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Life in the cities of New York

The two New YorksTales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York, ed. John Freeman; illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Published by OR Books in association with Housing Works.

The “two cities” in the title of this book are both New York. John Freeman in his introduction tells us that he set out to collect stories about life in New York that focus on the human consequences of inequality of wealth, which “is at its most acute in the ‘world cities’ where the rich choose to live (or invest their fortunes in real estate).” What does it “feel like” to live side by side with people who are vastly richer and/or vastly poorer than you are?

 

Some of the thirty stories are true accounts of experiences in the authors’ own lives. Others are fictional, but these too are meant to be true to life. About half of the authors dwell on matters that have no direct bearing on the theme of economic inequality. I am not complaining: their stories are also of interest. But here I want to reflect on a few of the pieces that do focus on the ostensible theme of the collection.

An epidemic of child suicides

Maria Venegas describes her experience teaching in an after-school program for children in an inner city area. The kids find it hard to cope with the demands made on them and often break down in tears. One of them says she wishes she could kill herself. Indeed, ten NYC public school students did exactly that in just seven weeks in 2014 – an “epidemic” by comparison with the previous NYC norm of ten child suicides a year. 

“What is pushing these kids over the edge?” – asks the teacher. The immediate “push” is clearly their anxiety about getting the high marks expected of them in tests that are often confusing and badly designed. But let’s look deeper. She gives us a clue when she mentions that a 10-year-old girl in her class has an “H written across the front of her sweatshirt” – H for Harvard. After a few pages we learn that the hallways at the charter school attended by this girl are named after Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. “The Ivy Leagues dangle before her every day.”

Nowadays every American youngster is constantly bombarded from all directions with the message: You can make it if you try hard enough. This “encouragement” is regarded as a big advance on the bad old days when low-caste children were taught humbly to accept their place at the bottom of the pile. But the new message is actually even crueler than the old one, because it carries the clear though unspoken implication that if you don’t make it that will mean you didn’t try hard enough. You will have only yourself to blame.

As those who perform this charade of “equal opportunity” must know very well, only a few of the children before whom they “dangle” the highly exclusive, elitist and expensive Ivy Leagues will ever get there – and even fewer will make it through to graduation. The teacher herself, although she probably comes from a background somewhat less disadvantaged than that of her students, went to the University of Illinois, one of the more accessible and considerably cheaper state colleges. The “dangling” is the psychic equivalent of hurling these kids into a brick wall – again and again and again. The remarkable thing is not that some of them commit suicide but that most of them do not.     

Such are the fruits of efforts at reform – undertaken in many cases with the best of intentions – that leaves intact the capitalist structure of our society.

The housing treadmill

Several of the stories are about housing – “a perpetual concern,” as Freeman notes. An increasing number of city residents cannot afford to rent a home, let alone buy one. Freeman cites some astonishing statistics (they astonished me, anyway): nearly a third of New Yorkers pay over half of their annual income in rent, while in the Bronx, which is the poorest of New York’s boroughs, rent swallows two thirds of the income of the typical household. Besides the problem of high rents, there is also the endless struggle to get basic services and force landlords to make essential repairs. 

And yet New York has a long history of legislative reform aimed at controlling rents and protecting tenants against eviction and mistreatment. A recurring theme is the minimal impact of these reforms in practice. Landlords have many ways of evading legal restrictions, some of them quite ingenious. Of particular interest in this respect is the contribution by D.W. Gibson, a lawyer who specializes in the thankless, frustrating, and poorly remunerated task of protecting tenants’ rights (most lawyers prefer to practice law in more lucrative fields). He describes how landlords who want to evict tenants but lack adequate legal grounds for doing so induce them to leave by making life unbearable, one method being to remove kitchen and bathroom installations under the pretext of renovation.    

One place where those who couldn’t afford the rents used to go – in the 1990s, before the authorities decided to seal them off – was the tunnels beneath the city. There are several hundred miles of tunnels and a couple of thousand people lived down there together with the rats. In a memoir evocatively entitled “Near the Edge of Darkness” Colum McCann recounts his explorations of this underworld.

Tables turned

Jonathan Dee’s story stands alone in being written from the perspective of the rich. The narrator and his wife get caught in a snowstorm as they drive home to their townhouse from a charity dinner. They encounter a poor man with a shovel who offers to dig them out – for $100, a charge that he soon raises to $200. The narrator considers this unreasonable and swears at the man, but ends up buying the shovel off him for $937 – all the cash that he has in his wallet. The man responds to his rant by explaining: “It’s called the marketplace, bitch. It’s called knowing what your customer will bear.”

The rich guy is used to having his way, and under normal circumstances he has the resources to get almost anything he wants. Under the exceptional circumstances of the snowstorm, however, he and his wife find themselves isolated inside a “bubble” where the only other person is the poor man, and it is he who happens to own the only “means of production” that matters in that particular situation – namely, the shovel. The tables are turned: for once the narrator experiences the vulnerability of those who do not own the means of production to the blackmail of those who do.

Caught in the toils of the engine

My own favorite story is Bill Cheng’s “Engine.” The author describes the loneliness, emptiness, self-loathing, and self-pity that he felt as a young man struggling to make a living as he drifted from one dead-end job to another. His philosophical reflections are succinct and to the point. For instance:

“I don’t know how to talk about money. It’s one of those things we can’t seem to get shook of. As much as we pretend it doesn’t matter, it sets the stage for all our relationships.”

Alone among the contributors, it seems to me, Cheng has a clear concept of the functioning of the capitalist system inside which we all live. He uses the potent image of “the Engine”:

“Even now there are still times when I can almost glimpse the Engine in its entirety: its high walls, the gears and cogs and avenues through which wealth and power traffic.”

We are all caught in the toils of the Engine.

In this respect he contrasts favorably with the book’s editor John Freeman, who has no concept of the system as such. He is more interested in the secondary issue of why some people “succeed” and others “fail” and does not perceive the mechanism that generates, deals out, and assigns meaning to these human fates. But I willingly agree with his conclusion that chance (“luck”) plays a major role in deciding this secondary issue.

A final observation. The units in the competitive struggle are no longer families, as they were in traditional class societies, but lone individuals. This is exemplified by the story that Freeman himself tells about his relationship with his younger brother. An inheritance has enabled Freeman to buy an apartment in Manhattan, while his brother lives in a homeless shelter. He tries to help his brother, whom he loves and to whom he dedicates the book, but it apparently never occurs to him that he could simply provide him with steady financial support. No doubt his brother’s “pride” would prevent him from accepting such an arrangement. 

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