Can These Bones Live: Urban Decay Chic

I don’t remember how I came onto this blog, but the author of this piece (link below) makes a couple of very incisive points:

1) People who move into abandoned, decaying urban areas desire that type of environment, and any change, any improvement, will upset them, not just gentrification. This is a big problem in the “East Village” of New York, but one which is growing smaller as this population ages.

2) If people feel the need to live in these areas, they still exist. Cleveland, Detroit… Detroit! They privatized the government and turned off the water to those who cannot pay! If you’re an artist and need that type of deprivation, it’s there waiting for you!

Can These Bones Live: Urban Decay Chic.

Stealth Gentrification, Part 2

Regular readers of Quilas may remember a post of mine from this time last year called Stealth Gentrification. It’s mostly quotations from an essay titled “Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side”, by Lara Belkind.

She examines the period from 1980–2005, dividing it into three “stages”: 1980–1994; 1995–2002; and 2003–2005. Part 1 focussed on the stage 1. Part 2 will focus on stage 2. Part 3 will focus on stage 3, whenever I get around to it.

I posted Part 1 after the announcement that the bar Max Fish was closing. Max Fish was one of the first LES-gentrifying establishments, and people who claim to oppose gentrification were lamenting its closing. (They’ve since re-opened, after a failed move to Williamsburg.)

There’s something to be said for not being ostentatious, but just as glitter and paint cannot cover up the class struggle, neither can graffiti and riot gates.

So what exactly are they lamenting? Let’s take a look, shall we?

* * *

    The rise of content industries ushered in a new era of hyper-consumerism. In this milieu, bohemian concepts of the “avant-garde,” “underground,” and even “authenticity” were increasingly considered lifestyle options indicative of social identity, rather than political choices. In addition, with the declining importance of large-scale industrial production, cultural intermediaries, often members of urban subcultures, became essential to the search for new niche markets and marketable differences. This process depended on continuous diversification and the discovery of new source material.

    It also meant that cultures once thought to be peripheral — including that of the ghetto and the urban disenfranchised — could be appropriated within the culture industry as sources of content.

    For the owners of these businesses, recycling an existing storefront was generally cheaper than a full renovation; but it was, more importantly, an expression of cultural identity. Most of the new Lower East Side entrepreneurs [There’s that word I told you about! –Q] saw themselves as operating outside mainstream corporate culture, and preserving the built environment was a way to identify themselves as locals. Nonetheless, they consciously engaged in “new-economy” activities, creating and selling trends of cultural consumption, content and hipness.

    Denise Carbonell is one such entrepreneur. … She bought a corner building with several units and a storefront, and today she lives in one of the units and rents the others. Originally, she used the storefront as her studio, but in the mid-1990s she transformed it into a retail space to sell her work: retro-futurist clothing, textiles, jewelry and mobiles. The store had once been a men’s clothing store, Louis Zuflacht, which closed in 1964. Making few renovations, Carbonell has been careful to maintain the exterior, occasionally reinforcing unstable portions of the facade and the “Louis Zuflacht” sign while being meticulous not to change its worn appearance. Still, she decided, for instance, to retain its storefront windows, which were covered with a film, yellow with age. Today, no sign indicates her business; one becomes aware of it only as a glimpse through the open door.

    Joe Manuse is another local merchant. A painter and printmaker who formerly worked in graphic production, he lives around the corner from the low-key, inexpensive cafe he runs with his brother. The pair opened the cafe in 1997, in a well-worn storefront with no sign. Instead, a single scrawl of graffiti on the security grill reads “Lotus Club,” the café’s name. Across the street is the “Poor People in Action of the Lower East Side” community garden, whose members hold their meetings at the Lotus Club. Here, camouflage was employed to attract middle-class hipsters, but it also created a space without overt class associations.

    In 1999, [Mary Beth Nelson] and several partners, all from the neighborhood, opened a gourmet restaurant, 71 Clinton Fresh Food. … With her partners, Nelson then opened two more restaurants on Clinton Street: aKa in 2001, and Alias in 2002. Both are aptly named because they preserve the facades of their previous occupants, a ladies’ dress shop and a Puerto Rican diner. Ironically, Alias had already been the name of the Puerto Rican diner. Originally, it had been “Elias Restaurant,” but the prior owner had replaced the “E” with an “A”.

    Nelson made minimal changes to these facades, too — and not just because it was cheaper to do so. … Nelson explained the design was based on a “recycling aesthetic — of grafting onto and transforming.” Her intent was to identify the restaurant with the existing character of the neighborhood and create a spot for locals. Besides, she said, camouflage is the “ultimate New York insider” design strategy.

