Tag Archives: NYC

The Risks and Rewards of Thompson’s New Site

thompsonweb

Bill Thompson just opened a new website designed by Blue State Digital, which also designed Barack Obama’s campaign site.

First of all, I’m increasingly inclined to give my qualified support Thompson for mayor – I don’t know if it was pure election-grandstanding, but it seems like every time he  makes a public announcement of some kind, like his workaround of the MTA fare-hike, it’s generally sensible, effective, and conscious of class dynamics in the city (for instance, as Comptroller he got city pension funds to remove their money from companies that privatise formerly public housing in the city).

But that’s beside the point – I think this will be a test case in how well folks other than Obama can use his organizing model in their campaign strategy.  While I trust that Blue State won’t apply the Obama model whole-cloth, many of the central elements of the Obama campaign revolved around him specifically, and might not translate well into other campaigns.  When someone wins, it always makes their system look better than it probably is, and thevalidity of the organizing model will be need to be tested in a vareity of contexts.

Here are some of the risks I see in adopting the Obama model:

-Looking like an Obama hanger-on: to stick in people’s minds, you need to develop a distinctive personality.  The individualist tendancy in American politics asks that politicians be in a way self-made.  Trying to ride the coattails too overtly undermines credibility and might hurt the campaign.

-Social Media can hurt too: trying to mobilize folks via twitter/Facebook/etc. can become a conspicuous display of a lack of support as well.  Having 50 people on a Facebook group demonstrates weakness in a citywide or statewide campaign.  Thompson should be  sure that embracing new media will build support among his target constituencies before over embracing the technology.

-You need a good story: Obama mobilized a series of glittering generalities based on his personal story.  Thompson needs to develop a central story that reduces to a short-worded theme and three key policy proposals to organize people behind the campaign.  One of the clear differences between Obama and Thompson’s site is the lofty quote Obama put on the top of every page.  Thompson doesn’t have the same type of cred, or story to get people together.

Real Estate Downturn – Except for Willets Point

worth millions! from numbphotos flickr photostream

worth millions! from numbphoto's flickr photostream

Real estate prices throughout the city keep going down – except in Willets Point, where the Mayor wants to avoid another development disappointment, and is buying up property at many times the assessed value.  Despite the fact that the city is running out of money, apparently the EDC and Bloomberg feel A-OK spending millions on property that eventually will be sold back below cost to a private developer that then will profit more off of people paying rent above cost.  The real absurdity is that those millions are perhaps more than the city ever spent fixing the streets, cleaning up toxic waste or performing basic city services in the Point.  That money could go towards actual city services in the area to make it an independently vibrant and viable neighborhood, but instead it’s being spent to support a mostly private development scheme.  It’s not quite a pyramid scheme per-se, but it reveals how the city government has been turned into a machine for artificially raising property values at the cost of just about everyone besides real estate developers.

Bloomberg’s Underhanded Move

a flurry of trouble.  from CarbonNYCs flickr.

a flurry of trouble. from CarbonNYC's flickr.

Anthony Wiener pointed out the real reason Bloomberg wanted to rush the term limits bill, and it had nothing to do with the need to prepare for the election ahead of time.  The real reason for the rush probably has more to do with the Presidential Campaign than anything else – Bloomberg used the news media’s total obsession with Barack Obama and John McCain to push through a bill while eyes were turned towards the election.

I wonder what the term limits fight would have looked like if it had taken place in December?  It’s certainly harder to get folks out to a protest in the cold, but it would have allowed the opposition a better platform to project their concerns about the bill, and might have marshaled enough public disdain to keep Councilmembers from bending to Bloomberg.

Fortunately, folks in and around city government paid a little more attention, and it looks like Bloomberg lost a good deal of political capital with the local folks he relies on for support.  At the very least he’ll have more trouble pushing the bills and initiatives he uses to keep in the news, and members of city government will be less willing to run cover for him leading up to the election in 09.

Real Estate Protects Itself Against Greatness

Park Gate, Dubai, by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture].

BldgBlog alerts us to a symposium being held in Chicago about the lack of American architectural audacity – while it seems possible to chalk this up to an intellectual or philosophical lack, I’d like to suggest a more political-economic approach: the inability to build big (and interesting) in the US comes from the enshrinement of property rights as the driving force for urban development.

Landlords have a relatively narrow interest in rising rents for the properties they own – this interest fragments their interests – setting neighborhoods and cities against each other – and pits them against the majority of the city, who are either non-renting property owners or renters.  Collecting rents for profits also gives them some cash on hand to help run elections their way, cementing the superiority of landlords vis-a-vis the rest of the city until someone finds a way to upend them – the strategy I suggest if we want to create a new age of American architecture that uses space in a productive, democratic way, as well as one that lends itself to Dubai-style grandeur.

