Big Smoke

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

Addition Versus Replacement

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Spike Lee caused quite a furor over his tirade at the Pratt Institute against the gentrifiers of Fort Greene, the neighborhood he grew up in. Why, he asked, did it take an influx of white people for proper city services to manifest? The question itself frames the issue as one of economic colonialism: A Black neighborhood, having suffered fifty years of redlining, discrimination and neglect by the city, is now sitting on riches in natural resources; namely, stately brownstone rowhouses and prewar apartments. It has attracted the attentions of moneyed white speculators who have come to claim it, the locals be damned.

Is it colonialism?

I suspect I’ve answered my own question. But the controversy of Spike Lee’s comments is in the words of the backlash. Pundits have asked, in as many words, “what right do people have to live in the neighborhood of their birth?” – that is, when they’re not simply arguing that gentrifiers have right of dominion because they “cleaned up” the neighborhoods. That is a question that seems to have an obvious answer at any scale other than one’s home district. Inheritance protects one’s home for future generations. Citizenship protects one’s city and country for future generations. The region of a few square miles, however, seems to have cause for a deep divide.

It is not a problem of idle speculation. There is a limited amount of neighborhoods adequately served by the subway system to job sites, and considering the extreme difficulty in creating new lines, those neighborhoods will likely not increase in number. While homeowners are offered prodigious sums to leave (and renters are simply given the boot), it is unlikely that they will ever be able to command similar lodging in any other place in the metropolitan area. That equity – both monetary and cultural – is lost forever.

It is not a problem of mere architecture, either: The buildings are preserved – indeed, they are the afore-mentioned ‘natural resources’ of the neighborhood, ready to be exploited by whomever has the capital to do so – but the community that has grown up within that district is endangered. If there was a way to preserve that community despite the pressing demand of the city for additional housing, even if it meant the destruction of the architecture, it would be a more humane and more fundamentally ecumenical means of progression. No architectural form is so sacred that it’s worth sacrificing the soul of the city for; especially not within the city famous for eating its own landmarks.

As I travel to San Francisco, I fear I may witness the inevitable result of this invasion: The Bay Area is starkly divided on economic lines, where it has been suggested that the cities – San Jose, Berkeley, Oakland – have become monocultures. The working class simply cannot afford to live in convenient access to the metropole, pushed further and further afield into suburbia. The city, however, needs the working class to keep functioning, but steadfastly refuses to increase access. Development of denser housing and the extension of transit lines is insufferably slow and inadequate to the demands of the metropolis.

New York’s great strength is its diversity, heralded primarily by its subway system, but if every neighborhood within range of a subway becomes unaffordable, then New York has not only a transit crisis or a housing crisis but a cultural crisis that threatens to destroy the primary, and perhaps only, character worth keeping. As Spike Lee railed against SpaHa and SoBro and Bedford Heights and East Williamsburg, so goes the city. Community itself is threatened.

It is a great misdeed currently being perpetrated upon the neighborhood of Fort Greene, just as it has for Harlem and just as it will for Bed-Stuy; almost as if, after the White Flight of the 1950s and 60s and the tough times of the 70s through the 90s, suburban yuppies have come back to say, “We like what you’ve done with the place. Now get out.” All colonialism is economic at heart: Those with the means riding roughshod over those who don’t have the power to fight back, with little consideration as to what happens to the put-upon. That it’s done purely through money and not cannons or dogs and firehoses doesn’t change that.

Politeness as Liberalism

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Tim Bray, a tech worker for Google hailing from Vancouver, quit recently, citing that he refused to relocate to California because the Bay Area was too racist, crowded, incestuous and overpriced. This brought to my mind an anecdote I had once heard about someone complaining about the rudeness of New Yorkers: “They were pushy, mean and jostled me all the time.”

“Oh, really? When did you come and where did you go?”

“Christmas and Rockefeller Center.”

“Then the people you experienced were not New Yorkers, but your fellow tourists.”

