Archive for January, 2009

The Recession is Now Pt.# 87

Damn. I leave London and riots and protests break out all over Europe

And wildcat strikes break out all over the UK in support of oil workers going on strike after their bosses hired European workers, and effectively locked them out. 

Well, bless their hearts.

When I was still in England, I wondered how long it would be before this happened. Though the rallying cry of ‘British jobs for British workers’ might be exclusionary – and might make it that much more difficult for my one generation removed though British passport holding person to get a job – you can hardly blame these guys for feeling the way they do. The ‘Polish Plumber’ might have been great for the middle-classes, but the drastic wage cuts, the pressure that immigration put on employment in general in Britain was very real, and was making life very difficult for non-rich people. This was pretty much ignored by the government, the papers, by everyone except the BNP.

Wages for most people in London were a joke, the cost of living was a joke. As  the son of British immigrants to Canada – as a North American – I’m not against immigration or immigrants, but so often in Britain immigrants were used to undercut standards, wages of the British worker. It’s about time they got their own back.

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Friend sent me this:

London from High Up, At night.

Great shots of Trafalgar Square, the decidedly unlovely O2 Arena . . .

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Two black women on the cross-Brooklyn G train at rush hour. Big, middle-aged; one woman talking to her friend: 

” He tried to get me to eat something that looked like Bambi! He bring it back in the truck all bleedin’ all over the place, but I said no, no, no – get it out of here!! Ain’t no way I was gonna eat that!”

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Obama In a window in Fort Greene

Obama In a window in Fort Greene


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Mannequins for Obama

Mannequins for Obama

For me, the inauguration was a bust . . .

Never having witnessed an American inauguration before,I’d expected it  to be a big celebration, akin almost to the election when thousands of people took to the streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and over here in Bed-Stuy people fired guns from the projects on Lafayette like it was New Year’s Eve.

But no, it was quiet, very quiet.

We had brunch and watched the inauguration on my friend’s big screen TV. As show, theatre, it was something else – no one does showbiz like the Americans. Obama’s speech, while workman like, set out his policy in clear terms. Big government, the end to the age of irresponsibility, a reaching out to the rest of the world, a shift to renewable technologies. Aretha was great, the crowds were great, the dude at the end was great (“so the yellow can be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man”) – and Obama was great, or almost great. Curiously, the British press gave Obama’s speech a better grade than the American, though perhaps that’s just relief . . .that W. is gone.

The  end of an era: watching the chopper carrying W whirring off into the Washington haze as we slowly wake up from the parallel universe that has been the last eight years.

Outside the window, we saw one person pass in the whole hour and a half.

Up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the inauguration had been broadcast in the theatres so we decided to walk up, see if anyone was around. Bed-Stuy was totally dead, even more dead than usual on a weekday afternoon. CJ speculated that all the people who’d really wanted to be involved had gone up to Washington “Maybe that’s why there was so much parking space available this weekend,” but I figured up in gentrified and politically active Fort Greene, there would be some visible celebration. But Fort Greene was dead too – the BAM event shut down so completely we wondered if anyone had even showed up.

We went to Union Square. No one around. Had lunch, CJ went to school. I went to Harlem.

Got there around five. 125th street was busy, but no more so than on any after-work five o’clock day. I hadn’t been to 125th in a few years and was amazed by the changes. I guess it started when Clinton moved his offices up to Harlem and made 125th respectable again. Big chain shops, Starbuck’s. A curiousity like the TDBank, ie Canada’s Toronto Dominion – since Canada’s banks, inherently more risk avers, survived the crisis better than their US counterparts, were they now starting to take advantage of the stricken US banking system to swoop south? Is this the stop of Canadian banking imperialism?

Most visible signs of Obama support: mannequins in the store windows and street vendors with Obama t-shirts. Obama family Barack, Michelle and the two kids in Star Wars garb holding light sabers, Obama and McCain in a boxing ring in boxer shorts and gloves and Obama standing over a prostrate McCain over the logo: ‘Obama: Knockout, McCain: Zero”.

