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Archive for October, 2009

MTA CondomsWalking down Bedford Ave, one weekend morning, not too long ago.

Two black guys, very gay, walking on ahead of me . . .

Since the summer,  one sees a great increase in openly gay black men in this section of Bed-Stuy (there are also a great number of evidently hetero black men with very small dogs. But that’s another post). Sometimes, they look like young (if well-dressed) straight guys until you get up close, sometimes they wear a touch of make-up. Once, I saw three actual transvestites, each over 6 foot tall, wearing ripped tank tops, mini-skirts, fishnets and size 13 heels, walking past Nostrand to the projects, then another queen, maybe even taller in silver flats the size of small canoes. A friend saw another queen, wearing one of those “I ‘Heart’ You’ pajama bottoms, walking up Bedford, with a couple of real female friends, saying ‘you know, girlfriend’ over and over.

You wouldn’t have seen openly gay men in the rough and tough Bed-Stuy of a few years ago. Once, four or five summers past, when I foolishly ventured outside wearing a tight-fitting designer tank top from a friend’s boutique in Toronto, one of a bunch of guys hanging out on a stoop, shouted: “I can’t believe they’s hiring motherfucking HOMOS for the force now!” (this, back in that not so long ago time when a lot of folks here assumed any white guy (or gal), walking around the neighborhood had to be a cop).

But the boys are out now, in numbers, and not at all shy. I’ve never heard anyone abuse them,  or even look at them twice. Maybe they’re originally  from the hood. Or maybe, like a lot of queens, they’re just really fucking tough and the homeboys have learned the hard way not to mess with them.

Anyway, one of the guys ahead of me drops something on the sidewalk, square and black, and they both look at it and laugh, the one who dropped it saying, “oh, just forget it!” When I get close enough, I see that it is one of those condoms with the round NYC subway logos and colours, the MTA condom brand the NYC Department of Health has been handing out for the past couple of  years in a big anti-HIV/STD drive (though, apparently, they no longer use the MTA logo) so you see them all over the place in bars and clubs, sitting in big glass jars like candy.

I have a friend who works in a non-profit which deals with, among other things, sexual education and STD prevention.  She says there is a big, big problem with these freebie condoms: they break. Not just once in awhile, like all condoms do, but frequently enough that her organization is phasing them out and going back to Durex. She even knows someone who became HIV positive after one such breakage.

Now, I sure as hell would never use freebie condoms, from the NYC Department of Health or anywhere else. But I guess our friends out for a morning stroll knew a thing or two.

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Where indeed?

I haven’t updated this question since the winter because it’s been difficult to get a sense of where, in fact, New York is at.

Certainly, the optimism I felt in the winter after the Obama inauguration has dissipated. People talk about the recession continuing through next year, of hard times in 2010 when unemployment starts to run out. They talk about a jobless recovery, of the kind Japan went through for a decade or more. Liberal friends are pissed about the tortuous health care debate, the bonuses at Goldman Sachs.

I’ve often wondered how New York  – and America – would bear up under long term decline. As long as I’ve been coming here, New York has been about optimism, possibility, the future. Decline has curious effects. In pre-turbo-capitalist London, people were resigned, pessimistic, chronically depressed (they’re still chronically depressed, but that’s another story). In Montreal, the transition from an essentially prosperous city to one of the terminal decline, created all manner of inward-turning semi-psychosis, a ghetto mentality even if it was to all appearances still a middle-class city. My friends in New York have already become more withdrawn. People go out much less, and when they do go out, there is much less of that desire to meet new people, to create experiences and encounters, that made New York so captivating even a couple of years ago.

Yet prices haven’t gone down. In my Manhattan local, they’ve actually gone up. Once favorites like the Old Town have become so expensive, I can’t afford to go there for more than a beer, and then only haphazardly, since it’s largely full of the kind of people who can afford $8 beers (with tip).

Yet in Park Slope, Fort Greene, and much of Manhattan, the bars and restaurants are still full. In this corner of Bed-Stuy, the condos keep going up. The foundations have just been poured for a fifty unit building on Clifton Place, stacked behind two similar units on Greene, with more around the corner. Down Bedford, two or three condo units stand empty, windows still papered over. There has been talk of crime going up, but as far as I can see, it’s all relative. This neighborhood is nothing like it was even three years ago, when you felt the tension every time you stepped out the door, and you had various disreputables hanging around the bodega on Bedford every night.

It’s an odd recession alright. When the crash came last year, I thought gentrification would come to a halt. It hasn’t. It is a constant source of conversation – who are these people? How do they get their money?

