Big Smoke

’cause it’s hard to see from where I’m standin’

What’s In a Name?

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One of the New York Times’ favorite activities is to discover places that are already inhabited and then rename them; effectively planting a flag out in the wild hinterlands of, well, New York City – but a New York City outside the purview of the metropole, ie: Manhattan south of 96th Street. Like urban pioneers, they are masters of all they survey, and the natives best scatter when they come to claim the “scene.”

Such gallant explorers coined a near standardized sobriquet that has become something of a running joke: Starting with SoHo in 1973 - formerly the Printing District, the Cast Iron District and, colorfully, when it was a no-man’s-land of heroin junkies and hookers, Hell’s Hundred Acres – came a cavalcade through the 70s and 80s: TriBeCa, NoHo, NoMad, NoLIta, and DUMBO. With each discovery quickly came Historic District status, ironically under a newly-coined moniker.

These modern conquistadors didn’t stop there. It’s not Harlem, it’s SoHa. It’s not Mott Haven, it’s SoBro.

Pretty much every time a neighborhood is “discovered,” it’s painted with a new name, and if the whole district can’t be claimed, it’s subdivided. NoLITa, which stands for North of Little Italy, used to just be Little Italy. The East Village, Alphabet City and the Bowery were just part of the Lower East Side. TriBeCa, which stands for Triangle Below Canal, is a moniker invented by the same folks who coined SoHo, yet it was formerly Washington Market and part of the same industrial belt that now sports such names as Hudson Place and NoHo (North of Houston). Once the New York Times picks it up, it’s practically official: The neighborhood thus changes.

Renaming can be relatively benign, as in the case of Morningside Heights, which has gone through a series of names – Harlem Heights, Riverside Heights, Cathedral Heights, Bloomingdale – before settling on the current one. It can also reflect a natural confluence, such as with Museum Mile, Ladies’ Mile, and the Garment District, the former Radio Row, Meatpacking District and Tenderloin, and the ever-expanding Chinatown.

But it can also be aggressive; a means to redefine an area that’s perhaps not yet transitioned: Bushwick becomes “East Williamsburg,” Bedford-Stuyvesant – a neighborhood that’s been unified for well over a century and a half – suddenly gets Stuyvesant Heights split off again, the village of Manhattanville is resurrected after being West Harlem since the city incorporated. Likewise it can be a means of landowners to ensure little further development and protect their fiefdoms, as is the case in the coinage of “Prospect Lefferts Gardens” in 1968 and of “Hudson Heights” in 1993. Nobody knows if “South Village” is even a thing, but it’s a now historic district.

On come the real estate speculators, and fast on their heels come the gentrifiers and transplanted preservationists.

As a form of astroturfing, it doesn’t always stick: Nobody in their right mind is going to call the South Bronx “SoBro,” nor will Hell’s Kitchen (formerly known simply as The West Side) ever truly be called Clinton (but that hasn’t stopped preservationists from stepping in). Furthermore, god knows why anybody would call Ridgewood “Quooklyn.”  But to name a place is to assume a form of ownership over it, especially when the place is already named. Whether it’s to obfuscate, as in the minor fiasco of “BedWick,” or to assert one’s grandeur, as in the case of “Jefftown,” it can be seen as an intent to impose one’s will upon a situation.

Therein lies the colonial nature of the act: Instead of becoming a citizen of the current reality, one creates a new one in their own image. The residents of Little Italy stood to lose their popular, long-running San Gennaro festival because the coterminous residents of NoLIta thought it too disruptive. The residents of Mount Morris Park Historic District sought to end the drum circles the coterminous residents of Harlem had in Marcus Garvey Park. For residents of East Williamsburg, Stop and Frisk was a fresh outrage. For residents of Bushwick, it was a long-standing reality.

It’s clear that names have power. It should then go without saying that one should hold anyone who wishes to rename an already-named place with deep suspicion, for at best it’s a claim of ownership. At worst it’s cultural whitewashing.

Nobody Wants to Be a Saint

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There is a form of universal derision of the new in New York City when it comes to architecture: All form of contemporary construction, however necessary, is deemed ugly. I am not innocent in that regard. However, with endless criticism of postmodernist edifices comes the idea that aesthetics are the primary motivator of urbanity, especially when they are tied with movements to halt such development until, presumably, something better comes along.

This notion, like the musings of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, is at heart anti-urban and therefore anti-human.

