Big Smoke

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

Fiver and Tenned

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Like all New Yorkers, I’m beholden to a number of de facto monopolies that have all, ostensibly, come on hard times and need my money to survive. I’d only be all too happy to oblige except, y’know, for all the profits they’re posting.

First and foremost, of course, comes Time Warner Cable, second only to Cablevision in terms of practices one would expect from a Lex Luthor-style supervillain. They’ve been hurting of late: Those pesky millennials don’t get cable subscriptions – and CBS and HBO have decided to cut out the middle-man – so they have to get their pound of flesh somehow. Say hello to rental fees, subscription fees, and variable rates of service!

It used to be that the broadcast channels were free for anybody with rabbit ears, set-top boxes were included with the service, and internet was equivalent to most international rates: Around $15 a month. Now, broadcast channels cost $10, set-top boxes have their own fee – plus fees for installation and troubleshooting – and the cheapest internet costs more than $50 a month, not including a separate modem rental fee at more than $6 monthly. Furthermore, they’ve been harassing producers on the other end, with ultimatums to MSG, Disney and others leading to blackouts.

Like a toddler in the middle of a tantrum, they demanded their profits remain constant as their business model withered away, reminiscent of the RIAA’s lawsuit-happy way of defending a dying industry. It’s just as well, though; their cabal compatriots – and by that I mean their competitors – have had an even more egregiously deleterious model through the means of “retention specialists.” That title refers to people who are in the employ of the company for the express purpose of making it difficult to quit the company’s service. How dare you, after all? They have quarterly reports to think about!

I was recently given a thick letter by CitiBank, which is never good considering the last thick letter I’ve ever received was my acceptance to university. The letter included a manual of my “new account,” as they were phasing out the EZ Checking Account. Why? Because consumer banking isn’t as profitable as they were hoping – despite posting better than expected profits in April. Of course, they posted massive losses in June thanks to the $7 billion in fines they were made to pay by the US government for their hinky practices with mortgage securities, and they had been found to have been insufficiently buttressed against another 2008 mortgage crisis by the Federal Reserve in July, natch.

Add to that their being trounced in consumer banking by local players in the Korean and Japanese markets, and they had to find a way to shore up their profit margins somehow. Thankfully, they can simply decree that us locals pay more! Now, it costs $25 every month I have a balance under $10,000 and $2.50 every time I use an ATM not in a CitiBank branch – on top of the ATM’s own fees. I’m sure I can switch to Chase – with the most branches per capita in New York City – except Chase had to pay $13 billion in fines for their part in the 2008 financial and economic crisis and soon they will find a way to defray those costs themselves.

If that were not enough, there is still Consolidated Edison, which, true to their namesake, looks for every means to maximize profits. As part of the general deregulation of the energy industry, not a week goes by that a representative of an oil company from Texas or a solar company from New Jersey comes knocking on my door talking of lower initial rates that immediately become variable about three or four months in once I’ve forgotten what I signed up for – complete with fees to make it difficult to switch once the new rates apply, natch – which is just as well, because Con Ed themselves have decided to double my rates since this time last year.

If this all feels like a treadmill that slowly increases the incline, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The term “nickel and dimed” is now obsolete: The decimal place has to be moved a couple spaces over to be updated properly. Barbara Ehrenreich was prescient in her analysis, but we’re accelerating if nothing else: All this works primarily as a tax on a poverty – if you exist in modern society, these are intractible costs, and the service providers know it. The only question is how much blood one can squeeze from a stone: How much internet can you steal? How long can the electricity bill go unpaid before you’re off the network (and subject to a whole new suite of fees?) And most importantly, can you even house your money without paying money?

To be a working person in this city is to set a foundation in quicksand. As our inequality increases, as it indeed becomes more expensive to be poor, surely something can – must – will be done.

