A Bazooka Blast at Yuppiedom and Gentrification
Vanishing New York.
How a Great City Lost its Soul
Dey St. New York, 2017
Jeremiah Moss came as a young man to New York City in 1993, in search of the Bohemia of which he had dreamed, growing up in a small, sleepy town in New England. Though he came at the first opportunity, by his own admission, he arrived too late. By the early 1990’s, Bohemia, such as it has existed since perhaps Walt Whitman held forth at Pabst’s Brewery in the 1850’s, was comatose, destroyed by various social and economic forces, large and small, but above all by the transformation of the city into a theme park that systematically eradicated the haunts of writers, artists, gays and a host of other sub-cultures which had previously survived there, catch as catch can, on the affordable margins. In a word, Bohemia was eradicated by gentrification.
And unlike many previous and premature obituaries for Bohemia, in Moss’s view, what distinguished the 1990’s and thereafter from the demise of earlier generations of “garrets and pretenders” was conscious policy from City Hall, working with the banks and big real estate, aimed at destroying the “ecology” that had sustained Bohemia for well over a century, a policy enforced, when necessary, by those “husky workers in blue”, the New York Police Department (NYPD). This policy was conceived and carried out by a series of mayors from Ed Koch in the 1970’s through such luminaries as “Mayor Mussolini” (and now top Trump advisor) Rudy Giuliani, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, up to and including the current, hapless liberal Bill De Blasio, who came in talking about the city’s soaring income gap and promptly forgot such rhetoric once in power.
As Moss tells it, New York Bohemia did not die, it was murdered. This murder was complemented by the arrival, for the first time, of legions of young people from suburbia and the hinterland, no longer aspiring writers with unsold manuscripts, but a new generation of men and women, MBA’s, lawyers, fledgling bankers, stock brokers and CPAs, happy to dance on the grave of Bohemia (if they even knew it had existed or what it was) in blind weekend drunks, vomiting on the doorsteps of Moss’s and others’ remaining rent-stabilized apartments, shouting obscenities at the owners of older cafes, (whose coffee did not compare, in their view, with Starbucks) and generally acting like the philistine, boorish, well-heeled “frat bros” and riffraff that they were and are.
“I moved to New York,” writes Moss, “hoping to avoid such people for the rest of my life.”Moss is, moreover, quite aware that this gangrenous affliction is no mere New York phenomenon, but has its global counterparts throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America as well. But he has 400 pages of material on the one city he knows best, and leaves the critique of the gentrification of Paris, Berlin, Seoul or Sao Paolo to others. On Paris, Guy Debord had already written: “Paris no longer exists. The destruction of Paris is only an exemplary illustration of the mortal disease which is currently carrying off all the great cities, and this disease is itself merely one symptom of the material decadence of a society.”
One dimension that Moss does not discuss is the change in capital accumulation, beginning in the 1970’s, in which capital could increasingly no longer be profitably invested in “advanced” countries (advanced above all in social decay) in industry, agriculture, or extraction (mining, etc.) but rather in unproductive sectors such as “services”, the military and real estate, the latter a purely parasitic activity that creates no wealth but merely appropriates wealth produced elsewhere (in this case, construction) for income or resale. Thus it is not merely writers, artists, dancers and musicians who are seen off, but increasingly the urban working class, whose neighborhoods, not without tension, co-existed with Bohemia, and whose factories have closed down or relocated to the Dominican Republic or Sri Lanka or Myanmar.
It is often forgotten that as late as 1945, New York was the number one manufacturing city in the U.S. Over the decades since the Second World War, New York was de-industrialized as surely as Detroit or Chicago, led in this case by the departure of the “needle trades” or the “schmatta” (clothing) industry, and the militant unions that emerged in them, first to the “open shop” American South and then overseas to Central America and beyond. They were replaced by miles of chains (Rite-Aid, Starbucks, Walgreen’s etc.) and hundreds of self-service bank branches, decimating the once tight-knit working-class communities they displaced.
This was part of America’s transformation into a “post-industrial” society, where the percentage of men and women producing “value” (in Ricardo’s or Marx’s sense) constantly declined in favor of those consuming it, probably 70-80% of the workforce today. And nowhere was the concentration of the unproductive “creative classes” (to use the economically illiterate Richard Florida’s early and now discredited term) greater than in New York City.