MTA Agrees: “Yes We Can”

who is giving what in this picture?  from wallygs flickr photostream

who is giving what in this picture? from wallyg's flickr photostream

The problem with McCain-style spending freezes is that some things really truly should be fully funded by the government. Privatizing or relying on user fees for essential transportation infrastructure amounts to a flat/regressive tax on the poor – be it roads and cars, which force folks to pay for gas to get to work, or MTA’s latest attempt to raise fares yet again. Yes, they can, and probably will.

Space should not be a commodity sold off to the rich who can afford the convenience of proximity, nor should money determine access to urban space. More MTA fare hikes amounts to a further privatization of urban space, part of the process of wholesale gentrification and up-scaling of the City that Bloomberg et al promote. There’s a reason folks advocate against progressive taxes and for budget cuts – because it runs parallel with a larger project of upper class warfare against the poor.

Alan Gerson Back on Warpath

I think they should have jobs.  from adiythings flickr photostream

I think they should have jobs. from adiything's flickr photostream

Good ol’ Alan is still on the warpath against street vendors.  Despite trying and failing to pass similar legislation in previous years, Alan Gerson is back after street vendors,  trying to limit the freedom of vendors to sell their work with 16 different legislative changes (invaluable Wonkster has a rundown on the key ones).

These changes will make it harder for vendors to practice their right to free speech via distribution of printed materials. Gerson continues to cynically pander to the Village Alliance BID and the business interests that probably pose a bigger threat to a livable city than selling books and art ever could.  Seriously – check out this New Yorker article, the guy just sounds absurd trying to peddle his own bullshit to the public.

The excellent book Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier documents in living detail the life of street vendors in Gerson’s district, and demonstrates their contribution to the street life of New York City, acting as informal ‘mayors’ of bits of city space, and becoming important members of the community in a huge variety of ways.  (Other fans of public space and a real street life for New York City might recall Gerson’s silence on/support of renovation at Washington Square Park)

Upshot: A hearing on the laws is happening Thursday, folks should try to make it out (from the NY Activist Calender):

10/30 THU, 10 am – Hearing: on new street vending laws. Oppose
Councilmember Gerson’s proposed 16 new laws, which would end
street vending by artists. At City Hall (R/W to City Hall, 4/5/6
to Bkn Bridge-City Hall). Info: ARTIST, ArtistPres@gmail.com

Bloomberg’s Buboes

Spreads

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York posted this image from a 2004 brochure given out by the city’s department of Economic Development.  It carefully maps out the areas Bloomberg plans to overhaul during his term.  Note the concentration in the outer boroughs – with a particular focus on Staten Island. Bloomberg is looking to Manhattanize the outer boroughs and spread ‘development’ as class war – that is the other half of what is at stake in the Term Limits vote today.

Bikes, Use of Force, and the “U-Lock of Justice”

Pretty much everyone I know has seen this, but I’m posting it again anyways.

Riding a bike everyday makes you a little defensive. A friend of mine once marveled at the sense of comraderie cyclists feel with each other – I think it comes from the collective defensiveness, the sense of vulnerability of being out on the road surrounded by really big pieces of machinery designed to move excessively fast, often piloted by careless, idiotic or malicious drivers. At this point I get edgy about car doors opened within 20 feet of me.

All in all, New York City is a fairly bike friendly place, and I would never discourage anyone from riding. The rewards vastly outweigh the risks, and you have a lot of fun. Normally I tell uncertain potential cyclists that New York offers three advantages over almost any other biking environment: traffic rarely moves above 30 mph on city streets, we have lots of bike lanes (with more every day), and drivers, for the most part, are used to seeing people on bikes at this point.

Which is not to say everything is smooth sailing. Many bike lanes lack serious enforcement, some roads scare me still, and every now and then you meet someone in a car that just hates your guts. Other times, pedestrians present their own problems – I swear, some people in this city have a bike-focused death wish and at least act like they very much want to get hit.

Raising the question of what to do. Cars parked in bike lanes, or making particular effort to be in the damn way such that they make cyclists’ lives more difficult (or short) are fairly easy: hock some spit on the window (aim for driver side if you can get it), give them a nice love tap, and just keep riding. People in cars like three things: 1. going irrationally fast 2. the outside of their cars, and 3. the illusion of security provided by total isolation from the outside world. A little spit and a fender tap gets at at least 2 of the 3 important car-functions, which I think is a pretty good ‘heads-up, don’t do this again’ type message. Sometimes you can give them the finger too. This response can be adjusted for different circumstances, but I think it provides a good start.

