As the No. 1 train rattles and rolls, I focus on the man to my left, dressed in pinstripes with earbuds in place, reading The Wall Street Journal. The blare of reggaeton, emitted from the headphones of the boy on my right, doesn’t affect him. The fashionable young black woman in her leather boots across from me leafs through a magazine, her earpieces hidden behind her hair. A frail, toothless woman makes her way down the aisle, Please, food, money, anything. Please. A few coins are surrendered. My fellow passengers remain oblivious, listening to the soundtrack they’ve chosen to accompany their individual lives. They’ve successfully created their own little islands within the island.
New York is the greatest city, clearly the center of the universe, right? At least, plenty of people like to remind us how great it once was. You know them: the tough ones hardened by the muggings, blackouts and crooked landlords. They remember the Tompkins Square Park riots, waved to Keith Haring on the street, heard Patti Smith at CB’s. That New York is continually mourned as a past no longer possible. It arose from a confluence of economic forces: a bankrupt city left to decay and an influx of creative people who on the move could almost afford to make it their home. But, to put it simply, it was a city where consumption did not yet rule and lifestyles were not defined only by one’s purchases.
The city was abandoned by the state and federal governmentpurposely left to dieso that it could be revived as one of the greatest marketplaces on the planet. In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains that in New York City all forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favor of individualism, private property, personal responsibility and family values.
He recounts the economic reality of the urban struggles of New York City in the 1970s after daily life had become bleak. The creation of a good business climate was such a priority that public resources were used to build appropriate infrastructures for business. The city’s elite institutions were then mobilized to sell the image of the city as a cultural center and tourist destination, he explains. This is when T-shirts with I LOVE NY appeared. And we sure as hell bought them.
The city’s mythology continues to attract people from around the world. Every day talented young people, experienced men and ambitious women searching for the possibility of a supposed urban experience decide to call New York City home. However, the glue that keeps the city togetherthe creative types along with the diverse working classes (on whose backs the city is built)are being expelled. No sweat: Those remaining have quickly claimed their spaces. But as the city changes and a superior quality of life becomes the paramount concern, we experience a loss. The difference between bourgie consumers (seeking familiarity and comfort) and those people who managed to produce and create an unquantifiable urban experience is clear: the latter participate and share in shaping the city while the others consume and soon discard.
Not only was the previous decadence and violence (now valued as supremely authentic) allowed and encouraged in order to polarize and segregate New Yorkers, it became an instrument by politicians to wage an attack on the spontaneous use of public space. The idea that people wanted to be safe has allowed those in power to gain more control and has transformed the city into a massive mall. And when you visit the mall, you don’t have to be conscious of your surroundings because they appear safe and secure.
And yet, pockets of resistance remain. Last spring I watched Taylor Mac’s performance piece, Red Tide Blooming, an allegory about the creation of a homogenized world, in which Mac painted himself green, taped his penis between his legs and played a hermaphrodite battling the forces of gentrification. The central perpetrator of this battle of ideologies was a comfy sweaterlike any number that could be bought easily and cheaply at the Gapwhich sought world domination. The point of the performance was to provoke discomfortfor Mac, and many other performance artists, uncomfortability is a creative space.
New York’s urbanity is currently contained in specific designated areas. Think about it: search for a bench to sit on and read, a place to people watch and eat a sandwich. Unless you trek to one of the public parks (where surveillance cameras allow the state to watch your every move), you must go and spend money on a coffee, loiter around a retail outlet or cop a squat on the side of a corporate bunker that’s raised too high for social gathering. Public space has been erased, maligned, contained.
I resisted moving to New York for many years. While living in other places, I enjoyed visiting and plundering NYC for its diverse resources and artistic opportunities; I enjoyed the crush of bodies that looked and sounded different than my own when they congregated around this square or that park. I was a tourist, never investing in a neighborhood or community for too long but still reaping the benefits. However, even after joining the rank and file, I have come to understand that so many here remain tourists. Urban culture traditionally, (perhaps idealistically) resisted the segregation of individuals into separate communities. It forced people to interact. It was uncomfortable.
The infrastructure of our city continues to allow for the possibility of an urban lifestyle, but this urbanity must always be practiced. In many ways the urban quality has been eroded until we have been left with a ghost of its former vitality, and the sub-urban seeps in and is welcomed because of its seemingly innocuous and comforting promises. In a time when everything is a lifestyle choice (Are you a Whole Foods luncher? a Kim’s video renter? a Starbucks drinker/music buyer?) that determines one’s personal style, habits and tastes, it’s almost impossible to imagine that living in a city is a style of living in itself. An urban lifestyle is indeed a choice, a style of thinking, a way of imagining the city. It involves a participation and acceptance of the quirks and nuisances, as well as the benefits and conveniences. It’s a choice we must make collectively. Can you unplug and join us?