Notes on the Last Day of 2013

I guess there’s always a catch.

I reported in Debt and Caruso that I was going to get a free copy of Janet Abu-Lughod’s book “From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side” (UVEV) from Amazon, by using points I had accumulated on my credit card. I ordered it on December 23 and the package arrived on December 26 (coincidentally enough, the same day I wrote “Debt and Caruso”). I was psyched about receiving this book, after reviewing the Table of Contents on Amazon:

Part 1 – “The Past is Still There”

  1. The Changing Economy of The Lower East Side
  2. The Tenement as a Built Form
  3. A History of Tompkins Square Park
  4. Deja Vu: Replanning the Lower East Side in the 1930s

These are all of the things that are overlooked ignored by unknown to most local reporters, in their ruthless defense of everything that exists, or that existed up to the line they drew in the sand. I have great hopes that the second piece, “The Tenement as a Built Form”, will be helpful when I finally start working on the piece I have planned, tentatively titled “What Are We Defending When We Defend Working-Class Neighborhoods?”

Part 2 – “The Process of Gentrification”, deals with much of what I’ve already read on the topic of gentrification, including a piece by Neil Smith. Part 3 – “Contesting Community: The Issues and Protagonists” also looks interesting, but Parts 1 and 2 are definitely my main draw. The book is organized exactly the way I would read the pieces if I happened onto them randomly (except the History of Tompkins Square Park, maybe) which is a big part of my attraction to it. Anything organized the way I would organize it has to be worth reading!

So where’s the catch, you ask? I opened the package as soon as it arrived, only to discover:

I contacted the seller, who just happened to be on Staten Island, of all places, and am arranging its return. If I hadn’t been sick all week, I would have taken the ferry over and returned it in person!

***

It’s probably just as well that this happened, because I also recently received Robert A. Caro’s “The Power Broker”. Given my nearly-absolute lack of time for reading, and the immensity of this book, if I had put off reading it until after “UVEV”, I might never have got to it, and it would have moved from the mental list of books I want to read, to the actual stack of books I want to read, someday.

I might write about my progress reading this, maybe in weekly installments. We’ll see. I have a problem with biographies, in principle. Abstracting an individual from the social forces at work, showing how he made the times instead of how the times made him – it creates a false history. Plus, I wonder: to what degree does the biographer create the man? Does Caro create the early Moses in order to posit the later Moses against him? Can you accurately write the beginning when you already know the ending, without it all being a fait accompli? Biographies of aristocrats make sense, for the reason that the King is born the King. Bourgeois biographies are not the same; everyone knows now that history is the movement of class forces, and withdrawing one man from his milieu… well, as I said, it creates a false history.

I’m still reading the book though. I read elsewhere that Caro incorporates a lot of New York history into the book, and you certainly can’t write a 20th-century New York history without Robert Moses.

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Debt and Caruso

People with credit cards are probably aware, and people without credit cards might be aware, that credit card companies, in their effort to entice you to spend more money, offer “points” for every dollar you spend. These points accumulate, and eventually you can use them to partially offset the cost of new purchases. Or, if you have enough points, to offset it entirely.

I was never good at using my points. During the 1990s, I had Sprint as my phone company, and Sprint bequeathed points for usage. I had an account that allowed unlimited calls to Europe (for a higher price than the regular account) because I called Europe frequently at that time, so I started accumulating a lot of points. You could redeem a small number for useless tchotchkes, but if you held onto them, the top prize was a round-trip airplane ticket to anywhere in North/South America or Europe.

This was during the time phone companies would call and offer you money to switch to them. You might get a call from someone offering you $50 to switch your service to AT&T, and then another call offering $50 to switch back to Sprint. You would lose your points, however, by doing this. I held out all through this time, sacrificing this money because I wanted that ticket. By the time I moved in 2001, I had long since stopped making frequent calls to Europe, and I had forgotten all about my points. When I closed the account, they vanished forever.

