Big Smoke

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

Cuomo’s Political Ambitions

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be working overtime to push a more liberal agenda of late, what with his advocacy of a higher minimum wage and his excoriation of the ‘culture’ of conservatives, seemingly in reaction to the cooling of his relationship with progressives prior to his re-election campaign and the anemic voter turnout for the election itself over his callousness towards fracking, gun control and other issues, but nothing quite came out of left field as Cuomo’s declaration of a proposed LaGuardia Airport AirTrain.

Simply put, the plan sucks.

While it did exist as one of the many shelved plans for connecting our domestic airport by rail, it was perhaps the most unfeasible: Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic points out that it doesn’t actually save New Yorkers any time and Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas asks, if the governor has money for this, why can’t he fund the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway? This is most damning, especially since Cuomo just about laughed in the face of the MTA during their last budget proposal.

Indeed, it provides no benefits over the M60 SBS bus from Harlem and Astoria nor the Q70 LTD bus from Jackson Heights, both which cross many more subway lines, take far less time and cost less. Furthermore, unlike the JFK AirTrain, which connects to the Jamaica hub of the LIRR – ensuring quick and prompt service, as almost every line stops there on the way to termini in Brooklyn and Manhattan – as well as multiple express subway lines, Cuomo’s proposed LaG AirTrain would only connect with the Port Washington LIRR line, a remote spur that only receives quick service on days the Mets play, and the 7 line, which is currently at capacity, meaning airport commuters would be fighting for limited space with Flushing commuters.

Why, then, did he propose it? The most obvious answer is because, of all the routes possible, it is by far the most politically expedient, as nobody actually lives anywhere near the right-of-way and thus nobody would be likely to complain. After all, what killed the 1992 plan to extend the N train to LaGuardia were two blocks’ worth of NIMBYs who ended up galvanizing Queens councilmen across the borough to rally against the project. It may also be the cheapest, representing a mere 1.5 miles of track, though with the albatrosses looming above both the MTA’s and the Port Authority’s current capital projects, cost overruns are practically inevitable.

Cheap and easy, however, don’t make good plans. So what’s the real reason? As with Cuomo’s attempt to thread the needle with de Blasio’s plan to tax the rich to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, where he presented a rather cynical counter-proposal that effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul insofar as it would pay for one city initiative by defunding another, this appears to be a means to generate a paper legacy – however ill-conceived – to secure higher office. Indeed, provided you don’t look at the issue too closely, this sort of project would indeed be a feather in Cuomo’s cap that properly funding existing initiatives wouldn’t, as those would likely be credited elsewhere. Such appears to be the world of political gamesmanship.

Not that it’s particularly difficult to find other headlining but otherwise pointless efforts by Cuomo – his posturing over the Ebola scare foremost among them – nor of similar antics by another man vying for higher office: That of neighboring governor Chris Christie. The two have indeed collaborated together on a number of fruitless endeavors that have made headlines of late, including a similar ill-conceived AirTrain to Newark International Airport and paying lip service to reform the flagging Port Authority but reneging at the last second.

What is most distressing about Cuomo’s bad plan, however, is how much it gets in the way of better projects. Cuomo hinted that funding for his AirTrain would come from recent settlements New York concluded in suits against the malfeasance of foreign banks. If so, why not put that money to more deserving rail projects, like funding the MTA’s overhaul process post-Hurricane Sandy? There are many things that money could be spent on: Funding the next Second Avenue Subway phase, funding a desperately-needed tunnel under the Hudson River to Penn Station before the current ones run past their life expectancy – a problem Cuomo had very pointedly ignored thus far – or simply fixing some of the old decrepit stations left over from our legacy of deferred maintenance.

Moreover, it gets in the way of better plans to reach LaGuardia, such as blogger dZine’s proposal to double-back the N line to the Grand Central Parkway, thus avoiding any NIMBY issues while retaining the one-seat ride from Midtown, or a slight modification to simply create a spur at the Astoria Blvd station to do the same, utilizing the Astoria line’s heretofore unused express track for added capacity.

It would be a great moment in New York history to see a subway train fly over Grand Central Parkway, undoing Robert Moses’ ugly legacy with Long Island right-of-ways, and following the lead of Chicago’s Els as well as our very own JFK AirTrain over the Van Wyck Expressway. It doesn’t matter who gets it done or who gets credit for it, but it needs to be done right, and by no means should we simply settle for right now.

Casual Labor

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Colin Tooze of Uber defended his e-hail system’s price gouging plan today as “beneficial to consumers.” He argued that without a cost incentive, demand would simply flood supply and result in a service quality reduction. It is this reasoning, he surmised, that explained why a single taxi ride costing half the average New York City rent was not only warranted, but necessary.

Leave it to a millionaire to devise a service where money is no object. However, it fails the basic sniff test of supply and demand. The way Uber’s e-hail app works currently can only end in one of two ways; each of which is dependent on how the taxi system of the city is laid out, and neither of which makes sense:

In the first method, anybody with a driver’s license and signed up to Uber can accept e-hails. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to be completely malleable: When demand goes up, people who would otherwise not be cabbies get in their cars and accept e-hails. When demand goes down, those people apparently do something else to make their daily bread. This is how Uber expects every city except New York City to run.

In the second method, you need a Taxi & Limousine Commission license to run a livery, and Uber then supplements your dispatches and/or street hails with an e-hail system. This then hews to demand by allowing the supply of liveries available at any one point to auction to the highest bidder: When demand goes up, the price of the ride goes up. When demand goes down, the price of the ride goes down.

