Gentrification

In Defense of In The Heights

A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:

“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”  

“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”

“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”

“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”

“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”

“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”

You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.

Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”

Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.

During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.

In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.

edwinroman.com

One.

Coney Island, Summer 2016: A Photo Essay

I am a native New Yorker and have lived through various post-war eras: the burnt-out, crime-ridden city of the 1970s; the thriving art scene of the 1980s; the Giuliani 1990s that essentially killed nightlife and, by proxy, the once thriving art scene of the 1980s; and the post 9-11 Bloomberg era that fostered the current state of crushing gentrification. One place I was hoping that would remain immune to the nightmare that is gentrification is Coney Island.

I have LOVED Coney Island for my entire life. The most interesting New Yorkers are not found on the Highline, but on the Coney Island boardwalk. Ten years ago, a close friend offered to take me out on my birthday. I said that I wanted to spend the day at Coney Island. He looked at me and said, “ I didn’t think you were the Six Flags type.” I replied, “You’re right, I am not. Coney Island is nothing like Six Flags.” My friend, who wasn’t from New York City, had never been to Coney Island. In short, he still occasionally  mentions our day there a decade ago. He came to understand what I love about Coney Island: unlike Six Flags, it is completely random, unexpected and uniquely a New York City experience.

I visited Coney Island in July 2016 after an absence of about three years. I was surprised by what I found: an Applebee’s opened as well as other “trendy” and “high end” establishments. I prefer the independent, mom and pop establishments that serve delicious knishes, cotton candy and corn on the cob. This past summer, I returned several times with my camera to capture the real Coney Island of real New Yorkers before it becomes indistinguishable from any other big box amusement park or worse, a resort for the rich. I lovingly present this photo essay of Coney Island, Summer 2016.

FELLOW PHOTOGRAPHERS

I was not the only one trying to capture the rhythm of life here.

Photographing in Coordinated Colors.

Photos in Blue.

People Watching the People Watcher.

People Watching the People Watcher.

Capturing the Boardwalk.

Capturing the Boardwalk.

MUSIC

Coney Island is not just about the sites, it offers a lot with regards to sounds and music. Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, on most Friday nights during the summer months, hosts Karaoke and other musical talent contests.

Boardwalk Bucket Drummers.

Boardwalk Bucket Drummers.

Father Daughter Karaoke.

Father Daughter Karaoke.

 

Supergirl Sings!

Supergirl Sings!

Impassioned Karaoke.

Impassioned Karaoke.

RIDES AND SITES

There is a lot to see and photograph. Rides, scenery and people!

Loopy and Framed.

Loopy and Framed.

Coney Island Color Splash.

Coney Island Color Splash.

Beer Belly.

Beer Belly.

Roller Views.

Roller Views.

Boardwalk Waves.

Boardwalk Waves.

Coney Island Corn.

Coney Island Corn.

Scream Dreams.

Scream Dreams.

Spook-a-Rama.

Spook-a-Rama.

Only One Cyclone.

Only One Cyclone.

Sunset from the Top of the Wonder Wheel.

Sunset from the Top of the Wonder Wheel.

Neon Cyclone.

Neon Cyclone.

Car 7.

Car 7.

 

PEOPLE WATCHING

The most interesting aspect of Coney Island are the truly colorful people.

Carnival Painting.

Carnival Painting.

American Birdies.

American Birdies.

Smiles.

Amused.

Supergirl Strolls.

Supergirl Strolls.

Boardwalk Chanel.

Chanel on the Boardwalk.

Colleagues Meet.

Colleagues Meet.

Parkour on the Beach.

Parkour on the Beach.

MY FAVORITE ONE

I love this photo because it happened purely by chance: I framed it in such a way that only the last three letters of the word Cyclone appear with only one passenger on the ride. I was amazed when I got home and downloaded it. What are the chances? The first thought I had when I saw this was that sometimes you alone, are enough.

One.

One.

 

 

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in.

The Pusillanimous Art of Lucien Smith Burns the Bronx

Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%. 

How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.

On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.

Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.

Earlier this year, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed Mr. Smith where he noted:

“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”

When asked about future shows he responded:

“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”

This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:

“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”

Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:

“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”

Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.

In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”

What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.

—–

Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in. http://www.luciensmithstudio.com/?s=ls-581-racist-cartoon

A Walk Down 56th Street: A Photo Collection

I have previously written about how former mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg have sucked the personality out of New York City and essentially transformed Manhattan into a gated community for the rich. Now that mindset is spreading to the outer boroughs: take out a subway map and use it to chart the future course of gentrification. Even subway stations are getting gentrified! So you can imagine my surprise when, earlier this year, I walked down West 56th Street and saw so much real New York personality. Yes, one block away from the 57th Street detailed in the Moyers & Company documentary The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy. Fortunately, I had my camera to document it because who knows how long it will last. What surprised me about me this street was how unchanged it was: I was a student at John Jay College during the late 1980’s when one of the campus buildings was on 56th and 10th Avenue. While the surrounding neighborhood and John Jay campus have changed significantly, I found that 56th Street, from 8th to 11th Avenues, was relatively unchanged. I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I enjoyed rediscovering this street.

Rusted Banister

Rusted Banister

Flower Pot on 56th

Flower Pot on 56th

Dog on 56th

Dog on 56th. First he barked, then he posed.

