Big Smoke

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


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“Look at all these wonderful people on the train!”

“Yeah, and I bet they all got jobs!”

They accept cash, credit cards, food stamps and phone numbers. Whatever you offer, they’ll take it. A staple of the long gaps between stations on express train service, and consummate if wobbly showmen, subway breakdancers have been a part of my commute for as long as I can remember. They are also one more thing police commissioner Bill Bratton has a problem with:

“There is an opportunity in certain locations in the system where those individuals can perform and not be a risk to themselves, or to the public on moving cars,” Bratton said. “On a subway car that sways, jilts, stops, it’s too great to ignore and we will not ignore it.”

Of course, this is the man who went up against jaywalkers in the city that practically invented the term. Unlike Bratton, of course, I was born and raised in this city. I’ve been a Manhattanite more or less all my life. While I find subway breakdancers sometimes fun and sometimes mildly annoying, I’ve never been hit by one or seen somebody hit by one, and only in the last two years have I heard this echo chamber of “I hate the ‘Showtime’ guys; they’re the worst.” They seem to get particular ire from zines that cater to a younger, richer crowd.

I don’t hate subway dancers. I don’t hate mariachi men, I don’t hate the drum circles, I don’t hate the crooners nor the magicians, the peddlers, the occasional beggars or the habitual beggars. I don’t think they’re a threat to my person or my sanity. I don’t think they deserve all that much official attention at all.

I can’t pinpoint where this frothing “we must get the police involved” push is coming from, but I suspect it’s a class thing: Middle class transplants are coming in and while they are, on the one hand, discovering things New Yorkers always knew (like walking to the train car closest to the exit you want) they are also, on the other hand, becoming unduly incensed about the things New Yorkers have always abided. The crackdown bears a striking resemblance to the noise complaints new residents successfully levied against the drum circle of Marcus Garvey Park that had been there for 40 years.

The argument city officials and new residents make is that this means that the city will be a nicer, cleaner, safer place, but I remember the most telling criticism of the Upper West Side, where Community Board 7’s reputation of being particularly effective at following through on Quality-of-Life complaints has drained the whole neighborhood of its color. It’s been called a “cultural wasteland,” and not without reason.

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