Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Neighborhood

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It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that “neighborhood” is defined primarily by the proximity of other people, not by physical boundary, used as it is interchangeably with “district” or “quarter.” Conversely, it’s hard to forget the nomad lifestyle of many in the city, playing as we all are a gigantic game of musical chairs with the slowly dwindling supply of affordable housing units left.

It’s easy, however, to get lost in the masses – to think of oneself as a supernumerary in great society; another position that needs filling, another mouth to feed – and forget that we are all ad-libbing on a stage in which we are simultaneously actor and audience, a complex mesh of co-dependencies predicated on a set of rules of our own creation. It’s easy to turn inward and eschew the other.

Above all, on the other hand, it’s impossible not to see examples of both sides in just two blocks of this fair city; each interaction a microcosm of the whole. Indeed, on just a minor errand of home to bank to deli to home, scenes unfurled before me to which I became an unwitting actor and participant. One white woman in a beige Honda wished to park in order to enter a storefront bank branch and had unfortunately chosen the loading platform of a construction site when the workers were in the process of removing detritus from the upper floors into a nearby pickup truck. It was a good thing her sunroof was closed for the top of the car was soon blackened with soot.

The four Jamaican laborers filling the pickup thought this a hilarious turn of events and, rolling down the passenger side window of her car, the woman gave them a collective tongue lashing as to their rudeness and unprofessionalism. This only made them laugh harder, hooting at her complete obliviousness as to the provenance of the situation. Indeed, two neighborhood kids who were still in Catholic school uniform sitting outside the next-door pharmacy and a black man just come out the subway station on the corner had tuned into this bit of entertainment and were looking around for others to share their revelry in. I asked the man what was going on, and he only nodded, grinned and cocked his head towards the foreman who had the ignoble task of breaking up the exchange, which only prompted a renewed bid of exasperation from the hapless woman.

Down the next block an tiny old black woman in leopard-print faux-fur overcoat with matching hat was in a heated racial argument on the stretch of benches that collects old fogies like stamps on a passport with two white pensioners who had taken it upon themselves to mansplain, in effect, how her lived experience was not as bad as she said and that she complained too much. This tete-a-tete was raging on when I had entered the deli and asked for cheap eats. A few minutes later and the Yemeni men who ran the joint gave loud welcomes to the very same woman, who was in the process of slowly creaking her way across the street and into the deli.

Once inside, she demanded a gun so she can shoot some people. The elder Yemeni man kindly responded that he could get her one. I remarked that I had heard the conversation she was having and that there are indeed some morons out there on those benches. She replied that “there’s no need to send those men to hell, they’re going soon enough,” and that the people she had intended to strike dead were some unscrupulous malefactors at the bank who had drained her account of some $28,000 in some scheme that preyed on her advanced age. The woman was 93.

The younger Yemeni pointed out that the bank has protections and that they would get her money back. She confirmed such but that until that happened she was stuck with some $300 to live on plus Social Security, and besides that doesn’t give the satisfaction that personal intervention does. The elder Yemeni jokingly suggested that she park her money with him and such wouldn’t happen. She gave him a Look, and he reminded her of his offers for marriage. She replied that she managed to come within spitting distance of 100 because she had only one marriage in her life, and it was to a man who treated her like a queen. She immediately got misty-eyed, and started reminiscing, by which I mean she launched into a tirade about traditional roles in marriage.

The Yemenis took their cue and started looking over the diminutive woman to the line of customers that had piled behind her, and she turned to me because in my rapt awareness to the goings-on I looked like a “decent young man.” She went on about total devotion to one another and how marriage is indeed between two equals, while slowly meandering her way out of the deli, having sated her need to kvetch about her current situation. I exchanged knowing looks with the younger man behind the counter, and like oil and water she blooped her way out opposite the flow of younger Dominicans preparing for nights out and yuppies preparing for nights in.

In two blocks I had witnessed both a social call and an anti-social call: One of neighbors and one not. While it was all humorous, it was also a mark of who and what belongs to where, and how those connections are made: We’re all strangers, but some are stranger than most.

New URL

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Big Smoke has moved from bigsmokestreetcorner.com to bigsmoke.nyc, following the decade-long wrangle the city had with having its own top-level domain. New York City now shares this distinction with other nominal city-states (Hong Kong, Singapore) as well as cities that apparently want to be associated with being tech savvy (London, Paris, Berlin) but as far as I’m aware it’s the only city whose domain extension is exactly three letters. It is also the only city to limit its domain to locals, so there’s a fair bit of impish glee in being able to snag one.

The old URL will redirect to the new one, and kinks will eventually be worked out. Eventually.

