Big Smoke

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

A Culmination of Effort

TAGS: None

A question I’ve asked myself recently: Who is responsible for New York City’s cultural renaissance in the 70s and 80s?

I ask that due to three assumptions: One, that New York City had a cultural renaissance. Two, that city culture is the direct result of urban policy, and three, that a single political regime can be said to be substantively responsible for said urban policy. I’ve lived my entire life with the first two assumptions, which is why I went to school for City Planning: We are our environment, and something had to keep people in this crime/rat-infested piss-soaked heroin-fueled squeegee bum squalor (and I say that with pride). The second is necessarily reductionist, but is still useful as a thought experiment.

In this thought experiment, I think the single biggest influence, obviously, is mayor, and that we can skip state government almost entirely to select the president as second-biggest influence, primarily as supporting role to the mayor in the form of money. I give these parameters because, in New York City, mayors have almost always been authoritarian to the point of being dictatorial, and state and federal support have almost always been very removed: New York politics have, for most of its history, run counter to state and national politics. A New York accent pretty much guarantees political death on the national stage – sorry, Giuliani.

In that stead, I can start listing mayors that have been influential in office leading up to the 80s. Going backwards, then, we have Koch, Lindsay, Wagner and La Guardia. From there, we can start tracking when the pendulum swings in terms of political reformation. My hypothesis, then, is that there are two general eras in recent city history:

1) La Guardia started an era of city service expansion under the New Deal that Lindsay ended by paying for running costs through city bonds. This combined regime started in 1934 and ended in 1973.

2) Beame started an era of city service contraction under the behest of the state’s Emergency Financial Control Board that Dinkins incompletely curtailed by expanding the police force. With that one exception, in which every mayor after Dinkins has effectively been a law-and-order mayor, this combined regime started in 1974 and is arguably the era we still live in.

The first half of this thought is more or less an upward swing:

Supporters of La Guardia, and I count myself among them, argue that he opened merit-based city employment (and in doing so effectively gave Jewish people a niche in civil service), broke the Democratic machine, unified the NYC Transportation Authority, fomented rent control, and brought down a massive influx of capital funds via the Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, and Civil Works Administration from the FDR administration – in one of the few times the city and the federal government cooperated with one another – to build public schools, housing and parks. Critics of La Guardia argue that when the feds stopped sending cash in 1945, NYC was saddled with maintenance costs for its public works that it couldn’t hope to meet.

After a couple machine Democrats came and went, Wagner continued that general populist policy, where-in his administration hired many minorities into civil service positions (and in doing so effectively gave Black people a middle class niche in NYC), started the city university system and Lincoln Center, presided over the unification of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and continued construction for public housing. His critics would contend that the Robert Moses’ public housing projects built during this era were massive failures that ended up being urban blights by concentrating the poor in ghettos separated from city services, and that Moses himself ended up being the tail that wagged the dog whose massive public works during Wagner’s and Impellitteri’s regimes were ultimately criticized as explicitly anti-poor.

Lindsay is generally credited with staving off wide-scale race riots when most northeastern cities were going through heavy turmoil and generally criticized for just about everything else: The strikes, the budget woes, and Albert Shanker (where-in Black self-rule was overruled by Jewish unionists). Arguably, the massive demands for all these social services and high-wage jobs came crashing on his head, especially during a national crisis.

So where were we at this point? Well, we had half a million units of public housing and another two million units of affordable housing, a free university system and a public school system that was the envy of the nation, many new arts organizations and institutions, a quarter million permanent unionized middle-class civil service positions, and a unified transit system.

We were also broke.

We were broke, but had just spent an entire generation culminating probably the biggest concentrated investment in human capital ever in the world at that time.

The second half of the story’s a mite more depressing:

Koch followed Beame’s lead (after the federal government under Ford signaled that no support would be given and the state specified budget provisions) and balanced the budget by taking no prisoners. Cops were cut, teachers were cut, cultural institutions were cut, maintenance of the infrastructure was cut, certain areas of the city were abandoned in a controversial decision in favor of consolidating resources in districts deemed “savable,” and a general sense of lawlessness accelerated abandonment of the city by moneyed taxpayers as well as disinvestment by banks and financial institutions.