    … The expanding economy of the 1990s also shaped the Lower East Side not simply as a place to consume the products and services of new entrepreneurs, but as a cultural space which could be consumed for its atmosphere. The sense of the neighborhood as a cultural destination was greatly assisted by a cluster of fringe storefront theaters and music venues that added to a layered experience of working-class authenticity, counterculture, and urban edge — and by a proliferation of bars, the ultimate purveyors of ambiance.

    Luna Lounge … preserved the industrial frontage of a defunct Chinese herb warehouse — with no signage, just a large, dark glass window. Arlene Grocery adopted the name and hand-painted sign of the bodega it replaced, and at first might be confused with another bodega down the street with a sign by the same artist.

    … [B]ars were some of the most creative businesses employing camouflage to create image and mystique. For example, in the mid-1990s, one owner opened two theme bars, one which recycled a recently defunct beauty shop, and the other a pharmacy. Named Beauty Bar and Barmacy, they are high-kitsch celebrations of a not-so-distant working-class past.

    Camouflage could also be used to heighten exclusivity. The Milk & Honey bar is located behind a dilapidated facade disguised as a clothing alteration shop, and it seats only a dozen people. Its address and phone number are kept unlisted, so potential patrons must first obtain these from friends. … Happy Ending, a bar which opened in a Chinese massage parlor shut down by the police. Happy Ending was a euphemism for the “total-release” massage reportedly delivered on the premises, and the bar maintains the awning and frontage of its former occupant, imprinted with Chinese characters. Nothing at all is visible from the street which might reveal its new use. … Though “invisible” to an uninitiated neighborhood resident, the bar is highly visible among global trend-setters. It has an elaborate website and is recommended on a number of Internet culture sites and weblogs [such as] superfuture.com, a site with listings for New York, Tokyo, Sydney, and Shanghai that describes itself as “urban cartography for global shopping experts”.

* * *

These are the small businesses Jeremiah Moss wants to save.

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1Lara Belkind, Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (FALL 2009), pp. 21-36.

http://iaste.berkeley.edu/pdfs/21.1c-Fall09Belkind.pdf

Foreign Scientific Jargon

I am working on a piece, the second of three, that deals with stealth gentrification, and I noticed that the author of the essay I’m quoting from uses the word entrepreneur to describe small-business owners that moved into the Lower East Side during the period of her study. “Why does she use that term?” I wondered.

I thought about other French terms: bourgeois, petite-bourgeois,* proletariat, that fall into the general category of French terms that describe (or obscure) capitalist social relations, but these terms evoke a different response in the reader than entrepreneur. Some people even consider them to be cliché (although they’re fine with the word cliché!).

It’s not that they’re French (or non-English, as it were), that people shy away from these words, it’s that they denote class position. Despite what George Orwell says: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent,” if you were to replace these with English terms, e.g., if you were to say “small-business owner,” instead of petite-bourgeois, it changes the meaning. The first is “the lifeblood of our economy,” the second is a deviationist, and resorts to fascism in times of crisis.

“Working class” is better than proletariat; the terms for the capitalist class are the problematic ones. Nobody says bourgeois as a compliment. No one ever says “Those are some fine bourgeois values you have!” If I say I want to open a store, no one would say “You’re a real petite-bourgeois now!”§

I still don’t know why she used the word entrepreneur though, even if she doesn’t say petite-bourgeois. Instead of:

    Such tactics have been deployed by a diverse succession of actors — from squatters and artists, to local entrepreneurs and hipsters, to real estate investors and brand-name retailers.

why not say “local small-business owners”? She must have had a reason, I just wonder what it was. She doesn’t write “bourgeois” (petite– or otherwise) anywhere in the essay. She uses the term entrepreneur 18 times!

I don’t like the word entrepreneur. The etymology of entrepreneur in the Oxford Concise Dictionary is “Origin: early 19th cent., from French, from entreprendre ‘undertake’ (see enterprise)”. “Enterprise” as in “free enterprise”. It’s understandable why capitalists prefer euphemisms to “capitalist,” but why the author of an essay on stealth gentrification?

Un…less…

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* I prefer petite to “petty” because “petty” means “insignificant” or “trifling, and while small businesses might be insignificant or trifling, it’s their smallness that I mean to convey.
§Actually, friends of mine would probably say this!
Politics and the English Language. Accessed August 18, 2014.

Adding Insult to Injury

During this time when I’m not working on any of the 41 pieces in my Drafts folder, I will pass on this story from last week’s Guardian.

The Job Centre bar “promises upmarket pub food in an atmosphere of quirky design features inspired by its function as a place that once served the unemployed.” The actual job center, located in a part of London with a high level of unemployment, was closed in 2010.