Identity Crisis

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I was asked at one point to weigh in on the psuedo-indigenous naturalism evident primarily in the sorts of summer camps children are sent to when they’re to get away from the city (and their parents’ hair) for a while. Such camps tend to tie the concept of anti-civilization with that of an imagined pan-native culture which they bolster with culturally appropriated artifacts from various nations and tribes across this continent.

Being Cherokee, I made the argument that both the correlation and the appropriation were wrong; a stance that was questioned by proponents of a particular camp primarily in what exactly cultural appropriation can be defined as. This got me thinking, as here I am in the one place in the world where cultural diffusion is more or less omnipresent. Everyone starts accreting the sorts of things they’re surrounded by, and indeed I speak Yiddishisms, cook stir-fry, and otherwise play the cipher as I cross miniature borders on a daily basis. Where is the line crossed between cultural diffusion and cultural appropriation?

I know this line implicitly, because I know what offends me and I know what offends others. For instance, I used to go to Cherokee ceremonies down by the Delaware Water Gap. I no longer go because there are very few natives and even fewer Cherokee in these ceremonies. Most of the proceedings are attended (and often administered) by white people looking to bolster their sense of the world with a little superficial “spirituality.”

I used to call such a phenomenon – white hippies seeking “god” – DIY buddhism, as a reference to the fascination middle-class Americans had with eastern religions (buddhism in specific), starting in the ’60s, that bear little resemblance to the actual meanings and use of those religions, wholly divorced as they are to the context. Yoga, a meditative practice, is reduced to an exercise routine, after pilates and before the free-weights. Indeed, the sweat lodge – a practice not common to the Cherokee but now a regular occurrence in the ceremonies I attended – has been used in a similar fashion as an alternative day spa.

The difference is that instead of reveling in the understandings of another’s culture, what the appropriator does is use that culture as a means of differentiating themselves in the dominant culture: It becomes an affectation –  a fashion statement – cherished only in its distinction from the accepted norm rather than its use as a new norm. It is, thus, divorced from meaning and belittles the cultures from whence it came.

I know how that feels to me, because it not only reduces Cherokee culture into a fractured sequence of practices devoid of context but it also conflates Cherokee tradition with that of other nations and peoples, cavalierly flattening entire cultures and the struggles they have had to deal with. I can thus see how that could be turned around to others: Just as I don’t like faith healings and sweat lodges taking over my ceremonies for the benefit of people who aren’t native, so too would I never put my hair into dreadlocks, for I don’t have the same experiences or a direct connection with East African peoples or their diaspora in the Caribbean.

Being a nominally middle-class person with light skin, I could not in good conscious say “my nigga” to a compatriot, for despite having black heritage I have not grown with the same indignities as one who would be compelled to use such a term of endearment and resistance. Indeed, it’s specifically because the word “nigger” used in such a context is one of anger and protest that it’s actually the opposite of cultural appropriation: It’s an oppressed culture taking the terminology of the oppressors as a display of agency and self-determination. To take the term without clearly resembling its implications would then by definition be an act of hostility towards that sentiment.

In essence, that’s where the line is drawn: As a power dynamic. Who becomes as important as what. What’s the difference between white counselors teaching white children the occasional Lakota word at camp, despite not being Lakota, and Mohawk volunteers teaching black children common Lenape words on a field trip, despite not being Lenape? Power. Why does nobody blink when I use Yiddish terms despite having no connection to Eastern European shtetls? Well, the inroads of their diaspora in New York City to the dominant culture: Power. Why are the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans on my block allowed to say “my nigga” despite not having a direct connection to American slavery? A shared sense of underclass under the yoke of racism: In short, power.

It’s a strange calculus to be endlessly aware of power dynamics when it comes to culture, especially considering how little it is directly referenced in public. Much the same as any acknowledgement of differences in socioeconomic status would be decried as “class warfare” by the most privileged, so too do some bristle at the accusation of cultural appropriation, but whether the power dynamic is acknowledged or not, it is still there.

Fiver and Tenned

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Like all New Yorkers, I’m beholden to a number of de facto monopolies that have all, ostensibly, come on hard times and need my money to survive. I’d only be all too happy to oblige except, y’know, for all the profits they’re posting.

First and foremost, of course, comes Time Warner Cable, second only to Cablevision in terms of practices one would expect from a Lex Luthor-style supervillain. They’ve been hurting of late: Those pesky millennials don’t get cable subscriptions – and CBS and HBO have decided to cut out the middle-man – so they have to get their pound of flesh somehow. Say hello to rental fees, subscription fees, and variable rates of service!

