Thursday, December 2, 2010

We’re Still Here

Back in 1986, me and Alex, this big Russian kid, became fast friends at Intermediate School 364. I was slightly pudgy, very nerdy, a bookworm. He was brash, assuredly more than half-nerd, but also pretty overweight. We were definitely outcasts, me more than him. Still, he was a bit of a bully, though his sometimes overbearing nature was limited to our immediate circle of friends, also tending toward the nerdier end of the spectrum.
If not for his prodigious girth, and the fact that he was white, he could’ve been an alpha male of sorts at our majority black and latin junior high. Years later, fresh out of college and coming back from my first office-drone gig, I ran into him on the L train. I was living at my folks’ crib by myself while they ran a bed and breakfast upstate, and he was visiting Ma Dukes Russka, and I invited him over.
At the crib, I introduced him to some of the loopier, more bugged-out Beatles tunes that he wasn’t familiar with. We both realized how much “Blue Jay Way,” off Magical Mystery Tour, really had that Wu-Tang rhythm down (remember how the Wu were still lighting the world on fire back in 1996, when NY was still king?). In the back of my mind, I was actually impressed with myself, as he’d always been the one to introduce me to music.
First the Beastie Boys, then punk rock and hardcore, plus a good dose of Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy when we’d both escaped being packed off to our zoned high schools, making a four-year detour to the big-time: Stuyvesant High School. Of course, plenty of his music came from our fellow Stuy friend and all-around nicest-guy ever, Dan McCabe, a tall, cornfed blonde, Irish kid who seemed to hang out exclusively with a posse of very cute goth and new-wave Asian chicks. Alex became my audiophile muse, even if his musical suggestions were re-gifted from someone else. It seemed like all my beat-up tapes, labeled in drippy, silver marker and sporting faded, photocopied covers, complete with lyrics and interior art, came from him:
But years before Stuyvesant, before we became semi-adults, before he’d dropped all that weight, he had the bossy, know-it-all thing down cold, and to a spineless jellyfish like my 11-year-old self, it made for an interesting friendship. I tended to hang my head low when challenged on the various bullet points that determined whether you were normal/accepted in a Brooklyn junior high circa mid- to late-1980’s (“Yo, why you reading those big-ass books!” or “Damn, where’d you get those no-name sneakers!”). And while Alex was hardly going all Ricky Linderman on their asses (a la My Bodyguard) whenever they were looking for a victim, his size and semi-boisterous façade let him fly under the radar more often than not.
Plus he had a little brother that he picked on a bit, which was training wheels for having me as his pliant sidekick. I even remember him getting into a fight on the hill behind his mom’s building with one of the only other white kids in that section of Starrett City, who looked eerily like Scut Farkas from A Christmas Story. The guy had wronged Alex’s little bro somehow, and they squared off for a couple of minutes until, tragically, Alex’s pants fell down, deflating the fight out of both him and his opponent. More than I ever did to wreck shit back then, so nothing against him for that.
I remember us having Mr. Shelton’s health class together. That period was always amusing to us, as Mr. Shelton, also one of our gym teachers, was shell-shocked in front of a classroom, having little control over the hormonal nutjobs he’d been charged with overseeing as a pedagogue. He also had a well-kept, very round afro, and thus was a throwback in the era of hi-top fades. Reflecting back, I can’t help but wonder if he sported his Sergio Tacchini jumpsuit at home, or out to the club (he strikes me now as a single man, and couldn’t have been older than mid-30’s, as I am now).
I always pitied Mr. Shelton, even as I took part in the maelstrom of unacceptable behavior that always greeted him upon arrival in class (to give him his due, he was a perfectly workmanlike, serviceable Phys. Ed. educator.) On this particular day, Alex and I were taking turns putting on the tinny headphones of his walkman (it’d be a couple of years before I got my first one) with the other one cueing up the opening battle-cry of the Beasties’ “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” at the loudest possible volume.
It was a weird game, trying to get the other one to flinch from the aural assault. We also did impressions of Mrs. Hill, our somewhat hardass Math teacher, tweaking Beastie lyrics (“Foot on the pedal, Math-team medal!”) to gently mock her apparently unflappable passion for math. I would probably cringe today if I heard our guffawing back-and-forth, as we were pretty merciless with her thick accent. Still have no idea where she hailed from, though in retrospect I believe she might’ve been from DR, actually.
To us, Mrs. Hill seemed a sour, disaffected spinster, the kind of teacher that itched for the days when a lightning-quick snap of the ruler on the wrist was considered coddling the student. I vaguely remember the usual rogues’ gallery of misbehavers that she made sit in the corner of the room facing away from the class. Perhaps my most vivid memory, however, was her relating some anecdote about walking by the Gay Pride Parade and ending up in a front-page cover picture of the Daily News as a passerby, and her subsequent freakout lest anyone see her on the cover and think her a lesbian (I think she was an evangelical Christian, to boot).
