Stealth Gentrification


 
The bar Max Fish closed yesterday. Since Max Fish was one of the first of the gentrifying establishments to open in the Lower East Side, I thought it would be fitting to note its passing by focussing on one of the techniques by which it came to be.

Lara Belkind introduces her essay Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, thusly:

    This article describes current adaptations of the traditional environment of New York’s Lower East Side. It examines how global factors such as expanding “content’ industries, market differentiation, and the internet have reinforced perceptions of the area as real and authentic while opening it to dramatic change. Specifically, the article considers a recent trend of commercial camouflage — hidden shops, restaurants and clubs that “re-present” tradition by meticulously preserving defunct façades, signage, and other physical traces of the neighborhood’s working-class and immigrant past. Urban camouflage, in various guises, has played a role in the transformation of the Lower East Side since the late 1970s, and has been employed by a succession of actors, from squatters to global retailers. As a cultural strategy, it has been inherent to the economic restructuring of the area, helping to overcome barriers to redevelopment that have persisted for more than five decades.

She divides the period into three stages: 1980–1994; 1995–2002; 2003–2005. I’m just focussing on the first stage:

    Max Fish quickly became a destination for consumers of the downtown scene. … And it made Ulli Rimkus one of the first of a set of successful local artist-entrepreneurs.

    Stealth aesthetics emerged almost immediately as an expression of this new bohemian movement, signifying authenticity, membership in the downtown avant-garde, and a condition of being “underground,” or beyond the realm of middle-class consumerism. This signification contained an inherent contradiction, however, because many of these new residents arrived with very middle-class objectives. In particular, they were seeking to buy property or to create small businesses — opportunities they were finding increasingly out of reach in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

    Yet, despite expressions of solidarity with the local working-class, and despite positioning themselves as activists or bohemian outsiders, the motivations of many artists who moved to the Lower East Side were essentially middle class. By contrast, the very opportunities that attracted them to the area, to own property or start a small enterprise, were beyond the reach of most of their neighbors. Indeed, the concept of “pioneering’ in a residential community, even a battered one, inherently separated new residents from existing ones.

    [M]any of the bohemians who arrived on the Lower East Side in the 1980s adopted countercultural elements as a commercial strategy. … But art that borrowed the found qualities of these spaces quickly evolved into a trademark aesthetic that was used to attract middle-class consumers.

***

There was one part of the article I found a bit disturbing:

stealth-05-clayton
 
The drug trade that existed in this area was responsible for countless deaths, family crises, homelessness, as well as burglaries and muggings. Clayton Patterson says this was a good thing. Was it a good thing for the people living there before 1980? Do you think they had the view that the drugs were a trade-off, necessary to keep the middle class away? I think this is appalling.

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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.

Quilas Meets No 7-Eleven

I found a new site recently: GoAnimate

Expect to see more animations on Quilas in the future!


 
(What they’re talking about.)

Bodegas

When I first started this blog, one of the topics I wanted to write about was Working — working conditions, pay, and unemployment, primarily — on the large scale as well as local. It seems I’ve been doing this for a while now without even realizing it!

I came across some information recently, while writing No 7-Eleven NYC, Labor, and “Free Markets”, from the National Employment Law Project, a national advocacy organization for employment rights of lower-wage workers, to quote their web site. Some of this restates what I wrote already, except it focusses on violations of the law instead of exemptions from it, and is more specific to food stores:

    The grocery and supermarket industry is divided into three main segments:

    1. Green grocers, bodegas & delis sell fresh produce, dry and prepared foods, and household items. They are small stores and often family-run.
    2. Gourmet grocers are the fastest-growing industry segment and are defined by luxury products (including health food and organic food) and a high-income consumer base. Stores are mid-sized and often owned by chains, although some have independent owners.
    3. Supermarkets are larger, carry a wider range of products, and are often owned by chains. Historically, this segment has had higher union density and job quality, though both have been declining because of non-union competition.

    Wages and working conditions vary by industry segment and by the degree of unionization. The most unregulated stores are green grocers, bodegas and delis – margins are razor thin, wages are low, and workplace violations are chronic.