It is however not our purpose to linger over such lacunae in Moss’s generally outstanding book, but merely to pose a somewhat different backdrop to our review. Moss’s rich detail is like a banquet table sagging under a huge feast, from which we hope to extract a few choice morsels, urging others to further partake; a mere review can hardly do this book justice.
Moss makes no pretense of pseudo-objectivity; he is patently “shaking a fist” at the people and institutions that have ruined a once great city. His New York is one of “dark moods”. Gentrification evolved over several decades into what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification”, embodied in “luxury condos, mass evictions, hipster invasions, a plague of tourists, the death of small local businesses, and the rise of corporate monoculture.”
Gentrification is quite distinct from the older pattern of one poor group pushing out another, such as the immigrant Chinese takeover of most of Little Italy; gentrification is about class and power, as when an influx of techies and yuppies pushes out poor blacks and Latinos with few or no options for where to go.
While for now “the city’s soul still haunts pockets of the outer boroughs”, Moss’s book is “not a Baedeker to those pockets. It is a journey among theruins, a dyspeptic trip though the parts of town hardest hit during the Bloomberg years.”
Moss highlights, for starters, the East Village, which today is full of “hedge fund managers, millionaire celebrities, and marauding dude-bros” but they had been preceded long before by “Jewish lefties, Italian agitators, theatre people, avant-gardists, anarchists, mobsters, as well as the very poor…Emma Goldman, who hung out at Justus Schwab’s Saloon on East First Street” found there “a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists…”
Moss describes the old/new dialectic that has emerged instead, as the gentrifiers see it: “…the stuff of old New York is smelly and bothersome, and probably should vanish. The new stuff, the extruded-plastic simulation that has nothing to do with New York, is so desirable you can never have too much…” Moss calls the litany of new stuff “a meme, a self-replicating thought virus”: “Old New York is bad…New corporate chains are good. Tenements are bad. Luxury condos are good. Preservation is bad. Gentrification is good.”
The new luxury apartment building, Red Square, whose very name embodies the cynical victory cry of yuppiedom over the radicalism of the old neighborhood. It was built in 1989 on Houston St., ”the dividing line between the East Village and the Lower East Side…one of the first modern luxury buildings in the neighborhood, and probably the first to thoroughly exploit the poverty and socialist history in its marketing materials…(Red Square) created an image that would appeal to the rich by selling them on the grit, poverty and risk of the Lower East Side…designed to appeal to a narrow audience of people with resources who wanted to live in a hip, extreme and even dangerous neighborhood…Sweatshop workers, Latinos, musicians and poets become animatronic characters in a theme park designed for world-conquering Mr. Wall Street and his Dutch model girlfriend.”
For Moss,“Red Square was revolutionary in the way it marketed the authentic culture of the Lower East Side—socialism, bohemianism, the working class—in order to sell it to an invading culture that would then destroy it.”
Here we have the cynical post-modern penchant for “quotation”, in this case in architecture and urbanism. One poet, Taylor Mead, lived around the corner from Houston, on Ludlow Street, for thirty-four years, “…until he was displaced from his rent-stabilized apartment at age eighty-eight by…(a )…real estate tycoon…(enduring)...construction noise and poor conditions, for as long as he could…Mead eventually surrendered his apartment, accepting a buyout and leaving New York with the hope of returning one day. He never did. Within a few weeks of moving out, he was dead from a massive stroke.”
The fight over the Bowery Bar in 1994-95, which had taken over the site of an old gas station, is another chapter in Moss’s account.Its opening was resisted by activists and artists, “in the courts and in the streets”. A central figure was Carl Hultberg, living in a “rent-controlled apartment he’d taken over from his grandfather,jazz historian Rudi Blesh”, who’d moved there in 1944. In an email to Moss, Hultberg wrote that the nightclub developers Eric Goode and Serge Becker “in a few short months…had transformed our once sleepy Bohemian district into an open sewer of American crap culture.”
