Monday, November 5, 2012

Chasing New York's Phantom Inequality

In the wake of the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, a number of narratives have emerged. One is the Triumph of the Bicycles - the bicycles are always triumphing, I'm happy to see, and one day maybe they'll even move the needle on mode share. Another is the Need for Resilience - I'm all in favor of resilience, but we need to be careful about it. I'm going to focus on one narrative in particular that's been bugging me. This one, I believe, is false, and it's dangerous.

I'm talking about how Sandy Laid Bare our Underlying Class Struggle. On Tuesday as the storm surge receded, Yves Smith warned of "Some Hidden Casualties of Hurricane Sandy." The next day David Rohde of Reuters wrote that Sandy "humbled some more than others in an increasingly economically divided city." Jonathan Maimon took a long bike ride across the city and wrote to Gothamist describing the "powerless zone" in a tone of outrage. Those two pieces were picked up by Alternet's Sarah Seltzer. On Thursday, Michelle Chen of In These Times wrote of "New York's Landscape of Inequality Revealed."

In the three days since those articles were written, they've been retweeted and reblogged numerous times, and I've kept my eye out for evidence of this predicted woe. I had actually written half this blog post and was about to talk about how it never materialized, when across my twitter feed came this pathetic screed by Sarah Maslin Nir.

That byline should tell you right away that something's up. The name of Sarah Maslin Nir strikes contempt in the heart of New York City urbanists. Back in March, this former nightlife reporter packaged the grudges and hidden business agendas of some Jackson Heights business owners into a hopelessly biased piece about the new pedestrian plaza that had been installed by the Department of Transportation, running with a misleading early-morning photo of the plaza by Librado Romero. In June, Nir ran another attack on the plaza masquerading as a story about a purse-snatcher foiled by Christian missionaries from North Carolina.

Nir's whole carefully constructed "two New Yorks" narrative about the bureaucrats from 40 Worth putting one over on the honest working people of Queens collapsed when the business owners formed a group to maintain the plaza and held a successful Eid al-Fitr celebration. In the most dramatic demonstration of the value of the plaza, a few weeks ago a group of young Bengali-Americans chose it as the location for a large flash-mob dance to the Korean hit "Gangnam Style."

After failing to stir up outrage over the pedestrian plaza, Nir is now trying the schtick out in the Rockaways, Red Hook, Gerritsen Beach and Belmar, which are apparently seething with resentment at those champagne-swilling, electrically-lit Manhattan elites. Yes, the same people who live in what Jonathan Maimon called "the powerless zone." They can't both be right, I don't think.

Paul Krugman provides some much-needed context by comparing the aftermath of this storm to that of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans seven years ago. Now that was real inequality and oppression, where white residents fled by car but black and Vietnamese residents were menaced with guns and kept in squalor in the Superdome arena.

I get the feeling that Nir and Maimon, and maybe others, really want to be the ones to find the same kind of institutionalized hatred that we saw in New Orleans. But it just doesn't fit reality. Here are some of the ways that this narrative falls short.
  • Some of the hardest-hit areas were wealthy. The blacked-out parts of Manhattan included some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. One resident of Staten Island's South Shore calmly told a reporter, I believe for Channel 7, that they weren't in such bad shape compared to others. I appreciated the refreshing honesty. It's true that Atlantic City has a lot of poverty, and there are tons of low-income housing projects in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways. But Nir really wants us to get worked up about the struggling masses in Belmar? Is she going to uncover seething resentment in Cape May next? Hoboken hasn't been a working class town since Hudson Hawk got sent up the river.
  • Some of the "working class" areas were doing pretty well. Rohde writes that "the city’s heroes were the tens of thousands of policemen, firefighters, utility workers and paramedics who labored all night for $40,000 to $90,000 a year." Those salaries aren't too shabby at all, especially towards the high end. Those are the people who live in Seagate, Breezy Point and Belle Harbor - all neighborhoods that were carefully configured to keep nonwhite strivers from moving in. The towns in Long Island and New Jersey where people complain about being lorded over by Manhattanites are the same ones that in the 1970s were openly contemptuous of the same (white) Manhattanites for being stuck living in highrises and taking the subway with their black and Puerto Rican neighbors.
  • Some of the policies favor the lower-income. The HOV restrictions and "bus bridge" put in place by the City and the MTA, and the City's decision not to go after dollar vans picking up people on the street, prioritized transit riders over drivers in ways that haven't been done in this city in a hundred years. Bloomberg refused to take any car kvetching from CBS2's Marcia Kramer. Cuomo kind of spoiled it with all the talk of free gas, but it was nice while it lasted.
  • People are getting what they need. One of Nir's interviewees, Orlando Vogler, refuses to complain. "It’s finally starting to come together," he said. "Now you see hundreds of volunteers coming down the street." Another report, by Annie Correal, also collapses in a sea of hope and appreciation. In Coney Island, "volunteers came four times," Mr. Kharak said. Just about everywhere that reporters and activists go looking for neglect and oppression, they find people who have gotten help from both the government and private volunteers.
  • The worst conditions are in the evacuation zone. Jacob Riis Houses. Red Hook. Coney Island. Gerritsen Beach. Far Rockaway. All in Zone A. All places where the Mayor told residents to leave and go to shelters, because he couldn't guarantee their safety if they stayed put. He told them that well before the elevators and trains stopped running. He made arrangements for pets and wheelchairs. I heard him. So did all the people interviewed. If they were in the shelters they'd all be warm and well-fed. They chose to stay. Maybe they had good reasons - I really wouldn't want to camp out in some high school for weeks. But you can't really blame the city for not doing more for them. They're not where they're supposed to be, but the city and volunteers are finding them anyway.

I don't think inequality is a good thing, and we definitely have too much inequality in this city. But New York is not New Orleans. We don't have that kind of inequality and oppression, and we take care of everybody when there's a disaster. Hopefully, the honest people will give up after searching for oppression and not finding much, and the dishonest people like Nir will fade away. Then we can get down to rebuilding the city in a fair and sustainable way.


Alon said...

Actually, going by metro area-wide Gini indices, New York has more inequality than New Orleans. So it's worth asking why the kind of inequality we see in New York with Sandy - Red Hook's above-ground power lines, people not capable of leaving Zone A, etc. - is nowhere near that of New Orleans, where the Mandeville sheriff organized a militia with guns to stand on the bridge and prevent black people from New Orleans from crossing.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for mentioning how those ruined areas along the barrier islands were "carefully configured to keep nonwhite strivers from moving in."

I never found the people in Breezy Point particularly welcoming to visitors who wanted to use their beach. Why should my tax dollars be used to prop up such behavior?