Big Smoke

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

The Big Tent

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I remember having an epic argument with a long-standing acquaintance of mine from Florida over a video I had once linked him. It divided us so evenly and vehemently that we haven’t talked since. The video was taken by somebody’s phone on the L train late at night, depicting an altercation between what can best be described as a Latino hood and a white hipster girl. The video got a lot of play on the usual circuit of online content aggregators and was billed either as humor or as a crime in progress.

The reason for the altercation in the video is unfortunately not depicted, leaving only the colorfully-worded tirade the hood levied against the hipster, where-in he invaded her space and yelled at her for attention-seeking. My acquaintance saw it as a baseless, unwarranted assault. I saw it as an unfortunate but natural reaction to social circumstance. It has flavors of both of those things, but our argument spanned the nature of race relations, of gentrification, of the Democratic party, and of liberalism in general.

We both consider ourselves Democrats and would never think, in this day and age, to vote anything but Democratic. It’s simply not even an option. But the Democratic party is a big tent nowadays, holding court over multiple disparate constituencies bound together mostly by their hatred of the unthinking bigotry of the Republican party and the lack of a viable alternative. This has, among other things, presented a somewhat ungovernable series of demands up the chain and allowed for a bit of a disconnect between card-carrying Democrats and the Democratic leadership.

The leadership is fairly easy to describe. From FDR onwards we had pro-government liberal populists who more or less got to dictate the direction of the country until LBJ, at which point they started losing elections until they retooled into government-agnostic technocratic centrists a la Bill Clinton and Obama. The New Republic posited that liberal disappointment with Democratic leadership today in the form of Obama and Hillary Clinton will herald another turn towards a more multicultural populism, but I’ll believe it when it’s in office.

Either way, that leadership will have to contend with factions within the Democratic party that simply don’t like one another, and I believe the afore-mentioned video illustrates a moment of that. It reminded me of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in a way, as well as the very neighborhood that train was trundling under at the moment of the altercation. Actually, Williamsburg is a good enough place to start so I’ll start there.

Williamsburg has been known for being a hotbed of hipster gentrification so long that even the New York Times has reported on it, and they’ve only discovered Brooklyn in 2005. The backlash, counter-backlash and various philosophical musings on the nature of “progress” over the displacement that the influx of white twenty-something underemployed college graduates is interesting in that it exists in a reality that doesn’t get much attention from Democratic leadership, for all the parties involved are Democrats. The whole area from the East River straight through Bushwick is a big, solid blue on the map. Yet, divided they are, and in three parts.

The first are the hipsters, or, as I argued in my last missive, upper-middle-class college-educated young jet-setters. The more classically “liberal” of the three. Indeed, in Williamsburg, they’re often referred to as gluten-free, environmentalist, bike-sharing, gay-friendly atheist free speech advocates who all work social media in unpaid internships for non-profits, usually by the second group. As I also argued in my last missive, they’re mostly white. They like the police unless they’re in a protest (at which point the police are the army of the rich), they’re not terribly concerned about unionism because they’ve never been in a union, nor are social services at the top of their priorities – except academically – because their degrees will (eventually) translate into a higher average earning potential.

These were the people I remember watching on TV during the Occupy movement, where their message was, essentially, “I had everything going for me: An advanced degree, solid work experience, exactly the right demographics to be hire-able… where’s my piece of the American dream? If things are this hard for me, people who actually suffer are fucked!” I remember noting at the time that their group was missing the other two parts of the Democrats, at least until the second part showed up:

The second are the trade unionists. The more classically “populist” if the least liberal of the three. In Williamsburg they’re referred to as the ones hanging around the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubs wearing Local 236 Shitstompers patches sewn onto their biker jackets and speaking with that old-time Noo Yawka accent that sounds great at a fireman’s ball but guaranteed to make you unelectable. They’re also mostly white, but can by contrast be typified as “white ethnic” – Irish, Polish, Italian card-carrying Catholics who have a sharp cultural divide between themselves and the more libertine members of the first group. Needless to say, they’re strongly pro-union while the first group would more likely believe the current media zeitgeist over pension scandals, but don’t much care about civil rights or social services unless it directly pertains to them. They like the police because they are the police.

When they showed up to the Occupy protest, they knew what they were doing: All those TV cameras are useful. They came en masse, brought the full force of their war chests to bear to clean up the proceedings and actually give a cohesive statement, and then promptly fucked off because they have better things to do than freeze in the cold. In another era, conversely, they would have had more in common with the construction workers than the college students during the Hard Hat Riot of the Lindsay administration, but this time around co-option beat out competition.

These locals in Williamsburg and Greenpoint mostly dislike the hipsters for, while the hipsters’ political and economic gravitas are prompting the city to bring greater investment into the neighborhoods, they’re also out-pricing them from said neighborhoods. By contrast, the unionists’ traditional political power has been much diminished, as the unions themselves find that they are no longer able to command voting blocs or sway public opinion.

