Big Smoke

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

For Varying Definitions of Victory

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I have started – and failed to finish no less than three times – a retrospective and critique of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York City, what with his last day looming before us and soon-to-be Mayor Bill de Blasio poised to herald a true double-back in the political pendulum, but each time the task has loomed larger, spiraled outside my original scope. I realize now that the problem is that the last twelve years were also my twenties, and thus my first true taste of living on my own in the city. As such, all I can write is an autobiography.

Before I do so, let’s get the easy part out of the way: Numbers. Bloomberg rezoned a fifth of the city and added about 165,000 affordable housing units but only, oddly enough, 150,000 citizens, largely because at the same time the city lost at least 345,000 rent-regulated housing units. To put that in perspective, Ed Koch added 200,000 affordable housing units in about that same time during a fiscal crisis without losing hardly any units to deregulation. The number of citizens in the lottery rolls for affordable housing doubled to 227,000. The homeless population jumped up 12,000 under his watch to top 50,000, Depression-era levels, after Bloomberg promised to bring that number down to as close as zero as possible. The unemployment level in NYC is still a full percentage higher than the national average, and has yet to come to single digits in some outer boroughs. His educational reforms and Small Schools initiative looked promising, until the standards were held, and then the city only managed to match the state average. The top fifty schools have one major facet in common: Limited admissions.

Stop me before I start descrying a Tale of Two Cities. The numbers pretty much foretell where this musing is headed. But this is my take, and my attempts to survive in the big city of my birth and to which I call my home. I am no transplant, looking for a Shangri La and ending up disillusioned, nor is the endless neurotic striving and hustling that foreign to me. I’ll take an illegal sublet in the South Bronx before I move to the country. How do I know? Because I took an illegal sublet and lived in it for six years.

It was perhaps my second “true” place in the city, the first was renting a room right outta college in Lefferts Gardens, but that one only lasted a few months. I was raised in Washington Heights, which is about as middle class as you can get nowadays and still live in Manhattan, so effectively moved back to what was familiar, where I knew from experience the sort of stock available and could rattle off my list of demands for a place – upper floor rear south-facing two bedroom in a new law pre-war somewhere near the subway – which covered the essentials. Of course, being young and stupid I missed almost as much – like good electrics, no water damage, and neighbors who understand how to store food safely – but who cares? I was effectively house-sitting for $800 a month and if I couldn’t turn on any lights in the living room, so be it.

From this vaulted vantage I could watch as the career I envisioned from college fell apart, the career I was starting up after half a dozen internships implode thanks to Bush-era policies, and a career in civil service take shape. I could see all my college friends fall in line: Ivy league degrees reduced to cutting hair, tending bar, stocking mailrooms, generally surviving until pretty much all of them were either unemployed or working for the city. And drinking. If New York has a pastime, it is drinking. You could hack out a quadrant bound on the north by 14th Street, on the south by Delancey Street, on the west by Lafayette Street, and on the east by the projects, and call that our mutual watering hole. Every once in a while we’d venture to the Bridge & Tunnel places in Chelsea or the college joints in Greenwich Village, but for good feel-bad-about-yourself dives, it was the Lower East Side or bust.

I remember growing up with this pernicious sense that I was on the periphery of a great happening, and that that happening was going on in this nebulous demarcation called Downtown. This, I believe, was largely buoyed by MTV back when it showed actual music videos and had all manner of variegated weirdness as typified by Liquid Television, as well as a public middle and high school education that had ties to various New York institutions – my middle school had weekly labs in the American Museum of Natural History and my high school got master classes from the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard School. I read books published by people who graduated from my school just before me, and listened to music composed by people who graduated just before them. I grew up thinking that there was this crucible of creative energy that I was just beginning to tap into, and that would soon be laid out before me.

Of course, MTV went the way of unreality TV shows and when I started venturing out to the hoods that shows like Downtown et al portrayed, I found they were filled with NYU students. I also soon found out that NYU students suck. My foray into the music world by way of my high school education was mostly that of an Uptown crowd – the circles around Lincoln Center, ASCAP, Boosey, Patelson’s, an alphabet soup of nonprofits, organizations that survived by begging money from wealthy Upper West and East Siders and turning that into an output palatable to Upper West and East Siders. That is, until the bottom fell out (ten years of economic stagnation plus a recession will do that, and the federal snubbing of the National Endowment for the Arts didn’t help either) and more or less everybody of my generation got thrown out so as to keep the elder generation of music mavens aloft. I was given something of a working knowledge of contemporary composers and nothing to apply it to.