Fast forward to the present. I was unemployed from October 2008 to July 2010. During that time, I was one of those people you may have read about who used credit cards to buy groceries. This was going along fine until one day I got a letter in the mail telling me my credit limit had been lowered to an amount that effectively prevented me from ever using the card again.

I had accumulated a lot of points by this time, and I would see them listed on the bill when it came, but I never thought about how to go about using them. Then, when I was checking on Amazon for the publication date of Palestinian Rights: Affirmation and Denial for my post on Janet Abu-Lughod, and found a copy of her book From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side for a whopping $4.81, I suddenly remembered those points!

Seeing that after this purchase I would still have points left, I went back to my “shopping cart” and added the Enrico Caruso: 21 Favorite Arias CD that’s been there for over a year. So both the book and the CD were free! And guess what? When you buy a CD from Amazon, you get MP3 versions of the songs as well. Luckily for me, I paid attention to the web page I landed on after the purchase, and saw the Download button.

So here, for your listening pleasure, is “Je Crois Entendre Encore” from Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles. (Unfortunately, I can’t upload MP3s, so this is the YouTube version):

Janet Abu-Lughod

I have been so busy at work these past three weeks that I haven’t had any time to keep up with anything that’s been going on. Only today did I read Exiting the Vampire Castle, and this is from a month ago (to the very day).

But as you are probably accustomed to by now, this is not what I’m writing about. On the occasion of the death of Janet Abu-Lughod, I have a story to tell.

I went to a small college in Kentucky (which has since grown, and is now a small university). I had recently graduated and was hanging around thinking about what to do next, when Israel invaded Lebanon. This was 1982. I was appalled, and decided I was going to do something about it. I asked a Political Science professor from the school for his ideas, and he told me a cousin of his, who lived in Chicago, had just returned from Beirut. Her name was Janet Abu-Lughod, and she had with her the first photos of the invasion to make it past Israeli censors.

I had no idea who she was. I knew she was married to Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, but only after being told by the Political Science professor, and I didn’t know who he was either! It didn’t matter though. The Israeli army was censoring information of their attack, and we were going to make it public.

He contacted her and she agreed to come down and talk at the college. I arranged with the administration for the use of the auditorium, wrote a press release and invited all the newspapers and television stations within fifty miles, and advertised the event on local radio stations and newspapers.

We had a really good turnout, especially considering that school was not in session. Her talk was mostly about her work with the Palestinian government-in-exile in Beirut, the schools and hospitals and such, everything that existed that was being destroyed by Israeli bombs.

The reporting that evening and the next day was amazing. They really were the first images of the bombing; I think the reporters were probably just as ecstatic. The story was picked up by CBS Morning News and was scheduled to be broadcast the next day. However, during that time, President Reagan announced that the U.S. was considering sending troops, and our story got bumped. At the time, I thought his announcement was designed specifically to kill our story, but all these years later, I’m less certain of that.

So that’s it. That was both the first event that I organized, and my first brush with an academic notable. But I have to say, I was so busy running things that I barely remember her. We didn’t spend much time together, and back at the professor’s house, they talked mostly about family things. I still have the copy of a book she gave me though, that had just been published, a collection of essays titled: Palestinian Rights: Affirmation and Denial.

Two months later, I was on the bus for New York.

East Village Tea Party

While I’m on the subject of predictions, I have another one to share with you. The inspiration for this was the photo that accompanies a story on EV Grieve (one of four written within two days) about a news stand operator in Astor Place who has been operating without a license, the Department of Consumer Affairs’ effort to collect a fine that was levied against him, and the response of a handful of local residents:

To which I commented:

shmnyc-predicts-tea-party

It’s the accumulation of similar stories and photos, and the resulting comments, that informs this psychic revelation. Like any prediction it’s a gut feeling, within existing material conditions.