Landlords frustrated with rent control in poorer areas of the city hired arsons to demolish their own housing stock, and while rent stabilization was a much more effective policy, it arguably came too late. Cuts in police and social services, including mental health institutions, turned public housing complexes built in the 60s into dens of crime. Educational standards started a long decline, and violent crime and drug usage started a long incline, peaking in 1990. Divisions in Black and Jewish residents resulted in a race riot under Dinkins, and domestic and immigrant poor constituencies were put at odds with one another thanks to uneven application of limited city resources.

To their credit, however, Beame, Koch and Dinkins kept the city from falling apart entirely, and Koch and Dinkins especially kept the good fight in maintaining a great deal of our affordable housing stock.

What’s amazing, however, is that despite all this, the arts flourished. They exploded. The city was literally crumbling around them, and New Yorkers prevailed. Even in the poorest, most benighted neighborhoods city residents were creating entire new genres of everything. Why? LaGuardia’s schools. Wagner’s universities. The core and stability of enfranchised middle class civil workers in affordable housing and a comprehensive transit system. A single generation later, that human capital paid off, giving us a generation of educated free-thinkers that maintained New York’s primacy in the cultural and economic worlds and sowed the seeds for its rebound – unique among all northern cities – and competitiveness the world over. A generation of New Yorkers were made that could indeed make it anywhere: Even in New York.

All told, however, I’ve taken from this two conclusions:

1) We could have done things better. From a planning and policy standpoint, there were egregious errors that culminated in problems that remain bulwarked and intractable.

Planning-wise, the public housing projects of the 60s made the word “project” a pejorative term. The highways that criss-crossed the Bronx and Brooklyn wantonly blighted entire districts, a mistake remarkable for how entirely avoidable it was. Investment and infrastructure was applied unevenly, and then revoked unevenly. Lastly, we never did built the MTA’s Second System, which would have pre-emptively solved a lot of problems in today’s overcrowded subways. Getting it right the first time covers a lot of ills.

Policy-wise, both the city and the unions are at fault for their obstinacy and failure to properly budget and govern, and in their interminable battles they have been ultimately responsible for inflaming racial and social divisions and undermining our ability to teach each new generation. Each side’s single-minded zero-sum game made the city in a number of ways ungovernable and ultimately failed to solve the one problem that could have maintained gains made indefinitely.

2) If the 70s and 80s were the result of policy made in the 40s through the 60s, what does that say for the 00s and 10s, considering our policies in the  70s through the 90s? What does it say for the 20s and 30s, considering today’s policies?

Our public school system, aside from magnet schools whose origins date back to either specialized public or private sponsorship and whose statuses were codified in the 70s, is largely abandoned by anybody with half a chance to. Our public universities now cost money. Our housing crisis has only gotten worse, accelerated by the state’s drawdown of rent regulation and our last two mayors’ developer-friendly policies, our cultural institutions are closing, consolidating or begging for money, and our transit system is both more expensive and less useful than it was during its heyday.

We have, in short, lost this generation, of which I am a part, and are on schedule to lose the next one. It’s likely going to be harder than before, unless Obama or Clinton find religion and open their coffers, but it should be treated immediately as the crisis that it is and all sides should take note.


Tags: , , , ,

I was born in the early 80s in a notorious drug neighborhood that was one of the first targets of the CompStat system in 1995, where-in former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton added about 6,000 cops to the force and started aggressively going after high crime areas as tabulated by maps and the software under the Broken Windows theory of visible policing, and Operation Impact in 2003, where-in current NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly flooded high crime areas with rookie policemen and a controversial application of the 1971 protocol of Stop, Question and Frisk.

The results were effective and the strategies deemed necessary, though they are not without fault. In my own neighborhood, Washington Heights, the means by which city support and services were withheld during the 1999 and 2003 blackouts was put in direct contrast with how strong the police presence was. The implications were clear: The city’s here to control you, not help you. It’s with this frame of mind that I read the publishing of the latest crime statistics from the NYPD as divided by race and worried about how the narrative would be picked up by news commentators and columnists.

