Big Smoke

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

The Roots of Gentrification

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There is an ongoing online debate as to the nature of gentrification. While the effects of gentrification can be easily defined – namely, the physical replacement of a working-class population with that of a middle-class population – the origin of the phenomenon does not hold quite such a consensus of opinion.

Blogger Jeremiah Moss frames the argument as one of morals: He cites corporate-friendly policies by city aldermen coupled with a complacency from the gentrifiers themselves culminating in what he defines as “hypergentrification,” separate and distinct from the sort that changed SoHo or Park Slope in the 80s. In his debate with professor John Joe Schlichtman of DePaul University, the professor rejected moralist arguments concerning the gentrifiers themselves (and countered that many of the pundits arguing against gentrification are themselves gentrifiers) but rather suggests a general political under-representation of the original populations of affected neighborhoods – due to being their marginal economic status and and a tendency to be renters – leading to an inability for them to secure a space for themselves when the neighborhood shifts gear.

The blogger for Invisible Systems goes one further to say that it is not necessarily the fault of middle-class gentrifiers or rapacious landlords at all, but that of our economic model itself: Capitalism is at fault, for it presents a system in which simple aggregate self-interest will result in the displacement of the poor from any but the worst districts. Libertarians tend to conclude that such is not necessarily a bad thing, for the economic benefits outweigh the human costs. I, on the other hand, believe it to be an indictment of capitalism, for the benefits of urban living depends squarely on heterogenous circumstance occupying the same physical space: It is our daily reminder of otherness – across race and class lines – that allows us to tolerate, accept and ultimately humanize different people. Without it our cities do not have nearly the cultural capital they need.

However, I do not necessarily believe capitalism is entirely at fault, or, rather, I should say that the failures of capitalism are so structural that it is hard to even recognize our current system as capitalism, as for there to be capitalism there must be open competition. However, entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, anti-competitive. A prime example would be the current FCC debate on effectively rescinding net neutrality, which is quite clearly an anti-competitive move by internet service providers. The corruption comes in that the current appointed chairman of the FCC – Tom Wheeler – was himself a paid lobbyist for those very same ISPs. Indeed, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University has suggested in a recent paper, for instance, that we do not live in a democracy but rather an oligarchy, and that our political apparatus is currently set up specifically to marginalize popular will.

On a somewhat smaller scale, I have argued that landowners in New York have actively and aggressively lobbied the city government to halt development so as to maximize the value of their current properties, exacerbating the housing crisis and further unbalancing the economic equilibrium. This is more or less the argument of activist Nikolai Fedak, who argues that were restrictions to development lifted, the free market would have had a more organic solution to the housing crisis. However, there would have to be a will by developers to do so, and Journalist Steven Wishnia has pointed out several means by which New York City’s various incentives to build more affordable housing – the city’s 421a Program, for instance, or the state’s Mitchell-Lama program – have been corrupted by private companies not only to circumvent their stated mission of providing affordable housing but also to siphon public subsidies and tax abatements for the construction of luxury condominiums. Likewise, Bloomberg’s trickle-down means of attaching affordable housing to new private luxury developments in exchange for developer-friendly zoning relaxation has been ineffective to the point of being a Potemkin policy.

As such, it would appear that the impetus is then laid on government’s feet to unravel the knot of this particular issue, as capitalism cannot function without regulation and popular will cannot function without proportionate representation, and neither is evident. The city, at this juncture, would have to step in and build massive projects with a focus on co-operative housing in order to alleviate the issue, but the city itself can ill afford to build anything near to the demand required and the federal government is loathe to step in because their political power doesn’t really stem from populist will. On the whole, however, this isn’t necessarily an alien circumstance for the urban dispossessed: Anybody who rents knows what it feels like to live on borrowed time.


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She has a Look: Capital L, unequivocal, I’m-gonna-remember-this-person Look. It may yet be independent of her fashion. Fashion, thus surmised, could complement looks, but perhaps cannot supplant them. This isn’t to say that there was any lack of trying: Those neon green spray-on pants cut up like old pantyhose over zebra print leggings scream “I’m 14 years old and just discovered Ricky’s” or perhaps a childhood raised on 90’s era MTV. The pants have nothing on her, though.

A lifetime of riding the subway late at night makes one a people-watcher. It’s free entertainment of a sort that may not be kosher during rush hour – where horse blinders and mean-mugging are the name of the game – but yet becomes something of a necessity when one lives out in the ‘hood, the subway suburbs, out there where the fashionable haven’t discovered… yet. On this night I was lucky: Both the local and express hit the station at the same time, which meant the express was still running. I had budgeted exactly twenty dollars for the evening and, two drinks and a half a dozen games of pinball later, my last buck went to an African rock duo keeping a grooving beat on the platform not terribly unlike Fela Kuti before I boarded.