The third group, minorities – less a shared ideology and more a shared identity – never showed up to Occupy Wall Street, and for good reason: There was little in it for them. Unlike them, the first group had all the time in the world to camp out for weeks on end. The second group didn’t really represent them. Had they showed up, the police would likely have cleared them out even quicker than they did.

That more or less parallels what they experienced in Williamsburg and Bushwick, too. Since more of them rent, they were pushed out even quicker than the second group, which has a higher rate of home ownership. While more police coverage came, it was mostly seen as a means of protecting the hipsters from them: Stop and Frisk basically targets minorities, even in mixed neighborhoods. The more classically liberal New York Times still couches the gentrification in terms of progress, when they’re not forgetting what was there before hipsters or simply out-right siding with hipsters. Social services still ride on the heels of the hipsters, and not one subway stop further.

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?”

But we all vote the same.

I saw the same thing while working in the public school system: The teachers were all Group 1: Largely white liberals with advanced degrees. The support staff were all Group 2: Secure, largely white unionists. Because the teachers were also unionized, they had plenty of common cause against the administration and in the general running of the school. They voted the same, and were of a mind on almost every issue. They all drank after school every Friday.

They did not drink together.

The first group went to a sports bar in Fort Greene and talked about post-graduate work. The second group went to a neighborhood bar in Far Rockaway and talked about second jobs. (When I switched schools, these changed to bars in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenpoint, respectively.) The second would never join the first because they thought the first were full of contemptuous bourgie effetes. The first would never join the second because they thought the second were full of rowdy, uncouth futureless goons. They were both right.

The students were, to a one, all comprised from Group 3. Neither Group 1 nor Group 2 would think to enroll their children in the school where they worked, which states all that needs to be stated about what both groups, in their hearts, felt about the students’ prospects and their abilities. Group 1 accused Group 2 of racism. Group 2 accused Group 1 of high-handed elitism. They were both right.

Going back to the video, my argument with my acquaintance was predicated on the notion that I identified with the hood, and he with the hipster. I argued that the out-sized reaction the hood had was due to sensing that he was speaking with a passively hostile out-group. My acquaintance retorted that he failed to see how that pertained. I argued that neither would the hipster girl, but her presence was itself a social force. This point of contention has failed to be reconciled between us.

Luckily, with the election of de Blasio on a coalition ticket comprised primarily of the first and third groups, we’re destined to be strange bedfellows time and again, though how this is to play out is anybody’s guess: The issue today with the Democratic party is not to take its constituencies for granted. The issue tomorrow is likely to be which constituency the Democratic party prioritizes, for god knows they can’t get anything done at the best of times.

A Crucible versus a Company Town

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A question was posited to me concerning my last declaration, in that I may have been overemphasizing the role of New York’s public education system in terms of fomenting the cultural peak we experienced. After all: We attract the best and the brightest the county and the world over, and many of the people involved in New York’s cultural renaissance were themselves domestic or international immigrants to the city. Furthermore, we still have a sizable supply of private schools and universities that are at or close to the top of their respective fields.

This would put more weight on the city’s jobs, housing and transportation in terms of what created our unique situation. To that, however, for the sake of argument I would add that literally everywhere else in this country is cheaper than New York to live in – and there are only a handful of places in the world that are more expensive to live in – and some still yet have cohesive transit systems. The question then boils down to, “what makes New York special?”

Many if not all cities do indeed attract educated, talented people. When the big pundits talk about twenty-somethings figuring out their options (after getting priced out of Williamsburg) they tend to list Austin and Portland as mainstays. Even Philadelphia and Washington DC are, in their way, attracting talented young people. New York, it goes, can’t be all that unique if people can create scenes everywhere.

So, let’s go through this city by city, first in America and then around the world.

Portland, that hipster Mecca, Denver and Seattle all have cultural institutions, cheap housing, viable growth industries to work in for a middle-class existence, and are currently net importers of college-educated young professionals. They are also among the whitest cities in America. Having almost entirely avoided the Great Northern Migration following the Civil War, existing too far north of our southern border, and being too far from major international airline hubs have seen these cities rather bereft of demographic diversity. So, they may not be the best candidates for comparison. We can do better:

San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Austin and Los Angeles have substantial minority populations, famous arts institutions, Sunbelt jobs, cheap housing, and are net importers of college-educated young professionals. They also stay inside and drive everywhere, and thus self-segregate in a way that New York doesn’t. Perhaps we can do even better that that:

San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC and Boston have substantial minority populations, plenty of cultural institutions of all stripes, a core of middle-class jobs, famous private educational institutions, a temperate climate, comprehensive public transportation and walkable streets, an inflow of college-educated young professionals, and are still far cheaper to live in than New York. San Francisco, specifically, is the second-densest city in America. Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

Now, New York is clearly bigger than these places, but my argument is that New York is not just a bigger version of these places. New York is also more diverse than those places and produces far more cultural output than those places. For the world, as well, we have cities that are comparable for New York when it comes to size, economic output and cultural institutions – Shanghai, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Singapore – yet aren’t New York. So what gives?

