In 2000, I wrote copy at a dot com startup called Fashion500.com, which was either ahead of its time, a dumb idea, or both. It folded about eight months after I got there, and for a few months I got unemployment (what my wife called a ‘Department Of Labor Fellowship’) between freelance gigs.
I was trying to write short stories, as well as monologues. Some afternoons, when I didn’t know what else to do, I picked a neighborhood I’d never spent time in, took a train there, and walked there for several hours. One of my stories, which eventually became a monologue, was about a guy who walks and walks until he knows every street in the city intimately. (I also made a show called Desk about the Fashion500.com, which you can see a few minutes of here.)
During this period, I lived in Williamsburg, near McCarren Park, pre-swimming pool, pre fancy loft developments. I took walks in Jackson Heights and Corona, Sunset Park and Flatbush; I walked in a neighborhood whose name I can’t remember, or which has been renamed, in The Bronx, and even took the Staten Island commuter train to a few far flung suburban plots out there.
I luxuriated in these walks – no talking, no purpose except to see and go. I especially liked being somewhere unfamiliar at the close of a workday, when everyone was returning to their homes. Some people, you could see them letting the workday tension slough off their backs; some people you’d watch steel themselves for what must have been another rough night ahead. Some people delayed the inevitable at a bar. I love imagining what strangers are going through.
I thought of my walks as a way to understand the city more broadly, to take comfort in anonymity, and to calm myself from the uncertain time I was going through, work-wise.
9-11 happened within this period. I walked more, further, than ever in the weeks right afterward. In addition to the grief and horror, the love I felt for the city and my friends, I remember a few specific moments on walks that stand out: the first panhandler to integrate September 11 into his ask (“the attacks left me stranded down here, man, and I need $46 to get up to Albany”); the group of men that gathered quietly to protect a Lebanese barbershop that had been receiving anonymous, threatening calls.
I remembered this time as I tried to figure out just why this New York Times Real Estate article was so infuriating to me and other people like me – especially white artists who’d been in the city more than a few years.
Maybe it was the assumptive tone – starting with the title – the idea the city was made to be gentrified, that anyone reading would, and ought to, prefer or need high-end boutiques, fancy coffee or organic produce over a dollar store, a bodega, or a big supermarket where the food was affordable and people had union jobs. Maybe it was that you could have read this same article, though maybe a little less brazenly written, 15 years ago, just substituting different neighborhood names. Maybe it was the article’s inherent racism and classism, which didn’t deal at all with the complexity of the changing city – the fact that many have people lived in the neighborhoods detailed here, happily, for many years, without the benefits of hipsters, $5 lattes or skinny jeans. Maybe I just feel less alienated by aesthetics of a dollar store than I do by the pretense of farm-to-table, and waxed mustaches, although I do love the food.
What it comes down to most for me is that this article, like so much that is unspoken within our politics right now, assumed that our current relationship between economics and politics is unquestionable and inevitable. That, when wealthier people move in the streets get cleaned up and the place becomes more desirable, and that is okay, or at the very least, it’s just how it is.
I read the article and I thought, not only has The Times Real Estate section remained unaware of, or complicit in, the gradual dismantling of New York, it seems to do so proudly. Is that journalism?
In the past, New York was more dangerous, financially cracked, and in some ways harder to raise a kid. It was dirtier. The city still ignored its poor. There are many things about the place that are better now. There were just more neighborhoods where more kinds of people could live. I just read and thought, the rich have always had their places. Do they really need the whole thing?
Last summer I saw a talk about New York City’s sustainability plan, called PlaNYC, which is actually a pretty awesome document. It addresses things like green spaces, food deserts, and other issues that actually apply to everyone here, or ought to. But as more of the city becomes prohibitively expensive to all but the most desperate to live here, or those with the most means, my question remains: at what cost, and for whom? If our city is not for everyone then what does sustainability mean?
To come back to those walks. I saw them then as an introduction to the larger world of New York, as an affirmation of my citizenship here. Now I worry that it was actually the city I knew, or thought I knew, bidding itself farewell; that promise that you could find your people, your neighborhood, your barber, your created family away from where you grew up, and still be a train ride away from work.
I know that there will likely always be areas that are more welcoming, and surely this nostalgia of mine, like all nostalgia, is leaving out something important. But when I think of those walks now, seeing people I’d never know come out of the train, awakening to what was about to face them when they walked through their doors, I worry I was watching our city become a shadow. Just one that wears designer flannel and serves better coffee in compostable cups.