I sat on one of those seats that looks down the length of the car; it gives the sensation of hurtling through space, if the sound of space were a 110 decibel racket on steel drums. There’s something to be said about the New York Subway: Every other system tries to be decorous, dignified and civilized. Their trains hum, their starts and stops are soft, they give this antiseptic vibe like they’re afraid of reminding their passengers that, yes, you’re on public transit and no, it’s not just for poor people. Not New York. New York does not give a fuck. That rock duo’s beats were kept up long after we left them behind by the dueling local and express trains, ca-clack ca-clack, ca-ca-clack, ca-clack screeeeeeeeeee

The race was on, and in watching this, I met the gaze of the girl across from me. She was also people-watching, in her staid way. She was, for lack of a better term, Amazonian. Broad-shouldered and tall, yet somehow uncomfortable in her largess. Knees locked together, hands in her lap, a red beanie under a black hoodie locked into place with hairties. She was, if not hiding her size, then conceding that it could not be hidden. The image was striking. A living force cowed by an unseen hand, bright-as-fuck pants aside. I could, of course, be reading too much into it, but that in itself is a facet of people-watching. We’d left the local at a local station, but somehow met it again by dawdling at the next two express stops.

Three Dominican girls got on, past a taped off square on the platform where men in hi-vis vests had ensconced themselves in anticipation of the 11:30 maintenance shift, chattering away in that staccato New Yorkese that somehow makes people of all tongues turn into marathon auctioneers. It’s no wonder why merengue is as fast as it is: Any slower and it might as well be a waltz, to keep up with these people. We pulled out of the station along with the local across the platform and once more the drum section of the MTA kept pace of the race. The trio switched to English to recount in dramatic tone a quotation of a mutual acquaintance, slowing their frenetic elocution to extend and elongate this morsel of an anecdote, just as the train itself slowed to a crawl through a local station, as if the hare were giving the turtle a chance just this once. Five stations down and this local might actually be beating the express!

As the local was making off with the race, the tunnel itself throbbed with a hum that movie directors love to attempt to duplicate as shorthand for ominous foreboding in sci fi thrillers and disaster porn. Men working. A diesel train was taking up the express track in the opposite direction, a reminder of just what is necessary to keep things running all those nights I could do little more than pour myself from the bar across a turnstile and match up the right letters. Down in the dark, below the windows of the train, armies of workers were diligently keeping the city alive. The trio resumed their hurried narrations of anything and everything and the express picked up as well. Apparently, they were the harbingers of our rate of progress. Go, girls, go: I will not have a local beat me home today. The indignity!

Amazon across from me had a habit of noticing whenever my gaze was in her direction, so I made a point to look elsewhere. Harlem was next, and way back in 1990 I could, just by dint of clothing and color, make a reasonably accurate assumption as to which stop any particular straphanger would depart. It’s a sign of our times (and progress) that such is no longer quite so cut and dry. In that stead, I made a game of guessing who would get off. The first man to get up was a Black man of that indeterminate seniority between middle-age and forever, clad in an oversized black leather jacket, flat cap and bifocals – they didn’t deserve to be called glasses, such were beneath them – and the second was a pot-bellied Black man with shoulder-length Jheri curls and four inch cross earrings, carrying a fake fur coat that was simply too hot for this spring weather, as if Rick James had sprung from the grave and promoted a clothing line.

The next four were white men. I wish I could say more about them, but that’s what my mind’s eye saw. They were fashionable – One had a peacoat, skinny chinos and black dress shoes, another a popped-collar windbreaker, skinny jeans and Nike high-tops – but remarkable only in the sense that, while they wouldn’t necessarily be gracing the pages of an Abercrombie or American Apparel catalog, they were just about as forgettable. Fashion cannot, indeed, create a look. It can magnify, distort and dissemble, but it cannot build anew from, well, whole cloth. I suppose it may be a facet of my own prejudices, but I myself am a mixie and identity is something I attempt to souse out in everybody. They had little, in my observation, in the way of such: Off-the-rack people with off-the-rack looks.

