The Id of the City: De-Gentrifying New York (for Steve Cannon)
Performers: Tracie Morris, Sarah Schulman
Writer: Tracie Morris Vocalizes composed by: Tracie Morris
Preamble in two scenes:
That is Fucked Up. What?
That shit is really fucked up. What.
I mean look at that shit -- What? What’s fucked up about it?
Well look at that shit. It don’t even go Just ‘cause it ain’t been there before, don’t mean it don’t go.
It don’t fucking go. They always come around-- You know what your problem is? --
Fucking shit up…this shit is going to fuck even
More shit up. – No. Your problem is, you never like new shit. Your shit is the same o, same o. Your shit is fuckin’ tyid.
My shit is not tyid. I keep shit real. That’s my shit.
I don’t need no fake motherfuckers around here. You know, you think your shit don’t stank. Fuck you…I think it’s nice.
Why can’t we have anything nice around here?
‘Cause motherfuckers fuck shit up.
[expirates exasperatedly] [sucks teeth]
Ahem, Excuse me. You excused!
City Sounds: New York is already de-gentrified -- literally – where are the people?
Headphones make bedroom communities in our brains, pod people in the NYC. Your tunes, your clips, your porn, your inside-your-own-head inside jokes.
1970s NYC, pre-walkman – no one on the subway would be caught dead not paying attention. Eyes fixed forward to no one, avoiding a fight. Peripheral sight, keen: the bum in the corner of the car is smelly but he’s okay. Black people taking loud are in their Afro-tonal register. The Jews’ and Italians’ demonstrative gestures – w/no shoving.
You curse out the speeding cab as a courtesy. Protocol. You let him know. Pulling a gun, a bat on ‘im…that’s a little outta line.
We used to have: bags-across-the-shoulder, holding-the-handle-in-front, money-at-the-bottom-of–the-bag to make it harder for the picker to get.
Now we have: oblivious tranferees, wallets in their back pockets. Conspicuous in their privilege, assuming everyone is under control.
We used to be the sound, smell and motion of this place. It mattered. We didn’t speak to strangers but we knew who they were, they knew our ins and outs.
Now we wave each other off, like we just don’t care.
We began to avert our eyes…Fucking Reagan: we can only take so much despite the gruff armor. The homeless people flattening against grates in the 80s. Not the down in the luck bums, the junkies spilling out from shooting galleries, the hopped up skinny whores.
It started with: old ladies who were “a little off” and spent time w/ pigeons in the park, sharing day old bread from the Pepperidge Farms outlet store with squirrels. The frail men who lived in SROs supplemented by section 8.
They became the sidewalk ones. The city groaned with our insides spilled around the ConEd steam pipes and after-hours commercial doorways.
Against the checkerboard of metal, they lie in pre-emptive body bags, coffin cocoons of boxes, bubble wrap.
We walked past them but w/ our excellent peripherals couldn’t really look away.
They were carted off but too late. The streets weren’t free anymore; we saw them as the bottom of cages.
9/11 and the new city. For weeks while the buildings burned, God set the sun in NYC. Love, peace, soul.
Everyone was nice. For about 3 _ weeks everyone was nice in NY. Kind to daily strangers. Considerate, the way you talk to people softly right after a funeral: “Are you alright?”
Remember this happening. Remember?
A reduced version, a heat simmered us down during the 2003 blackout. The bars opened up, people crashed at strangers’ houses, lights from rows of car brights illuminate block by block.
People using our pain to make more tragedy. Killing our “us” to make all tow the line. People with money made a decision all over the world: gimme the city. I’ve seen it from NY to Dakar, Chicago to Jo’berg, London to Lima and coming to a Detroit near you as soon as they kill the last little union job in motortown.
This city is on a leash. And hey, not dodging dogshit is a pleasant concession…Yelp critiques of the bodega are not.
The fuck y’all know about a bodega? What’s a four-star corner store rating mean to you people?
Yokel motherfuckers: look, if it smells like roach spray, you buy canned food and beer there, not bread. If it has an inviting look even when it’s closed, it’s too damn expensive.
What do we give back to the world? People who know how to fucking walk down the street.
Hey, People in NY have always had children and they knew how to walk by age 2 1/2 . If your child’s feet have to be put all up to keep the wheels rolling, they’re too fucking big for that shit! Teach ‘em how to walk fast, be first in this city. Let them at least try to keep up.
“Stroller” should be an oxymoron in NY. They should be called “fasters”. Step it up people. No one but tourists stroll around here.
But stalling is another story: City workers are diverted to Whiter quality of life ‘hoods that take forever to get to and from: When the snowstorm shit hits, black buses get the reroute. And colored folks don’t even like the cold…old Black folks who can’t afford the dollar cabs, like the cold less.
I wish bus drivers didn’t wear uniforms, could look like your neighbor driving. I wish cab drivers beeped more when pissed off. Wake people the fuck up. The horns in sync like the intro to a Fela record throughout the city. Cop cars and ambulances backbeat to a revolving discoteque.
