Tag Archives: New York City

In Bed-Stuy, the Ghost of Robert Moses is Alive and Well

It’s tricky to write about gentrification. Beyond the genre’s clichés (can you avoid the well-meaning, clueless pour-over barista?), there’s often a tension lurking between the stories of real people (whether the displaced or the invaders) and the broader, structural conditions that produce their respective urban migration in the first place. At n+1, an excerpt from Brandon Harris’ new book on Bedford-Stuyvesant draws a nuanced picture of one of the current epicenters of gentrification in the U.S. He shows how complex this phenomenon is on the ground (with various configurations of race, class, and personal history coming into play), and how inextricable it is from processes that started decades ago, including the discriminatory urban-planning policies put into place by 20th-century “Master Builder” Robert Moses.

In late August, Highline Residential, a realty company that was spending significant amounts of money developing Bedford-Stuyvesant properties, released a promotional video called This Is Bed-Stuy, in which smiling blond twentysomethings give a “neighborhood tour.” Many longtime residents found the video—in which the pair of pale hosts sip expensive coffee and brunch cocktails at recently opened establishments while offering testimony to the neighborhood’s amenities and vibrancy—deeply offensive, seeing no mention of the institutions with which they associated Bed-Stuy. Highline Residential didn’t give a shit about them, the general sentiment went, other than wondering when they’d get the fuck out. Suddenly New York magazine and the Daily News were falling over themselves profiling entire blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant real estate, interviewing generations of owners and tenants, publishing op-eds by black journalism professors who had long lived in the district, and interviewing women who had been pushed out to East New York, or all the way to the Rockaways. [Robert] Moses, and the forces of history that animated his mindset, would drive the dispossessed right out of this city if the market allowed.

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A Love Affair with a Prince Soundtrack

At Catapult, Michael Gonzales offers an account of Prince’s career of hits with a touching personal history of the writer’s own years as a music journalist and his eight-year romantic relationship with publicist Lesley Pitts. The couple bonds over a shared love of books, cocktails, and, of course, Prince, before Pitts’ untimely death in 1999.

Playing a silly game with myself, I calculated that in 1999 I would be thirty-six years old, which to my then-nineteen-year-old self sounded ancient, dusty as an old record. If I’d had access to a crystal ball, what exactly would I see in my future? Would I be a famous novelist chatting with Dick Cavett on PBS? Would I be married to my college girlfriend Denise and living in Long Island with our badass kids? Or who knows, maybe Prince was on some Nostradamus shit and the sky really was going to turn purple, followed by destruction.

In the real 1999, while the planet didn’t perish that year, for me and the small world I inhabited, it all came to a screeching halt on August 3rd, two months after my thirty-sixth birthday, when I was riding in the back of the ambulance with my long-time girlfriend Lesley Pitts. Lying on a gurney, she was being rushed from our first-floor Chelsea apartment on 22nd Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital, after she complained of a headache and shortness of breath. Leaning over her, I grunted something reassuring.

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At McSorley’s: Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes, and Psychos

At Hazlitt, Rafe Bartholomew tells the story of his father, Geoffrey Bartholomew, who felt that his alcohol addiction and his bartending job at famed McSorley’s in New York City had prevented him from achieving the dream of becoming a writer. Bartholomew quit the booze but not the bar, and self-published a volume of poetry: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. In this poignant story of ambition, regrets, fathers, and sons, Rafe recounts how Bartholomew found his voice by mining the humanity of the “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos” who frequented the bar.

The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity.

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Is That a Pillowcase Full of Human Hair, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

a collection of wigs, in different lengths, styles, and h

Annie Correal’s New York Times story on the last of New York’s custom wigmakers has a little bit of everything—celebrity gossip, history, international trade, religious scandal, trash-talking Italian wig artists*, and the sentence “Nicholas Piazza keeps 600 pounds of hair in his Staten Island garage.”

The three-foot braids in Mr. Piazza’s garage came into his possession in the mid-1990s. One day, two Russian men appeared in his shop carrying suitcases. “Natural blonds, natural reds, straight off people’s heads,” he said. It was the kind of hair known in the industry as “liquid gold” — Caucasian hair untouched by Western chemicals, long and remy. “I say, ‘Whoa, fellows, you don’t have to go no further; let’s talk.’”