It occurred to me that Amazon may be a mixie herself. She was a freckle-faced Latina of indeterminate heritage, and running parameters on that presumption made the stops fly by – we’d finally left the local in the dust a mere eight stations after we met it, and with it the last vestiges of the lingering rock tune – and betting against myself that the Central American man who had lolled asleep in Harlem would drop his newspaper in two stops wasn’t cutting it (he dropped it in three, natch). Her size suggested American Indian – she reminded me of a Mohawk girl who could crush my head in her biceps – her skin tone yet pale. Another urban mutt like myself, flotsam in the great sea of humanity crunched together and popping down and up from holes in the ground like prairie dogs.

But perhaps fashion could make the man. A Black man in his twenties got up to leave with his girlfriend in Washington Heights, sporting a tweed blazer, a flat cap, and these reverbed-out-to-the-nines cowboy boots he rolled up his blue jeans just to show off. They had their own twang: You couldn’t look at them without hearing an acoustic guitar riff; they gave you rhythm just by being. Or it could just be that he could pull them bad boys off. I don’t think that I could. I have four leather jackets, including a heavy leather biker jacket that makes me feel like Axl Rose, but I can’t pull it off. Not if I’m honest with myself.

But what is honesty worth, anyway? Does Amazon pull off the unlaced sneakers or the day-glo punk attire? Does it even matter? She has a Look, whether by chance or by design or by sheer force of will, and my commute, if not the world, is all the better for it.

Much Ado About Untimely Deaths

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One of the more remarkable trends that I have noticed in my generation is that the more time an issue spends in the public eye, the less problematic that issue becomes: Media reports of cases seem to have an inverse relationship to the actual number of cases. For instance, while media reports of violent crime have steadily increased over the last few decades, violent crime itself currently hovers at historic lows. Similarly, According to a study published last week by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, New York City is one of the safest cities in America for bicyclists and pedestrians, despite our oft-reported public debate on the threat of our vehicular traffic.

This is, after all, a city that has caught on to the distressing fact that more New Yorkers die in traffic accidents than by firearms, though the numbers for both have dropped dramatically over the last ten years. For instance, in 2012, NYC saw 237 homicides by firearms, lower than the 274 killed in vehicular collisions, of which 155 were pedestrians or bicyclists. In an American city of 8.3 million, this is quite low. To put that into perspective, that year the city saw 84 deaths due to being hit by subway trains; a relatively rare and unique way to die. Meanwhile, drug overdose, a somewhat less-reported statistic, has triple the death rate of any one type of untimely, violent demise.

Of course, it can be argued that the lower instance of the afore-mentioned methods of dying are due to the widespread coverage and subsequent policy initiatives taken by the city: Gun deaths are down because of a police crackdown that has spanned three mayors; all of whom ran on a law-and-order ticket. Despite current criticisms, the last mayor did a great deal to making the city’s streets safer and encouraging mixed modes of transit – between the miles of bike lanes and the CitiBike deal, the landscape has changed a great deal for not a lot of monetary investment. But increased coverage can also possibly suggest less remunerative solutions.

Indeed, a recurring request is to retrofit city subways with safety gates so as to cut down on people falling onto the tracks. The coverage comes at a steady drumbeat after statistics have been publicized for the previous year, and comparisons are often made with subway systems around the world that do have them. The idea itself tends to grip the public conscience, from the harrowing tales of affected motormen to distressing videos of potential victims.

(Luckily, this man survived with minor injuries)

The only problem is, such a retrofit would cost well over a billion dollars to implement on the subway’s 468 stations – the most of any system in the world, with many double-platforms due to the unique express/local nature of the system – and would have issues lining up with the heterogenous rolling stock. By contrast, the systems that have them are relatively newly constructed, and have the privilege of greater public subsidy and government investment.

The question then boils down to “how much is a New Yorker’s life worth?” The price tag that particular project answers is $12 million; an egregiously costly endeavor. Treatment for drug addicts, by comparison, has a far more amenable cost/benefit ratio. New York is yet still one of the best states in terms of preventing death from drug overdose, yet more focus on that matter will likely provide greater dividends. Admittedly, it’s a morbid calculus to determine how best to spend money to prevent the deaths of the citizenry, but being that there’s a correlation of media attention and policy attention, it may behoove us to steer the discussion to ends which may have the largest impact: After all, it’s worked so well in the past.

In Defense of Irony

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Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll have taken aim at today’s Millenial counter-culture in what they feel to be “lazy cynicism” and a “recursive irony:” Co-opted by corporate forces and wallowing in their own ennui, today’s disaffected youth, they argue, are directionless and mere driftwood upon their artistic betters in the postmodern world. Irony is fucking up culture. It’s true: We certainly rely a lot on snark and satire, from the interminable pages of the Onion to the comforting glow of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When, they posit, will we snap out of it and start producing something substantively, honestly real instead of just cracking wise?