What this philosophy ultimately seeks to do is to weed what is inherently a chaotic state until it becomes a garden, one preferably in the form of an imagined and idealized past; one that speaks to a retrospective form of futurism: A once both a myth and a fantasy. It is what Jonathan Meade would call the illusory solace of stasis, and in New York City is a populist attempt to mimic the timelessness of the former imperial capitals London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. In all those cities was the past worshiped, even when it was explicitly cast out.

The modern model of Paris was built by Baron Haussmann on cheap labor as ordered by an autocrat by the name of Napoleon, with architectural edifices stolen from Rome (which were stolen from Athens). It is modern in the sense that it has yet to change and likely never will. The city was frozen in amber, a museum city on a scale that Venice could only dream of. Immune to the needs of its citizens, it became a gilded fortress of the moneyed, exiling everybody else to far-flung suburban slums.

Moscow, that “Asiatic city hoping to be mistaken for a European one,” similarly bears the mark of an autocrat whose minions were bidden to create a timeless spectacle that looked nothing like western bourgeois decadence and ultimately looked exactly like western decadence, only larger. Stalin, like his great rival Hitler, sought to create a mythos for his capital and his people, buttressed by his built environment on slave labor, and like his peers in his conceit hoped to maintain that fantasy in perpetuity.

What Stalin had an eye for, however, was populist imagery. His not-Baroque Baroque Brutalism had much the humanist filigree that was and is inherently popular. He built apartment buildings as grotesquely large lumpen-palaces. His state buildings are nothing if not stately. They were built with the explicit task of impressing and suppressing a people, and are more or less effective at this task to this day. If urban planning and architecture can be said to have an influential effect on society, and they would not exist as disciplines if they didn’t, then the shadows of the circumstances in which they were built are long indeed.

So, too, is New York City enamored with the architecture and imagery of its own adopted past. If London had Classicist Christopher Wren, New York had the Beaux Arts firm of McKim, Mead and White. Where London embraced neo-Classical Imperial stylings and plumbed the Tudor edifices of its own medieval history, so too has New York readily accepted the Italianate Brownstones of its original landed aristocracy and the anachronistic futurism of Art Deco as forms which can neither be copied nor improved upon. To look at New York today is to see a New York that wishes dearly to return to the 1930s and 40s and remain there indefinitely; to live a dream of a future already past.

In maintaining this edifice, through historical preservation and zoning restrictions, New York suffers the same problem as London and Paris: It neglects the backlog of human demand that has since created a crisis and an untenable present. Like Moscow, the forms in which New York is enamored are enticing; indeed, I would prefer to live in an Art Deco structure than this post-modern monstrosity currently being constructed in Williamsburg, but I am aware that the aggregation of my sentiment would ensure that no longer will there be new New Yorkers.

Moscow represents a regime that longed for stasis, copying as it did Paris, which represents a regime that longed for stasis, copying as it did Rome, which half exists as a living archaeological survey. If New York is to represent more than the graveyard of yet another empire, then it must revert to its democratic and humanist ideal, which is to destroy as many monuments as it erects. The supposed great scandal of New York was the demolition of the old Beaux Arts masterpiece Penn Station; I contend that it represents New York’s greatest strength.

To wish heartily for the preservation in perpetuity of the city’s past, no matter how beautiful it may be, is to ignore the cries of its present. It is a tyranny of the dead, and speaks of a longing for death, for only in death can the chaos of humanity truly be quelled. It is the conceit of despots to believe that their ideals should last forever, that nobody can improve upon their work and indeed that nobody should try. It is their grandest work to deny the humanity of generations to come. Preservationists dream of being such despots, for while they laud saints, they know that to actually be a saint is to live miserably and die ignobly. They prefer the fantasy over the humanity.

Napoleon wanted a true imperial city and so created a monument against humanity. Stalin wanted a true communist city and ended up – as with his regime – with a looking-glass version of an imperial city. If New York is to be a true democratic city, then it should endeavor to live up to such notions, which means accepting that democracy is profane and often-times ugly.

Subway Maps

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There was a recent article on the Gothamist as to the difficulty neophytes have with the unique nomenclature of the New York Subway, in that in most American cities where lines are color-coded, they refer to the line by its color. The Chicago L, the Boston T, the DC Metro – all of them refer to their lines by their colors. New Yorkers don’t, despite the fact that the system is color-coded.

New York is indeed unique in that regard, but why? Well, for starters, New York indeed tried many styles and color schemes on its own before settling on the current one. How to adequately explain the system is a question posed by many mapmakers over the years. Most of the historic maps color-code by original company – the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Corporation, and the Independent Subway System – so as to highlight where free inter-system transfers were.