A quick run-down of the numbers shows that, for shootings during the first six months of 2013:

73.9% of victims were Black
21.5% were Latino
2.8% were white
1.8% were Asian

Shooting arrests were about even:

70% were Black
25.4% were Latino
2.9% were white
1.6% were Asian

Similar ratios were evident for all other violent crime. Now, the demographics of the city are as follows:

33.1% are white
28.8% are Latino
22.8% are Black
12.7% are Asian

This says that Black people are both the biggest perpetrators and victims of violent crime. However, there are two notable exceptions in the statistics reported for other types of crime: Grand and petty larceny. For grand larceny:

41.9% of the victims were white
24.9% were Black
20.5% were Latino
11.9% were Asian

However, those arrested for grand larceny were different:

62.1% were Black
22.7% were Latino
10.5% were white
4.2% were Asian

Similar ratios are evident for petty larceny.

This tells me that the statistics as produced present an incomplete picture, and that the wrong numbers are being quantified. Namely, the dividing line isn’t necessarily race but class, and that the behavior displayed is due to poverty and desperation more than culture and heritage. What these numbers are implying, essentially, is that, overall, Black people are poorer than white people. Thus, the police scrutiny presents a different picture entirely. To quote Anatole France, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

I suppose this is news in the sense that it’s the 21st century and general socioeconomic trends have persisted despite occasional fits and starts at promoting equal opportunity, but it runs a strong risk of misinterpretation. The controversy of publishing statistics in this manner is that it adds fuel for certain interests who will read this and think, “racial profiling is necessary and justified because Black people are inherently more violent,” and while this declaration can be readily dismissed, it does change the public discourse into mutual recriminations that end up going nowhere constructively.

Consider that we’ve been discussing “Black-on-Black violence” for over forty years, framing it in a cultural context and not a socioeconomic one. This continues, often-times, as a means of saying “fuck ’em, let them sort it out for themselves, it’s not our problem” or in some manner confirming bigoted stereotypes about Black behavior. All that appears to have fostered is increased segregation and discrimination, which exacerbates the issue.

We certainly don’t seem to do the same with “white-on-white violence” or attempt to make the distinction that most victims know their assailant (and thus crime in any community is usually internal and segregation only emphasizes that). Nor do we compare racial statistics to socioeconomic statistics to show that poor people everywhere tend to commit more violent crime, no matter the color of their skin. No investment banker, Black or white, is going to rob you at gunpoint (although, perhaps, that’s only because they’ve already invented financial systems to do so without the need for direct confrontation.)

Now, the whole CompStat/Operation Impact idea of pinpointing high crime areas and flooding them with cops is itself technically colorblind and, to me, necessary, and it has certainly worked wonders in lowering the violent crime rate to record lows. I think the problem is that more police presence would indeed reduce crime to a certain point regardless of whether it kept to the letter of the constitution or if it was comprised purely of strong-arming tactics, and the means in which this strategy is currently being implemented is flawed to the point where it is undermining any future success.

The CompStat system’s greatest criticism is that it encourages both over and under-reporting. It encourages over-reporting of stops, and under-reporting of crimes. The police have a vested interest in proving that they are walking the beat (so stops are relatively common) and that no crime is occurring (so investigations are relatively few and, at times, crimes are completely mislabeled). In effect, it means that people tend to view a situation where the police are there when you don’t want them to be, and aren’t there when you do want them to be.

The Stop, Question and Frisk policy’s greatest criticism is that the police have more or less accepted “Walking While Black” as reasonable suspicion, despite statements to the contrary by Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leading to an undue scrutiny of Black citizens as well as a mutual distrust between their communities and the police. The retort the NYPD have given over racial profiling is that their strategy impacts high crime areas and high crime areas are mostly minority neighborhoods, so to them it is an unhappy but necessary reality. I see this as conflating strategy and tactics.

The current circumstance has, in either case, allowed us to come to a point in the public discourse where we can assess future policy. We are no longer under an epidemic of violence like that which has peaked in 1990. Crime is down, it’s true. However, people will complain there is racial profiling and police brutality so long as there is a general sense that the city is not working in earnest to support local communities. The priority now is to bridge that gap, which is arguably not mutually exclusive with Operation Impact, as the tactic of rookies going out and making judgement calls on who to stop and how is what is coming under fire, not the overarching strategy of where to station cops. We can indeed also, as a society, now come out and say, “good, crime is down now, so can we have some other city services and not just police?”

