Something is rotten in the state of New York. The putrescent miasma, leaching out slowly from the windows in towering pre-war apartments, from out of the sidewalk vents where one can hear from below the failing heartbeat of the subway system, slowly being bled to death. The stench is everywhere… thick, suffocating, lethal. Some are immune, born with the resistance through inheritance, countless others traded away their soul for it. Everyone else just has to suffer.
We’ve all heard the talk: New York isn’t what it used to be. What does that really mean though? The city largely looks the same, save for some new towers here and there (generally positive additions too, architecturally speaking). The streets are cleaner, crime is down to levels unimaginable in the 1980’s. Parks are well maintained and farmer’s markets litter the public spaces on the weekends. So why all the nostalgia? Surely people can’t actually miss the muggings at gun point in broad daylight, the landlord arson, the needles in Union Square and gradual erosion of communities as residents flee to the suburbs. Yet the talk remains the same: New York isn’t as great as it used it be.
Real estate agents today market blighted neighborhoods in the outer boroughs to younger demographics as ‘gritty’. “Recapture that sense of NYC in the 80’s!” they say, in some of the most fantastic twisting of reality one could imagine (Get mugged to relive the old days…) But something is different about these so called gritty areas that continues to attract people beyond just the cheap rents and discarded street condoms. What distinguishes these neighborhoods from the rest of the city is the total lack of corporate presence. These are the last places in New York City that actually express New York City.
Giuliani and Bloomberg two sides of the same coin. They represent in a way, the domestic policy arm of the IMF, World Bank and the WTO. Giuliani laid the ground work for Bloomberg through his NYPD police state, rounding up the homeless and sending them off to Pennsylvania, undoing all the work of the Koch administration on social housing projects (squatters rights eviscerated, homesteading projects cancelled, and in one of the worst examples, the NYCHA Randolph Houses on West 114th Street were emptied of their 1042 residents in 2001 with promises that a total renovation was imminent, but these apartments all sit empty today). Rudy was also the king of no-knock raids that left innocent immigrants murdered by the NYPD and those in similar situations in constant fear. So just as Rudy played the thuggish Black Shirt to perfection, Bloomberg has performed ‘wealthy Jewish industrialist’ par excellence. While it was who Giuliani made our streets clean and safe once again for the wealthy class to return from the suburbs, it was Bloomberg’s corporate genius that set the late-capitalist end-game plan for New York into motion.
Everywhere you look, it’s a Duane Reade, or a Chase (god help us, they even co-habitate now, these two), or some other countless instantiation of a major American retailer. The idea of a locally owned and operated business in Manhattan is now an extinct idea, and why shouldn’t it be? The rents are too damned high for anyone else but the most capitalized corporate clients, and those same firms have managed to figure out exactly what everyone really seems to want anyway. Take Duane Reade for example. They recently opened a store on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, almost right across the street from Kings Pharmacy, which has been there for decades. Instead of running just a simple pharmacy, which would have offered just about the same products as Kings at maybe slightly lower prices, they got their razor sharp team to figure out what the neighborhood truly needed. “It’s really a young hipster community” says their spokesperson. How else to interpret this phenomenon except to take it as a sign that they should sell micro-brewery beer in growlers? Sure, why not right? What does it matter if you get everything you need from a chain store that is uncomfortably lit and staffed with people who make a fraction per hour of what the CEO makes? . . .
Bloomberg’s administration has, through a variety of policies, criminalized any kind of independence of thought. The rezoning of certain areas in a number of examples, the far west side/Hudson Yards, or the Atlantic Yards catastrophe that awaits the people of downtown Brooklyn. One of the most egregious, the 125th St. rezoning plan where the city has changed the code to allow for residential construction as high as 30 stories tall, increasing the residential capacity of the corridor by as much as 750%. Developers are awarded height bonuses for ‘inclusive housing’, lottery winners from the immediate neighborhood, or in other words the lucky few who won’t have to be a part of the mass exodus of the poor Harlem denizens to the Bronx and points further afield. Retailers that can afford these newly zoned spaces are ones that can afford the high new rent: Old Navy, American Apparel (although them maybe not much longer), Nike, M.A.C., The Body Shop, Starbucks, and the list goes on. Local retailers need not apply.
Lower Manhattan has already been completely colonized by these international mega-corporations, save for a few pockets here and there. Harlem and certain parts of Brooklyn are quickly on their way courtesy of the generous efforts of the city’s urban planning department. Now, the NYPD is ‘cracking down on bicycle scofflaws’, just to work out the knots in the urban fabric. Cyclists will be ticketed and fined for not following the letter of the law, it doesn’t matter if you were outside the bike lane to avoid the policeman who was intentionally parked in it so that he could catch you riding outside the lane, you’re going to get a hugely disproportionate fine. I was riding in Central Park today on the east drive, when I was herded into an NYPD dragnet, catching cyclists for running red-lights that don’t do anything but keep time. A one way road with no intersections, designed specifically as a recreation trail except for the few hours a week during rush hour when it’s an excess capacity road for taxis and private vehicles shuttling the wealthy to and from Midtown, and I have to wait for a red light? The fine is $270, a number so outrageously disproportionate to the so-called crime as to verge on Dada-esque levels of absurdity. What I’m really getting at here though, is that it’s apparently no longer even safe to think of a recreational trail as a place for quiet meditation or pleasure without the constant harassment and intimidation of the police. Make no mistake about it either, this crackdown comes directly from the Mayor’s office.
So why does a city administration that puts in 200 miles of bike lanes in 3 years then engage is such ruthless behavior towards the cyclists it was purporting to help? Getting people cycling is a good way to relieve NYC’s insane traffic congestion, but having cyclists who interpret road conditions based on their own knowledge, experience and independence of thought is so wholly undesirable that it’s necessary to haul them off to jail. The current crackdown on cycling is merely symptomatic of the sickness the New York suffers from, and by extension the rest of the country.
Thinking = bad. Obey or be punished.
The homogenization of our lived experience in the city, the disappearance of variegated and unexpected interactions with shopkeepers and members of the community, the sensation of being a regular somewhere (that isn’t a bar), where the owner actually knows something about your life and you feel a moral obligation to try as hard as you individually can to keep them in business, these are phenomena that have been lost in almost all of Manhattan. So when real estate brokers try to sell you on the gritty aspect of a neighborhood, what they are really trying to say, without them really understanding it of course, is that the place actually retains a semblance of the Real. There remains a possibility for types of human interactions to occur that aren’t choreographed by late-capitalistic tropes of social exchange, but rather that anything could happen, that someone could say something that might catch you off guard and make you think twice about who you really are. Of course it also means that someone might try to invoke a localized spirit of communism and redistribute whatever possessions happen to be on your person amongst his or her socio-economic peer group. You take the good with the bad I suppose.
People aren’t stupid; they understand what has happened, but no one has codified the history as of yet. For those who refuse to allow themselves to be defined by the market, to be essentialized as a particular class and type of consumer, then the New York City that has emerged out of the 1970’s and 80’s is truly terrifying. The wealthy have little to fear from this emerging urban simulacrum, however, and are probably just enjoying it as much as it was originally planned for them. For those of us, however, whose rent is some obscenely high proportion of their income, or who are levied with a bicycle traffic ticket worth one week’s pay, these are trying times indeed.