Monday, June 7, 2021

The Battle for Public Space

As New York City reopens after lockdown, it is also closing down. During 2020, especially from spring to summer, many New Yorkers who ventured into the streets found a joyful and communal openness to the city, in the midst of so much anxiety and grief during the pandemic. In public parks, we gathered together, in mixtures of races and classes, to play music, dance, and connect politically for actions we hoped would change the world for the better. Coalitions formed. Empathy increased. Friendships were made. As spring 2021 came, this vibrant new life continued--but the city is working hard to shut it down and "get back to normal." 

 

This repeated demand for normal always reminds me of the words from author and activist Sonya Renee Taylor: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” 


As I've biked through Manhattan, participating in protest marches, talking with many people in different areas, I've watched the suppression of open New York day after day. Not everyone is aware of the ways City Hall and the NYPD are working hard to clamp down on our public spaces, the commons that belong to all of us, along with other spaces that were transformed during lockdown into something local and liberated. And while officials claim that the crackdown is due to music, substance use, and crowding, it is clear that the police are targeting some groups and not others. While they suppress Black, brown, queer, trans, and homeless people, they apparently do nothing to stop the upper-class, young white people who have returned from their 2020 escape from New York to drink, vomit, fight, scream, blast music, and crowd the streets of gentrified neighborhoods like the East Village. Let's not pretend otherwise. Who is the city reopening for?

 

Much more analysis on this topic will be in my next book, "Feral City," and while I'm still busy writing that, here is a brief timeline of recent events in the spring of 2021. There is a definite pattern.

 


March: On sunny days, life returns to Washington Square. In the dry fountain, young people ride their skateboards, play music, and hang out. Older people sit with them and enjoy the energetic, friendly mix of races, classes, and ages. It is much like the summer of 2020, when the park was full of New Yorkers, joyfully connecting and appreciating one another. 

 


 

April 8: Even though the weather is chilly, the fountain water is turned on, effectively getting rid of the culture it had been fostering. For weeks, few people approach the fountain because it’s too cold. The water, turned on early, is a device of social control. It's nothing new. Racial mixing in the Washington Square fountain has been controlled before; for example, in 1961 during the police riot against folksingers. Race and class mixing is a very dangerous combination--it leads to compassion, coalition, and movement against the ruling classes. 

 

I speak to some of the young artists (most of whom are people of color) who have been selling their work in the park all through the pandemic. They tell me the park police have been intimidating them and giving them tickets for selling art. One artist says he feels so uncomfortable, he's thinking about leaving. (I have not seen him since.) Getting rid of people, of course, is the goal.

 


April 11: People play music and dance at night in Washington Square Park, much like they did throughout the summer of 2020. After midnight, the NYPD performs a massive raid with what look like hundreds of officers in riot gear and on bicycle. They chase people out of the park and through the streets around NYU. (Watch video of the raid on Instagram)

 

April 21: Mayor de Blasio announces a major initiative to bring tourists back to New York City. The marketing campaign has a budget of $30 million.

 

May 1: All of the sidewalk vendors along Canal Street and 34th Street are cleared out. Mostly Black and brown New Yorkers and immigrants, they have been here since early in lockdown 2020. One block of Canal had become so culturally inflected, it was informally named “Little Senegal.” In both locations, police officers tell me “these people are not allowed here anymore” and “It’s a new initiative.”

 

 

May 3: Governor Cuomo announces a “major reopening” for New York on May 19.

 

May 6: In the Village, Christopher Park is closed early and padlocked, but only on Thursdays at 4:00 or 5:00pm, just before the Stonewall Protest has its weekly rally, an event that has been going strong since July 2020. In addition, Federal Park Police are stationed with a car outside the park and they routinely go in to patrol. Parkgoers report feeling intimidated. Some leave, some relocate to Washington Square. 

 

All through the pandemic, Christopher Park has been a haven for queer people, including many Black and brown and transgender New Yorkers, who gather here for music, dance performances, and camaraderie. The parkgoers are also of different classes, from middle-class to poor and homeless, and everyone mixes in a friendly atmosphere. More than one park-goer tells me the park closure is connected to the Stonewall Protest because local residents—perhaps people who left New York in 2020 and have now returned—have been complaining. I watch one young woman complain to the Federal Park Police that she feels “afraid” of the people in the park and suggests they are breaking the law by drinking outdoors and playing music (two things that white, upper-class people do all over town during the pandemic).

 



 

May 19: Major reopening of New York City

 

May 22: The NYPD performs another massive raid of Washington Square Park, showing up again in riot gear. (Watch video on Instagram.)

 

May 28: After many complaints from well-organized neighbors, many of them property owners, the northwest corner of Washington Square Park is barricaded shut and drug users are pushed out. These people have been in this corner of the park for at least a year. They stayed to themselves and could be avoided, but now they move out to other sections of the park and the Village.

 

Same day, a 10:00 p.m. curfew begins for Washington Square Park on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, two hours earlier than usual.