I remember teaching out in Prospect Heights in the mid-oughts to a universally Black and Latino student body and getting the distinct vibe from the students that, in their eyes, city services were a thing that happened to them, not necessarily for them. Whether the cops stopped them due to racial profiling or because of the simply unlucky circumstance of statistical violence in segregated neighborhoods, it didn’t really matter, because my students’ interactions with white people overall were relegated almost entirely to “social worker, psychologist, counselor, teacher, policeman, shomrim” – either apparatchiks of the state, there to assess, tabulate, and judge, or professional and volunteer gaolers – which colored their entire impression of the social structure and their ultimate trajectory. To them, the cops were racist before they even stopped them, because the system is racist.

I joked at the time that I felt like a colonial officer being sent to the provinces, but it rang true: In my students’ eyes, they were cornered, pinned by the suppressive forces of the police – indeed, in Prospect Heights there were a lot of police, just as there were a lot of police in Washington Heights in the late 90s and early oughts, except this time with added checkpoints and watchtowers – but, thanks to their status and continued social segregation, without any avenues to a better life.

They saw white teachers. When we brought them on a field trip for economics class, they saw white bankers. When we sent them on a jobs program for the fashion and theatre industries, they saw white designers, white models and Asian seamstresses. When they asked those people how they got their jobs, they heard about higher degrees, unpaid internships, and personal connections. Their parents didn’t have degrees. They couldn’t afford unpaid internships, and they certainly had no connections. In fact, none of the people they talked to even came from the city, let alone their neighborhood. It is, then, no wonder to me why some would lash out, even if randomly and impotently, such as with the latest news reports of Black teenagers attacking random white passersby.

Therefore, I see the solution is two-fold: Adjust the tactics within the current strategy to lessen the divide between the NYPD and New Yorkers, and reframe the police work as a supplementary program to what should ultimately be a grand social infrastructure to create and maintain educated, productive citizens.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio thinks the rookie cops Operation Impact sends out should be replaced with seasoned cops as a means of quelling the backlash, as seasoned cops are arguably more nuanced in how they deal with the public. The court system suggested that lapel cameras would calm both sides of the issue down as a means of reforming the tactics as need be. These are both good fixes, but only a small part of a larger picture.

What needs to happen is not just suppression of crime, but also an uplifting of the citizenry out of the poverty and desperation that engenders crime. Crime is down because we have fostered a respect for the abilities of the police through the constant application of force, but force can only do so much, and the roots of crime are still prevalent. We are still poor. Housing is still a major crisis, there aren’t enough middle-class jobs and our schools are still as segregated and underfunded as ever. Mayor Bloomberg was very successful in attracting talented, educated people to this city, but was not particularly successful in creating talent and educating the people we have.

Let’s make sure that these numbers are read in a way that helps reverse those trends, so that we don’t go back thirty years, as some critics of de Blasio say we are headed, but instead perhaps go back eighty:

  • Author:
  • Published: Nov 19th, 2013
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 4


TAGS: None

I remember back in my rather more limited sense of self, in the hoary days of high school sophistry, arguing with a perfect lack of malice that homosexuality was a choice, having been brought to that particular conclusion adamantly through a tussle of argumentative wrangling. Some classmate had prior said that the act of homosexuality was itself unnatural, and that as such a homosexual man was refuting nature. Another classmate had replied to the first by declaring that it was natural, and that nobody could deny his nature. I thought those stances were doomed to go nowhere.

At the time, I was ignorant that both of these were what are now styled Talking Points – tidbits of received wisdom, references to larger conceptual foundations often centered on their own unique form of illogic that are carted to the fore as self-evident, or at least eminently convincing – and that while they turned the debate itself into a circular one, they signaled to any potential audience the allegiances of the combatants. I was, similarly, ignorant of this political reality. I was not to know that I was making enemies of allies and allies of enemies, for at the time I was only aware of a perceived lack of logical heuristic grounding in those modes of attack and defense.

