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Posts Tagged ‘Recession’

Budding Trees in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

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 . . .

Half-finished condo building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

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.

Abandoned condo building on Bedford Ave.

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.

Corporate Mural on the corner of Greene and Classon



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Blurred shot of Manhattan at night Image: Jefft

Hanging outside my lower Manhattan local with D., who has lived in Soho since the 1980’s . . .

A guy came up to us, holding what looked like a $20 dollar bill. He had the usual NY homeless look, with bundles of clothes wrapped around his body and his head so only his craggy, bearded face was visible. The glazed look of days and nights on the street, booze and who knows. The guy showed D the bill, the laughed and pulled it apart to reveal that it was fake.

“Not bad huh? They’re gettin’ better at these things.”

His voice was hoarse, like he didn’t use it much anymore. D laughed as well, and gave him a cigarette and they examined the bill and I gathered they knew each other. Then the guy said he was going to try and pass the bill at the Koreans up the street. When he was gone D said:

“I’ve known that guy siince I first came to the city. He used to deal weed in Washington Square. The Jamaican dealers in the park kicked the shit out of him ’cause they didn’t want the competition. You know, like a turf thing. I saw him afterward – he had one of those wire things around his jaw.
“He lost his place after that and ended up on the street. The amazing thing is he stayed clean – once he came up to me with a big bag of coke, all rolled up, he’d found on the street somewhere and wanted to know if I wanted it. I had no interest at the time so I didn’t take it, but it says something about where he was at then.

“Once he got to that place where he was down, he couldn’t get up again. I’ve never forgotten that. You slip through the cracks and you can’t come back. He started going downhill a few years ago. All those years on the street. People give me grief for giving these guys money. ‘They’ll just blow it on drugs!’ they say. But hey, I’m glad they blow it on drugs! Wouldn’t you blow everything you got on drugs if you were living on the street?”

D claimed a good panhandler in NY can make 20 grand a year. “You know, the ones that are personable, have the patter down, know where to go. But I don’t think our friend’s at that point anymore, if he ever was. The Koreans won’t pass that one, they’re open 24 hours, they see everything . . .”

I wonder how many people slip through the cracks, even as I”m writing this.

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This morning at my morning cafe . . .

Two guys chased another guy down the street  – waving hammers. I didn’t see it but the cafe owner, a long-time Bed-Stuy resident, did.

“He ran into the welfare office. Guess he’ll be alright there. But just read the news after the first real hot day of the year. You gonna see people gettin’ shot, people gettin’ beaten up. You gonna see all kinds of things come out when people see each other again. All the stuff goin’ on now, all the unemployment . . .”

It’s true. Just last week all kinds of resentments and suppressed tensions came out with the warm weather. A woman at the rooming house across the street, out at seven in the morning shouting someone’s name over and over and over, then a half-dozen people out on the steps and the woman walking down the street yelling at one of the men while two women sat on the steps yelling into their cellphones then one of the women forgetting about her cellphone to yell at another man on the steps, jumping from the street to the steps as she’s yelling, making great theatrical gestures, then the other woman yelling at her and into her phone at the same time . . .

The night before a woman out on the street rapping out: ‘B-I-T-C-H – that spells BITCH!’ over and over and over while another guy stumbled up and down the street yelling out what sounded like some kind of spiritual, sung dreadfully out of tune, but which turned out to be the Beatles ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ . .. .

When we were riding in the back of a gypsy cab going out for dinner, we passed a street in Clinton Hill blocked off by yellow police tape and cordon of police cars and ambulances. Cops stood on the street, bystanders looking shocked, angry, wary. And on the ground, just visible through the legs of some ambulance workers, the body of a man, a dark pool spreading out slowly beneath him. We didn’t find out if he was dead, or what had happened. Our driver clucked once, and our cab moved on  (as it turns out two men were shot in a drive-by shooting, believed to be drug related. The bullet was intended for the 30 year old. The 70 year old was innocent bystander. Thankfully, neither man was seriously hurt).

Then a couple days later, it all calmed down again . . .we’ll see what happens when it gets warm for real . . . sometimes I wonder what the hard times are stirring up below the surface . . .

Sunset off Brooklyn rooftop

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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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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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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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I had the honour of being invited to attend a forum on the Brian Lehrer show called Dollars and Sense of Blackness in Central Brooklyn yesterday. I didn’t have much to contribute since I”m basically a part-time – if long-term part-time –  resident of New York and Brooklyn and the other people on the panel and in the audience had much more acute, pressing and pointed concerns than I would have done. However it was a good insight into the forces at work in Bed-Stuy and communities like Bed-Stuy and I’ll be commenting on the experience, and those concerns, in the days to come. 

Also, one of my photographs, ‘Girls Jumping Rope in Bed-Stuy’ appears on the website.

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