Get in Where You Can Fit in
Bill Aguado is in a reflective mood. After a 30 year tenure with the Bronx Council on the Arts and a lifetime of working in the Bronx, he is full of stories. He reminisced with me about his work at an alternative school in the early 1970s where students shared mortal fear of crossing 96th Street, the delimiter of wealth and opportunity. “They just couldn’t do it,” he said. Finally, after many trial runs, and in a display of showmanship, he brings a group to dine at French restaurant. For the first time, the students are exposed to the so-called “finer things” and initiated in the rituals of luxury.
This is the not the first time I’ve heard this sort of story. This kind of socialization seems like a common strategy from an earlier generation. Make poor people see what they are missing; teach them ways to get by in the wider, whiter world. A Pulitzer-winning photographer who came of age during the same period told me of his tutelage by an older mentor, who taught him, aside from darkroom skills, how “to eat crackers and cheese with those muthafuckers downtown.” And in Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, “The Lesson” (1972), a college-educated woman brings a group of neighborhood children from Harlem to FAO Schwartz as a primer on inequality. “I think,” concludes one girl, “That this is not much of a democracy, if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?”
Uptown, Downtown: I could draw a map of the travels leading to such awakenings, a cartography of optimism and desire.
At the book launch of Derivatives of the Wealth of Societies, a discussion emerges among the authors to consider the ways which financial concepts like “hedging,” “optionality,” and “risk” could be leveraged in other circumstances to enforce justice for broader segments of society. Through the derivative they see real political potential. I am skeptical. Risky derivatives trading were central to the economic crisis. Granted, these are not Wall Street analysts pitching arcane theories, but visionary scholars in social science, the humanities, and art. However, I’ve learned, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, that the master’s tools do not dismantle the master’s house.
“It’s like injecting the system with part of itself to destroy the system!” my friend says. Earlier that week, a neighbor made a similar analogy: “It’s like homeopathy.”
I think of an ouroboros: a snake that devours its tail.
The Brujas describe themselves as a revolutionary feminist collective of native New Yorkers,
but in stories in The New York Times, Vogue, and Vice they are framed neatly as a tight-knit, all-girl Latina skate crew from the Bronx. Drawing upon their caché and their knowledge of the streetwear industry, they are launching their own clothing line called 1971 P.E., whose name is inspired by the date of the Attica prison uprising. So far, they have raised over $22,000 on Kickstarter to fund the line and benefit incarcerated people. They would like to find ways to distribute material resources to the hands of the people. At their political education events and on Instagram they call for an end to capitalism, but as Arianna Gil puts it, “while we’re here, let’s make some money.” They are listed on the portfolio webpage of DffrntWrld, a brand development firm. Because of their youthful appeal and rebellious energy, footwear companies and multinational brands have approached some of the members about wearing their gear and partaking in informal focus groups.
Arianna is sharing research on the unpaid labor performed by young men of color in the sneaker game known as flipping, where a single pair of Jordans are purchased for $150 dollars but can be re-sold into the thousands on secondary and tertiary markets. Often, the profits are reinvested back into sneakers. On average, the men she interviewed spent 21 hours a week researching upcoming sneaker releases, creating hype on online forums, setting up pages on eBay, and standing in line during launches. The young men, sometimes teenagers, and in some cases, otherwise unemployed, influence trends, which can be read as empowering. After the presentation, audience members share photographs of the new Yeezys. “Wait…We can buy these right now?” says Arianna, who is also a re-seller. “Whoa. I’m getting every color.”
It occurs to me that these are far different radical politics than when the Panthers set up a free shoe factory.
Once, access to shoes, any shoes, had been vitally important to low-income people. In A Taste of Power, Elaine Brown describes the humiliations her mother endured wearing shoes fastened together with safety pins. My friend Annie, who is eighty, told me a similar story about a childhood classmate in her native Pittsburgh. In Sisters of the Yam (1994), a kind of manual for self-care, bell hooks advised: “Many black women have large feet and again find it difficult to find reasonably priced shoes…Often black females will buy a number of poorly made, cheaper priced shoes that are not really comfortable when we could buy one pair of really well-made comfortable shoes.” More recently, the basketball player Stephon Marbury, inspired by his childhood experiences, endorsed a line of $15 sneakers for those who couldn’t afford the luxury of Nikes. His latest release lights up when controlled by an iPhone app. The shoes cost $50. The phone costs $649.
I have two cousins planning shoe games of their own. Darrus is seventeen-year-old high school senior in the suburbs of New Jersey. He’s got a license and part-time job at pizza place but he’d like to make extra money flipping sneakers online before he goes to college next year.
