Archive for May, 2008

                             (photo: gkjarvis – flickr)

    Two years ago, when I stayed here last, I took the following notes: 

   ‘Plenty of activity in the building across the street with people coming and going. Big bust there recently. When I was working upstairs the other day, a couple pulled up in a new white Explorer. The guy had braids like Snoop Dog and the chick was dressed ‘ghetto fabulous’ in sunglasses and gold chains. They hung around on the front stoop talking to someone from inside a couple of hours, obviously waiting for someone. The guy especially looked easygoing, not at all threatening, but the vehicle and the clothes just looked like drug bling.

     An hour later two black Lexuses pulled up. Fat woman with big bags from K-mart or some mega-mall got out with two kids from the second Lexus – was the first an escort? – and went into the building.     In the daytime the street is busy with the big trucks coming in to the bottling plant across the way and Hispanic women lining up on the pavement to get into the textile factories. The Hasidic guy next door comes in and out of his factory – I’ve never figured out what he makes – and the cars pull into the ‘Foreign Already Owned’ car place across the way. Never figured out what goes on in that shop. A guy who was staying here before said he saw someone pull out a pistol as he was walking away from the car place a couple of weeks ago and fire into the air. 

   Traffic dissipates by evening and by nightfall the street is pretty much deserted.”

   A couple of days after I wrote this, I was woken up at 6 am by some large dog barking on and on. Finally, after a couple of hours, I opened the big metal door which guards the front of the building and found some huge black woman sitting on a couch chair next to the building steps. Two fire trucks and an EMS truck had been round the night before – it didn’t seem like a major emergency, no one even answered the door for a few minutes and fireman didn’t seem too worried – but still I felt like the woman and the barking dog were connected to whatever had happened the night before. The dog – a pit bull – was chained to a cinder block next to the woman and another couple in ragged clothes chatted with the woman then stumbled up the street. They looked poor, but okay, without that lantern glow in the eyes that makes crackheads look so disturbing. Every so often the woman in the chair would try to calm the dog down – the dog seemed to be barking at the woman and the man beside her – but the dog just kept getting more and more excited and when I finally left the house to get away from the noise it was barking more than ever.

      The couch chair remained outside for a week or so but I never saw the woman again nor heard the dog. Once, the guy who had been standing with the woman came out with the dog on the leash. The Japanese art kids who lived in some sort of loft above the woodworking shop came out at the same time with their little mutt and the guy was kind enough to wave and hold his pit bull back until they and their little dog were out of harm’s way.

   The building has been renovated now, the former tenants thrown out. Where do these people go?

   The whole street is changing. One new building up the street ready for tenants (low-income housing from the looks of it – part of Bloomberg’s push for more low-income units in this rabidly gentrified city), and another building beside it with balconies, presumably so the residents can look out on the trucks pulling into the bottling plant down below. The old Hasidim is still around, but the auto shop has been taken over by some white guys with some big woodworking shop who work all day with the doors open. Down the street, where a jerk chicken shack opened for a month then spent a year shuttered closed, the building has been torn down and a condo with big green windows – great views of the traffic pouring down Bedford Ave. – is almost finished. Even the liquour store across Bedford with the ‘Serving Fine Liquors Since 1926’ sign is being redone. Maybe they’ll even get rid of the pexiglass shield.     

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Not being a renter, bitter or otherwise – and so far off the housing ladder I don’t even know how to reach for it, all this is kind of alien. Nonetheless, it’s the Brooklyn and NY of the moment: 


A Mysterious Bogeyman Haunts the Brooklyn Housing Market


You can find more about it here: Brownstoner.com

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                              Photo by garretc (flickr)

Worked in Manhattan this morning. Came in on the G to Williambsurg then transferred to the L to the City. The L train packed, even at 7 am, with long queues for the escalators. Just like London. The L creaked along in the tunnel, even with the seven minute gap between trains. 

