Recently, Airbnb got slammed in a damning report from the New York State Attorney General’s Office. While a more detailed analysis of the contents of said report is warranted, the data reveal some telling findings about the impact of the service on the NYC Economy and Neighborhoods.
What I find very interesting about Airbnb is the way it has been marketing New York City, and the way it has been aggressively trying to brand itself as the ‘every-New-Yorkers-fifteenth-income,’ helping your Queens mom-and-pops make some extra cash by renting out their charming extra bedrooms (because they didn’t already do that). The company claims that it “helps the majority of NYC hosts afford to stay in their homes.”
How cute and nostalgic, but a pretty blatant lie. Only 6% of the pool of “hosts” made an extravagant 37% of all host revenue, or $168 million. The correct translation here is “Airbnb helps a small pool of commercial property managers book mini-hotels without paying proper taxes.”
I hear you, Hotel Lobby, it’s hard out there for your enormous and thriving industry. Us little people with our extra rooms are really killing it by renting to charming Parisian tourists who just want that ~*Authentic Williamsburg Experience*~. I hear you, pro-Airbnb PR people, who are rocking it with your diverse ads in the subway triggering all of the feels for the days when I could rent my couch for $100 a night on CL to desperate backpackers before Big Brother came and fought your little harmless company into revealing its enormous profiteering racket. I’m with you, Affordable Housing advocates: apartments are for living in, not turning into hotels or hostels when we desperately need affordable housing stock.
So let’s not fight. Instead, let’s take a look at how Airbnb is marketing NYC. However you feel about the validity of the sharing economy, about the use of apartments as hotels, about the extra income stream for people who need it, you should certainly care about the giant marketing campaigns happening on behalf of NYC without any kind of input from the City itself. Airbnb has been branding our neighborhoods for its booking services, offering images, taglines, and ‘community’ feedback on what people have to say about a place. In many cases, either the erasure of culture and history, or the dilution of it as a selling point are big themes for the way neighborhoods are being presented to would-be visitors. It is a rather cotton-candy presentation in that tourist-brochure kind of way, with a thin veneer of seeming a bit more ‘authentic’ by virtue of lacking any major logos from big hotel chains. Other neighborhoods are being branded as ‘gritty’ or on some ‘edge’ or ‘fringe’ as if they represent some unknown outskirts of our city where ~*nobody has been before*~. Sure, tourists want to have an adventure and a new experience, but who gets to decide what is authentic, what is the ‘real’ Bushwick or Hell’s Kitchen, or DUMBO? Who are the people coming up with these concepts? What is the impact of a branded place on our city?
What I offer you is a quick guide to bookings in ~* All of New York’s’ Neighborhoods*~
Or, more exactly, a guide to bookings in “All of New York’s’ Neighborhoods Not In Any Part Of The Bronx, Or Staten Island, Or Eastern Queens, Or South Brooklyn (Roughly Speaking The Majority Of Them).” We could also call this “A Fine Selection of New York’s Neighborhoods, Pairs Well with Rolling Suitcases and European Accents.”
Astoria: The image offered is of a typical street scene in Astoria featuring open businesses and bakeries.
The Blurb: “A top-notch and down-to-earth neighborhood at the tip-top of Queens.”
Tag: Loved by New Yorkers
Verdict: Roughly truthful, though sadly lacking the bit about how it takes two days to get there, or to anywhere else from there. Suggested tag: #BestBakeries
Chinatown: Featuring a scene from one of Chinatowns many colorful storefronts advertising freshly cooked whole duck, Airbnb advertises Chinatown as a place where you can “Indulge all of your senses in one of Manhattan’s most stimulating neighborhoods.”
Tags: Cultural Enclaves, Dining, Touristy, Great Transit, Shopping
Verdict: Again, this one is pretty legit. Chinatown stimulates tourists* the way I imagine anyone who just couldn’t drum up the airfare or desire to actually visit China wants to be stimulated. Basically like walking into another country, but with the convenience of being able to walk right out again.
I love the Cultural Enclave tag, establishing Air BnB as the booking service for every budding Ethnographer.
*Chinatown stimulates New Yorkers very differently. Hello, cheap Pho and amazing grocery stores.
Nolita: “Romance and reality collide in this movie-set worthy New York City neighborhood.”
Tags: Shopping, Trendy, Great Transit, Dining
Verdict: If by reality, you mean $20 cocktails and the most overpriced boutiques this side of the East River, sure.
Gowanus: “One of the most recent arrivals to Brooklyn’s bourgeoning creative scene.”
Tags: Peace and Quiet, Artsy, Nightlife
Verdict: ICYMI: Someone Columbused Gowanus. It has been part of NYC history for a very, very long time. One of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War even took place here. It’s amazing how a rezoning and a biohazard of a canal can really rebrand a place. Thanks, Airbnb.
Bedford-Stuyvesant: Emblazoned over a photograph of the neighborhoods famous brownstones is the phrase: “Although it’s equal parts tried-and-true and up-and-coming, explore Bed-Stuy with caution as it continues to overcome its obstacles.”
Tags: Artsy, Cultural Enclaves
Verdict: When I exclaimed “Oh my god what kind of racist b.s. is this?” a co-worker asked “Is the blurb ‘Do Or Die’?”
Crown-Heights: “Get a taste of how cool Crown Heights can be, but remain aware of your surroundings.”
Tags: None. Too ‘cool.’
Verdict: Mixed messages of how cool a place is and how dangerous a place is must resonate really well with tourists who like living on the edge. Why isn’t there a page for folks who want to rent the towers of various New York City bridges? I hear Russians love that.
East Harlem: “A Dynamic energy emanates from East Harlem, a neighborhood notoriously rough around its edges.”
Tags: Cultural Enclaves.
Verdict: I have a huge problem that these three neighborhoods in New York City, all well-known neighborhoods of color, get the little caveat that you should be extra careful if you stay here. No other neighborhoods come with these little warnings, not a single one. Why is it that Harlem and Bed-Stuy, two of the oldest, most historically and culturally relevant enclaves for African Americans in the United States are being marketed as ‘half-cleansed urban grit but carry some mace’? The image of inner city communities in NYC as dangerous, as dirty, and as crime-riddled is an old stereotype, and has had damaging effects for the people who live there. Crime is everywhere, but that it is being capitalized upon and used to market places where real people live under its specter, deal with its realities, and largely get ignored is pretty blatantly racist.
Bushwick: Overlaid over a graffiti mural are the words “This gritty Brooklyn neighborhood is quickly ascending the ranks when it comes to creative minded destinations and hotspots for self-expression.”
Tags: Artsy, Cultural Enclaves, Dining, Great Transit
Verdict: The ‘gritty’ bit is about as bad as the crime bit from above. Let me tell you how representative that mural is of all of Bushwick. It’s not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool place. This marketing scheme is just being super selective about what counts as ‘cool.’
Kips Bay: “The quiet seclusion of Kips Bay lets you walk your dog in peace” over an image of the bulkheads.
Verdict: Because you are going to pay to stay in NYC so you can walk your dog in peace. Also, what tourist brings their dog? Don’t they basically stay in quarantine for the whole trip anyway?
Williamsburg: “The secret’s out: Williamsburg is the poster child for Brooklyn’s hip and alternative scene” The photograph features an overcrowded bike corral.
Tags: Loved by New Yorkers, Artsy, Nightlife, Trendy, Dining, Shopping, Great Transit
Verdict: [Insert your ironic interpretation of this one here]