Big Smoke

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

A Diorama

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“‘Sup,” he asked, having already passed me.

I was in a gregarious mood, having imbibed more than my fair share of alcohol, and walking just then past Duke Ellington’s former residence at an odd hour in the night, or rather I had misremembered that, having just seen his statue; he really lived in Sugar Hill, not Central Park North. “‘Sup,” I replied. He stopped. “How’s it hanging?”

“Not too bad, so far.” He smirked, and walked towards me.

“Look, man, I don’t want to bother you, but…”

I’d already palmed the dollar in my hand. “All I got, but you’re welcome to it.” Everything else was formalities.

“Hey, maybe I can help you out,”

“I’m just walking home, but thanks.”

Was he a guy down on his luck? Was he a guy looking for an easy mark? Who gives a fuck? It’s a dollar, and it made me feel good to give it. More importantly, did I look so out of place that I was marked? Whatever, the encounter was amicable enough. The city is full of – what’s the term – dialogues, perhaps, interactions that can be dissected, recounted, looked into through the lens of professional sociology. I’d just gotten back from an engagement of talking loudly through East Harlem with a dude who was particularly un-PC using the shield of his own brown skin, “why do they gotta have so many kids,” he lamented, audible from two blocks away. Could you talk any louder?

Come to think of it, if my erstwhile assailant could have helped me with anything, it’s where to take a piss in this godforsaken, benighted neighborhood where the Parks Department helpfully closed all the public restrooms at the ungodly hour of 5PM. Too late, I was already on the train, smirking at a blonde, sunburnt Teutonic man in his mid-thirties who, 70 years ago, would have been the poster child for the Nazi Party, drunk off his ass and tilting into the personal space of a middle-aged Black woman who was trying to play Bejeweled on her smartphone. She eventually moved to a different seat next to a high yellow girl with mini-afro and colorless lips, squeezed into a grey pencil dress and ballet flats. Soon enough, the whole train jumped at a thunk when the dude, in his stupor, headbutted the seat she just vacated.

I commented to the woman that I was waiting for that to happen, and she chuckled that it occurred because she wasn’t there to stop it. When he missed his stop and settled for the next one, half the car had to acknowledge what we had seen, but in the guarded, awkward manner of those sousing out the limits of commonality. To the girl’s left was an overweight white nerd with graying hair, just back from a comic book convention, chomping at the bit to make a comment. He looked at me, for I had laughed at the original spectacle, “was that a zombie?” “That was more than a zombie,” the Black woman replied, up from her game. The girl looked up and smiled for a moment before looking back down again. I recounted that while I had be that drunk twice in my life, I have never in my life headbutted a chair.

Enlivened by this impromptu personal connection, the nerd went on to striking up a conversation with a Latino couple next to me, who fobbed him off politely. This interplay – The older woman who was receptive, the younger woman who was reserved, the man who exuded a little creepiness, the drunk who exhibited god’s special providence for drunks – in six minutes displayed half a semester’s worth of sociology, to anybody willing to pay attention. Of course, I was also a part of this diorama, but lacking a true sense of introspection cannot pinpoint the exact nature of my own position. We are all gonzo journalists after a fashion, but then we are all actors ad-libbing the greatest stage play of all, while also being the audience.

Earlier in the night, in an overpriced Cuban restaurant, I asked my compatriot what he thought of the world and his place in it. “Fucked up” was the answer to both. Not a particularly edifying conversation, but there were more enticing distractions, like the Salsa duo with clean-cut dude on undersized guitar and boy-cut woman on congas and timpani. Everybody was swaying if not outright dancing except for one white woman at the bar fiddling with her phone. Here I was, paying almost quadruple for Ropa Vieja than I would have in Chelsea in 1997, wondering whose bright idea it was to fleece the yuppies and whether people thought of this food as, for lack of a better word, “high-brow.” Is your nation’s comfort food my nation’s haute cuisine? It certainly is if we consider McDonald’s in China.

Of course, to fool the locals you must first fool yourself, which means that the face we put on for the public is pretty deep in itself: If the restaurant ends up succeeding, a new paradigm is made. If not, well, this is New York and social reality does indeed represent a con game unsettlingly often. After all, the proprietors got me for almost forty bucks and the dude on the street only got me for one.

Architectural Skin Tags

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If there’s a sentence that speaks to the heart of the New York City housing crisis, it’s “I’m not averse to building, just not right here.” Preservationists have come out against a proposed hi-rise development on the South Street Seaport, citing the usual issues of architectural incongruity, destruction of the character of the historical district, and all-around ugliness. That it would be on the pier itself, separated by the rest of the Financial District by the FDR Drive, is icing on the cake.

The culprit in question

However, theres three things in effect here, each more ridiculous than the last.