You get on the G train and it’s all working class Brooklyn faces, of a kind you rarely see in London anymore (I forget when I’m away, about New York’s basic working class character. The iron bridges, the brick housing projects, the tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes, the brutal crashing of the subway cars into the stations with the iron pillars, the unadorned concrete surfaces). Black, Hispanic, white. Polish or Russian, heavy Slavic consonants just audible below the roar of th etrain. Big black guys with tattoos and hard Brooklyn faces. I see them and wonder how working class people hang on in places like Bed-stuy or anywhere near Williamsburg, since the rents have gone up so much. 

   Nowhere to have coffee around Stuyvesant Square – the cafes and the single Starbucks are full up (in London you’d have like five Starbucks in the three block radius around Stuyvesant Square – London has more Starbucks per capita than anywhere else in the world – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given how awful British coffee was a few years ago). So I sat on a bench in the Square, a block away from the Hotel 17 where I lived in a narrow room (bed, dresser, sink) for a couple of months when I first came to this city – 17 years ago. Warmed by the morning sun, drinking bad deli coffee with too much cream. A pack of kids had been in the deli, swarming around the counter. A few black, some Asian, mostly white. Happy-looking kids, saying sorry for standing in the doorway when people were trying to get in and out – a lot healthier and happier than equivalent kids in London who tend to be spotty and ill-behaved. 

   On mornings like this, it’s hard not to love New York. Stepping out of the cauldron of the 1st Ave Subwa into the bright Manhattan morning, the great metal spire of the Empire State rising up behind the golden dome sparkling in the morning sun. The Chrysler building, the other hi-rises that become almost background until they jump out at you one bright morning, when the whole world seems to be out there in the Manhattan sunshine with the big trucks and yellow taxis hurtling down the potholed streets, the crowds jamming the sidewalks with everyone rushing to work. Not even the women with their pinched, surgery enhanced faces walking their dogs in the park – New York, whatever it’s glamour, has always had more than it’s share of unattractive people – can take away the feeling that this is a special place, hallowed ground of a sort. 


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   The first thing I noticed coming back: despite all this talk of recession, of homes being reposessed, of record credit-card debt (and credit drying up) – despite the fin-de-regime weariness of the end of the Bush years and the loss of jobs to the globalized economy and the shabby airports and decaying infrastructure, the drain of the war in Iraq on the economy, the psyche of America – despite all this, compared to anywhere else I’ve been recently – 

   Americans have way more SHIT!!

   It was kind of overwhelming when i first came back.Even my artist friends, living on the edge of this very gentrified, corporatized city.  New Imacs, ipods, iphones; new vehicles, toasters, water filters, vintage guitars, new DVD players, hi-def cameras, radios, TV’s. All the vehicles are so much bigger than in England or Europe, as if everyone has to take up two, three times the space as people in other parts of the world. Even in Bed-Stuy – brand new Cadillac SUV’s hopped up with silver hubcaps, new Lexus here, new Mustang there – a Hummer or two. 

   Food prices might have gone way, way up (as bad as London). People in other parts of the country might be losing their homes. The fear might be settling in – and you can feel it walking around, just there below the surface. Affordable health care might be out of reach to 30 million Americans (and barely adequate to many who can afford it) – but by God that hasn’t stopped folks buying stuff. 

   And after the deprivation which is the lot of most of the non-rich in London town, it’s almost a relief. 

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Obama Campaign poster off Flickr

Not much visible support for BarakObama around Bed-Stuy, which surprises me. The places you expect – the African place on Grand, the coffee place on Franklin – but aside from the recently redeveloped building across the street, very few Obama posters in the windows, only the occasional bumper sticker. Only time I heard anyone talking about him in the neighborhood was two old guys in the courtyard of the projects on Lafayette: 

    “Who give a good goddam what some preacher man say? you don’t judge a man by what his supporters say.”

   “Damn right!” 