    “The bar’s name and its interior design suggest that you want potential clientele to understand that your bar is for the new people moving into Deptford, for whom job centres are a joke, and not the existing residents of Deptford, for whom job centres are often a necessity …” – Jane Elliott, Lewisham People Before Profit

In the “East Village,” where there are no job centers, gentrifying bars took names like Downtown Beirut, celebrating the Israeli bombardment of 1982.

beirut

No-7Eleven-NYC Packs It In

I can’t remember when the last time was that I wrote about N7E. When their founding member quit? Maybe. I unsubscribed from their blog and stopped visiting their Twitter page because it was just a lot of nonsense.

Well, things have been getting steadily worse for them, it seems. I was wondering recently how long they were going to keep up their “boycott” when I saw this:

quilas-n7e-packs-it-in-3

It’s the beginning of the end. They’ve reduced their weekly leafletting to once per month. Soon they’ll be gone completely. They won’t announce it — one first-Sunday they just won’t be there, then another, then it will be over.

Back in August of 2013, their founder wrote:

boycott-20130823-1100

I think a better reason it was doomed was that it had no social base. No one rallies for the small business owner — it’s antithetical to the class itself. If they had been fighting for the rights of the workers, they could have developed something — look at what just happened in Seattle! — but the only time they mentioned the workers was to attack them. They accused them of vandalizing other businesses in the neighborhood, smoking pot behind the store, menacing the leafletters… This was never a cause that deserved support. The sooner they wither away, the better.

Hyper-Gentrification Revisited

In Hyper-Gentrification, I wrote about a blogger called Jeremiah Moss. Specifically, about something he wrote called On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification.

Since that time, he was invited to rewrite that piece for the New York Times, as part of their overview of gentrification. So his position, distilled, is:

    The old-school gentrification of the 20th century, while harmful, wasn’t all bad. It made streets safer, created jobs and brought fresh vegetables to the corner store. … Unlike gentrification, in which the agents of change were middle-class settlers moving into working-class and poor neighborhoods…

    …hyper-gentrification in New York was implemented via strategically planned mass rezonings, eminent domain and billions in tax breaks to corporations…

    So before gentrification became “hyper”, it wasn’t all bad, according to Moss. When the process of removing the working class from their neighborhood was happening, using all of the tools at the disposal of both real estate developers and the city, from illegal evictions, to arson, to filling vacant apartments with drug dealers to drive out tenants, to turning over in rem buildings to “developers” for pennies on the dollar, to programs like AHOP, this wasn’t all bad. The same private/public interests (themselves, bourgeois legalisms) were at play as today, at the then-existing level of development.

Moss sees gentrification starting when people and small businesses start to move into an area where they weren’t before. He fails to understand the processes that led to that, despite his many references to Neil Smith. He doesn’t see the “flipping” of buildings (buildings bought and then sold at a profit, sometimes without any renovations being made) as part of the process, or even the transition from a healthy building stock to a decrepit one. For him, as for so many like him, it starts when the outward signs become noticeable.

So what is his solution?

    Let’s drastically reduce tax breaks to corporations and redirect that money to mom-and-pops. Protect the city’s oldest small businesses by providing selective retail rent control, and implement the Small Business Survival Act to create fair rent negotiations. Pass a citywide ordinance to control the spread of chain stores. … Shop local and protest the corporate invasion of neighborhoods.

Increase taxes on corporations? OK. Direct the money to small businesses? To what end? If the Small Business Survival Act creates fair rent negotiations (Moss’s contention), small business rents will be lower. So what will they do with the money? Raise their employees’ wages? Ha! Pocket the money? Probably. Use the money to expand? Probably. So the small businesses will become big businesses, in time. Maybe even chains. Regarding shopping locally, I’ve already addresses that.

Moss’s changes will only benefit small business owners. That is his starting and ending point.

    This … is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. … [I]t believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided.*

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* The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, accessed April 27, 2014.

Pearl Paint Illegally Fired 39 Workers

There’s been some hubbub recently about Pearl Paint, a five-story art supply store on Canal Street, closing.

It was first reported (as far as I know) by Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, the small-business-lamentation blog.

On Tuesday, DNAInfo reported that Pearl Paint illegally fired 39 of their workers! In his piece, Jeremiah reported, regarding the closing: “The information has not been confirmed with Pearl…” but there’s no mention of his speaking with any of the workers. He did report it on his Facebook page, but there’s no follow-up on his blog.

This is why it’s important not to be pie-eyed about small businesses. Glitter and paint cannot cover up class relations.

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