Now, pedestrians present a bigger problem. I don’t mind a little property damage here and there, but I really wouldn’t feel comfortable spitting on someone who walks in front of me. My strategy with pedestrians involves making them realize they’re about to do something stupid – walking in front of a moving vehicle – by making them very aware of the presence of bikes. Typically, this means a yell (try your best punk rock Oi!), and actively claiming the bike-space they were about to inadvertently enter. So, roleplay: You’re riding up Lafayette and reach 8th Street/Astor place, where peds often step into the bike lane to idle or jaywalk. You near the intersection and someone just moseys out in front of you – you yell (Oi!), and then ride right where they are about to step.

Now, the third case is the driver the pursues you in their car, trying to hit or harass you, or that confronts you in some way verbally. I’ve had two experiences with this recently: once at Centre and Canal, after getting nearly hit by someone suddenly pulling across the left lane to park (in front of a fire hydrant), I yelled something like

“What the fuck are you doing?!” and pulled around them.

At which point the driver – behind the wheel of one of those really really big Cadillac SUVs – sped up to pull right in front of me again, rolled down his window and glared:

“What am I doing? Do you really want to see what I can do?”

I paused. He was clearly driving a much scarier vehicle than I, with a level of malice I can’t match. At this point I hadn’t acquired the u-lock of justice (more on this below), and wouldn’t be able to muster any serious self defense (or offense against his too shiny car) with the speed necessary. So, I took the high road/sidewalk and kept riding.

The other incident was today. I was riding home down Lafayette when someone in the back seat of a Jeep swings open a door perilously close to where I was riding. I had a few close calls earlier in the day, so I gave them a wide berth, but I felt they had been reckless, so I gave a casual “Hey, watch out” as I passed by. Coming to the light, I heard the passenger yelling at me – “you watch out, motherfucker… pussy riding a bike, what the fuck?” or some such. I paused at the light. My mind went to what I call ‘The U Lock of Justice,” the standard Kryptonite mini-U lock I carry around in my back pocket – my first line of defense against bike theft, and assholes that threaten me. here’s a pic:

Justice is flourescent.

Justice is fluorescent.

I like U-Locks. They’re simple, effective, and Kryptonite makes them with an exposed metal end that turns them into excellent weapons if the need arises. I thought maybe it had. I stopped at the light and decided to turn around. I rode up next to the guy on the sidewalk, and as I pulled along side him, he made the standard hyper-masculine come on: “what, do you want to go?”

With a good look at him, I knew I wasn’t up for it. He looked like something between Yuppie scum and douchebag fratboy, and with nice folks enjoying their dinners on the sidewalk cafe next to us, I figured he wasn’t worth my time -or ruining someone else’s dinner. Sometimes just calming folks down shows the absurdity of their actions, and makes them thankful for a second chance. I tried to keep it simple – “You almost hit me – you opened the door right in front of me. I just asked you to be more careful,” then rode off. He mumbled a few other deep-throated manly-isms as I peddled off. In this case, diffusing a petty argument made more sense than escalating – if the door hit me and I got the same attitude, I might have had a different response.

So my question is this: when should cyclists enforce their own rules of the road, and how. The video above I think demonstrates that the police don’t have sense enough to figure out sensible bike traffic rules for themselves (and I’ve dealt directly with the cops about bikes enough to know they generally have no clue when it comes to non-car transportation). That means in many cases, cyclists need to create their own code of conduct – claiming street space and respect in a way that makes themselves more visible and safe.

Why I Identify as a Student Activist

Pulled out some writing from earlier this summer.

I am a student activist because I believe this education is more than a training ground. I refuse to deny the value of my thought and action by asserting the existence of a more real world that lies beyond our imagined institutional borders. Positioning the university as training for a world of more real action to come makes NYU nothing more than a purple Disneyland in New York, reducing our intellectual and political activities to escapism in the service of established authority. I think ‘training ground’ notion of education fundamentally denies the purpose of being in school. Treating education as training already cedes legitimacy to the status quo as ‘the real world,’ at which point the individual contributions we imagine for ourselves as graduates lose their power and relevance. The lives we lead in our years as students necessarily impact the world around us – and not just in some impossible future. We labor, we consume and we educate each other in the process of obtaining a degree – that all-access ticket to ‘reality.’

I have three thoughts to add: Continue reading

Washington Square Park Under Renovation/Assault

Flier for tour - led by Cathryn of the Washington Square Park Blog

Flier for tour - led by Cathryn of the Washington Square Park Blog

This Sunday I took a tour of the under-construction Washington Square Park with Cathryn of the Washington Square Park Blog and WSP Community Improvement District. 7 or so people showed up for a politicized discussion of the park’s history and future.

Our running discussion focused on why – Just why anyone needs such drastic changes to a fine public space, why anyone would undertake such an expensive and seemingly frivolous renovation without, for instance, even having a planner for the new playground.