The building had been sold to Mark Scharfman, “a man who’d made New prototypical heartless landlord. Goode and Becker transformed it “into the ultra-exclusive boutique hotel Lafayette House.” “The match struck by Bowery Bar in 1994,” writes Moss, “had met gasoline. In the 2000s, the Bowery went supernova.”
As if on cue, artists of the Establishment arrived. As one landlord-artist Gamely put it, “…now that the neighborhood is nice enough for galleries, there aren’t many artists left.” Luxury hotels proliferated.
“From the beginning,” says Moss, “the locals hated the Cooper Square Hotel, viewing it as “an arrogant, entitled, fuck-you middle finger to the neighborhood.” Despite further protests, “all that righteous anger could not bring the tower down, even when the developers’ bank claimed they defaulted on $52 million in loans and filed a lawsuit to foreclose.”
It was taken over by a hotelier with sites in Hollywood, Miami Beach and New York’s Meatpacking District, and “renamed the Standard East Village, with a new restaurant aptly called ‘Narcissa’…”
This ongoing “quotation” of the earlier life of the East Village was shameless, an expression of contemporary capitalism’s own cultural emptiness.
Moss cites Neil Smith, the late CUNY professor of anthropology and geography, for an historical overview of gentrification:“The class remake of the city was minor, small scale, and symbolic in the beginning, but today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city.Almost without exception, the new housing, new restaurants, new artistic venues, new entertainment locales-not to mention new jobs on Wall Street—are all aimed at a social class quite different from those who populated the Lower East Side or the West Side, Harlem, or neighborhood Brooklyn in the 1960’s. Bloomberg’s rezoning of, at latest count, 104 neighborhoods has been the central weapon in this assault.”
Moss takes a fourth wave from London urbanist Loretta Lees, hyper- gentrification, who described it as “the consolidation of a powerful national shift favoring the interests of the wealthiest households, combined with a bold effort to dismantle the last of the social welfare programs associated with the 1960’s.”
For Moss, hyper-gentrification is “the return of the white-flight suburbanites’ grandchildren and their appetite for a ‘geography of nowhere’…in which monotonous chain stores nullify the streets,”
Neil Smith’s term “the revanchist city” ultimately traces back to the French bourgeoisie after the crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871. A century later, Giuliani’s New York took revenge on “people of color, the poor and working class, immigrants, feminists, homosexuals, socialists, bohemians.”
Moss’s vanishing New York is, then, “the twentieth century city, the metropolis born from a confluence of restless, desperate people who arrived as underdogs and became the city’s life force...”the people who don’t mince words and occasionally say “fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck” in a moment of proletarian poetry.
Thus we have glimpses of Moss’s exceptionally rich material, hopefully giving the flavor he maintains relentnessly for 400 pages. It is to be hoped that the book will be read far and wide, and beyond spurring the rage felt by this reviewer at the victory (to date) by the massive assault of big capital and finance on a once working-class town without equal, will also inspire the activism initiated by anti-gentrification groups such as Take Back the Bronx and the Crown Heights Tenants Union listed in an appendix.
In the recent general election, Labour vote tended to increase in cities. Bradford, etc ,lost no Labour seat. In the small constituencies ,particularly former mining areas there was revenge against Labour and Brexit was seen as a something like a materialised rapture, or, a second coming based on nostalgia. In agony the most stoopid recipients in these abandoned towns see in Blowjob (Bo Jo) a Messiah. Fundamentalist Primitive Methodism realised. Thus Ossett where we lived went Tory. Also Bishop Auckland where we were raised. Plus Sedgefield (where I lived as a teen) The Blyth Valley, the Mighty Redcar. All I'm so familiar with. Also little or no tactical voting. And because this country hasn't been invaded for centuries its first past the post and not PR, like in most of post Second World War Europe. Here it's a distant dream. La Lega would never have lost here and thus the sardine demos in Italian cities can trounce it further - perhaps once and for all. Am afraid I have little sympathy for Labour as we were run out of town by Labour authorities in Newcastle in the late 1960s and recently in Bradford Labour chiefs wanted our guts for garters, with massive fines in the offing. Corbyn has said nothing, etc in London about the massive social cleansing taking part here most administered by labour. Even Momentum was into it in Haringey where they got rid of the South American market which was a great, warm UN-GENTRIFIED street scene. Moreover, those corner houses we worked on recently in Westminster where short life tenants had taken over were thrown out by Westminster Labour in 2017 who said they were to be handed over to the 'real' homeless. All fronted by a left leaning Labour MP. The lying cunts. They are still empty after our gang did a magnificent repair job on them for next to nothing. Instead the Lab Council has now put them on the market for millions. No it's grass root anti party autonomy we need spreading over fekking Perfidious Albion. In Iraq recently a lion was released which then attacked the police. Ah, imaginative, inspiring tactics........