It used to be that the broadcast channels were free for anybody with rabbit ears, set-top boxes were included with the service, and internet was equivalent to most international rates: Around $15 a month. Now, broadcast channels cost $10, set-top boxes have their own fee – plus fees for installation and troubleshooting – and the cheapest internet costs more than $50 a month, not including a separate modem rental fee at more than $6 monthly. Furthermore, they’ve been harassing producers on the other end, with ultimatums to MSG, Disney and others leading to blackouts.

Like a toddler in the middle of a tantrum, they demanded their profits remain constant as their business model withered away, reminiscent of the RIAA’s lawsuit-happy way of defending a dying industry. It’s just as well, though; their cabal compatriots – and by that I mean their competitors – have had an even more egregiously deleterious model through the means of “retention specialists.” That title refers to people who are in the employ of the company for the express purpose of making it difficult to quit the company’s service. How dare you, after all? They have quarterly reports to think about!

I was recently given a thick letter by CitiBank, which is never good considering the last thick letter I’ve ever received was my acceptance to university. The letter included a manual of my “new account,” as they were phasing out the EZ Checking Account. Why? Because consumer banking isn’t as profitable as they were hoping – despite posting better than expected profits in April. Of course, they posted massive losses in June thanks to the $7 billion in fines they were made to pay by the US government for their hinky practices with mortgage securities, and they had been found to have been insufficiently buttressed against another 2008 mortgage crisis by the Federal Reserve in July, natch.

Add to that their being trounced in consumer banking by local players in the Korean and Japanese markets, and they had to find a way to shore up their profit margins somehow. Thankfully, they can simply decree that us locals pay more! Now, it costs $25 every month I have a balance under $10,000 and $2.50 every time I use an ATM not in a CitiBank branch – on top of the ATM’s own fees. I’m sure I can switch to Chase – with the most branches per capita in New York City – except Chase had to pay $13 billion in fines for their part in the 2008 financial and economic crisis and soon they will find a way to defray those costs themselves.

If that were not enough, there is still Consolidated Edison, which, true to their namesake, looks for every means to maximize profits. As part of the general deregulation of the energy industry, not a week goes by that a representative of an oil company from Texas or a solar company from New Jersey comes knocking on my door talking of lower initial rates that immediately become variable about three or four months in once I’ve forgotten what I signed up for – complete with fees to make it difficult to switch once the new rates apply, natch – which is just as well, because Con Ed themselves have decided to double my rates since this time last year.

If this all feels like a treadmill that slowly increases the incline, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The term “nickel and dimed” is now obsolete: The decimal place has to be moved a couple spaces over to be updated properly. Barbara Ehrenreich was prescient in her analysis, but we’re accelerating if nothing else: All this works primarily as a tax on a poverty – if you exist in modern society, these are intractible costs, and the service providers know it. The only question is how much blood one can squeeze from a stone: How much internet can you steal? How long can the electricity bill go unpaid before you’re off the network (and subject to a whole new suite of fees?) And most importantly, can you even house your money without paying money?

To be a working person in this city is to set a foundation in quicksand. As our inequality increases, as it indeed becomes more expensive to be poor, surely something can – must – will be done.

Eddies of the Civilized World

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Having left one conked-out compatriot in a gay bar in Greenwich Village where they had a cult and shrine to Rihanna, I led my charge on an expedition to meet another such in deepest Brooklyn. His impression of New York was something of a tourist’s itinerary and damned if I wasn’t going to jostle him out of that, even if it meant braving the hordes of stupified zombies throwing themselves at every yellow cab that happened to come by. Half an hour later, it became obvious that all my tricks about moving upstream and waiting for cabs in odd directions were for naught, but no worries, the gypsy cabs aren’t yet a dead tradition in this burg. The experience prompted the man in my care to reflect that this act was tantamount to kidnapping oneself back in his home country.

Not so here! Bloomberg’s made his indelible mark even in our gloriously illegal street hail of an unmarked car: The hack is identified and registered on an official roll and there’s even a Passenger Bill of Rights should we wish to blow the whistle on ourselves. Never mind, he’s willing to take us to Brooklyn, that foreign country, and therefore he’s already a saint in my book. How do you describe Brooklyn, consequently, to a drunk and somewhat confused Colombian who was forced to down sake and watch skinny white men gyrate to Black pop stars? You don’t, because you didn’t explain anything else that night anyway.

We ended up somewhere in the “South Slope” (really, Windsor Terrace, much in the same way that “East Williamsburg” creeps further into Bushwick and “North Williamsburg” is taking over Greenpoint) in order to celebrate the birthday of a man who himself a walking good-humored mystery, a gregarious sort who would be at home just about anywhere. In this case, he chose a heavy metal go-go bar. It was, on the whole, an inspired choice. It was a glorious revelry in the affirmative rejection of the absurd contortions that society – that is to say, the people outside the bar – puts itself in by selecting a equally absurd contortion and laughing at itself.