I know I’m perhaps rambling on, to the point that my inner KRS-One is yelling out at me “Ya Slippin’!” But that goofy, adolescent fixation on the Beasties reminded me of the roads we both took later, when our friendship ceased to be, like the Minor Threat song says. We still both lurved hip-hop, and, like many white kids in the city from different backgrounds, we were obsessed with blackness. Whether we admitted it or not, in our own different ways, we had the fever.
But how different that experience was for those in the five boroughs from that of suburban and small-town whiteys on a cultural tourism kick, even if fraught with the same potential for disaster. White privilege, earnest and sincere appreciation, rebellion, and simple osmosis from the black kids around us made for a melting pot of assumed racial identity back then. And like the beats and Norman Mailer’s “white negroes” before them, so many of their ranks came from the middle- and upper-class Village and gentrified Brooklyn kids. You had your Beastie herbs, your blunted-out weed-heads, the kids who were drawn to writing (graf, that is), the kids who liked to start shit and fight. Somehow, it seemed that red-diaper babies were always well-represented in their little crews. Some dabbled, others lived it.
I’m sure there were a handful of these 16-year-old graymeat crackers who simply sweated black culture because they were desperate for acceptance, but you might’ve been surprised how many seemed pretty genuine. They hearkened back to what probably felt like a generation ago to them at the time, to the curve of the 70’s and 80’s, when hip-hop was tottering on the unsteady, yet cocky, legs of its adolescence.
It was especially a throwback to the acceptance and equanimity of b-boying and graf, where skills and wowing your contemporaries overrode whether someone was black, Puerto Rican, or white. Even with the extreme racial tensions of the late 80’s and early 90’s, hip-hop, a culture by and for people of color, set the terms of rebellion and togetherness for so many. Even majority-Asian or white crews were rocking the baggy gear and geeking out on rap. And many of the white homeboys did have black friends. Somehow, despite the schisms of the time, there was an ease of association in that era. Maybe it was because everyone was pretty high.
For white kids into rap in NY, The Cactus Album, by 3rd Bass, released in 1989 at the height of hip-hop’s Golden Age, was the shot heard round the world, or at least as far as Far Rockaway. 3rd Bass was two-thirds white, their unique sound rounded out by their supremely talented black DJ, Daddy Rich. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another interracial, major hip-hop group from the time. As such, they beat out their contemporaries: Everlast, in his first incarnation as an Ice-T protégé before the Irish blunts-and-shamrocks shtick; and Young Black Teenagers, who were at least young. Other examples escape me now, strangely enough.
Unlike Vanilla Ice and a thousand other clones who came out, they took their craft seriously. Their beats were tight as hell. Both MC’s had good flows, and skills, and unique personal styles. MC Serch was more of the spastic clown, while the “Prime Minister Sinister” Pete Nice patterned himself as a kind of white Big Daddy Kane, dipped in suits, sporting a cane, and the occasional throne to denote his stately helming of the rap game.
I sported a Serch-like ‘do for a time, though it was more of a giant meatloaf-shaped case of bedhead than the sculpted flattop that Serch somehow eked out of his Jewfro. I also had the glasses, big, thick Elvis Costellos. Ironically, looking back, I really liked Pete Nice much better. He was smooth, laid-back, didn’t try nearly as hard to be down as Serch. Mind you, I still think Serch was dope, a pioneer and talent, to be sure. Plus, he supposedly discovered Nas, which outweighs pretty much any bonehead maneuvers he pulled over the years.
It was an exciting time, and I think about it fondly now, and realize how much of my NY experience was defined, even if somewhat superficially, by a decidedly non-white culture. Which is fine by me, because I’ve had to stop myself lately and wonder, “Why do white people bother me so much?”
Sadly, they really do. White people, such as they are, annoy me deeply and often. Think on the following: Late 80’s hip-hop. 1970’s punk rock. Dylan walking with the girl on that album cover. Lou Reed’s unfathomable shades and black turtleneck. Crazy Legs defying gravity on a piece of cardboard. The cracked sepia imaginary of the old Jewish/Italian/Irish/Polish districts from years ago. Labor protests for the 8-hour work day at Union Square, red agitators against head-cracking police batons. The jazz swirl of Harlem, heady with zeitgeist. The vim and vigor still coursing through the packed streets of Brighton Beach, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Washington Heights, Greenpoint, or Flushing.
To me, these have nothing to do with what I associate with white people: Sex and the City, cupcakes, the word “foodies,” helicopter parenting, excessively sitting on sidewalks, artisanal hot dogs, lining up for trendy bullshit, frat-rock date rape, not being able to hold one’s liquor, being patronizing, condescending, or overly glib with non-white people, “pimps ‘n’ ho’s” Halloween throwdowns, living in the city but hating everything that really makes it urban, luxury co-op complexes as the new gated communities, ironic ugly sweater parties, velvet ropes, crowded-as-shit faux dive bars, the mind-boggling proliferation of hand sanitizer, and everything else that’s sucking every last bit of blood, vitality, originality, and spontaneity out of New York, replacing it with a bland mishmash of empty wealth and 3rd-hand experience that clutches so desperately for authenticity, yet falls so very short of the real. What will be the point of coming to live the “NY Experience” when there’s no real New York left?
