Big Smoke

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

Bridging Divides

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One of the more fanciful and ambitious proposals of the ever-evolving list of regional planners and transit authorities over the last century or so was a passenger rail connection to Staten Island. Several, actually, over the course of New York’s history: From a relatively mundane subway tunnel under the Narrows that the Verrazano Bridge crosses to rail connections over the Bayonne Bridge to New Jersey that connect to new tunnels under the Hudson near Hoboken to pie-in-the-sky trans-bay crossings that would cover miles underground and underwater.

Most of these were shelved sometime in the 30s, reconsidered in the 40s, shelved again in the 50s, dusted off in the 90s, and shelved again, and the names involved in their inception and evolution as gleams in a planner’s eye are enough to cook alphabet soup: New Jersey Transit, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the independent Regional Plan Association, the New York City Transportation Authority before the MTA, and even, long ago, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, the Baltimore & New York Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, all looking to find ways of hooking up the Staten Island Railway to something.

The problem, of course, is money. We’re so behind in desperately-needed and immediately applicable projects to increase capacity on existing routes such as the shelved Access to the Region’s Core project (thanks, Christie!) and the revivified Gateway Project (which is the ARC project with glasses and a fake mustache) that the idea of running new routes is almost entirely out of the picture. But that doesn’t appear to stop anybody from making plans. Plans are the planner’s mana, food and air: I suspect if you boarded up the doors of the Department of City Planning and checked back in thirty days, everybody inside would have drowned under the volume of their newly-created maps and blueprints of alternative exits.

But let’s take money off the table. Let’s assume that Franklin Roosevelt rose from the grave to complete his Second New Deal. Choosing Lyndon Johnson as his running mate (stop snickering, it’s my fantasy: I can do what I want), he handily beats a reconstituted GOP ticket of Abraham Lincoln/Teddy Roosevelt in the 2016 election thanks to low voter turnout in the South. Once in office, he invests tens of billions in capital funding in the New York metropolitan area and we can start looking at all those old plans from the 30s and 40s and 50s and… man, we made a lot of plans.

The question then becomes, would Staten Island even want that connection?

Oh, sure, the State Senator from Staten Island Diane Savino complained that New York cared more about running the 7 line to New Jersey than connecting with Staten Island, like a jilted date, but Staten Island… isn’t very much like the rest of the city. Prolonged isolation has produced a local character more attuned to outer suburbia than the urban core. This borough has by far the fewest immigrants, the fewest minorities, the greatest ratio of homeowners, the highest rate of car ownership, and the most Republicans. Basically, it’s Connecticut. Because it’s almost diametrically opposed culturally to the rest of the city but doesn’t have the population to assert its political will, it’s been dubbed the Forgotten Borough.

They say they like the idea of connecting directly to the rest of the city on principle, but the practice may be more than they bargained for. A direct rail connection to the rest of the city would immediately open up Staten Island to an influx of, well, everybody else in the city looking for cheaper housing options, on top of the folks already willing to brave the ferry. This is, however, the borough where even a proposed expansion to express bus service must first kowtow to local community boards that their precious parking will not be taken away, where the construction of apartment housing has been comparatively anemic due to resistance against upzoning, and where even a proposed bike lane across the Verrazano Bridge – largely promoted by Brooklyn politicians like Vincent Gentile – that wouldn’t so much as take a lane away from car traffic has been held up and put on the back-burner because of an comparable lack of support from Staten Island politicians. It’s too dangerous, say Staten Island city councilmen James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, and besides: Nobody bikes anyway.

That sounds like a cultural difference, to me; the work of people who wish to preserve their character, such as it is. And there’s guaranteed to be more pushback: As it stands, were it not for Latinos around St George and Stapleton, the borough wouldn’t have grown at all over the last 20 years, and the rest remain firmly entrenched. Hell, this is the borough that hated the city so much that they successfully voted to secede in 1993. Their turnout was so great on the referendum that the mayoral election that was on the same ballot may have been decided by them: 25,000 more Staten Islanders voted in 1993 than in 1989, and almost all of them voted for Giuliani, the first true conservative in the mayor’s office in, well, forever.