A lot of white people getting off the subway, travelling down the street, but still aware of black faces checking me out, curious, not entirely dropping that defensiveness that always greets a white person going into a black neighborhood. A lot of very poor people here too – a drug ravaged woman standing on the corner in the cold, a man in a wheelchair, limbs disfigured by some sort of wasting disease – working class NY faces, tough, hard, guarded. A general energy, but Harlem’s always had energy . . .

t-shirts in harlem

t-shirts in harlem

Back into the train. People seem mostly shut down, as New Yorkers always do when it’s cold. At my favorite bar downtown, a little more full than usual, but not much. General elation, since this is still a largely liberal bar. Friend of mine gave Obama’s speech ‘A solid B+” which about got it I think. One of the black girls who works there looked up at Obama’s image on the TV screen with a kind of reverence . . .

Then, back on the train into Bed-Stuy. Looking at all the black faces on the train, staring ahead, still shut down. Faces I’ve seen on the train since I first moved here in 1991, that have seemed to become more, not less, closed off with the years. I wondered how THEY felt, these mostly working class people from inner Brooklyn, the neighborhoods along the A line that not so recently were scarred by drugs, gangs, constant violence. How did they see Obama? Did they think he was going to change their lives, or had they given up?

At Nostrand Ave, I got off behind four German girls and walked behind them down the street, listening to their German voices skirt around the edges of the Bed-Stuy night. They were blonde and tall, and hardly looked around them as they talked so I guess they were staying in the neighborhood in some capacity. That curious look of Nostrand/ Fulton with the iron walkway over the street, the lights, the brick buildings along Fulton – a 1950’s New York that stopped dead and just decayed. Black eyes along the street meeting mine, checking me out, checking out the Germans – so unlike before when they seemed to just look right through you. Not friendly exactly, but curious, as if they finally had the confidence to study white people in their neighborhood, to try and understand them . . .

Back in front of the TV. Beyonce singing to the Obama’s as they made a slow shuffle on the stage. Obama dancing 80’s style – a self-admitted bad dancer, he dances more like some suburban white geek than a black dude which is surprising given his natural grace – with his fists up in front of him – that self-commenting ironic dancing that was big in the 80’s.

And outside, hardly anyone on the street, a woman yelling at the crackhouse across the street, yelling one name repeatedly for ten minutes. Then silence.

Shop Window in Prospect Heights

Shop Window in Prospect Heights

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Snowing today – second day in a row – big flakes twirling down from the grey, making the trees, the brownstones of Brooklyn look pretty . . .making everything look pretty. 

Lot of anticipation in the air with the inauguration tomorrow. Everyone’s talking about it, trying to decide where to see it. Two million people are descending on Washington, I don’t know how many on Chicago. The Jumbotron at Times Square will be showing the inauguration ceremonies, Obama’s speech, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I think the Apollo in Harlem will do the same, along with countless bars across the city. 

Here in Bed-Stuy all is quiet, and it feels like just another night. Same shuttered stores along Bedord, Nostrand Avenues. The sound of snow shovels scraping cement as people clear the snow off their stoops. In this quarter at least, you wouldn’t know it was any other day. 

Barack Obama has called for people to volunteer for this Martin Luther King day as part of setting off a new era in America and to this end there were volunteers of all kinds posted around Brooklyn, soliciting donations, books, whatever, for whatever causes, their leaflets spread out on fold-out tables getting covered in snow. The President-elect has gotten into the spirit himself by visiting a homeless shelter for teens. Among the other things you can learn on this video: the President -elect is a housepainter. Rumour had it that house-painting was his first job. As a sometime housepainter myself, this warms my heart – you can only go up.

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More cautious optimism . . . tainted by uncertainty. A sense now of momentum building up to the inauguration (coronation?) Tuesday.

All up and down Washington Ave, here in Prospect Heights, shop windows display Obama posters, ‘change is coming to America’, quotes from the Bible foretelling the coming of ‘Barack’. You walk into black neighborhoods and you feel a change – people feel happy, more open than I’ve seen black people here in a long, long time. You feel too that some of the tension with white folks has dropped – since everyone but the most obtuse black folks know that any white folks living in Bed-Stuy or Prospect Heights voted for Obama . . .

A friend tells me her business down in Tribeca catering to the wives of hedge fund managers is pulling in one tenth of what it pulled in a year ago, three stores on her block have closed up in the last six months, Bobby D’s new restaurant around the corner opened in September and closed just a couple of weeks ago. Other friends talk about how difficult it’s getting to find work, even temp work.

The jetliner landing in the Hudson somehow sums up the spirit of New York in this moment – potential disaster, the pictures of the passengers on the wings, all the rescue boats and commuter ferries rushing in, no lives lost, a heroic pilot. And I’d walked down the boardwalk along the Hudson just a couple of days ago . . .