An enclave on the North side of the park

An enclave on the North side of the park

One of the biggest changes will be the elimination of the circular enclaves of benches throughout the east side of the park. These spaces are the focal point for musicians performing on the weekends in particular, and allow park goers to take their time and just sit in the shade, instead of treating the park as a thoroughfare of commerce or policing.

Benches vs. Lawn - Benches win.

Benches vs. Lawn - Benches win.

The new park will expand lawn space at the expense of bench-seating and the ‘theater in the round’ space surrounding the fountain. Walking through the park, the error of this approach becomes obvious immediately – very few people spend time on the lawn relative to the number of people sitting on benches. Overall, this will make the park less usable, and less amenable to unexpected interactions with musicians, protesters, or even friends.

Continue reading

New York City Anti-Gentrification Movements – A Catalog of Failure

Youre not alone. Now act. from Steve Rhodes flickr photostream.

I’m putting it out there: folks fighting for fair housing and lower rents in New York have dropped the ball.  Just in the past few months, we saw a series of inept, boring or ineffective protests calling for better rent controls, preservation of historic neighborhoods, and a stop to huge government led gentrification processes, all to no avail.

First: at the Rent Guidelines Board meeting that finalized drastic rent increases for rent stabilized tenants (the largest since 1989), activists opposing the hike attempted the OK strategy of disrupting the meeting by blowing whistles – OK, except when considering that strategy failed already in 2006, and the most activists got out of the meeting was meaningless pontificating by Christine Quinn and Scott Stringer (whose job description seems to be nothing more than meaningless pontificating)

Second: The Die Yuppie Scum protests – a two parter, targeting… well, something that folks just don’t like about the Bowery.  These protests seem like an effective strategy (menacing landlords), but taking into consideration the overbearing influence of the NYPD on the protest’s actions and direction, the latest iteration of the Slacktavist’s rage looked and felt more like a parade of the old LES preserved behind bars than a real threat to neighborhood change.  These protests tried too much of the “Stop! No!” style that ignores the incredible cultural cachet of the new-New York, and the organizational difficulties of assembling a good fightin’ crowd for battle with the police these days.  The “Die Hard” protest did a fine job ginning up interest through theatricality, but the execution fell flat on anything other than interesting sloganeering.  The upshot: I don’t think anyone is betting against a further Varvatos-ification of the Bowery.

Third: Chinatown/LES rezoning and protest.  I think this is an interesting story – in the beginning, anti-gentrification folks rallied for the rezoning, with testimony in early zoning meetings focusing on NYU, the bar-ification of the East Village, and the need to include anti-tenant harrassment planks in the rezoning proposal.  Then, somewhere along the way, things got lost.  The Bowery and 3rd Ave, originally targetted for downzoning got written out of the proposal, allowing for a continued up-sizing and up-scaling of a key thouroughfare for the east side.  Inclusionary zoning made its way to Delancy, Houston and Avenue D, paving the way for more lux development.

And most importantly, folks outside the propsed rezone area saw the writing on the wall and realized they were next should the neighborhoods covered limit development.   That began the backlash. There were screaming fights at Community Board 3 meetings, direct accusations of racism, and more.  At the same time, community organizers for people left out of the rezoning have refused to target landlords, instead calling for a ‘me too’ mediocre response to a big problem, leading up to… this -  Another sign waving, speech making ‘protest’ asking to ‘preserve’, standing in front of a civic building.  Their demand makes only limited sense – even if rezoning happened for all of CB3, it would give no guarantee of low income housing, and more likely sneak in more inclusionary zoning or worse – turn Chinatown into the West Village, a historic neighborhood under glass.

To me, the LES/CB3 rezoning debacle points out the inherant flaws of approaching zoning and real estate from the perspective of preservationism – it favors affluent communities (73% of CB3′s white residents are in the rezoning), and fails to take into account the social justice componant – namely, spillover effects that potentially displace other communities.  It also shows the flaws of a government-focused approach, producing a problematic rezoning law, and a probably more problematic response to that rezoning.

The one brightspot is the Union Square pavilion fight, where community activists seem to have turned the tide a bit, stopping the resturant in the short term, and lauching the Community Improvement District idea in the longer term.  With a narrow focus and popular opinion clearly agains the proposed changes, this was perhaps a winning battle from the get go.

Still, it shows the usefulness of theatricality, and a serious engagement with the culture of New York – the Union Square ‘CID’ employs historical figures intimately connected to New York – George Washington, Emma Goldman, etc. – to make an argument about preserving a contemporary space.  That’s not enough – they also take it a step further and mix in the Reverand Billy factor, using participatory street theater and well planned media actions to draw attention to their cause.

Here’s the upshot – anti- gentrification and fair housing advocates need to do a better job ju-jitsuing the myths, lies and media mockups surroundign New York.