So, I went to working for the school system, thinking that would be a place to reconcile my far-left politics with my need for a steady income, as surely public schools are recession-proof. I discovered a reality that wasn’t unlike the crises of the 1970s – endless ultimatums, repeated across-the-board budget cuts – and I was laid off, twice. Last in, first out. A dysfunctional system where students of color would practically have to work in spite of the system to learn, but then I knew that: I’ve read tomes devoted to just how dysfunctional that system is, but all the same I thought I could hack it. I still think I can, should I ever get another chance to try, but the chronic crises are still as byzantine and intractable as ever.

Still, all that allowed me – after working as a bicycle messenger, mail clerk, data entry monkey, gofer, band member, sound technician, computer technician, and network administrator – to pay off my student debts and get a proper apartment – one where the paint doesn’t sag and the ceiling won’t cave in and rats don’t roost in the oven. One that I still end up paying more than half my income renting out, but that’s a state of existence I share with a third of this city’s residents. And hey, taxis will go to my neighborhood now. They didn’t do that when I was a child. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a real life squeegee man. So I guess that counts for something.

The thing is, I’m still looking for that crucible of creativity. I grew up listening to great minds wax prose about sociological and historical and mathematical arcana, and interned under people absolutely enamored with this city’s great heritage – disco, rap, salsa, punk, free jazz, minimalism, all exploding at the same time – only to go and seek it myself and find things a bit wanting. The East Village, that punk mecca, is a Japanese tourist trap. The jazz standards, the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, are just standards. There are fewer record stores than when I was a child. Fewer book stores. The independents got pushed out by the chains, and then the chains died, too. Modernist music is beyond the reach of my wallet most of the time, and I’ve little patience for my own generation’s offerings – they are often wont to sample and lift wholesale from previous generations’ highlights rather than create anew. I don’t think Williamsburg is the SoHo of today, or if it is, it is for all the wrong connotations. I can’t help but wonder if my generation grew up as consumers, not producers.

That notion would be wrong, of course. In saying such a thing, I am mistaking tourists for transplants, scenesters for artists. I remember attending some rooftop party in East Williamsburg (formerly known as Bushwick) where guys my age who came to the city straight from colleges and homes in the Midwest took turns trying to one-up me in their hipness by name-dropping such and such a venue, such and such a gig they had attended, its exclusivity and ephemeral nature their badges of honor; their ability to seek it out and thus cater to its exclusivity, seemingly devoid of terrestrial concerns of their own, was a sign of their independent wealth. What I see there is less to do with my generation and more to do with a class gap: I am born into a city that is fast becoming solely a playground of the consuming rich, and I am not rich. New York has always been a playground of the rich, of course, but it has also been the playground of a great many other constituencies as well. Would that I could find them quite so easily.

As it stands, my friends are still finding themselves. I’ve just hit my third decade and so, sadly, am I. My suspicion is that I simply missed the Renaissance, that the New York I’m growing up in is probably best experienced as a post-colonial London: A place for today’s JG Farrell or George Orwell (or perhaps New York’s Christopher New or Vyvyane Loh) to chronicle the waning of an empire. I’ve once called mayor Bloomberg Marcus Crassus – in that he’s the richest man in the city and in cahoots with the biggest landowners – but now that I’m thinking about it, his legacy as the purveyor of a new Gilded Age, heretofore unprecedented in scope – a few examples bring new breath and breadth to the term “obscene” – despite anemic economic growth and a waning primacy, and his appointment of like-minded apparatchiks, who vowed to plow the city’s real estate over and till a more amenable clientele, makes the association all the more apt.

I will continue to exist in this city. It is my lifeblood, and none are poised to dethrone it in my lifetime of its vast breadth of culture and people. As it stands, however much this is not the city of the 1980s and 90s – in crime or in creativity – it is still the best place to find great minds and pints with which to render them talkative. But its luster is waning, its time spent too long primping itself as a financial powerhouse and not as a cultural one. We have plenty of financial powerhouses, we have only one New York City. Let that pendulum swing back, please.

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One Response to “For Varying Definitions of Victory”

  1. Vlad
    on Oct 29th, 2013
    @ 4:28 am

    Y’know, I finally get why you are so adamant about living in New York. Not that you needed to justify it, but kudos to you.

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