Saturday, July 21, 2018

Targeting the East Village

Jane Jacobs is rolling in her grave today. The Target chain has opened a store on 14th Street and Avenue A, and for their grand celebration they have committed what might be the most deplorable commodification of local neighborhood culture I’ve ever witnessed.



Along the first floor of Extell’s luxury monster, known as EVGB for the Trumpian claim of “East Village’s Greatest Building,” Target has constructed a simulacrum of the hyper-local New York street--the sort of street that is being wiped out by corporations and developers--and it comes complete with all the signifiers.

The façade is draped in vinyl sheets printed with images of tenements, the same sort of buildings that get demolished to make room for such developments. Here they sit, hollow movie-set shells, below the shiny windows of the high-end rentals. They are the dead risen from the grave, zombies enlisted to work for the corporation.



A red newspaper kiosk announces the opening of the store with a fake newspaper (decorated with a bull’s-eyed water tower, as if hunters have it in their sights), and it brings to mind the lost kiosks of the vanished Village Voice.

There’s even a fake fire hydrant and red-painted park benches.

In front of an Alphabet City bull’s-eye mural, you can pose for pictures with props—a guitar, a record album, a slice of pizza printed on foamcore--the stuff of the once iconoclastic East Village.



Who are the people in your neighborhood?

There’s a storefront gypsy telling fortunes with Target-branded Tarot cards.

And on a pseudo stoop is a hip-hop dancer, his leg encircled with a Target-branded bandanna. At his feet are red buckets, marked with the Target logo, maybe for someone to later play with drumsticks in the style popularized by bucket drummer Larry Wright.



But worst of all, there’s a simulated CBGB, the celebrated punk club shuttered by a rent hike in 2006, replaced by the luxury John Varvatos store, and replicated in the Newark Airport as a theme restaurant for tourists.

This one boasts the famous awning, but it's printed with TRGT -- in the club’s iconic typeface, the western-style lettering created by owner Hilly Kristal’s ex-wife. (Restaurateur Daniel Boulud tried this in 2007 with DBGB on the Bowery, and the CBGB estate’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter.)

Inside, TRGT is printed on t-shirts, but you can't buy those. You can only get free "bands."



However, it's not rock music bands they’re giving out, it’s hair bands, Band-Aids, and resistance bands.

I asked, “What kind of resistance?” thinking of the political climate at the moment, and the woman answered, “They’re resistance bands for doing exercise.”



This Potemkin Village from Hell is guarded by three private security guards, all dressed in black suits with Secret Service-style earpieces, and one officer from the NYPD. All the workers are relentlessly sunny, like actors at Disneyland.

And people are streaming in for the free stuff—who doesn’t want free stuff?—happy to adorn themselves with the red sunglasses and branded bandannas as they rush into the store, where the commodification continues.

An East Village-themed mural provides a backdrop for the cash registers, decorated with street signs and hot dogs, more tenements, "NYC Nuyoricans," Theatre 80 St. Marks, and a book with the words “Poets Café.”

To see the artifacts of my own life, my cultural and spiritual awakening, my home, displayed above the cash registers in a Target store is to be cast into a state of confusion and dystopic dysphoria. What am I seeing? Who are these people? What happened to the world?





Meanwhile, down the block, EVGB has spray-painted the sidewalk with ads promoting their amenities and their worldview with the slogans:

GREATEST BUILDING
GROUP BONDING
GORGEOUS BATHROOMS

GET BUFF
GET BUSY
GO BIG



They’ve constructed a bright arc of balloons and they're giving out free cotton candy with "snappy toppings" like Pop Rocks, Sparkle, and Mango Pixie Dust.

Many of the people in line can't afford the apartments here, which start at $3,695 per month for a studio. They are neighborhood residents who've lost a number of affordable local businesses to this development, places like the Stuyvesant Grocery, a laundromat, a hair salon, the Rainbow discount store, Bargain Express, and the Blarney Cove.