First, obviously, are the preservationists. To quote Brendan Sexton of the South Street Seaport Museum, “I don’t oppose all high-rise buildings, there’s high-rise buildings just to the side of the historic district that serve a real function for companies that are in them. High rise buildings are not an evil. But this particular spot has value for you, and me, and the tourists we want to encourage. It is a piece of old New York.” Writ large, this mode of thinking – simple, reasonable, short-sighted – has contributed strongly to the crisis that not only has exacerbated the perennial New York problem with real estate, but is also the primary reason we’re building high-rises on piers in the first place.

Because the South Street Seaport is a historically preserved district, there is no direction the Financial District can expand. On the west side, the Financial district butts up against the nest of historic districts that range up from Tribeca to Greenwich Village. Centrally, the Financial District butts up against the Civic Center, a cluster of federal, state and city government buildings that separate it from SoHo and Chinatown. The Brooklyn Bridge and the South Street Seaport block it on the east side. This presents a situation where developers will buy up and create whatever space is even remotely feasible, and as they represent money they will not be denied. The way the Financial District has dealt with this historically was through landfill.

Landfill tends to represent the most benign aspect of development in New York’s problematic real estate reality, and indeed the housing complexes near Stuyvesant High School represent how that can be effected. The alternative options are somewhat more damaging, as they invoke the New York tradition of destroying as much as it builds, such as the recent destruction of St Vincent’s Hospital at the behest of high-end condominium development in an otherwise protected neighborhood. St Vincent was targeted, pressured and demolished partly through inept mismanagement, but mostly because it represented a property that wasn’t protected.

This plays into the second point: All things in New York have a precedent: Even incongruent high rises east of the FDR. While this new development may represent an architectural skin tag, it won’t be the first. In 1973 the city commissioned Davis Brody Bond to build Waterside Plaza, a Mitchell-Lama housing complex for middle- and working-class families. It came complete with that horribly ugly brushed concrete and brick popular in the 70s, a dystopia not out of place in Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux or Gerald Potterson’s Heavy Metal. The city liked it so much they copied the design for River Park Towers, a hi-rise Section 8 appendage to the Bronx neighborhood of Morris Heights, overlooking the Harlem River. The people have spoken: Skin tags are in.

New York relishes its horribleness

These developments were created because they represented to the city the only land available. They and developments like them were scrub land, newly-created land, or not land at all prior to their consideration. Similar to how New York built Co-Op City in recently-drained swampland while redlined tenements were being torched for the insurance money in Morrisania, the city has cared more about immediate expedients than the preservation of character. This isn’t to say that such is always the right decision: Co-Op City – another Mitchell-Lama construction – was a success, as was Waterside Plaza, but River Park Towers, isolated as they were, ended up being a fortress for gang interests that were only recently broken up by the FBI.

Similarities to a certain 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie are entirely coincidental

Of course, the South Street Seaport development is a facet of concentrated wealth, not concentrated poverty, and concentrated poverty has its own problems. Concentrated wealth does, too, which brings up the third point: The South Street Seaport hasn’t been a viable place to go in decades because it doesn’t represent a real place for the city; merely a failed economic venture.

As it stands presently, the South Street Seaport is a tourist trap courtesy of former mayor Rudy Giuliani; one that New Yorkers abhor, but without the draw of Times Square or even the High Line. Indeed, the South Street Seaport represents the very worst of waterfront development: It converts a formerly productive district into an oversized museum. The detractors of the development have compared South Street to the Embarcadero in San Francisco – with the implication that the Embarcadero is something worth emulating – but the Embarcadero is mostly useless.

This is true of most “reclaimed” waterfront spaces. City aldermen tend to convert waterfronts into fanciful touristy parkland for yuppies to build condos near, to the tune of tens if not hundreds of millions of public funding, as a form of developer giveaways. On occasion they’ll include the calcified husk of some nineteeth-century warehouse and maybe a ship anchor so people remember why the fuck they’re there in the first place, but mostly it’s just ridiculously expensive overly curated strips of green that will likely end up being an albatross of a tax burden during the next economic downturn. New York’s most notable recent example of this phenomenon is that of the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

From the “What The Fuck Is This Shit” School of Architecture

The new glorified mall that the preservationists find so abhorrent of the new South Street Seaport is already evident in the current South Street Seaport. It’s not a seaport, after all. It lost all utility when Giuliani moved the Fulton Fish Market. While the old Market was riddled with mob interests, it also represented a productive city institution. It was replaced with, essentially, nothing, and unlike the Williamsburg boom, doesn’t even include much-needed housing. In that stead it’s hard to destroy what already isn’t there.

Suffice it to say, New York is an ugly place. Destroying the old Penn Station to build One Penn Plaza was a mistake the city will never live down, and the false promises of luxury condos in some rust-colored post-modern edifice don’t exactly engender enthusiasm. But it’s no sin that hasn’t already been committed, many times over, and this sort of rear-guard action against an already lost cause is as pointless as it is indicative of just how dysfunctional real estate politics are in the first place. But then, ugliness is what we do, so why not embrace it?

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