A Local’s Perspective on Overtourism
Last week I wrote about overtourism from the perspective of a travel writer and tourist, and my piece generated discussion both on the blog and on Facebook. But I live in one of the most visited cities in the world, which gives me a local’s perspective as well.
In 2013, when Richard and I returned from our Fulbright semester in Portugal, we decided to rent a small apartment in Manhattan to see if we wanted to sell our Albany home and move permanently to New York City. The place we chose was in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, in the west 40s between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. It was a relatively quiet location, near the West Side Highway and close to excellent dining options, though if we wanted to cook our favorite fish dishes, the nearby markets didn’t have the freshest product or best selection. We saw a lot of tourists on their way to the Intrepid Air & Space Museum as we walked Charlie to the Pier 82 dog run, and one time there he almost walked off with a nice German tourist.
Besides the lack of good groceries, the biggest drawback to the area was the Broadway-Times Square area, which we had to cross whenever we wanted to get to points east. It felt as if the rest of the city was cut off by a treacherous obstacle, though in fact the only real problems were the crowded sidewalks and traffic. We simply had to budget extra time to walk. My husband is a fast walker, so the crowding and gawking tourists are more annoying to him than they are to me.
In 2015, we decided that, yes, we liked living in Manhattan, and we sold our house and moved to the city full-time. We chose our neighborhood based on the availability of things that were important to us: a good grocery with a fresh fish counter, a variety of restaurants, and theaters. We’re now at the meeting point of the East Village and the Lower East Side, a place that has become more of a tourist haven now that new boutique hotels have opened along with restaurants and shops. Except for the area in front of Katz’s Delicatessen, where lines form early and remain until late evening, the sidewalks are not overcrowded and the streets surprisingly unchoked by traffic. Walking Charlie around the neighborhood is not an unnerving experience. I’ve given travelers a lot more directions here, mainly because we are a bit off the beaten track. And I appreciate their presence as they allow restaurants and shops to survive in areas once filled with empty storefronts.
Even so, I’ve seen the downsides in terms of rising commercial and residential rents. Across town in the far West Village, landlords would rather have vacant storefronts for years, giving the upscale neighborhood an incongruously blighted appearance, rather than cut the rent for a commercial tenant. Pop-up stores and galleries in my own neighborhood offer an alternative, filling spaces and giving entrepreneurs a chance with less risk.
Another downside has to do with AirBnB and its fight against the hotels. Like many other cities around the world, New York has attempted to crack down on AirBnB, lest speculators buy up apartment buildings, or apartments in condo buildings (because they have fewer restrictions than co-ops), rent them out on a short-term basis, and make rentals scarce and expensive for full-time residents while changing the character of the building and the neighborhood. I live in a condo building and know that people don’t want to see new people coming in and out of a given apartment every few days. On the other hand, I’ve stayed in AirBnBs, and I know people like them for the opportunities they offer to “live like a local,” even though in fact the buildings are more and more likely to be owned as investment property and all the other people there are also tourists. Although I know the law is frequently flouted, in New York City it’s illegal to rent an apartment for less than 30 days unless the apartment’s owner or lease holder also lives in the building.
As both a frequent traveler and a local, one of the things I’d like to see more are places where visitors and residents can come together and get to know each other. When Maddy and I were in Berlin earlier this month, our hosts took us to a park along the Landwehr Canal where young people — Berliners and visitors from all over the world — gathered to listen to street musicians, eat and drink, and share experiences with each other. After all, one of the benefits of travel — and the reason to do it despite its negative environmental effects — is that it builds bridges among different peoples and cultures. Learning about each other face-to-face is a way of counteracting prejudice and resolving differences peacefully, making us all the winners.