Eddies of the Civilized World

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Having left one conked-out compatriot in a gay bar in Greenwich Village where they had a cult and shrine to Rihanna, I led my charge on an expedition to meet another such in deepest Brooklyn. His impression of New York was something of a tourist’s itinerary and damned if I wasn’t going to jostle him out of that, even if it meant braving the hordes of stupified zombies throwing themselves at every yellow cab that happened to come by. Half an hour later, it became obvious that all my tricks about moving upstream and waiting for cabs in odd directions were for naught, but no worries, the gypsy cabs aren’t yet a dead tradition in this burg. The experience prompted the man in my care to reflect that this act was tantamount to kidnapping oneself back in his home country.

Not so here! Bloomberg’s made his indelible mark even in our gloriously illegal street hail of an unmarked car: The hack is identified and registered on an official roll and there’s even a Passenger Bill of Rights should we wish to blow the whistle on ourselves. Never mind, he’s willing to take us to Brooklyn, that foreign country, and therefore he’s already a saint in my book. How do you describe Brooklyn, consequently, to a drunk and somewhat confused Colombian who was forced to down sake and watch skinny white men gyrate to Black pop stars? You don’t, because you didn’t explain anything else that night anyway.

We ended up somewhere in the “South Slope” (really, Windsor Terrace, much in the same way that “East Williamsburg” creeps further into Bushwick and “North Williamsburg” is taking over Greenpoint) in order to celebrate the birthday of a man who himself a walking good-humored mystery, a gregarious sort who would be at home just about anywhere. In this case, he chose a heavy metal go-go bar. It was, on the whole, an inspired choice. It was a glorious revelry in the affirmative rejection of the absurd contortions that society – that is to say, the people outside the bar – puts itself in by selecting a equally absurd contortion and laughing at itself.

Our crew perched between a biker gang on our left, and marines on our right. A mutual friend, a southern gent obsessed with class, wanted to change the jukebox from Iron Maiden to Rihanna, which we had to discourage him from lest we pretend not to know him come the inevitable backlash – assuming, of course, a place like this would ever have Rihanna or Ke$ha or Nicki Minaj on the jukebox. Some people gotta learn that when in Rome…

Over a cheap domestic lager and under the blaring screen of a 70s B roadhouse movie that featured Japanese gangsters doing horrible yet softcore things to American nuns, before having horrible and definitely hardcore things done to them in turn, I asked the fellow closest to me how he had spent his last deployment. He said that he had spent it in Japan, and that it was pretty fun “up until the rape,” at which point they confined everybody to the base. One wonders whether it was to save the locals from the soldiers, or the soldiers from the locals.

One of the go-go dancers, a trio of tattooed women of various colors who could all have been and may yet actually be models from SuicideGirls – that social networking and modeling site specializing in those with a predilection to piercings and the punk motif – knocked over my drink across the length of the bar, which caught the attention of one of the bikers to my crew. The man inquired as to which of us he would have to rip the sleeve off of to wipe up the mess. I observed that, as he was wearing cut-offs, this scenario must have happened for him twice. He retorted that he was a gentleman and it was our turn.

This exchange comforted me, as it reminded me of the circumstances I had spent a great deal of my twenties in when looking to run away from the world: The diviest of dive bars, the late Mars Bar (now a TD Bank in a glass condo, natch). Back then, a representative night would be having a midget and a viking to my right openly rolling a spliff and fussing over the Arc of the Covenant – the viking would offer passersby to open it for a few bucks, and the midget would pop out – a firebreathing Marxist organizer for the TWU Local 100 to my left, and a middle-aged couple from a SoHo loft to my compatriot’s left looking to slum it for a bit and possibly find a third for a threesome. The kinds of people you can’t imagine leading day lives, in a place you can’t imagine exists during daylight. A real hole in the wall.