Another factor in this is the the interplay between hip cultural companies morph into something blatantly predatory. Take the case of Lend Lease. Originally it was an Australian 'cultural' company which had something to do with Jorn Utzen's Sydney Opera House in the late 1950s. Bit by bit and as the years rolled by it got involved in other 'cultural' projects in other countries i.e. in London on the re-organising of Tate Modern and the Olympic Park in East London in 2012. It's now all about increasing asset value through high falutin' intellectual presentation. It's kinda like an attack on the age of 1950s urbanisation cum modern industry focussing on point blocks packed with working class tenants on lowish rents. These estates are hipped-up and made to look like cutting edge sophistication (Urban Splash in Sheffield even putting up controlled Paris '68 graffiti). It's the front in fact for social cleansing on a huge scale as aspirants take over. It's what Norma Buddle calls "Creative Rachamanisn" (named after Rachman a particularly brutal private landlord in 1950s Notting Hill). This then interacts with the new greenwash scene.
Below: The leaking roof and subsequent repairs – and the gig economy tenants loved going up on the roof for eats and drinks all hours of day and night, etc. NOW NO LONGER!
Richard Gill recently appointed as Mr Big Eco on Wormwood Scrubs Common worked with Lend Lease. The guy knows jack shit about nature but that doesn't matter because he is a landscape architect and was responsible for the International Sector on Queen Elizabeth Park alongside little bogus oasis of 'wilding' replete with gaudy flowers and exotic plant species. Thus the time honoured model from Capability Brown onward -clear the churls and peasants off the landscape and replace with fake animals along with cut grass and denuded trees. Aesthetics as the be all and end all of everything. We crossed swords with him immediately along with the 100k a year bio-diversity officer. What a pair of shitehawks - Perfidious Albion writ large. Wormwood Scrubs COMMON has now to be renamed a PARK. Proper borders of horticultural makeovers, proper hardcore paths and utter domesticated shit.
The following was a densely written, two-sided A4 leaflet, mostly composed by David &Stuart Wise. It was handed out initially in Trafalgar Square, London in October 1969 during a mainly art students demonstration regarding the recent occupations, etc., of contemporary art schools. Although the text was shorn of some quotation marks - i.e. the initial ‘fiery’ title is partially a quote from Nietzsche – it was passed around among the crowds. The leaflet was also read out –among other things - via a loud hailer from the Trafalgar Square plinth under a biggish white flag which had emblazoned across the fabric SMASH ART in red letters – clearly a not very inspirational flag regarding an imaginative nuancing of the revolutionary transcendence art! This intervention wasn’t really understand within the ranks of those assembled beneath the plinth as indeed most of the art protests in the UK during the late 1960s were pitiful in comparison to say France or the USA. However, no one really objected in any vociferous way and afterwards a few individuals came forward quite fascinated by the text and verbal address. Later the text was handed out in various places throughout the UK especially Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Recently a fair amount of renewed interest has been shown in the text.