These men lack perspective. They quote David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon’s prophecies of cultural vapidity and sneer at Tao Lin’s hipster self-critique Shoplifting From American Apparel with “New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction,” but their criticism on the over-abundance of the Millenials’ directionless languor bears strong resemblance to that which the Boomers heaped on Generation X’s punks. Ashby and Carroll laud the inevitable counter-counter culture, in the form of ‘earnest’ postmodern art, but that path has been walked before: Though it came from the UK, Trainspotting is a good example of a stark reaction to presumed punk counter-culture malaise. Likewise, how else could William Wimsatt’s Bomb The Suburbs have been written, if not to highlight suburban ‘wiggers’ and the tragedy of those youth? But these, like Tao Lin, could not exist in any earnest way without acknowledging exactly why the aimless disaffection exists in the first place and why the first impulse is to deflect and mock.

Or, perhaps they could consider the Silent Generation’s criticism of the Boomers’ hippies, with Bob Dylan’s ironic co-option of folk music inflection as an explicit means to be seen as more authentic, much as a lot of today’s indie bands seek ‘amateur’-sounding recording sessions and emphasize acoustic instruments. Or we could go back to the iconic Rebel Without A Cause and discuss the inherent shortsightedness contemporary sociologists called the wave of Angry Young Men at that time. Consider Kerouac’s Beat epic On The Road, to which Truman Capote flippantly panned, “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” and the subsequent backbiting amongst critics on who was the bigger poseur, or the wise-cracking yet futureless delinquents Sondheim lovingly lampooned in West Side Story.

This is to say, it’s a generational thing, and today’s self-consciously ironic Millenials are no different in how they have chosen to deal with the world. Tao Lin’s apathetic pallor may differ stylistically from Chuck Palahniuk’s or Trent Reznor’s simmering rage, but it’s all equally masturbatory, or rather it’s all equally a coming-of-age thrashing about to come to terms with what is, at heart, a fucked-up culture to begin with. That’s why counter-culture exists, and the art simply reflects that. To demand that artists deal with it differently is a foolish request, for what that is asking is to pave snark over with smarm; a culture so obsessed with authenticity ought to know better. Indeed, that is Ashby’s and Carroll’s central premise:

“Dishonesty is the biggest obstacle to making original, great art. Dishonesty undermines a work’s internal integrity — the only standard by which a work can succeed… Irony alone has no principles and no inherent purpose beyond mockery and destruction. The best examples of irony artfully expose lies, yet irony in itself has no aspiration to honesty, or anything else for that matter.”

What, then, does that make Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller? How is Jonathan Lethem ‘worse?’ American culture has a long tradition of sarcastic, sardonic, detached self-reflection. What was Hunter S Thompson pointing out if not the fact that that earnestness was also by nature self-destructive? We have, are, and will continue to muddle on. Today it’s hipster irony, which, as a means for a generation stuck in the Second Gilded Age while about to double-dip back into the Great Recession to vent their spleen, is a far cry better than the bullets and bombs they could very well pick up instead.

Ideological versus Social Liberalism

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It has more or less been assumed that Black and Latino communities generally harbor a fiscal liberalism but social conservatism, owing in large part to a higher preponderance of religious affiliation, and that their reluctance to vote on moral grounds has been due to the overt hostility displayed against them by the Republican Party rather than an ideological contrast. This has manifested itself in New York, an effectively all-Democrat city, in the form of a cultural division between white middle-class ‘libertines’ and minority strivers: The latter are far less likely to self-identify as gay, when simple biology dictates that statistics should be colorblind in that matter, and it can be conjectured that such is due to community hostility to such.

Indeed, it was in Harlem that a transgender woman was recently beaten to death in what is clearly a hate crime, and it was in Harlem that a Christian minister has been blaming Obama – who has a fair amount of ‘nerd’ chic with white liberals buttressed in no small part by his ‘evolved’ stance on gay marriage – for turning Black men gay. The topic has found itself to be far more taboo than just a few dozen blocks further downtown.

That said, it would appear that such a division is not immutable, and over the last few years a sea change may have occurred. Uptown has seen something of a new Renaissance when it comes to what can be considered an urbane tolerance for all. Six years ago saw the (re-)opening of El Morocco in “Hamilton Heights,” that somewhat awkward distinction of a mixed border area between Washington Heights and Harlem. At first glance it can be interpreted as an extension of the general trend of gentrification on the northern climes of Manhattan, but the clientele says otherwise: More than just a Dominican nightclub, El Morocco has boasted a strong LGBT lineup that has been favored by a majority Black and Latino crowd – and a hangout for Black drag queens, reminiscent of the Elks Lodge and other venues in Harlem in the 60s – though it often offers a fully mixed crowd not only in ethnicity but sexuality.