Our crew perched between a biker gang on our left, and marines on our right. A mutual friend, a southern gent obsessed with class, wanted to change the jukebox from Iron Maiden to Rihanna, which we had to discourage him from lest we pretend not to know him come the inevitable backlash – assuming, of course, a place like this would ever have Rihanna or Ke$ha or Nicki Minaj on the jukebox. Some people gotta learn that when in Rome…

Over a cheap domestic lager and under the blaring screen of a 70s B roadhouse movie that featured Japanese gangsters doing horrible yet softcore things to American nuns, before having horrible and definitely hardcore things done to them in turn, I asked the fellow closest to me how he had spent his last deployment. He said that he had spent it in Japan, and that it was pretty fun “up until the rape,” at which point they confined everybody to the base. One wonders whether it was to save the locals from the soldiers, or the soldiers from the locals.

One of the go-go dancers, a trio of tattooed women of various colors who could all have been and may yet actually be models from SuicideGirls – that social networking and modeling site specializing in those with a predilection to piercings and the punk motif – knocked over my drink across the length of the bar, which caught the attention of one of the bikers to my crew. The man inquired as to which of us he would have to rip the sleeve off of to wipe up the mess. I observed that, as he was wearing cut-offs, this scenario must have happened for him twice. He retorted that he was a gentleman and it was our turn.

This exchange comforted me, as it reminded me of the circumstances I had spent a great deal of my twenties in when looking to run away from the world: The diviest of dive bars, the late Mars Bar (now a TD Bank in a glass condo, natch). Back then, a representative night would be having a midget and a viking to my right openly rolling a spliff and fussing over the Arc of the Covenant – the viking would offer passersby to open it for a few bucks, and the midget would pop out – a firebreathing Marxist organizer for the TWU Local 100 to my left, and a middle-aged couple from a SoHo loft to my compatriot’s left looking to slum it for a bit and possibly find a third for a threesome. The kinds of people you can’t imagine leading day lives, in a place you can’t imagine exists during daylight. A real hole in the wall.

I haven’t found a real hole in the wall since Mars Bar was booted out of a newly sanitized East Village. Sure, there were places that had most of the aesthetics and about eighty percent of the vibe in the Lower East Side – there’s something to be said for sharing a barstool with a pitbull in the late Motor City Bar (now place that sells “gourmet wraps,” natch) – but the dives either started catering to a more “discerning” clientele or just died altogether. Indeed, to celebrate this discovery of a new honest-to-god dive, I complimented a biker chick in the arms of what looked like the Mexican Mad Max that the studded hoop earrings she was wearing looked like they could double as brass knuckles. She immediately high-fived me.

The bartender, a green-haired woman in bra, denim hotpants and, with a clunk on the bar to show off to the marine next to me, seven inch platforms, turned out to be the owner of the joint altogether. Truly I had found a live countercultural bastion the likes of which I had almost written off as dead in the city of my birth. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. None of this, of course, served to alleviate my Colombian friend’s confusion – we had in effect, after all, switched between polar opposites in one night, and god knows what his eyes saw even as we both took it all in for the first time – but he took it in stride. Alcohol loosens barriers, which is arguably why New York is so enamored with it. One can indeed hope it never forgets.

Tilling the Land

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The narrative is wrong. The pundits that say that New York has ascended from the depths of AIDS and crack-driven depravity to a glorious new economically viable (if a tad expensive) future have lost the tack. New York has suppressed crime by transitioning away from being a city.

Setting aside the late Gary Webb’s 2004 martyrdom after his excommunication from print media due to exposing the CIA’s complicity in the crack-cocaine epidemic, what was truly terrible about the Bad Old Days of New York? Crime, AIDS and racial tension are common refrains. AIDS is still here, of course, and crime may have gone away but that has itself been deemed a facet of the crack trade and ensuing gang wars. To say the least, heroin junkies are docile compared to crack fiends. That leaves racial tension, and pardon me if I feel a little simmering. One cannot speak of gentrification and displacement, after all, without mentioning the colors of the actors.

This is not to say that it’s as black and white as it was then: Our lurid police blotters are slightly less lurid nowadays, red-lining – which destroyed entire neighborhoods wholesale – is technically illegal, and our mayor is fashionably multicultural. This is not the era of Bernie Goetz. This is, however, the era of Bernie Madoff, and the undertow may yet still be pulling people under. The illustrious former Sandinista in office has not been very successful in shouldering a sea change for the underclasses or, for that matter, any of the classes not rich enough to help themselves. The current policies are arguably more insidious than ever before, and they are in the service of the same trend that gave us nightly stories of Crown Heights shootings on the 11 o’clock news.