***

Once I had the idea to write this, I did an internet search for “East Village Tea Party” and found this:

villager-tea-party-abbr
From a comment posted to The Villager (abridged)

and:

neighborhoodr-tea-party
A post to the Tumblr sub-domain Neighborhoodr-EastVillage, linking to a NY Post article

It’s not surprising. The rugged, individualist ideology of the “East Village” dovetails nicely with the Tea Party.

Anyway, that’s my prediction. I set a reminder on my calendar for December 15, 2018 to check back on this!

Oh Boy… Right Again

I met this guy – and he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk at an ice rink. Which, in fact, he turned out to be. And I said: Oh boy. Right again.

It’s funny how some things stay with you forever.

Back in February of this year I wrote:

    It’s ridiculous that this effort is hailed as being in the “spirit of the East Village”. People in the “East Village” organized to demand jobs, to demand affordable housing, to stop evictions. … I can’t wait until the “spirit of the East Village” is invoked to oppose increases in the minimum wage!

Well, no spirits were invoked, but the position has been staked by the writer of the blog Save The Lower East Side:

sles-contra-minwage-1

I don’t feel like responding to it now. It’s enough that it happened. I’ll just leave you with Laurie Anderson:

East Village Community Coalition

There is an organization in the “East Village” called the East Village Community Coalition. I don’t know how long they’ve been around, but a whois search shows their web site was created on 08-Jun-2004, so it’s probably safe to assume they came into being some time around then.

They’re pretty secretive, too. Their registrant, admin, and tech contacts are masked. But that’s not why I’m writing about them. I want to discuss their
Guide to East Village Local Shops.

This is from their web site:

evcc-shopping-guide

Point by point:

Choose creativity and personality over uniformity – If you shop in one place because you like the color of the paint, or don’t shop in another because you don’t like the awning, it’s all the same. Besides, many local shops show neither creativity nor personality, and uniformity, in itself, is not a bad thing. And there are plenty of chain stores that vary their appearance. I suspect there will be more of this in the future, as they try to meet the demand for this type of “creativity and personality”.

Provide economic diversity and stability – It makes no sense to speak of “economic diversity” within such a small area. A country might have economic diversity, even a city, but when you break it down to ever-smaller localities, like neighborhoods, you can’t maintain this. It makes no sense, under any mode of production, to have manufacturing, distribution, retail, finance, agriculture, etc., all in one square block.

I doubt that the EVCC really expects manufacturing or agriculture to exist here. They understand the division of labor. They’re talking about retail only, which means that they want to take the level of productive forces as they’re given, and freeze them there.

Keep more of your money in your community – Does shopping locally keep money within the community? Leaving aside for now what “the community” really is, let’s set the boundaries as Houston Street on the South, 14th Street on the North, the East River on the East, and Third Avenue on the West. Imagine this is a closed system, with no money coming in and no money going out. (If the “East Village” were actually isolated from the rest of the global economy, it would die off in no time. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine this.)

All value, in the capitalist sense, is created within this closed system. No money/resources/people come in or go out, and everything functions under the capitalist mode of production. People go to work and make commodities that are sold only inside these boundaries – wages to the workers, profits to the owners. Right away you can see, in a very short time, there would be a crisis of overproduction. Assuming everyone can buy one of everything produced on their wages, once they have what they need they won’t need more. The producers would have to look outside these boundaries to sell their wares, and the local paradigm is demolished. This is essentially the national economy, reduced to the area described above.

And what about the surplus population? There are not enough jobs provided by the local businesses in the “East Village” for everyone who lives here. People will have to emigrate to other neighborhoods and send money back home. Which is, of course, what actually happens. Almost no one who lives in this geographical area works here. While the EVCC tells us to keep the money in the neighborhood, they couldn’t survive without its coming from outside the neighborhood.

Which is a good thing, because it’s the retailers themselves who are sending the money out! Since there is no manufacturing or agriculture here, local retailers sell commodities manufactured somewhere else, or with raw materials originating somewhere else, whether it’s tchotchkes at Alphabets or coffee at Mud.

