A Q&A With Upper West Sider Paul Krugman: On Commercial Vacancies, Why Tall Buildings Are Good and Robert Moses Wasn’t So Terrible


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 proposal 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.

COLUMNS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Judy says:

      I too lived in Princeton for years and Paul is right, it would be a shame if the UWS starts looking like Rt 1…

    2. AC57 says:

      Will Paul Krugman saying that we should build upwards get people to jump on board?

      Because he’s right about that, you know.

    3. ScooterStan says:

      GREAT interview with one of the more incredible minds of our time.

      Plus he’s an UWSer, as one might have expected. After all, where else would someone of his reputation want to live?

    4. Tom Foley says:

      I’ve been greatly entertained by Heir Doctor’s fairly zany sense of humor in recent years (as expressed thru Twitter & The Times) and I’ve wondered where he gets his inspiration from. Thanks for revealing the non-pundit side of his life that has made him who he REALLY is!

    5. Bill Williams says:

      If you want to know the future just forecast exactly the opposite of what Krugman thinks. The only person who could be more unimaginative and wrong is Bernanke.

    6. Renee says:

      Great interview with one of our most distinguished residents. I like how he thinks , which is what was revealed here.

    7. Elizabeth says:

      So happy to hear one of my heros lives on the UWS!

    8. Jan says:

      All I can say, once again, overbuilding has created a too many people scenario in Manhattan. Everyone wants to be in
      Manhattan, but the reality is there is just so much space.
      I fear Manhattan will become intolerable, over crowded
      with too many people. It is already, and getting worse
      as the 100 thousand homeless population continues to
      erode the quality of life here. Its so ugly and sad.
      The handwriting is on the wall. I fear new buyers might ask themselves do I want to commit to 5 million in this deteriorating mismanaged city. Maybe not. So.

    9. JoelF says:

      I agree that Robert Moses deserves credit for revamping Riverside Park into a wonderful public space. It’s unfortunate, however, that he didn’t expend the same creativity and resources to improve the park where it abuts Harlem.

    10. Judith Zabar says:

      Landlords are suffering from huge NYC real estate taxes which are reflected in the rent that is charged to the tenant. Each year the city increases the tax and bases it on the previous years rent which included the tax. Landlords do not like to see empty stores diminishing our neighborhood – they are reducing the rents but they can’t reduce the real estate taxes which are the maximum portion of many rents. Even our local councilperson did not realize this.

      • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

        in response to Judith:

        real estate tax increases are “passed through” to commercial tenants in almost all commercial leases. it is a standard escalation clause. the exorbitant rent increases of the last 10 years had nothing to do with property taxes, as those were already reflected in the existing leases.

    11. JUDITH ZABAR says:

      Landlords are as disturbed as you by all the empty stores on Broadway. They are not holding out for higher rents. City real estate taxes are the problem – each year they are increased based on the rent. This is passed on to the tenant. The next year’s increase is based on the previous years rent. In fact, many have decreased the rent but taxes often account for the major part.

    12. UWSSurfer says:

      Krugman is wrong on so many points, it boggles the mind.

      Robert Moses destroyed this city. Take a look at how beautiful the Riverside Park promenade was before the Westside Highway was built.

      Imagine sitting along the Hudson River without hearing cars buzzing along the highway and smelling their exhaust fumes.

      Viva Jane Jacobs!

    13. rahul sawant says:

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      early in the daylight, for the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.

    14. Craig Slosberg says:

      I love when people profess to know why there are so many vacancies. NO the landlord’s are not holding out for high rents. Just name a few retailers that are making money, and expanding? Barely a handful.
      Call your favorite retailer and ask them to open on the UPWS.

    15. Sarah says:

      Trying to picture Krugman at the Bowery Ballroom and it’s breaking my brain a little! I wonder if he’s a fan of the Mountain Goats.

    16. A.J. says:

      Leave it to Krugman, one of the top economic minds of the neoliberal order, to praise Robert Moses, one of the top urban planners of his youth. Glad to read he’s enjoying Riverside Park with nostalgia goggles firmly glued to his face. Maybe after his next promenade down Riverside Drive, he can reaffirm the frailty of society and the human body by enjoying the childhood asthma and broken neighborhoods Moses brought to the Bronx.

      I can’t wait until we’re done with Trump in the White House so we can stop pretending rich old boomers one inch to the left of Donald Trump are interested in changing anything at all. Because apparently all you have to do to please Krugman and his ilk is to put a park or a building over a problem. Maybe we can solve poverty by putting a humanity-affirming park over it so Krugman can wax poetically and gloss over the sacrifices imposed on the poor.

    17. tj3 says:

      We know what Krugman thinks, he writes and talks about it all the time, despite the hypocrisy of his lifestyle, fully outlined here.

      Why not interview the land lords of empty store fronts and let them educate the masses how just how screwed up this city’s taxes and regulations are to small business owners and those trying to afford them a place to do business…

      after the taxes are passed onto the store owner, they’re passed on to us, by the way. this is a huge reason why new yorkers buy everything essential on amazon. we cannot afford rent and basic home goods 3x the price of the national average.

      • B.B. says:

        Several recent studies/reports released by city and even comptroller all say same thing; retail vacancy issue has many causes, and not all of it can be laid at feet of “greedy” landlords.

        High taxes, high CODB, vast and bewildering array of regulations and laws have long made NYS/NYC high on list of most unfriendly to businesses.

        Previously people had to grin and bear it as there were few other options. Now thanks to our friend Mr. Internet and other technology people have choices, and are using them, that is the problem for brick retail.