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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

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 I’ve never seen the city so withdrawn, so homogenized – so like everywhere else.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:

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View of snowstorm through my window View from the window in the eye of the storm.

New York survived the blizzard. Schools closed, businesses closed, New Jersey closed – it was a big deal!  From my perspective, the worst thing was all the ice this morning, and the expectation of days of slush to come (a few years ago, when I was here for a big snowstorm, huge snowbanks blocked off streets in Manhattan and weary New Yorkers had to climb up down jump across the slush, then climb up and down again, repeating the cycle at the corner of each street).

As a Canadian, I am of course used to snowstorms. What amazes me, however, is how New Yorkers respond. In Toronto, people clear their sidewalks grudgingly. In Montreal, where block long convoys of snowploughs and dumptrucks have most streets clear by dawn in even the heaviest of blizzards, the ice can remain on the sidewalks for weeks, even months. On my Brooklyn street, my mostly black American and West Indian neighbors are out almost as soon as the snow starts falling, and will come out repeatedly through the night and into the morning. You can hear them at three am, shovels scraping steps and sidewalks, like there is some sort of competition over who can get their steps and patch of sidewalk clean first. By morning, everyone is out on the street, shouting over the street, commiserating, even going over to help people stuck in deeper than the others.

It’s really one of the few times people on this street openly greet each other, a reminder that New Yorkers like to connect through calamities, big and small . . .

Brooklyn in the eye of the storm

Nice slideshow of reader photos in New York Times

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Protests in New York City

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?

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Old Time Coffee Klatch Back when coffee was just coffee

I’ve been sick off and on all freakin’ month so haven’t had the energy to gather material for this freakin’ blog . . .

On better days, to get out of the house, I’ve been making it out to those strange hybirds of our increasingly strange culture, the coffee shop.

I have, however, been in the habit of going in the mornings for some time. I had a bad injury ten or so years ago and during the long, long period of convalescence, it was a relief to go to a public place and scribble in a notebook for half an hour to an hour. ‘Morning writing’. It didn’t have to be serious, or even make sense. The act of writing, forcing my brain to form words and get them on the page at a time when I was often in the worst shape, set the tone for the rest of the day. I had to find the right place. enough people to make it interesting, but with enough space to remove yourself, have the space to write. An aural background to shut out the higher pitched distractions.

Not easy to find. The steady encroachment of the cellphone hasn’t made it easier. Starbucks, oddly enough, often provides the necessary mix . . .

Outside of the mornings, I’ve never really been into the whole cafe thing. Even when I lived in Montreal.  Italian coffee places, great. Cafes in Paris, wonderful. But North America never really got the concept. Even if I’m not drinking, I’d rather go to a bar. I’ve especially never been down with those hip little cafes that  with the funky art on the walls, the hipster barristas, the range of muffins, cupcakes, and  the thousand coffee blends – the places that sweep in just ahead of any serious wave of gentrification.

We got a half-dozen of them in my neighborhood now.

This weekend an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail (‘Where Did Cafe Culture go?,  more or less a rewrite of WSJ’s No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users) talked about the spread of laptops in cafes, how people are increasingly coming in for one coffee, opening their laptops and staying for hours (or even all day) so many owners are pulling the plug on wifi because they can’t make any money. I wrote before about the electronic galley slaves that have taken over many cafes now.

It seems that many cafes have become surrogate offices now. I know a lot of people, in this area at least, who go to cafes in the daytime are freelancers or students, or unemployed. A lot them probably live packed into cramped apartments where it’s easier to work in a cafe, even a crowded one. But you rarely see anyone using pen and paper anymore. In the last few years, I’ve come to feel like some kind of anachronism, writing with a pen, in a notebook.

I could understand all that – hey, times change – but what I really don’t get is people who pull out their cellphones and start yapping haut voix so their voice dominates their entire space (especially when the cafe is practically empty). I really don’t get people who can spend hours gaping into their laptops when they could be outside, walking around. The recession, gentrification – all have played their part in the decline of New York’s famous open-ness – but the spread of these cafes with their electronic hives have done their share as well. I mean hey, I love computers, but this is still, even in winter, one of the most entertaining cities in the Western World. Why would you want to spend hours in some dumb-ass cafe talking checking updates on facebook?

Paris Cafe outside Paris, some time ago. They still do it better.

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Runners Headed down Bedford to ManhattanSunday was Marathon day and I got up with a bad post-Halloween hangover to find my normally semi-deserted neighborhood packed with people. The NYC Marathon is a big deal and brings in people from across the world – some 42,ooo runners participate. It runs through all five boroughs, from the Verizona Bridge in Staten Island, through Brooklyn, on into Queens and through the Bronx before turning back into Manhattan and ending up near Central Park. In all my years in NY, I’ve never seen it, even when it ran right through my neighborhood, so this time I thought I’d better catch it, hungover or not.

For some reason I thought it started in the afternoon so by the time I arrived around one, the main body of the runners had already passed, and some local people were already taking up their stools and canvas deck chairs and heading home.The crowd was thickest around Bedford and Lafayette, where the runners turned and headed back into Manhattan. One lady, who must been there all morning, stood on the corner, bellowing encouragement over and over, and even slapping the backs of ailing runners.

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Still, watching the stragglers was enetertaining enough. One guy (presumably French) dressed as the Eiffel Tower . . .

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Another who juggled while running . . .

Running Juggler

Running Juggler

The best scene was up at the housing projects up Lafayette. The projects are the usual twelve story, brick buildings with the black grates over the windows that make them look a little like prisons – the same kind of public housing built all over the US in the 60’s. Normally, you hardly see anyone but the old folks outside in the daytime, but a BBQ had been set up in the playground with big speakers blaring out old Motown. Periodically, an MC (dressed in NY Giants colours – see below) chanted encouragement to the stragglers “You’re doing great. . .keep going, keep going . . .  ” People stood by the side of the road, chanting encouragement, I guess glad to get out and be a part of it all . 

The kids were out in force. One kid, dressed like Micheal Jackson (that’s the pre-wierdo, 1980’s Micheal Jackson that seems to be the image black people want to keep of him. The Micheal Jackson that was still BLACK), complete with oversized silver glove, stood on the side of the road with his buddies putting out his glove for the runners, then all of them would do cartwheels back and forth across the street, in-between the last of the straggling runners.

Kids Welcoming Runners

With the motown and people dancing on the sidewalks and the kids doing cartwheels in the street, it was a scene I haven’t seen in New York for some time, and I remembered how common this energy was here a few years ago – how you could go out on a weekend afternoon in Manhattan, and feel this same edgy, vibrant, black American energy running through the city like an electrical current. You would meet someone’s eye, someone you had nothing else in common with – say a black kid from the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn- and you’d have this instant empathy because you were sharing that moment of being out in New York City on a fall afternoon, digging the people, the city, the energy, and you knew just from looking at each other that you felt it, that you were aficianado.

And I realized that the difference came because these were mostly poor people out on the street, enjoying free entertainment, that poor people had to a great degree become invisible in the New York of today.

Kids Dancing on the road

The kids had such remarkable energy, and unself-concious joy. I thought of Park Slope, the mostly white, increasingly upscale neighborhood where I worked last week, and how the kids there seem uniformly miserable – constantly crying, screaming. Even if it was heightened by the release of a special event, these kids had the magic of childhood in their faces, and watching them made me feel joyful as well. And it was good to be reminded of all the things I’ve loved about New York all these years, why I’ve come back again and again.

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Couple on Lafayette

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Cops on corner of bedford and lafayette watching the runners

Kids Posing along the route

Kids Posing along the route

Couple on Lafayette

Couple on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

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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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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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