Big Smoke

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

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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