I haven’t found a real hole in the wall since Mars Bar was booted out of a newly sanitized East Village. Sure, there were places that had most of the aesthetics and about eighty percent of the vibe in the Lower East Side – there’s something to be said for sharing a barstool with a pitbull in the late Motor City Bar (now place that sells “gourmet wraps,” natch) – but the dives either started catering to a more “discerning” clientele or just died altogether. Indeed, to celebrate this discovery of a new honest-to-god dive, I complimented a biker chick in the arms of what looked like the Mexican Mad Max that the studded hoop earrings she was wearing looked like they could double as brass knuckles. She immediately high-fived me.

The bartender, a green-haired woman in bra, denim hotpants and, with a clunk on the bar to show off to the marine next to me, seven inch platforms, turned out to be the owner of the joint altogether. Truly I had found a live countercultural bastion the likes of which I had almost written off as dead in the city of my birth. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. None of this, of course, served to alleviate my Colombian friend’s confusion – we had in effect, after all, switched between polar opposites in one night, and god knows what his eyes saw even as we both took it all in for the first time – but he took it in stride. Alcohol loosens barriers, which is arguably why New York is so enamored with it. One can indeed hope it never forgets.

Tilling the Land

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The narrative is wrong. The pundits that say that New York has ascended from the depths of AIDS and crack-driven depravity to a glorious new economically viable (if a tad expensive) future have lost the tack. New York has suppressed crime by transitioning away from being a city.

Setting aside the late Gary Webb’s 2004 martyrdom after his excommunication from print media due to exposing the CIA’s complicity in the crack-cocaine epidemic, what was truly terrible about the Bad Old Days of New York? Crime, AIDS and racial tension are common refrains. AIDS is still here, of course, and crime may have gone away but that has itself been deemed a facet of the crack trade and ensuing gang wars. To say the least, heroin junkies are docile compared to crack fiends. That leaves racial tension, and pardon me if I feel a little simmering. One cannot speak of gentrification and displacement, after all, without mentioning the colors of the actors.

This is not to say that it’s as black and white as it was then: Our lurid police blotters are slightly less lurid nowadays, red-lining – which destroyed entire neighborhoods wholesale – is technically illegal, and our mayor is fashionably multicultural. This is not the era of Bernie Goetz. This is, however, the era of Bernie Madoff, and the undertow may yet still be pulling people under. The illustrious former Sandinista in office has not been very successful in shouldering a sea change for the underclasses or, for that matter, any of the classes not rich enough to help themselves. The current policies are arguably more insidious than ever before, and they are in the service of the same trend that gave us nightly stories of Crown Heights shootings on the 11 o’clock news.

Madoff may have brazenly stolen billions, but he made the mistake of stealing from the rich. He should have taken a page from Maurice Greenberg’s playbook: Nobody cares when you’re stealing from the poor.

Somehow, we’ve accepted policies that results in decent housing being doled out in a lottery rather than policies that result in building decent housing. Decent schools work on a lottery instead of all schools being made decent. People fight to be one of the lucky few to be lifted from despair and fight tooth and nail to continue the lotteries, but lotteries necessitate losers – lots of them. People who are adept at navigating bureaucracy and gaming the system win out, and immediately turn around and call that system fair, when the system is explicitly set up to quell complaint without actually solving the problem. Indeed, housing is overall more expensive, schools are no better than they were, and the number of needed neighborhood amenities – like supermarkets – are still disappearing despite dozens of Business Improvement Districts all around the city. Rather, they are disappearing because of said BIDs.

Much of my neighborhood is indeed controlled by such a BID. The humor of it is, at the turn of the new millennium, there was not one single empty storefront in the entire neighborhood. What was needed to improve? Well, in the case of Corona, Queens, Chamber of Commerce representative Jack Friedman argued that there simply aren’t enough chain stores: “We need to re-brand Corona. The names might change, but the flavor won’t.” He continued, “Listen, chain stores are often franchises and are owned by local people. What successful business area doesn’t have a chain store?”

