Big Smoke

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

In Bratton’s Defense

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Police commissioner Bratton has decided to take time off his busy schedule of ticketing pedestrians to show off his managerial experience in reversing former commissioner Kelly’s controversial plan of flooding high crime areas with rookie cops. This policy was titled Operation Impact, and like a sledgehammer used to drive in a nail, you could say it lacked a little subtlety. In Bratton’s own words,

“I want to change the dynamic of kids coming out of the academy and immediately being put into Operation Impact assignments, where they really have an almost single-minded focus and really don’t get a full flavor of the job.”

Effectively, thrown into situations where their goal is to beat heads, they learn to beat heads, not police. While I do appreciate the fact that such measures force people to appreciate the power of the police, I have argued indeed that there is more to policing than suppression. Bratton is arguing, conversely, that it not only doesn’t help the community, but it doesn’t help the cop become an effective cop.

There’s a philosophical simplicity to Kelly’s policy: Find bad area, flood it with cops. But rotating rookies is easier than rotating veterans – as indeed it takes time to learn a neighborhood – so simple necessity dictated that the least-experienced personnel were sent to the most difficult situations. I can think of another place where the same has occurred: Public schools.

Former mayor Bloomberg’s restructuring of the school system and his Small Schools initiative led to a lot of personnel change and a strong need for new leaders: Creating 300 new schools meant there needed to be 300 new principals, and an acute lack of math and science teachers needed to be rectified. To get these people, initiatives like Leadership Academy and Teach For America incentivized and trained people to fill those roles.

When I was working in the school system, I was within schools that Bloomberg had closed down due to poor performance and re-opened as Small Schools. What struck me, however, was how many teachers and administrators were on the first years at their jobs. I started under a Leadership Academy principal that had four years’ experience teaching, who had hired a Leadership Academy assistant principal who had two years’ experience teaching, and under them were more than a dozen first- and second-year teachers, mostly from Teach For America and Teaching Fellows. Together they made up the lion’s share of the pedagogical staff. This staff was tasked with turning around one of the poorest-performing student bodies in the city. Some of them weren’t just new to teaching, but also new to New York City, and were barely older than the students themselves.

What I learned in such an environment was how to hop from fire to fire on a budget of zero dollars – for lo and behold nobody knew how to do a budget – not how to develop a lasting or effective plan. I was hired as a computer coordinator – a visionary but unfunded mandate by Bloomberg – but, without education or training in teaching and lacking a teaching license, was tasked with teaching several classes in computer science. When I asked the AP if she could help me develop good patterns for classroom control and curriculum planning, she asked, “what are you doing wrong?” as if the next words out of my mouth would end up being on a future letter of dismissal. She certainly learned some managerial techniques in her workshops.

I muddled through. We all did. We made mistakes. We learned to manage crises when what should have been going on was learning to teach. This became evident after a year when, having largely solved the major problems – inter-school fights, poor attendance, lack of discipline; things you can just throw safety personnel at and muscle down – the school hit a brick wall at getting students to actually pass classes. That required teaching skills. For that the teachers required administrative support, and for that the administrators required experience. Instead, desperate to avoid getting a B or a dreaded C in the system-wide school report, they started “creatively” grading the Regents exams and finding every way to give extra points to students struggling to graduate.

This got them a special investigation, but lowering the standards to meet the bar was something that went on throughout the system. The next school I worked at, the cycle was similar: They could just barely fix the problem of student discipline, but actually raising grades was beyond them. 20 year old teachers were teaching 21 year old students, inexperienced principals shielded themselves from responsibility through the hire of equally inexperienced assistant principals, and the general impression was that it was the world’s most stressful stage production and we were all ad-libbing.

In both schools the physics teacher was either laid off or forbidden from teaching physics because “too few students passed the class.” Lesson learned: If there is any difficulty, drop it and pad their credits elsewhere. Regents courses in the hard sciences like chemistry and physics were replaced with earth science and forensics(!), which are basically biology and chemistry without math or formulas. The accepted method for teaching math changed twice in four years, leading to a kerfuffle over which textbooks to use. It truly was the blind leading the blind, punctuated occasionally by consultants who would exhort us to treat the school more like a business.

Bloomberg first crowed that his initiatives were working back in 2005 when tests scores showed improvement, until critics noticed that the standards had slipped. When the standards returned in 2013, students city-wide did dismally. Indeed, to me, his take on solving the education crisis can be illustrated adroitly with his ill-considered choice of Cathleen Black as chancellor: A management fast-tracker with little experience in education.

Bratton’s analysis is sound: To send the least-experienced cops into the worst situations is to invite disaster. Would that we could learn this lesson in the schools, too.

