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.

=-=-=-=-=

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.

Click to access 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…

=-=-=-=-=

* 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.*

=-=-=-=-=

* 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.

Hyper-Gentrification

There is an anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Jeremiah Moss. His blog is Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

I’m not a regular reader of this blog. The first time I read it, he was lamenting a pawn shop on 23rd Street(?) closing. I commented to the effect that pawn shops, along with check-cashing places, were scourges of poor neighborhoods, but he didn’t approve it.

It’s mainly a nostalgia blog. I put it in the realm of the sites I’ve commented on, tirelessly advocating the position of the small business owners of the city.

He recently got a bit of extra notoriety for a piece he wrote on “hyper gentrification”. To his credit, he claims to take the position of Neil Smith. Unfortunately, he represents Smith poorly. For Neil Smith, gentrification was a class issue. Gentrification occurs when a working class neighborhood is turned into a non-working-class neighborhood. Once the area in question is no longer working class, gentrification stops. The job is finished. There are no “levels” of gentrification. There is no such thing as “hyper gentrification”.

To try to define gentrification as a steady process of “upscaling”, as a commenter here once did, is to remove the class nature from it. By this definition, gentrification occurs any time land is capitalized. When the conversion of a working class neighborhood is seen in the same light as the price of a $10,000,000 penthouse being raised to $25,000,000, then it becomes synonymous with change itself, under capitalism. This is the position of the real estate industry.

This puts Moss squarely on the same side as Spike Lee, despite his claim to differ. Spike Lee does not think that he was a gentrifier, because he’s Black. For Lee, gentrification is a racial issue that started when the first (Black) gentrifiers found themselves priced out of their neighborhoods. It’s the same for Moss.

Nowhere in Moss’s piece do you find the word “worker”, or “working”, or “class”, or “Volume 3”. For Moss, and so many like him, gentrification is bad because it affects small business owners and their “buy local” customers, not workers.

He writes:

    I want to make one thing clear: Gentrification is over. It’s gone. And it’s been gone since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Gentrification itself has been gentrified, pushed out of the city and vanished. I don’t even like to call it gentrification, a word that obscures the truth of our current reality. I call it hyper-gentrification.

Gentrification is not over. Gentrification is not a one-time event. It’s over in some neighborhoods, but it’s still going on in others. There are slums in India that are being gentrified, due to their proximity to wealthier areas. The favelas of Brazil are also being eyed by real estate interests there. And cities like Detroit and Cleveland are already in the sights of developers, waiting for circumstances to change in their favor.

I’m not saying that there’s no reason to track the increases in wealth inequality, just that the problem doesn’t start when the first round of gentrifying small business owners are affected.

Fallout

I posted Class Struggle on Avenue A on November 11 at 15:29. Twenty minutes later, a founding member of No 7-Eleven NYC wrote on his blog:

    NO711 is headed towards a racially divided face-off […]
    At a meeting with the NO711 group in June, I let the group
    know that I didn’t want to be involved…

I commend him for this action. Not so much leaving the group, which happened back in June, in any case, but for making it public. I had a feeling that my post would bring us back into contact, and when it did, I already had my reply ready: to preserve your self-respect, publicly divorce yourself from the group. I did not expect him to beat me to the punch.

Meanwhile, no other blog has picked up on this. The N7E blog says nothing about it, not even a fare-thee-well. And EV Grieve, who’s written about them 38 times this year (maybe more, if any of the posts are missing the “No 7-Eleven” tag), is also silent about it. Likewise with The Villager, another of their cheerleaders.

Am I the only one who thinks this is newsworthy?

***

As regular readers of Quilas know, N7E has been gathering outside the 7-Eleven on Avenue A every Sunday afternoon since the store opened, calling for a boycott. While researching “Class Struggle…”, I came across a comment of his, that I used in another context elsewhere:

fallout-boycott-useless

I’m starting to wonder to what degree he was pushed out?

***

Speaking of The Villager, they ran a story last week called “Small shops already feeling the crunch from 7-Eleven”.

    Although 7-Eleven is a cheaper alternative to traditional mom-and-pop stores, the majority of local residents The Villager recently polled about the new store agreed with No 7-Eleven. They said they would rather preserve the small businesses in the area than save money.

“[T]he majority of local residents The Villager recently polled” were the twelve people standing outside the store holding signs!

If you’re going to argue against large corporations like 7-Eleven, or Wal*Mart, you can’t use the argument that their prices are lower, unless of course your audience has a higher discretionary income. When has The Villager ever run an article titled: “Small stores gouge customers with higher prices”?

Their article ran with a chart bearing the title “Can a bodega compete with 7‑Eleven?” (What do they think competition is?!) I revised it, below:

price-chart''

For the record, I checked these prices today, as I did my Thanksgiving shopping. Carnation Evaporated Milk, 12 oz can, 10 for $10! Do bodegas even have evaporated milk?