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

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Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

An organic market opened this summer in Bed-Stuy, behind the community garden on Marcy and Clifton Place. I’ve been going regularly when I’m in the neighborhood. I have mixed feelings about things like organic markets. In Fort Greene, the organic market that opened along the park in 2003, was pretty much the beginning of the end of Fort Greene as an affordable neighborhood. Going to the Fort Greene market now – and I say this as someone who has always enjoyed going to markets, of all kinds – is about as pleasurable as fighting your way through a crowded shopping mall. And cheap it ain’t.

Hattie Carthan Market hasn’t reached that point, though. The times I’ve been there, it has been pleasant, relaxed. The market is the child of  Yonette Fleming, who rescued a vacant lot behind the Coummnity Garden which developers had been using to dump refuse from construction sites. She cleaned up the lot, mostly with volunteers from the neighborhood. She runs cooking classes every Saturday afternoon for a small audience, explaining what she is doing, then serving whatever she has cooked. Yonette is a community food educator, and the market is part of a larger mission of introducing healthy food into poor communities. From the press release for the market opening:

Young woman in front of mural

Young woman in front of mural

“. . .   In New York City neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant in Central Brooklyn where a third of residents live in poverty, more than 12% of adults have diabetes, compared to 8% nationwide. . . . The farmers market is also a community’s effort  to reclaim its agricultural heritage and contribute to the cultural, social and economic vitality of  Central Brooklyn.”

The first time I went down, volunteers were painting the murals which now adorn the site and the next Saturday, Travis from ‘Band of Bicycles’ was down with his ‘blender bicycle’ serving fresh juice mixed in a bicycle-powered blender. The market takes food stamps, and prices are better than up in Fort Greene.  I like going to the little market, having lunch from Yonette’s food stall – she cooks every weekend, with produce from the community garden –  then touring the community garden next door. Most of the vendors come down from organic farms in Vermont, and there is a strong Vermont connection, with a lot of white people with the usual neo-hippie garb: t-shirts celebrating the Cuban Revolution, tie-dyed hair, beads, even sandals. It is amazing how little that basic style has changed in three decades. Last weekend, on the Oktoberfest celebration, there was even a bongo jam session, and spoken word poetry. Even if it is relaxing, even refreshing, this turn from a steets of barracks like brick housing projects with metal bars over the windows and the teenagers hanging out on the street into a slice of rural hippie Vermont is just a little odd.

Blender Bicycle

The Hattie Carthan Community Garden is one of a network of small gardens which you see all over Bed-Stuy. I also remember seeing a few up in Harlem, and a couple down in the Lower East Side, and apparently there are a few really big ones up in the Bronx. The gardens are the work of the Green Guerillas, an early 90’s movement to turn vacant lots in poor, mostly black neighborhoods, into garden plots for local people, many of whom came from the rural South. In particular, activists wanted to get the kids involved, most of whom had been raised in the city and lost touch with the soil.

It is usually mostly  old folks around when I tour the garden, who seem to have been around for years. They hang around in the shade at a BBQ in the back, next to the long greenhouse where Yonette gets a lot of her produce.  Once, I met a young black guy from Belgium who was sightseeing with his wife and young daughter. He said they’d been to community gardens all over New York, that people were always happy to show them around, that they made it a regular weekend activity to go around the gardens in New York.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Last week, I talked to one of the old guys who was at the very back of the garden, trimming the hedges. He had a thick southern accent and I guessed he must have come from North Carolina originally, as do many of the old people in the neighborhood. Some of the hedges had been trimmed into little domes, others wound through the market like a garden path. He said when the garden had first started 17 years before, the hedges had all been wild, and he’d trimmed them into shape and kept them up every year. They’d planted the fig trees, which now stood fifteen feet high. At the back of the garden, overlooking Marcy street, was a Magnolia tree, planted in 1885. Hattie Carthan, a local enviromenalist, secured landmark status for the tree before she died in 1984.

I wondered what the area had been like when the garden had first started. Even a few years ago, the park across the street was a sort of blank zone of scrubby grass, drugs consumed in the corners. Several blocks of low-rise projects cover the area behind and around the garden. Except for the barracks-like front doors, they aren’t bad as projects go, but they have that slightly abandoned air of New York housing projects, and a few years ago, they were much worse. The garden must have been a curious oasis amidst the decay that was Bed-stuy in that era, and I wondered what the old folks thought of all the white people moving into their neighborhood now, if they’d ever thought it possible in the dark days of the early 90’s, when the garden first opened.

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

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Stewart Home writes in his Mister Trippy blog reports that in London of “empty retail units and what only a couple of years ago would have seemed like really unlikely pop-ups in place of tedious corporate chains.”

I can’t imagine rents have dropped more in London than they have in New York, but this would be a welcome development. I haven’t seen it here yet, but you never know – retail units are emptying out in Manhattan as well.