Wall Molding

Wall Molding

High End Housing being built right on top of the 7 Train, which likely has homeless riders on it.

Dramatic Increase in Homeless on Streets of NYC (PBS MetroFocus Video PLUS)

Everyday, during my commute from my home in Queens to my workplace in the Bronx, I am awed by the numerous apartment buildings being constructed in Long Island City, Harlem and the South Bronx for “high end” renters. The featured image of this blog entry depicts this construction in Long Island City during the summer of 2015. If you want to see the physical route of gentrification in NYC, simply take out a subway map. Concurrently, I am awed and saddened by the numbers of homeless people I see in the subways EVERYDAY.

33rd Street Homeless Man

33rd Street Homeless Man

Until 2005, New York City’s primary resource for addressing homelessness was to give these families and individuals priority for federal housing programs (public housing and/or Section 8). For 25 years, these resources had been a proven way to move families out of shelters, off the streets and into long-term, permanent homes. In 2005, the billionaire mayor, “king” Mike Bloomberg, changed this and homeless families and individuals were given CITY-funded short-term rental subsidies known as the Advantage program. These short-term subsidies were ineffective and wasteful. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than one of every three formerly-homeless families returned to the shelters after their Advantage program subsidies ended. The Bloomberg administration then terminated the Advantage program in 2011 and refused to replace it with the successful federal programs ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/michael-bloomberg-homeless-population/ ). For the first time since modern homelessness began in the 1980’s, there is no housing assistance in place to help homeless families move from shelters to permanent housing.

Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, discusses the current state of homelessness in New York City with MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman. Click here to watch the video: Dramatic Increase in Homeless on Streets of NYC

Keeping in mind my daily commute, also watch this video where Bill Moyers explores how the changing skyline of Manhattan is the physical embodiment of how money and power impact the lives and neighborhoods of every day people.

Also keeping in mind what I mentioned earlier in this blog entry about the route of gentrification, read this previous blog entry where I discussed “The Gentrification of a Subway Station” : https://theartistworks.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/gentrification-of-a-subway-station/

Turnstyle

Gentrification of a Subway Station

Yesterday I attended a comic convention at pier 94 in Manhattan. I took the subway and disembarked at Columbus Circle, which was once a part of my daily life when I was a student at John Jay College. Because pier 94 is at 55th Street, I walked the long, cavernous part of the station that allows you to exit at 56th Street. It had been quite a few years since I walked through that part of the station and was appalled by what I discovered.

All of the thriving businesses that once operated there were gone.

Notably missing was a vintage style barbershop and a very busy newsstand. Also missing was a charming tiled mural created by grade school children titled, Hello Columbus. Instead, I found empty storefronts with homeless people camped out in front.  The exception was an office called Turnstyle (a “clever” amalgamation of the words turnstile and style), where a business could rent out one of the storefronts.

Homeless Individual Sleeping In Front of a Turnstyle Storefront

Homelessness is all consuming.

The following day, I visited the Turnstyle website and discovered these nuggets of information: 30 shops, 22 million people. $135,000 average income.

Really? $135,00.00? I think the people who work at my alma mater, Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, Fordham University and the thousands of retail, hotel and restaurant workers that also use this station could contest this number.

What really burned me about the web site was how it implied that there was nothing there before. I have previously written about how the Giuliani / Bloomberg era created the current state of gross inequality in New York City while killing ethnic and local flavors. Turnstyle is congruent with this.

Once upon a time, the subway was the inexpensive way to get around. Lately it is catering to and fostering the wealthy. Did you know that the MTA is planning to do away with the MetroCard and implement some sort of bankcard? This means that in addition to the fare, you are going to have to pay fees to a bank. Cash is going out of “style”! Fare increases and stagnant salaries are already catastrophic to the working poor. This tactic reminds me of McDonald’s paying workers with debit cards loaded with fees.  There is also a strong connection with gentrification and subway lines. Take out a subway map and circle any subway line with relatively easy access to Manhattan and you can almost predict where gentrification will happen next.

A recent article in The New Yorker about urban blight in the West Village notes:

“The fate of small businesses in the West Village may be a local issue, but it is one with large implications. For one thing, cities remain major drivers of economic growth, and small businesses continue to form a larger part of G.N.P. than their larger cousins. But there is a deeper issue as well. Since the nineteen-sixties, when Americans faced an extreme wave of urban blight, they have understood rising property values as a reliable measure of recovery. But everything can go too far, and at some point high property values may begin to destroy local economic activity.”

While I agree with this, I would like to SHAME The New Yorker for the accompanying photograph that further perpetuates the myth of urban blight as young men of color wearing hoodies.

As the Turnstyle website notes, there is no shortage of high-end stores in the Columbus Circle area. However, they failed to realize that the 1% who live in the neighborhood do not occupy as much space in the subway as the 99% who commute there. Turnstyle AND the MTA have likely created urban blight underground by forcing out the businesses that once offered an affordable haircut, shoeshine and local art.

High end is not necessarily a sign of progress.

Recommended viewing:

The Long, Dark Shadows of Plutocracy

————————-

Luckily, my walk from the train station to pier 94 was not a total loss because I did see this burst of real New York City personality on 56th street.

Garden on 56th Street

A lovely garden located on 56th Street.