Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Culture Of Intimidation for the Poor- The Ugly Underside of Hipster New York

During the last two weeks , I visited two remarkable restaurants and gathering spots in once struggling sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx,the Clock Wine and Martini Bar on Lincoln Avenue in the Bronx, just South of the Bruckner Expressway, and Peaches on Lewis Avenue in the heart of Bed Stuy. In both places, the atmosphere was hip, and informal, the crowd multiracial and clearly at ease. Thought I was there on the invitation of friends, these were both spots I might come back to on my own because I felt so comfortable there This is not the first such experience I have had in neighborhood spots in what were once considered tough neighborhoods. I felt the same way at Teddy’s Bar and Grill in Williamsbugh, where I have guest dj’d at the invitation of my friend Dennis O’Neill, at the Bruckner Bar and Grill in the Bronx, and at Camaradas El Barrio, the amazing bar, restaurant and music venue owned by my friend and former student Orlando Plaza in the heart of East Harlem I love places where the clientele is multiracial, where the food is affordable and good ( and in the case of Caramarads El Barrio, better than good) and where I can find my favorite beers. If I looked at these places in isolation, I would think New York, under Michael Bloomberg, had become a kind of Hipster Heaven, where young cool people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and from all over the world, could find their culture and sociability institutionalized in neighborhood spots all over the city But when meeting my friend and former student Tiffany Raspberry, a political consultant who lives on Myrtle Avenue, two blocks from the Marcy houses, I got a chilling picture of how Hipster Heaven is maintained in neighborhoods which adjoin large low income housing projects. Tiffany said, quite bluntly,” you never see kids from the Marcy Houses on Myrtle Avenue.” The police, she said, send a message that they are not welcome on those streets, where hipsters ride bikes and Hasidic families can be seen in growing numbers shopping and sending their kids to school. “So this is what stop and frisk accomplishes” I asked her. “Exactly” she said. I then thought about a couple of similar situations I had been in recently where a similar dynamic was at work. Every Thursday afternoon, I take my grand daughter Avery to track practice in Red Hook Park, passing by the Red Hook project on my way to and from the track. On the more than fifteen occasions I have gone to Red Hook, I have not seen one group of tough looking adolescents congregating in the school yard, hanging in the street, or walking through the park. If this had been fifteen years ago, their presence would have been unmistakable, and something to be ignored at one’s peril. What happened? Are all those kids working? We know that can’t be true, given Black, Latino and youth unemployment rates? Are they all in jail? As full as the jails are, they aren’t holding the majority of adolescents in the city’s low income projects What seems to be going on is that intrusive, intimidating policing, and stop and frisk tactics, are keeping young people of color confined to social spaces where they aren’t seen as a threat to middle class people. Where those spaces are it would take young people themselves- or an urban ethnographer- to enumerate, but it sure isn’t in Red Hook park , it sure isn’t on Myrtle Avenue, it sure isn’t on the Smith Street Restaurant district, it sure isn’t on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, and apparently, it sure isn’t outside Peaches on Lewis Avenue or the Clock Win Bar in the South Bronx! And though I believed Tiffany, it took something I saw heading down to Peaches to hip the point home. As we were heading into Bed Stuy, four blocks South of the Marcy houses, I saw a group of five, young white cops walking together in a group, heading North. Never had I seen so many police patrolling in those numbers. But that was nothing! Three blocks south of that, I saw a group of eight policy officers,two black, six white ( or Latino) walking north in the same direction. This totally freaked me out. I had never seen so many police officers walking in a group? Why were they there? Why this concentration of overwhelming force. And then I thought about what Tiffany said. It required this concentration of police manpower to keep young people trapped in poverty penned into their project grounds while the increasing wealthy people moving into their neighborhood enjoy the upscale restaurants and cafes without fears for their safety. I certainly felt safe in Peaches, surrounded by Black folks of all ages, but at what price my safety. New York is the greatest city in the world if you have cash in your pocket and love culture and the arts, but if you are poor, and a person of color, Michael Bloomberg’s New Y ork can be an expensively maintained prison that nullifies your existence.

5 comments:

Bob said...

Mark, I had similar feelings walking south down eighth avenue between 116 street and 110 street. Old bodegas next to several upscale new hip bars and restaurants attended by multiracial patrons, all comfortably middle class and above. The gap between gentrification and poverty next door is frightening and unsettling. In this case, outside the bodega there were a few low income people congregating. But my question is: What is to be done? How can we change this? Can we elect a new Mayor who will think about the needs of the people in the projects? Knowing the facts of "hipster gentrification", what do we do?

Mark Naison said...

Bob
I do not think this can be changed quickly. It not only requires a very different kind of mayor, it requires convincing elected officials that no development projects can proceed without paying a living wage and without designating 40 percent of apartment as affordable housing. And ultimately, changes in taxation would have to take place at the Federal and State level to redistribute wealth downward.

Bob said...

Mark, thanks for your response; I understand what you are saying, but isn't there a more immediate issue about the lack of awareness that most people I meet have about the very problem you write about. You're absolutely right in your last paragraph, when you state that if one loves the arts in this city, or loves eating in fine restaurants and has the money to do so, this is the place to be. But why must this enjoyment take place in an' alternative universe" where poor people simply don't exist, and police brutality is a side issue. One Sunday ago I participated in the anti stop and frisk march, by myself, and when I told friends about the experience, some were very glad that I went and supportive (even if they did not attend themselves), others just sloughed off the whole and moved the conversation to something else. I have many friends in their twenties or early thirties who are passionately involved with theater in NY, I can talk to them about it for hours, yet NONE of them attended the march; some were not even aware it was happening. Coming of age in the sixties (I am a few years older than you) I remember how the arts community embraced the civil rights movement; now...... So my question is, I guess, is it possible to bridge the gap between the two worlds?

Ilyse Na'omi Kazar said...

Makes me think about the flick District B13.

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