Big Smoke

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

The Yuppie Spawning Grounds

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The New York Times has decided to produce an article that attempts to reflect upon the victims of our growing economic division in this Bloomberg-era city, but from the point of view most palatable to their readership; ie: those most responsible for the growing economic division in this Bloomberg-era city.

Ostensibly, the article is about the changing demographics of Park Slope, Brooklyn, wherein the middle-class vanguard to have homesteaded there twenty years ago feel pressured by the forces of gentrification that have followed on their heels. This message is somewhat muddled, however, by the subject of the article. It’s instructive, in a way, as it illustrates just how selectively blind the subject of the article is to the social forces she engenders, but also how selectively blind the article’s writer is to the same.

The subject of this article, Karen Paperno, owner of a baby store, is a walking contradiction: A granola-brand leftist who hates crass materialism but runs a store that stocks brand-name tchotchkes. A “middle-class” women with working-class values who caters to the rich. She complains about being pushed out of her neighborhood by the moneyed, when a generation ago she was the moneyed. She exists as the grown-up figure in this Cat and Girl comic strip:

(Click picture for larger version; also, here is the pamphlet)

The neighborhood itself was viably middle-class before the first wave of transplants moved in. To quote a young Maureen Dowd from 1984,

Ironically, the pioneers, who started the Park Slope renaissance in the early 1970’s and who have seen their $50,000 homes triple in value, are often the most critical of changes wrought by the fresh crop of new immigrants.

”It’s a different breed of person,” [landlord Peter Viggiani] said. ”They’re snobby, very snobby. They’re impatient, extremely impatient. These people are very demanding in stores. You see them all over, yelling at bank clerks and breaking into lines and double-parking. They’re discourteous.”

”It’s getting more bourgeois and less funky,” Jan Hodenfield, a writer, complained. ”You see the new professionals pouring out of the D train at rush hour, coming from the skyscrapers of Manhattan. They all have good raincoats, well-heeled shoes. There’s not a lot of mixing among the ethnic groups in the neighborhood.”

Paperno moved in around 1996. Just as Williamsburg has gone through successive waves of domestic immigration such to the point where it’s more expensive than many parts of Manhattan, the story of homesteaders being pushed out by their own is one I’ve mentioned before. There’s not much to say about her specifically that I haven’t already eludicated in my screed about middle-class sensibilities, except perhaps that her resentment of rich people isn’t so much about their culture so much as her own inability to exploit their spending power, although her example may be a bit more extreme, as in the original article:

The first iteration of her vengeance took the form of theft from a fancy market near her home, one of the many emblems of the new, consumerist Park Slope. “I felt so alone and angry at the world. I would go in and grab spices, honey, coconut oil, granola; expensive things that I wanted — nice things for the kids,” Ms. Paperno wrote in an email. “I feel terrible about it,” she said.

The quickness to which she took to thievery outpaces any local hood, but then again, yuppies have been known to steal. This particular brand of hypocrisy is endemic to a weirdly self-destructive life cycle, which raises the question how such beings came into existence. She views herself a victim of economic and social circumstance, but her fate was doomed to begin with, for she embodies it. In finding a way to describe such a cycle of gentrification, my mind first went to, well, salmon spawning.

It lends itself quite well, if firmly tongue-in-cheek: The young hatch from their $900 Bugaboo™ bassinets and, after a brief time in the creche learning how to cross the street and properly explain the benefits of eating organic, take the F train downstream to the East Village, where they will spend their youth frolicking with their cohort of like-minded hipsters (with a fair few succumbing to various predators like muggers or motorists).

This “school” of hipsters will, upon maturity, graduate from NYU and take the B train further out into the wild blue of the Gold Coast, otherwise known as the Upper West Side. They will spend most of their life here, composing commercial jingles and writing children’s books, until they realize that alcove studios aren’t conducive to childbearing – and besides, there aren’t any good public schools around.

Thus, these full-fledged yuppies will endeavor to begin that long trip back upstream to their breeding grounds – Park Slope brownstones – where they will spawn and die. This arduous journey is quite dangerous – for starters, it requires a very good investment portfolio and at least one subway transfer – and more than one making the trip will fall victim to loan officers and real estate agents along the way. One shouldn’t feel too bad, however, because real estate agents need to eat, too.

Am I bitter? I may be a little bitter.

However, as Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl alluded, the kinds of people that Karen Paperno rails against and laments about are… the next Karen Papernos. She considered herself having contributed to the neighborhood in her own way by opening a store that sold $100 Lululemon™ yoga pants, then wondered why so many rich people entered her store. The New York Times took this to be a conundrum, or at least a reminder that even the middle classes can sometimes feel the pang of class consciousness. To quote,

A story like this one reminds us that inequality is corrosive even when it isn’t extreme, that the complications and confusions of class and position are as psychically affecting as anything else, even for those who don’t live in the Louis H. Pink Houses.

Hashtag First World Problems indeed. Marx suggested that revolution occurs when the middle class identifies with the working class, but for all of Gambrell’s bluster, this isn’t class consciousness: This is me consciousness couched in classist terminology, and the New York Times bought right into it.

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