To me, sheltered from how the argument was supposed to continue, the proper retort to that an act is unnatural was to argue that such wasn’t the same as being in some way substantively wrong. To me, many things were unnatural: Civilization, technology, basketball – I distinctly remember citing basketball as an example of an unnatural act – and with no particular immediate necessity within society for or against, sodomy was simply another of a long list of odd pastimes that humanity occasionally finds itself engaged in. Basically, art.

This was probably freshman or sophomore year of high school, so I was at that point indeed a sexual being, if not sexually active, and decidedly heterosexual. I remember being resentful for being passed over for sophomore year English class in freshman year despite being part of advanced classes in English during middle school, and I believe the reason was that the teacher at the time felt uncomfortable addressing to an underdeveloped me a passage in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye that vividly describes a young girl’s first orgasm.

I read it anyway, and didn’t find it particularly thrilling – it certainly didn’t hold a emotional candle to the betrayal in my eye that my education was held up by some prude, and certainly wasn’t as titillating as the prodigious amounts of internet pornography my generation was blessed to be the first to discover and consume – but then I wouldn’t ever be the kind of person to fill out a panel looking to ban The Catcher in the Rye from school classrooms for salacious content. I mean, what I learned from high school English is that school is where generations of inquisitive young children are constantly drilled that Shakespeare’s masterworks and the ancient Greek dramas are boring and dull, because the teachers are forbidden – from within or without – from pointing out just how subversive they truly are.

Nevertheless, I was in some fashion cognizant of the existence of homosexuality, that it failed to meet some normative behavioral standard, and that the first classmate disapproved of this, but fuck that: This is New York! What does meet normative standards? This crucible of culture and counter-culture, that chews up recognized heroes and creates new ones from gutter muck, where I could flick on the television and watch a spindly assassin fail to resolve sexual tension with her target and thus die over and over, and have this be entertainment – what sense could anyone have of normative behavior? This is the respite of moral judgement, the citadel of making your own norms, and we are all the better for it.

Thus, I felt that the argument as to whether it’s mutable or immutable as a desire was irrelevant: Cutting through the back-and-forth, I declared that homosexuality was indeed a choice, and so what? So is basketball, and plenty of us enjoy that! Having applied this logical fait accompli, I was immediately shocked by being shouted down by pretty much everybody.

I learned not too long afterwards that I failed to meet some normative behavioral standard, and have since had an unceasing strain of unresolved tension with the nature of politics thereafter. All things considered, such forays into political self-expression were as perversely self-destructive as I’d always imagined.

Didn’t New York Invent Height Restrictions?

TAGS: None

Bloomberg’s last major stab at a legacy – upzoning East Midtown – has been halted by a hostile city council and the hotel workers’ union. Bloomberg says it may cost New York lots of tax dollars in the long run, and everybody else says “perhaps, but you’re politically toxic, so please stop talking.”

Personally, I don’t care about the East Midtown plan, and think the cries of overcrowding are a bit overstated: We have a long way to go to hit the sorts of street crowds you see in Hong Kong or Shanghai. What I’m most concerned about is that it’s all office and no residential. New York is not setting any records for tallest building in the world, but it is, interestingly enough, setting records for tallest all-office building in the world (with One World Trade Center’s much-criticized spire beating out Taipei 101, making me wonder why there are even authorities whose job it is to decree this kind of silliness), and there are so many more all-office buildings planned:

The just-shelved East Midtown plan.

Half of the current Hudson Yards project.

The other half of the Hudson Yards project.

The World Trade Center.

Well, we certainly won’t be lacking for faceless glass towers. The thing is, we’ve more or less been prompting a glut for office space for quite some time. You won’t be seeing the sprawling campuses that Silicon Valley thrives on because the land is too expensive, but the sorts of tenants these massive projects are attracting are already housed in the city. The argument being given by proponents is that we need to be competitive with modern office space, but if a company can just pick up sticks and move to Hong Kong at the drop of a hat, what’s to say they won’t do so anyway? Time Warner is moving to build a sleek, modern tower in the Hudson Yards, vacating the Time Warner Center built back in the Medieval era of 2005.

One would think that the more pressing need isn’t for more office space but for more living space. After all, we’ve been living under a housing crisis since World War II, and while there’s been quite some development on those lines, they look suspiciously like the office mega-projects:

432 Park Ave.

107 and 215 57th St.

8 Spruce St.

Riverside South.