 


June 2: Parks Enforcement Police officers and NYPD launch a sting to ticket bicyclists who ride through Washington Square Park, something people have been doing without incident for the past year.

 

June 3: Hostile architecture is added to the circular area by the Garibaldi statue where skateboarders congregate. Large concrete planters are placed strategically to stop people from skating.

 


June 4: The NYPD erects a large digital traffic sign by the Washington Square Arch, spelling out the rules in light-up letters: No Skating, Bicycle Riding. No Alcohol. No Sound Devices. Dozens of police patrol the park at night, telling people to turn off any music. At 10:00 p.m., when curfew begins, cops in riot gear close the park. People leave without incident. Some go to Union Square Park, which is also closed, surrounded by police barricades. 

 



June 5: In Tompkins Square Park, the police stop the band Pinc Louds from playing music. They shut the park down at 10:00 p.m., even though no curfew has been announced.

 

Activists arrive at Washington Square to protest the curfew. The police hit back violently with what look like hundreds of riot cops and SRG troops on bicycle. Parkgoers and protesters are pepper-sprayed and beaten. Once people are out of the park and the entrances are barricaded shut, the police charge, chasing people down Thompson Street, all the way to Houston Street, in a panicked stampede in which at least one person is trampled. In total, 23 people are arrested.

 

 

June 6: In Tompkins Square Park, a Queer Prom is stopped by the police and the park is shut again at 10:00 p.m

 

At Washington Square Park, after a negative backlash from mayoral hopefuls and other politicians, the police do not enforce the curfew. While several police vans are lined up on blocks nearby, they do not enter the park and people are free to play music and dance. It feels again like the joyful freedom of summer 2020.

 

 

June 7: A police spokesperson tells The Village Sun, “Reassessment will be made on the closing time of the park,” but Mayor de Blasio says he will keep the 10:00 curfew in place. 

 

The latest news is that the NYPD has gone to the home of one of the June 5 Washington Square activists and put him under arrest.

 

 

 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Eisenberg's

 VANISHED

One of the greatest, and one of my favorites, has gone. After temporarily shuttering during the pandemic, Eisenberg's sandwich shop, near the Flatiron since 1929, has closed for good. A For Lease sign is in the window.

I went by yesterday and talked with building manager Jackie Valiente who told me that she and the building owner would love to save Eisenberg's, but they need someone to take it over and keep it as it is. "Someone who wants the old Eisenberg's," she said, "the old concept of New York." That concept, said customer Arnold Engelman, is simple. "Eisenberg's is what New York's all about," he told me. "People gathering in places they know, knowing the owners and the owners knowing them. This doesn't exist anymore."

Arnold has been coming to Eisenberg's since he was a kid, growing up on 11th Street. Jackie has been eating at Eisenberg's since 1976. It's the kind of place you keep going to forever, always getting your favorite dish. I first went to Eisenberg's in 1995. I worked nearby and my boss took me, saying I had to have the best tuna salad sandwich on earth. He was right. I've never ordered anything else at Eisenberg's. It's been the tuna sandwich for 25 years.


When the place sold in 2018, I panicked. I told the new owner, hotelier Warren Chiu, not to fuck it up and he didn't. He let it be. But the pandemic was too much to keep it going. I got take-out from Eisenberg's as much as I could during the spring and summer of 2020--and worried each time that it was my last dish of tuna salad sandwich, chips, and Cel-Ray from the place. 

Last meal, with Purell
 

Is there a chance for a Hail Mary?

"Tell people we need someone to save Eisenberg's," Jackie told me. Angels have shown up before. When Josh Konecky took it over about fifteen years ago, he kept it as it was--greasy and authentic--and people flocked, crowding the red swivel stools for miles. Recently, customers stepped in to save the Astor barber shop, taking it over and leaving it just as it should be. This can happen and it needs to happen for Eisenberg's--soon.

The shop's slogan is "You either get it or you don't," and Jackie says, "We need someone who gets it. Or else there's no use." Unfortunately, "The only offers we've got are from a pizza place and a Starbucks." Either option would be an absolute tragedy and a slap in the face of this legendary and greatly beloved spot. 

If you're an angel and you "get it," please step up and save Eisenberg's. If you're a pizza place or Starbucks, please fuck right off and die. 

Jackie says the best way to reach out is to contact the brokers at Cushman & Wakefield: Sean Moran 212-841-7668 or Molly Sandza 212-841-7955.


Previously:
Eisenberg's sold
Eisenberg's Not Vanishing
Eisenberg's U-Bet



Monday, August 17, 2020

Waste

This article in the Guardian begins, "On a damp and humid Thursday afternoon Manhattan’s Union Square is looking sorry for itself. There’s 73,000 sq ft of empty retail space up for grabs at 44 Union Square in the now boarded up neo-Georgian landmark that was once Tammany Hall." 

