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City of Strangers will return soon.
I canceled our New York Times subscription this weekend. Not because we.ve turned away from print media – that we stuck with the Times this long is a testament to our enjoyment of print media and our desire to see it stay alive. No, I canceled it because the Times delivery, in this corner of Bed-Stuy at least, had to be some of the most incompetent service I’ve ever seen.
First they kept forgetting to deliver the Saturday paper. We called, still no delivery. We called again. One weekend of papers, then another weekend of no paper. Another call, another stretch of appalling delivery, this time in the form of on off papers, weekdays and weekends. Then, no Saturday paper, no Sunday paper, then no paper at all. We called again.
You get the picture.
This went on for most of last year. Yet we kept at it. Reading the news on the screen still can’t replicate the pleasure of a real newspaper, the chance disclosure of the unfolded page, the feel of paper beneath the fingers. As we all know, print media is an endangered beast. We like to do our part.
After we’d called for the ninth time, we got a whole month of nearly uninterrupted service. Sometimes, when I woke up early, I’d hear our paper boy. I wouldn’t realize it was him at first – usually there was just a blast of music, sometimes 80’s dance music, sometimes hip-hop, but loud enough to fill out the dawn street. Then he’d appear, tossing the blue-wrapped newspaper out his window. I think he had a helper.
Of course it didn’t last. Hey, I’m sure delivery the newspaper is not a great job. I’ve had to get up at four, five am to go to some shitty job and it sucks. But I delivered the newspaper as a kid and it’s not that freakin’ hard. Especially when someone’s called ten times. When our paper didn’t come three weekends in a row, I was incredulous. Who wants a service that doesn’t come more often than it does? I called the subscription office and a nice woman with a southern accent answered. She didn’t seem surprised that I wanted to cancel. “But if you do decide to renew with us, please call us when you don’t receive your newspaper . . . ”
I don’t know if the Times just doesn’t care about our corner of Bed-Stuy, or if they want to be rid of their print division altogether. If this is common, they’re doing a good job.
We met at T-Poutine, a narrow hole-in-the-wall on Ludlow Street. Forty Canadians, a couple of Americans, there for that curiously popular French-Canadian specialty, poutine. French fries with cheese curds, covered in gravy. T-Poutine is run by an ex-Quebecer, Thierry Pepin, and they serve poutine in all kinds of flavors, from smoked meat to ‘tree-hugger’ (sliced mushrooms). In Montreal you always had poutine plain, so that’s how I had it. And it was the real thing, as close to the Montreal version as you’ll have in New York – or anywhere.
Memories of Montreal Pool Room in the early 90’s at the bottom of St. Laurent, just below rue St. Catherine, the long, long avenue that bisects Montreal east to west, English side to French. An area dominated by strip bars, and tavernes where they played hardcore porn on the overhead TV’s inside and everyone from the bikers (or would be bikers) and their women, to the old men who probably came in every day to the waitresses, totally ignored it. The once-great punk club, Foufounes Electrique, just around the corner, and after hanging out until two or three or four am, you’d drop into the Montreal Pool Room and join the line up of just out of the bar aficianados for poutine, hot dogs, or just the best fries in the city with the best cuisine in North America, hoping it would take off the worst of the hangover the next day. Which of course it didn’t.
Memories too of my first journeys to New York and America in the late 1980’s, riding the night train down the Eastern Seaboard. Drinking in a lounge car full of raucous, mostly blue-collar Americans from Vermont or Massachusetts, knocking back one dollar cans of bud with shots of Jack Daniels, and some big black dude with an afro playing Jimi Hendrix medleys on a farfisa organ in the corner. Arriving with the Bronx dawn spilling out the train window, those magnificent power station chimneys rising up beside the Hudson. Stumbling out into Penn Station with two hours sleep, still drunk.
I hung out on the Lower East Side in those days, drank just up the street. The Lower East Side was still mostly Puerto Rican, the dealers lined Rivington, the bars that cover the area just starting to make inroads on upper Ludlow. I had a friend down on Clinton and I’d stay at his loft space overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge. The doorbell didn’t work so you had to shout up and hope he heard you over the traffic noise from Delancey so he could open the window and throw down the key four stories down to the street, the key insulated with a felt glove so it wouldn’t fall on anyone and maim them. I don’t recall the LES being heavy exactly, but when you stepped outside, you were aware of being somewhere not quite America, with the Spanish on the streets, the stores with the religious icons, the music, the food. And the energy – so much energy and tension in those narrow streets. Going back to Montreal always felt like odd, like a deflation, and it would take me days to find myself again.
