Archive for January, 2009

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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Bed-Stuy blues . . .

I left not long after Obama was nominated this summer and there weren’t many Obama posters at all – in fact I wondered if people in Bed-stuy even cared. Since then, Barack Obama has won the election, Wall street took a nosedive, and Barack Obama won the election. My friend CJ had this to say about election night:

   “The whole election was really amazing, though. Right up until Election Day none of us really dared to believe it could happen, despite the commanding lead Obama had in the polls. At best we hoped for a squeaker, with counting going on through the night. I must say, too, that the turnout at my polling place was even lower than in 2004. There was no line, no wait: just in and out. I guess all the voting age people are incarcerated or in the country illegally, or perhaps the district is just underpopulated. Then around nine pm I was in the Union Pub with some friends, and Pennsylvania went blue on the big screen, and having spent the last fortnight watching the pundits pore over the electoral map we knew (or at least I knew) that that made it almost mathematically impossible for McCain to win. Then Ohio went not long after, and everyone was screaming and jumping up and down and embracing each other. Then North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida, and the Solid South crumbled.

    “In Bed Stuy everyone was honking and firing their guns in the air down in the projects just like New Years Eve. Every public place was a madhouse, and people who have probably never owned an American flag in their lives except perhaps to burn it in protest were waving all these flags like crazy. They even had those enormous ones you usually only see at car dealerships on Long Island. 

   “Then the next day there was that hung-over feeling. It was grey and drizzly, and Bed-Stuy looked every bit as trash-strewn and derelict as ever, with all the same bums on the same chairs on the same corners. I couldn’t stop crying for days, though, the emotion was so strong–and I’m normally pretty blase about these things. I noticed other people, too, would just start weeping on the subway. It was like we’d woken up one day in exile, and then woken up the next day in our own country, restored to us at last. Of course, about forty percent of the country feels the opposite way, and are busily hanging Obama in effigy, sending boxes of feces to their black neighbors, committing hate crimes, and in the case of a country store in Maine, conducting a betting pool on when Obama will be assassinated. (“Hope someone wins!” reads the sign.) And the messianistic hopes everyone has invested in Obama are just too much for any human being to fulfill. The kindly gentleman from the Community Garden up by Classon told me, as he pressed a bag of collard greens upon me, how now there was going to be peace everywhere in the world”

Three months on, Bed-Stuy doesn’t feel much different than from when I left. On the street, the new apartment houses are finished and ready for tennants – the Verizon telephone people were inside, presumably setting up telephone lines. The building on the corner of Franklin that has been derelict as long as I’ve been around is being fixed up – the windows boarded over, the brick repointed. Along Greene Ave, the hi-rises that had been started this spring or summer are still under construction, so no half-finished hulks, not yet anyway.

CJ says the word is that construction that has already been started will be finished, but there will be no more construction for some time. And the people I know here who work in the field aren’t working much. Some say the construction industry will be dead here for two years or more. What this means for Bed-Stuy, I really don’t know.

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Staying just down from the Brooklyn Museum and up from the proposed development around the Atlantic Yards. For those of you not in the know, the Atlantic Yards is an attempt to bring a section of Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn, running through the heart of my old Brooklyn neighborhoods, Downtown (or lower Prospect Heights in the current real estate vernacular) and Fort Greene. Included would be some dozen or so hi-rises, supposedly mixed commercial, low and medium income, and ‘luxury’ condominiums and a basketball stadium for the brought-back-to-Brooklyn Brooklyn Nets, designed by Frank Gehry.

If the Atlantic Yards  is still happening,  they haven’t gotten too far. Mostly the developers have  demolished a couple of warehouses in the surrounding area, and blown up half the bridge which connected Carlton street east of the LIRR tracks to Carlton west of the LIRR tracks. The LIRR trains still sit humming at the end of those tracks, servicing the butt-ugly Atlantic Station which connects to the even more butt-ugly Atlantic Centre big box mall behind it. The LIRR station is still sectioned off with ugly wooden hoardings, both inside and out, as it has been since I first arrived here fifteen years ago.

Bruce Ratner, the man behind the Atlantic Yards, is responsible for both station and mall, and this doesn’t bode well, since the mall has to be one of the worst shopping experiences this correspondent has ever been on. Big box mall come to downtown Brooklyn, hardly an public space. Posting on Ratner in the Brownstoner . . .


The Atlantic Yards has been a hole in the ground as long as I can remember, the train yards storage for the LIRR trains, Atlantic Avenue more like a highway than a city street, bordered by a disused warehouse, a colossal housing project, and what used to be the Daily News Plant. The only consolation walking home at night was the Daily News trucks parked in the bays, with all the drivers getting ready for the night shift. With the lights, the big trucks idling in the bays while the bales of newspapers were loaded in the back,  and the drivers hanging around smoking, it resembled a night-time port. I walked by so often some of the drivers came to recognize me – I lived right around the corner – and I used to chat with them. They were big white guys, mostly from Long Island or the outer burroughs, and they’d go to the little diner in the corner or, after their shift, for the morning run at Freddy’s Bar down on Pacific. A little crackhead used to circulate around the trucks. She was white with stringy brown hair and must have weighed all of eighty pounds. She cornered me once, away from the trucks at the bottom of the street. “Hey, you wanna a blowjob? Five bucks – I got my own condom too . . . ” showing me the condom in the palm of her hand. Too much.