Don’t preserve the past, turn it into an argumetn about the future.  Like Andy Warhol?  Well, he certainly couldn’t rent out that nice loft space any more, thanks to gentrification – maybe if there was serious funding of housing for artists, New York could stumble upon the next Warhol in the rough.  Same with CBGBs.

Don’t just condemn the people selling New York, make their pitch part of yours.  How about Sex and the City?  A tough one – clearly a product designed to sell glitz and glam New York – but who designs all those clothes?  Not just Donna Karan, there’s a hoarde of underpaid staffers and interns making those fashion choices possible – they certainly can’t get by in a red hot real estate market.

Even government ad campaigns to sell the city can be flipped – all those Welcome to New York, Just Ask the Locals ads?  Bet you DeNiro, Chuck Close and Julianne Moore didn’t start out in $3 Million apartments.

Rising rents in New York are driven by the cultural product of the city – the skyline and nightlife sold in dozens of movies, hundreds of TV show episodes, and by the government of New York itself.  That image has gone global, and makes it possible for foreign investors to pour capital into the city by puchasing buildings wholesale (as is happening in el Barrio), or buying up apartments for vacations (as is happening… well, everywhere).  Cheap rents and rent control made New York’s globe-spanning cultural products possible in the first place.  (think grafitti, Jay-z, SoHo artist lofts, Punk Rock, New York’s literary avant guarde, etc.) Fair housing and anti-gentrification movements will only get off the ground and into serious change by starting with the popular idea of New York and using those cultural norms against the rapid transformation of New York City into a playground of the rich.

Clean Air, Unclean Bodies

Living in New York affords me the luxury of never needing to drive a car, but even when I lived in the South, I pretty much rode my bike everywhere. There are two main impediments to riding in the South: shitty bike infrastructure (generally, this is the land of the suburban boom-town and the epicenter of sprawl, but Austin def. provides in some cases), and a love of air conditioning inculcated from birth.

Seriously: AC in cars, AC in businesses, AC in homes, all the time. My dad told me stories about the introduction of AC in Dallas, when AC made or broke businesses – those that had it attracted crowds, those that didn’t fell behind. No doubt the same is true today – anyone without the air commits social suicide. Aside from the energy-electricity impacts of AC-ing the world, the social function of cool air effects the environment as well.

I’m talking about sweat. And the stigma against it. Sweat comes from human-propelled transportation, an kind of energy that American infrastructure was designed to eliminate. Now that global warming forces us to reconsider how we get around, we need to reconsider how we smell. Because of AC, the option to climate control our entire lives, the stigma against sweat worsened, encouraging the use of energy or transport that minimized human exertion. Even in New York during the summer, I know folks who live their lives with the unreasonable expectation (considering they don’t have or need cars) that they will remain unsweaty throughout the day.

The point is this: the environmental crisis has taught us that many of our modern conveniences present losing propositions in the long run. AC is one example – the heat it eliminates indoors only gets pumped outdoors (creating urban heat islands, which suck – last May in Athens, GA, it rained every afternoon for 15 minutes due to the Atlanta heat island, which has become its own meteorological force); the energy we use to power AC units creates its own heating problems, too extensive to go over here. We need to learn to accept sweat now, so we don’t overheat in the long run.

edit: jesus, I didn’t realize just how naked the people in that picture were… changed to a new pic.

TimeOut NY Wants You to Change New York – But Not Too Much

image from TimeOut New York's latest issue.

image from TimeOut New York's latest issue.

TimeOut New York took an admirable jab at getting New Yorkers into some activism with their latest issue – decked out in red tinted activist-y decoupage, of course – but misses (more than) a few points. Summary:

GOOD: Critical Mass! An actual endorsement for almost direct action!
BAD: No other mention of direct action. A friend of mine might describe much of their suggestions as ‘Liberal Bullshit.’ There was way too much discussion of calling legislators and asking nicely. Concerned about housing prices? Squat! Food going to waste? Dumpster it! (The ‘food is wasted’ section really needed to talk about Food Not Bombs) Take to the streets, but realize that moral persuasion only goes so far in getting the change you want – at some point you have to pose a risk to the interests and goals of the people you wish to persuade, and phonecalls just won’t do the trick.

GOOD: Acknowledgment of the housing crisis! A two part-er – New York homelessness continues to a be a problem, as does gentrification, which creates vulnerability to homelessness.
BAD: Umm, connecting the dots anyone? Homelessness and lack of affordable housing are the same issue, and parsing out ‘homelessness’ as a problem turns homelessness into a pathology rather than the result of systemic violence. Homelessness happens because of the cost of housing, not a lack of ‘job skills’ or ‘training.’ Too many people conflate homelessness with unemployment, but someone can go homeless while employed because of rent increases, spouses leaving – any number of sudden reasons.
Another problem: what the fuck is ‘overdevelopment‘? And what does it mean to ‘kill a neighborhood’? TimeOut devotes a whole section to this, and all it talked about was preserving buildings and shit. I don’t think you can talk about ‘killing a neighborhood’ unless you talk about what that means materially for the people that live there. This is not a legitimate issue until you connect it to the actual struggle of people to make do in capitalism, instead of merely protecting the interests of the already-established.