After the poutine, we drank vodka supplied by the good folks at the restaurant, then stepped onto a Ludlow I hardly recognized. Some of the old bars still there, Katz’s Deli still there, but I never imagined that the Lower East Side, like (to a much lesser degree), the neighborhood I hung out in up in Montreal, would become a hangout for the affluent. In this case, the very affluent. The same crappy streets, same wine-dark tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes – and a whole lot of bars, restaurants and very fancy cafes, the kind I would never have imagined down here even ten years ago. Even five years ago.
And on a day when the rest of New York was deserted with the holidays and the heat, the LES was packed. It had this strange gloss, like the gloss of a movie set, and I kept thinking of They Live!, John Carpenter’s godawful yet increasingly prescient portrayal of a world run by alien yuppies, because watching these folks, you’d never know there was a recession on, and I had to wonder, as I often do when I’m certain part of Manhattan or Brooklyn: who the fuck are these people?
The blossoms are out on the tree outside my front door, almost obscuring one of the last empty houses on the street (five years ago there were at least a half-dozen). The slightly menacing and very monotonous tingle of the ice cream truck echoes up and down and all around the street . . .
Saturday morning, the block association on my street came out to clean up the planters, getting ready to put out the flowers in a week or two. People are out on the stoop, kids are on the pavement, and the first of the killer motorcycles has come roaring down the street. A few more fire trucks than usual were out today, but so far, no major repeat of the craziness that came with the warm weather a couple of weeks ago.
The dogs are out as well, barking in the back yards for any reason at all, their barking magnified by the canyon formed by the backs of the three and four story brownstones . . .
Down Greene Ave. one condo is almost finished, another sits three-quarters finished and almost wholly abandoned, the guard post unmanned most of the time, windows smashed out on the upper levels, a the two by fours and netting of a personnel barrier hanging off an unfinished balcony. The ten story tower, the tallest building in the area, looks over the neighborhood like an unmanned lighthouse. The almost finished condo, however, advertises the usual luxury flats and, from the polished condition of the flats inside the windows, the owners seem confident they’ll sell. The sister condo – almost identical in size and style – is going up just as fast.
On The Street that Gentrification Forgot, new housing built a year or two ago has made it seem almost like a normal street. Almost. An auto body shop has been converted into a woodworking studio where, amongst other things, the owners make violins. A yoga studio, sure sign that the neighborhood is reaching the gentrification critical mass, is rumored to be opening in a converted warehouse loft. Yet just around the corner is another condo, thin as a razor, also three-quarters complete and seemingly abandoned. The lower levels are open, guarded by a wooden fence that is so flimsy the whole thing fell right into the street during the storm a couple of weeks ago – where it remained for three days until someone finally came to put it right. I keep waiting for squatters to move in and inhabit the spaces with the floor to ceiling windows and, I’m sure, fine views of the neighborhood.
Up on Classon and Greene, in the old liquor store building, a mural has been painted on the side facing Greene, obscuring some of the old historic logs of companies that don’t exist anymore. Two young guys, one black, one white, were hard at work a couple of weeks ago, and I thought they might be producing some sort of community mural. Instead, it is an ad disguised as a community mural. It reads:
“This art wall installation was designed by (two real estate agents who shall remain un-named) and was inspired by the Ford Fiesta Movement project, Mission#1. The mural highlights (said real estate agents)’ top 10 favorite locations in Brooklyn. They are one of 20 teams of agents throughout the country who are challenged with showcasing the vibrancy and creativity of their home town.”
Like Jeremiah wrote in a post last week, street art is being/has been colonized by the corporate world so “sometimes . . . it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at gallery art, graffiti, or advertising.. .”What’s curious about this mural is its sheer dippiness, and its location on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy (and across from another finished, but empty condo building). This makes no mistake that it is advertising, according to the video on the website it is part of a nationwide team of real estate agents “working with the best local talent to reimagine the way Fiesta gets advertised”. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope the mural it is tagged and defaced (in the grand NY tradition) very soon.
Perhaps. But likely not anytime soon.
I first became aware of Braddock, PA last summer, through an article in my Google news alert from the People’s Weekly World (‘We take sides – Yours! Working class opinions and views since 1924’) entitled:
At first what amazed me was not Braddock – but that an old time leftie journal like People’s Weekly World still existed in today’s America. Or today’s anywhere, since our political conversation has shifted so rightward that what would have been centrist in the 70’s is now ‘radical’ left. But then I got interested in Braddock.
Braddock, Pennsylvania, sits just outside Pittsburgh, and has a population of 2800, down from 200,000 in the 50”s. The mayor, John Fetterman, has become a celebrity of sorts. Most recently, he was profiled in the Atlantic’s ‘Brave Thinkers’ series, but many papers have profiled him from the Guardian: America’s coolest mayor? to the New York Times: Rock Bottom For Decades but Showing Signs of Life. Fetterman makes great cop: a 6’8”, 300 pound, heavily tattooed white Harvard grad with a shaved head who wants to revive a dying steel town where the remaining population is mostly black. He seems a dedicated man, has built a website dedicated to the town braddoc; ‘destruction breeds creation – create amidst destruction’ (‘braddoc’ was the local Crips’ spelling of the town’s name).
Having grown up in a town surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned mines, a town that is itself almost now completely abandoned, I’ve always been fascinated by abandonment: what it means, what places become after they’ve been abandoned. But the story of Braddock and Mayor Fetterman’s attempts to revive it, struck other chords.
In an excellent article from ReadyMade Magazine( ‘One Man’s Mission to Save Braddock, Pennsylvania’), the writers illustrate not only how black people were left behind by the GI Bill, by a lack of seniority in the workplace, but how Braddock is in the absurd position of possessing the last operating steel mill in the Valley, yet how almost no one works at the mill actually lives in Braddock. As Mayor Fetterman says, “the mill’s only contribution to the community is pollution – one of the main reasons white workers, when they could, moved out.”
The mayor would like to see the white folks come back. Not the white working class – no one expects that – but the only white folks who re-inhabit depressed urban areas their parents or grandparents fled – artists, urban frontierists, chasing cheap living spaces, an off-the-grid community, freedom, or sometimes just escape.
I’ve lived in some (albeit much tamer) version of Braddock since my teens – depopulated or recently de-industrialized neighborhoods occupied by the artists and misfits Fetterman wants to attract. Since about the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that cities like New York and London would have less and less space for people on the margins, I’ve thought real artistic renewal would come from smaller centres – like grunge came from Seattle. That hasn’t happened on any meaningful level, and cities seem to be separating into two types – gentrified and depressed (or semi-abandoned). The question remains – can any kind of real cultural movement form in places like Braddock (or Detroit, Buffalo . . .). And if they can, can they revive not just the city but the fortunes of the people who already live there, or resist the uber-gentrification (a little gentrification, like a little poison, can be a good thing) that seems to follow any cultural flowering?
The Lower East Side is a half hour’s walk from the power centres of mid-town and Wall Street – even at its most abandoned and depraved, when drug lines circled around blocks of abandoned tenements, the separation was more psychological or cultural than physical. In many respects, New York was a more egalitarian place in those days, and drugs, art, thrills, formed the nexus where the powerful and the marginal rubbed shoulders. All those spaces I inhabited (or squatted), were in the heart of the city, in properties that are in some cases now worth millions.
It takes a certain kind of person to live off the grid, and the communities that formed were often riven by drugs, conflict, or an extreme (and crippling) marginalization. Isolation, drugs, blightend landscapes, crime – these aren’t easy to take day after day, especially as you get older.
What else are communities like Braddock to do? Unless the West re-industrializes (and there seems to be a growing awareness that this might be a good idea), there isn’t much that can be done. The solution that is proposed again and again for depressed communities seems to be big box malls, gambling or a prison – Fetterman’s opponent in the last election wanted to bring in a gas station. The homesteaders provide population, new ideas, energy. Maybe, as our economy changes, the inevitability of gentrification for successful cultural communities will change as well. Maybe new industries will one day come back to Braddock . . .
In the meantime, Braddock remains an experiment worth watching. Even if it doesn’t become the next Lower East Side. And if it is successful, perhaps my little town will attract people in like fashion one day . . .
