Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One Big Suburb

I’ve never lived in the suburbs, so I can’t truly explain why I don’t like them. The closest I came was living two years in State College, PA, which is not a suburb in any traditional sense, but most of the town, once outside the downtown/campus area, does seem like a suburb. Not quite rural, not quite urban. Higher income level among most people. Chain stores geared towards the upper side of the middle class. Folks acutely aware of property values (and what it quietly takes to maintain them).

No, when it comes to my disdain for suburbs, I’m usually referring to a suburban mentality: the concept of spoiled people living under the mistaken impression that they have the best of both worlds (rural and urban life) when the truth is they’re in some strange, expensive netherworld that didn’t exist until the 1950s. Traffic is often as bad as in the city, as is the feeling of being crammed in. But you can have your little green space, and occasionally be reminded that driving half an hour could deposit you in a truly rural area (where you wouldn’t want to live because you consider yourself somehow superior to those folks).

What alarms me most these days is the realization that New York City, in its white neighborhoods, has become a suburb … of itself. I’m talking that mentality more than anything, but I know when I’m around it. Here’s an instance that happened yesterday on my way to the gym. Sunday morning, hustling, as I always do, to get there early so I can set up the heavy bags. This is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan: very pricey, residential area, I’d guess your average studio goes for around $2K a month? I wouldn’t know. All I know is you need to make truckloads of money and/or be totally nuts to live there. Because the quality of your life will not be equivalent to the amount of money spent on rent or mortgage.

So, I’m hustling along Lexington Avenue, walking briskly. I pass by a bike shop and notice a little kid rolling his bike with training wheels out of the shop. He’s happy, really enjoying himself, has a little helmet on, I feel good seeing him. I walk past him as he’s having a hard time getting his foot/pedal coordination together. After I pass, I can see a middle-aged guy near the end of the block – obviously the kid’s father. The usual prickly-looking, WASP-y Manhattan twat: running shorts, goony bar shades, knit shirt, reeking of self importance, kind of guy who prints out daily agendas for his vacations and gets mad as a hornet when they’re not adhered to. I can hear him berating/encouraging his son: “Come on, Dylan, we’re running late, left foot, right foot, how hard can it be.”

He sounds exasperated, and I can sense the kid’s mood has darkened, now mentally shitting his pants because he’s “making Dad angry.” He eventually finds the pedals and starts picking up speed – I’m hearing all this, not seeing it, listening to the kid whimper “sorry, Dad” and such. I come up on the corner, and the walk light is clearly on – has been for a few seconds, is not flashing. In my peripheral vision, I can see a cab slow down and ease to a halt a few feet from the cross walk. I don’t break stride. No need to.

As I’m going through the cross walk, I hear Dad blurt out in an angry voice, “Look, Dylan! That’s how NOT to cross a street! That guy didn’t even look to see if anyone was coming! Don’t ever cross a street that way! Always look, and look twice, when you cross a street!”

This prick knows I can hear him; I’m only about 12 feet away. He’s barking at his kid loud enough that I could have heard him halfway down the block. And I don’t think this guy is smart enough to realize he’s exposing his kid to a much more dangerous behavior than anything to do with traffic lights. And that is: don’t humiliate strangers, because they might hurt you. Never mind that there was no need for me to do some hokey complete head turn to look at a cab that I could clearly see in my side vision was coming to a halt (and I’d have surely seen a speeding cyclist or runner, too).

What should I have done? Stopped, explained to this putz the wonders of peripheral vision (mine isn’t anything special … we all have it)? Would that have mattered to a guy like this? Run over and deck him? That would be great – possible assault charge, and this poor kid crying while Daddy watches small birds circle his head as he lays cross-eyed on the sidewalk. Indulge in Dad’s assholery and mutter “go fuck yourself” as I pass?

No. I just kept walking. That’s what you do in the city, unless there’s a real need to set someone straight. Nothing would be gained by engaging a douchebag like that in a conversation. There are no conversations with people like that – only monologues. His kid will figure out, sooner or later, that Dad’s a dick. Of course, I’d also wager he’ll be just like him one day, despite many passionate teenage assertions that this will never happen.

It occurred to me afterwards: that whole incident was suburban, not urban. You had a guy in his affluent neighborhood, thinking the world is spinning around him, living a life that is the exact antithesis of the city, i.e., a place where you should innately grasp that danger is always present. A cab stopping at a red light is not dangerous. Saying something derogatory to a passing stranger could be. It speaks to that sort of bullshit “safeness” one moves to the suburbs for that this guy didn’t grasp the possibilities of the situation, that I could have: a. been some nutcase; and b. been some nutcase who went off his nut and rained hell on his life in the next few moments.