The first section of EVCC’s Guide is Cafes. Cafe types, and some of their non-local ingredients, are:

Cafe Type Imports
Bakeries Butter, Flour, Sugar
Cafes Coffee
Candy & Chocolate Chocolate, Sugar
Ice Cream Eggs, Milk, Sugar, Vanilla
Juice Bar Fruits, Vegetables
Tea Shop Honey, Sugar, Tea

 
The next section is Fashion. Most of the retailers don’t make what they sell: Dinosaur Hill, Jane’s Exchange, Village Kids Footwear, etc. It’s possible that some others do, but they don’t make the sewing machines or material or thread. The other categories are: Galleries; Gifts; Florist; Health and Beauty; Culture, Music, Entertainment; and Specialty Services. It’s the same with all of them.

Create local jobs with fair living wages – The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows little variation in pay for professionals and managers by establishment size, but differentials widen as you move down the status hierarchy. Data entry clerks in small establishments earned 7% below the national average, while those in large firms earned 20% above. Gaps for janitors were wider, and those for laborers were wider still.

This fact persists regardless of occupation, industrial sector, education, experience, geographical location, union status. Workers in larger firms are more likely to be covered by company-paid health insurance and have some type of retirement plan. Also, worker safety is worse in small businesses — “Size and risk are inversely correlated at all levels of scale,” according to an International Labour Organization report.1

Sustain small business owners who strengthen the local economy – Redundant.

People who make the claims made by EVCC like to point to studies that show how much money stays in the community with small business than with larger businesses. One study conducted in Chicago found that for every $100 spent by customers, $43 stayed in the area for chains, while $68 stayed in the area for non-chains. One problem with this is that the geographical boundaries were the entire city of Chicago, so money that moved from a poor neighborhood to a richer neighborhood was still considered to be “local”. Likewise with the “East Village”. Many of the owners/workers do not live here. The money they make leaves the neighborhood daily.

A bigger problem is that this is only a measure of profits. For the chain, some part of the profits, or even gross revenue, is sent to the corporate office, leaving the manager with less to spend than the owner, but this assumes that the owners spend all their profits. Owners reinvest profits, or they use them to pay their more-expensive mortgages or vacations or restaurant bills. The argument ultimately centers on filling the capitalist class’s luxury-goods market, something that doesn’t even exist in the “East Village”.

Defend our neighborhood’s identity – Is the neighborhood’s identity really defined by its retail shops? This is definitely a petite-bourgeois perspective! Anyway, this neighborhood’s identity was defined by the real estate industry, not the retail industry. The term “East Village” was coined by real estate developers in the 1960s as a way to attract renters, by linking the area above Houston Street with Greenwich Village, and disassociating it from the Lower East Side’s immigrant, working-class roots.

Fight the lie that “low prices” at chain stores makes up for the loss of local business ownership – Low prices benefit workers, local business ownership benefits owners. Welcome to the class struggle.

***

A few things about small businesses that I’ve written about before, but which bear repeating:

Unemployment Insurance – If employees are paid in cash, there is no record of their employment, making it impossible for them to collect unemployment when they lose their job.

OSHA Requirements – If a company has fewer than 25 employees, their penalty is cut by 60 percent. If the business has fewer than 10 employees, they’re exempt from many requirements that obligate them to report workplace injuries.

Discrimination Laws – Federal laws against discrimination in the workplace do not always apply to small businesses. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies only to employers of 20 or more people.

Employee Health Insurance – Beginning in 2014, employers will be expected to pay a “shared responsibility fee” for health insurance coverage under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. Small businesses are exempt from this rule. If the company has fewer than 50 employees, they have no healthcare responsibilities.2

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1The Small Business Myth
2Small Business Exemptions

Pseudo-religious notes on poverty and work