Big Smoke

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

Middle Class Sensibilities

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When I was growing up, I was sent to a magnet school up on the upper reaches of the Upper East Side. Later on, I was sent to a magnet school in the Upper West Side before attending high school near Lincoln Center. I remember at the time my concept of the Uptown crowd was that the Upper East Side was full of old money – the Gold Coast of Manhattan and thus America – and the Upper West Side was full of middle class ultra-liberals.

The Upper West Side, to me, was cheap pizzerias, candy stores, sidewalk book vendors, aging hippies and various interesting things for the middle school child that I was. The Upper East Side was the realm of doormen, boutiques and specialty stores. I distinctly remember one such place on a side street off of Lexington Ave that sold nothing but music boxes – you know, those boxes that when you open them up, they start tinkling at you. When I had to shuttle myself from the West Side to the East Side for rehearsals in the All City Orchestra, I’d be sharing buses with private school kids who were going from the East Side to the West Side to slum it. The West Side kids had pot. As I learned speaking to an East Side friend in 2004, the East Side kids had cocaine.

When I went to high school, to me Upper West Siders were the quintessential patrons of the arts. They were the ones buying up all the subscriptions to the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera and creating scholarships for bright young people to attend Mannes and Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, all of which were on the Upper West Side. They’d wring their hands about how many live American composers to promote within the playbills of dead Europeans.

This fit into their own crafted image of a middle-class Bohemia: They prized independent bookstores and craft shops and prided themselves on the notable artists and writers who had once dwelled in the Ansonia or the Dakota or other landmarks, and how many still live among them. They would themselves be perfectly keen on being recognized as the primary audience for the generally liberal New York Times, New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Nation, as well as being local consumers of The Atlantic, Guardian and Mother Jones. They were the intellectuals, in my eye, of the liberal movement.

By contrast, the Upper East Side had Museum Mile, which was certainly patronage of the arts, but the art itself was dead and so were the artists. The American Museum of Natural History was a place to let your kids go hog wild, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was where you went to witness the spoils of imperial conquest. In short, to my younger self, the Upper East Side could be typified in the guise of Leona Helmsley, whereas the Upper West Side was the domain of Woody Allen – though I have no idea where either of those two people actually lived.

At the time I vainly thought that the Upper West Side was the New York life I should strive for, where the Upper East Side was that other half of New York my liberal heart eschewed. I now know they’re birds of a feather.

For starters, they’re both rich. Before SuperPACs became a thing, those two neighborhoods comprised five of the top ten zip codes in the country of political contributions to political candidates (10021, 10065 and 10128 for the Upper East Side, 10023 and 10024 for the Upper West Side, rounding out neighboring districts 10019 and 10022 in Midtown for New York’s total of seven of the top ten). They still top the chart for straight donations to the parties, but DC has overtaken them recently in the different political game nowadays. They’re both liberal, too, as the contributions for both neighborhoods heavily favor Democratic.

However, as I’ve learned, rich trumps liberal.

A good way to drive the point home is this curious article in the Guardian, written two weeks ago, especially in conjunction with this curious article in the Post. The first article is how a white woman in an Upper West Side apartment noticed her doormen were harassing her Black friends but not her white friends. She then waxes philosophical about her own intrinsic racism, or at least the institutionalized racism of her doormen. The second article is about how two mobile homes spotted on the Upper West Side are now an “invasion” of unsightly poor people that have the neighborhood up in arms.

I’ll speak of the second first: The Upper West Side, due to various bits of emergency legislation from Dinkins and other mayors, has had a sizable number of Single Room Occupancy hotels, which tend to be used by the city to prove a stepping stone back to permanent quarters for homeless people. I say “had,” because ever since the peak of this program in the 90s, the community board has been diligently getting rid of as much of these units as possible. In the last decade, some 2,000 units out of 13,300 were removed entirely and more than half of the remaining have been illegally converted into market-rate hotels for tourists. This is part of the general decline over the last decade of some 13,000 units of affordable housing in the neighborhood.

Indeed, like their counterparts down in Greenwich Village, the Upper West Siders like the idea of Bohemia, minus the struggling. They like the idea of affordable housing, just not in their neighborhood. As academic liberals, actually seeing poverty is simply not polite. Oh, they’ll donate, and decry the concentration of poverty in ghettos and housing projects conveniently just beyond the reach of their community boards, but they won’t actually help. Thus, the idea that two enterprising individuals shacking out in mobile homes is enough to incur the wrath of Community Board 7 is not entirely out of character. Middle class sensibilities expose their liberal affectation.

I originally thought this was a result of the yuppified new developments, like Trump’s condos near the West Side Highway, wherein new residents in the neighborhood live in a bubble: Between their underground garages and their private streets, they get to live the suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle in the heart of the city. The first article dispels that myth entirely.

The story in that story is that the writer, a self-avowed liberal, was ignorant to the issue until her black friends pointed it out to her, and then having discovered it, used her position to write an opinion piece saying what they knew all along. That piece itself will be read by folks just like her who will go “huh,” and while they won’t disagree with her findings – where she cited a Columbia University professor’s anthropological treatise on doormen but neglected to ask her own doormen – they will forget about it almost immediately. The Guardian and other liberal periodicals have been on their reading list this whole time, after all; why should their habits change now?

It reminds me of a quote from John Oliver, who lampooned such affectation on the Daily Show: “For years opinion has been divided on stop-and-frisk, with Black and Latino residents of this city saying it’s an invasion of their liberty, and white residents saying, ‘Oh I think I heard a thing about that on NPR. Is that still happening?'”

At one point my trajectory was there: I could have been the one who buys NPR totebags and occasionally watches indie films about Bosnia so I can think of myself as good despite stepping over homeless people. That protective sheath of self-congratulatory liberalism, buttressed by money, is a real siren call. In a way, I’m thankful I’m too poor to be wholly sheltered from the inequities of the world, because it’s allowed me to see the divisions inherent, and in this economy I will likely be such forever. But those middle class sensibilities – they’re down in there, I feel them, I was raised in part on them, and they must be expunged.

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