    Immigrants make up about two-thirds of the workforce, and increasingly hail from Latin America and especially Mexico. Many find jobs through friends and family already working in a store that is hiring. But some employers advertise in ethnic newspapers, and green grocers frequently hire workers through storefront employment agencies. Bodegas rely heavily on family members, who put in very long shifts.

    In our interviews, non-union grocery jobs were widely considered the least desirable of employment options. While the jobs are easy to get, requiring little English or previous training, they are exploitative and dead-end (“There’s only one type of job,” as a bodega owner put it). Turnover is high across all segments, although workers may stay in the industry for several years because there are few alternatives.

    INDUSTRY SEGMENTS WHERE WORKPLACE VIOLATIONS ARE COMMON
    • Green grocery stores, bodegas and delis (violations are prevalent).
    • Gourmet grocers/health food stores (violations are frequent).
    • Non-union supermarkets (common violations in some occupations).
    THE JOBS WHERE WORKPLACE VIOLATIONS ARE COMMON
    • Occupations – Occupations most impacted include cashiers, stock clerks, deli counter workers, food preparers, delivery workers, janitors, baggers, produce washers/watchers, and flower-arrangers.
    • Typical wages – Green grocery, bodega, and deli workers: $250-300 per week is typical. Produce washers and food preparers earn between $4 and $5 per hour.
    • Typical hours – Hours average 55-75 hours per week in green grocery stores; 40-60 hours per week in gourmet grocery stores; and 40-60 hours per week in non-union supermarkets.
    • Payment method – Workers are largely paid in cash at green grocery stores, with the exception of occasional cashiers and family members of the owners. Gourmet grocers and supermarkets generally pay on the books, though at least a few workers are always paid in cash.
    • Benefits – Health benefits and vacation and sick days are rare in non-union stores.
    THE WORKERS MOST AFFECTED BY WORKPLACE VIOLATIONS
      Workforce is almost exclusively immigrant, from Mexico, Central America, Korea, Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. Delivery workers are mostly African immigrants. With the exception of cashier jobs, most occupations are male dominated. Ages range from the teens through the 40s.

      Green grocery and delivery workers are often undocumented. Some undocumented workers in gourmet grocery stores and supermarkets.

    INTERMEDIARIES PLACING WORKERS IN UNREGULATED JOBS
      Storefront employment agencies are frequently used, especially for off-the-books jobs, charging the workers $100-$300 per placement, or $10 for a day job.
    COMMON WORKPLACE VIOLATIONS
    • Minimum wage – Violations are pervasive in green grocery stores, bodegas and delis. Workers commonly put in 60-72 hours per week, often resulting in hourly wages below the minimum. For example, a worker paid $300 per week for 60 hours will earn $5 per hour (without considering time-and-a half-pay for overtime hours). The worst jobs can be paid as little as $2.50 an hour. Similar violations are found in gourmet stores, but are somewhat less pervasive. Violations in non-union supermarkets are concentrated in the most vulnerable occupations (baggers, delivery workers).
    • Overtime – Green grocery stores rarely pay overtime. Gourmet grocery stores may selectively pay overtime (e.g. after six months, or for more skilled workers). Non-union supermarkets often violate overtime laws for baggers and delivery workers.
    • Meal breaks – Meal breaks are erratic, and green grocery workers in particular can work up to 14-hour days without a meal break. Delivery workers typically do not get meal breaks and have to eat on the job.
    • Employer taxes – When employers pay in cash, they very rarely pay required taxes.
    • OSHA – Chemical and pesticide exposure is a serious issue for workers handling sprayed produce, with few safeguards or training by employers. Stockers do not receive mandated training on lifting and moving.
    • Workers’ Compensation – Smaller employers do not carry workers’ compensation, and across segments, workers rarely receive it when injured on the job.
    • Discrimination – Workers report hiring, firing and promotion based on immigration status, ethnicity and relationship to owner, as well as harassment based on immigration status.
    • Retaliation and the right to organize – Workers report being threatened, intimidated and fired for bringing complaints or attempting to organize.

Another topic I plan to take up soon is working in restaurants. If you want to get a jump on things, check out this web site.

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Unregulated Work in the Grocery and Supermarket Industry in New York City

Response to The Villager

For some reason, the moderator of the comments section of thevillager.com saw fit to exclude my response to Clayton Patterson’s most recent article, Let’s get back to our roots: We need new leaders. It wasn’t long, or offensive, so I don’t know why they censored it, unless they just can’t brook any disagreement with Mr. Patterson.