ART SCHOOLS ARE DEAD: IN ITS ADVANCE THE FIRE SHALL SEIZE AND JUDGE EVERYTHING
A spectre is haunting art; it is the spectre of annihilation. All the powers of the old order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Police and principals, sculptors and painters, poets and philosophers, designers and architects, art historians and sociologists. The ‘art’ offered to us in the galleries, art schools, lush mags, etc, cannot possibly last much longer. The sit-ins at various Colleges of Art last year were the first sign of imminent collapse. However, the proposals put forward by the students failed to grasp the fact that Art Schools are part of an empty, meaningless, culture of death which must be subverted and destroyed on every level. The atmosphere in the art schools has been getting steadily worse over the last few years. The American dream, media blow out, de-luxe gadgetry, pop art, car styling, acrylic minimalism only served as a front for one-up, put-down gangsterism. Gear and style was (and still is) everything: making out, THE BIG TIME (where you may get a fuck, but you’ll always get fucked). Those who manage to keep in the running have to suffer the grind of arse-licking, sherry-drinking, contacts, empty talk. And if you do get a job in an art school then you had better learn to cultivate deceit, ignorance, and keeping your trap shut. Those who aren’t in the running drop-out, end up as bums or become resigned to a dismal job at a grammar school or sec. mod. in the back end of nowhere. And for what? It’s particularly unbearable knowing that the petty rules of official hierarchies conceal an aching void left by the collapse of the old shit. The fable of the Emperor’s Clothes could be applied to the whole of the art school set-up. For the fine arts, the game’s up – no possibility of a last minute transfusion. ART’S FINAL MASTERPIECE WILL BE ITS OWN DESTRUCTION (Soffici). The Dadaists savage programme of total subversion and the relentless deranged coherence of Surrealism’s early revolutionary days. MUSICIANS – SMASH YOUR INSTRUMENTS. THE NEW ARTISTS DOES NOT WRITE OR PAINT BUT CREATES DIRECTLY – THE NEW ARTIST PROTESTS. (Tzara). Since then … nothing. Art has become an object, a type of consumer commodity. Art as Daz, Art as business, Art as methadrine, Art as war, Cybernetic Serendipity. CREATIVE FASCISM. Now after 30 years of re-hash after re-hash “art” (and everything else) is looning madly along a path ending in destruction. The final end pre-figured by a few revolutionary groups will be catastrophic, exhilarating and beautiful. Flipping to the new media, TV, film, environmental design won’t help much either. The concepts of the Bauhaus and De Stijl are dated and were a phoney aesthetic solution even in the 1920s’ (c/f Buckminster Fuller’s critique). Souped-up modern versions despite strobe lighting and back projections cannot conceal the poverty of these productions. Architecture today is a joke. Even the more avant-garde members are unable to find their way to a coherent criticism of the entire system. The humanistic technocratic, canned visionaries of 1965 with their ‘dreams’ of a totalitarian streamlined ‘utopia’ of vacuum formed components and never ending cities of plastic schools, plastic banks and plastic system-built army barracks – exhibit the most evil aspect of technolatry. Creativity cannot ally itself to the nightmare of frozen bureaucratic science or the cold sensuality of vast advertising campaigns. Producing films can be the most effective con of all (‘Live’ action shooting in particular) justifying Artaud’s reaction: ‘THE MOTION PICTURE WORLD IS CLOSED, WITHOUT ANY RELATION TO EXPERIENCE’. As for fashion – well we’ll give it another year: Carnaby Street already has the forlorn look of Blackpool on a winter’s day. And St. Laurent’s black suede tunics for the barricades are beyond comment. WHAT’S TO BE DONE? The only task left in a rapidly disintegrating system is to help it on its way. We have all experienced THE DAY TO DAY EMPTINESS; the real problem is knowing how to subvert the boredom. Occasional demos are not enough – the system must be confronted totally. Moreover it is useless to employ (like the Guildford students suggest) the celebrity style teaching of all get-ahead (sick) institutions. We can only accept ‘celebrities’ if they are prepared to come down amongst us, fight with us, and SHELL OUT THEIR CASH. In spite of our reservations about film it can have a tactical purpose if used AGGRESSIVELY. The same goes for the leftovers of the pop world. Street musicians singing revolutionary lyrics and not homogenised disc jockey crap could be a real turn on. Songs directed against the bastards who run the art/design/media dumps could have a hell of an effect. Also something of the wit and play of the posters and bonfires could soon make for a real scene. Remember: humour, aggression and total subversion is all.