The problems with bigotry in the tech world is well-documented, as is the tech world’s impact on the Bay Area’s employment and housing situation. John Oliver has, as a true Daily Show alumnus, played the court jester and spoken to these very issues at the annual “Crunchies,” an awards ceremony the tech industry gives itself. There is also, of course, the fact that Vancouver is no bed of roses, even considering that, like its sister cities in the Pacific Northwest, it’s one of the whitest cities on the continent.

In effect, we have a tech worker complaining about the ills of tech workers, but more importantly, we have a person attempting to take the moral high ground from a position that is insufficiently considered. This is more than just a “casting stones” issue, however, as it speaks to an incipient aspect of liberalism that I rather detest.

It’s an aspect I had only begun to see while in an Irish bar up in the Heights with a couple of Midwestern WASPs who had recently moved to the city. They, of course, proudly displayed their liberal and libertine nature as a means of fitting in but were also extraordinarily easy to offend. This struck me, because I’m no stranger to Irish bars and pub conversation. A lot of hinky shit gets said on the regular. What I am a stranger to is the culture of Midwestern WASPs, and indeed when a comment of mine was retorted with a joke against Lutherans, I knew I was in over my head.

Where the disconnect would occur was when they would make off-hand comments about minorities or, really, anybody not them, but were made uncomfortable if, in the same manner, comments were made about them. To them, I surmised, the dominant culture was whatever they did, and being surrounded by “aberrations” was, to put it politely, an intense curiosity. Scrutiny went one way. They viewed themselves, despite all this, as liberals. They vote Democrat, they lament the party’s centrism and spinelessness, they spam Facebook with a regular supply of fresh outrages. Yet. Now, I’m obviously a commie pinko who grew up in a bubble – I believe Woody Allen called us homosexual Jewish pornographers – but I know liberalism and they ain’t it.

I’m wrong, of course. That is to say, I am a commie pinko, but I don’t live in a bubble: Quite the opposite. Everybody else lives in a bubble. This city is one of the few places in the world devoid of bubble. I wondered why was offending them so much, when things they would say simply wouldn’t fly in mixed company (which New York practically always is), but the heart of the issue is that, without reminder of otherness, one takes one’s own culture to be the standard by which all are judged. Midwestern WASPs are, by their dominance and insularity in much of the heartland, choking the very idea of pluralism and therefore liberalism.

I say Midwestern, but it’s actually most evident not in Ohio and Wisconsin but in Oregon and Washington, as well as points north. Their brand of liberalism is not like New York or Philadelphia. It can’t be: Seattle and Portland are the whitest cities in America, and they’re only getting whiter. They’re all deeply leftist – they sport high concentrations of liberal arts colleges, neo-hippies and, of course, Democratic voters – but their demographics come in stark contrast to such a self-image.

The reason for this is simple: They’re not as liberal as they claim they are. This is not, as I learned, what they would prefer to hear. This is the place where politeness comes in.

The nature of an open and frank discussion is central to my concept of public discourse and the public house. Namely, you show respect to your companion by speaking directly to their views and they do the same to you. To do otherwise is to make a mockery of the conversation and insult those who you are speaking with: Deflecting or skirting the subject matter is to deem their opinions on it immaterial. This scared the transplants.

Their response was to complain that I was “aggressive,” and that I did not properly offer the respect their opinions warranted. Specifically, by countering their opinions, I was insulting them personally. This surprised me: By giving my full attention and directly engaging them, I was respecting them, putting thought to their comments and stating exactly where I stood. Why hide behind a mask of politeness? But politeness is what they wanted. That decorum had become a cloak for them, because without it they would have to defend their views, which I garnered were closely guarded.

There’s a word I started hearing used, like punctuation: “Fair.” “That’s fair.” It became a decorous means in which to acknowledge that I had made a point, but there would not be an answer to it. They were keeping up a rhetorical politeness, but what I heard was “fuck you, shut up already.” They offered views on hot button topics, but didn’t want to argue them further. This is disconcerting: Liberalism is forged through hammering out differences, not simply respecting different views. Political correctness isn’t correctness. Politeness isn’t liberalism.