Our town used to be one that knew how to throw a punch. Why is it that everything that used to be pretty standard in any NYC neighborhood—a good butcher shop, a nice bakery, etc.—has been yuppified, made fancy, or emasculated somehow? Even hip-hop, poor thing, has been watered down, split into atoms and reconstituted, as similar to real music as McDonald’s is to real food. Hip-hop is the new pop, and has suffered as a result.
Was it my earnest, and sometimes misguided, desire to embrace blackness back in the day that’s made me so averse to the cultural bleaching of New York now? My people, who hail from that Central European nation caught between Germany and Russia, comfortably tucked in bed with the Czechs and the Slovaks below, and topped off by the Baltic Sea, certainly skew to the pink side of the skin-tone spectrum. The Irish and Italians, now honorary whites for many decades, plus Russians, Romanians, and other caucasoids, are all deeply embedded here, are considered white as they come, but don’t bother me none. Is it whiteness itself—that is, my own—that I still haven’t come to terms with? I’m still sorting it out.
I feel comfort and a sense of place when I hear an accent—whether it’s the exuberant, nasal delivery of a Swedish Jew from Chelsea, the thick French accent of a black skinhead, the rapid-fire cadence of the Indian counterman, the boisterous banter of high school kids of all colors coming home on the train with me, it’s like walking into Cheers after a long workday.
About 70-80 percent of the white folk I’ve met over the years, despite being from the same suburbs and small towns now feeding the endless wave of Americans into Gotham, have been pretty cool. Maybe when I met the bulk of them, New York still felt vibrant and real, and they were just part of the tapestry. Or maybe it was because they were mostly hardcore kids, and we belonged together in a way that transcended geographical origins.
But these days? The dull sameness of so many people now, all the edges sanded down, all their phrases punctuated by “Like,” “ummm,” or “yeahhh, you know?” All the while, walking and texting like zombies. But this is the new New York that we see on reality TV and in romantic comedies. It seems a magic meme to me, somehow metastasized. I refuse to believe that the fantasy lifestyle depicted on Friends was actually responsible for the deluge of boring-ass bourgeoisie who have flocked here, but what other conclusion can I draw?
But we’re still here. If you leave the major Manhattan enclaves that used to matter (the East and West Villages, the LES, the Meatpacking District, SoHo, etc.), and venture into the deeper areas of the boroughs, you’ll find people from all over the world. They’re not the New York of the magazines, that land of make-believe, but are nonetheless creating the future of this town with every breath, every step, every intermarriage, every public school classroom thrown together with their progeny. They’re my reason for optimism, the undeniable spirit of this place that refuses to lie down. That annoying, towheaded, sullen 6-year-old throwing a tantrum in front of his defeated parents at the Starbucks line might get a clue in a few years. He might make some friends and surprise his parents by turning out to be just what the city needs down the road. Maybe he’ll ditch the hand sanitizer and the iPhone, and escape into that intoxicating haze of New York, making it his own.
We probably won’t go back to how it was in the 70’s, late 80’s or early 90’s, and there’s much to be glad about when you think about the needless death and desperation that marked so many of those years. But native New Yorkers can’t help but romanticize the criminal past. Who doesn’t like a bad reputation when it keeps fools at bay, the rest of America quaking in their boots at the thought of the Rotten Apple? When we were down and out, we made punk, hip-hop, and New York hardcore, the slinky rhythms of freestyle, the infectious beats of salsa and latin jazz. Hard rocks in the Paris banlieues are carefully crafting rhymes about oppression and fighting the police. I’d bet my life they aren’t made breathless by the thought of starting their own gourmet cupcake stand.
Am I wrong to think that it’s been years since New York created anything that really took the world by storm, transforming it in its wake?
I want you to prove me wrong, and write me about what’s happening, what you see at ground level. Even though it’s been a lifetime since March of this year, when I touched down from Polska, it feels like the blink of an eye. Remind me of what still matters, because I know it’s there, lurking under the glossy, gilded surface.

For a nice story on New York as the world city, and definitely better writing than this ole blogpiece, visit:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's Still Here

It’s been a while since I threw up that first jernt. I’ll chalk up my radio silence here on the Internets blogpiece to a long-delayed return to the 9-to-5 grind this past month (really a 9-to-9 slog some nights), and writing such a long follow-up on late nights when I wasn’t dog-tired that it left me feeling as blocked up as Labor Day traffic back home on the Belt Parkway. So I decided to file away that piece, badly in need of editing, and write about the water.