The Pathology of the “East Village”

[Updated 10/10]

I started a version of this article many weeks ago, after a post on EV Grieve
ran with this photo:

eliciting this comment:

evg-heroin-tsp-0805-1635

Then recently, in an article about a memorial in Tompkins Square Park for a “crusty” who died, one commenter wrote:

evg-comment-light-violence-0919-1052 1

Comments such as these are not uncommon. There’s some troll element, to be sure, but most of it is legitimate (in that it’s not trolling). Since that time, I slowly gathered examples to demonstrate that there is a vocal faction of people in the “East Village” who are basically misanthropes. I wasn’t very active collecting this, but all of a sudden a truckload of it fell into my virtual lap!

But first, I must digress.

***

Early in the week of September 22, this sign went up in my neighborhood:

atwe4sba-anti-drug-mtg

On September 24, this story ran on EV Grieve:

evg-drug-mtg-story

I attended the meeting. My original estimation of the number of people in attendance was 35, including the representatives of the 9th Precinct and District Attorney’s office, but I was later told that the sign-in sheet at the desk showed it was closer to 50. Almost everyone had a story, of drug use (mostly heroin) taking place in their vestibules, dealers operating out of a renovated but unoccupied building, dealers having keys to the NYCHA buildings and operating out of them, members of community gardens who have all but abandoned the gardens because of drug dealing in them… They came from all through the neighborhood, from 3rd and 5th Streets as well as both avenues, even Houston Street. Many of them said they heard about the meeting from EV Grieve.

The attendees were 80%+ black and hispanic, most over 40. Some live in the NYCHA buildings under siege. Some were representatives of shelters and treatment centers in the area. Many have lived here since the 1980s and were founding members of the community gardens on the block. That might fit the demographic of people in this area who attend meetings, but it also demonstrates (spoiler alert!) that they weren’t young transplants trying to sanitize the neighborhood.

There will be a follow-up meeting October 9. In the intervening time, people with sales/use taking place in their buildings will approach the owners and try to get the building registered in the city’s Trespass Affidavit Program. And everyone was urged to call 911 when they see drug sales/use taking place. The 9th Precinct rep said that despite the number of stories people had, there have been very few calls, so they were not aware of the severity of the problem.

***

It didn’t take long after EV Grieve’s post for the rats to emerge! One response on the blog itself:

evg-drug-mtg-0925-1320

But the EV Grieve Facebook page is where the worst appeared. (Coincidentally enough, an article appeared on Slate the same day, titled “Facebook’s for Middle-Aged Narcissists”.

I divided the Facebook comments into two categories: Presumptuous; and Misanthropic.

Presumptuous

0924-0905b

0924-0936

0924-1003

0924-1009

Misanthropic

0924-0904

0924-0905a

0924-1016

0924-1025

0924-1214

0924-1323

0924-1649

One of the things discussed at the meeting is that the dealers will smile at residents, to try to ingratiate them. It’s no different than greeters in stores: it’s part of their selling strategy. To think that this demonstrates beneficence on their part is naive.

***

I don’t think there’s a single one of them who doesn’t argue from a white-privileged position. Why is it always older, white people who glorify drug sales/use? I think it’s because they know they won’t be directly affected by it — only peripherally, like the people who think Giuseppe Logan being mugged is a small price to pay to keep people they don’t like out of the neighborhood.1 They chose to live here when they could have chosen to live somewhere else.2 They see it taking place, but it’s not their lives that will be destroyed by it.

No doubt they find it romantic, or adventuresome. This is their “authentic” New York neighborhood. This is how they define themselves, as people who lived under harsh conditions and survived. There’s a song (I forget the name of it) with a line “New York is where people go to live out their fantasy of being Lou Reed.” It’s telling that no one ever imagines themselves to be Johnny Thunders!

lou-reed-johnny-thunders

***

I want to be clear that I’m not lumping together everyone who moved here in the 1970s/80s, only the sociopaths. There were definitely people who had a larger social vision, of taking back the land, of the right to the city. But these people did not view the heroin trade as positive in any way.

Marlis Momber, a local photographer, has a photo called “No No Drugs 1986” that shows a demonstration winding its way through the streets of the “East Village”. A copy of it hangs in the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union:

no-no-drugs-1986

Other examples:

local-east-village-momber
Photo by Marlis Momber, via The Local East Village.

villager-marlis-momber-interview
Interview with Marlis Momber, in The Villager.

drugs-demo-nyt-1983
Pace, Eric. “Lower East Side Residents Protest ‘Drug Drive-Ins’.” NY Times, October 23, 1983. [Almost 30 years to the date! –Q]

***

Looking at current movement in this area, you would think these people would oppose the heroin trade because it wasn’t local. Opium poppies do not grow locally. The processing is done outside the neighborhood and employs no local residents. The dealers live outside the neighborhood and for the most part, so do the buyers. There is nothing local about any part of it.

=-=-=-=-=

1 Two days after the claim that “light violence is a small price to pay”, this story appeared on EV Grieve:
evg-giuseppi-logan-jumped

2 Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013.

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