This is what I wrote (as best as I can recall):

Mr. Patterson puts the cart before the horse. Leaders come out of the people. It used to be that the people of this neighborhood were communists, socialists, even anarchists. Today they are mostly liberals. Liberals don’t care about the poor.* They care more about which stores open in the neighborhood than they do about the condition of the people who work in those stores.

And if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world. “The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also.” (F. Engels, The Housing Question.)

*I bet this is where they balked!

So that’s what I wrote, but since I’m posting this on Quilas, I will expand it a bit.

I don’t know why it is that people isolate the experiences of artists when talking about this neighborhood. (Well, yes I do, but they shouldn’t do it.) The movement of artists into this area occurred during a specific period of time — post-WW2. Artists were not immigrants; they played a significant role in gentrifying this neighborhood. I wrote briefly about this in my post Artists Made This Neighborhood?

I’m not hostile to artists, but their plight was the plight of thousands more who had no other options, the way the artists did, to live elsewhere. Today, artists are seen as the victims of gentrification when, in the main, they were the tools of gentrification.

The Bodega Walk or: Unintended Consequences

You may remember from such posts as No 7-Eleven on Avenue A that I was was unable to attend the Bodega Walk held February 2, so I decided I would visit the bodegas myself. I did that this weekend. I can’t say that I discovered anything to challenge the assumptions I wrote about earlier, but I did discover one thing, one unintended consequence of the bodega walks, which I’ll address at the end of this post.

I put together a list of questions that I would ask the owners and the the employes, respectively. When I first thought about doing this, I had in mind to speak to the employees as well as the owners, but then I realized that no employee would be able to speak freely with the owner present — this is true regardless of the job — so I abandoned that idea. I decided to ask the owners the Employee questions. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t know the answers, after all.

These are the questions I prepared:

To owners:
Do you own this building?
How much do you pay in rent?
Do you live in this neighborhood?
How many people work for you?
Are you worried about 7-Eleven moving into the space on Avenue A and 11th?
What do you think the greatest impact will be on your business?
What are your best-selling items?

To employees:
Are you paid at least minimum wage?
Are you paid in cash or by check?
Do you get paid sick days? Vacation days?
Are you paid time-and-a-half for overtime?

In all of these bodegas, I met only one owner. It seems that, while Sunday afternoon was a good time for me to venture out, it’s not the time when most owners are on the premises. I asked him the Owner questions above: he does not own the building; he declined to answer the rent question; he lives in the neighborhood; he employs three people; he thinks the 7-Eleven “on the corner” will have a big impact on his business. Since he specified the corner, I asked if another bodega opening on the corner would have the same impact, or was it because it was a 7-Eleven that the impact would be negative? He wasn’t sure. He thinks the greatest impact on his business will be that 7-Eleven has cheaper products. “I have Boar’s Head,”(1) he said. He didn’t know what his best selling items were: “Sandwiches, Cheerios…”.

Then I asked him the Employee questions. I have to say that none of his answers were convincing. Are your employees related? A shrug of the shoulders and a hesitant Yeah. Maybe he thought I meant related to each other? Do you pay your employees at least minimum wage? An equivocating Yes. (It may be that he was caught off-guard by the question and had to quickly think of the ramifications of answering it, but it left me wondering.) Are they paid in cash or by check? Cash. Do they receive paid sick/vacation days? Puckering his lips and raising his shoulders, Yeah. Really? Yeah. The way he responded, I thought that maybe he didn’t understand the question. I thanked him for his time, and set out for the other stores.

At none of the other stores was the owner present. At one, I spoke with a Manager. He said he couldn’t answer the Owner questions, but for Employees he answered: minimum wage, paid in cash, no sick days. In another place, an employee answered all of my Employee questions without hesitation, but told me: You know, 7-Eleven employees don’t have paid sick days either. Only when you have a union do you get those things. At another, one of the employees became very agitated when I asked my questions. He complained about people coming into the store — seven people in the past week, according to him — asking all of these questions about 7-Eleven. He said he was not the owner nor the manager, but told the other employee not to answer any of my questions, and told me I should leave.