My muses in this endeavor are a couple of dukes with rods and reels who I’ve known for mad years. I can’t say I’ve gotten into fishing because of them. I’m not even sure I’ll even really try. But since last month, I’ve badly wanted to tag along with them. Since I left college, the water has increasingly dug its claws into me. I even learned (and quickly forgot) how to sail, most recently at Croton-on-Hudson about 10 years ago. I even went to sailing camp in Poland (save your jokes) the summer before senior year of high school.
Nowadays, the mysteries of the deep, with its tendrils creeping into every one of the five boroughs, seem the perfect corrective for feeling eerily like a mole-skinned cube dweller pushing papers on a computer screen so you can eat and have an apartment. Time to escape, and not the escapism of your little handheld device, but real escape, only a short ride on the train, drive, or walk away.
As residents in the one of world’s most natural port cities, us landlubber New Yorkers often forget about the water. I know plenty of folks who’ll make it to the beach once a season or never, but I was blessed this summer, my first real one back in NYC since 2003, to get down with some beachtime, and see some other waterside curiosities. Houseboats on the Gowanus, some unidentified, impossibly large rodent scurrying into the water from the shore of Astoria Park, a balmy, beer-buzzed ride on the S.I. Ferry. It’s a shame I haven’t seen more of them, and even now the temperature’s dropping, making missions like that fewer and farther between. But the weather never stopped the Polar Bears, and it’s no impediment if you’re a little curious, and a bit hardcore.
These are places minimally touched by the craziness that runs most of our lives—little atolls sitting snugly in Jamaica Bay, with the Empire State a tiny spire in the distance; fishing spots where old-timers and young bucks cross paths, drawn back by the joy of fishing, and the peace of mind that only solitude can bring. You might stumble on the relics and wrecks of yesteryear, an ancient fort or abandoned shack, cars rusted straight through, crumbling to the touch.
Even some of the more well-traveled spots are eerie. If you get off on this feeling—especially on one of those damp, foggy nights when the million bits of light are dampened, and the shores of the East River are gone, like twin mysteries—the lighthouse that crowns the very top of Roosevelt Island is a must. Roosevelt Isle, drifting and dreaming its way between the Q-boro and Manhattan, is known especially for its awe-inspiring views of Manhattan across the way, as well as the futuristic power station on the Queens side. Its own architecture is like a giant space station, too.
With years of bad reputation to scrub off like so much Exxon oil from poor Gully, Gotham’s waterways remain as unfathomable as the real spirit of the city itself. They’re a mystery that lies at the intersection of salty sea dog chanteys, the rock ‘n’ roll romance of the Ramones’ Rockaway beach, the patient dedication of the rod and reelers, and the illicit allure of our deep, gangster past.
Avoid the cement shoes is my advice (they’re so John Varvatos) and make your way down to the shore. If hipsters “discover” fishing, my only consolation is that they’ll likely slip on the moss, crack their carefully dishevelled haircuts on a submerged rock, and slip into the briney depths, to be consumed by the sea zombies born from the bodies of long-dead, doublecrossed bootleggers. The water is the perfect metaphor for New York itself—it’s a life-giving force, but merciless and unstoppable. Especially when you underestimate it. Maritime murder haunts the waves, and there’s a reason Rikers is an island.
But thoughts of the sea tug me away from my default setting of hateration, and back to adoration—of this big, unique treasure we have available to us. I had a belated, joint-b-day jam a few weeks back with Mizz Bee and a nice-sized cast of characters at Fort Tilden, just a couple of miles but seemingly worlds away from Beach 116. It was one of the best days ever, I can say without hyperbole. But it was tinged with the spirit of goodbyes. The waning sun dragged down to the horizon behind the dunes, its rays casting a radiant crown around the heads of Bee’s friends.
The boys cast their reels in the water, and Dre caught a fluke. It looked simultaneously pathetic and alien. So familiar, but missing the customary packed ice from the fish market, very much alive, slowly suffocating in the open air before Dre threw it back. I thought of those late-night sea nature shows on cable, where you see those monstrous, never-seen-the-light-of-day beings, those creepy denizens ofNeptune’s dominions.
We played some football (of the soccer variety), and Mizz Bee collected pieces of sea-smoothed glass washed ashore from God knows where. While we looked at one and mused about how it was probably the remains of a Bud bottle thrown from a car window (somehow we intuited that the sea glass never really travels that far), we clung to the hope that it hailed from distant shores.
At night, offshore ships lit up in the distance, and a slightly menacing light hovered a while in the blackness. It was a night-mirage, approaching but never getting any closer, casting its light-saber glow over the water like a little cousin of the moon. Someone finally realized it was a small plane facing us head-on.
One thing that appealed to me about that night was the sense that anything could happen. It’s a feeling I’ve tried to hold on to when it comes to the city at large, even if that prospect feels more untenable with each new pastel-colored bank branch or cupcakerie that pops up. Thankfully, there are still a bunch of places left for you to feel completely isolated, and not a little bit creeped out, especially at night on a full moon, a prime time for reelin’ in the bounty of the sea, according to my man Dre.