Madoff may have brazenly stolen billions, but he made the mistake of stealing from the rich. He should have taken a page from Maurice Greenberg’s playbook: Nobody cares when you’re stealing from the poor.

Somehow, we’ve accepted policies that results in decent housing being doled out in a lottery rather than policies that result in building decent housing. Decent schools work on a lottery instead of all schools being made decent. People fight to be one of the lucky few to be lifted from despair and fight tooth and nail to continue the lotteries, but lotteries necessitate losers – lots of them. People who are adept at navigating bureaucracy and gaming the system win out, and immediately turn around and call that system fair, when the system is explicitly set up to quell complaint without actually solving the problem. Indeed, housing is overall more expensive, schools are no better than they were, and the number of needed neighborhood amenities – like supermarkets – are still disappearing despite dozens of Business Improvement Districts all around the city. Rather, they are disappearing because of said BIDs.

Much of my neighborhood is indeed controlled by such a BID. The humor of it is, at the turn of the new millennium, there was not one single empty storefront in the entire neighborhood. What was needed to improve? Well, in the case of Corona, Queens, Chamber of Commerce representative Jack Friedman argued that there simply aren’t enough chain stores: “We need to re-brand Corona. The names might change, but the flavor won’t.” He continued, “Listen, chain stores are often franchises and are owned by local people. What successful business area doesn’t have a chain store?”

Shown: Dilapidation in East Harlem, as clearly there isn’t so much as a Best Buy or Old Navy to be seen. Thankfully, we can clean all this up with a Shake Shack or a Whole Foods.

Indeed, if your local business survived redlining and the depressed economy, you’re in luck! You might get kicked out in favor of a Duane Reade or a Bank of America. Such tone-deaf declarations by aldermen can be viewed as the effluence of the wake of former mayor Bloomberg, whose city planning commissioner Amanda Burden once boasted her efforts to “make so many more areas of the city livable,” forgetting of course the all people already living in those areas, but more accurately Bloomberg is a response to them, not the other way around.

My own neighborhood once had all the necessities for working class family life: Cheap family restaurants, cheap clothing stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, furniture stores, butchers, delicatessens and the like. You could get everything you needed to live within a six block radius; a true boon of urban life. Now there are no hardware stores. There are no appliance stores, and the two computer repair shops closed down. The number of laundromats halved. The eateries are dwindling, and the clothing stores and small department stores are shuttering one by one as their leases come up. There are five empty storefronts in a three block radius now; three of which are chronic, as nobody can afford the new leases.

What the neighborhood has gotten in return are six bank branches, eleven bars, wine bars, clubs and “gastropubs,” four branded cellphone shops, two Thai restaurants, two froyo places and a Starbucks. This is economic viability? This is a neighborhood eating itself, and it’s being accelerated by the policies in force, just as the Bad Old Days were enforced by the policies of the time. New York was a viable city, suppressed by bad policy. Now, New York is becoming an extremely dense gated suburb, through an entirely new set of equally bad policy.

Anytown, USA, with proceeds directly payable to anywhere but the neighborhood it leeches. Man cannot live by branding alone.

The continuity of the narrative between the Bad Old Days and the purported good new days is illustrated best with a man who has been at the helm for both: Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. What was the lesson of the 90s? Shit was out of control; these savages were marauding everywhere, and the police had to do what was necessary to put a stop to them: The city deserved no less. Bratton’s Broken Windows theory prevailed. Now, the narrative goes, why do these people think they deserve to live in such good neighborhoods just by dint of having been born there? The windows gleam now, and simple economics dictate that they need a better class of citizen behind them: The city deserves no less.

It’s due to this narrative that even relatively benign programs enacted by mayor de Blasio are viewed in suspicion: What happens if he succeeds in revitalizing public parks in outer borough neighborhoods? Will the locals be forced out soon afterwards? Even if, through protection of existing residents, they aren’t evicted, where will they purchase their goods? The writing on the wall is there, and for the newcomers, FreshDirect is a convenient band-aid, in itself not an answer but a demonstration of the problem. Ultimately, cities are supposed to be producers, not consumers; creches of new industry, not mere land tilled by existing moguls, and the administration – or rather the political heavyweights the administration is beholden to – has lost sight of that.

It can be said that the city is currently working actively against its own working foundations. The only question in my mind is, how do you count when that trend started?

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