Samira is a recently divorced mother of two living in Maryland. She works for the Department of Homeland Security, but her dream is to open a line of stylish shoes for women sizes ten and up. At least that was the dream for a while. She later decides the shoe venture should wait until after she builds her brand as a nationally recognized motivational speaker. That’s how she’ll establish her legacy, and her consumer base.
I’m in the resident’s gallery at Artspace PS 109, the live/work space refashioned from a former public school in Harlem. We have gathered for an exhibition, panel, and performance called “#theCreatives” put on by #LoveHustle, a collective project which describes itself as “an artist-led, multiplatform conversation addressing how artists pursue their dreams and curate their lives.” Over the last year, the group has produced a feel-good set of artifacts including a chapbook of poetry about the nature of creative work, a set of songs, a collection of photographs of young, cool, Instagram-ready people of color, and a series of events in New York, Oakland, and Johannesburg.
In her opening remarks, Monica L. Williams, the project’s founder, seems interested in the brass tacks of navigating precarity—how people make ends meet, find health care, “feed themselves,” or take care of aging parents. Yet no one will talk about this explicitly tonight, and she will not ask. These are the topics many artists shroud in shame. Instead, she poses a more amorphous, Oprah-like question: “In what ways do you live your best life while pursuing your dreams?”
A series of artists and administrators each are given five minutes time to respond. Although the term “lovehustle” is never clearly defined, what’s implied, of course, is a very urban interpretation: grinding for a better life, struggling to reach material goals, the unusual ambition of pursuing something you love. The speakers explain the ways some people grind for their children, or out of deference to their immigrant parents, and others grind because they know no other way of operating. Two women perform an inspirational poem instilling a kind of moral certitude in time management. In this room the hustle is regarded as a foregone conclusion.
The evening is meant to be celebratory, not political.
That morning, Andrew Puzder, a fast-food executive, was named the nominee for secretary of labor. He is critical of increases to the minimum wage, President Obama’s expansion of eligibility for overtime pay, and the joint employer doctrine which creates expanded workplace protections. He dislikes unions and he is thought to support automation.
This isn’t mentioned tonight, either.
When I hear everyone speak of their hustles, it’s hard to tell if they mean getting ahead or merely getting by.
For a few weeks every artist I speak to is running to class. Caroline teaches four and we attempt to find a snatch of time in between, Sai’s filmmaking students are waiting for him down the block, Mike is heading to Columbia and has to cut our conversation short, and Zeljka has to go right now—her class at Cooper Union starts in twenty minutes.
Teaching is appealing for any number of reasons: the satisfaction that comes with transferring knowledge, access to an engaging intellectual community, the sense of purpose conferred on to the instructor. The flexible schedule.
Still, the promise of more time can feel illusory. Of dance classes and grantwriting a choreographer told me, “If I could only tell you how much time I spend doing the work that allows me to do the work.”
Teaching, grants, commissions, freelancing, even the occasional sale: Zeljka tells her students how it all breaks down. Both time and money are piecemeal. She is one of the few I’ve met in the art world who would dare to be so transparent.
Barry Kostrinsky thinks of the intersection of Alexander Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard as an “aesthetic corner,” which is generous; while the far end of Alexander is dotted with new market rate rentals, it juts upon what is basically a deserted highway leading into Manhattan.
Sandwiched between family-run junk shops and antique stores, he has opened a new iteration of his longstanding gallery, a humble room with a crowded assortment of sculptures and paintings by local artists hanging under fluorescent lights.
A top-tier gallery from downtown has been rumored to be coming to the area and the Stillhouse Group, the young, commercially successful artist collective, host parties at their private showing room on a nearby block. I’m told that former ice factory along that stretch of the Bruckner, which is owned by the Philadelphia Inquirer magnate, nearly became the largest SoHo House in the world. Barry keeps a list of prospective sellers and buyers who are interested in the neighborhood, but he doesn’t seem to know of these developments.
Barry’s going to take what he can from the developers, and they will give it, perhaps because he is asking so little. He wants to find collectors. “I got to get into that party they had,” he said with an air of gratitude. “I got to say hi to the CEO of Bacardi!”
“I emailed him,” he said, “but he didn’t email me back.”
The last bookstore in the Bronx is closing, although one outpost near the very top of the borough in the far-flung Co-op City, practically near Yonkers, is like having none at all. Books in the Hood, an independent bookshop, closed in 2011. I once heard someone at the Bronx Museum attempt to pass off its location as the borough’s only bookstore; a postage stamp-sized shop in the lobby. Technically speaking, I guess they were right.