These are spots of refuge, free of forwarded emails, Facebook beef, and “frenemies,” oases of tranquility that give pause to the normal overdrive of urban life. And while there are plenty of miles developed and admittedly very inviting waterfront with lots of public space—think the West Side from Battery Park up to Chelsea, or Governors Island—cropping up in the last decade, it’s those places that appeal to the sense of mystery and simplicity that seems so hard to harness these days.
But blast off in your whip, or hoof it on PT to Cross Bay Boulevard, going over Broad Channel, the sliver of land that keeps Rockaway from being sucked violently into the Atlantic. Jamaica Bay, and the Gateway National Recreation Area, are the big payoff (plus lack of hipsterati) for nearby residents who live in the bus-to-the-train hinterlands.
I lived on and off in this very eastern reach of Brooklyn for years, and even on a regular day’s commute, I’d sometimes catch the salty tang of the air as I disembarked from the last stop on the L. Keep going straight from the L, and you’ll reach Canarsie Pier, tucked at the end of Rockaway Parkway. They’ve made miles of bike paths grafted onto this underbelly of Bucktown (“Home of the Crawfish!”), and you can mosey on over to Floyd Bennett Field, still a working air strip and aviation museum. Maybe the Brooklyn version of the crazy pilot from the Road Warrior will give you a spin in his air-jalopy (“Good ole ‘Copter Pete!”).
Ultimately, it’s off the beaten path that you’ll really and blessedly lose yourself. Strike out in any direction from Floyd Bennett and you’re in another world. Now that Guliani’s black helicopters aren’t dousing people with Malathion, and mosquitos aren’t an issue as the weather gets nippy, you can rough it in the reeds in relative comfort.
If you’ve ever crawled down the Belt Parkway in bumper-to-bumper on a languid August day, you’ve probably seen little pockets of folk along the stone outcroppings jutting out from the marshy headlands. Just like when you trek out to the American desert, you’re bound to encounter plenty of loners and other eccentrics. Rugged individualists and plenty of loopy characters are drawn to the shores, and if you’re like me, you yearn for contact with such old-school heads. You might even learn a thing or two.
Extra heads are optional, though, as the kind of deep bonding that goes down when men and women are thrust into nature is the kind you cannot replicate watching sports, having dinner, or drinking at bars (See James Dickey’s Deliverancefor details).
But if you’re having what Wu associate/member Cappadonna would call a “by-myself meeting,” remember to use extra caution. (Again, see Dickey,Deliverance). As much as we all thrived on meeting or observing bugged-out characters randomly downtown back in high school (“Crackhead Rog,” “Donation Man,” “Tree man,” “Papa,” “Metal Mike”), mostly homeless or semi-transient men, keep your eyes peeled and your wits sharp, because these are the stretches of the urban jungle where the dead tell no tales, and swabs get keelhauled on the day. You're as likely to make friends as get skewered by a hooked hand. The plank may be the rotting remains of an an old seesaw, and you may be more likely to step on the discarded works left by coastal-dwelling junkies than buried treasure, but who knows? There’s just something about rusting hulks lying half-submerged in water that gets my juices flowing. There are little ghost towns all over the tri-state area, bunched up at the water’s side.
We see each other all the time, even if we’re far away. A million cameras watch us, and a million people seem to make demands of our time. In some ways, there’s no going back to how it was. But in these bits of urban wilderness, you can breathe a little freer. Maybe it’s a grown-up version of that breathless excitement of exploring the uncharted corners of one’s own neighborhood, going past the safe zones. It’s the grown-up version of a staging ground for marathon, six- or seven-hour games of Manhunt.
I thought about that, when, about a week after the October beach jam, I reached into my bag and found a few pieces of sea glass. It sits on top of my chest of drawers, seeming to catch the lamplight, a reminder of the summer, and so many summers, now gone like yesteryear. I thought about how it was such a pure pursuit, simplicity itself, collecting that glass. And how much pleasure you could gain from it, at age 30, or 13, or age 3.
Before “constructive play” and every other thing we’ve done to sap every bit of danger or unpredictability from our own lives, and especially the lives of the kids out there (some of them yours), these were the places where you might have spent a long, boring-ass summer of nothing much. It was pure bliss, filling that landscape with your imagination.
And it’s still here.

“Everyone knows that where the water has been it will be again…”
— Malathini “Emthonjeni Womculo” (from The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, 1985)

The Who “Water” (Live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970)

PJ Harvey “Water” (Live in Paris, 2007)

June of 44 “Sharks and Sailors” (from The Anatomy of Sharks EP, 1997)

Forgotten NY

Vanishing New York

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm from Here, or Last of the Mohicans

I’m from here. It’s a statement of fact, a banner, a challenge. But mostly it’s a memory. A New Yorker breezes down concrete canyons grooved like a record, to paraphrase my favorite NY band. We live and breathe New York in these toxic times, looking forward, our heads spinning with nostalgia. A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York, and looks askance at the Americans flooding in these days, that unstoppable wave.