Such distinctions aren’t important nowadays, as the system is sufficiently unified that most ostensible transfers are readily available despite the original operator of the line. The late Massimo Vignelli’s map in 1972 thus gave each route its own unique color, and rendered the map devoid of geographic relation so as to create a diagram that could be more easily parsed.

The result is something of a veritable kaleidoscope of pastels. While its creator was lionized for its artistic creativity, and was subsequently commissioned to design The Weekender on the MTA’s website, the city had moved on in 1979 to something a tad more useful as a map. Michael Hertz’ map is the one the city has published since.

In this map and largely every map since, the color scheme has been uniform by line. This represents the third template the NYC Subway has made in that regard, but the reason is, as mentioned before, due to New York’s unique nature.

To explain the core issue, first must be explained the difference between a route and a line. A subway line is a length of track. A subway route is the path a train uses. Routes may use multiple lines.

For instance, the A train is known as the Eighth Avenue Express. Eighth Avenue is one of the lines that the route uses. That route also uses the Fulton Street Line and the Rockaway Line. The E train is another route that also use the Eighth Avenue Line. However, it uses the Archer Avenue Line and the Queens Boulevard Line as well.

With the exception of the Nassau Street Line and the Crosstown Line, all colors are based on what lines each route takes when they run through Midtown Manhattan. The exceptions don’t go through Midtown Manhattan. Hence, the A and the E are both blue trains, because both their routes use the Eighth Avenue Line when travelling through Midtown Manhattan. However, referring to routes by their color doesn’t help travelers at all, as they are wildly divergent when heading away from Midtown Manhattan.

By contrast, most systems – like the DC Metro, the Chicago L and the Boston T – generally have coterminous routes and lines: Each route is also its own line, and thus each color is unique to a route.

This hasn’t stopped new mapmakers from attempting to standardize maps between systems. Amateur mapmaker Chris Whong tried doing the DC style, for instance, with NYC, and by doing so reduced every route to its base color.

To quote blogger Cameron Booth, information is lost when attempting to recreate that distinction:

While the map looks great, it really also shows how unsuited the bold, simplistic approach taken by the DC diagram is to a complex transit system like New York’s.

One of the latest entrants for that conundrum, Jug Cerovic, added New York in his attempt to standardize all subway maps in the world, eschewing geography for pure schematics, choosing an alternate color scheme and giving each route its own color.

To quote Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas, the map suffers for the same reasons the Vignelli map suffered:

“…if you’re going to try to produce a quasi-geographic schematic, it must have some relation to reality. It cannot be so divorced from the city layout to be useless as a map and as a navigation tool.”

Eddie Jabbour sells KickMap, which is a divide between the Hertz map and the Vignelli map, wherein the Hertz color scheme and the Vignelli route lines are merged.

As can be seen, exactly what to label a route in the New York subway is complicated indeed. Hence, when trundling under Midtown, it’s not the Green line, nor even the Lexington Ave line, but in New Yorker parlance, the “4/5/6.”

Art Reflects Life Reflects Art

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There is a flurry of controversial accusations surrounding Elliot Rodger’s murderous stampede in Isla Vista, California. Between his printed manifesto, his YouTube videos, his posts on Men’s Rights Activist websites and forums, and the circumstances around his parents, psychotherapy and police scrutiny, there is indeed a lot of fodder for speculation, and multiple conclusions to be gotten from his actions.

The Misogyny Angle

Almost immediately after the publication of his manifesto, where he blames women as a whole for many of his frustrations, both feminist and anti-feminist organizations have taken to social media to either defend or indict him on those lines: The #YesAllWomen tag on Twitter took off, in response to comments online from men arguing that Rodger’s actions didn’t reflect that of all men (partly under the Twitter tag #NotAllMen). Correct, they replied, not all men act like that, but all women experience men like that.

Some MRA sites, including those Rodger frequented, go one step further in identifying with Rodger’s sexual frustrations. One poster on such a site argued,

More people will die unless you give men sexual options.

Until you give men like Rodger a way to have sex, either by encouraging him to learn game, seek out a Thai wife, or engage in legalized prostitution—three things that the American media and cultural elite venomously attack, it’s inevitable for another massacre to occur. Even game itself, as useful as it is on a individual level, is a band-aid fix upon a culture which has stopped rewarding nice guys while encouraging female whoring to benefit only the top 10% of alpha males, all in the name of societal progress.

