Trivia Question

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evg-711-2013-1031

Westside Market Comes to the “East Village”

The Westside Market is opening a store on Third Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets.

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Westside Market on Third Avenue.

Local news sites and bloggers are beside themselves with giddiness, focussing on their family-owned, immigrant, rags-to-riches appeal: the usual Horatio Alger crap.

And eco-friendliness! What new store would be complete without eco-friendliness?

The Westside Market may have risen to its prominence by hard work, but it was the over-worked employees who did it. Over-worked and subjected to unsafe working conditions, such as what killed 20-year-old Raymundo Juarez-Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico, at their Broadway and 110th Street store. Police investigating the death said a safety switch on the compactor had been overridden.

    Patrick Purcell, the director of organizing for Local 1500, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said Mr. Juarez-Cruz’s accident was indicative of the working conditions endured by employees of many nonunion supermarkets.

    “These machines are something that you should be working with supervision after being properly trained,” Mr. Purcell said. He said that in stores where the union represents workers, there are clear signs and directions on the compactors. 1

* * *

When this same Upper West Side location closed in 2004, the Columbia Spectator wrote about how workers had been treated:

    Modou Dia, who worked at Westside for 17 years, said, “I work 72 hours a week for the last 10 years. I never got no holiday, no sick pay, no overtime, no vacation. No even ‘thank you.’ He no even tell us he gonna close [today].”

    Liapat Ali, who worked in the deli section at Westside for 17 years, said, “The store made money from selling expired food. They would repackage things after they expired and resell them. … I’m 51 years old. Where am I gonna go? No pension, no severance, nothing.” 2

* * *

Westside Market is not alone in this. The following information is based on a survey of over 100 workers in gourmet grocery stores in Chelsea and the West Village:

    Poverty wages, and no pay increases: The average reported wage was just $7.50 per hour, and cashiers started at $6.50 per hour – that’s $13,000 a year working full-time. The highest wage was $9.00 per hour. At many of the stores, workers did not receive annual pay increases.

    Few benefits, if any: Only a few stores offered health benefits. And in the few cases where health insurance was offered, the benefits were too expensive, workers had to be full-time, and had to wait 10-12 months to become eligible.

    Long hours and no over-time pay: Full-time workers often had to work up to 60 hours per week – with no overtime pay, a violation of state and federal wages laws. At the same time, many part-time workers wanted more hours but couldn’t get them.

    Discrimination: Women, undocumented immigrants, and workers with limited English proficiency earned the least and had to work the hardest.

    Little upward mobility: Most of the stores hired their managers from the outside, rather than promoting from within. As a result, entry-level workers were largely black or Latino, while most managers were white.

    Abusive working conditions: Breaks were short and infrequent. Almost no store allowed sick days. Sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats were frequent, especially against immigrants.3

But it’s eco-friendly!

* * *

None of this information was hard to come by. I found it in a short time using Google, while at work, no less! Local news sites and bloggers who take the time to interview the owners certainly have time to interview the workers too. Of course, as I found when interviewing workers at bodegas, they’re reluctant to speak, for fear of losing their jobs. But the bloggers could report this, and they could take the time to find out the working conditions existing in the stores they gush over.

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1Supermarket Worker Is Killed By Cardboard-Box Compactor,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
2Westside Market Closes its Doors After 30 Years on Broadway,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
3Is your Gourmet Grocery a Sweatshop? A Report on Working Conditions at Upscale Groceries in New York City, accessed on Oct. 4, 2014.

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.

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

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.

Class Struggle on First Avenue

On August 22, 2013, a week before the first national fast food workers walkout, Saru Jayaraman wrote in the New York Daily News:

    “Throughout his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders spoke out for racial justice and economic justice — seeing the two as inextricably bound together. When King was assassinated, he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, who were demanding a living wage, safe working conditions and an end to racial discrimination on the job. The fast-food workers staging walkouts across the United States today are the inheritors of that legacy.” 1

On the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, I have a story about this very struggle taking place in the “East Village”.

I was walking home from work last week, and I found myself walking eastwards on 7th Street. I don’t remember why I was this far west this evening — I’m usually at least on Avenue B by this point — but as I was crossing First Avenue I heard a lot of shouting from in front of the McDonald’s at 6th Street. It didn’t sound like frantic shouting, and remembering the walkout of December 5, I thought there might be something related taking place. So I walked down to see.

ev-mcdonalds
Outside McDonald’s, First Avenue, NYC, Jan. 14, 2014

There were about a dozen protesters outside the door of the McDonald’s. I stood back a bit, took my picture, and then asked the nearest person holding a sign if they had just walked out. I don’t know if she didn’t understand me, or just didn’t want to answer questions from someone she didn’t know, but one of their group came over and told me they were there to demand the job back of a worker who had walked out on December 5. We talked for a couple of minutes, I gave him my contact information so he could let me know of other events taking place, and I continued home.

As soon as I got home, I tweeted and emailed this photo, with a description of what was happening, to local bloggers and newspapers, those who routinely post information they receive about events taking place in the area. The only response was that one of them “favorited” the tweet, but did not retweet it. None of them reported it.

* * *

This is the neighborhood where workers are routinely vilified, when not ignored. Before the 7-Eleven opened on Avenue A, blog commenters wrote that they had no sympathy for the people who worked there, who would soon have to clean up the messes that they intended to make inside the store. As soon as it opened, they began to accuse the workers of harassing business owners in their vicinity, as I wrote about in Class Struggle on Avenue A, and later this:

evg-7eleven-worker-attack-20131213

Fantasy aside, this is a neighborhood that prides itself on desecrated restroom walls!


Mars Bar2

Meanwhile, in Washington Heights, when workers at Domino’s Pizza were fired after the walkout, local residents came out to support them, and the local newspaper reported it!


Domino’s Pizza, West 181 St., NYC, Dec. 9, 2013 3

* * *

At the same time, there seems to be no end to the reporting on the woes of Jerry Delakas, the owner/operator of a news stand at Astor Place. Over a dozen posts combined, this month alone, with appearances by CB3 representatives, City Council representatives, even the new Mayor granted him an audience! Of course, it’s all crass opportunism. It’s easy to come out in support of one individual, whose victory, if he wins, will not resonate any further. Whereas if one nameless worker’s rights are recognized and this worker is reinstated, the precedent will be set for the reinstatement of all of the workers who walked out, and walking out to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions will have the sanction of city officials. That’s not something that’s going to happen in this neighborhood!

This is the kind of story they have to be careful about covering. On the one hand, they’d like nothing more than to use low pay and arbitrary firings as a cudgel against a chain restaurant like McDonald’s, but they have to be careful not to actually advocate for workers, because the small businesses they champion engage in worse practices.

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1Fast-food workers carry King’s dream
2I am endlessly haunted by a sense of saudade and sehnsucht…
3Dishing it out at Domino’s

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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