We see kids we went to high school with, or knew from that time, and we’re reaching to the back of our minds for the names, more often than not surprised to get them right. “That kid’s old school!” we chatter excitedly to one another, spirits lifted by recognition—you’re not in this alone, this separateness of native New York kids who have stuck around. The last of the Mohicans.
Back in ’91 or ’92, I was strolling with my man Lex on St. Mark’s, thinking about the anxious ride home through East New York on the L train. It was the the era of motherfuckers punching people in the face just for livin’. I was 16 or 17, and the only white faces I ever really noticed on the L were my people, the Polish, disembarking at Bedford Avenue (or at Lorimer for the G train to their Greenpoint stronghold) back when that part of Williamsburg was still known as Northside. Maybe you saw a Jewish kid or two, heading to Canarsie, or some stoic Russian lady on the way back to Starrett City, guardedly clutching her cheap pleather handbag.
Tattoos were an extreme rarity on the L then, a heavy metal t-shirt perhaps a bit more common, but these were still far and few between. With my bad haircut and Suicidal Tendencies shirt, I played the “metalhead game” with whatever other wary metal kid I chanced upon once in a blue—positioning myself in plain sight, maybe taking off my jacket when it might have been a bit too chilly on the train to warrant it, hoping to be noticed. I dreamed of a friend in my neighborhood to listen to beaten-up Misfits and Metallica cassettes with.
I lived with my folks, a teenager with the immense sprawl of Brooklyn separating me from the beating heart of my downtown upbringing. Starrett City was a place to sleep, eat, watch TV. The East Village was home, a stomping ground of cheap eats, punk rock record stores, head shops, and bars, alien and foreboding (though, at the time, we could probably be served in almost any of them). You could be free there, I thought.
On that walk with Lex, I wished that the Village would expand into Brooklyn, all the way to Canarsie, everywhere a record shop or thrift store. Years later, on the way to my aunt’s place out in Starrett, I saw artsy whites getting off at Bushwick/Aberdeen, a sight that would’ve made my head explode years earlier. I thought back to my misplaced desire, wondering “Was is my fault?” You must understand: I had not lived in New York since 2003. I had missed the memo that artistes were spilling over into the deeper, browner enclaves of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy.
Now, black and Latin families all over Brooklyn, and a little bit in Queens, rub elbows with the new aliens: the sometimes bespectacled and tight-clothed kids springing up out of the woodwork, many of them with that Midwestern, standard-English accent cutting through the rumbling din of the J train. Some have tattoos, some are rich, many are middle-class, some are poorer. Even this late in the game, I still freaked a bit when I saw two emaciated, coltish model chicks chattering on the platform as my train pulled onto the Chauncey Street platform.
Do I resent this new breed of New Yorkers? I know more than a handful of transplants who I really like and admire. They inspire in me a feeling not unlike that of the older sibling who takes their younger brother or sister to their first metal concert; you sometimes look through new eyes at something that seemed obvious, or even tired. I bond with them almost instantly, because they get it. They’re curious and amazed, but respectful, and can hang with anybody. I imagine these same transplants, perhaps born in time to hit college age in the mid-to-late ‘70’s, when the Bronx was burning and N.Y was getting the finger from the highest offices in the land, coming here to make it then, too.
The longer someone has been here, especially if they came in the early-to-mid 1990’s, the more likely my connection to them. Perhaps unfairly, foreigners, especially immigrant strivers, get my unofficially stamped ghetto pass—if they’re from another country, it’s all good. Many come for economic opportunity, and not because of the high-end, plastic image of New York lusted after by fans of Sex and the City. But perhaps 90 percent of the newcomers I see inspire in me a feeling not unlike someone ramming a rusty shank through the fleshy webbing between my fingers.
Lately, there’s the guarded, evasive answer to a straightforward question, “Where you from?” For awhile, around the early 2000’s, I would hear, “I’m from Brooklyn,” only to clarify upon further interrogation that someone was, in fact, an Ohio native with about 3 years of Brooklyn living under his or her belt.
These days, transplants are more likely to admit their origins from points distant, perhaps due to the backlash to their sometimes flippant responses. But there’s still the ole “Well, my parents lived in New York.” Or they were born in Syracuse, or they came to ballet camp here at age 10. Do some of them sense the growing resentment among the restless natives?
Inevitably, their lexicon is peppered with bits and pieces of convo that NY natives would rarely be caught dead saying: A neighborhood is “up and coming,” “they got a cool scene there,” and “it’s not too shady.” For a masterful skewering of this attitude, check the still-relevant Onion.
The old-school Italians, Russians, Polish, Irish, etc. (ie, ethnic whites) spent years making sure their kids didn’t stray into Bushwick or the Do-or-Die. Such an excursion was considered instant suicide, though you could probably count on one hand the white victims who perished simply from straying onto Marcus Garvey Boulevard, and you’d still have three fingers uncounted. For the old-timers, this river of young transplants—hipsters, yuppies, out-of-staters, carpetbaggers, “yunnies,” or whatever you wish to dub them—seems to be flowing the wrong way. Didn’t they struggle tooth-and-nail to circle the wagons around places like Glendale or Howard Beach, not to mention nearly all of Staten Island?
