Big Smoke

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

The New New York

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He walks down a Midtown street, not too far from Bryant Park, holding up the optimistic side of the conversation with his companion. No, New York’s economy is on the up and up, he said; just look at the new construction everywhere – while pointing at one of those new cheap hotels with rooms like pods and stalk-like architecture, twisted between outdated 1961 setback laws and local M1-6 zoning ordinances. He certainly looks like a striver: Unflattering slacks, starched pale blue button-down shirt over the beginnings of a beer paunch: Not highfalutin, merely upper-middlefalutin, the sort of guy who goes golfing on the weekends but on a public course.

He’s not altogether wrong, of course. New York is on the up and up: One need but look at the new skyline under construction to realize that. The world’s tallest residential tower is slated to be built on 57th Street, to match all the other thousand-foot luxury condos there already underway. The two grand projects of the Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center add enough office space in New York to build a second Los Angeles. The city is even building new subway lines (or, rather, stubway lines) for the first time in more than half a century, although none of them have opened yet. A bright new glass-clad dawn for a city naysayers had written off back in the Bad Old Days.

This man, in a sense, represents that New New York. Gathering from his loud complaints about his workload, his job is to cover for his business’ practices by any who would threaten them. His workload is a case load, and his successes can be determined solely by dollar value. His existence is one at odds with convention: He is a supplicant and a working man, but he is also conveniently and effortlessly devoid of ethics. He does not share the heartlander’s conceit that law and morality are in accordance, but he does not hew his own morality to replace law, and is thus freed of obligation. He can and has found success, and indeed sees the city as one which engenders success.

Old New York appears to be invisible to him. It doesn’t give him the information he needs, so he tunes it out. In that way he represents another dichotomy, one indeed that he shares with his environs: He works within a cold, blank edifice, and is himself largely the same. His information is funneled to him via his handheld device, in his eyes the new public world, but cavalierly invisible to the old public world. A public world that can become unseen at will. A semi-public world, much like the semi-public plazas common to this section of town. He sits at the bar and chats with the bartender about his handicap on some course out in Long Island while his companion plays with his handheld device, and when the bartender turns away, he, too, plays with his handheld device exclusively.

People like him have existed in New York before; coming into Grand Central from places like Scarsdale. Suburbanites. But he’s not a suburbanite: He lives on the Upper East Side in a fresh new condo – no word, though, on if it has poor doors. He’s been there for two years. It’s convenient for him. He doesn’t need his companion at the bar. He doesn’t need anyone at the bar. He’s holding a running conversation on his handheld device. The bar doesn’t matter; not its tin ceiling, not its oak panels, not its jukebox. It’s merely a vessel to convert money for liquor, another convenience. He’s drinking bud light from the bottle. What a combination: First-class budget and dime-store taste buds.

Huxley’s book referenced Shakespeare’s punchline and in so doing telegraphed its own joke. So in form does this man embody his. It isn’t so much the glass boxes he walks through or the iProduct in his hand but the social construct such represent and which he is a part: One that courageously presses forward towards a strongly envisioned future but with one eye constantly vigilant for the authorities to come around and realize just what exactly is going on and put a stop to it. A circumstance best spoken of in terms of ironic pastiche for at heart it’s a surprise one has managed to get away with it for so long, like ditching your friend at a gas station while he takes a piss and never receiving the expected angry call. Reality has yet to catch up.

Speaking of reality, half of the city can’t afford to live there, but do anyway at great expense (by hook or crook) because that’s where the jobs are. Crime is still down but police brutality is up. A sixth of the MTA’s budget is just paying the minimum on loans and most of its infrastructure is actively crumbling. A new Hudson River crossing was deep-sixed by Jersey three years ago and the new East River crossing for which construction had resumed eight years ago has become the city’s albatross. The city is building a bridge of steel on a foundation of wood, but such information is not coming through on this man’s handheld device. It’s just not pertinent to him, so he doesn’t see it. Reality, after all, is now opt-in. The New New Yorker exists on a more sublime plane, and who can blame him?