The misogyny rather speaks for itself, and continues to argue that Rodger represents a “beta male” mindset, using the terminology of such subcultures, which necessarily puts emotional relationships on a confrontational and competitive stance. Indeed, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post pointed towards the filmographies of men like Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, whose careers center around a basic story line:

How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

Both Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow angrily absolved themselves on Twitter, making an argument akin to video game developers’ long-standing stance that violent first-person shooters are not directly responsible for tragic events like school shootings.

The Privilege Angle

Much attention was given to the “welfare checks” the police made on Rodger that failed to discover either the weapons stockpiles he had accumulated or his ravings on social media. According to Santa Barbara’s sheriff Bill Brown,

At the time the deputies interacted with him, he was able to convince them that he was OK. [...] When you read his autobiography and the manifesto that he wrote, it’s very apparent that he was able to convince many people for many years that he didn’t have this deep, underlying, obvious mental illness that ultimately manifested itself in this terrible tragedy.

Brown admitted that Rodger had seen a variety of psychiatric professionals who concluded he had serious issues, but was yet deemed copacetic enough neither to be held against his will on what is known as a 5150 – an involuntary psychiatric hold – nor to be denied the purchase of three semi-automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.

This prompted a bevy of speculation as to what appears to be a fairly comprehensive social safety net simply not giving any real scrutiny to what is, in hindsight, an obvious threat prior to the slayings. The most common complaint is that it was – ironically, considering his manifesto – his social status as a well-to-do white male that protected him.

Even now, after the event, most media coverage is predicated on his mental health rather than simply labeling him a sociopath and a murderer. The anger of the victims’ families, putting emphasis on issues of gun control and law enforcement, are not given quite as much coverage as the speculation as to his exact mental illness. The newfound emphasis on psychological screening and psychiatric care is certainly warranted, but as with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, an outsize level of care is given to determining their mental state compared to those of a different ethnic or economic background.

The Sociopathy Angle

Indeed, all this culminates into prescriptions for gun control, for mental health screening, for enhanced psychiatric care, and for a sociological look at the origins and promotions of what constitutes ‘rape culture’ as well as the culture of violence.

To return to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, while the argument that the genre of “man-child gets the hot chick” films are directly responsible is akin to arguing that ‘cryptofascist FPS gunporn’ is responsible for school shootings is facile, the indirect relationship is perhaps more worthy of investigation: For instance, as First Person Shooters may be indirectly responsible, through providing a desensitization to violence especially if projected via a filter of “it’s not really happening here” and a drumbeat promotion of solving issues through violence, for public support for pointless foreign wars – as it is clear that public support drops precipitously when conscription starts, as the war then becomes “real” – so too perhaps might man-child films have an indirect influence for public complacency around emotionally-stunted men.

Elliot Rodger, after all, certainly did not lack for human contact. He was not a complete shut-in, which means that there are a number of ostensibly well-adjusted men who have had dealings with him but for whom his actions did not raise enough warning bells to prompt action. Just as the police who knocked on his door simply took his word for it, so have many people who might have received hints as to his character but explained them away and thus allowed him to continue his dysfunctional ministrations.

Similarly, if one believes that art can make a difference – and how could one not and still choose to become an artist – then at least some attention must be given to what sort of message is imparted. This is, of course, an issue that all writers must tangle with: The necessary glamorization of a project to make it palatable to a mass audience can end up tainting the final message. “All these accoutrements of the rich are superficial and cold,” says F Scott Fitzgerald, “yeah, but they sound beautiful” read his readers, who then stage ‘Gatsby parties.’ The incongruity can be cause for lament for some artists, but in this age of immediate and pertinent feedback, Apatow and others still keep making the same movie.

If Ann Hornaday had a point, it came with Rogen and Apatow’s angry responses, for while there is no direct cause and effect between their genre of films and rape culture, their utter unrepentant stance implies and gives credence to the idea that there is some correlative connection. This is perhaps too strong an indictment of any one piece of mass media – and would indeed give such content purveyors too much credit to call them culture guardians – but society made Elliot Rodger, and society must do some soul-searching in order to that it may not make another.

Leeches and Thieves

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In a stunning portrayal of how throwing money at the problem can fail to solve it (not to mention an interesting rebuke as to the fallibility of billionaire internet playboy entrepreneurs) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and mayor Corey Booker managed to give two hundred million dollars to the Newark public school system with little to show for it.

To quote Vivian Cox Fraser of the Urban League of Essex County, as the New Yorker reported last week, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.” Indeed, it would appear that what they had managed to attract with all the money was not so much top managers and skilled teachers but rather a feeding trough of contractors and consultants, ravenously running through the windfall (and then some) and more than willing to bill a thousand dollars a day each to explain how to run the system efficiently.

