Big Smoke

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

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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