Big Smoke

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

Tourists and Hipsters and Yuppies, Oh My!

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I was beginning to resent the NYTimes for printing this article on the new Times Square Mall (and this letter responding to it – landscape architects should stick to their own goddamn turf and off of urban planners’ and sociologists’, but that’s another pet peeve of mine) and had an entire diatribe about hating the semi-public tourist-trap malls that the city, in all its orgiastic development, has fallen head over heels for instead of policies that matter to the hoi polloi, but then I saw this piece, and all I could think to say was,



NYTimes, you have redeemed yourself. For now. At any rate, back to the rant:

If the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle is any indication, the concept of “semi-public space” is about as anathema to city life as the word “housing project” or “gentrification.” Bloomberg’s legacy (other than breaking the back of the UFT and naming the Mets’ stadium after a failed bank) might very well be the utter and complete lack of any and all regulation again wanton development for close to a decade. New York has always torn down and built up, sure, but New York has always had strict rules on architecture and urban planning, until now.

And like most Gilded Ages, with the heedless development by the rich and richer, we have entire swaths of the city practically walled off from the rest: Condo developments on the Far West Side, gated settlements in Bayside, and hipster colonies in “East Williamsburg.” The more egregious developments might as well be in Kabul, they’re so bunkered from the city proper: Underground parking, private streets (I’m looking at you, Riverside Boulevard, and your retractible car barriers), doormen; anything to recreate the suburban enclave in urbania.

Time Warner Center destroyed what was a public space – with street market, no less – and turned it into a “semi-public” space, which means a public space closed off to poor people. I remember the hullabaloo when it was being planned: They planned the entrance to the 59th St. subway station to be outside the mall lobby for the specific reason that if it exited directly into the space, they would have to keep it open to the general public – not just the public that wore Abercrombie.

Likewise, I’ve nothing against closing streets in Times Square, except for (the obvious and) the fact that the only people who seem to benefit are the tourists, and I think we’ve given the tourists quite enough of the city: Anybody who’s seen the condos on the block of the former CBGB’s can attest to just how much the city has lost to visitors. So it bugged me that the Times reporter writing this anecdotal story on what is essentially his back yard (after all, it’s called Times Square), reported that,

Despite reassurances from the Transportation Department that the changes would create a greener, more pedestrian-friendly city, some critics of the plan worried that it would sap the square of its chaotic energy. Others, apparently nostalgic for the seediness of the 1970s version of the square, denounced it as another step in New York’s transformation from the world’s greatest metropolis to a generic tourist trap.

Well, I’m happy to report that, a day after the stretch of Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets was closed to cars, the soul of Times Square remains intact. The neon still sparkles. Tourists still wander around bewildered. The whiff of last night’s junk food still hangs in the air.

because it misses the fucking point. This still isn’t the Times Square of the New York musical, or the Times Square of the seedy underworld, or even the Times Square of the public spectacle; this is the Times Square of the fucking pleasant curiosity, which is exactly the sort of glossy pastiche everybody who decries the Disneyfication of the city is complaining about: Token gestures to a middle class mentality while sweeping the uncontrollable* under the rug so that the consumers won’t get too skittish. It’s not even like they’re using the space for anything but stupid lawn chairs, making it feel like a hipster’s thesis paper more than public policy.

Thankfully, and I’ll indulge myself a little more by relinking it, a lot of it’s coming down on their ears.

*the hoi polloi, the plebs, the canaille, the base, the unwashed masses, the public, the people.

Subway Etiquette

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The Times did another soft piece about a yuppie with crutches that basically made a blog with a witty name concerning his tribulations on the subway. I think a better name for it might be “whiny dude with a blog dot com,” but that’s just me.

Premise: He’s “too soft-spoken” to ask for a seat, so takes pics of strangers with his iPhone to e-shame them into volunteering them.

Irony: Law says you have to ask if you want the seat, and if that’s too much of a social faux pas in the mean city, then what, pray tell, is unsolicited photographing?

But this reminds me of a city planning thought about what makes cities sociable. I say this as someone who’s grown up in a wild and wooly neighborhood, but a hood that really does embody the word “neighborhood.” That is to say, I know my neighbors. A large city is a den of anonymity – if but for the sanity of those in it, as evidenced by the passive-aggression of this yuppie here – but it’s still an incredible bevy of interpersonal connection and assumed protocol.

Neighborhoods change people all the time but require an outside force to change character: New laws, new money, a new dynamic imposed on the order. Redlining, gentrification, etc. I mention this because I think the underlying problem with crutchboy here is something of a citywide gentrification thing. The new buildings going up on the Far West Side, Long Island City, our guy’s “East Williamsburg*,” condos abound; they all have two common elements. One, they’re in the middle of nowhere. Two, they have no connection with anything.

Doormen lobbies and drive-in parking garages – the sidewalks are as empty when the buildings are full as they are when they’re still being built. Along with this is their downmarket cousins, the Hipster colonies where young whites play in neighborhoods where they assiduously avoid the locals – and oftentimes each other. The Bush boom heralded iPods on the subways and an inflated sense of self. The irony, of course, is that were he not the one in crutches, he’d probably ignore those who were.

Summed up with a nice exchange outside my window from the opposing co-op one Saturday night to the street:

“It’s 1am! Could you stop playing that fucking music!”

“I’ve been here 40 years! Eat shit!”

I guess what I’m thinking is that his views – overcrowded trains, all-pervasive asininity – are an inference of the breakdown of a social bubble (yuppiedom) in a contracting economy. NYC is taking itself back.

*You’re in Bushwick, asshole.

You’re Not Helping

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I, in my years of bike messengering and commuting via bike in Manhattan, have developed many strong opinions on helmets, bike lanes, traffic laws, activists and public image in general. I know that my take on the matter is a mishmash of conflicting views (that I self-servingly liken to a microcosm of the city itself) and justifications that don’t work beyond their intended audience.

For instance, I wear helmets sparingly because I feel I’m not as aware, aurally, of my surroundings when I have one on (that, and the aerodynamic shape of certain helmets – especially with the little plastic bill in front – seem to ensure that they’d crack on impact anyway) and if I’m to be broadsided by a crosstown bus I’d prefer avoidance than mitigation. Read the rest of this entry »

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