This hideous affectation presents strange hypocrites like Tim Bray, who hides behind a mask of liberalism but doesn’t actually address either the issues or his involvement in them. The rhetoric is there, but it is a fragile rhetoric. It doesn’t want to be disturbed. The mask is doing its job, and to question it would draw out deeper issues that don’t want to be drawn out. It is an emotional polyp and it needs to be popped.

The Ties That Bind Us

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New York is a divided city, or so said mayor de Blasio during his campaign. His opponent, Joe Lhota, stated otherwise, decrying de Blasio’s campaign as mere “class warfare:” unwarranted grumblings by the underclasses. As it turns out, de Blasio’s view may have been vindicated by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution on Thursday. The DC think tank published a study tracking broad income inequality by city, and New York does indeed have a wide gap.

According to the study, New York’s 95th percentile by household income is 13.2 times that of the 20th percentile, putting it broadly on par with Washington DC at the sixth on the charts. Topping the charts at 18.8 and 16.6, respectively, are Atlanta and San Francisco. San Fran is easy to explain: The transplanted techies who live in the city and commute to the San Jose corridor by company bus are skewing the numbers in what is a relatively small burg. I find Atlanta a mite more disconcerting. Its Fortune 500 corporate headquarters certainly concentrate wealth, but its poor are considerably more poor than elsewhere. Miami, number three on the list at 15.7, has some of the poorest people in any major city in America.

New York’s household income at the 95th percentile seems frightfully low at $226,675, which could be a facet of wealth being concentrated in a financial sector where there are alternative forms of compensation. The Brookings Institute also qualifies its findings by saying that the poor may be undercounted due to having been priced out of the cities altogether.

 Like San Francisco, Seattle may have less poverty not only because people there earn more, but also because the region’s poor increasingly live in suburbia.

Indeed a lot of the New York’s middle classes have moved further afield thanks to the high cost of living, but this city is so large that to do so is hardly an option for the working classes: Already above-average transit costs and commute times balloon once the city line is crossed and, well, no suburban county is as poor as the Bronx.

The study seems to draw the conclusion that rich cities breed rich people – indeed, the least unequal cities are also the least rich – but clearly points out that a rising tide simply does not lift all boats. The income gap is wide and it has widened in the last decade.

There is another way that New York is divided, and this time it has no equal: Race. The Manhattan Institute published a study in 2011 that put New York City squarely at the top of the heap when it came to racially divided neighborhoods, and the University of Virginia published a racial map of major cities in 2013 using 2010 Census data.

The findings are weird in the sense that the nation’s (and the earth’s) most diverse city is also the country’s most divided, and despite a general trend of integration nation-wide, the (ostensibly) most liberal of liberal cities is pulling a rear-guard action.


(Click for larger image)

In both cases, divisions in both class and race (which rather tend to overlap a little too well) appear to dominate New York society. That would certainly make de Blasio – a “class warrior” who hobnobs with the moneyed set – and his family an outlier in every sense, yet he was voted in by a landslide, carrying New Yorkers’ image of themselves with him. After all, New Yorkers are rather proud of their heterogeneity and their relative sense of classlessness when it comes to public discourse, and while San Francisco’s protesters have gotten violent in their antagonism of Google employees, even Occupy Wall Streeters were notably restrained in their dealings with the Wall Streeters around them. The numbers say one thing, but the culture says something else altogether. What gives?

I posit that such rifts are less culturally evident than in other cities because of one unifying institution: The subway.