Luxury rentals, condominiums, Gold Coast abodes for the rich, trickle-down lotteries for the middle classes, nothing for the poor. I argued that the pendulum needs to swing the other way when it came to policies for the city, and that’s why I’m not to terribly concerned about the halting of East Midtown. That’s not to say that luxury apartments and office space have no place in this city. I love New York’s skyline as much as anybody else, but what we need is a plan to ties the cash cows of these huge high-end developments with more than just vestigial transit development and housing subsidies for everybody else.

Benjamin Kabak of Second Ave Sagas argues that the plans to develop these projects shouldn’t be so laden with complementary but separate plans for transit development, or rather that transit funding shouldn’t be laden with zoning proposals such as this. I believe we need to grab hold of these proposals and force them to pay for things we actually need, until or unless our political leaders secure funding for them otherwise. We’ve had twelve years of more or less unfettered development, a real gift to real estate moguls around the world to build what they want in New York granted by Michael Bloomberg. Despite this, and despite the potential for increased tax revenue, our transit service hasn’t seen much improvement, and our housing crisis actually got worse. The two tails of transit development we got – a 7 train extension to 10th Ave on the Far West Side and a Q train extension to 2nd Ave in the Upper East Side – simply aren’t enough.

Developers won’t do it themselves. We have to force them to.

There are wrong ways to do it, of course. China got a scathing report in the New York Times last week over the wholesale joblessness and suicides due to mass migration to New Towns amid their huge development boom. This report, however, should also be placed beside reports on the wholesale homelessness and the housing bubble in major cities like Shanghai. In short, it’s a planning problem. Part of the problem is the same issue we had with our post-war housing projects: Separated from jobs, they are just ghettos. Part of the problem is a policy that’s not too dissimilar to us now: They allowed the market to dictate development, and it exacerbated their crisis.

However, they’re doing something about it, and where China is acting, America is stalling. Leader Xi Jinping has effectively been given the power by the party congress to change economic policy as he sees fit. I’m still waiting for our new New Deal – remember how much Works Progress Administration housing we have in this city, after all – and am watching as some say that our own Democratic party elite are currently about to suffer from a populist revolt – in the form of Elizabeth Warren threatening Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency – because they are unwilling to make such bold steps. Indeed, party faithful Christine Quinn was upset by populist Bill de Blasio in New York and party faithful John Connolly was trounced by populist Martin Walsh in Boston. Hopefully this represents a sea change, because it’s painful to wait it out otherwise.

We don’t have to do it exactly like China – part of their successes are due to cheap labor and relatively laissez-faire development standards – but their ability to act decisively is something we haven’t seen in our country in a long time, and in the end, they have a high-speed rail network that extends across the country while we do not and twelve new subways lines in Shanghai in twenty years where we couldn’t even build one quarter of a line in New York in thirty.

WPA, NYCHA and La Guardia during the NYC heyday

Get the hell out of my store and thank you, come again

TAGS: None

I think this past week has illustrated for me the importance of something I’ve been sorely missing of late, and that is emphatic, amicable disagreement.

I have learned the hard way, for instance, that the internet is a bastion of Balkanized (okay, atomized) echo chambers of opinion. Why bother listening to something you disagree with when you can tune it out? It’s with this frame of reference that I can understand when a compatriot – somebody I’ve met and had dinner with in real life – went and deleted a comment I made on his Facebook post. It first took me about ten minutes to even realize he did that: It’s not exactly something I normally expect people to do. After all, in a conversation, you may say a lot of things, and people may respond or ignore them as they may, but to erase them from existence is something of a new experience.

There is another similar incident on Facebook where-in I was given a warning concerning conduct within a community group for my neighborhood: Namely, I could not directly negatively address another member of that group, even if their comment was itself a criticism of something in the community. It was something out of the pages of formal Presidential debates, where the two candidates could say whatever they wanted so long as they didn’t actually say it to one another. Again, these are people whom I can and do meet with in real life, and to do so in real life would be an incredible breach of social mores.