It’s a moot point anyway because we don’t have the money, but if we ever did, I propose a grand bargain: We give New Jersey Staten Island, and they give us Hudson County. It’s a fair trade, and there’s a subway running out there already.

Our Common Humanity

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I witnessed something this past night that is all too common in the general scheme of things, yet the details of which are blurred in the face of journalistic detachment. I didn’t even recognize it at first because it’s one of those things that you read about in the paper or imbibe statistics of as part of your daily routine: It happens, presumably, but not to me. It happened.

The A train pulled into 168th Street to the sound of people having a loud discussion on the platform. This in itself wasn’t abnormal; only when the train remained in the station for two to three minutes did the folks in the car started gravitating to the doors, all peering in the same direction: A man had fallen onto the tracks, and had been scooped up and hauled out by people on the platform moments before the train could crush him. He had been yanked out with such force that his pants were at his ankles. He lay in a heap on the platform, shivering.

Upon recognizing this situation, most of the people on the train left. Those that remained took up position by the train doors and the platform near the doors, wordlessly watching the proceedings. Half a dozen passengers of the train, along with the conductor, were hovering over the man. He looked homeless. It was hard to tell if he was inebriated or just in shock, whether his circumstance was due to suicidal tendencies or carelessness. It didn’t matter, because the air itself had an aura of sobriety, lending a certain impartial clarity to this midnight proceeding.

A woman in a green peacoat rubbed his shoulder and talked to him. He reached out and briefly took her hand. This, to me, was the most meaningful gesture of the entire event. A man tried unsuccessfully to hoist his pants up. Others circled around him with attentive gazes but without the wherewithal to directly address him, myself included. The conductor marched back and forth with a walkie talkie. The station attendant came, took one look, and left. Most people looked upon with a mixture of curiosity, boredom and impatience. Three passengers eventually picked him up and sat him down on a bench, from which the EMTs, upon their arrival, immediately hauled him up and strapped him to a gurney.

Nobody in my car offered their observation about what they were witnessing, but the signs of disdain were clear from a couple: The sucking of teeth. Pursed lips. This was an inconvenience. But they didn’t give voice to their opinion. Nobody complained about being held up by what happened. The next train down the line might, but we watched in silence as the woman in the green peacoat tended to him. When the EMTs arrived, even she walked off with an indisposed expression on her face. You can’t show but brief flashes of emotion before the New York mean mug returns.

Just like that, he was wheeled away, the conductor motioned for everybody to return to the train, and we were off. The whole thing took maybe eight minutes at most. Just long enough, however, to get a brief, fleeting sense that we may actually, through the impersonal detachment, cool aloofness and civic protocol, harbor some consideration for our fellow man.

The Opposite of Good Planning

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I will never be able to afford to live in the West Village. That’s just a simple facet of supply and demand: The demand is through the roof, and the supply is static. The flip side to the rarity of such neighborhoods as the West Village is that they’re quaint right up until they’re “discovered” – ever the euphemistic term – and then they’re jealously guarded. Part of me can understand why there would be an impetus to protect the architectural form of the heterogenous but cohesive low-rise, pedestrian-oriented, human-scaled neighborhood. The city planner in me, however, balks at calling it a “neighborhood” after a while.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s absolutely no sense of community – for all I know there is, though I don’t know a single resident to confirm or deny this. But what I see is a city planning failure. I know that’s a harsh judgement to levy on Jane Jacob’s prized baby, and I just got through singing its praises, but consider:

This is Starrett City, aka Spring Creek Towers, a high-rise cooperative housing development built on landfill to deal with the massive demand for affordable housing in New York, and indeed one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It’s a mile’s walk from the terminus of one of the subway lines in the ass end of Brooklyn.

