Big Smoke

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

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?

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