Photo by Fred.R.Conrad/The New York Times.
By Carol Tannenhauser
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist, author, and Upper West Sider, is receiving a uniquely Upper West Side accolade. On October 22nd, he will be honored for his work as an educator and writer, at the Goddard Riverside 2019 Book Fair Gala. In a recent conversation with WSR, Krugman, 66, explained why this award — bestowed by one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most revered social-service agencies — means so much to him. He talked about his love of living on the Upper West Side, and local and national issues, from empty storefronts, tall buildings, and gentrification, to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax and whether or not Trump will make it to the 2020 election.
West Side Rag: Why is the Goddard Riverside honor so special to you?
Paul Krugman: I’ve had a career that puts me in touch with a lot of fancy people, high-powered academics and billionaire bankers. All that is kind of eh. But Goddard Riverside — they transform people’s lives. That’s nothing like the pretty self-interested circles I’m used to moving in. What I do in the normal course of my life is deal with people who are ambitious — making money and reputations — but not serving people in need. It’s great to be involved and I am honored to be getting any kind of recognition, but the honor is the least of it. The main thing is, I so admire what Goddard does.
WSR: When and why did you come to live on the Upper West Side?
PK: Growing up on Long Island, I always had it in my mind that I’d someday be a New York City intellectual. Somehow or other that got deferred for about 40 years, but I finally managed it. What actually happened was, I moved to Princeton from M.I.T. in 2000 and spent quite a lot of time in New York City over the next 15 years. My wife and I acquired a pied-a-terre on the Upper West Side in 2009. This may get me in trouble, but we looked at various parts of the city. We went to the Village and said, ‘We’re too old for this.’ We looked on the East Side and I said, ‘When the Revolution comes, these people get shot first.’ The Upper West Side was clearly our kind of place. I took early retirement from Princeton in 2015, because I was holding too many jobs, so moving into the city full time made sense. Without intending to, I took an appointment at CUNY Graduate Center. I advise students and teach one class a year. And I’ve been working for the New York Times since 2000. So, it all fits together.
WSR: It does make sense.
PK: Along the way I discovered, if you can afford a place to live, which is always the big problem, the hidden secret of New York City in the 21st century is, it’s actually a very easy place to live. If you can afford a place, everything else, all the other logistics of life become relatively easy. The subway ain’t elegant, but it gets you there. From the Upper West Side to Wall Street, it’s like a magic carpet ride. In general, the city has turned out to be a good place to lead a pleasant life.
WSR: What do you love about the Upper West Side?
PK: It’s expensive as hell, but people don’t act that way. And Riverside Park, which I live quite close to, is amazing. It’s led me to partially reconsider my feelings about Robert Moses. There’s so much negative about him, and there’s a lot of reason for it, but, basically, he roofed over what was a railroad track and built this spectacular park that runs for miles and miles. You have to give him credit for that. A walk through Riverside Park on a nice afternoon is a way to feel good about the human race. There are people playing with their dogs, kids playing soccer, people doing tai chi; it’s just a happy scene. If there are any real, prestige, go-to-be-seen restaurants on the Upper West Side, I don’t know what they are, but there are lots and lots of neighborhood places to go out to eat. The shopping is basically very easy, although I’m totally pissed that West Side Market on 77th Street and Broadway closed. It was on my daily route home. The subway access is wonderful. The 1, 2, 3 is a piece of the subway system that stays fairly reliable, even during the worst. I go to a lot of concerts at the Bowery Ballroom and it’s pretty easy to get back and forth. All around it’s kind of a good life.
WSR: Does the retail landscape of the neighborhood — and the rest of the city — worry you, the commercial vacancies?
PK: The commercial vacancies are really weird. I guess it’s landlords holding out for the maximum possible rent, when you’d think it would be best for them to keep the space in use. Also, there’s a gradual displacement of quirky, independent places with chains. The West Side is already less distinctive than it was when we got our first place here. Not to talk down my previous abode too much, but if the Upper West Side ends up looking indistinguishable from the shopping malls on Route 1 in New Jersey, that’ll be a real shame.
WSR: Do you think it could be the result of a permanent shift in the way people shop? Are mom-and-pops a thing of the past?
PK: What I’m worried about more than a change in shopping habits is gentrification. Big cities in general, and New York in particular, have become desirable places for high earners to live. It’s driving up costs and it does reduce the distinctiveness of the place. There’s a kind of cycle of destruction: someplace is interesting and has character and, because of that, people start buying places and moving in and, in so doing, they drive up real estate prices and destroy the character they came in search of.
WSR: They also drive up the height of buildings.
PK: Well, that’s a funny thing, because I actually, in general, think New York does have to build up. There’s only so much land and you want to be able to accommodate people. While there are places where the buildings are really overshadowing, there are lots of parts of Manhattan that are unnecessarily low rise. Up is the only direction to go.
WSR: If only the tall ones provided affordable housing.
PK: You could have tall ones that do, and, look, if people can buy themselves a 27th-floor luxury apartment, they will not be bidding for the sixth-floor prewar places that might accommodate middle-class families.
WSR: What about people who say we live in a bubble, that we’re detached from the rest of the country? In fact, a few miles from us, people are living in abject poverty.
PK: New York is a hugely unequal place. But it is pretty good, by national standards, at making sure everybody gets essential healthcare. And a lot of people rag on Bill de Blasio, but he’s actually built a lot more affordable housing than people realize. But, if you’re the kind of person I am, which is an affluent, New York liberal, there’s always a little bit of guilt about how nice your life is, because you’re aware that other people are suffering. You can try to directly help them, as Goddard does, but you can also vote and politically organize for a society that reduces the amount of suffering out there.
WSR: What do you think about Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax?
PK: I’m for it. I know the people she had working on her tax plan. The fact that she had them is like having Beyoncé sing at your party. A substantial increase of taxes at the top end is going to be part of the solution to remedying the extreme inequality of our society.
WSR: Do you think America is ready to elect a woman president?
PK: Damned if I know. My general feeling is, we just don’t know. Anyone who claims to know the psyche of the body politic is making it up. It might be a problem. On the other hand, a lot of people pronounced her political demise earlier this year and have been totally wrong. Certainly, if you try to imagine her on a debate stage, seeming in command, she meets that test — as do several of the other candidates. I think it’s actually a pretty damn impressive Democratic field.
WSR: Do you think Trump will make it to the debate stage, to the election? Do you think there’s any chance he’ll be removed from office?
PK: Again, God knows. But, so far, no one has gone wrong by underestimating the commitment to principle of Republicans in the Senate. They’ve always lived down to our worst expectations. The odds that they would convict are extremely low.
WSR: You sound very distressed.
PK: Oh, this is scary as hell. The idea that we could lose our democracy, not ten years from now, but a year and a half from now, is very real to me.
Paul Krugman’s newest book, ‘Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future’, will be out in January.