Alternate Narratives

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In looking for the movie equivalent of the supporting female roles in video games I described in my last missive, I came across Laurie Penny’s article I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, where she describes the trope of a role:

Not being sure what story you’re in anymore is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero of that story. Low-status men, and especially women and girls, often don’t have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we’re lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero’s shoulder and carried off the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories ourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else…


Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

These ‘quirky’ plot devices tend to go hand in hand and indeed play opposite to the lead in a repertoire of movies about manchildren: You know, the collected works of the likes of Seth Rogen, Zach Galifianakis, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith, men who are themselves good examples of overgrown teenage boys. They’re fantasies made for a young male audience by a young male industry cadre. The Guardian posed suggestions as to why so many of those movies have gotten popular play: The successes of feminism questions traditional male roles, the difficulty of the economic climate prolongs adolescence, et cetera.

I think it’s simpler than that: They’re there because they always were there. We’ve just gotten slightly better at noticing them. Michael Cera and Will Ferrell aren’t doing anything but what Chris Farley and Adam Sandler did in the 90s, and they weren’t doing anything but what Tom Hanks and Bill Murray did in the 80s. Of course it goes further back than that, but one of the things from Penny’s article that struck me was this line:

Lady hobbits didn’t bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire.

Now, Lord of the Rings is a hotbed of ugly social assumptions at the best of times – as lampooned humorously in this McSweeney satire – and Tolkien was no feminist. After all, the number of active female roles in his books, which he clearly spared no detail, can be counted on one hand. When people tend to defend his credentials in that field, however, they tend to gravitate towards Eowyn (of the no living man” crisis, hur hur) and Galadriel as examples of powerful women. The thing is, they’re both mainly fleshed out in supporting texts like the Silmarillion, and in the main text tend to be defined by their love interests or weigh heavily on the madonna side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Either way, they’re far from lead characters, serving as pedestals and plot points before they’re people. Peter Jackson indeed had to inject new content to make actual female characters for the movies, citing a general lack of material.

Eowyn, a character who masked herself as a man to get things done but eventually settled into a traditional female role, did get touted by, of all people, Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell, who then went on in true GOP fashion to argue for traditional female roles from an ironically nontraditional female role. Apparently she’s never heard of the term ‘tokenism,’ but then neither did Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin.

I’m somewhat loathe to criticize the book, however, because at times it feels like criticizing the bible: You know what point you want to make, but some nut somewhere will quote scripture at you until your ears bleed. Regardless, the reason that quote set me going was that it prompted something of a thought experiment of what the plot could be if the hobbit contingent was gender equal. Bear with me here: Pippin and Merry are now female, and in Manic Pixie Dream Girl style still largely comprise their roles to uplift Frodo from his often morose and weak-willed angst.

This time, however, they have actual personalities, so they quickly bore of dragging these sops around and instead ditch them to solve the world’s problem themselves. The boys, angered at being left behind, feel the need to prove themselves as the true captains of the expedition and follow them under the assumption that the girls will need their help eventually.

Suddenly, there’s no need for the Smeagol character, for Frodo assumes that role without difficulty. Furthermore, what we get is a Smeagol that is less physically ugly and more emotionally ugly, as befitting a character who learns halfway through the plot that they’re not the protagonist. Not only would it be far more compelling narrative – something the series sorely lacks – but we wouldn’t then have to rely on the “amazon,” as Tolkien described her, who ended up married off under another autocratic lineage, to be the standard-bearer for feminism in fantasy fiction.

In it I’m just swapping one fantasy enablement for another, but considering the paucity of diversity in what is clearly supposed to be escapism, what could it possibly hurt? It might even help.

Paint By Numbers

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A friend of mine was accepted into the beta for Wildstar, a Massively Multiplayer Online game made by NCSoft, a company known for polished but short-lived MMOs. They’re polished because the company has a lot of experience making games. They’re short-lived because the company has very little experience making compelling games. My friend was disappointed with the gameplay – she couldn’t lay specifics, however, as she was under a non-disclosure agreement – but remarked that the problem was that the developer and publisher listened too much to their fans.

Too much?

But there’s something in that statement; one that speaks to the design choices of a company that wishes to make a successful game and aspires to that of an art-form – famously criticized by the late Roger Ebert as an impossible feat due to the industry’s immaturity – if debased by acquiescing to the wishes of its lowest common denominator. Take the official trailer to the game:

The number of cliches and tropes in those three minutes is staggering, and to list them all would be tedious. In short, however, we have the alpha, a nondescript short-haired white male with a motorcycle and sunglasses, who gets the glory. We have the beta, a brute of a character who chomps cigars, schleps large hardware, and exists to deal with opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight. Finally, we have what I can only describe as a walking sexual fetish – a stick figure with D cups, spilling out of her uniform, with all the anime-esque accoutrements to attract every furry in the western hemisphere – who existed to be saved (at 1:55) and to support the alpha (at 2:35).