I am not, of course, a paragon of social grace at the best of times, but I gather that giving somebody the power to censor another person, however minor the transgression and however small the fiefdom, runs the risk of abuse that just about anybody can become used to. Indeed, I had entered somebody else’s Facebook wall and they censored me. I had entered somebody else’s Facebook group and they censored me. This, to me, rarely if ever happens in the real world because most people meet as equals, or at least that’s the American conceit of a classless society in that we all imagine ourselves middle class. Very rarely, presumably, are you truly on somebody else’s turf.

Online, however, doesn’t really have neutral ground, and somebody has their finger on the button. Lest anybody think this is simply the odd subculture of Facebook, try questioning the wisdom of a website owner or online forum moderator and watch how long it takes to get banned. The last forum I was an active member of, I was the top poster by volume of comments and number of followers, without so much as a sidelong glace from the owners of the site, until I questioned the wisdom of the owners of the site, at which point I was banned for being disruptive.

Very few people have such power over your ability to express yourself in the real world, with at least one notable exception. Headhunters, HR directors and the like tend to warn you to watch your tongue lest it adversely affect your employability in ways usually only a felony hearing might. True to form, I had made a comment to a coworker while working late one day about my work conditions, and was summarily dismissed by the general manager at the end of the week along with that coworker and one other. The department director pulled me into his office to ask me what it was I said, as my name had been handed down to him directly from the owner of the company.

As it turns out, the owner of the company was also working late from his office, and overheard me, and in demanding my immediate departure, had neglected to inform the general manager, the department director or the department supervisor as to the reason behind his request. It’d be wrongful termination regardless, which is why we were officially laid off, but he simply pulled rank and thus silenced dissent. I could say that was remarkably cruel of him, but considering compatriots – equals with whom I have had real life dealings – have done the exact same thing on Facebook given even half a chance, I cannot say that such was out of character.

Why does this matter?

I’ve been brought up with the notion that a free exchange of ideas, without fear of retribution, is what holds our culture and society together. I’ve experienced the workings of that very notion quite often in what I feel to be a bastion of free discourse: The public house. I can think of no greater equalizer than such a venue, for which there are plenty in my city and in this country overall,  and find it to be the closest thing to a true forum left in the real world. It is the only place I’ve found in which an idea can gestate, receive true, honest criticism or as close an approximation as can be found, defend itself with equal sincerity, and survive on its merits relatively free of personal politics.

It’s what convinced me to become a City Planning major in college: I felt that a dense, heterogeneous metropolis was by nature a crucible for culture, thought and progress through the inevitable, daily interaction of different opinions on a relatively equal, if slightly chaotic, plane. I felt that could be fostered in a real way, and was heartened to find that a number of urban sociologists had that similar opinions – among them Paul Goodman, Christopher Alexander and Edward Glaeser – and that even the very culture of street life was of paramount importance precisely in order to maximize these sorts of interactions and free exchanges, for which we had the venerable Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford to promote, and that formal institutions and bureaucracies were at their best when they allowed the chaos to continue as unfettered as was possible.

I have attempted to recreate that as often as I could in as many venues as I could. It is mana for the soul, and indeed was safeguarded and encouraged during my tenure in non-profits and the public sector, thanks to self-styled free thinkers in positions of power over me and the protection from trade unions, to say nothing of the cultural zeitgeist of this pinko hippie Moscow-on-the-Hudson. I have also, for a long while, assumed that the internet was another bastion of free thinking, though perhaps I was lulled into echo chambers of like-minded people and thus shielded from true hostility. I see now, however, that the bulwarks against contradiction and criticism are numerous and painfully ubiquitous.

I shudder to think that my problem is that I lack a proper personal censor. I would hate that to be the problem, not because it is a personal failing – I have plenty of those – but because to concur is to admit that it should even be deemed necessary to have one. It makes me wonder if we can’t have another H L Mencken not because the print business is dying, but because to be one requires kowtowing first to interests more brazen about their nepotistic gatekeeping than ever before. This is, after all, the era of NewsCorp.

In that stead, I’m reminded of Nicholas Carr’s supposition that the internet is working to bolster the presumed righteousness of people’s own opinions to the point where they would not countenance any form of dissent; that critical thinking was being winnowed away through incessant confirmation bias. That people are compartmentalizing, that we are creating a system which attracts the most base of desires at the cost of the highest of society, that we have invented a parasocial venue, and it is turning us all into lords of miniature fiefdoms.