Each artery and vein in the city’s network runs under a patchwork of different income brackets and native languages, and people on both ends of the spectrum rely on it to get to where they need to go. Most everywhere else in America eschews public transit on class and racial lines, and as such citizens don’t really have to interact with greater society in their daily ministrations. By the numbers, it’s amazing New Yorkers haven’t killed one another, but we don’t because we see one another every day. In point of fact, we’re one of the safest big cities in America. By contrast, Atlanta, Miami and the San Francisco metro area are some of the worst places in America for violent crime. If the Brookings Institute has debunked the adage that a rising tide lifts all boats, then so too has the Manhattan Institute debunked the adage that familiarity breeds contempt.

The upper crusters expressed concern following de Blasio’s inauguration that the city would become an ungovernable morass fomented by the unwashed a la mayor Lindsay, but on the contrary we appear to be quite self-governing. I am drawn to ask, ‘how, then, are these divisions maintained if New Yorkers, by dint of their morning commute, are so tolerant?’ but that is the wrong question. The divisions are maintained without bloodshed precisely because New Yorkers are so tolerant.

We’re Off to See the Wizards

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Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s classic was a direct allegory to Washington DC, but mayor de Blasio’s exhortation to the Powers That Be in real estate that all the stops will be pulled out when it comes to building in this city, the sense of where the power lies in New York felt unsettlingly electric. While it’s almost as if the mayor read my blog, that trepidation as to what the future holds envelops my inborn sense of idealistic wonder: Of all things, I was put of a mind of The Wiz.

I remember watching Sidney Lumet’s 1978 interpretation when I was a small child, and while the greater plot eluded me at the time, I was rapt with Diana Ross’ Kansas in the streets of Harlem, where downtown lay the halls of power that provided a means to return to her way of life after a snow-nado (!) knocked everything for a loop. The subway became a surreal emblem for discovery of the mysterious other as well as self-discovery; namely that Midtown was corrupt as all get-out but that plugging into the cultural zeitgeist was means for affecting society. I didn’t, of course, pick up on that at the time, but the imagery of understanding the grime, the odd romanticization of that grime, and the fact that we live on regardless stuck with me.

When I look at that time in New York, it seems almost everything was as trippy as that movie. Even the Public Service messages produced by the NYPD during the 70s had a Ralph Bakshi/Robert Crumb-esque style to them:

Here we had all this struggle: Culturally, socially and economically divorced from the moneyed entities of lower Manhattan, we existed in completely different spheres. One side existing surrounded by the travails of a tarnished dream; the other as separate from it as we are from the subjects in National Geographic. Today, that’s called “borough politics,” where Bloomberg’s wasabi cabs currently demarcate the border between the two worlds. One side is getting pampered by special upscale “public restroom” subscriptions; the other side vaguely remembers once having public restrooms until the Parks Department closed them all. At a time when Billionaire’s Row on 57th street is darkening the skies and putting Millionaire’s Row on 5th Avenue to shame, it’s like living in a fairy tale.

De Blasio didn’t come from the ‘hood (but his wife did), yet his plan as put forward to the Wizard(s) – in short, “I’ll cut all the red tape and let you do anything you want but you’d better scratch my back as well” – seems both remarkably shrewd and stunningly naive; all I have to do is cock my head a quarter turn to the left to see each simultaneously. His position seems to embody that role: Urbane wit mixed with wide-eyed naivete. His pick for deputy mayor, Alicia Glen, is an affordable housing advocate… from Goldman Sachs (why is it always Goldman Sachs?), whose former role was to find profitable means to achieve good public relations through housing development.

It’s hard to say which side will win out: The housing or the profits. Indeed, the emeralds of Emerald City stood for money, and certainly until recently former mayor Bloomberg had actively encouraged massive development, yet such projects’ usefulness for the little people have been nonexistent. Either way, what’s clear is this: There is no going back home. It’s too expensive to even consider the offbeat working-class ‘hoods of yesterday, but should de Blasio’s ploy succeed, tomorrow’s working-class ‘hoods will be nigh-unrecognizable.


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How does one define what is walkable or not?