   Once, coming home on the A train, I met two young guys handing out Obama stickers. They seemed mostly interested in approaching the most attractive women on the train but they gave me a sticker and seemed pleased when I told them I lived in London, that all the English media and a lot of English people were curious about Obama, that for a lot of people he was the most interesting politician to come out of the US in a generation. 

   I’d meant what I said: Obama’s election would do a lot to change how the rest of the world thinks of America. But he wouldn’t be good just for America’s position in the world – he would change black American’s opinion of itself. If Clinton, as the first ‘black’ president could do so much to make black people feel more a part of the US, then imagine what a black black president could (and I never quite understood Clinton’s appeal until a guy who ran a Bed-Stuy bar explained it to me one night. He’d been born in Nigeria but raised in America so he saw it both inside and outside. “Clinton was the first president to make black people feel like they had the same opportunities as any other group. That they weren’t just a problem to throw money at, or feel guilty about – but that they belonged.”)

Having this highly articulate, well-educated and gifted young black man as head of, even after the stagnation of the Bush years, what is still the most powerful nation in the world could only change how black America sees itself. After all they are the real Americans – how many groups can say they’ve been in this country as long as black people. Who knows if Obama will be able to follow through on expectations even if he’s elected, but as a symbol, he’s hard to beat.

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From New York Magazine, date 2005, an article about the gentrification of Bed-Stuy. Even more true now:

 The Tipping of Jefferson Avenue

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Living Room   I’m staying in Gavin’s new home, a brownstone on a street of elegant brownstones. Unlike the empty flat where I’ve been staying, this place is full of stuff – all the stuff from when he and his girlfriend were living in the building where I’ve been staying, and a lot of new stuff – prints, paintings, a six foot plasma screen TV with surround sound, and the newest Apple desktop with enough power to guide the house to the moon. 

   I worked on this place four or five summers , when I was still staying with my ex in Fort Greene. There’d been a lot of rain that spring and Fort Greene had an almost tropical lushness with overhanging trees and plants and weeds springing up from every available bit of turf. Clinton Hill was still Bed-Stuy then and once you passed the brick co-ops on Lafayette, the green became more and more absent until on Bedford there seemed to be hardly any green at all. 

   Charlotte had bought the place a couple of years before, and the main floor with what would become the living room and dining room was a gutted shell. The last owners had lived in the garden floor flat and abandoned the rest to their son who camped out on the top floor, painting one fireplace green and covering the walls in shiny green and red wallpaper. And smoking a lot of crack – when Charlotte moved in, she found a box frame mattress, hollowed out then filled almost to the top with crack vials. 

   By the time I was there, Gavin had cleaned up the top two floors and Charlotte was renting them out and we worked on the ground floor, plaster skimming the walls and removing the layers of paint from the woodwork. At lunch we’d sit outside on the stoop for a break from the stifling summer heat. You could still feel a certain tension in the neighborhood – even first thing in the morning you’d see people hanging out on the corners who looked like they’d been up all night and the Chinese take-away around the corner was protected by scarred, bulletproof glass – but I was surprised to discover that most people were quite friendly – more friendly than the folks in Fort Greene. The old people especially, many of whom came from the south and retained country southern manners, saying ”good morning” from their stoops and wishing you a good day. 

   The house has been completely redone, far beyond even it’s original Victorian glory (You can see it here). One of the benign aspects of the years of neglect was that most of these houses kept their original features when the trend amongst the middle class especially to rip out the original moulding, paint over the marble fireplaces and go with the new. In these old places, the moulding can go back to the middle of the 19th century. 

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And I thought things were bad in London. 

Williamsburg Living

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Back in  Bed-Stuy. Me, an airbed, one table and one chair. Some flowers to catch the wonderful light in the morning. 

    Fourteen years ago, in a period when I used to walk all through New York checking out different areas for the hell of it, I was swarmed by six kids – ages six to fifteen – with an X-acto knife just up the street. They knew they were doing – they had me surrounded in a matter of seconds, pulling my trench coat tight so I couldn’t move my arms and moving in on watch, necklace, pockets, flashing the knife and all them smiling like we were sharing a joke. 