Shown: Dilapidation in East Harlem, as clearly there isn’t so much as a Best Buy or Old Navy to be seen. Thankfully, we can clean all this up with a Shake Shack or a Whole Foods.

Indeed, if your local business survived redlining and the depressed economy, you’re in luck! You might get kicked out in favor of a Duane Reade or a Bank of America. Such tone-deaf declarations by aldermen can be viewed as the effluence of the wake of former mayor Bloomberg, whose city planning commissioner Amanda Burden once boasted her efforts to “make so many more areas of the city livable,” forgetting of course the all people already living in those areas, but more accurately Bloomberg is a response to them, not the other way around.

My own neighborhood once had all the necessities for working class family life: Cheap family restaurants, cheap clothing stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, furniture stores, butchers, delicatessens and the like. You could get everything you needed to live within a six block radius; a true boon of urban life. Now there are no hardware stores. There are no appliance stores, and the two computer repair shops closed down. The number of laundromats halved. The eateries are dwindling, and the clothing stores and small department stores are shuttering one by one as their leases come up. There are five empty storefronts in a three block radius now; three of which are chronic, as nobody can afford the new leases.

What the neighborhood has gotten in return are six bank branches, eleven bars, wine bars, clubs and “gastropubs,” four branded cellphone shops, two Thai restaurants, two froyo places and a Starbucks. This is economic viability? This is a neighborhood eating itself, and it’s being accelerated by the policies in force, just as the Bad Old Days were enforced by the policies of the time. New York was a viable city, suppressed by bad policy. Now, New York is becoming an extremely dense gated suburb, through an entirely new set of equally bad policy.

Anytown, USA, with proceeds directly payable to anywhere but the neighborhood it leeches. Man cannot live by branding alone.

The continuity of the narrative between the Bad Old Days and the purported good new days is illustrated best with a man who has been at the helm for both: Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. What was the lesson of the 90s? Shit was out of control; these savages were marauding everywhere, and the police had to do what was necessary to put a stop to them: The city deserved no less. Bratton’s Broken Windows theory prevailed. Now, the narrative goes, why do these people think they deserve to live in such good neighborhoods just by dint of having been born there? The windows gleam now, and simple economics dictate that they need a better class of citizen behind them: The city deserves no less.

It’s due to this narrative that even relatively benign programs enacted by mayor de Blasio are viewed in suspicion: What happens if he succeeds in revitalizing public parks in outer borough neighborhoods? Will the locals be forced out soon afterwards? Even if, through protection of existing residents, they aren’t evicted, where will they purchase their goods? The writing on the wall is there, and for the newcomers, FreshDirect is a convenient band-aid, in itself not an answer but a demonstration of the problem. Ultimately, cities are supposed to be producers, not consumers; creches of new industry, not mere land tilled by existing moguls, and the administration – or rather the political heavyweights the administration is beholden to – has lost sight of that.

It can be said that the city is currently working actively against its own working foundations. The only question in my mind is, how do you count when that trend started?

The Future Dispossessed

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It’s hard to imagine what the future of the city holds, because it’s hard to imagine what my future holds.

I watch ninety-story mausolea rise into the sky, knowing that they are physical proof not only of the absolute obscene wealth this world and our economy has allowed to funnel into the hands of a few, but also of the fact that no matter how rich property developers are, they will never pay skilled artisans and craftsmen to beautify those buildings as so many previous generations have. I know that they will not house (m)any living souls, constructed as they were as a form of warehousing money should certain regimes in the homelands of certain obscenely wealthy moguls belly up. I know that they are merely the extremely tall tip of an iceberg.

This graphic is shamelessly lifted from Vanity Fair. It’s pleasing, however, to be able to see all the money siphoned from us working stiffs from just about any vantage in the metro area.

