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.”

Suffering

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Princeton student Tal Fortgang got an article last week into Time magazine titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.” Before I read it I expected the article to be part and parcel of that libertarian conceit that societal prejudices don’t exist and we’re all islands. Funny how it’s mostly white men who think that. Instead, Tal made a rather sarcastic argument in that he won’t apologize for the suffering his people have lived and died through: As the child of Holocaust victims and anti-Semitism in the States, he felt that the resentment as to his status was unfounded, and as such he had no need to apologize.

His article garnered a lot of strong replies, as any controversial article would, from folks who thought he was playing the “my suffering was worse than your suffering” game and folks who thought he was learning the wrong lesson about the Holocaust. Point of fact, he was effectively using it as a shield against actual insight: I can do no wrong because this is what happened to my grandparents. He became defensive, which highlights just how he failed to think when he was asked to.

Funny enough, it reminds me most of my students when I was working in a public school in Brooklyn: It was filled with mostly Black students who came from the projects in Crown Heights. They were not privileged, but they were prejudiced: Racism, according to them, was what white people did to Black people, and their endless fist-fights and insults levied at east Asian students were not viewed in that context. That white teachers had to teach them that “ching-chong” jokes were not acceptable much in the same way that “nigger” and “spic” aren’t acceptable was an awkward situation at best, if for nothing else than how it illustrated how the teachers conflated epithets with institutional discrimination, but I digress.

The students had a similarly hard time in World History, when an Irish teacher attempted to explain about the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence: Their framework on the Irish involved cops, unionists and city officials, and those were not victims but rather victimizers. (Would that the teacher was as interested in teaching how the transition from one to the other was effected but, sadly, even if he wanted to our core curriculum compartmentalizes such learning.) They viewed themselves as victims. In a very real way they were and are, but to extend that notion was difficult. Tal Fortgang views himself as a victim as well, but as his article shows, there-in lies a blindness.

Either way, the message is clear: “What I suffer,” they surmised, “is special and in no way comparable to your plight.” That this child of Holocaust victims failed to recognize that other people suffer too, and that he may actually be complicit in their suffering, is a sadness, just as watching Black teenagers gay-bash is a sadness. Your suffering is not a cloak to ward against criticism, nor is it a license to cause suffering in others.

Showtime!

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“Look at all these wonderful people on the train!”

“Yeah, and I bet they all got jobs!”

They accept cash, credit cards, food stamps and phone numbers. Whatever you offer, they’ll take it. A staple of the long gaps between stations on express train service, and consummate if wobbly showmen, subway breakdancers have been a part of my commute for as long as I can remember. They are also one more thing police commissioner Bill Bratton has a problem with:

“There is an opportunity in certain locations in the system where those individuals can perform and not be a risk to themselves, or to the public on moving cars,” Bratton said. “On a subway car that sways, jilts, stops, it’s too great to ignore and we will not ignore it.”

Of course, this is the man who went up against jaywalkers in the city that practically invented the term. Unlike Bratton, of course, I was born and raised in this city. I’ve been a Manhattanite more or less all my life. While I find subway breakdancers sometimes fun and sometimes mildly annoying, I’ve never been hit by one or seen somebody hit by one, and only in the last two years have I heard this echo chamber of “I hate the ‘Showtime’ guys; they’re the worst.” They seem to get particular ire from zines that cater to a younger, richer crowd.

I don’t hate subway dancers. I don’t hate mariachi men, I don’t hate the drum circles, I don’t hate the crooners nor the magicians, the peddlers, the occasional beggars or the habitual beggars. I don’t think they’re a threat to my person or my sanity. I don’t think they deserve all that much official attention at all.

I can’t pinpoint where this frothing “we must get the police involved” push is coming from, but I suspect it’s a class thing: Middle class transplants are coming in and while they are, on the one hand, discovering things New Yorkers always knew (like walking to the train car closest to the exit you want) they are also, on the other hand, becoming unduly incensed about the things New Yorkers have always abided. The crackdown bears a striking resemblance to the noise complaints new residents successfully levied against the drum circle of Marcus Garvey Park that had been there for 40 years.

The argument city officials and new residents make is that this means that the city will be a nicer, cleaner, safer place, but I remember the most telling criticism of the Upper West Side, where Community Board 7′s reputation of being particularly effective at following through on Quality-of-Life complaints has drained the whole neighborhood of its color. It’s been called a “cultural wasteland,” and not without reason.

Unglued

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A subway preacher started up, out of nowhere, past 50th Street on the uptown A. It took a bit to realize he was talking about the Book; his every third word was an expletive – not in language but in format – and the resemblance of drunken ranting was notable. He made a point of remarking, however, that he wasn’t drunk, and in that sense was at least nominally self-reflective. This didn’t convince the captive audience, whose reactions were divided between open annoyance and passive abidance.

What creates such a man? SHUT UP, he demanded, to a silent car, before waxing on about Obama and God and other entities beyond a mortal’s reach. It’s hard to imagine; or rather easy to form a narrative in a bleeding-heart liberal sort of way: Anybody who has heard stories of how the Great Depression can destroy a man’s soul can understand how such a broken creature can lash out so fruitlessly, can glom onto if not answers then rituals – rituals that promise a future that’s better than the present, like dancing and praying and self-flagellating for rain during a drought.

A homeless man stepped in the train on 81st Street. Halfway through his spiel, the preacher sallied forth, FUCK YOU! Directed at the man? Who cares? Life sucks regardless, right? It’s hard to humanize the man, either man, truth be told, but it’s also hard not to recognize the frustration at a general dysfunction that they embody and are aware that they embody. One can pay lip service about the need for social services and mental health programs, but the truth of the matter is the system creates the man, and the system is not going to substantively change. The individuals’ response is the institutional response: Abide until they’re out of sight, then continue on as normal.

A white man in a baseball cap entered at 103rd Street, sucked his teeth and muttered “fuck this” before heading to the next car. Vote with your feet! A political microcosm if ever I saw one. Like all humans, and I’m sure Stanislaw Lem would agree, I can only consider the story through a personal format born of my own experiences, and mine immediately harkened to the despair I felt at my last job: Toiling for a business that is callously making the world a worse place for just barely enough money to continue existing. Logic dictated at that point that my contribution to the world was at risk of being negative, and that society would be better off without me. It’s no wonder they fired me.

At 145th Street, the preacher ran out of things to rant about, or was simply tired of his own self, and piped down. Anger, at heart, is self-destructive, but then again what isn’t? Nobody gets out alive, or so I heard from some 90s punk mantra. Without missing a beat, two women started a conversation in the ensuing lull about their work: The sideshow is over, we can once more set up our walls against the world. It’s a good thing that defense mechanism is so robust: The precariousness of all our societal positions, for which it is uncouth to dwell upon, is a true humdinger.

New York is known, among all things, for fostering neuroses. All big cities are, though if America is to continue its supposition of being exceptional, it must own this preacher too. The flip side to freedom is how poorly it melds with desperation, and if desperation were a stock these days, I’d buy some.

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