This is an MMO, so the idea is that the prospective player will want to play as any character in the trailer. The problem is there’s only one protagonist in the trailer. The narrative is pulled out of the DreamWorks wheelhouse and says more about the target audience than it does about the game. There’s already been a controversy where-in the developers were pressured to give their female characters a breast reduction because critics noted that it was rather ridiculous. But they’re only doing what the fans want. Compare, for instance, the cinematic trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO made by Bioware and Electronic Arts:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory (this time in full Western motif), the same beta male who takes care of the opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight, and the same token female who exists to be saved (at 3:00). Let’s try another trailer, this time of Rift, an MMO by Trion Worlds:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory, the same brute of a beta (isn’t it funny how all the betas aren’t human?), the same token female. This time she doesn’t get saved (she simply dies), but the archetypes are held aloft. In fact, in this game, one of the most popular complaints of the fans was that the female characters’ breasts were too small.

MMOs are somewhat more demographically balanced (in that an estimated 40% of the players are female) partly because they deign to depict women at all, and indeed that ratio drops precipitously in other video game genres such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Most of the time in such games, women are simply nonexistent or are only damsels in distress. When they’re given actual narrative or player roles, as in Metroid: Other M, the developers seem to go out of their way to “feminize” them, which means to accentuate their weakness and vulnerability. Starcraft 2 is, likewise, somewhat famous for having its lead female character exist primarily for fan-service, in that the camera is notably following the male gaze whenever she is on screen.

In each scenario, the developers and publishers are only giving their assumed audience what they want, an in doing so feed into a self-serving prophecy: We only make games oriented towards teenage males because only teenage males like our games because we only make games oriented towards teenage males. This utter lack of introspection – largely because the developers are also mostly white, young and male – is the reason the games themselves quickly stagnate once the luster wears off and why most people outside the industry don’t give two thoughts as to the artistic quality of video games.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been acknowledgements in that direction, but when they are levied, they are levied to small independent (and sometimes one-man) productions and eschew the industry as a matter of course. Roger Ebert largely reviewed Hollywood films and found examples there-in that could reach his criteria. The Hollywood of gaming is in big-name publishers like Activision/Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and indeed, even in the most bleeding-edge games in development, there’s no there there.

Form Follows Dysfunction

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When I decided to go to school for city planning, I did so because I was looking to codify my understanding of the street life I grew up within so that I could produce similar results anywhere and everywhere. I wanted to preserve the notion of an unbroken chain of building facades that presented a cohesive notion of public space, of storefronts small enough to present a variety of options within walking distance, and of a social fluidity where your neighbors knew who you were but still gave you a degree of anonymity such that they didn’t know who you were. Of course, all the examples of Beaux Arts, Romanesque Revival and Art Deco up in the ‘hood didn’t hurt, either.

When I think about it, historical preservationist movements are trying to do the same thing, although their methodology and reasoning betray a more pessimistic outlook. They seek to eliminate bad development, but their strictures more or less eliminate all development, which creates problems of its own. This is a fact some preservationists are willing to accept, as their first argument is that our history of good architecture is doomed to be bulldozed in favor of the banal and the ugly: Simply put, we don’t make ’em like we used to.

They have a point.

Indeed, when I grew up, my goal was to find a pre-war apartment, not just because it had architectural flourishes like cornices et al, but also because it was over-engineered and sizable, in contrast to newer offerings – a pre-war is larger, has more storage space, is more soundproof, and is easier to heat. The shoeboxes in new buildings simply didn’t compare. There are several theories why this is the case: Labor was cheaper then, and so were materials, zoning laws allowed for a more efficient use of the land, car ownership was lower; all serve to state why today’s short-term cost-cutting practices didn’t exist then but not how it came about or why it is seemingly intractable.

Of course, I speak in terms of square footage and population density, whereas the preservationist speaks in terms of architecture. But even then, it’s painfully obvious our current offerings are mere shadows of our former selves: Art Deco and Beaux Arts seem to be the last modernist architectural movements with widespread popularity and humanist leanings. The tragedy of Penn Station isn’t that the old one got knocked down – prominent New York landmarks have had a long history of being knocked down; we’ve destroyed many Gothic Revival and Second Empire low-rises in order to build our Beaux Arts and Art Deco high-rises – but that it got knocked down at a time when it would be replaced with an ugly internationalist steel-and-glass slab.

