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.