This is Co-op City, a high-rise cooperative housing development built on landfill and probably the largest of its kind, constructed explicitly to address New York’s incredible demand for affordable housing. It is separated from the terminus of a subway line in the outer stratosphere of the Bronx by a mile’s walking and I-95.

This is a street in Greenwich Village, a mix of mostly low-rise apartments and townhouses literally around the corner from a major subway transfer station that services the first six letters of the alphabet.

To me that’s wasted potential.

Now, of course, there are two ways to solve this issue: Run trains out to where the people are, such as a currently-shelved (natch) MTA plan to open a MetroNorth station to service the Co-op City housing development in the outer Bronx, or build housing where the trains already are. Needless to say, the latter plan is far cheaper and thus likelier to happen than the former. You can see from the picture of Bleecker Street that there are indeed some high-rises in the neighborhood already, so such higher-density development wouldn’t be unprecedented or necessarily out of character. Nothing forces us to make things quite as ugly as Starrett City, after all.

But here’s the rub: Where would you build those buildings? Greenwich Village is protected land. The West 4th Street subway transfer station is straddling three historically preserved neighborhoods: Greenwich Village Historic District, Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, and the newly-approved South Village Historic District. The message is clear: Nothing should ever get built here! Okay, we can work around this, can’t we? I mean, just make ’em walk six blocks further so as to protect the character of the district…

…wait, that’s historically preserved, too. In fact, South Village’s latest victory is surrounded on all sides by protected land. Clockwise from its southern boundary, we have:

  1. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District
  2. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District Extension
  3. The MacDougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District
  4. South Village’s Third Phase of historical preservation
  5. The Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District
  6. The Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II (aka South Village’s First Phase)
  7. The Greenwich Village Historic District
  8. NYU’s campus (and, beyond it, the NoHo Historic District)

Venture further east and you hit the East Village historic districts. Any further north and you hit the Chelsea historic districts. Further south and you hit the TriBeCa historic districts, and further west you hit the rest of the Greenwich Village historic districts.

This is beginning to sound less like a neighborhood and more like a living museum. Greenwich Village is apparently the Venice of New York. I’ll grant that it’s aesthetically pleasing and currently walkable, but it’s also inorganic, and this arrested development is killing the very character it’s meant to preserve. Neighborhoods have to grow if they are to survive. This is why it’s of no surprise to me when St Vincent’s Hospital was demolished to be replaced with luxury housing: There’s literally nowhere else to build!

This is, consequently, why we have districts like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side going through a veritable building boom while others see practically nothing: Wholesale historical preservation of neighborhoods puts a strangle-hold on the options available, which means that the few places that are a) near the subway, b) close to midtown/downtown and c) not historically preserved are seeing the pressure of the entire city’s housing crisis focused squarely upon them.

As I said, that’s a planning failure.

NIMLOABYs

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My ministrations today have brought me to the West Village, and every time I’m down in the area during the daylight (a rare occurrence) I continue my search for a dimly-lit coffee shop with ample seating – ie: a pub without the necessity of constantly re-upping my alcohol intake – so as to sit and watch the world go by. It took about half an hour of meandering along narrow, snow-covered sidewalks, but as I’m typing this indoors, I’ve located one. Don’t ask me to name it: I’m terrible with names and my mental map is completely shot without a street grid to work with. It’s just as well, anyway; the West Village is for wandering, and I wouldn’t deny anybody the pleasure.

I’ll never be able to afford to live here – I don’t harbor the conceit that riches exist in my future – but according to various dating-site metrics, apparently this is the most desirable place for young women to live in the city. This I find rather funny – it’s relatively underserved by rapid transit, by Manhattan standards, especially as you venture westwards. The streets practically guarantee gridlock. The housing stock is stately, but ancient, half-decrepit, too small by half, and further subdivided into bite-size parcels (as are the food options in this coffee shop, consequently). The neighborhood itself started out as a working-class eddy adjacent to but otherwise unscathed from the insatiable demand for everything in the drive of New York to build itself.

