Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Helium Economy

"Tales of Two Cities – The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York” edited by John Freeman, 2014

This is a collection of stories out of New York City, nearly all in the near present.  Given the title, the stories ostensibly concentrate on class conflict or contrasts between the classes.  Instead it is a somewhat disappointing grab-bag of slices-of-life, usually written by ordinary people, combined with some that actually relate to the issue.  The weakness is in the editor, John Freeman, who agrees with Walt Whitman to the effect that he was ‘against riches but not the rich.’   On inequality, Freeman says:  ‘Inequality is not an issue of us and them, the rich and poor. You often see it in these same so-called divisions in one family, like mine.”  Are these 'so-called' divisions?  Are they in most families?  Even the last part of the title itself is a cliché.  The first part, of course, was part of DeBlasio's election campaign sloganeering, through which DeBlasio won overwhelmingly.

For those of us who don’t live in New York – which is the majority of people – fatigue with New York tub-thumpers is high.  Many of these stories basically revolve around how secretly great New York is – even the one by David Byrne of the Talking Heads – who calls it the ‘most exciting city on earth” full of ‘vibrant playgrounds.’  Another gushes over the exciting Bangladeshi food in Queens or my first apartment in the city.  These stories will mostly be of interest to New Yorkers, who can identify the streets they walk on and neighborhoods they live in, and in that way enhance their own important sense of self.  The problem here unfortunately also lies with the stories chosen, which are not really about the topic.  Few of these stories are fiction, most are personal narratives.  

Some of these 31 stories are surprisingly sophomoric, even from published writers.  Some you could read in a zine about working shit jobs. Some are amazingly out of place, like the writer in the east Hamptons on Long Island writing about her bucolic cottage, dropping famous names, and pointing out that she lives next to some really rich person who has just bought a big chunk of land nearby.  Or a transvestite performer trying on a corset.  Another is by a religious fellow slamming atheists.  Freeman even got David Eggers to write a brief intro to a child’s story.  David Eggers!

What I think progressive people really want to read - from outside the city - is the story of the class struggles in New York.   In this collection, real estate and rental issues are the most prominent and working places a distant second.  These are the stories of most value. There is a direct connection between the monetary helium generated by financial, industrial and retail capitalism and inflation of real estate values.  This is going on all over the world in certain cities, as money seeks an outlet.  It can go into conspicuous consumption and into corporate expansion, but it is really found in stock market 'investing' and in real estate.   

They might have well connected a helium hose directly from Wall Street into Brooklyn and the Upper East Side, south Central Park, Midtown and now Soho and the rest. 

One story by a tenant’s rights lawyer who works in the housing courts says, “I’m not trying to stop gentrification.”  Then he follows with, “There is no justice.”  Contradictions abound, just like real life.  One activist writes about community group struggles for a ‘zero rent increase’ position by the city - a position subverted by a DeBlasio appointee.   He says, “the system is rigged’ but ‘maybe we can tip the balance’ - two statements that are contradictory.  One man in love with walking around New York travels from the run-down but friendly and lively confines of the Bronx to the cold and walled-off snootiness of the Upper East Side, which contains 4 of the richest zip codes in the U.S.   Another is a slice off of the “Bonfire of the Vanities,’ a humorous story about a wealthy couple who have to abandon their car in a ‘DeBlasio’ snowstorm, and then get confronted by a black man with a shovel hoping to do their sidewalk.  One of the better written ones is of a somewhat rich Russian émigré who visits a prostitute while his daughter slits her wrists at home.  A classical-music loving Indian cabbie ends up with the Russian’s phone, which was left in the back seat of his cab, and goes to help the girl instead.  Another is by a homeless man who quit New York for a warmer clime.  He says that it is the ‘rich New York’ that we usually hear about, not the other one.  He describes the homeless shelters in the city as New York’s ‘refugee centers.’

The most painful – and incredible – is written by a former Nicaraguan woman living in Bushwick, a working class area in north Brooklyn.  She describes fighting landlords who destroy bathrooms and kitchens with sledgehammers to force tenants to move out of rent-controlled apartments.  She has to use the relatives’ toilet and kitchen regularly, but she won’t move out.  This is the face of New York gentrification, where all real estate potentially glitters like gold.  May its writers someday achieve this too.  No stories about Hurricane Sandy exist in this collection, but you can bet those will take disaster bourgeoisification to the limit.  

 The over-accumulation of capital leads to smashed kitchens and bathrooms;  the under-accumulation of wages leads to the strangling of individuals selling cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island.  They are both intimately related.

Gentrification is not limited to New York, but is happening in every city in the country.  Old neighborhoods and buildings in central cities are being bulldozed for upscale housing developments, retrofitted apartments, parking ramps, fancy stores and upgraded stadiums.  And the ‘other city’ - the people and small businesses that used to rent or lease there?  Gone.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans oppose gentrification normally, as both are wedded to the developers.  Nor will they turn on their base – the corporations, landlords, builders and real estate lawyers who live off this trade, nor the upper middle-class that most benefits from it.  

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 6, 2014

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