Either system disrupts existing taxi dispatches heavily without major long-term benefit to anybody but Uber’s shareholders. In the first system, the professional class of cabbies turns into casual day labor. Full-time hacks have complained about the interloper’s lack of regulatory compliance as well as the increased competition from non-professionals driving potential wages below subsistence.

In the second system, consumers lose out as the entire regulatory system is compromised: In New York City, a standardized fare system keeps cabbies from undercutting one another for fares, as well as keep the consumer from losing out due to unethical price gouging. Street hail guidelines explicitly forbid a cabbie from “shopping” for the right customer, and most importantly of all, the chance of successfully hailing a cab is roughly equalized for all customers. This maintains a consistent standard of service.

The humor is, both Uber solutions fail Economics 101. If supply were so malleable as to match demand by flooding the system with non-professional cabbies, then the prices need never rise. If the supply of professional cabbies were relatively non-malleable, then price gouging has little effect and service is by definition not improved overall: Profits are, but only for Uber.

These are, of course, only a few of the unintended consequences of such “disruptors” from Silicon Valley. The latest spat, for instance, between Uber and NYC’s TLC involved their reticence from handing over electronic trip records, which show where cabbies are picking up their charges. The TLC collects these records largely to enforce tax law compliance but also to regulate traffic flow so as not to foster gridlock. Indeed, the entire point of the medallion system was to limit the number of taxis in the city so as to limit the potential for gridlock.

Such was an imperfect system – the eventual cost of yellow cab medallions rose to the point where cruising only the most congested areas were deemed profitable, having the exact opposite of the intended effect – but Bloomberg’s Boro Taxi system was a rather elegant and popular solution to such. Uber’s e-hail app – working as it is as a backdoor street hail medallion – serves to undermine this by potentially allowing a great many more taxis than there are medallions to pick up hails in a very limited space.

They can and have been dismissed by the executives of the company, who by nature would view them as externalities: Issues that, while they adversely affect the cities the company does business in, do not adversely affect the company. The potential damages and injuries to consumers due to nonprofessional drivers is an externality to the company: They have taken pains not to be held responsible for the system they have fostered. This is a common element of the neoliberal politics of said “disruptive” tech firms. Our “sharing” economy is mainly for the benefit of a rich few, and a tragedy of the commons for the rest of us.

Take AirBnB: While it provides a casual market for “bed and breakfast” types who don’t want to go to expensive hotels while offering those who live in central cities a potential revenue stream, every risk is externalized either to the host or the traveler. These include the risk of having one’s place trashed (and being saddled with repair costs or voiding one’s lease) or discovering that a host is dangerous, eventualities for which AirBnB has effectively washed its hands: Its ratings system is the only guide users of the system have to assess risk.

It also circumvents zoning laws (turning residences into ersatz hotels,) taxes (by not paying hotel taxes,) and most damning, can only have a deleterious effect on both the housing supply as well as the housing costs of any urban area: Rooms and apartments that were for rent to long-term residents must now compete with far more lucrative transients, and the landlords who are willing to exploit this fact can thus raise rents on spaces in prime locations to new heights. This has the potential to destroy neighborhoods.

On the ground, it’s a tragedy of the commons: Increased costs for consumers (in terms of higher rents and cab fares) and decreased income for providers (in terms of increased competition from unregulated part-timers) are the name of the game. In the headquarters of the companies that made this system, on the other hand, they’re practically printing money. The first question anybody should ask when it comes to companies like this that undermine existing regulations and working professionals: Is this a 21st century economy or a 19th century economy?

De Blasio is Right

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For the first time since tempers have risen over the slaying of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley and, now, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, mayor de Blasio may have shown a bit of leadership by appealing to protesters to lay off for the time being.

The protesters have been in the streets for months with increasing fervor, openly calling into question the integrity of the police over their brutality and lack of accountability. Are they right? Duh. Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has seditiously called for dereliction of duty and a backdoor martial law. Is he wrong? Duh.

But what’s going on here is a spiral of escalation. De Blasio was absolutely correct when he said that this was a tale of two cities, profoundly divided, and tempers are only rising. He ran on a campaign that justly and presciently pointed out that we’ve been sitting on a tinderbox for a while; one that needed only a match to be thrown for a general conflagration.

Well, a match has been thrown.

As such, I view that it’s not a political calculation about his re-election or concern about his image or even about what’s right or what’s wrong. It’s about making sure there aren’t riots in the streets by this time next week. By requesting a moratorium on street protests, de Blasio has thrown a wet blanket on the whole proceedings. As such, whether some agree it’s the best decision in the world, or plays too much into the hands of supporters of the NYPD is beside the point: It’s one that may yet be sorely needed.

Parallels can be made to the Hard Hat Riot in 1970, where two hundred AFL-CIO union toughs, calling for then-mayor John Lindsay’s impeachment and accusing him of being too weak-willed and leftist, assaulted a thousand college students who were then protesting the recent Kent State shootings. They then stormed City Hall and started a riot. You don’t need to be a historian to see the ideological divide between the white blue-collar laborers and the liberal college kids they beat down, just as you don’t need to have a Masters in Public Administration to see why minority communities and the communities from which we draw most of our police cadets don’t see eye to eye. It should be plain to see why such a heady time in our history should not be repeated.

It’s not about whether Order is coming before Justice, but the real and true concern over the destruction that can be caused if we don’t all calm down. De Blasio has not ordered protesters to stop – that would abridge their freedom to assemble – but he has rightly observed that we don’t need more matches thrown. Now is indeed the time to step back, because nothing good can come out of the chaos we find ourselves at the precipice of.

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.

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