Slaving over a hot blog every day, day in and day out, doesn't pay (I am seriously considering the evils of ads), but now and then, there's a perk. The NYPL sent me a free ticket to their Eminent Domain talk last night and I don't turn down free stuff. The speakers were political scientist Marshall Berman, urban studies professor Tom Angotti, blogger Brian Berger, and psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove.
It began with the trailer from a short film about the Atlantic Yards Project by moderator Michael Galinksy. Angotti gave a brief history of eminent domain and its abuses, saying, "There is no definition of blight. It's a hoax. Blight is in the eyes of the beholder."
Mindi Fullilove discussed the trauma of gentrification and displacement, which she calls "rootshock," similar to the trauma that happens to plants when you yank them out of the soil. The loss of neighborhood fabric, that collective creation, she said, can lead to "terrible enduring pain, loss, and grief."
Marshall Berman opted not to speak about the perils of modernity and asked if anyone in the audience had seen Don't Mess with the Zohan. I might have been the only person to raise a hand. (Damn those NYPL elitists.) Berman said, "I don't know much about the Atlantic Yards project, but see Zohan... It's good for your morale to see that it's possible to blow these [real estate developer] creeps away." He's right, the movie has a strong anti-gentrification message.
photo: Ethan Levitas
Brian Berger gave the outer-borough argument, saying, "The Lower East Side had a great 100-year run as a cultural engine, driving arts and literature, and if that's over, or in a lull, that's unfortunate, but there are other things happening elsewhere in the city."
Marshall Berman agreed that we should be optimistic, that displaced and traumatized New Yorkers will rise again elsewhere and create new things elsewhere. "They go on and form new neighborhoods," like the people in Fiddler on the Roof (Berman was big on movies last night) whose town was blown away, yet they went on.
The speakers began to deride nostalgia and Fullilove stepped to its defense, saying, "Nostalgia was coined by psychiatrists, who saw that people who moved far from home could die from longing for their home." She asked us to respect that nostalgia is not just some bittersweet emotion, but rather a testament to the fact that "home is an object of attachment, like a mother or a father, home is a secondary system of homeostasis. When you destroy this system, you destroy a person's ability to function in the world. Nostalgia is something we need to understand and respect."
Overall, other than Fullilove, I found there was too much optimism and resignation from the panelists. Rage came instead from the audience members. During the Q&A, Harlem and Lower East Side residents raged against gentrification. One woman informed us, "The new gentrifiers are trying to change the name of Marcus Garvey Park--they think it's too militant and want to call it Mount Morris Park," the park's name under its original (white) developers.
We did have one yunnie (yuppie/whatever) in the audience, or at least someone who presented a reasonable facsimile thereof. "I'm wearing a dark suit," he said, "So I feel the need to represent the Republican viewpoint. Who's going to take the side of the government? Maybe Pataki is not a jerk!" They took away his microphone but he kept yelling. "I'm playing devil's advocate. Next time you do this panel, get someone to represent the government!"
photo: Zoe Leonard
In the end, the NYPL host quoted Milan Kundera as saying, "A European is someone who longs for Europe." To which I will add the implied: A New Yorker is someone who longs for New York.
"Nostalgia" is made of two Greek words: Nostos, to return home, and algos, which means pain or suffering. It is literally homesickness. Maybe this is how you know if you're a New Yorker or not. It's not where you were born, or how many generations precede you, or how you make a living, but do you long painfully for New York? Are you homesick for this vanishing city?