich stock of old manufacturing buildings and a developer’s prescience, hardly existed as a residential enclave at all. In the time since it has become one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. A new building on Front Street, vaguely in the shape of a sail ship, “grounded in the maritime and industrial inheritance of Dumbo’s waterfront,’’ as described in promotional material, arrived on the market with penthouses priced upward of $15 million.
Despite the excesses, the neighborhood has evolved, in many ways, according to the modern urbanist ideal of mixed-use functionality. There are many small independent businesses at the storefront level, and many offices above them housing tech companies, architecture and design firms. Some number of artist studios are subsidized by Two Trees, the original and predominant developer. A recent survey by the business improvement district of 129 firms found that 73 percent were back in the office and that more than half of respondents believed that workers were willing to put fully remote work behind them because of access to parks and open streets in the neighborhood.
Two years ago, a looming fear among bureaucrats, business people and undying loyalists to the city’s complexities was that New York would dangerously thin out, that enough people would make permanent their exodus to Connecticut or Dutchess County to destroy an already precarious economic and social equilibrium. Instead the new story is simply a replay of the old one — a narrative of tensions among impassioned competing interests that all feel entitled to lay their personal claims to public space. It’s maddening, perhaps impossible in the end and yet deeply reassuring all at once.