If it IS happening in London, it would be reversal of what was happening when I moved back in 2007, when the old London of independent stores and second-hand shops seemed about to disappear completely.

I’m thinking of one place in particular, a second-hand booksellers in the St. James shopping arcade, just behind St. James Park (between Buckingham Palace and Westminster for you non-Londoners). The bookseller was a garrulous English guy, whose small store was wedged between a newsagent and some kind of coffee chain. He had all kinds of books you didn’t see in the chain bookstores (including a full range of titles by Stewart Home), and perennial sales – books for a pound. His store was ramshackle, with boxes all over the place, but he was a big friendly guy who liked to chat with anyone who came into his store – and there were always a couple of regulars around the counter. After he spotted my accent, he told me his wife was from Canada, that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the store since the landlord wanted to raise his rent beyond any reasonable amount, but that if he lost the store, he and his wife were going to sail up and down the coast of British Columbia “like we’ve always wanted to do.”

A week after our conversation, he was gone. A couple of chain shops – a gift card place, a chain juice shop (I’ve forgotten the name of most of these chain places) moved in, but were never too successful and when I left London last year, the storefront was empty again.

I saw his departure as the end of an older London, since that was what I’d always loved about the city, that you could find an independent bookseller ten minutes walk from Buckingham Palace. From that point on, central London seemed exclusively for the rich – wages were already going down for anyone not in the higher echelons of the financial district, and the prices kept going up, up, up. And the chains were everywhere.

Maybe that’s why I liked the Elephant and Castle shopping mall – in it’s own grubby way, it retained a little of that old anarchic London, with it’s mixture of Columbian cafes, the African market, (the Chinese herbalist with the sign in the window promising relief from ‘man problem’) the good second-hand booksellers on the lower level. Despite, or perhaps, because it was still a miserable place to spend more than say, twenty minutes.

So readers, have you seen any examples of interesting stores taking over empty ‘tedious corporate chains’ like Stewart Home writes about in his blog?

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The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

I’ve been down the last couple of weeks with the cold virus that seems to be sweeping the city. And what a virus – haven’t experienced anything like this in years. In the meantime:

From Patell and Waterman’s History of New York:

Hunkered Down in the East Village with Jeremiah Moss and EV Grieve.

Jeremiah Moss is the pseudonym behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and EV Grieve ditto for, well,  EV Grieve. They talked with P&W HONY blog host Brian Waterman about everything from selecting a blogging alter ego (Jeremiah Moss was originally a character from the writer’s unpulished novel), the ongoing gentrification of the East Village to the ‘East Village blogging mafia’. In particular, they talked about the changing demographic of people coming to New York, the East Village in particular, since 9-11. JM said:

“Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different . . . Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place”

The others concurred. I thought it was interesting that they feel the change set in after 9-11. In the East Village, the real shift, for me at least, began in the mid-90’s, when a whole new type of international affluent young person began to find the EV began to arrive in great numbers. In New York in general, I’d say the years after 9-11 weren’t too bad, preferable in many ways to the late 90’s, when a kind of hubris ruled, particularly amongst anyone connected to the dot.com world (for a reminder of just how awful that era could be, see ‘We Live In Public’ by Ondi Timnover).

Immediately after 9-11, pain, shock, brought New Yorkers together again – and scared off a lot of the kinds of people who have saturated it now. In February, 2003, 600,000 people marched against the Iraq War, coming out in minus 15 cold, with winds off the East River –  going up against a venomous lockstep media ready to label anyone who dissented from the Bush administration line a traitor.

In 2004, another half-million marched against the Republican convention in mid-town. That was a good time to be in New York. Again, there was a sense of solidarity in the streets, an energy and open-ness that hadn’t existed since just after 9-11. It was like a more genteel version of the New York I experienced when I first started coming here in the late 80’s. Even the East Village seemed to take a momentary respite from gentrification. If there were more white people with kids on Ave. A than ever before, they were a welcome change from the internationally trendy.

I’d say the latest big change in New York started happening in Bush’s second term. I came and went a lot during those years, and every time I came back, Manhattan seemed a little more affluent, a little more bland, even withdrawn, the bars I used to go to more expensive, familiar neighborhoods that much more homogenous, cellphone/ computer/ corporate culture that much more intrusive. By 2006 or so, the process seemed to have taken over everything else.

But if New York is about anything, it is change. In my limited (fifteen year) experience, the city seems to change direction every five years or so. Possibly, we’re at the end of one cycle now. I’d hoped that the big crash last year would put the breaks on gentrification, and bring back the city I’d loved, but that hasn’t happened yet, at least not in any obvious way.

What do you think, readers? What will the next cycle bring – in New York, London, Toronto, wherever?

Down Ludlow street

Down Ludlow street

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