City planners of late have tended to answer that question in the form of safety: Minimum sidewalk width, maximum block and crosswalk length, maximum wait and minimum length of signals for pedestrians, separation between pedestrian and motor traffic. The good thing about these stipulations is that they create environments that are safe places to walk. The bad thing about these stipulations is that they don’t, on their own, make walkable places.

I was struck by this while sitting in a bubble tea parlor on Mott Street after seeing more options for food, drink, clothing, hardware and all manner of tchotchkes and sundry in two blocks than I did in the entirety of the edge cities along the Harlem and New Haven MetroNorth lines.

If you look from a distance and squint your eyes, the urban form looks broadly similar in both areas: Copious street frontage, a consistent street wall, and buildings around four to five stories tall. But that is where the similarities end. Cities like New Rochelle and White Plains boast a recognizable form, provided you look at them from bird’s eye view a la Maxis’ SimCity, but they’re dead on the street.

(Metro Stamford, CT: Clean, safe, bright, dead.)

When confronted with the problem that there are still no pedestrians, the planners are in a bind: People don’t want to leave their cars but density isn’t high enough to promote public transit. So they encourage developers to heighten density, which the developers duly interpret by increasing height, but still nothing. They suggest urban malls, complete with anchor stores, and still nobody comes. Why?

I’ve walked in cities like this. Houston had block after block of small city streets, wide sidewalks, tall buildings and huge, inviting department stores, but couldn’t achieve more than two blocks of actual people walking, and those were the blocks from the hotels to the bars. It was plain to see the problem: Have you tried walking by a department store on the outside? It might as well be a blank wall. For the most part, it is exactly that. Even the shortest of blocks – say, Portland’s 100-foot mini-blocks – becomes a hike when there’s nothing there.

Planners have a limitation in this sense: It’s quicker to build big than build small, so when they’re trying to renew downtowns, massive developments get plonked down on empty or underutilized city blocks. The planner then surmises that the block is boring, so architects attempt to variegate the street wall: That may be one building, but its façade changes every 25 feet or so. However, that’s not the problem. Simply put, nobody’s really looking at the buildings.

(Willow14 in Hoboken, NJ: A variegated façade does not change the fact that most people will drive here.)

The architecture in Chinatown is practically incidental to the street life. The folks aren’t looking up; they’re looking for what they came for. Streets are functional: They provide the most efficient means for traffic to navigate around buildings. Buildings are functional: They provided the most efficient means for goods and services to be completed. The best means for a street and for a building, when it comes to traffic, is to be as porous as possible. The busiest streets are the ones that give the citizen the most options. If the next 100 feet has only one entrance for one purpose, then it doesn’t matter how safe it is or how nice it looks: Nobody wants to go there.

Somehow planners have deigned to variegate the façade but not the offerings. There’s a good reason the larger storefronts tend to be popular in new developments: Bigger tenants are better renters. It will take a lot to run a bank or a national chain out of business. Paradoxically, however, they kill the street life. If all you’ve crossed in three blocks of walking is a Barnes & Nobles, a Staples and a Cold Stone Creamery (to say nothing of a municipal parking garage), you’re not going to walk next time. In Chinatown, every 12 feet or so is a new business, a new ingress for a mini-mall or an office complex. Not one inch is wasted in providing service to anybody walking by. Planners don’t need to tell new developers to make their buildings useful: Maximizing investment here naturally means subdividing the property as much as is humanly possible.

(Narrow sidewalks, no on-street parking; demand couldn’t be greater)

So, then, what’s the difference between this scene in White Plains, NY:

And this scene in Chinatown:

They’re both fantastically boring buildings with practically no facade at all. The White Plains building has better street furniture, better lighting and a more upscale appearance. The Chinatown building, however, has twice the businesses per street footage. We have found creative means to hide the suburban nature of new construction in a means of reviving our erstwhile American downtowns, but there’s only so much one can do with underground parking garages and extended awnings. If you want an urban reality, you need true urban density.

Colorblind and Colorstruck

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“Do you ever pass for Black,” he asked.

Well, shit, up until this point I thought I was passing for white.