Of his Russian dealer’s shipments, Mr. Piazza recalled: “Sometimes it came stitched in pillows. Sometimes he would ship 20, 30 kilos of hair at a time. Sometimes I’d be going to an apartment in Brighton Beach at 2 in the morning or meeting a plane at Kennedy. He’d hand me a suitcase, and I’d hand him an envelope.”

* My new favorite insult: “hairpiece finagler.”

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The Fuzzy Chinese Face That Transcends Political Divisions

a sleepy panda bear that seems to be smiling

In New York City, Representative Carolyn Maloney and 450 rich people gathered at the Waldorf Astoria to raise money toward the one thing that brings everyone together: adorable, roly-poly panda bears. Politics be damned: everyone loves a panda. Carl Swanson wrangled an invitation to the Panda Ball to give you the inside scoop in New York magazine.

The event was to raise money — $50 million is the estimated goal — to bring a couple of pandas to live in Central Park. The dream had proved unbelievably flexible: Democrats for pandas, Republicans for pandas, and, above all, New York (and Chinese) money for pandas; pandas as cuddly “Can’t we all just get along?” political metaphors and icons of world trade; pandas for peace and mutual respect, and the branding opportunities that could bind rival empires together, but in any event pandas who could never be pressed into military service over the islands in the South China Sea. Pandas as crowd-pleasing trophies of city pride (the D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis zoos have them, but the Bronx Zoo last had them, and only briefly, in the late 1980s); pandas as paragons of a kind of toddlerlike, clumsy innocence — we must protect them! — and of conservationism (there’s a reason the World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its logo; without human support, it’d be hard for them to even survive the Anthropocene). This is all besides their being such adorable plushie fluff (for those fluffy people who were hoping to make their world a little fluffier again). Who knows why we are supposed to care about these sleepy-eyed creatures, really — though we instinctively tend to — much less how practical this grand panda dream is. The important thing seemed to be that, emerging bleary-eyed and anxious from the election season, New York’s powerful people had to care about something uncontroversial, had to gather together at charity galas and sit in those faux-bamboo chairs at the benefit for some reason. And suddenly the list of inoffensive causes had shrunk so radically that it seemed maybe a couple of fat black-and-white bears — who eat almost exclusively what is the world’s least nutritious vegetation and who take a rather lackadaisical approach to procreation — were the only thing these people could agree on anymore.

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Celebrating New York City’s Early Soul Food Celebrity Chef, Princess Pamela

To Taylor, Princess Pamela’s story is a case study in examining who controls narratives of excellence in cooking. For decades, the chains of influence and power in the culinary sphere have remained static and white, and so have those sentries who dictate the worth of certain people’s contributions. (That it took two white, male celebrity chefs to resurrect this book and assert its worth within the literary marketplace only confirms this.) “Food media tends not to focus on black stories and black cookbook authors,” Taylor says. “There are dozens more waiting to be told.”

It is a refrain I hear from countless others: that her narrative’s descent into obscurity is indicative of a greater systemic ill that plagues America’s culinary memory. It is a memory prone to historical amnesia. Look no further than Princess Pamela, a woman no one noticed was gone. It’s as if they weren’t even looking.

At Food52Mayukh Sen recounts the glory years of Manhattan’s best DIY soul food restaurant, Little Kitchen, and tries to understand the final years of its beloved proprietor, who left without a trace.

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When an Author Lives His Material

For boxing fans, Cuba holds an outsize mystique. Since Castro took power in 1959, the island has won more Olympic gold medals in boxing than any other country, but its fighters have for the most part resisted the temptation to defect to the United States, turning down multimillion­dollar offers in apparent loyalty to the revolution. Mr. Butler found the paradox worth exploring, and his book argues that the sport is as entwined with Cuba’s narrative of defiance toward America as much as anything else.

His adventures over the years were plentiful.  He interviewed Cuba’s most decorated boxers, finding them living in poverty: Several had sold their gold medals because they needed the money; another agreed to train him for $6 a day, and another decreed he chug a glass of vodka as a test of character. The book chronicles Mr. Butler’s fling with one of Castro’s granddaughters and the time he bet his life savings on a fight (he won). He also retraced Hemingway’s footsteps, talking his way into his literary idol’s home and traveling to a small fishing town to find the old man who inspired “The Old Man and the Sea,” who was then 102.

