Can a neighborhood be Instagrammed to death?

Two years ago, Prokopis Christou, a specialist in the social and psychological dynamics of tourism, published an article which sought to determine whether people who take selfies in popular destinations tend to marginalize the destination itself, instead focusing almost entirely on their own image.

By 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 shadowing effect”. Basically, the images that have found a home on social media have 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 meaning of all this? The researchers hoped to lay the groundwork for other scholars to examine the ways in which growing social narcissism intersects with travel; a pursuit traditionally driven by wanderlust now seemed beholden to indifferent self-absorption. If historic sites and sacred spaces were responding to this reorientation, marketing themselves merely as backdrops, if the lives of people around the world living near these intrusions were being disrupted, then what we were witnessing, arguably, was the slow erasure of cultural heritage, spiritual plunder of a civic character.

Inasmuch as New Yorkers have always felt a particular antipathy for the Tulsa couple in town for a week of big-ticket theatrical revivals and leisurely strolls down Seventh Avenue, the return of tourism after a long pandemic lull has, in a sense, restoring rather than shaking our identity, rekindling a familiar disdain. The city’s visitor tracking agency estimates that more than 54 million people will have visited New York City by the end of this year, a figure rising to 85% of 2019 figures, a major boon for an economy in trouble. Demand for hotel rooms has been steadily rising since January.

It would hardly be a revelation to anyone who has spent time on the far west side 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 seen. Covid disruption aside, for several years now the block has served as a prime location for self-documentation – people showing up to check in in sportswear, regular attire, wedding dresses, with dogs, with children, with ultrasound images announcing future children. According to the Dumbo Business Improvement Group, in May and June foot traffic almost tripled, to 48,000, on this stretch over the same period in 2020.

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Late last month, members of the community gathered at a town hall to express their displeasure at what had become an unsustainable degree of congestion. “We’ve seen tourism approach pre-pandemic levels, and people are working from home and seeing it from a different perspective now,” Lincoln Restler, the councilman who serves Dumbo and responds to numerous complaints, told me. “It’s one of the most photogenic places in New York, if not the world, but that’s a lot for the people who live there.”

The problem was not just 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 said were illegally parked and dumped with abandon. Navigation was already compromised by a renovation of the sewer system which had torn up various causeways; at the same time, the city’s Department of Transportation had closed a section of Washington Street adjacent to the popular tourist corridor to traffic, as part of the open streets program.

The current malaise ultimately points to a larger problem, a long-term failure of urban planning – a reluctance to acknowledge or engage with what a once-industrial neighborhood, bordered by a park under construction for decades, would become. surely. It had happened in New York and so many other cities where cobblestone streets, lofts and money converged on the water. Dumbo had outgrown its infrastructure and things had come to a boiling point.

Several years ago, a group of residents got together to try to solve some of these problems. As Mallory Kasdan, one of the founders, told me, “I really want to know that I can send my 12-year-old son to the store knowing that a driver won’t derail. Things got pretty aggressive here.

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Twenty years ago, Dumbo, carved out of a rich stock of old manufacturing buildings and a developer’s foreknowledge, barely existed as a residential enclave. Since then, it has become one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. A new building on Front Street, vaguely shaped like a sailboat, ‘steeped in the maritime and industrial heritage of Dumbo’s waterfront’, as described in promotional material, has hit the market with premium priced penthouses at $15 million.

Despite the excesses, the neighborhood has evolved, in many ways, according to the modern urbanist ideal of mixed functionality. There are many small independent businesses at storefront level, and many offices above them housing technology companies, architecture and design firms. A number of artist studios are subsidized by Two Trees, the original and predominant developer. A recent Business Improvement District survey of 129 companies found that 73% were back in the office and more than half of respondents believed workers were ready to put remote work behind them due to the access to parks and open streets in the neighborhood. .

Two years ago, a fear looming among bureaucrats, businessmen and faithful faithful to the city’s complexities was that New York would become dangerously impoverished, that enough people would make their exodus to Connecticut permanent. or Dutchess County to destroy an already precarious economic and social balance. . Instead, the new story is simply a retelling of the old – a tale of tensions between competing passionate interests who all feel entitled to a personal claim to public space. It’s maddening, perhaps impossible in the end and yet deeply reassuring at the same time.

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