Perhaps I’m a born outspoken rabble-rouser. Perhaps I’m just an asshole. I’m just worried that we’re so used to yes-men that we’re doing what Reagan’s “Evil Empire” ultimately could not: Create a system in which true disagreement between equals and the emphatic, amicable discussion thereof is actively discouraged, because there are fewer places to meet as equals. Why, it’s enough to make one drink.

Flyover Country

TAGS: None

Got into a bit of a tiff with several folks over Banksy after his month long self-imposed residency in New York City. To anybody not in the know – which is highly unlikely, considering he’s consistently been in the papers for the entirety of October – Banksy is a British graffiti artist and millionaire who specializes in stencil-based as contrasted to freehand pieces, and who likes going on world tours.

I think he’s an overhyped purveyor of the facile, better at marketing himself than producing art.

That isn’t to say that his work doesn’t have artistic merit. All art has in greater or lesser extent some artistic merit. My argument is that the merit displayed is simply not in any direct correlation to attention garnered. Indeed, considering the hotcake sales of fake Banksys, it really is his celebrity that’s pushing the works, not the works themselves. Consider:

“Sirens of the Lambs”, a truck driving the meatpacking district with stuffed animals bleating away. Alright, cute. Referential to the neighborhood’s changing character.

“A Day at the Fair”, a visual pun.

A lonely suitor on the roll-up grate of a strip club. A rather straight-forward juxtaposition.

A rich kid with butler tagging a spot in the South Bronx.

And here we have the problem. Now, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr immediately went apeshit over that last one, and while his actual words were a bit mealy-mouthed (flying off the handle does that, natch), you practically don’t even have to read him to know what he was trying to say.

Basically, it’s two things:

1) The Bronx is not the perennial ghetto, which is what this particular work is referencing. The Bronx is a place to live, not a living symbol. That it is here referenced as a symbol is at best an appropriation and at worst minstrelry. This leads into the next point –

2) Graffiti is itself, like hip hop, punk, and other artistic forms, a medium of the disenfranchised – a means to make a mark when one is literally unable to do so through legitimate means. Graffiti was a way of saying “we exist” when the city was locked off through the most insidious means possible: Money.

This makes Banksy’s work incredibly self-referential, if not outright hypocritical. Banksy, who is rich enough to get his works in any gallery he wants, who can buy out billboards, who need but hint at doing something and the newspapers come to heel, needs not tag to get himself heard. He is no longer counter-cultural, yet he continues to co-opt and appropriate a counter-cultural medium. Ironically, were this piece put up on the Upper East Side, it would send an entirely different message; likely even a stronger one.

Maybe I’m being harsh. I have, after all, been accused of being jealous of his success. I do not wish to deny any artist their success, and Banksy is certainly clever at times – though I never imagined New York was so lacking for cleverness that we needed to import it. Of course, however, I listen to Trent Reznor and Eminem and you can hear when they hit it big, when they cooled down from the anger that got them their fame. Their tune changed. Their newer stuff is different. They’ve largely made peace with that, which is why I still listen to them. Now, compare:

This piece is in reference to an article Banksy submitted to the New York Times that got rejected where-in he criticized the World Trade Center and New York’s reputation. He opined,

It would be easy to view One World Trade Center as a betrayal of everyone who lost their lives on September 11th, because it so clearly proclaims the terrorists won. Those 10 men have condemned us to live in a world more mediocre than the one they attacked, rather than be the catalyst for a dazzling new one.

He ended by condemning New York, “we lost our nerve.”

Who’s this we?

Who would dare descend upon the city – the very cradle of his chosen artistic medium – and deign to dictate how it is failing to hold to some standard? What’s so dazzling about what Banksy does? It’s safer than what the local graffiti artists did, safer in form and message, safer in implementation, projected onto a safer New York, itself unwittingly an embodiment about just what is being criticized – how much the New York of today is beholden to moneyed interests and celebrity worship. Forgetting for the moment the direct parallels between Banksy and the Freedom Tower, who the hell is Banksy to treat New York as flyover country?

© 2009 Big Smoke. All Rights Reserved.

This blog is powered by Wordpress and Magatheme by Bryan Helmig.