Mixed Messages

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I found myself, yesterday, in a place that I, like any self-respecting New Yorker, tend to avoid like the plague: Times Square. I was there on a mission to capture the proceedings of an organization that rented an hour’s time on one of the giant glaring billboards in order to display something that wasn’t bright, garish, empty advertising. They were called See|Me, and they were going to display art.

This created a curious scene as New Yorkers came to loiter on the scene amidst the Disney characters, street performers, cops and ever-present hordes of camera-clutching tourists. This eclectic band also held cameras, but was comprised mostly of artists, and they were there to see their works displayed to the world – or a reasonable (or reasonably American) facsimile of such. Each would get their five seconds of fame, provided the dazzled tourists would care to look.

Comedically enough, it was the presence of the gathering of mean-mugging locals with their studied aloof mannerisms that attracted the attention of the tourists more than the works themselves. A tourist would approach someone with a camera pointed directly at the building-sized display and ask what they were doing. Taking pictures of the art. Oh, the tourist would reply, and walk on.

Prior to the event, a middle-aged woman with loose-fitting white tank-top came up to me and said, “you look like an artist. Are you here for the exhibit?” I was, silently wondering whether my studied aloofness was too studied, but she soldiered on and told me that one of her works had been approved for the exhibit, but then censored at the last second. She explained that such was because it depicted an oil painting she made of a woman in a see-through blouse.

I remarked that I found that funny, as the panel in which the art was to be displayed was currently busy presenting ten-story tall underwear models with obvious cameltoes doing acrobatic poses and looking longingly at the milling crowds below. Just a few blocks up was a hundred-foot pop singer whose latest album was being sold by her nudity, her arm draped across her chest, leaning against a headboard while lounging on satin sheets. Next to that was a lusty gaze from an airbrushed bimbo’s face promoting an ever-euphemistic gentleman’s club.

Even in Disneyfied, family-friendly Times Square, home to life-size Elmo and Buzz Lightyear, clearly sex, or at least the suggestion of it, is broadly accepted.

My newfound compatriot had, despite her rejection, decided to show up anyway. As she described, through her ill-disguised bitterness, she had to see just what on offer was deemed acceptable. During the proceedings, she was not disappointed: Indeed quite a lot of skin was bared, so long as the picture was cropped cleverly, or the model was twisted away from the camera, or any other means of suggestive trickery. We as a society appear to have been desensitized to the female form, and inured to female sexual suggestion, but yet display it as illicit in practice. We are a strange bunch.

One artist recently decided to hold a mirror to that particular neurosis by turning the tables on the subjects. Photographer Bek Anderson filled Rivington Design House on the Lower East Side with prints of nude male models two days ago. Not sexual, but very nude. It immediately drew ire from local prudes: “I guess the new people in the neighborhood are unaware of how many children live here.” Setting aside how tame this is compared to recent iterations of the Lower East Side, Anderson retorted, “There is nothing pornographic or offensive happening in that photo. It’s a portrait of a man. He is naked, but doing nothing indecent. We see naked women all the time in photos where they are highly sexualized and people don’t notice because they are desensitized.”

Indeed, now having been blasted by bouncing bosoms selling vacation destinations, jeans, music, airlines, soft drinks and candy – and that’s just one building – with little objection from the people below, I concede she may have a point. We have become accustomed to hypersexualized fantasy objects, but are inexplicably shocked by frank portrayal of real sexuality.

This barrier, among others, would not be broken down by the Times Square art exhibit, but then it would be asking too much for one hour’s worth of images to break down the perpetual onslaught of consumeristic vacuity before the masses, even if only symbolically. Indeed, five seconds for each particular piece of art was not enough to reflect upon it, and the artists down below were mostly (or merely) waiting for their piece to come up so that they might photograph it. Rather than stand against form, they became that form, their works made hollow, their messages muddled. Yet more grist for the mill of color and spectacle, no time for meaning or reflection.

Perhaps, then, it was for the best that the hapless woman’s piece be censored: At a stint of only five seconds, it would either be ignored or distilled into a flash of titillation, a conspicuous exercise in futility before an audience trained to react in only the most limited, pre-ordained ways. It probably works better as a story of controversy. Yet one more reason to avoid Times Square with a passion.

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.

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