Paradoxically too rich for my blood

Bordered on the south by what used to be a warehouse district, bordered on the north by what used to be a factory district – complete with freight trains running on the streets – and bordered on the east by what used to be a light manufacturing district, the West Village has had rather inauspicious origins. Yet it exists now as one of the most desirable places in the country to live. Why does rent here start at $3000 a month and go up from there? Surely, if the prophecies about telecommuting were true, this country’s elites could live anywhere, and would thus certainly choose a chalet in Colorado or some modern townhouse on top of a hill with thrice the available square footage. Even now, the folks next to me are discussing a friend of theirs who lives in Virginia beyond the DC suburbs, marveling at the beautiful acreage this person managed to secure on the “cheap, but not Texas cheap,” yet confirm to one another that they would not make similar moves.

Displayed: Prime real estate

It struck me why, while walking around. It’s not so much about what these places have, in spite of Jane Jacob’s vigorous defense. It’s about what everyone else hasn’t.

I was reminded of Mencken’s screed against industrial Pennsylvania, provocatively named The Libido for the Ugly.

Here was the very heart of industrial America, the center of its most lucrative and characteristic activity, the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth-and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke. Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination-and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats.

Mencken then went on to rail against the poor architecture and development, but even then, compared to now, the cities themselves had a relatively aesthetic, cohesive brick-clad form. I can’t help but think that, half a century ago, most of urban America resembled what the West Village looks like now. In fact, in terms of its urban form, it’s a basic American township. Similarly, fifty years ago, Hoboken and Inwood, to name two working-class “subway suburbs,” weren’t much to sniff at, and remarkable only for having the most bars per capita in the country. Now they’re supercharged, and rents have doubled twice over in the last decade. Everybody suddenly wants to pay top dollar to live in what were once cheap digs.

The reason is simple: We fucked up everywhere else. As Mencken complained of the meagre offerings despite the heady days of the 1920s, so too have we writ banality large in the riches of the 50s and 60s while at the same time methodically destroying our urban fabric. It’s not just New York: In Houston, where you can literally build anything anywhere, as they apparently have yet to learn about zoning laws, the most desirable and expensive place to live is what was once the Black slum – overlooked by the last generation’s urban renewal, and thus ironically livable compared to the schizophrenic suburban sprawl. Charleston was largely skipped over during the post-WWII development binge and thus now banks heavily on its “historic” character, relative to the parking-lot-and-stadium emptiness of most American downtowns.

Mencken recognized a problem that has since only gotten worse, and yet even seeing this for what it is, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it – what a destructive tornado money has wrought! I studied city planning because I grew up in Washington Heights and admired its urban reality – again, not especially enlightened a plan and yet subject to a musical, a TV series, and successive waves of gentrifiers – but the rarity of such is astonishing. There truly is no accounting for taste.

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  • Published: Dec 9th, 2013
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 2

Socialism By Any Other Name

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I was admonished recently for creating diatribes that were, at heart, counter-propaganda: That is to say, I was reacting to some talking point or some newfound policy in the news and criticizing its framework and its references and its assumptions, but in addressing it on its own terms I was still allowing its progenitors to dictate the public conversation.

Alright, I can see that. To say “this particular piece of legislature – let’s say, the battle in the New York State Congress over new restrictions on welfare – is another notch in the ‘welfare queens/young bucks’ racialist/classist line of discourse” is to play into the hands of the GOP because the discussion immediately starts on the defensive when it comes to moralizing about welfare recipients. This sort of political touchstone, where certain topics are discussed only within certain frameworks – such as Black-on-Black crime, or Black criminality in general being referenced in the same breath as civil rights – can’t be fought by simply putting one’s nose to the grindstone and refuting everything. The framework itself must be transcended.

