Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities. New Year's Day Edition

There is a special thrill that comes from having one's private take on reality validated by a famous person voicing a belief that one supposed was utterly unique to oneself.

I, for one, often find my opinions at odds with the prevailing wisdom or mainstream ideology. Since I was a child, I often disagreed with widely-held beliefs or found myself confused -- or disturbed -- by much that passed for accepted wisdom.

Though it cemented my sense of isolation (and enforced my understanding of myself as an outsider), I also prided myself on being a free-thinker and believer in social justice, egalitarianism and progressive values.

As I came of age as a kid in Queens, the isle of Manhattan beckoned beyond my bedroom window in Douglaston. From my weekend and holiday forays there as a grade school kid and then as a high school student on the Upper East Side, I knew that "the city" was the place for me -- buzzing not only with exciting things to do but with people who thought as I did or believed in challenging the status quo.

Manhattan became truly mine at the age of 15, in 1976 when I began commuting there during the school week. I would love walking for miles, taking in the street theatre, the costumes and postures, the streetscapes, the rich, meaty stew of languages and accents, many of them regional. I would love eavesdropping in diners and cafes, hearing opinions fly around me, often colliding in mid-air. I read New York magazine, The New Yorker and The Village Voice cover to cover, giving the ads as much weight as the articles.  I envied the denizens of cool, so diverse, so socially-evolved, so free, so close to the essence of everything that was important. I rode the subway down to the Lower East Side which was still filled with Judaica shops and kosher restaurants and old socialist hangouts and the famous discount clothing stores to soak in the tangible culture of my people. I visited newly-happening SoHo and wandered through the art galleries. I especially loved the quirky theaters and music clubs, the thin, scruffy creative types lurking around, making marvelous music and art. I haunted bookstores and the New York Public Library, reading with my eyes, with my ears, with my pores, with my heart, soul and entire being, learning how to remake myself -- unmake myself! -- into the person I was really meant to be.

The Manhattan of my first love was Taxi Driver-Manhattan, dangerous and romantic, gritty, egalitarian, real. The Manhattan that seduced me was cynical about conspicuous consumerism; turned its collective nose up at possessions and privilege (except for intellectual privilege). That magical kingdom valued experience and access to interesting ideas and above all, creativity. Alas, the city that I loved had a shelf-life of about ten years...and then the disco-era values and the rising cost of real estate began changing the character of my Paradise Island, driving out artists and people with interesting but terrible-paying jobs or lifelong students or marginal characters who might also be great poets or novelists or musicians or anyone not rich or not on public assistance.

Though I secured a place for myself on this island, so many others like me were voted off.

They made way for the people we were suddenly supposed to admire and aspire to be -- the super-affluent. Nearly overnight, having an interesting but terrible-paying job seemed stupid, immature or pathetic. Losers had trouble paying their (rising) rent but the new Manhattanites -- Masters and Mistresses of the Universe -- seemingly had no trouble subsidizing their swell existence.

You see, no matter our defiant insistence on the rectitude of our values, we also feared that they were onto some essential truth that kept eluding the rest of us. Though we disdained their materialism and shallow aspirations, we secretly wondered if there was something wrong with us. After all, we could not afford a fraction of the things they could.

The flight of the artists and the middle class from Manhattan has been a developing story for the past thirty years. The absence of affordable housing has been such a striking fact of city life that mentioning it now seems beside the point...even if it is precisely the point.

This slo-mo transformation has unfolded in real-time with ample opportunity for corrective action.

Maybe my adolescent Manhattan was more schizophrenic than I knew. Maybe the inequality between rich and poor is a timeless reality. Still, until Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Tale of Two Cities" inaugural speech today, I had never heard anyone in an official capacity proclaim the reality of what has come to pass in such stark, dramatic -- and literary! -- terms.

A Tale of Two Cities.

There is no unsaying it and it has been happening for several decades now.

Maybe the seeds for this fissure were planted long ago; there has always been the East Side vs. the West Side rivalry. Uptown has always competed with Downtown.

And I know that the pundits are not giving BDB a whole lotta love for sharing his insights. The new mayor has caught a lot of heat for failing to praise Michael Bloomberg; he has been called arrogant and myopic and needlessly pessimistic about the rallying economy of New York City.

But I think otherwise and I wish to thank Mayor Bill de Blasio for nailing a core reality. New York City has lost its balance; spinning out of control it split into two.

So Mayor de Blasio called it. He co-opted the concept of the 1% vs the 99%, integrating the defiant hippie message of Occupy Wall Street within City Hall.

This pleases me no end for I celebrated the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. I think that naming the social inequity in our midst was bold...and long overdue.

And I think that the reason de Blasio is getting such blowback today is because with his Tale of Two Cities theme, he scared the dickens out of the privileged citizens of New York City.

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