We were sitting for brunch in a Harlem bar/restaurant on Lenox Ave, one of those new faux-down-home places for a new multicolored, yuppified ‘hood. I had just switched from coffee to Guinness as the clock struck noon, the bartender a Black woman pulling out the sugars and the savoir faire of someone who knew which side their bread was buttered on. The setting had put me ill at ease, for it was cloying in its colorblind acceptability; the very question itself drove the nail home. It offended me. I’m not entirely sure my friend intended it to.

I told him of my students from Crown Heights who, without solicitation or prompting, glommed onto me as the closest thing they had to a teacher of color. “Your moms is Black, isn’t she?” Hell yes she is. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just as I didn’t think of being the only light-skinned person wandering around Lefferts Gardens when I lived there. They recognized their own and treated me with familiarity and deference, despite my not being the darkest member of the staff. That skin would belong to the Caribbean Black math teacher, who alienated his students from himself and his subject by making it explicitly clear that he did not come from the same stock as them; his French Creole accent punctuating every assertion.

What I was thinking, however, was the transplanted midwestern white woman who had glommed onto me in an Irish bar uptown as an ambassador of my neighborhood and my city, who confided in me her racial fears and misunderstandings, because in her eyes I was comfortably and approachably white. She recognized her own, too. I guess I shouldn’t complain that each is able to find a common element in those they talk to, but just as my compatriot at the Harlem bar – who had told me two years prior that he spoke to me because I was of the same blood as him; he wasn’t interested in hearing about my other halves – their ability to recognize a shared humanity was, in a sense, limited to their specific sense of humanity.

I don’t want to be the acceptable one to a group that finds itself talking about the untoward “element” in their adopted neighborhood. I don’t want to be the one used by a group to present a “respectable” front.

It came to a head during a bar-hopping shindig with a number of my longterm college friends of mixed heritage and some friends-of-friends who had come along for the ride. One such friend-of-a-friend, a Bostonian by the name of Dave – a ‘bro’ if ever there was one, as contrasted, I guess, to a ‘brother’ – had led our contingent to a beer bar on the Lower East Side, which we had bookended with a run in a dance club along the way. On our way back, as our boisterous crew meandered its way up Allen St, our calls to each other rang out down the block and then some. I declared that, this late in the night and we being as we are, we’d better civilize ourselves lest the bouncer of the club decide we’re more annoyingly drunk and troublesome than our money is worth.

Dave took umbrage: How could I tell these Black folk to civilize themselves? Being who he was and how he identified himself, he could not say such a thing; he intoned that I was perhaps crossing a line.

Well, shit, that was only something my mother had told me many a time.

He was corrected by our mutual friend that, no, I was cool people. There was no division. He was a tad confused. To his eyes, I must have had a privilege, earned by some arcane, urbane means. To my eyes, he was highlighting his internalized divisions.

Each is a lie, of course: Anybody who says they are colorblind is really saying “I assume everybody has the same rights and privileges as me,” which is plainly not the case. Down that path lies bitterness, fear and resentment on all sides of the equation. But damn if we ain’t colorstruck as a motherfucker. How am I to respond when a white person asks me what a good place is to bring her one Black friend so that the Black person feels comfortable with their “own people,” knowing full well she asked me because I passed (for white? for Black?) I was offended then, too, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.

I have, tritely, answered this question for myself by saying I’m a New Yorker first, leavened by my belief that our shared ideology binds us where our shared tribal monocultures don’t. I have had too many arguments in Irish bars with Dubliners who deny a common heritage to call myself Irish. It’s hard enough convincing the Haudenosaunee that I’m Kituwah. (What do you call 99 Cherokees? A full-blood.) Now my Blackness is being questioned. Such questions, however, wouldn’t even have come to pass without such a venue to do so: Here is where those questions are, if not answered, then mulled over. But I am not colorblind, nor, clearly, indeed is anybody else around me. The American experiment continues apace.

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