I run into this sort of smugness all the time in Manhattan. If I took a time machine back to, say, 1950, or 1978, I would rarely encounter that attitude. (The attitude I’d encounter might be just as offensive, but not this smarmy sort of suburban privilege.) What’s worse, I can surely feel it creeping it into my neighborhood in Astoria. As noted, anywhere you find white folks living en masse in New York City, rest assured, sooner or later, real-estate vultures will start circling, and these suburban vampires will creep in over time and suck the life from any given neighborhood.

I wouldn’t even say “suck the life from” as that’s not what happens. What happens is that slow gentrification osmosis, the renters slowly becoming the property owners, the kids morphing from street toughs into private-school kids in blazers. That takes decades to occur. Right now in Astoria, we’re seeing the ascension of the renting class, the neighborhood swarming with deeply inexperienced white twenty- and sometimes even thirtysomethings who think it’s normal to spend $1K a month on a studio apartment in what’s still a fairly predominate working-class neighborhood. I’d say at first most of these people were made acutely aware of this, and a lot of them moved straight out, recognizing they were in the wrong place. But enough stayed. And then more stayed. Articles got written in all the right places. I’m convinced the Beer Garden just north of Astoria Boulevard has served as a magnet to so many of these people, drawing in that bozo contingent of Manhattanites yearning for their frat-party days at school, and instead finding quiet neighborhood streets for them to piss on at two in the morning after a hard night of beer pong. Like dogs marking their territory, they moved here.

The wrong people moved here. Plenty of white folks moved here before me in 1997, and I can assure you, they got a full dose of Astoria as-is … with the beautiful proposition that since they were living in a gritty working-class neighborhood, they were going to pay sane rent and not have their asses kissed by the locals.

And that’s the crucial difference between “intelligent” folks who moved here back then and in the past few years. We expected to move to a gritty neighborhood and acclimate ourselves to it, become part of it, somehow fit in with the lay of the land. These people expect to move into a place that acclimates to them, which it hadn’t for years, but you can see plenty of retail signs of that slow bending to their will. Their sense of expectation is revolting, like something you’d see in a small, spoiled child. This is upbringing. Values. In short, the suburbs.

What changed? Virtually nothing. The neighborhood is roughly the same. Just more of those wondrous white, college-educated white folks, of which I’m one, although I should point out I’d have never moved here had the rents back then been anywhere near what they have been since 2000 or so. I’ve never been caught up in a gentrifying neighborhood and had no idea how genuinely inhumane this process is, the inherent, putrid racism and classism that’s part of it. The quality of life these folks bring to this neighborhood, to me, is no better than what was already here. It surely isn’t twice as good, thus rents and property values being twice as high.

These people are not desirable: they’re careless, the quality I dislike about them most. They just don’t genuinely give a shit about anything. Not in a dangerous way. In a way that suggests they come from some sterile environment where money to burn is a given with them and everyone they know. And they have no empathy for anyone not functioning on that financial level. (It’s not so much that they don’t empathize – it’s just that poor people, you know, they’re not, like, fun.) Their lives make no sense without monetary value attached to everything, thus the concept of paying far too much for a shithole apartment in an oddly unfriendly neighborhood makes sense to them. (And Astoria can be unfriendly in a strange way – not in a horrifying way, more in an annoying, 718 way – it’s the first thing I felt when I moved here and still have issues with, but I’ve honestly felt that as more of a “Queens” thing I’ve sense in other neighborhoods, too, in the borough.)

Their values, so closely tied in with money, eventually steamroll everything in their path. It’s class warfare of the worst kind (the kind you can’t fight), like a quiet neutron bomb slowly going off over the course of years. The landscape stays the same, but the people who were once there are gone. I don’t think the Greeks here grasp that cold fact and what’s going on. In a few years, they won’t want to live here. The Greek restaurants, diners and social clubs will slowly disperse and fade. The people they’ve known all their lives will slowly pass on or move out. Sure, those lucky enough to own their properties will make a small fortunes selling their over-valued homes, but where do they go? They’re basically going to sell their neighborhood, and their heritage, out from underneath themselves … to a bunch of people who don’t give a fuck about anything but status.