These days, you can find him in Central Park. Another tune started to play as his student agonized through push­ups. “You’d see these boxers dominate at the Olympics, and then they’d just disappear,” he said. “They were fighting for something more important than money. I had to go find out why.”

In The New York Times, Alex Vadukul tells the story of Brin­-Jonathan Butler, a successful boxing writer who’s extensively documented boxing in Cuba, only to become part of the story by teaching the sport in New York’s Central Park.

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Butches, Femmes, and Mobsters: The Three Lives of Malvina Schwartz

So he put me behind the bar, and I was in full drag at this point: pants, vest, shirt, tie, short hair. I worked like that for a year. Then the liquor board came in and thought I looked too young. One reached across the bar, touched my face and said, “He isn’t even a shaver!” But Ernie had all the connections. He took the men in the back, paid them off, and from then on, he said, “I’ll have you tend bar from eight to twelve. After midnight a girl cannot be behind the bar.” Because now my cover was blown: I was a girl.

At Hazlitt, read Hugh Ryan on the oral history of drag king Malvina Schwartz, a.k.a. Buddy Kent, a.k.a. Bubbles Kent.

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The City Born Great: Fiction by N.K. Jemisin

This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.

Duh, right? Everyone who’s visited a real city feels that, one way or another. All those rural people who hate cities are afraid of something legit; cities really are different. They make a weight on the world, a tear in the fabric of reality, like . . . like black holes, maybe. Yeah. (I go to museums sometimes. They’re cool inside, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is hot.) As more and more people come in and deposit their strangeness and leave and get replaced by others, the tear widens. Eventually it gets so deep that it forms a pocket, connected only by the thinnest thread of . . . something to . . . something. Whatever cities are made of.

But the separation starts a process, and in that pocket the many parts of the city begin to multiply and differentiate. Its sewers extend into places where there is no need for water. Its slums grow teeth; its art centers, claws. Ordinary things within it, traffic and construction and stuff like that, start to have a rhythm like a heartbeat, if you record their sounds and play them back fast. The city . . . quickens.

At Tor.com, read The City Born Great, new fiction from N.K. Jemisin, winner of a Hugo award for her novel, The Fifth Season.

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The Pleasures of Protest: Taking on Gentrification in Chinatown

Esther Wang | Longreads | August 2016 | 17 minutes (4,223 words)


On a cold night in the early winter months of 2007, I was with a group of tenants — all Latino and Chinese immigrant families — clustered together in front of their home, two buildings on Delancey Street that straddled the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We were there, shivering in the cold, to protest their landlords.

Ever since they bought the two buildings in 2001, the owners of 55 Delancey and 61 Delancey Street — Nir Sela, Michael Daniel, and 55 Delancey Street Realty LLC — had been attempting to kick out the Chinese and Latino families who had lived there, but in recent months, the situation had come to a head. They had begun aggressively bringing tenants to housing court, often on trumped up charges (one lawsuit argued that, based on the number of shoes displayed inside the apartment, it was obvious that more than just one family lived there); offered several families significant buyouts to leave; and had refused to make basic repairs. For stretches at a time, and in the coldest days of winter, there had been no heat or hot water.

That evening, huddled in our winter coats and clutching hand-made signs, we waited for the arrival of one of the owners, who had agreed to meet with us and discuss our demands.

I had been volunteering with CAAAV, a tenant organizing group in Chinatown, and in the months prior, I had spent many of my nights going from apartment to apartment, often with Zhi Qin Zheng, a resident of the building as well as an organizer at CAAAV, helping to painstakingly document their living conditions and assisting residents in calling the city’s 311 hotline so that each housing code violation would be on record.

Their apartments were cramped, even rundown, but for these families, it was home, and they wanted to stay. Over the years, each building had become a small community, one where people felt comfortable leaving their doors open and asking each other to watch their children. “If we left, where would we go?” Sau Ying Kwok, a feisty grandmother with a nimbus of frizzy hair, wondered aloud. She had become one of the more vocal leaders in the building, along with the soft-spoken You Liu Lin, a man in his middle years with a penchant for Brylcreeming his hair as well as shoving bottles of water and perfect Fuji apples into my hands whenever I knocked on his door.

I often questioned why I was there on those trips. I had moved to the city three years prior from Texas, fresh out of college and possessing a vague notion that I would put my Asian American Studies degree to use and, in the words of 1960s radicals inspired by Mao Zedong, “serve the people.” Read more…