The cops used to have sky colored shirts and dark trousers. A blue collar, administrative air about them. Now they all look like the outposts of SWAT teams, Blackwater fascist statement.
The city is becoming flatter, a bloodless coup of streets slurping into one another: Park Slope becomes Prospect Heights, the east and west villages, the backdrop to NYU.
I miss – Black folks throwing shade at each other and everyone else.
I miss – Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican restaurants all over Brooklyn
I miss –luxurious difference. Unapologetic Punk danger, Black danger, Dike Danger
I miss – giving up seats for old ladies by young men. That’s old school. Women give up their seats for the old and infirmed all the fucking time.
I miss – people playing stoop ball, skelly drawn from a rock or plaster on the sidewalk and kids laying flush with their frog legs and waxed bottle tops trying to win that shit.
I miss brothers play-boxing on the street slapping a fist down for poor form.
Black people reading revolutionary Black history books on the train and looking around the car, knowingly.
I miss loud Italians, giving people the finger, who talk fast but curse really slowly: “Fuuuuck yooooou.”
I miss Yiddish pronunciations all in the street. (But at least everyone has “meh” now.)
And where the fuck are all the Irish-acting Irish of New York?
I miss NY being the place where only White people who wouldn’t be considered White anywhere else could come to be White-ish.
I remember when “Yo” went from the Puerto Rican word for “I” to the Black word for “you” to the Italian word for “hey” and still be all three words at the same time in the street.
I miss loud Arabs in bodegas and in front of the store before everyone assumed that they were terrorists if they had the typical NY attitude.
The DJ used the commons: street lights and lampposts, abandoned buildings and habituated streets.
We had self-governance: people used to be frisked at the house party by the folks giving the house party.
This is how we do: People can become NYers but NY shouldn’t become other places.
Our pigeons walk across the street, have adapted to the NY pedestrian credo to cars: “you betta not hit me.” NY’ers don’t look at the light -- we look at the cars. We look both ways on one-way streets ‘cause people act crazy.
Cars speed up at yellow lights. Walkers slow down in front of moving vehicles. Poor folks dash strollers on yellow to guilt trip trucks into stopping.
We ‘re all subway people where personal space is on the atomic level, the theoretical, the metaphysical. The protocol of being “too close” on the train is one of weight negotiation, not proximity.
South East Asians, doesn’t matter from where, play their music audibly in the space behind the counter in the newsstand bodegas in the subway. [They look at the Black women who buy Essence like “yum”. I think all those years of selling “Big Butt” magazines made them come around.]
I like Black women w/ wigs and weaves. No one pretends its real hair so we concentrate on how it frames the face. And don’t touch her hair, stupid! And stop asking if any hairstyle real. Is it a fucking hologram?
NY is still the place where Latinos who are considered White in their countries come over and are now colored – and very, very disappointed.
NY is still where dark-skinned Asians come and still aren’t Black -- if they have straight Asian hair.
NY is still where rich Black folks who come from money have to have Black flavor and White fashion.
I’m glad that in 20 years Mexicans and others will be the arbiters of culinary taste in New York. Mexicans are preparing cuisine from all parts of the world from five-star to corner Chinese. Who better to be the real food critics? That shit can’t happen soon enough!
I’m happy that Greek restaurants still have Greeks -- and those cups with the drawing of the Greek urns saying “We Are Happy to Serve You” designed by that recently deceased Czechoslovakian Jewish guy.
I wish ruthless White businessmen to be restricted to Wall Street proper and midtown. Keep the squares in the squares, man.
Tourists overcompensate. They talk loud -- wrongly. They expect service. Fuck ‘em. Wait in line or ask correctly. Figure it out!
Tourists walk wrong in this city. Too slow, too shuffling. Herd mentality staring slowly up at buildings i/o glancing quickly at addresses.
In NY we the arbiters of train-car beggars, schemers, performers and preachers. You can ask but we’ve heard it all. You have to have a better beg, sorry.
Street performers are emblematic of NY, not tourist attractions. They’re part of the city. Its multiple hearts. They entertain themselves and the locals. Visitors: don’t peel off a dollar to them like you’re doing them a favor. They work hard for that money!
I miss music being played outside everywhere. Music piped outdoors from windows. There needs to be soundtracks to the city. I miss boom boxes, congas, people playing stereo music for their neighbors to hear outside their apartment.
I miss second-hand stores, not “antique stores”. Now we only have fancy furniture and cheap-ass $399 bedroom-suite furniture outlets.
In NY we made room for people to fuck up.
People used to fuck up and, through rent control, living w/ somebody, any type of hustle, could still be our neighbor; we could still see them on their way in the train station.
Now, there’s no place for the broke, just getting by. It’s all about career outsiders, veneers of success.
An iteration of celebrity in your small corner, beaming out to all sides of the city. Heath Leger died when he left Brooklyn. The deadly pseudo-Cali isolation of empty gentry-Meatpacking Manhattan killed him in his sleep.
Only artists w/ money already can move here now. Indulgent children of the rich who don’t have to work.
Architecture-losing character. Waste of energy. Gloss buildings of death. Flashlights w/beveled mirrors behind the plexiglass. The battery behind a coil. Our fingers on the switch (clitoria, perenia) to flicker a bright second in the few darkened back alley doorways where lovers can’t wait to make it to tiny apts in the outers.
We give the world – something other than tolerance: We accept – weird people, bad things, it doesn’t matter as long as you know how to keep in the flow or get the fuck out of the way in the city environs. We give those who walk in the rhythm of the people and the traffic. Who chill on the side so folks can go around you.
“Pioneers” have a way of looking at locals like we’re a zoo. Until, one day, the outsider enters the lotto cigar store or baroque botanica. They become part of the neighborhood. Looking for some kind of luck to keep them here.
Locals have outfits. To pioneers they’re costumes. They are like the tourists taking pictures from double-deckers. The ones that circle neighborhoods on safari. Can they be restricted to commercial districts? To the Disneylands they were made for by displacing sex workers and queers?
What about making things safe for the children?!! I’m sick of children being used as human shields for their non-reflexive bourgeois parents.
NY kids can be intelligent, savvy, imaginative, sarcastic. You’re stupid if you let everyone teach them right and wrong but you.
Let them be kids – not witless kids. Give them some room to make their own world.
Don’t be so fucking lazy. And stop relying on underpaid Black women to make your child “street smart”.
Let them play with the pigeons that take their sweet time, leave the squirrels alone and rats. Let them leave cans of food for the feral cats.
Our choice is to make the regular people of this city feel good and stop babying the elitist, the corny.
Or we can slavishly aspire to be them and lose our city. The shells of bombed out buildings in the 70s, 80s, 90s at least had life hidden inside.
The big stores and upscale housing is empty. Detritus of a lost city.
Gentrification takes power away from most people. De-gentrification should give the city’s power to most people.
The swap in the census numbers show the population is switching from Black, Latin, working hard to White, upper class, hardly workin’.
The landed gentry should feel uncomfortable, not quite welcome, not so beloved.
Don’t be so polite, so quiet. Good behavior is the tool of the powerful. It’s their overriding mode of communicating.
To de-gentrify NY, hang out. Stop exchanging pleasantries and ask questions. Look at folks. Be uncomforting, loud and rude. This isn’t fucking London. We’re not passive aggressive.
Don’t be an asshole for no reason, though. Have a reason.
Look at people. If you’re not working out, take the headphones out of your ears from your house door to the train. Ask everyone you meet as you run your errands and eat: “How you doing?” Let them answer for a change.
Don’t be a sucker. If someone is being a jerk, suspicious or a liar, call them out.
Tell people who are rude and from out of town to shut the fuck up. Say “you look like shit”. Say, “I don’t give a fuck where you’re from in Europe, hold the fucking elevator door!”
Let your neighbor know that you’ll keep an eye out for their kid for 5 minutes if they have to run to the store. Tell them off if they’re late.
Don’t sue for every fucking thing ‘cause you scared to talk back at the moment.
Have three best friends you can love, argue with, get into rehab even if they hate you for it. Love them anyway, even if you can’t stand to be around them, even if they’re fucking up.
Give the world back – energized attitude, smart alecks, fast walkers, smokers sometimes, drinkers sometimes, sophisticates, artists, intellectuals, people with all sorts of style.
Find out what’s different about your neighborhood and emphasize that. Not for the outsiders and realtors, but for you, and your block.
Learn to live without endless convenience. That just makes every place in the city the same.
Leave hookers, drag queens, trans kids and weed smokers alone. Or if you don’t want to leave them alone, then at least try to fucking help them.
Sing in the street w/ out headphones. If you have headphones on and you sing, it always sounds bad. Don’t punish people with that shit. If you got to listen to the tune only put in one headphone and leave one ear free so you can autotune your fucking self. Those of us without head phones can hear you. But right now, most of our throbbing vibrant city is set on mute.
Make some noise -- but keep some shit to yourself. Don’t blab all the neighborhood secrets. Make new people in the ‘hood earn the right to know. Stop being so scared of people who look “menacing”. Walk away, mind your business, find a cop. Stop acting weak. If something bad happens, work through it and keep your head up.
When something bothers you that someone else did no matter where, don’t ignore them. Say “What’s your problem?
The subway shouldn’t sound like metro north – why’s everybody whispering? It’s not like you paid extra. It’s the train! It’s the bus! As long as the garbage trucks and constant construction is bellowing, speak up in public.
NYers aren’t supposed to keep things to themselves even if we do mind our fucking business.
We give fire, bring noise. Give sound, loudness, arrogance, rhythm, the space time continuum and that burning for more, damn gorgeous New York ambition.
-- for Pen American Center’s Pen World Voices, “De-Gentrify New York and Give Her Back to the World, panel, 2011