This is where the unintended consequences come in. Many bodegas employ undocumented workers. With all of the attention being focussed on them — with the tours and the follow-up visits — I suspect many of these workers go home at night fearful they will lose their jobs, or be deported. Maybe it’s unlikely, but they don’t know who all of these people are, coming in all of a sudden, asking questions. It’s not my intention to expose undocumented workers, but to point out that focussing attention on these bodegas might end up hurting the people most vulnerable. I’m not sure what the No 7-Eleven people hope to achieve with their bodega walks, but if nothing else, they should know that they are affecting the workers in ways they may not have considered. It may be that they don’t care, given some of the comments I’ve seen in other blogs on this topic, and the fact that the leaders of this effort are small-business owners themselves. But if they don’t, it’s something the people in the neighborhood should care about.

If 7-Eleven is to be compared unfavorably to them, then we need to take a broader look at bodegas. All of the workers in the stores I visited are paid in cash. That means that not only are the owners not paying into Social Security, but no unemployment is paid either, so that when employees lose their jobs, they can’t claim unemployment benefits. They won’t even be able to prove they worked. I didn’t get to ask anyone if they were paid time-and-a-half for overtime, but I wouldn’t bet on it. 7-Eleven employees do not get paid sick days, no paid health insurance, and have no prospect for advancement.(2) The thing that puts them in a better position is that they work for a company with a visible profile, and have the chance to organize, the way Starbuck’s and Walmart employees have been.

The situation for workers is bad everywhere. To the degree that the people opposing 7-Eleven are apathetic to the conditions of the people who work in the bodegas, or at 7-Eleven, I cannot bring myself to support their effort.

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(1) Boar’s Head negotiates deals with retailers that in some cases make its meats the only premium brand in the store.
(2)
rocunited-7-eleven
Chart by Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

A Brief History of Lower East Side Development

In the decade and a half after 1877, with the economy expanding and immigration growing, the area experienced its most intense building boom. … New York’s ruling class has long sought to tame and reclaim the Lower East Side from its unruly working-class hordes. Only five years after the federal government severely curtailed European immigration, the Rockefeller-sponsored Regional Plan Association offered an extraordinary vision for the Lower East Side. The 1929 New York Regional Plan explicitly envisaged the removal of the existing population, the reconstruction of “high-class residences,” modern shops, a yacht marina on the East River, and the physical redevelopment of the Lower East Side highway system in such a way as to strengthen the connection with neighboring Wall Street…

The stock market crash of 1929, the ensuing Depression and World War II, the unprecedented wave of post-war suburban expansion, and eventually the New York City fiscal crisis all mitigated against the planned reinvestment and reconstruction of the Lower East Side as a high-class haven. …

Not until a further half-century of disinvestment, dilapidation and decline did the 1929 vision begin to be implemented. Even as yuppies and artists began to pick over the wreckage in the 1970s, everyone else was moving out.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 20-21.

Lower East Side Artists Were Not Immigrants

While it might be tempting to view this current situation as merely the latest development in an unchanging immigrant history of the Lower East Side, there are fundamental differences between the past and the present. The experience of European immigrants was one of gradual assimilation; for today’s minorities, it is one of attrition. Any attempt to equate these experiences would result in profound distortions. The immigrants admitted to this country from the mid-nineteenth century to the close of the First World War belonged to a displaced, “floating” labor force following capital, which had itself emigrated to the New World. Because most of these European immigrants were allowed a niche either in the closed circuitry of the immigrant economy or in the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, there were opportunities for many eventually to move out of the tenements and beyond the borders of the Lower East Side. The present inhabitants of the area have no equivalent role to play in today’s economy, and therefore “upward mobility” is not the reason that fifteen percent of the residents left the neighborhood between 1970 and 1980. The exodus was due instead to arson and the wholesale abandonment of buildings by landlords.

To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims. This is made especially clear by the display of wealth. At this moment in history artists cannot be exempted from responsibility. According to Carol Watson, the best thing the artists of this city can do for the people of the Lower East Side is to go elsewhere. She realizes, however, that the hardest thing to ask individuals is not to act in their own best interest. Nonetheless, they need to decide whether or not they want to be part of a process that destroys people’s lives. “People with choices,” she says, “should choose not to move to the Lower East Side.”

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 #http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html