But today there is a bright and shiny simulation of the real and the local. There is cotton candy and free trinkets. Bread and circuses that appease--and even win over. And everyone is having a terrific time.

As Margaret Thatcher said, "Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul."




Thursday, July 12, 2018

Coffee Shop

VANISHING

After 28 years on Union Square, Coffee Shop is closing.



From The Post:

Co-owner and President Charles Milite says:

"The times have changed in our industry. The rents are very high and now the minimum wage is going up and we have a huge number of employees.”

Personally, I never went there except once or twice. It was too expensive and full of models. But, you know, the rent. And God save that neon sign.


Monday, July 9, 2018

One Manhattan Expands

Your own private driveway. Your own private bowling alley. Your own private movie theater. Your own private spa. Your own private lookout.

These promises of privacy are repeated on banners that circle Extell's One Manhattan Square on the Lower East Side, the latest luxury monstrosity to vandalize our skyline and bully its way into our low-rise neighborhoods. (There will also be a private golf simulator, a private pet spa, a private fitness complex, a private squash and basketball court, and an entire acre of private gardens.)



With so much private space, why venture out of the complex at all? Why engage with city life? The insistence on privacy and the turning away from the street exemplify the suburban mentality come to the city in the 2000s.

One resident of a luxury building loaded with suburban amenities told The Observer in 2008, “Everything's always convenient, always safe, always clean. You don't have to worry about gross things. Like mice! And creepy things like that." Said another, "It sometimes feels like I'm not in New York when I'm in the building... It's trying to have things that a suburban housing complex would--everything at your fingertips, where you don't have to leave [the building] much if you don't want.”

As Sarah Schulman has noted, “They came not to be citified, but rather to change cities into places they could recognize and dominate.”



This process of domination has just begun.

Under the FDR, along the East River Esplanade, someone has taped several flyers from One Manhattan Square, saying: "Join us for weekly complimentary cross fit classes." They are posted all over the spot used by local Chinese people for Tai Chi and other exercise.

It's clearly some kind of tool for selling more condos, but we have to ask: Why, when the people of One Manhattan have so much private space, do they also need to expand into the public space?



I was recently watching the 1979 movie "Breaking Away." It's about conflict between working class townie kids and upper class college kids. On hot days, the townies swim in the quarries where their fathers once cut stone. When the college kids go to swim at the quarry, one of the townies gets angry and says, "They've got indoor pools and outdoor pools on the campus, but they still got to come here!"

One Manhattan has a private spa, a private fitness complex, and an acre of private gardens, but they still have to use the space long enjoyed by the lower income local people.

It doesn't matter if the cross fit class doesn't happen at the same time as the Tai Chi sessions. It doesn't matter that it's free for anyone to join. It is quite clear who the cross fit classes are for. Just look at the people on the flyer.



Recently I was introduced to the concept of "ontological white expansiveness." Shannon Sullivan writes, "As ontologically expansive, white people tend to act and think as if all spaces—whether geographical, psychical, linguistic, economic, spiritual, bodily, or otherwise—are or should be available for them to move in and out of as they wish. Ontological expansiveness is a particular co-constitutive relationship between self and environment in which the self assumes that it can and should have totally mastery over its environment."

I would add that it's not only whiteness, but also the power of class that convinces people that the whole world is for them. Try making this argument to the people who benefit from that expansiveness. They will often tell you that this is public space and "We have a right to be there." They might even say, "We're integrating this neighborhood." And they'll use language like, "Everyone is welcome here."

But all of that covers up what's really going on--the semi-privatization of our public space, and the turning of public spaces into amenities for luxury developments (like we've seen at Astor Place).



The thousands of new people who will flood in to this neighborhood are already changing the East River Esplanade.

More upscaling is coming.



The city just installed a ferry landing nearby. It is an absolute eyesore, blocking formerly uplifting views of the harbor as you walk or bike downtown. But as City Realty pointed out, "Residents of the Lower East Side apartments for sale at One Manhattan Square will have access to a brand-new stop on the NYC Ferry at Corlears Hook."