But the new American immigrants are filling up those apartments in the former badlands that once rented out for a pittance, skyrocketing the rents, paving the way for the alternative bookstore, which is eventually swallowed up by the Pinkberry or Starbucks. Playwright Danny Hoch brilliantly lampooned the lamentations of this intermediate wave of urban “pioneers” in his one-man show on gentrification, “Taking Over.”
Paying tenants are good, the landlords agree, especially ones that don’t complain. Once in a blue, they get that pain-in-the-ass whose parents are lawyers (perhaps native NY’ers themselves), and that hallway light will get fixed a bit quicker. But the new people are seen as docile, ineffectual creatures, mostly. Landlords don’t want those pesky native NY’ers, though—too much hassle, too much accountability. A native NY’er knows a cousin whose wife works in the Department of Buildings; another one’s got a friend who’s connected, the next one’s an iron worker who used to mess up the landlord’s cousin on the regular in junior high. Too much hassle, too many connections, bullshit-tolerators running on empty. From Sunset Park to Long Island City, to the the neighborhood formerly known as the South Bronx, there’s a common refrain: “We want Manhattan people.”
Running into a native New Yorker is like running into a ghost. People of a certain generation who stuck around, throwing their hat in the ring here rather than striking off for the territories, can almost always tell. You might ask about the high school, treading delicately, not raising the defensive hackles, diplomatic. “Oh word, you went to Franny Loo? Or Seward Park? I knew mad kids at Art & Design. Yeah, Mobb Deep, those kids used to hang. Nah, I didn’t go there, but my boy did. Remember when the Brooklyn Tech skinhead and metalhead kids came down and tried to steal hats at Stuy? You know the real story of the kid who started the Decepticons?”
In our extended web of interconnected NY’ers, native and otherwise, you hear a common lexicon, a shared and increasingly obsolete vernacular, soon to be gone like the snows of yesteryear: dope, fresh, aiiight, front, Unique, NASA, CBGB’s, Alcatraz, Save the Robots, Munchie Burger, Bar 81, Tompkins Square Riots, Summer squatters, ABC No Rio, Le Q, TMR, DMS, RFC, The Slimelight, Maskarave, Kim’s Video, Lemon Ice King, L’amour’s the Rock Capital of Brooklyn, Paled’s, the Building, the Batcave, Wetlands, Siberia, and a thousand more.
Since I returned in March 2010, I’ve been on various vagabond sojourns and trips throughout the city. Before landing my corporate gig, I worked part-time as a mover in the summer, hauling furniture downstairs and packing it into the new apartments of the Americans who’ve inundated the new glass boxes springing up in Williamsburg, and refurbished brownstones in Bed-Stuy. I’ve seen lots of New York neighborhoods, many familiar yet alien now. I realized I really can’t feel comfortable in Park Slope. I love iced coffee and Thai food as much as the next guy, but the Slope and its immediate environs, while cozy-comfy, clean and safe, feel so much whiter than the New York I remember. Even the people of color seem white. Helicopter parents, child-worshippers with purebred dogs, clog the sidewalks. I mistrust the way Park Slope, so bland and whitewashed, feels like someone copy-pasted or grafted San Francisco onto a giant chunk of Brooklyn.
The holdouts are still there, mostly older, many of them Latin or other immigrants. Crossing the canal at Union Street, I’ll bypass the unrecognizable strip of Smith, and saunter over to Court Street, still the enclave of cigars, funeral homes, and real bakeries and pizzerias. Cops, firefighters, construction workers, and Mafiosi still keep Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill somewhat real, along with the Puerto Rican from the P.J.’s a little to the east, the unofficial border between the Slope and the setting of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn.
That accent I love, in its many incarnations, still rings through the candy shops, even as it mixes with clipped, precise English of Ohioans brunching it up at some new spot. I understand the language of gastropubs, lattes, and artisanal this-and-that, but my ears perk up when I hear someone say “Word up!” or “Yo, I’mma hit tha A-rab.” I realize people like nice things, but everything seems so polished, new, and interior-decorated. That grass-fed bison burger is OK, but what’s up with the $10 markup?
Many of the kids I know from Stuyvesant and other specialized high schools went to good schools. We learned about political correctness and economic imperialism, white flight, and the rest. But our real lessons on race relations—the ones that really stuck—we learned in the staircases and hallways, on the playgrounds, and on Eyewitness news. The bloodcurling tensions of the 80’s and early 90’s still resonate with us, Al Sharpton and his Korean deli boycott, the Crown Heights riots, Tawana Brawley, Howard Beach and Yusuf Hawkins shot down by guido cuzzes in Bensonhurst. One day freshman year, 1989, I was coming home on the L with some nerdy friends from my homeroom, and two older black dudes proceeded to punch us each once in the head before de-training it at the Livonia Avenue stop, shouting over their shoulders, “That’s for all you Bensonhurst motherfuckers.” Yeah, we didn’t do anything; we were nerds then.