The portion visible of this iceberg is, of course, the general gentrification of the entire city of New York, where there is not one neighborhood, be it the boarding rooms of Brownsville or the tenements of Tremont, in which the median rent is under $1,000 a month, despite the minimum wage in New York currently being pegged at $8.00 an hour. To do the math, $8 times 40 times 52 equals $16,640 – before taxes, natch – and rent is supposed to be pegged at 1/40th annual income, so a full-time worker would only be short by about $600 every first of the month, assuming he didn’t have to eat, commute, wash or clothe himself. If by some miracle the lack of all those necessities still allowed him to find a partner of equal standing (or if de Blasio manages to shame Cuomo into granting the city the right to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour) he would still be short $200 to live within the confines of the five boroughs. Not that he’d have to worry about it too long: He’d starve to death before the next month anyway.

This photo, shamelessly lifted from the New York Daily News, depicts workers fighting for wages only teenagers should make, if those teenagers weren’t already forced to work in unpaid internships.

Okay, so assuming New York returns to the days of the automat, adds robo-baristas and Roombas, and somehow teaches Upper East Side mothers how to parent their own children (ha!), there are still quite a lot of drones that still need to live within commuting distance of this brave new world that we live in, and especially with such people in it. That is rather the heart of the problem, of which New York is the spearhead – the cauldron of what a pessimist would see as our future social unrest – for there truly is no place for them to go. At a time when even the New York Subway, relatively inexpensive flat rate that it is, costs such a peon two days of work a month just to afford to commute to work, paying up to five times as much to take commuter rail to an actual suburb still won’t offset average rents along the Long Island Railroad, MetroNorth or New Jersey Transit corridors, as they are all still far above what a minimum wage earner can afford for rent.

Coming full circle, Horn & Hardart, which has long since been transformed like so many other old New York staples into a Rite Aid, may end up representing not just our past but also our future.

Former mayor Bloomberg teased the city with insinuations as to the solution to this crisis – where-ever will we house our peons? – with micro-apartments (Is it minimalist chic or are we simply too poor to decorate?), which certainly harken back to a time when a bathtub was a common sight in one’s kitchen and people hot-bedded to save space. We may yet live like submariners, but with arguably more dating. Of course, the city is not actually building much of anything, despite all the cranes, and this is, of course, assuming there are any jobs to be had at all. We are still at a time when there are six job seekers for every position offered, which has driven down wages in just about every growth industry. New Yorkers, and by New Yorkers I mean Americans, and by Americans I mean all of humanity, are being caught between a rock and a hard place: Be homeless or be jobless – the city is, after all, where all the jobs are – which is to say be homeless in the city or be homeless in suburbia. Some people are already doing that: Working full-time straight out of the shelters. Therein lies the great belly of the iceberg, largely unseen yet fomenting utter disaster.

Bill Eppridge’s photo of Barbra Streisand in her old-law tenement apartment in 1964, depicting the pre-modern, modern and post-modern all in one shot.

My own trajectory is a microcosm of the greater ill. Chronically underemployed yet saddled with the bad credit of a decade’s worth of private university debt repayment and ever-raising rents, I fear that my perennial position of hand-to-mouth is one bad IRS audit or one uncovered property loss away from losing my foothold in what I see as the only real means to extricate myself from a lifetime spiral of poverty. Yet, I know I’m one of the luckier ones: Because I am rent-regulated, my rate is half that of the city median, and half again still due to pushing the roommate situation. My landlord cannot choose to refuse to renew my lease, nor can he jack it up like has happened to some of my compatriots across the river. I cannot lose it provided I keep up payments, but should I fail in that where is there to go? To homes with no jobs or jobs with no homes.

What keeps the lid on such a literally untenable situation? Three hour commutes? Half a basketball team’s worth of roommates? Latching on to one of the lucky few rich to be your sugar daddy? Drug abuse? Starvation? Just about the only trend of coping that’s not sharply on the rise is suicide, but that may be because it’s so hard to get a gun in New York. The euphemistic term of ‘displacement’ is a city-wide phenomenon, and eventually there will have to be an answer to all the people yet unable to “disappear.”

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