Well, when I started listing cities, the first thing I mentioned was diversity, and I think that’s the crux of the issue. Importing talent is one thing – the United States immigration policy has been pretty much explicitly that for 60 years – but talent tends to be self-selecting. Relying on importing young college-educated professionals and artists, especially domestically, results in a scene revolving around a jet-setting, upper-middle-class white population. The aerospace industry of the Pacific Northwest or Silicon Valley’s tech industry are perfectly happy importing whomever they need and local populations have felt the squeeze as they’ve been displaced by jet-setting elites. Gentrification has been the go-to word for this generation: Local investment in education has been comparatively anemic; a fact displayed in the demographics of these growth industries.

New York under Giuliani and Bloomberg has, similarly, hit its stride in attracting educated white yuppies into our media and finance industries. In fact, our white population has increased, not just in raw numbers but also in ratio, for the first time since White Flight started taking off in the 60s. We also have the second-highest proportion in the country of citizens with college degrees, after San Francisco. College-educated people are flocking to New York and San Francisco in record numbers. I would not say, however, that this is either New York nor San Francisco’s golden era of cultural attainment. We are, on the other hand, making record corporate profits.

I’ll bet you can see where I’m heading with this: The issue is one of a landed gentry versus an enlightened citizenry. Diverse as some of these cities’ populations are, their opportunities for upward mobility are uneven, leading to uneven access to that core of middle-class attainment. The question, then, becomes, “is this a class or a race issue?” Well, most race issues are class issues, and the race segregation highlights the greater class division: Chicago is separated by both class and race from its South Side. Los Angeles is separated by both class and race from South Central. Roxbury and Jamaica Plains are a far cry from central Boston. Rich San Francisco is physically separated from poor Oakland. DC looks very distinct from Prince George’s County. The path to becoming an elite in these cities is not necessarily to take part in these cities’ public amenities but instead to be born an elite. Importing elites, or allowing elites to maintain walls around their ivory tower, does not foster diversity, and does not foster a world-class cultural output. What use are those middle-class jobs if they are inaccessible to the local population? What use are those arts institutions if they are in service to a demographic monoculture?

That isn’t to say that New York hasn’t had its problems. Our history of redlining and segregation is well-documented, from the cavalier attitude of Robert Moses’ developments in Mott Haven to the far-flung projects in Brownsville and East New York – which were where the battles over the school system ended up occurring. Between the Democratic machine, the mafia, and good old protectionist racism, Jewish people and non-white minorities might never have gotten a middle-class jobs niche at all, were it not for reformers like La Guardia and bureaucrats like Wagner. Mark Twain was looking towards New York when he coined the term ‘Gilded Age,’ and we are practically heralding the coming of the second Gilded Age.

That said, nobody else in this world has Queens, which exists as probably the purest possible example of American egalitarianism: Uniting the principles of affordable housing, comprehensive public transportation, an inviting immigration policy, middle-class civil jobs on a merit-based system, and finally, a viable, strong universal public education system, we have provided a crucible for upward mobility for practically all and sundry, unmatched anywhere else. It is no surprise, then, that Queens is by far the most diverse place on Earth.

My description of that system, I admit, is a bit utopian. I’m not saying it was ever anywhere near as close to that ideal as it could have been. I’m not even sure to what extent it still exists. What I am saying is that it’s gotten closer to that ideal than any other system, ever. London and Paris’ respective governments and populations never got over what to do with their non-white post-colonial immigration issue, and have opted to disenfranchise them in a way that is not unlike America pre-Great Society. Tottenham and Clichy-sous-Bois are not what I would consider to be fully plugged in to their respective governments’ social infrastructure, and their central cities have priced out the non-elite far more than even Manhattan has done. Likewise, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai have laughably small foreign populations compared to New York, and were I, for instance, to move there, I’d be something of a curiosity to my dying day.

A number of the artistic styles New York fostered during its heyday in the 70s and 80s were decidedly non-elite. We had uptown scenes with rich patrons. We had downtown scenes with the transplanted hip. We also had outer-borough scenes full of homegrown artists – from our public and vocational schools, and from our working and middle-class neighborhoods – as well as folks who came because there was a homegrown audience. Who, after all, would immigrate to the Bronx of all places to promote their career? And yet. We had the ability to cross-pollinate all of this stuff, but that heterogeneity came not just from attracting people to our city but also cultivating the people we had.

I believe in Lazarus’ The New Colossus and I believe in the precepts of compulsory universal education being the gateway to an enlightened society. I believe that nowhere has embodied these as much as New York City and nowhere has benefited from these as much as New York City. It’s one thing to take in the rich – almost everybody does that – but at our best we have taken in the poor as well, and given them the opportunity to enrich everybody.

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