Thursday, June 19, 2008

Discussing Eminent Domain

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.

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?


ee said...

One thing for sure, these new gentrifiers, whoever they may be -- yunnies, yuppies, pretenders --(once they've been gentrified by someone else) will never feel nostalgic about the East Village. They're like the Borg (in Star Trek): they consume all facets of culture and quickly build a generic version for mass consumption; they form a "collective", which is totally enclosed -- an absolute and singular subject which consumes everything it encounters.

On a side note: I used to work for the NYPL -- and they are a bunch of elitists.

Anonymous said...

You might wish to check out this site: Castle Coalition.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Alright, see, this is disgusting. Not only do these fiends want to spread to other communities and force out those who have been there for generations, they also want to obliterate any trace of their identity. They are a cancer. There's your definition of blight: gentrifiers.

I am reminded of the post the other day from Michael Rosen, who made such a passionate plea for fairness and all, with respect to his poor, besieged neighbors in the Christadora. He can quote gospel from Matthew until Jesus walks the earth again, if that pleases him, but we are in the midst of a class war, and he wonders why can't we all just get along. He needs to put aside religious homilies and understand that real people living real lives are being destroyed as this city is being remade as a hot spot for the nouveau riche.

How does he expect people to react but with anger and frustration when they feel everything being snatched away from them and they are powerless to do anything about it?

Maybe it isn't exactly fair to target the residents of Christodora House, to make them bear the brunt of all this anger. But you know what, Michael Rosen, people throughout this city see these Joneses moving in and themselves being forced out. Those who manage somehow to remain see their community changing in ways which don't benefit them not one damn bit- specialty stores and overpriced boites- and so it is the Joneses who are villified. And you ask, why the anger, why "Die Yuppie Scum? You really don't see it, do you? If you don't see it, Michael Rosen, who says he's read Jameson, read Adorno, who says he's involved in the community, involved with children, then how do you expect your neighbor, a vapid fashion model, to get it? And this is why things will only worsen in this city. "Die Yuppie Scum" may be the least of it.

Marco said...

Nostalgia is looked down upon by many people. They equate it with sentimentality. Your post also brought to mind all the people of New Orleans who have died and who will die because they cannot return home.

Anonymous said...

there's this professor and writer from harvard whose name i'm blanking on (Ed... ?) who the New York Times Magazine's yearly Real Estate issue a few years ago, said ... 'if Detroit was just wiped off the map, who would miss it?' (paraphrasing...) he saw NO value in Detroit, as is; he just saw it as a blighted city. These people who live in obscene wealth and comfort don't 'get' - THEY are not the ones EVER displaced - that these are people's homes. It is like New Orleans. I was there recently and the trauma but also the spirit of the people is amazing.

I like the Star Trek Borg reference. Thanks for this blog and all the smart, illuminating comments. It IS a class war. But it's also a fight for what's 'right' but I don't see how you can regulate certain things, if it's not 'obvious.'

You all should read Christopher Hitchens article "Last Call, Bohemia" in the new Vanity Fair. It's also online. I have a link to it on my blog.

Washington Square Park Blog

p.s. sounds like an interesting panel! (could you maybe write about it before hand next time for a 'heads up?' thanks.) Thanks for writing about it.

Anonymous said...

To be fair to the man in the black suit, I think his position echoed other grumblings I heard around me: That this event was a fairly one-sided discussion that quickly devolved into a heated community rally. I guess some were hoping this would be a venue for a more balanced look at the issue.

But I agree with Brian Berger's response. Something to the effect that if there's any evidence that the Atlantic Yards project isn't the result of flagrant corruption and greed, we'd all love to hear it.

I did quite enjoy the art work. Did you notice the Mandel's sign in there? The Reiner Leist piece was excellent.

Jeremiah Moss said...

shattered, i hear you, re: man in black suit. but i kept thinking, "with bloomberg and giuliani, the devil has had enough advocates in this city."

i also thought the panel was too conservative. for controversy's sake, i'd have liked to hear from someone who wasn't so optimistic or resigned to it. but, then, perhaps i am doomed to be a cassandra.

Jeremiah Moss said...

and yes! i saw the mandel's sign. that photog's stuff was fantastic. also, cat, i think i did announce this last week, but neglected to do so more recently.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the devil has enough advocates. Similar to your response when people ask why you don't cover the benefits of gentrification on this blog.

It did seem to me that the NYPL host bumbled around and looked to the audience to provide a counterpoint as an afterthought, since it was sort of missing from the panel.

Perhaps Marshall Berman's flippant remarks about how it's nice to finally have cafe's in Harlem was an attempt to stir the pot. I think Brian Berger's tone was anything but optimistic.

It is interesting that the definition of "blight" is completely open-ended in the context of justifying Eminent Domain. Especially since the dictionary definition says nothing about cities and refers mostly to plant life in a way not unlike the "rootshock" comparison. Taken from this angle, gentrification is more consistent with the meaning of blight than say, an unused rail yard.

For NYC, some of the current working definitions of blight may include:

- Homeless people in the park.
- No Wi-Fi in the park.
- Under-banked (I didn't make this term up) neighborhoods.
- Under-Starbucks'ed (I did make that up, but I'm sure some notion exists in their board room) neighborhoods.
- Remaining rent-controlled units.
- People of color live there.
- Restaurants that are just "so-so".
- Anything old.

Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is not unique to NYC. From Boston to Berlin, there is an increasing homogeneity to the face of the megalopolis. It would appear that methods of urban planning, trends in architectural design and municipal support for big-box retailers have conspired to render the modern city largely interchangeable, regardless of its actual location. But, this (notwithstanding its Huxleyan dimensions,) is not inconsistent with the general tenor of our culture: less concerned with producing than with selling, largely gauging its worth through conspicuous consumption. This has become an amnesiac society and we seem to be bent (perhaps out of embarrassment?) on obliterating the artifacts of our past. Perhaps we have come to value lifestyle over life?

There is a legitimate concern here and it, potentially, impacts all people, regardless of whether they work for a hedge fund or non-profit, whether they don a tie or t-shirt to go to work. This is not necessarily about sentimentality or romanticization: nobody wants to return to a blighted, dangerous city, so down on its luck that the president of the nation would tell it to drop dead. Indeed, the people I’ve met who most glorify that period are still quite young and base their responses on one too many viewings of The Warriors or I Love The 70’s!!

No- one of the really salient issues, here, is the ways in which all of this helps to erode our sense of community, ultimately affecting our identities as citizens. A democracy requires a public sphere and this, in turn, largely hinges on physical space that invites a sense of intimacy or belongingness. It is difficult to find that in a wine bar.

Mr. Moss covers the disappearance of places that could not be found elsewhere, were not interchangeable, that did have unique characters that could help foster a sense of “community.” I realize that, by current standards, it sounds na├»ve and anachronistic, but it seems to me that when a city once shot through with bookstores and cafes transmogrifies into one with a surplus of tanning salons and Duane Reades, we are in legitimate danger of entirely losing our sense of place and identity; and, when this transition occurs because these aforesaid establishments have been squeezed out by landlords and developers (not because they do not have a clientele or offer something of value,) it can be seen as a crime against culture, itself. At that point, changing the name of a public park becomes as natural as scheduling your daughter’s breast augmentation for her sixteenth birthday.

Anonymous said...

There is a legitimate concern here and it, potentially, impacts all people, regardless of whether they work for a hedge fund or non-profit, whether they don a tie or t-shirt to go to work. This is not necessarily about sentimentality or romanticization: nobody wants to return to a blighted, dangerous city, so down on its luck that the president of the nation would tell it to drop dead. Indeed, the people I’ve met who most glorify that period are still quite young and base their responses on one too many viewings of The Warriors or I Love The 70’s!!

Hey I love the 1970's because it was the last decade my team won a championship.

I also love the Warriors movie not because of the Warriors but because of THE LIZZIES. They repped my hood.

Rest assured tough if it were real life THE LIZZIES would have stopped them.

As a child my mom used to always tell me... "Me and my girlfriends were all good shots back in the day, so there is no way in hell we would have missed our target."

Anonymous said...

Seth, I lived the seventies here and, yes, I loved the seventies. Far better than the homgenized, squeaky clean excuse for a city that NY is rapidly becoming.

Unknown said...

In answer to your questions at the end of this post, "God, yes. For at least the last 8 years, if not longer." I long for the New York I experienced the first 5-8 years I was here. I definitely feel alienated from most of Manhattan. And most of Brooklyn too. It's almost like I'm in mourning and I have no idea what to do about it.

Anonymous said...

eric--you are sooo right on with the Star Trek reference

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that I didn't find this thread sooner, b/c my response to the Marcus Garvey Park comment will probably not be read by anyone. Nevertheless, I challenge anyone to present evidence that any newcomers to Harlem have suggested that the name of the park be changed back to Mt. Morris Park. This is an unfortunate rumor that started in a Curbed comment thread and has been repeated by others as evidence of the vileness of Harlem's newcomers.

It's sad really that so many of you have taken this at face value and continue to repeat it. Evidently, you're more concerned with hating people that have been pushed down the neighborhood ladder than with accuracy.

Ironically, the people that I hear using the term "Mt. Morris Park" are the real Harlem oldtimers. The newcomers that I know tend to go out of their way to use "Marcus Garvey Park." In fact, I've been corrected by an oldtimer that "Mt. Morris Park" is the appropriate term.

There are still several references to Mt. Morris Park. The street to the west is Mt. Morris Park West. The landmarked district is the Mt. Morris Park Landmarked District, and the block association is the Mt. Morris Park Community Improvement Association. All of these pre-existed the recent round of gentrification.

While not advocating for any name change, I do find it curious that so much would be put into the name by commentors to this website. It's a bit like complaining b/c someone suggested that "The Avenue of the Americas" should be renamed "6th Ave." Obviously, there are racial overtones to the park that don't exist for 6th Ave., but the concept is similar. The park existed as MMP for 140 years before it was renamed in 1973, against the wishes of many of my neighbors who were living around the park at the time.

Unknown said...

Watch the whole "Eminent Domain" event (6/18/08) from LIVE from the New York Public Library for free here:

Jerry said...

Almost all of these comments have something in common - they all assume that the viewpoint/perspective/historical moment that WE or I live in is the correct one. THose who lived in NYC in the 70's are nostalgic for that era. Do you not imagine that those who lived in NYC in the 60's were nosatlgic for that era - in the 70s'? It's not about one era vs another - it's about taking a long look at ourselves and realizing that culture/context cannot be created without the acceptance of those living in it. To what degree are we responsible for the ongoing commoditizaton of our lives?