This isn’t to say that internationalist slabs aren’t innovative. They are. But they’re also ugly, and extremely hostile to pedestrians. It almost feels as if, after Art Deco, architecture got subsumed under engineering and all our innovations were of an engineering nature, naked and prominent, as if what fashion models on runway shows really needed were full length x-rays for us to appreciate their true beauty. There is clearly something interesting happening of an engineering nature for our much ballyhooed Guggenheim Museum or our must denigrated Lipstick Building – famous then for being ugly (Frank Lloyd Wright in particular had choice words for its architect, Phillip Johnson) and famous now for housing ugly people – and indeed is plain as day when it comes to Citigroup Center, which is facelessness itself were it not on stilts.

(Interestingly enough, the developers drew up secret evacuation plans should this building topple over)

Just about the only thing modern architects seem to be able to do is make grand geometric shapes, which have about as much resemblance to the original function of the building as concrete does to the rock it was made from. Modern offerings can, thus, hide their innovation behind a faceless glass facade, such as Sixth Avenue’s Bank of America Tower or our new Freedom Tower (a name that will forever be used ironically, considering how many police checkpoints you’ll have to go through to get there), or present their innovation as the facade, such as the tessellated Hearst Tower on Eighth Avenue.

It’s no wonder preservationists want to put the kibosh on everything – at least until we come to our collective senses. But will we? What’s stopping us now? We are not lacking for rich benefactors: Rich people are richer now than they have ever been in the history of mankind. Our labor’s getting cheaper by the day – tradesmen and experts alike have seen their wages stagnate and slip for forty years. Conservatives would cite New York’s construction unions, but they build equally ugly buildings in Right-to-Work states, too. The powers that be have simply ceased caring. After all, they’re not exactly oriented towards society at the best of days, and to make a jewel box of a building means, in a real way, giving to society.

Whatever joy there is in living in One 57th Street, for instance, is certainly not visible from the street. From Central Park its smooth, blue exterior resembles that of a dildo, and like a dildo it makes up for its lack of warmth with its sheer size.

(Prominently displayed on a shelf of its lesser brethren, equal parts gaudy and vulgar)

I fear that such a lack of social grace is merely the underpinning of a much greater structural problem of our republic: As Krugman pointed out yesterday, the top people in our country have ceased even conceiving themselves as being of the same stock as the rest of us. Should this continue unabated, it would predict societal collapse. It’s not so much waiting until another architectural fad comes along – somehow we’ve been stuck with “modernism” for more than seventy years – as it is merely watching on as our form simply follows dysfunction.

Of course, I type this from within an anachronism of architecture, wondering if I myself am not an anachronism of labor longing for an anachronism of urban life, but what I learned in school gives the impression that the preservationists are acting as the Little Dutch Boy, sticking their collective finger in the dyke, except this time waiting for structural repairs that may never come.


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After all this jaywalking and snowstorm silliness, the next big fight for mayor de Blasio is his first campaign promise: To raise taxes on those making half a million or more annually by 0.5%, or $500, and use those funds to pay for universal pre-kindergarten for city residents. This tax increase would have to be approved by the state, and governor Cuomo doesn’t much like the idea because it would make him extremely unpopular with upstate Republican legislators that de Blasio is not beholden to. Cuomo retorted by saying he’d just pay for pre-k out of state funds, deflating de Blasio’s righteousness somewhat.

There’s a snag, though: Costs for universal city pre-K are estimated to be around $340 million a year. Cuomo’s state budget only offered $100 million a year in his initial “phase-in” counter-proposal. When de Blasio balkedCuomo offered a “blank check.” The thing is, as neither the city nor the state can run a deficit, the rest of that money has to come from somewhere. In this, Cuomo has three choices:

  1. Raise taxes. This is exactly what he’s trying not to do.
  2. Divert money from upstate expenditures to the city. This will also make him unpopular with upstate Republicans, and generally isn’t something New York governors are often wont to do – neither Cuomo’s father nor former governor Pataki chose this option if they could at all help it.
  3. Divert money from city expenditures to this initiative.

And there lies the rub. Cuomo’s telling de Blasio, “see, I’m helping you,” but will have to take his pound of flesh from something else the city likely desperately needs. Such is the manner of political posturing between city and state, even among Democrats.