Noelle’s dream is to open a shop of her own, a hybrid bookstore and wine bar in the South Bronx, where was raised. She is all business, and needs no help from me. She was quoted in a New Yorker story about the Co-op City closing; in a few weeks, she’ll appear in The New York Times and on WNYC. She wants her business to be inclusive, which is why she ran a focus group comprised in large part of new, white residents to the borough. Using her savings from her work as an HR administrator for a Wall Street tech firm, she will put an impressive amount of personal funds into the enterprise. However, between her savings and the prize winnings from a city-wide contest, she has only met a fraction of her financial goal.
A developer, Barry’s new friend, has approached her with a proposal for partnership but she was wary of losing equity in the business. Instead, she’ll play her hand, retaining the developer’s firm as a real estate broker. Without their financial support, though, commercial rents are going for between $23-40 per square foot, and seem to be going up.
At the coffee shop today I met a stranger named Ray. He is twenty-five and he speaks with the intensity of a person who refuses to get off track. He is in the process of executing what he believes to be a very solid plan to becoming well-off member of the middle class. For months he’s been teaching himself to build websites by following videos on YouTube, and since he skipped college he doesn’t have debt, which he says by pronouncing the ‘b’. Now all he needs is to get a job and build his credit and he’ll be set for life. From his point of view, he is far ahead of the curve. His assertions are as rigid as his handshake.
Yet deep down Ray is conflicted, so he solicits the advice of myself and another older person. He hates social media, and in turn he hates people. He is tired of politics (they’re too partisan) and he’s no longer associating with his peers (they’re extremists from the left and the right). He’s concluded there is no use for other people in his masterplan. He’s embracing solipsism. “I’ve already decided that I don’t want kids. Should I just continue to be totally self-interested, or it is worthwhile to care about the community and the world?”
This is second time I’ve heard a version of this question in a month, and prior to that that I had never heard it before. In both cases I was surprised by the baldness of the inquiry, and by what struck me as misplaced morals serving unbridled ambition. When I was first asked this question, I was on a panel about gentrification at an exclusive co-working venue. A young, well-dressed man presented himself as an aspiring curator and a licensed real estate agent. After a diverging series of statements, he wondered aloud of socially-committed writers and artists, “How do you choose between being self-interested and pursuing the common good?” The panel was confused. Wasn’t the answer obvious? It occurred to me right then that perhaps I was not among my people—the artists, school teachers, journalists, and nonprofit types who usually placed the world before their personal comfort. I didn’t know anyone who had even considered that kind of internal dilemma. A person must live their values, I said.
The following day as I looked online for books, I was reminded of the curator’s question. My people, who patronize e-retailers instead of local businesses and wear petroleum-based apparel. My people, who seek convenience and low prices at the expense of many others on the planet.
Today, I answered Ray with unabashed confidence: “If I were a self-interested person, I wouldn’t bother speaking with you…We need each other.” He appreciated this point, but I know my responses are not good enough. Ray is Latino and the curator was black. In a sense, I can understand their drive. I’ve seen it before. But I don’t know what I’ll say the next time I hear that question.
There has been no shortage of public conversations about gentrification throughout the city this year:
The 3rd Annual Gentrification Conference, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center at New Settlement House
Cultural Organizing for Community Change, hosted by Arts and Democracy and Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts at Groundswell
Preservation & the Landmarking Process in NYC, hosted by and held at Fourth Arts Block
Up-and-coming: Trending Neighborhoods, Rising Resistance, Parts 1 and 2, hosted by Martha Rosler at Mitchell Innes and Nash
TEACH-IN: Issues facing young artists in a gentrifying NYC, sponsored by Parsons School of Design at the New School
Chinatown is Not for Sale, hosted by Chinatown Art Brigade and Decolonize this Place at Artists Space
Flipping the Script: Saving NY as a Place Where Artists Can Thrive, hosted by the Outsider Art Fair at Neuehouse
Self-Gentrification Salon hosted by the Hunts Point Advisory Board at Startup Box
We are near the close of an event at the Van Alen Institute titled Strange Bedfellows: Real Estate, the Arts and the Value of Space. Two panelists have just finished discussing how spontaneous street performances can be used to market expensive high rises and now they’ve turned their attention to the ways in which artists should get something out of the deal. Part of the issue, they determine, is that artists have yet to learn to be entrepreneurial.
“Maybe,” the moderator, an artist, said enthusiastically, “artists can become real estate developers of their careers!”
In no statement has the psychic toll of neoliberalism been so apparent.