GOOD: Acknowledging environmental catastrophe!
BAD: Pretending it’s consumer’s fault! TimeOut gives some useful tips on cleaning up riverfront trash, reducing air emissions, etc. – but doesn’t ask who produced that trash, the cars creating air pollution, and totally ignores ConEd when talking about ‘deadly air.’ Also, dirty air doesn’t just happen everywhere – New York has a history of locating environmental contaminants in and around poor neighborhoods. Why is the Cross-Bronx Expressway not the Cross SoHo Expressway? Where are the power plants (and landfills) in New York? Seriously: coal/gas power plants hurt people, and ConEd placed its New York plants in places where people wouldn’t complain, or if residents did ignore, they could be ignored with limited political fallout.

GOOD: Talking about unions! Organize!
BAD: TimeOut doesn’t actually suggest anyone form or join one. Instead, they suggest wearing pro-union clothes and singing songs. Uhhh…

BAD: Misplaced priorities. The topics for the issue were selected by ‘reader poll,’ which means that the population of prisons and other marginalized groups probably didn’t have much say. That’s a serious oversight – NYPD has more than its share of issues, NYC Department of Corrections has similar or more problems. I also would have liked to see a discussion of the privatization/elimination of public space, and a discussion of AIDS, particularly in connection to the bit on homelessness. I don’t think TO NY had many homeless people asking about how to get into a home, they had housed people asking about how to get homeless folks out of their neighborhood.

Also, shoutout to Nina, now on the blogroll…

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Yuppies are Out, Welcome to the Age of Yupres

Wont be so hard any more.  From Pak Gweis Flickr photostream

Won't be so hard anymore. From Pak Gwei's Flickr photostream

Jess’s post over at NY Magazine and the recent spate of yuppie death threats in the East Village put me to pondering about the condition of urban life in New York. Specifically, the condition of yuppie-ness, and what it means to be a young New York-er these days.

It’s not looking good for the Young Urban Professional. The NY Times pointed out that the Wall Street yuppie variety is under particular stress these days, setting off cries of glee from a few places. It’s not like the other quintessential “New York” industries are doing so well for themselves either – the media industries started saying that ‘flat is the new up‘ (meaning they have no idea how to keep making money), and traditional news companies are so deep in shit it hurts. Jesus, even the real estate market has hit the brakes.

So, if the ‘yuppie’ enters decline, what takes its place as the keystone species of the urban ecosystem? What makes the new-New York economy go round?

Introducing: the “Yupre” – the Young Urban Pre-Professional.

What makes this the age of the Yupre? First, New York has become a college town. As I pointed out in a previous post, 600,000 college students call New York (temporary) home. Even more post-grad 20-somethings come here trying to make their way in the New York industries – fashion, media, finance, etc. Many of these new and temporary arrivals will never achieve full employment while in New York, taking a series of internships, volunteer positions and part time jobs to make ends meet before shuffling off to middle America, suburbia or Los Angeles. Despite this, they define the (cultural) economy of New York.

Economically – As a student at NYU pursuing a career in the ‘media industry,’ I’ve been subjected to a barrage of shitty employment offers. Here’s a sample:

“amNewYork is looking for journalism students for fall internships. Applicants will be required to write both news and feature stories, copy edit and do fact checking. This is an unpaid internship…”

“We are looking for interns to help us with the daily publishing duties associated with ForbesAutos.com. This includes writing and reporting, web production, article research, fact-checking, and proofreading. Ideally, applicants should have an interest in new media, and we are looking for someone with a fine eye for detail along with a solid foundation in writing. Since we are a car website, knowing the difference between a Porsche 911 GT2 and Porsche 911 GT3 is also a plus, but not required. This is an unpaid internship, and we’d like someone who can come in at” least two days a week for a few hours, or possibly the whole workday.”

“Men’s Vogue is looking for an editorial intern for the spring semester. The internship must count for credit, and interns would be asked to work 2 full days a week. Internship opportunities and responsibilities include: writing original content for our website; scouting theater, music, film, art, and book releases; researching potential story ideas for editors; and some administrative tasks.”

Job descriptions for internships read like the descriptions for real jobs; the only differences are the employees (students) and the pay (shit). Anyone taking these positions would be subject to the same demands placed on employees (producing original content, editorial work, etc), and their work would generate income in some form, yet often their only hope for advancement comes in the form of a rec letter or a resume bullet.