Fiscal conservatives usually retort to this claim by saying that we can “trim the fat” on city and state budgets in order to find the money needed to fill this gap, but the problem for this is twofold. One, “fat” is usually defined as whatever existing policy one is politically opposed to. Two, we’ve already been doing this for decades, which has likely been making the problem worse: There’s a reason the Transit Authority is chronically underfunded if not outright raided for funds. There’s a reason the Department of Education has seen annual 7% budget cuts. There’s a reason the Housing Authority desperately needs a shot in the arm to fix crumbling apartment buildings: They’re usually where politicians go to “trim the fat” such that they know the victims are not their core constituents or they hope the effects won’t be notable until they’re out of office.

There’s little benefit in getting pre-K if the funds are going to come out of something else equally important. Everybody knew de Blasio would have a fight on his hands when he promised to fight Albany, but he needs to keep the initiative on this, because if he loses it we’re just going to rob Peter to pay Paul. That’s not something the mayor will want as part of his legacy, to say nothing of what it means for New York’s most needy.

The Best Offense

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Going around the ‘net in something of an afterlife is a video of the diffusion of an altercation on a 6 train between a Black woman and a man who can best be described as a creeper. The altercation is at least two years old at this point, but having been picked up by internet aggregators and the like, it’s become the subject of the usual “this is why the city is crazy” versus “this is why the city is awesome” bluster social media is practically made for.

It garnered the attention of the New York Times, which had decided for some strange reason to focus on the guy who whipped his phone out rather than the guy who broke up the fight. Indeed, the fact that it’s currently making the rounds on Buzzfeed and other aggregator sites splits the whole event into two stories. The first is Charles “Snackman” Sonder’s deft diffusion of the altercation. The second is Eitan Noy’s (and the internet’s) morbid voyeurism.

The first story is interesting in that it’s an unorthodox usage of public social protocol. The Black woman was being followed by a leerer nearly twice her age, and when he followed her onto the subway, she attacked him. She is not a large person by any means, and when he kicked her back, it was fairly clear that he had the advantage when it came to physical strength. Most people on the train stayed out of the fight, and for good reason: To enter into such a confrontational engagement is to antagonize one or both of the parties. “Mind your own business” is not just good advice for yourself, but also the primary means not to escalate a situation.

Charles Sonder did just that: He minded his own business. He’s also a former wrestler and all-around big galumph, so he decided to mind his own business directly between the two combatants. Effectively, he weaponized his own personal space, by making the creep have to go through him in order to further retaliate against the Black woman. His stature made the creep hesitate before continuing on, and his disposition forced the social situation to be “if you hit me or attempt to get by me, you are including me and then it becomes my business.” The Black woman, thus, gained a shield. This allowed another woman to advise the creep to leave the train, to which he could only impotently contend that the first woman hit him first. Seeing that he had no further recourse, he had to comply.

This is an inspired use of the social version of “negative space.” However, the Times story added another twist, which is how we get to the second story:

After that, the remaining combatant noticed Mr. Noy’s cellphone camera and asked if she could see it. “I didn’t know what she was going to do with it,” Mr. Noy said. “She could smash me on the head. I told her, ‘I didn’t really get anything.’ ” She persisted, he deflected, and then he got off at Grand Central Station.


About 10 days ago, Mr. Noy decided to post the video on his YouTube account, which he operates under his D.J. name, Eitan Noyze. For the first week, he said, it got about 400 hits. Then it started moving up on the Reddit Web site. As of Thursday evening, it was close to 900,000 hits.

That woman didn’t want to be taped, and Noy lied to her about his footage. While it’s legal for people to photograph and tape others so long as they’re in public, as there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” I dare say it is unethical to do so for an altercation in which that woman felt threatened. Her moment of distress became Noy’s internet fame, and while it certainly worked out for Sonder – whose actions are almost universally lauded – millions of views of that woman manhandling the creep may not necessarily be interpreted the same way.

Being an internet symbol of “people in New York are crazy” can’t have worked entirely in her favor, and the fact that the video is resurfacing means that her vulnerability in one front is traded for a vulnerability on another. Without the video, it’d be a New York moment – a teachable moment, perhaps, but one full of strangers that remain strangers. With the video, everything can be scrutinized and reassessed, and her time of distress becomes relived and reinterpreted by a broad swath of people who have seen her face and may not share the view that what she did was justified.

I could, of course, be over-stressing that aspect of the video, but what is clear is that such a result did not substantively influence Noy’s choice to publish that footage. Sonder willfully injected himself into an altercation, and so effectively consented to such celebrity. That woman was looking to get out of a situation, and ended up the subject of a bigger one. If Noy wanted to help, he could have offered to provide her the footage in case she wanted to make a police report. Instead, he decided that we can all leer.

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