Who is the ferry meant for?



And, of course, the whole gritty, open esplanade is being renovated -- better to fit the needs and aesthetics of the condo developers and their clients.

More mega-towers are coming. Activists are fighting them.

When the towers come, they will bring more people who don't want to engage with the city as it is. They will emerge from their private pleasure gardens and they will expand into the public space, only to alter it to their taste. And it will be too late to fight it.






Monday, June 25, 2018

Bring Back Mom and Pop

In my latest op-ed for the Daily News, I debate the myths that the real estate industry is putting forth about the Small Business Jobs Survival Act and the demise of brick and mortar retail:

More and more, in rapid succession, our streets are dulled by corporate chains, big banks, systematized “concept” shops and too many vacant storefronts. This is not New York.



If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.

Friday, June 22, 2018

High-Rent Blight Monopoly

You may have seen them popping up on high-rent blight around town. Monopoly cards pasted to the windows and walls of shuttered shops. They list outrageous rents and come with a Jane Jacobs quote.



They're the creation of an artist called Symbol. I asked Symbol to explain the project and what inspired him to do it. He told me:

"Everywhere I walked in Manhattan there were empty storefronts, and it seemed like one big game between landlords and tenants. All these landlords waiting for a pharmacy or bank to sign a 10-year lease. Is there a better analogy for that then the game of Monopoly?

Seems like no one really wins at Monopoly but everyone just tires out. All the little stores just seemed to disappear. There were no replacements and Manhattan lost its juice. Bleecker went from high rent/Sex and the City famous to an empty side street.

The signs on Lexington are Amazon-colored orange. The online shopping has only added to the problem and added to my tipping point. Yeah, I can buy cufflinks on Amazon but where's the fun of wandering into some old lady store and finding a cool pair? Same thing with flea markets. Sure, it was mostly crap, but it was fun crap.

I'm not sure what the answer is and I doubt the politicians can deal with what is essentially a free market issue. Hence the Jane Jacobs quote. I'm an artist in a different medium and I wanted to make a statement instead of crying about what was happening. (And buying a box of Kleenex on Amazon Prime.)

I grew up idolizing the city from nearby and have lived here for some time. Every kid growing up just outside of Manhattan has that same feeling. Let's go to the city are the words that are electrifying. I mean anything could happen on a Friday or Saturday night and usually did. Fell in love, danced, drank, got lost, ate at a now closed diner, ended up at home as the sun came up and before my parents woke up.

I hope kids still feel that way. I don't. You want fun? Move to the boroughs."

You can find more Monopoly cards on Symbol's Instagram page



This is actually not a free market issue, although the politicians and real-estate industry want us to believe that. As I explain in detail in my book, Vanishing New York, the market isn't free. It's rigged heavily in favor of big developers and landlords, giving them tax breaks and other incentives, and it works against small business people. There are many things that can be done to remedy this. One is the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

If you want to stop massive commercial rent hikes that put small businesses out of business, take action:

- Write to the mayor and ask him to support the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA). Here's a quick form you can fill out in just a few easy steps.

- Write to Council Speaker Corey Johnson and ask him to support a strong SBJSA and bring it to a vote. Here's a quick and easy form for that, too.

- Here's more you can do.

- And talk about it. Talk to your friends, family, and co-workers. Tell them that mom and pops aren't vanishing "because of the market" or "all because of the Internet," they're vanishing because the city and state support landlord greed -- but this can change. There are solutions. The first step is raising consciousness. We have to imagine a different city.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Legacy Records and Black Branding

In his Times review of a new Hudson Yards restaurant, Pete Wells writes that Legacy Records has "ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture."

I haven't been inside the place, so I'll leave it to Wells, who describes images of black musicians on the walls, stars like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, who supposedly recorded in a studio on the site. Except they didn't. There was a studio there for a few years in the 2000s, he says, "mostly used by orchestras, Broadway cast recordings and commercials."