It occurred to me, however, just how well the wrongheaded terminology had sunk in. Propaganda is the right word for it, and the difficulty in simply creating new frameworks of thought is that people don’t recognize them at all. To wit:

My last full-time job was in a non-union private sector tech firm in New Jersey run by two families of orthodox Jews. There was a clear divide in hiring practices and compensation between those in the family or connected to the family, and, to put it euphemistically, the non-chosen. My supervisor was the highest ranking goy and had attained his position by being the face of bad news – the liaison for information filtered downwards. The staff under him ran largely on a Klingon promotion system except the salaries were flat and the college recruitment fairs were a constant threat to job security.

The largely Latino and Indian technical staff grumbled under this yoke. They complained that the money wasn’t enough to live on, and every last one of them either had a second job, lived with their parents, or was struggling in a two-income household. Coming from a union shop prior to this job, I suggested what they needed was collective bargaining. To a man, they balked. “Unions are evil and corrupt; they take your money and don’t do anything.” A senior technician conceded, “they may have had some use before, but they’re obsolete nowadays; we don’t need them.”

And yet the stories continued: So-and-so got fired for talking back to the general manager. Plum job positions that many members of the technical staff were eminently qualified for weren’t open for application except by family. The health coverage would have bankrupted anybody who tried to use it because of the high deductibles, and indeed was a separate plan than what the family received. The costs of the Affordable Care Act and the payroll tax hike were simply taken out of the employees’ wages. The company cried poor when it came to annual cost-of-living increases but had as many “paper” employees as real ones.

This came to a head a year into my employment when the same lead technician who dismissed the idea of starting a union became the de facto shop steward when he summarily called a staff meeting and spent thirty minutes giving a list of demands to the general manager, having notated practices of the last six months as well as passages within the new employee manual that went against New Jersey state law. Ah! I thought: Here we have collective bargaining, where all the staff are nodding and grunting in assent as our representative runs through his list of grievances, but we just can’t call it “collective bargaining.”

So I asked the senior technician, if this is to be the case, what’s stopping us from having meetings to discuss when we’re going to follow up on whether the general manager addresses the problems put before him? Ah, well, they’ll “put you on a list” if you do that, he replied. Sounds like unions aren’t the problem, then, does it? Sounds like unions are just being suppressed. So I went further and started talking with my fellow grumblers.

This time, however, I didn’t use the word “union” or “collective bargaining” or any such loaded terms. I started by asking if it was fair what they were paying – no, was the answer – and would we be more inclined to work harder if we got paid enough not to have to worry about overtime or moonlighting – yes, was the answer – and whether it would make sense to keep people who know how to run the systems – yes – and whether the managements’ answers thus far were fair – no – and were they working in good faith – no – and whether we should bring it to their attention together – yes. Well then, open and shut case: The staff hate “unions,” but they love unions.

What of their arguments prior? Little more than received wisdom. Half libertarian fantasy – “all I need are marketable skills and I should be able to command a decent wage, society and the economy notwithstanding” – and half Rush Limbaugh talking points – “screw those thugs with their pensions that they paid into over a quarter century of working.” They were, to put it simply, intelligent if apolitical people who yet still bought into the bullshit because they didn’t work it out for themselves: The grooves of the pre-formed reasoning were well worn and they simply sank into them. How, then, did they blame their lot?

Almost all of them took night classes along with moonlighting, as if the issue wasn’t a dead-end job but a simple lack of skills, playing into the narrative of “oh, this is just a temporary position; you’re expected to grow out of it.” However, the more senior technicians all had a list of credentials that should have seen almost twice their salary, which was yet on par with new hires. They blamed their continued rut on complacency rather than a lack of options, though the administrator position that was not offered them was a bit of a wake-up call.

They knew the programming staff were fired en masse due to complaining about wages, but they reasoned that such wouldn’t happen to them so long as they kept their mouths shut. Instead, they whiled their days mulling over petty issues. The Indian employees blamed the Latino employees for being lazy and shirking work, because apparently nobody heard of dividing and conquering. Because they were this disorganized, the management could deflect a concerted backlash and focus on drumming out outspoken detractors, myself included.