Six years ago also saw the opening of No Parking, the first fully gay bar in Washington Heights. Along with the Monkey Room nearby and new outposts like the Castro in Inwood, way up on the upper tip of the island, there appears now to be an acceptance of overt displays of alternative sexuality where there simply wasn’t before, in spite of religious doctrine. Indeed, nobody was more surprised than conservatives themselves during the 2012 election, when they expected the socially conservative Black population of Prince George’s County in Maryland to halt progress on gay marriage. Instead, a number of local pastors spoke in favor of tolerance and the youth vote carried the election.

In fact, it may be the youth that is behind such a cultural shift: This generation has been speculated as being, overall, more tolerant than the last, and the root cause appears to be a greater wealth of information at hand as well as physical exposure to difference. While religion still rides the brakes on such progress, across the board all Christian faiths polled in the US have had to give ground on the matter, partly because the next generation is dropping out of religious affiliation in droves. As the population becomes more urban and urbane, and as religion holds less sway on cultural and moral affairs, liberals of all stripes appear to be getting closer together as a unit.

Colorstruck and Conservative

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There are some things I pick up practically by cultural osmosis; things that are assumed – or, rather, not assumed but simply known – that to refute or question them becomes less an exercise in free discourse and more a declaration of one’s origins. It’s not a question of understanding the other point of view: That division has long been impossible to be breached.

There is a weird debate on the second tier of periodicals as to the nature and legacy of Obama’s presidency. I say second tier in that neither source is a Paper of Record, although the importance of such in these tumultuous times is becoming less and less pertinent. On one side is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine; on the other, Jamelle Bouie of

Chait argues in the abstract: With Obama’s terms has come a more overt marriage of “racial conservatism” with “ideological conservatism;” this is to say, the unthinking and kneejerk hatred of all of Obama’s policies has turned into a cultural demarcation wherein, while opposition speaks of his agenda (and legitimacy) in terms of policy, color yet remains the common element in their criticism.

He then muses upon the nature of the conceit of a “post-racial” America, as we the people watch an overt backlash and governmental dysfunction not seen since, well, the Civil War. While I am heartened in a sense by the 2012 elections in that, if there is an Cold War of race, the demographic winner is foregone, Chait makes the salient point that fiscal or social conservatives are barred from voting Republican solely because of the racial barrier: He sees a future, therein, in the Republican party, insofar as the liberal Democratic dog-whistle of racism will fail to work just as soon as the GOP bridges that gap.

Obama’s policies, after all, have a neoliberal, if pre-Reagan, vibe to them: He, like most technocratic Democrats of the Clinton era, is nigh indistinguishable from the Republican ethos, except for one major facet which is color. The implications are clear, in that respect, and while that may not be Chait’s ultimate point, that remains at the heart of his argument: Were we to somehow transcend the racial “obsession,” as he puts it, of which Obama is the eye of the storm, politics would not be terribly dissimilar from where we are now.

Bouie argues in the particular: The unprecedented turnout of the Black electorate during the 2008 and 2012 elections speak to a cultural divide that is more than just an odd and unfortunate juxtaposition of “racial” and “ideological” conservatism. The partisan fights of those inside the beltway are tangential to the real issue, and the real issue is that racial and ideological conservatism are fundamentally inextricable.

Evocative of Malcolm X’s quote that “you can’t have capitalism without racism,” Bouie argues that the debate cannot be rendered into the abstract, for it is at heart one of survival. Obama’s focus as eye of the storm then becomes an illustration of just how far we as a multicultural society yet need to progress before people can lower their defenses. He embodies the reason for which that gap simply cannot be bridged, not only because he is the wrong arbiter in the eyes of the opposition, but that he, and vicariously his policies, are categorically the wrong arbiter.

It goes without saying that Chait is white and Bouie is Black.

I am inclined to side with Bouie, for in my own way I have internalized just how impossible it is at this time and age to convince the likes of the opposition as to the means by which they are continuing to oppress people: The popularity of Ron Paul and folks who use the political moniker “independent” as “free-thinker” when they actually mean “libertarian” speaks to the ingrained complacency in maintaining the current inequity. You really don’t need to explain this to people of color. If they know anything in this world it is that.

I have argued before that class and race overlap more often than not, and this is not by chance but by design. Obama’s legacy will, no matter what happens next, be a milestone in American progressivism but, please, let us not oversell our progress.

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