CAVEAT: I’ve taken some fuckin’ sweet internships, where my boss took a genuine interest in my education, and took the time to help me improve as a writer and journalist; I’ve also worked places in line with my political beliefs, where I essentially worked as a volunteer, but with the privileges of being an employee. In some cases, free labor makes sense, but in many more instances, employers will treat their interns as human resources in the most cynical sense, making extreme demands on their time and energy and then disposing with them.

Here’s the point: major industry in New York relies on free, temporary labor supplied by young people, primarily students, creating a new class of urban resident: the Young Urban Pre-Professional.

Culturally – Paradoxically, many Yupres live a relatively decent lifestyle – moving to New York is no cheap endeavor, and recent college grads sometimes have the backing of their parents. As for college students, few NYU students (at least) face eminent starvation if left unemployed (although some go without housing, and many many more take on massive debt).

The free time endowed by parental stipends and loose employment gives Yupres the space and energy to engage in the creative activity which (as Elizabeth Currid explains in The Warhol Economy), makes the New York economy go round. They’re the ones starting and discovering new bands, critiquing and making the art in New York’s galleries, and dreaming up new web ventures. Admittedly, they also homogenize and gentrify, filling NYU’s dorms in the East Village and clog Williamsburg with and eerie hoard of skinny hipster clones every weekend, but the creative zeitgeist remains.

Still, the average Yupre saga will most often end in some disappointment, either emotionally or financially. Middle America will never run out of kids with dreams of striking it big as writers, Wall Street-ers or artists, which means that New York will never run out of free or cheap labor from fresh faced 18-21 year olds willing to sell their soul for a break (or, as Jess put it “give blowjobs for bylines”). Forever at the service of their cultural and economic masters, the ever circulating Yupre class will define and shape New York for decades to come.

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The Mulberry Makeover

52 Mulberry, under construction. This building is really big.

52 Mulberry, under construction. This building is really big.

I don’t know if anyone, you know, noticed, but the south end of Mulberry Street in Chinatown is kinda going through some serious change. Once the epicenter of the Gangs of New York-immortalized Five Points slum, the block below Bayard now looks like a a stripmall with a 12-story middle-finger of a luxury condo in the middle.

The recent developments present two problems: lame street level development and a giant, intrusive condo growing out of the middle of some downright pleasant old school walkups.

First, the condo. I don’t know how this slipped through, but I can’t find shit on this thing – no Curbed posts, nothing in the usually vigilant New York Real Estate media pages. The building’s placard lists Rice Bowl Realty as the owner, and they keep a low profile. All I got searching for them were a few run of the mill safety violations, and middling charges from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for lead paint problems and failure to install fire alarms. NY State seems to think they’re based at 48 Mulberry, but I’ve found documents in my building that list 850 Meeker Ave in Brooklyn as their headquarters. 850 Meeker is also the address of the contractor, 2CC Contractors, and the address listed on the “Marley” construction trucks parked out front. The architect, Jung Wor Chin was about as inaccessible – their website is ‘under construction’ (and has been since Feb. 2007 it appears), but their other buildings don’t look so appealing (third building down).

The obvious disregard for the surrounding buildings (think Blue Building, though admittedly on a smaller scale) inspires no confidence in the kind or quality of apartments/condos it will hold. If the Chinatown new development trend holds, this will be another lux condo (like 123 Baxter and Hester Gardens) that undermines the economic factors (affordable living conditions) that have made Chinatown in Manhattan possible.

YoBerry and Donuts.

YoBerry and Donuts.

The other problem is on the street. The block below Bayard now features these thrilling attractions: a parking garage! A knockoff Yolata/Pinkberry called “YoBerry” (totally original, yah? – it still costs the same as its namesakes) and for the po-po chillin’ between shifts at the station across the park, a Dunkin’ Donuts! (this is not a joke – I see lots and lots of police in this store.) Hopefully the store for sale towards the north end of the block doesn’t portend a continuation of the faux-upscale and chain store trend.

After going on Rob Hollander’s Five Points walking tour (3pm Sundays across the street from the 1 Centre St. civic building), I actually think this area should be protected as a historical landmark. The downtown slum not only provides a backdrop to some remarkable historical figures (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and the backbone of the Tammany Hall political machine), but it also reveals the central role economic exploitation played in shaping New York City – a history of political/economic power that should be kept in mind as corporate power again threatens to overrun fair housing laws and rent protection laws. The decimation of the slum by Columbus Park and the downtown civic developments makes the remaining remnants of the slum all the more important to hold on to.

I like this building.

I like this building.

...but not this one.

...but not this one.

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Pedicab Woes – The Post Gets it Wrong

Park police stop and arrest pedicabbers in CP

Park police stop and arrest pedicabbers in CP

The NY Post made a fuss today about the non-story that pedicab law remains non-enforced. I’ve been a pedicab driver and talked to lots more, and believe me, that job is plenty hard without without the overbearing eye of the law bearing down on you. The whole story reeks of bias and bullshit – everything I know about pedicabs and NY police makes me skeptical of new regulations, and it turns out the problems identified in the article really aren’t problems in the first place.