They liked to view themselves as independents, and yet they were the most dependent people I can think of: Caught up in a zeitgeist that reviled them, and made to learn and speak the language of their opponents, such were they were partly complicit in their own misery. They have, in a very real way, allowed their bosses to dictate the very means by which the discourse would run, and thus have implicitly accepted the terminology and logic there-in. Made to set the framework of their own sorry lot under the lie of meritocracy, they learned that they were responsible for their wages, which reflected what they were worth. If the wages were low, it’s because they weren’t worth as much. That wasn’t logic: That was a threat made into logic, and they ate it for lack of an alternative viewpoint. It’s a lesson I shall internalize as best I can.

They Hate Us For Our Freedoms

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I’ve alluded to the division between the Black and white communities in Brooklyn on two separate occasions now, and have made direct reference to the randomized assaults the media had decided, in pure yellow journalistic style, as the “Knockout Game:”

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.

[…]

It’s from this point of view – as the last to be supported and the first to be abandoned – that I can see the Puerto Rican and Black population of north Brooklyn viewing these young white liberals as an invasion force that speaks as if they’re allies while acting like enemies. It’s from that point of view that I can see outbursts on the subway or snatched Apple products as a muddled social statement: “They deserve it; they’ve already done worse to me, though they would never be so brave as to admit it to my face. What’s being robbed on the street twice a year when I’m robbed in my mailbox every month?”

There indeed have been multiple altercations with them and their neighbors, especially in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. When I saw this video, where-in Black teenagers got into an altercation with a Jewish teenager that spun out of control, it wasn’t surprising to me:

That was the subway stop for my school. Those were mostly public school students arguing with the police when one of theirs got arrested for harassing and possibly robbing a Jewish kid. Was it racially motivated? Clearly. And while I’ve listed why they wouldn’t have any love for the hipsters that are beginning to filter down from Fort Greene through Washington and Franklin Avenues, the New York Post has suggested that Black teenagers are targeting Jewish people specifically.

Laurie Cumbo was recently elected as City Councilwoman to that particular section of Brooklyn, and has recently given her opinion on the matter:

I shared that many African American/Caribbean residents expressed a genuine concern that as the Jewish community continues to grow, they would be pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes. I relayed these sentiments at the forum not as an insult to the Jewish community, but rather to offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a “hate crime” against a community that they know very little about.

[…]

I also recognize that for others, the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment, and a sense that Jewish success is not also their success.

These three sensitively-worded sentences were buried in a far larger text in which she referenced the 1991 Crown Heights Riots and called for a general healing of divisions between the two communities. She tentatively alludes to a dysfunctional division by which what has become evident in the neighborhood is a zero-sum game: Where Jews make gains, Black people lose. “Your ghetto is encroaching on my ghetto.”

Now, the Hasidic community in that neighborhood is generally not well-received by anybody except Republican politicians, and then largely because they are a unified, disciplined voting bloc when they vote. When looking at a voting map of north Brooklyn, it’s a sea of deep blue within which is a dot of deep red, and that dot is the Hasidic Jewish community. Their bloc’s political power is partly the reason why city politicians would have any opinion at all on issues like the Metzitzah B’peh.

However, the division is likely to remain strong: This is the neighborhood where the Jewish community has set up vigilante patrols that even the NYPD have had troubles with in convincing them to cooperate, and where the riots started in part because the Jewish community had their own separate ambulance service. It’s been noted that while Black residents frequently patronize Jewish establishments, Jewish residents do not often purchase from Black establishments. In close-by communities of South Williamsburg and Borough Park, there were issues with Hasidic Jewish residents enforcing orthodox custom on public buses and city pools, and where they have successfully blocked city deployment of bike lanes on public streets because they were concerned over women biking by while dressed ‘lasciviously.’  In short, they keep to themselves.