“THE 4TH DIMENSION IS HA HA” (Buckminster Fuller). “THE LAST FORM OF CIVILIZATION IS COMEDY WHEN HUMANITY TAKES LEAVE OF ITS PAST GLADLY”. (Karl Marx). “MODERNITY KILLED EVERY NIGHT”. (Jacques Vache). DON’T RUN YOUR OWN ALIENATION. DON’T BELIEVE IN THE 2ND WAVE OF SOCIALIST REFORMS. SMASH THE ART SCHOOLS AND THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM. Long ago painting was converted to just another aspect of the commodity system, (being just so old that need worry no one). But now they treat people in the same way. You leave art school to go onto the market. That you probably won’t be able to find a job wouldn’t matter (only die hard leftists glorify work) but it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive. Smash Capitalism. Revolution against the art school trick must be seen as revolt against the status quo – against its duplicity and ever increasing hypocrisy. Not only has the system produced an art that is shit but a politics of the same order. All systems go that way; we must re-invent life. How many times do we have to be told that the Homsey sit-in, etc, were ‘art’ – and still go back to the easel, the staged happening – and all other spectator-oriented introverted events. ‘Poetry must be made by all not by one’ – And it’s got be made on the streets. Beware the Staff /Student Committee (SS). Changes of Bureaucracy are not to be welcomed! BEYOND THE POWER PRINCIPLE DREAMS BECOME REALITY. Man is neither intelligent nor stupid. He is free, or he is not. GO TELL ‘EM – Backs up against the wall motherfuckers and into the trash can. “MY UTOPIA IS AN ENVIRONMENT THAT WORKS SO WELL THAT WE CAN RUN WILD IN IT.” (Norman O Brown) “WE ARE REVEALING NEW PAGES OF ART IN ANARCHY’S NEW DAWNS” (Malevich). How can we talk of controlling our own lives – when we still turn to the so-called avant-garde for advice, etc. (“We are having a sit-in, would you come along to contribute to a symposium?”) We say so-called avant-garde since we presume that the word at least signifies knowing where it’s at, and this avant-garde (Biennalists, etc, etc) so obviously don’t – as they are still concerned with ‘visual meaningfulness’, etc. To talk to them of the accelerating polarities of those who are going to be on one side or the other of the barricades – is to realise they still turn to the exhibition reviews first when they pick up a newspaper. They were left out in the cold when the Odeon was first occupied, when the first barricade against the Police State first went up in Paris. Their subsequent appearance – HERE – as well as in Paris is just another attempt at avant-garde recuperation. They expect us to change one set of rules for another – theirs. Example of avant-garde recuperation: Tom Hudson’s article in Studio, Sept. 1968 – His lack of perspective of the art students position in a total context of change is unbelievable: within the narrow context of ‘art-education’ it is pure C19 conservatism e.g. “Within the Summerson specifications I presume that we can teach what we like, I do in a radical and revolutionary way.” He had better look at the history books to try to find an example of something that was radical and revolutionary in a context designated from above. But as his manual shows with its absolute elitism (‘Promotion’, ‘division of authority and leadership’, etc) he just wants to be a bit higher up the scale of handing out the ‘goods’. He proposes no classification in Dip A.D just Pass or Fail!! – and he talks of other people’s idiocy!! But then he’s really been brainwashed – “Lecturing up and down the country… I see more of colleges, their problems and developments than almost anyone else in Art Education.” He needs sympathy. We must teach ourselves. What is left of the Victorian era? The art school, museums, Parliament, the ruling ideology. If art students are to revolt then it must be against the art/design commodity. The personal system is just a reflection of the total system. Man must escape from the ridiculous arenas constructed for him: the alleged actual reality, and the prospect of future reality which is no better. “Each moment of fullness bears in itself the negation of centuries of broken and limping history”. (A.Breton). How many more vice-chancellors and principals are going to make speeches that welcome student rebellion, and give us the old gab about the higher education establishments being built on a tradition of free speech which is still upheld? They can welcome it, since they know they aren’t going to have to implement any changes, they too can talk of the system’s bureaucracy. Just see how many speeches you can make attacking the total status quo, against the general idea of art school brainwashing. Free speech my arse. “I told you in my last manifesto – the arse represents life – life like fried potatoes” (Picabia). “Free election of masters does not abolish masters and slaves” (Marcuse).
FORGET ALL YOU HAVE EVER LEARNED: BEGIN BY DREAMING
Dave Wise: KING MOB. 1969
And in response to THE ORIGINAL: The End of Music (1978) back came a rather tasty musical reponse: