Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Don't Stop Believin'

It's a lovely day in the neighborhood! Which neighborhood? Well, most of them. If you ignore the fact that it's hot and humid, the fact that it's not raining makes it seem nice. And if you ignore the fact that you are in the Bronx, life almost seems pleasant.

Last time I went to NYC I stayed in Manhattan. I think I only made it as far South as SoHo (eff SoHo bars) and I didn't even end up quite so far North as Harlem, though it wasn't far from my hostel, and though it is apparently the next target of gentrification.

This time in The City I managed to make it to Brooklyn and the Bronx. And to the Bronx I say, "Don't stop believin'." Someday, White People could take over your neighborhood, too.

Are you familiar with Gentrification? If you are not, you should wiki that shit. Here, I'll do the work for you: Wikipedia on Gentrification.

I visited the Bronx on Friday. My friend Liebling is a teacher out there. I took the 1-2-3 line to Burnside and stepped out into the Bronx. I was the only white person and most of the shops looked retro and/or had signs mostly in Spanish. It was hot, humid, loud, and gritty. I walked a few blocks and got to Liebling's school. Her class was small today due to a lot of absences and the children were all adorable 2nd graders but full of energy since none of them have the luxury of back yards, and if they did, would they be allowed out to play in them? Uniforms are required and I honestly think that it is a positive thing in this community. Some of the kids in her class were really bright but at least one of the students should have been in a class where he could receive more individualized attention. Apparently he gets pulled out of regular class once in a while to spend time with a special needs instructor. All the kids were 'ethnic minorities' though in this area they were clearly the majority. They were mostly sweet kids and asked some bright questions, wanted to learn to do stuff, and they were pretty excited about most things. I got lots of hugs and lots of curious questions. Perhaps a sign of the life to which they are accustomed, I was asked if I had kids. One of Liebling's co-workers, an older woman, bitched a ton about this and that and everything else. One of her comments was, "This woman sent her kid to school sick, she didn't feel well at all, she felt so bad she was sobbing. What kind of mother sends her kid to school when she feels that bad?" And I could think of reasons - a working mother who can't afford to take time off to stay home with her child, a mother who is determined her daughter will get a good education so she doesn't get stuck living in poverty, or a mother who thinks that her daughter might receive more help from a school nurse than she herself could provide? I think that it is a sad thing when a teacher in inner-city NYC can't imagine how different it must be for a poor mother vs. a white, middle class mother.

Yesterday I visited Brooklyn. My German friend, Miss I, and I started out in Brooklyn just across the Williamsburg bridge, where the neighborhoods were clean and quiet and where there were art galleries. Then we managed to take a train to another part of Brooklyn, which we briefly explored after a freak storm with pouring rain, lightning, thunder and even hail. When that cleared up we stepped out onto Flushing Street, where Miss I and I discovered ourselves in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I think Hasidic? Haredi? Anyway, most everyone we saw was dressed in such a manner that it felt like we had gone back a century in time. The men all wore black trousers and coats with white collared shirts and black hats and most had beards and all had the curls. Even little boys playing on the sidewalks had the curls hanging down from their temples. All the women I saw wore modest and older fashioned looking clothing and all of the women who looked to be wives and mothers were wearing pill box hats. It was interesting. We ended up getting back on the train very near where we started to get to where we had actually intended to go.

We were really trying to head to Williamsburg. Williamsburg is home of the hipsters. Thanks to Gentrification, a neighborhood which was once home to an ethnically diverse community, mostly poorer families, is now home to mostly white kids in ugly clothes. The poor ethnic families must have been pushed out to the Bronx or Queens. Walking through Williamsburg, one sees mostly people in their twenties through mid thirties, most fitting the hipster stereotype (see upcoming Hipster Manifesto and Related Studies) and the occasional group of latinos or a Dominican family grilling on the stoop.

How do I feel about gentrification? How do I feel about white people (re?)claiming poor neighborhoods? It's an interesting question. I don't quite know the answer. If I say it's an improvement, it's only that I recognize that white people of higher socio-economic standing will be getting better education for their children and better standards for sanitation in their neighborhoods, etc. If I call gentrification an improvement it is only because I know that white people have it easy. If the new Williamsburgers are to put their kids in public schools (which they may not) the public schools would have to be better quality. If the white people are going to have their neighborhoods, they'll demand better sanitation and nicer parks and then the rent starts rising and the poor brown folks who used to be doing just fine will have to pack up their belongings and move their families to the Bronx or Queens eventually. I think there may be a brief period of time in which the higher socio-economic class hipsters and the lower socio-economic class ethnic minorities can live together, in which the hipsters benefit from low rent and being so hip and independent, in which the ethnic minorities benefit from the higher standards demanded by the hipsters... but how long will that last? We see it all the time that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In Williamsburg Miss I and I went to a restaurant called Fette Sau (it means Fat Pig in German) and we experienced what can only be called an experience with the right intonation. It is a big, open air barbecue place with seating at big wooden tables and benches, both indoor and outdoor. Everyone sits wherever there is room and the menu is mostly meat (vegetarians and vegans beware). The wait was long and one orders at a counter with a display from a menu consisting of Black Angus Beef Brisket, $16/lb; Pulled Pork Shoulder, $16/lb; Pork Cheeks, Pork Belly, Sausage Links, and Cornish Hens, etc... Then the sides consisted of German style potato salad (which is so much better than American style), baked beans, broccoli, pickles, sauer kraut, and rolls. The orders are served on big tin trays with a sheet of wax paper laid on top, the meat is served directly on the wax paper covered tray while the sides are served in little cardboard containers. There were paper towel rolls on all the tables and if you wanted to serve the food from the tray you had the thin white paper plates. Silverware was cafeteria style. Beer could be ordered served in jugs and mason jars. The clientele was mixed, half families there for a hearty meal, half hipsters there for the bizarre atmosphere. The decoration was rustic, the music old-timey and there was a flat screen TV on one wall playing the fireplace channel. If you ever go, definitely try the cheeks.

After this, we stumbled upon a little bar with live music and cheap drinks (for NYC standards and even for Juneau standards). We ordered $3 pints of Amber and sat around listening to a band that covered 50's and 60's songs and another band that was reminiscent of a 70's punk band. There was a fundraiser going on for an effort to recycle used clothing by sewing bags to replace plastic bags. It was another case of hipsters on parade, but not quite so absurd as the Thom Bar in SoHo since this group was far less pretentious. People seemed laid back and more friendly, though there was still something of that 'my dress is more vintage than your dress and my favorite band is more obscure than your favorite band' vibe. Miss I and I were talking about it: living in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, and decided that being that cool all the time would be a lot of work, exhausting even.

After grabbing a soft serve ice cream from an ice cream truck we hopped on the metro back to Manhattan. I have seen what lies beyond Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn (though not Queens or Staten Island) and I will end by saying that I am glad I visited the Bronx and that I do like Brooklyn and even Williamsburg, though the hipster thing might drive me crazy.

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