For the moment, New York City feels joyful, exhibiting the wonderful, even liberating strength and humanity that I’ve always loved in this city. A good time to be here . . .

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After one week back, I can’t really say where this city is at. More uncertainty, but a guarded optimism as well. You can feel the optimism in the streets, despite the (for New York) brutally cold weather. People smile at each other, seem more gentle with each other. Black people say hello more often, like they used to do when you went to black neighborhoods when I first started coming to NYC in the 80’s. Walking into Bed-Stuy a young black girl hanging out with her friends said hello. A few years ago, there would have been malice, distrust, her friends glaring back or sniggering if you looked at them, but when I met her eyes the girl was just being open, friendly.

I talked to a friend today who was in Park Slope the night of the election. Down on the lower Slope, where the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans cling on in the not yet gentrified areas near the warehouses, the projects, huge block parties took over the streets. “You could see it in black people here – usually they’re so hard, they protect themselves so much, but after Obama won, they wore their warmth, their hope on the surface . . . ”
Walking out of the subway into Prospect Heights I noted how relaxed the crowds seemed, streaming down Washington Ave into the cold, cold night. In London a dozen people would be barking into their cell phones, stress and frustration in their voices, written all over their faces – and totally closed off from everyone around them.  Here it was just people going home after work. You felt you could sink into the crowd, become a part of it, that people would respond to you – you felt a togetherness that has been absent from New York  for some time.

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Don’t know if this is a harbinger of things to come, but a big anti-Israeli demonstration hit London this weekend. Protestors clashed with riot police, then trashed a Starbucks. Poor Starbucks!

From the Guardian:

From the Telegraph:

Organizers put the numbers at 100,000, the police at 20,000, the BBC at 50,000. What I find most interesting about these protests/ riots is that they happened at all. I was at the 2001 Anti-globalization protests in Quebec City (as a spectator – although I did have the pleasure of being gassed a couple of times) and I was thinking during the Greek riots how long it’s been since we’ve seen anything similar in England or North America – how completely 9-11 shut down our ability to dissent.

   What are these riots about really? Often the political cause is just an excuse. With all the anger that’s been floating about for the last few years, even before the financial crash, I wonder if this is just a beginning.

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If New York is about anything it is change. Change and re-invention is built right into this city’s fabric. To paraphrase the Last Poets, all New York does is change, change, change.
Every time I’ve come back here after being away for a few months, I’ve found a different city than when I left. Not just different people, but a different mood, a different definition. Just before 9-11, it was an overpowering materialism, the SUV’s, the yuppie store taking over even in Brooklyn. Six months later New York was a wounded, and more human, city. People talked to each other in the bars again, and that camraderie that is never far below the surface of New York life, even at it’s craziest, was out in the open.
In fall 2004, with hope that the Bush years would soon be over, New York was a great place to be. Wild, open, as dazzling as the fall colours. When the Republicans, using Ground Zero as a backdrop to appeal to the rest of the nation, while delivering a direct snub to this deeply Democratic city, held their convention here, some half-million people marched against it (as six hundred thousand braved 15 below cold and a chill wind off the East River to march against the Iraq war).

After Bush was re-elected, New York seemed to go on the retreat and by last spring, when I came back for the first time in a year and a half, it seemed the pod people had taken over everything. The Manhattan bars seemed to have been taken over by the super-rich, who flew between Manhattan, Dubai, London, wherever else the hyper-elite gathered. Brooklyn was only the downmarket version.
And now? Hard to say. Friends in the construction biz, who get a lot of their work from people working on Wall street, are having a hard time getting work – but that doesn’t mean they’re not working. A friend who invested her savings in mutual funds lost 30,000. Seems her bank invested only in the safest prospects – one of whom turned out to be Lehman Bros. The new condos in Brooklyn are mostly empty. My favorite bar in Manhattan was almost empty last night at happy hour but for a few old time old-regulars and some queen at the bar yapping into his cellphone, presumably to his boyfriend, about who gave who the most blowjobs (not to be a homophobe here, but some private matters should just stay private).
But rally it’s hard to say. My friends here still have new toys that would be out of the reach of the people I know in London or even Canada. Walking through Manhattan last night, it still seemed like the Midwestern suburbs dominated. Only time will tell which way this city will go.

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