Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rich or Poor, Life's Still a Chore in NYC

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

New York City is full of contradictions.

Take, for example, the city's sizable public housing demographic.  A demographic that lives in remarkable proximity to some of the world's most exclusive neighborhoods.  Stereotypes abound regarding each lifestyle, and some are truer than others.  Especially in the Big Apple, where the more things change, the more other things stay - unfortunately - the same.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on two local stories which make handy bookends representing the polar opposite ends of New York's - and America's - sociopolitical spectrum.  A spectrum that, at least in Gotham, leaves plenty of room for conflict and irony.

Good Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors

On the bottom end of the spectrum, for example, comes the story of some chain-link fencing being installed along a pedestrian bridge between two sections of an otherwise nondescript public housing project.

For years, juvenile delinquents from the Ingersoll projects in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section have delighted in tossing items from this pedestrian bridge onto the street below.  Last summer, however, a brick they threw at an unsuspecting bicyclist passing underneath actually hit him, causing him to crash and injure himself.

By this coming Friday, the city will have finished installing chain-link fencing along the railings of both sides of this pedestrian bridge to discourage the discharge of items from the bridge onto items below the bridge.  The chain-link fencing is angled towards the top, but the sides don't meet or enclose the walkway.  It's not even guaranteed that they'll provide any retention of objects skillfully tossed at an angle up and over the bridge.

But the howling has already started by some residents in the projects, who have decided that the fencing's very presence sends a punitive message about them and their neighborhood.

“That’s caging us,” resident Sharvelle Vinson, speaking on behalf of residents opposed to the safety measures, told the Times.  “It’s going too far.”


A representative of a local neighborhood group characterized the walkway's fence as oppressive.  “On one side of the cage are the people it is protecting, and the other side are the villains,” she complained to the Times.

Why can't she see that the fencing actually protects people on both sides of it?

Of course, the answer is simple:  because of generational poverty, many people in subsidized housing - which in New York City, is still mostly public housing projects - have lived there all of their lives.  They've grown up to view the outside world as their oppressor, instead of full of all sorts of opportunities.

That's not what public housing was supposed to do.  Originally, public housing was designed to provide temporary accommodations to families in transition, mostly from job to job.  Public housing was not supposed to be where people were born, lived their entire lives, and died.  Yet at least one of the people quoted by the Times in this article has apparently lived in these same projects her entire life.

And she things the chain-link fencing on their bridge is offensive?

The consternation residents of Ingersoll Houses feel justified in expressing towards the fencing - and the upper-middle-class white guy from a nearby gentrifying neighborhood whose injury served as the impetus for the fencing - reeks of the self-indulgent "entitlement" mindset about which conservatives have been complaining for years.  It's not as if the city is going broke erecting a massive edifice to wall off the projects.  It's not even likely that the fence won't be without many gaping holes after Ingersoll's teenagers get done modifying it with their wirecutters.

Oops - is that an overgeneralization?  I'm sorry - it must be the hyperbole from Ingersoll's indignant residents rubbing off on me.

What really takes the cake in the Times' article is the quip from another Ingersoll parent who says that instead of putting up chain-link fences to keep their kids from pelting passers-by with bricks, the city should be providing more activities and after-school programs for their kids to keep them better occupied.

As if babysitting duties is a normal obligation of city government.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Meanwhile, in what would seem an entire galaxy away, if it weren't just across the East River, there's the case of excessive success in Manhattan's wildly popular SoHo neighborhood.  Apparently, in the land of seven-figure studio apartments and parking spaces whose monthly rents run higher than most car payments, the throngs of tourists and shoppers which regularly descend on the uber-trendy enclave have turned it from chic and urbane to filthy and congested.

Not only do trashcans fill up quickly and overflow profusely, but with impunity, unlicensed street vendors selling everything under the sun - most of it counterfeit - manage to set up their bulky carts wherever they can claim a patch of open concrete.

Some local businesses have gotten together and petitioned the city to begin a business improvement district, or BID, to help keep the neighborhood cleaner and the unlicensed street vendors out.  In a BID, property taxpayers within a specific boundary are taxed an additional surcharge to help pay for extra amenities such as enhanced sanitation, special landscaping, and even mass transit facilities.

BIDs have worked relatively successfully not only in other parts of New York City, but in other cities in the United States.  It's a relatively benign concept, since BIDs are pursued by the entities who will be paying the additional tax.

In SoHo, however, what was supposed to be just another benign BID application process has exploded into an unexpected war between affluent residents who don't see why they should have to pay extra for something local businesses need, and already-thriving businesses which want to generate even more pedestrian traffic in the area.

And you have to admit:  the logic just doesn't seem to be there if all we're talking about is more trash cans, more frequent emptying of those trash cans, and enforcement of the city's rigorous street vendor regulations.

You need a BID to do that?  Isn't that all... well, compulsory for most municipalities?

Not, obviously, in New York.

Why can't some of the larger storefronts simply get permission from the city to put out extra trashcans on busy business days, and pay a trash collection service to maintain them?  Plenty of office towers maintain their own trashcans, and if SoHo is as profitable a place as businesses claim it is, why not consider the extra expense of extra trash pick-up simply part of the cost of doing business in a high-density urban environment?

It's not like this section of Broadway is home to fledgling mom-and-pop stores any more.  Verizon, Forever 21, Armani Exchange, Converse, Hugo Boss, Banana Republic, Guess, Old Navy, and even a Bloomingdale's boutique are just a few of the big-name corporate retail tenants between Houston and Canal streets, which comprises the extent of the proposed BID's boundaries (remember, New Yorkers pronounce it "how-ston").

I'd make a crass comment about why tourists want to flock to this area of Broadway anyway, where almost all the stores are the same ones they'd find in suburbia, but I once made the mistake of asking two ladies why they were planning a shopping trip to New York and the very same department stores we have here in Dallas, and they looked at me like I was the crazy person.

Anyway... for a city with a bad reputation of being tax-happy, doesn't it seem as though thriving businesses should be more eager to pay out of their own pocket for keeping streets in front of their establishments clean from the detritus their customers leave behind?  Would they really save that much more money by writing-off the extra tax they'd pay to fund the BID than by simply buying an extra trashcan and some garbage bags?

Whenever you hear of otherwise tax-and-spend New Yorkers complaining about an extra tax - complaining, mind you! - people should listen up.  Especially when most of that tax would be going for something that already-profitable national retailers should be logically doing themselves.

And as for the street vendors and pushcarts which are operating illegally, it sounds more like the city is already not fulfilling its obligation to the vendors and retailers who have the proper permits.  What guarantees are there that extra tax money will go to hiring more code enforcement officers?  And will that really solve the problem?

At least in these two cases, the incongruity expressed between the Ingersoll residents and the Soho retailers is equally baffling - a rare thing indeed! 

Not that it's rare for baffling things to take place in the Big Apple.  It's simply rare that both poor and rich are equally capable of perpetrating them.

Maybe they're more alike than they think?

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