No matter how much I’m told a neighborhood is up-and-coming, I’ll still stare wide-eyed at any lily-white graphic designer who tells me (and it could be a year or three from now) that they just “bought in Brownsville,” the homeland of Iron Mike Tyson and Mash Out Posse. I’m still amazed that I come back to NY and everyone, white, black, or other, is holding their $400 iPhone out in plain view, texting up a storm or switching tunes. It’s hard to digest for a kid who took off his headphones off at Morgan Avenue and didn’t put them back on again until he was safely on the bus. Even then, that 15-year-old me would take a good look around for any potential threats. The city never slept, for the villains and creeps.
If you walked down a NY street in the late 80’s, or early 90’s, you would see many different kinds of people. It depended on the street, of course. The insufferable, Armani-clad Wall Streeter, a trophy wife in a mink on his arm, parodied brilliantly by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, has always been part of our landscape. But he strode the manicured thoroughfares of Park Avenue on the Upper East. The boorish frat boy stumbled along with the granola head-shop devotees on Bleecker street, but there were punks skimming the record shelves at Second Coming or Generation Records, too, along with the foreigners, the mom-and-pops holding on against the tide of cafes catering to the nouveau-riche, Korean proprietors with their sneaker stores and too-bright delis (God bless them, but they’ve always overcharged).
I’m not the first to decry the ultra-commodification of downtown New York. Enough bloggers have focused on the Giuliani and Bloomberg-era switchover from the old New York to the new one in which the rich seem ubiquitous. Among them has been Jeremiah Moss, of the enjoyable yet disheartening blog, Vanishing New York ( He calls the new breed of city resident “Yunnies,” a take on the classic “yuppie,” with a twist: young urban narcissist. The new luxury buildings fill their needs, the explosion of Sex and the City-inspired cupcakeries sate their pallets, and the thousand new wine bars quench their thirst. The dive bars that still dotted the downtown landscape 15 years ago—some of which still hang on by a thread—have been reimagined and replaced.
They’re even making new dives, these ones faux interpretations, a la Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, geared toward carousing fratboys and their mid-20’s incarnations. The crotchety characters of yesteryear, the random freakshow of any East Village bar that captivated the imaginations of millions of at least somewhat original people who flocked to New York between the early 1970’s and late 1990’s, are a dying breed. Beer pong, too many TV’s, and other “safe” elements have crept in. It’s the suburbanization of New York nightlife, just as the big chains long ago suburbanized New York businesses. When does New York simply become a manufactured memory of itself?
Fratboys and professionals in their 20’s and 30’s who wear pink, button-down shirts? Whatever, these are easy targets. Seeing them through the native New Yorker lens, I can hardly believe they don’t realize the cliché they are living. Someone cloned the smug high-school villains from an ‘80’s movie and set them loose with a taste for mojitos.
Even much of the new wave of so-called artists and creative people are as suburbanizing an influence on the city as the “douchebags” they supposedly abhor. The douchebags are merely their athletic older brothers who they’d never measure up to, Dad’s favorite who went into corporate finance while little Herman went all wussy with his Women’s studies or English degree (full disclosure: I am an only child with a B.A. in English).
They might fancy themselves the high school misfit who never fit it in, but I imagine them more as the bland middle-class of suburban high school life. Yes, perhaps many were freaks, burnouts, etc. But that umbrella of subcultures, the outcrowd, has been the mainstream since the mid-to-late 1990’s. Alternative is the new normal, and the North American Hipster is simply another member of the moneyed classes, albeit in a different uniform. He is the consumer who keeps on giving. To their credit, many young people one might lump in with hipsters do espouse positive lifestyles—Do it Yourself (DIY), sustainability, local agriculture, bike culture, and activism. Many are volunteers, or are aiming for careers and work that they feel promote social justice and equality.
But this is hardly an academic treatise on the changing demographics of New York. I barely have time to figure out where I fit in here anymore, much less analyze every last newcomer to see if they get my admittedly NY-chauvinistic FDA rating. Who am I to arbitrate what is real, legitimate, authentic, or simply “New York?” I’ve been proven wrong many times recently, and I pray that their part of the mosaic makes us all richer somehow.
I can only tell you, reader, how I feel. It’s a feeling of anger and sadness, tinged with some guarded optimism. The hole in our hearts from nine years ago, the creeping sensation that the city we love has been unmoored from its very soul, the ever-accelerating whitewash of all that was real and true about NY—maybe these are things we’ll just have to live with. I know my kids will have to spend some time here, to know what it means, even if the only way is to just tell them about how it was. Because how it was…I won’t lie: it was rough. But, man, it was magic.
* Props to Sonic Youth, Jeremiah Moss, and Nasir Jones, for the paraphrases of their work.