To his credit, Zuckerberg admitted that he knew little of education administration, but the problem isn’t so much education administration but the sorts of people Zuckerberg represents. When I worked in the New York Department of Education, I remember a percentage of my schools’ already strained budgets going to high-flying celebrity consultants, who would touch down from jet-setting around Japan and Finland to explain how to run the school better. The message was always one of a theme: Fiscal conservatives would play up how schools or, for that matter, any other ultimately universal social services, should be run efficiently, which is to say, like a business.

The only problem is, efficiency and universality are at cross-purposes. There was a dialogue one union leader started when a consultant was going through an extended analogy comparing teaching to blueberry picking:

“So what do you do with the berries that are sour or rotten or discolored?”

“We throw them out.”

“Yeah, we can’t do that.”

While the most efficient thing to do in a business is simply drop the costliest and most unproductive 10-15%, we can’t simply drop 10-15% of the population. (This is also, in short, the reason why voluntary admission to charter schools never actually solves the education problem: As charter schools get more popular, the remaining public schools get saddled with a more disproportionately difficult subsection of the student body, for the cast-offs never truly disappear.)

Likewise, throwing money at the problem without proper forethought results in a swarm of leeches and thieves, but there is a commonality to both issues: In both cases the problem is that there’s a very strong profit motive, a practically non-existent concern for the actual goals of the institution, and little regulation to enforce the latter. In short, the problem is capitalism. By that metric, Zuckerberg’s inherent philosophy – money will attract talent and the rest will take care of itself – worked splendidly. Unfortunately, that money went towards attracting people that are talented at making money (and made out like bandits) with very little actually filtering down to teachers and students.

Much as Uber’s business ethics and AirBnB’s cavalier practices certainly result in supremely profitable ventures but questionable social value, so too does the practice of injecting venture capital to a system that cannot by its nature be capitalist result in very little qualitative output. The underlying issue is one of competing and mutually exclusive ideologies. One can only hope the right lesson is learned, lest education funding is itself indicted.

And Damn the Human Cost

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Another career Democrat got in the news for a horrific ethics scandal: Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly – a position he’s held since I was in elementary school, for a career in the lower state house that rivals Congressman Charlie Rangel’s deep tendrils in the lower national house – stands caught touting a petty lie over his efforts to block the use of a large plot of land in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for affordable housing; instead intending to steer it towards the coffers of private interests of which he was allied and in so doing allowing those lots to stay vacant for almost fifty years.

To put it succinctly, and in Silver’s own words in 1980: “Are you crazy? We’ve got enough low income housing.” Oh, really.

The question that should be asked is how to punish a man who has not lost an election since 1977, due in large part because of the power of his political machine and the ethical, moral and demographic bankruptcy of the opposing party. In short, he’s got the city and the state by the short hairs, which is how scandals like this one originate. It is not terribly dissimilar to Charlie Rangel’s ethics scandal in 2008 - which involved his misappropriation of multiple rent-regulated apartments - for which he escaped voter censure handily.

In a political climate where Chuck Schumer, the “Senator from Wall Street,” could give a pass to investment bankers following the Great Recession due to political kickbacks and not be held accountable due to how secure he is in his position (and the blowback to the Democratic Party were he to be voted out) it’s difficult to see where the line can be drawn. In New York City, one such organization that takes it upon itself to police the liberalism of party Democrats – the Working Families Party – has been caught up in that very question when it comes to governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s multiple rebukes to mayor de Blasio can be interpreted as a courtship between him and state conservatives for the 2014 gubernatorial election in a bid to be seen as an apolitical centrist and thus a viable bid for higher office on down the line. This interpretation is buttressed by the fact that both parties see him as a “shoo-in” due to a lack of viable contenders, and thus there is little need for him to redefine himself. The Working Families Party would like to punish him for his raids on the MTA capital fund and his lack of support for issues related to housing and jobs in New York City, except they are concerned that if they should refuse to endorse him, they could possibly fail to received the required 50,000 votes to remain on state ballots and with it any possible influence in party politics.

They are, like most community groups, caught between playing politics to remain relevant, or staying true to their message and risking becoming irrelevant. This is, to me, a mark of how corrupting party politics is: From Obama’s continuation of deeply unpopular Bush-era policies in order to be seen as bipartisan on down to de Blasio’s unpopular choices in order to pay off political debts to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, playing politics appears to be the main thrust of governance and policy-making, and actual representation is less and less evident. Why should Democrats act like Democrats? Politically expedient decisions must be made, and damn the human cost.

But then, that is, I suppose, what one should expect from an oligarchy.

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