You can see this happening with local businesses. There are empty storefronts all along Steinway, the main shopping drag in Astoria, not because of “the economy” or what have you, but because the chiseling bastards who own these properties are waiting for big-name chains to roll in and pay extortionate retail rents. They don’t want Mom-and-Pop restaurants or delis; they want Bed Bath and Beyond, or Trader Joe’s. You know, shit-ass chain stores for spoiled suburbanites … who want their home transferred straight into the heart of the city so they don’t have to do their real shopping at generic malls when they visit Mom and Step Pop. (Places like Trader Joe’s are just as revolting as Walmart – they’re just smaller, slower on the draw and geared towards an audience that’s essentially dumber than the Walmart crowd because they’re college-educated, but can’t grasp they’re being played the same way. I tip my cap to that chain’s founders for their ingenuity.)

Recently, a longstanding produce stand called Top Tomato closed down on Ditmars Boulevard. It was pretty shocking – the place had been there for years, a long store taking up half the block, open 24 hours, sort of a neighborhood staple. (I didn't like shopping there -- the female [not American] Indian cashiers were oddly indifferent and sometimes flat-out rude.) Why did it close? Their decades-long lease came due, and you know the landlord, these days, isn’t going to say how about a 6% raise? No, I’m guessing their rent would have doubled or tripled. That strip of retail now sits barren, odd-looking in the heart of a neighborhood. But, I’m sure there’s an over-priced coffee shop or suburban chain on the horizon, and you’ll have dozens of people gushing over its arrival, happy that the same sort of bland, pricey junk they bought in college and at home is now just around the corner.

One of the few places I drink in the neighborhood, O’Hanlon’s Bar, just underneath the Ditmars train station, now has a new neighbor in a retail spot that’s changed hands a few times in the past two years. Was originally a small Greek restaurant that made great gyros. Can’t recall what it was after that. But a shiny new bar has opened up, numerous widescreen TVs hanging over the bar, bright lights, wide open doors, booths, glitzy wall hangings, shining taps.

It’s one of those “fuck you” openings, purposely next to O’Hanlon’s, which has been there for decades, and I mean before World War II. Some folks think O’Hanlon’s is a dive, and I’m glad they feel that way, because they don’t know shit about bars. It does attract a more working-class crowd in the late afternoon, guys getting off work, having beers, watching Jeopardy and such. And it shifts slightly at night to a younger crowd, but real people for the most part, not frat-boy goons or flip-flop hipsters. You can walk in there, get a drink, sit back, and no one’s going to fuck with or look down on you. It has a good jukebox. I’ve never had a problem there. (Although admittedly, they’re cheap on the drink specials, so I generally find myself having drinks with friends at various Lower East Side bars that have happy-hour specials ensuring $3.00 pints up to 8:00 pm, which is a great price anywhere for imported beer on tap. And I’m always in the bag by eight.)

Most people who drink at O’Hanlon’s will shun this new place like the plague. I doubt I’ll ever set foot in there either. But I checked a neighborhood website and have already seen folks gushing over it … for no obvious, stated reason … other than that it’s open and it’s geared towards moneyed gentry. The kind of people who would shun O’Hanlon’s like the plague. Not recognizing that bar has more to do with the neighborhood, the heart of where they live, than they ever will. If this new place had drink specials like $3.00 pints and such, hell, yes, I would give it a shot. But it won’t. These places never do in Astoria. I’m guessing the big-screen TVs mean a sports-bar crowd, but who knows. It’s way too flashy and out-of-place for the old neighborhood … but probably just right for people who don’t mind dropping $8.00 on a pint.

Hell, even the older gay bars in Queens have been traditionally neighborhood places. Every Saturday on my way back from the gym, I pass by The Albatross, a gay bar just north of Astoria Boulevard, more than likely a one-stop shop for all the closeted gay corporate gents on their way home on the Long Island Expressway to pop in and remind themselves who they really are. It’s a pretty typical neighborhood bar, no frills, save it has a gay clientele – frankly, if I was gay, I’d be there all the time, just seems like a perfect kick-back place for folks to go to and feel like they belong, without getting gouged or overly stylized.

This goes a lot deeper for me than bars and stores and apartments. The gentrification I’ve seen going on, and have actually been caught up in for once (after years of living in a Bronx neighborhood that doesn’t appear to be in any danger of this happening) just goes against my grain, which is not working class, no matter what you think, but just the simple realization that people with money are no better than people without money. You don’t have to be working-class to see that. If that sounds like simple common sense to you, I can tell you it isn't. Surely not in New York.

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