There's also a photo by Mickalene Thomas of a black woman with an Afro in a sexy pose.


photo by Gary He

Wells concludes:

"Legacy Records has taken this shred of history and turned it into a fantasy of black American music.

Exhibited in a museum or gallery, Ms. Thomas’s photo might be taken as a comment on the different postures and personas available to black women. Hanging it next to the counter where pastries and coffee are sold by day strips out some of its meaning; it looks like an attempt to buy a personality for a restaurant that doesn’t have one of its own.

If anyone gets to decide who can use black culture for what purposes, it surely isn’t me. But Legacy Records uses it in a gratuitous and offhanded way that made me uncomfortable. Stevie Wonder will always be cool, but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall."


photo: Mo Gelber

What Wells describes is not just cultural appropriation, it is "black branding" for the purposes of commodifying an urban space for the wealthy and mostly white. It is a trend that comes with hyper-gentrifying cities across America.

In his book "Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” Derek S. Hyra writes: “Not long ago, an urban community’s association with blackness was mostly perceived as detrimental. But nowadays...neighborhood-based organizations, real estate developers, restaurant owners and urban planners commodify and appropriate aspects of blackness to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment.”

We saw it most famously at the Summerhill restaurant in Crown Heights, where locals protested the use of supposed bullet holes and Forty Ounce Rosé.

Black branding is happening in hyper-gentrified cities where actual black people are being removed. With hyper-gentrification, New York City is getting whiter. And, as we've seen in many recent news reports, as middle and upper-class whites move into black and brown neighborhoods, they call the police on black people--for barbecuing, playing music, and just hanging out. These attacks happen simultaneously with the commodification of blackness.

Lower-income black people are pushed out. Their images and symbols are kept by the race/class victors as trophies and marketing opportunities. It can be seen as a form of revenge.


Barbecue Becky, Oakland, CA

“The rallying cry of the revanchist city,” wrote urbanist and gentrification expert Neil Smith, “might well be: ‘Who lost the city? And on whom is revenge to be exacted?’”

The notion of the lost city, the stolen city, goes back to white flight, a phenomenon engineered by the federal government beginning in the 1930s. Without Jim Crow in the northern United States, the government had to use stealthier methods of segregation. They developed the racist housing practice of redlining to confine black and brown people in disinvested cities, while luring whites away with good deals on houses in whites-only suburbs. This drain of the city’s tax base played a major role in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which provided the economic excuse for New York’s reorientation away from social democracy and towards neoliberalism, the radical free market, aka "trickle-down economics." And it is from there that hyper-gentrification, as a top-down tactic of state and city government, began.

We cannot talk about hyper-gentrification without also talking about racism. The story of American capital cannot be disentangled from the story of slavery in America. Neoliberalism, while it is an economic approach, was a white supremacist solution. It was, and continues to be, a powerful method to “take back” the city -- and, ultimately, the country—from black and brown people and to re-establish the power of the wealthy white elite. 


Inside Legacy Records, photo: Gary He, via Eater

So it seems appropriate that this restaurant is part of Hudson Yards, the fake city within a city, a curated space for the ultra-elite, and the perfect product of neoliberalized New York -- with all its corporate welfare, Hudson Yards has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

As I noted in my book Vanishing New York, Hudson Yards is a "dreamworld of exclusion," one of those places Mike Davis describes in Evil Paradises: “where the rich can walk like gods in the nightmare gardens of their deepest and most secret desires.”






Monday, June 18, 2018

Cafe Espanol

VANISHED

On Bleecker Street since 1976, Cafe Español has shuttered.



There's no note to say why the sudden closing, only a sign that reads: "This restaurant is closed. Trespassers will be prosecuted."

On their website, they write, "Thank you for all of these years by our side, the Cafe Español family."



This is the latest in a string of closures for Manhattan's old-school Spanish restaurants, including El Quijote, El Faro, Francisco's Centro Vasco, and El Paso.

What remains? There is Spain on 13th St., an absolute treasure, and Sevilla on Charles.

Go while you still can.