Recently, I witnessed Park Police enforcing their own personal version of pedicab law on riders in Central Park, and if that incident reflects the enforcement priorities of the NYPD at large, I don’t think safety problems lie with the pedicab drivers – the onus is on the police to create a safe environment for pedicab drivers and their passengers. Look: the city still can’t keep cars from killing bike riders, which doesn’t inspire confidence in the notion that they could protect pedicab drivers, or their passengers.

The Post article identifies two problems with pedicab regulation: safety and prices. The safety issue is a non-starter for me. Even without a pedicab law that arbitrarily limits the number of cabs in the city, you can’t hit pedestrians with a bike, you can’t ride the wrong way, and you can’t recklessly endanger your passengers. Seatbelts don’t even make sense for pedicabs – there’s no windshield to fly through and no rollcage to protect passengers if the cab flips (highly unlikely, btw – most pedicabs are ultra-stable trikes that don’t flip), so being trapped inside is the last thing you want in a crash.

As for prices, there’s already a simple answer – ask how much the ride costs before you get in, and don’t take the ride if it costs too much. And drastically reducing the number of pedicabs in the city certainly won’t decrease prices.

The City Council wrote the current pedicab laws at the behest of the taxi industry. Trying to keep pedicabs off the road only encourages the petroleum-centric, dead end transportation system that creates safety problems in the first place.

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The Wasteland on Orchard

On Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc flickr.

On Orchard Street between Grand and Hester, I found a wasteland. Shutters cover every store on this block, except those under renovation to become all-glass storefronts. Walking in the area nearby I felt a gloom, darkest on this street. The glassy, eye-candy friendly window-fronts disturbed me almost as much as the emptiness of the street as such – they oozed conspicuous consumption, a type of shopping where image consciously and deliberately trumps utility.

New development on Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

Other shops looked just closed, inexplicably. This area provided only the most glaring example of a blight that covers the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Street level retail shops, closed or moved without comment, dot the neighborhood. In places they make up maybe a third of the stores on a block, other places more. I still feel recently arrived in New York, and when I first started walking through Lower Manhattan, I took its street appearance in stride. Now, as I think and see more, I feel uneasy.

Other changes on Orchard. From Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

I noticed a trend in the shuttered shops. Their signs looked old, faded, and more often than not used languages other than English. Throughout the Lower East Side and Chinatown, stores with Hebrew, Spanish and Chinese signs stood silent and empty. These said something about where New York has been, more about where it is going. It shows the neighborhood changes as a loss, erasing a diverse past for the supposed gain of a prosperous future.

E. Broadway. from Ventriloquismnyc Flickr.

I recognized the closed stores as a malaise when I walked further South, towards the Manhattan Bridge. Nearing the deepest parts of Chinatown, street life picks up. On East Broadway below the bridge, every store is open. Shoppers fill the sidewalks and shops spill out onto the street with food and goods to see and buy. The character of life visibly changes, filled suddenly with noise and activity. The comparative richness – a variety of kinds of commerce (everything from bus terminals to laundromats), plus a crowd of people blanketing the street – revealed the block on Orchard as a pocket of abandoned sadness in an otherwise vibrant neighborhood.

The most obvious difference between the two areas is real estate. The bridge – with car and train traffic – makes conversation occasionally unbearable, and doubtless spews a uneasy cocktail of environmental hazards into the air nearby. Not to diminish the importance of changes in the LES itself – decades of being the next and last big thing in Manhattan pushed property values too high for many small businesses to sustain. The remaining neighborhood betrayed itself, cutting the legs of affordable rents and a diverse street life out from under the folks that made it the place to be for so many years.

Gentrification means more than losing history. It means a loss of the human elements that make life happen in your neighborhood.

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The Trouble with Tourism

New York City has come to rely on people that don’t live here. The Mayor’s tenacity in resisting hotel tax increases demonstrates just how city government relies on tourism and tourist spending to support its basic functions. The city hosts 600,000 college students, many on 4 year jaunts through the same New York-as-Disneyland inhabited by tourists. Students and tourists both temporarily inhabit the city – as a student, I’ve never even filed a change of address, and still vote in Texas, where I grew up.

The city’s reliance on tourist or temporary resident revenue creates incentives to ignore the interests of long term residents, enabling or encouraging disregard of the people who work/live in New York. In many regards, city residents can be considered as mere support staff for the tourist trade’s light show. Many/most of the jobs created by the tourist trade are low-paying service economy (tour guides, hotels, pedicabs, etc), and linked to the seasons, creating instability – and often vulnerability – for those working the jobs making the city run.

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