Cumbo praises this in her statement:

I admire the Jewish community immensely. I am particularly inspired by the fact that the Jewish community has not assimilated to the dominant American culture, and has preserved their religious and cultural values while remaining true to themselves. I respect and appreciate the Jewish community’s family values and unity that has led to strong political, economic and cultural gains.

I have argued that it is not to ask to assimilate one’s culture to the American zeitgeist but to assimilate one’s politics to that of the American zeitgeist, which is where we have this issue. To call it a cultural issue would be to imply that Black people are jealous of Jewish success, which is not helped by Cumbo’s statement towards the other side of the aisle:

As an African American woman, this is challenging, because I recognize that it is Black children and not Jewish children that are playing the “Knock Out Game.” Why is this? In many ways governmental neglect, outside uncontrolled influences and failed leadership have led to the breakdown that so many young people of color are currently facing. I feel torn because I feel apart of the very system that has caused the destructive path that so many young people have decided to take while I am simultaneously demanding that they be arrested by that same system.

Effectively, the message she gave to the Jewish community is that this issue is a backlash against their success rather than a referendum on their methodology, and the message she gave to the Black community is that this issue is due to “uncontrolled influences” and not an outrage perpetrated upon their community.

In short, Laurie Cumbo is attempting to placate each side and may have instead insulted the intelligence of both. “They’re jealous of your success” is something you would tell somebody if you’re afraid of their reaction should you tell them the truth. “It’s due to uncontrolled circumstances” is something you would tell somebody so as to obfuscate and thus protect the actual cause of their problem. She is indeed walking a tight rope.

Now, while her statement may have been somewhat boiled away in political doublespeak, her solution is what is truly misguided, here:

I believe that it is critical for our communities, and especially for our young people, to gain a greater understanding of one another so that we can learn more about each other’s challenges and triumphs despite religious and cultural differences. I believe it is possible for us to create real friendships across cultural boundaries that transcend mere tolerance, but rather strive for mutual respect and admiration.

Ignorance can and does explain a great deal when it comes to xenophobia and irrational hostility, but it does not help when actual imbalances and injustices are afoot: Understanding more may indeed exacerbate the divisions extant. As an angry young man myself, I know that my anger is not because I don’t know what’s going on, but because I do know what’s going on, and the struggle is and has always been how to suppress, reroute and channel that anger into constructive solutions rather than explain it away.

Why did I start this article by conflating Black vs hipster and Black vs Hasidic? Well, effectively, to highlight a difference: Young people from these Black communities can and do turn into hipsters, and there is certainly very little stopping hipsters from joining Black communities. I defined these stark divisions in my last article but the borders are actually quite porous at times. This is still New York, after all, where you can find Black metalheads from Flatbush getting hipster cred. Students of mine came from these same places yet went on to state and city universities and plugged into those different crowds. Their relative connections and advantages were few, but they could join and rise through the ranks of these other constituencies, and in doing so change prevailing conversations among the liberal crowd to a unified political whole. To walk through East Williamsburg and Bushwick is to see a melange, not the Berlin Wall. Effectively, given enough social support, there can indeed be cross-pollination and the divisions can indeed dissipate.

This would, by contrast, make the growth of the Hasidic community closer to an actual invasion, like watching one’s garden get strangled by kudzu. To walk through South Williamsburg or Prospect Heights, you see boundaries. There is no interplay, because the Hasidic community deems it such in the name of not wanting to assimilate. I fail to see that as the problem: It’s not a matter of non-assimilation, but of limiting their interaction with the greater world. Du Bois dubbed the heart of the matter a “double consciousness” and there is clearly still an African-American culture distinct from an American culture despite a long history of open interplay between them. For the Hasidic community to turn it into a zero-sum turf war is to invite this division – and these attacks – forever after, no matter how much the need to “understand the culture” is proffered, because their “culture” will forever be “them,” not “us.”

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