When the Daily News shifted to the suburbs, the plant sat empty then was converted into condos. Nice enough looking building, but the street never really came alive.  Freddy’s found new life as a hipster bar, playing found video above the bar They stripped the paint off the fine old wood bar and let underground bands play in the back. We used to make the trek up from Fort Greene to hang out.

The whole reason the Atlantic Yards exists at all was because of another  redevelopment scheme thirty odd years ago that saw the powers that be tear down the old train station (a relic of that old station can be seen in the little white building in the traffic island across the street) and dig up the whole area, then leave it abandoned when they ran out of money, a hole in the heart of Brooklyn . . .



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Rode down from frigid Canada listening to the Stranglers’ Men in Black hit the American border at Niagra Falls. Canadian side all glutted up with Planet Hollywood type places and Las Vegas casinos, right beside those iconic falls. Big guys and gals with guns on their hips at the border, asking all kinds of questions. Not unkind – but BIG. You forget that about Americans when you’ve been away – especially if you only visit New York City and fly in and out like I usually do – outside the urban centres, they are a race of giants.

Down through Niagra Falls – the American version. The American side over-run with Mafia activity, drug-running, illicit gambling, that kind of thing – which is part of why the border guards at Niagra Falls are always a little meaner.

On to Buffalo, riding through more snow than we saw even up in Toronto. Beautiful art deco buildings, momentos of a time when Buffalo was an important city (read an article today about how the Buffalo Bills might be farmed out part-time to Toronto, so Toronto and Buffalo would effectively share an NFL team.) When I used to catch the train, we’d ride past the old Buffalo Train station. You could just make out the great art deco buffalo guarding the boarded up front entrance, see the holes in the brick around the top of the tower. The train sheds had been abandoned so long small trees grew up where the tracks used to be . . . must have been a grand station at one time. How America neglects it’s heritage – and how strange that in a country as rich and powerful as the US, whole sections of what used to be the heartland should be virtually abandoned.

Stopping at the truck stops along the way. A Tim Horton’s the healthiest eating around and ain’t that depressing. Fat people working behind the counter of the fast food joints, big doughy people with that blunt, slightly shut down look I associate with upstate New York, milling around inside. Not unkind looking, not unintelligent – just  shut down, laconic and guarded in that American way. That’s the first thing you notice crossing the border, how everyone has their guard up here – even if they’re more open and hospitable than people in central Canada when they let that guard down. Sense too that people are on hard times – the recession hasn’t hit the big centres in a real way, they feel it more in places like upstate, and maybe they’ve been feeling it in these places for years.

Still, you can feel some shift in the mood, a tension, a sense of people on edge . . .

Plenty of those black MIA flags underneath the Stars and Stripes, plenty more big, big vehicles – even if they stopped making SUV’s tomorrow, it’ll take a generation to get rid of them all.

The bus was packed. Some queen with silver eye make-up sitting behind me, yapping into his silver cell phone in mellifluous Spanish that bounced off the window and right into my head. Kid sat down beside me, read Rilke, fell asleep, woke up, surfed jazz websites. Our last stop a Burger King, isolated by the side of the road. Bunch of kids behind the counter, all of them fat, all of them moving as if they were underwater while the line iiiiiinnnched forward. Kid that seemed to be the manager some kind of queen as well, which was amusing to see in a semi-rural Burger King. The bus driver, a big old black guy, ordered a giant size soda,  almost as big as the KFC bucket.  Said to the white girl at the cash, in the manner of people who’ve known each other a long time, “Let my people be free!” referring to his passengers and everyone laughed, but man that Burger King was depressing with the flourescent lights, the smell of that goddam awful food – even the fries tasted awful – and those kids behind the counter with their red and white uniforms and pimply skin, that slow mo service. You get the feeling they’re moving through a haze, stuck there on the side of the highway . . . where do they go after work? Is this the only job around? You feel Bush’s America in the decrepit feel of these little outposts, in the big vehicles, the sense of decay, inertia, abandonment – of people who don’t even know or care what goes on in the rest of the world.

Outside New York an hour long sprawl of big box malls, factory outlets, industrial parks.  Manhattan lights along the horizon. Those iconic silhouettes. Down into the tunnel and up into midtown. Poster of Clint Eastwood’s latest movie the first thing you see . . .  Clint Eastwood with a rifle, peering down hard and cold . . . the first thing you see coming out of the tunnel is a man poised to kill other men.

Then mid-town. Big Bad New York, with the theme 50’s restaurant on 34th street, suburban kids chowing down on burgers with the faux period jukebox flashing behind their heads . . .

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