What it doesn't mention is the fact that several small mom-and-pop businesses were pushed out of the building in 2016 to make room for, undoubtedly, more chain and luxury businesses that would fit the class of workers intended for the building's high-tech makeover. 

 

 

Frank's Wines & Liquors had been there for over 40 years. A deli went, along with a smoke shop and magazine shop. Also pushed out were the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theater.

It's unlikely that those high-tech workers are coming. And the chain stores probably aren't either, since they've now "abandoned" Manhattan after helping to destroy it. 

It is deeply regrettable that the leaders of this city didn't pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act or reinstate commercial rent regulation when it would have made a difference. How many small businesses will we lose to the pandemic after they survived the Great Depression, the major fiscal crisis and high crime of the 1970s, September 11, the financial crisis of 2008? Some even survived the pandemic of 1918. Because when the rent is reasonable, businesses can survive even the worst catastrophes.

 

 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Bluestockings

The wonderful, radical, fiercely essential, collectively owned Bluestockings bookstore and activist center is leaving.



"This is not goodbye," they write. "This is 'wait for our new location announcement,' hopefully soon."

"Though we wish we were making this decision on our own terms, our decision has been forced by the demands of our landlord for more money and by their inaction on necessary repairs to the structural damage our wild little slice of space has endured over these last 21 years."

Let's hope they stay in the neighborhood of the Lower East Side, though that seems rather unlikely. UPDATE: So happy to hear that Bluestockings bookstore has the keys to their new home--still on the LES--at 116 Suffolk! Here's a chance to send them some money for their move.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Odessa

VANISHING

UPDATE: False alarm! Now they say they're just renovating.

Back in 2013, the old Odessa closed. This Odessa was also known as the "dark" Odessa. It was the first Odessa and the one I loved best. Now the new Odessa, also known as a the "light" Odessa, is closing.


Odessa in miniature by Nicholas Buffon

When the old Odessa still existed, I didn't go much to the new Odessa because it felt redundant and too new when it opened back in 1990-whenever. Then, when the old Odessa closed, I went to the new Odessa (which was no longer new) because it was no longer redundant and, in fact, was one of the only places left in the East Village where you could get a simple diner meal and not be surrounded by the worst people.

Now it's closing. Their last day will be July 19.

You can't go inside to sit and eat because we're in a pandemic, remember? But you can order something to go and while you wait you can imagine that you're sitting inside, as if it's a normal day, in a normal time, and everything is not on the verge of disappearing forever.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Washington Square Bloodied

In the aftermath of yesterday's incident of police brutality against New Yorkers participating in the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, someone has made a bold statement in Washington Square Park.



Early this morning, I went by the park to find the statues of George Washington on the Arch vividly splattered in blood-red paint. (Below his feet on one side, graffiti from weeks ago still shows "fuck12 since 1492.")







On the other side of the arch, more blood splatter. (Above more faded graffiti: "Stolen Lands FTP.")



Crime scene body outlines ring the fountain, one after another, their torsos and heads blasted with red as if shot dead.




While some of the paint was still wet, bits of rubber balloon left behind, detectives surveyed the incendiary work of graffiti art.



A cooler full of watery, blood-red paint stands open before the spectacle.



This will be temporary, paint washes off, but the lives lost to police brutality will never be made whole. This statement is a reminder that the city has blood on its hands. Yesterday's violence erupted when police arrested people for graffiti--and the crowd of queers resisted. We might remember Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist killed by the NYPD in 1983. And Stonewall, as we all know, was a riot.



There's a tradition of putting political graffiti on the Washington arch. It has survived it. Many times. It'll survive again.




Meredith Jacobson Marciano, 1978


Carole Teller, 1980

*UPDATE: Within a few hours, the statue is made white again:


photos of cleaning by Ann Pellegrini












Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Fear City: 2020

In 1975, when Mayor Abe Beame planned to lay off thousands of firefighters, police, and other law enforcement officers, their unions, operating under the name Council for Public Safety, took revenge by printing up a harrowing leaflet designed to keep tourists out of New York.

Entitled “Welcome to Fear City,” it featured a grim reaper on the cover. The advice included: (1) Stay off the streets after 6 p.m., (2) Do not walk; (3) Avoid public transportation, i.e., "never ride the subway for any reason whatsoever”; (4) Remain in Manhattan, restricting your movements to Midtown only; and five more helpful tips written for the express purpose of scaring the daylights out of New York’s 16 million already nervous tourists.



Now someone quite clever, who knows their New York history, has revised the pamphlet for today. At a Black Lives Matter rally in Bryant Park, I came upon this new version, a Survival Guide for protesters in New York.



On the front, the old Grim Reaper skull has been refashioned wearing a police officer's hat with the letters ACAB.

Inside is a guide to what to do if you're arrested, how to deal with pepper spray and stingray trackers, what to wear to a protest, and more.



There's no credit for the creator of the pamphlet, but readers are directed to linkt.ree/acab to make donations to the movement, sign petitions, and get more information.