A guy at my Manhattan watering hole, a theatre director and Soho resident since the 70’s, claims this is the most interesting time to be in New York sicne, well, the 70’s. “Everyone’s moving out of the city, no one knows what’s going to happen . . . ”
I don’t see the 70’s, or what I know of the 70’s in New York, just yet. If anything Manhattan and central Brooklyn feel like more of the same – more gentrified, less life around the edges, more of a homogenization I’ve never seen in New York before. Wall Street still pays out the big bonuses, and another bar regular who runs a high end catering business says business is up, that his Wall street clients are back splashing out for the big events.
Yet everyone I know is broke. Not desperate, not yet, but I wonder where they’ll be if this continues for a year. In my corner of central Brooklyn new cafes, increasingly upscale, are opening up and middle class white folks with babies are moving in even as the great condo binge edges threatening to transform the neighborhood crawls to a stop – some days a half dozen workers show up to work on a fifty unit building, and a 20 unit building completed last year sits empty, threatened with foreclosure, on the chopping block for a million and a half – for the whole building. Yet despite the recession, and the increasing gentrification, the still mostly working/ lower-middle class black folk in my neighborhood, by and large have retained the optimism they picked up after Obama was elected. Though I wonder too how much longer that will continue if things continue . . . .
A friend with relatives down on Wall street said the feeling is that the street will not return to anything like its pre-Crash level anytime soon. In the Atlantic, Richard Florida (the Creative Class guy), writes that New York will have to re-define itself beyond Wall street once again.
Regardless, I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time reading New York. I’ve never seen the city so withdrawn, so homogenized – so like everywhere else. Nathan Kensinger, in his excellent post, The Bloomberg Era Pt. 1, maps out a scale of development that rivals the changes brought about by Robert Moses. I was away for most of the development period, returning for a few months at a time and often with a year or so in-between, and so experienced these changes almost second-hand. Beyond the deflation that came with Bush’s re-election, I did notice a change setting in in late 2006 – people I knew here began to withdraw into smaller and smaller circles, my favorite bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan became more homogenized, and that wonderful New York quality of random contact and possibility began to go on the retreat. And many people I knew started leaving the city, a process which is still going on now.
Yet that cycle is over, and another is about to begin. If New York feels sometimes like just another city now, I’m sure that in one year, two, it will be something else entirely.
Guy down on Wall street last summer:
The tea party convention came and went this weekend. Sarah Palin, avatar of the American loopy right, gave a speech. 600 people paid a lot of money to attend, see Sarah speak.
The tea party people get a lot of press from the mainstream media they claim to hate, and all that press about grassroots rage has made me think back across the years, all the way back to the beginning of the Iraq War.
The MSM, including the ‘liberal’ New York Times, were bellicose in their support of the war. Certain lawmakers and many commentators from the above-mentioned loopy right, called anyone who dared to question the march to war foolish, naive, even treasonous. I’d come down that winter after a few months back in Canada (where Prime Minister Jean Chretien, that old fox, hemmed and hawed then, with obvious satisfaction, announced on national TV that Canada would not be among the Willing), and I was shocked by the war fever in the media and across the nation. I’d never seen anything like it.
Yet, on a brutally cold February day, 600,000 New Yorkers came out to march against the war. I went down with my girlfriend and we joined the crowd on the Upper East Side, since midtown was too crowded. The wind whipped off the East River, and the police were out in force, directing the crowd this way or that, making it difficult to reach the main body of the protesters. The cold got so bad, we ducked into an Irish bar on 3rd Ave. At the top of the hour, between ‘Money Matters’, some show about pets, and other irrelevances, both NY1 and CNN made by the way updates on the biggest protest since the 60’s.
Of course, the marches made no impact whatsoever. I can’t remember if Bush even acknowledged that they’d taken place.
A year and a half later, some half a million marched against the Republican convention held in Manhattan that year because it made for great optics. In the West Village, where the marches began, it was so packed traveling a single block took an hour. The cops were out in force, but the mood was relaxed, and some of the cops even seemed supportive. Security around the conference centre was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Choppers, riot cops with machine guns, secret service agents in aviator shades and earpieces, racing off off in black SUVs with reflective windows. I’d never seen anything like it, not even in 80’s London where terrorism was a real and daily threat.
That protest too made little to no impact. But both protests did redeem my faith in New York.
I wonder if any of these tea party people, devotees of Glen Beck and the Avatar, has ever made a connection between the parlous state of America’s finances and the long, long war that followed the invasion, an invasion that was against the wishes of so many in the city where 9/11 did the most damage?