The latest post on the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, “Attention High Line Tourists,” demonstrates well one kind of reaction to the impact of tourism in cities: signs warning tourists to tread lightly in surrounding neighborhoods. The High Line, of course, refers to one of the most decidedly “in” places to “do” in Manhattan: a former elevated railroad right of way recast as a linear green space three years ago. The High Line works as a tourist attraction not just because it affords a new perspective on the city but also because it passes through neighborhoods that promise steady use and points of interest.

Yet the High Line isn’t an unalloyed success in everyone’s eyes. If artists are often the spark that ignites gentrification, tourists are the accelerant. Of course, tourism is hardly the main factor. New York is one of the United States’ great urban success stories. Battling back after the net loss of nearly a million people between 1950 and 1980, the city has expanded ever since through both opportunity and the hope thereof. It is a beacon – so much so that Manhattan been practically turned itself inside out in terms of the massive social change that has spread to virtually every nook and cranny of the long, slender island. In other words, New York was already gentrifying too quickly in some people’s minds even without the inducement of compelling amenities like the High Line.

Though it is harder each year to avoid the carefully branded corporate retail presence on the city’s streets, New York remains a place to which longtime and recently arrived residents are often fiercely loyal and of which New Yorkers are equally protective. For a long time, in stark contrast to tourism-heavy locales like Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, New York absorbed tourists into the crowd quite efficiently. But that began to change in the closing decades of the 20th century, as American Tourism contributor Art M. Blake shows.

High Line park NYC - Manhattan - New York City

Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr

The 1980s-90s turn toward tourism has if anything accelerated since the recasting of Times Square. With New York and many other cities pushing hard to entice record numbers of rubberneckers from afar (see “The Tourism Mayors“), the feeling of being trapped in a tourist bubble is probably going to become as inescapable as backlit national-chain logos. In one sense it is simply one among many major social changes that reshape cities again and again, just as one immigrant group displaces another, the artist displaces the immigrant, and the gentrifying homebuyer displaces the renter. Put simply, with or without tourism, cities don’t stand still.

Tourists have always been both boon and bane to the places they visit, as historians of tourism have pointed out. As city promoters, developers, and politicos have become ever savvier in their branding and selling of urban place-as-experience, we can expect some measure of disappointment when those who buy (literally and figuratively) into places like New York see those who may well replace them in 5 or 15 years.