   They would have robbed me and possibly worse if a guy hadn’t come out with a gun and chased them off. He was one of the toughest looking guys I’ve ever seen and while he walked me to the bus stop he told me he never left his house without his gun, that two weeks before a couple of crackheads had tried to rob him and he’d shot one of them dead “and if I catch the other motherfucker I’ll shoot him dead too!” 

   it was that kind of neighborhood. That fall there’d been a whole spate of such cases – maybe a half-dozen – guys in tough neighborhoods who’d gotten sick of being robbed by crackheads and started pulling guns. On the bus the people looked weary, and extraordinarily hardened, like people must look who live in a war zone. Further on, past the subway, we passed block after block of vacant lots where crack dealers leaned against stacks of cinderblocks or shuttered storefronts of empty buildings, and crackheads with dead insect eyes wandered amidst the rubble. It was the most desolate landscape I’d ever seen. 

   Fourteen years on, Bed-stuy, like everywhere else in New York, is re-inventing itself. One condo tower is going up one street over, another at the end of the block, yet another up on Greene past Franklin. Three blocks away by Grand, where the French coffee shop with real French baguettes and pastries and home-made quick fills from morning to evening with the same yummy mummies that clutter such neighborhoods from here to Park Slope, Clapham to East Dulwich, a new tower of condos, with private elevators, start at a cool half million. 

   Yet this section remains impervious. Even if the crackhouse across the street is being redone, the empty building down the street already renovated and filled with tenants and a new apartment building – with balconies yet – is going up next door, the street is still dominated by semis coming in to load up at the bottling plant across the way and deserted at night. 

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Bar-hopping in Manhattan used to be one of my favorite things to do in the city. A lot of other people from in and around New York seemed to feel the same way and sitting at the bar of one or the other of the old time New York bars – the Old Town up on 18th, the Ear Inn on Prince, or Milady’s, the last dive bar in Soho, you could always count on meeting people – two suburbanite dudes in from Pennsylvania, a retired Irishman back to see all the places he used to go when he tended bar when he was a barman in the city, a couple of crazy New York girls knocking back daquiris. The city felt like some enormous train station, with everyone pausing for a quick drink before moving on somewhere else, and walking through the Manhattan streets on the way to a new bar, it was a great feeling to check out all the pretty women, to flirt and feel connected to the city.

Alas, the city feels more dead somehow – no one seems to look at anyone else on the street. Perhaps it’s the time of year, but on Saturday I felt like I could have been in Toronto – or London. I went to the Old Town but it was full of doughy-looking folks in baseball caps in for the Kentucky Derby, so I walked through the West Village, through Washington Square Park where the performance space has been closed off for an indefinite time for refurbishment, the park bisected by metal gates, and into Soho. There was no real feeling in the air, and it seemed like the whole city had been taken over by these doughy, bland people, just like London has been taken over by yuppies.

At Milady’s on Prince, I got a bit of that old New York feeling. The crowds pouring in and out, everyone along the bar already drunk. The barmaids were wearing big plastic cowboy hats, – and the crowd around the bar was already drunk, while  the barmaid ran around mixing mint juleps – a Kentucky special apparently – in metal cups. When the Derby came on everyone started cheering for Big Brown, the local favorite, and a big guy in front of me kept yelling, ‘C’mon you fuck!” over and over.

The whole thing was over in two minutes. Some poor horse collapsed at the end of the race and some officials came out and shot it. I found out later the horse had broken it’s front legs and there was nothing to be done but put it out of it’s misery.

As the crowd began filing out, the guy who had been yelling at the screen prepared to leave with his friend, calling the barmaid over.

Guy: “How much do we owe you?”

Barmaid: “You already paid!”

Guy and his friend, suspicious: “You sure?”

Barmaid: “Sure I’m sure! The tab came to $35 and you gave me 60 bucks!”


Guy and his friend: “Are you sure we paid?”

. . . . and so on . . .

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