Tuesday, November 01, 2005

BUT ARE WE JUST THE GUYS TO DO IT? Just saw the second and final debate between Bloomberg and Ferrer. Neither combatant was very good, which of course hurts Ferrer more. The challenger contented himself with jabbing at Bloomberg -- a typical loser's gambit -- for specific shortcomings without pulling them together into a case. After hearing the Mayor continually offload onto the Governor and State Legislature all blame for the lack of action at Ground Zero, the crappy state of the subways, and the inability to get commuters and wealthy citizens to pay a fairer share of taxes, a more enterprising opponent might have more strongly suggested it were curious that the great deal-maker Bloomberg had been so bad at making deals to the City's benefit.

A good answer to that might be that, if Bloomberg couldn't swing these things, why would Ferrer? I have to admit I don't see Mayor Ferrer striking terror in the heart of the entrenched interests. The only difference I would expect is that he would actually try. As the boys in Animal House knew, there does come a time when the situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.

For years the City has been giving away leases and contracts to powerful interests in hopes of generating enough jobs to keep things peaceable. Donald Trump pays less rent on the Grand Hyatt than I do on my railroad flat in Greenpoint. This creates some jobs, but also increases the distance between those who own the town and those who work in it.

We drones trudge wearily into Manhattan each morning from the far corners of the boroughs, and wearily back again. To get far enough away from us to make their dollars seem worth the effort, the managerial classes are removing farther and farther away: to south Jersey, upstate New York, Pennsylvania. Greater New York is beginning to look like a massive version of Manchester in Friedrich Engels' time, as described by Edmund Wilson: "...its commercial section surrounded by a girdle of working-class sections, and, outside the working-class girdle, the villas and gardens of the owners merging pleasantly with the country around... the owners had arranged it so it was possible for them to travel back and forth between the Exchange and their homes without ever being obliged to take cognizance of the condition of the working-class quarters..."

My equanimous soul is not much bothered that the slum districts of my youth are now shopping bazaars and playgrounds for the moneyed -- I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. But it strikes me that as the poor get pushed further out from the center, we are replacing one sort of tension -- the sometimes dangerous but often fruitful tension that comes when the well-off and the not-so-well-off are cossetted together -- with another.

As the distance in New York between the rich and poor becomes more a physical one, we come to resemble other cities where one can go to do one's work without ever meeting anyone whose experiences are significantly different from one's own. You might scrape a plate, you might have your plate scraped; the world on the other side of the plate remains a mystery to you.

You could go from your college to your penthouse without any awareness of the teeming world without which your life would be impossible.

Have you ever wondered how New Yorkers got so damned liberal? It's not because we all read Marx -- many of us don't read at all. It's because for years the rich and the poor lived all bunched up together here. There was no escaping the awareness of other ways of life, and whatever your station (outside the richest precincts), you probably had a neighbor much worse off that you.

I remember, years ago, eating at the Kiev on Second Avenue with my then-girlfriend. The Kiev then was so cheap that everyone could eat there; a lot of indigents without stoves took small meals there. A little ragged woman sitting next to us had finished her portion of food and, with great trepidation, asked my girlfriend if she could have some of her fries. It obviously took a lot for her to ask. My girlfriend declined; we weren't rolling in dough, either. The woman tapped her fingertips to her own mouth a moment; something was at war inside her. Then, with a little cry, she reached over and grabbed a fistful of fries. A waiter hurriedly escorted her out.

This woman was not a welfare queen.

You don't forget things like that.

From Jacob Riis to Jim Carroll, great souls have thrived on the porous social fabric of New York, and it has given them heart and substance to in turn give to the rest of the world. When you think of New York's glories, the things that made it great rather than merely colossal, what do you think of? Do you think of James Baldwin, Jane Jacobs, Bernard Malamud, Leonard Bernstein, Jackie Robinson, Allen Ginsburg, Lou Reed, Grandmaster Flash? Or do you think of Trump Tower?

At the close of the debate, Ferrer referred to the bridge he had figuratively crossed to get from Fox Street in the South Bronx to the Democratic Mayoral nomination, and said he hoped he could help others to cross it. It was campaign boilerplate, but it gave me nonetheless a little pang. The whole idea of figurative bridges is very old-fashioned and perhaps silly, but for a moment, a shoddily poetic, ward-heeling New York political moment, I was moved. Because that bridge is real, and the chasm it spans is real, and for many years our City has been about leading people to the other side.

Bloomberg radiated contempt for Ferrer and the whole idea that he should be made to justify his ways in a TV studio not his own.

God, I hate that fucking pasty-faced rich prick.

The situation in the short and perhaps medium term is hopeless. Neither Ferrer's nor Bloomberg's "affordable housing" schemes are going to make a serious dent in things. The blackjack table at which Bloomberg folded his hand on the West Side Stadium deal, and keeps gamely tossing chips for the Ratner Atlantic Yards project, will remain where the action is, has a limited number of seats, and has not appreciably changed its tipping policy in quite some time.

Hapless as he is, I owe Ferrer a vote because he stood up to Giuliani when that creep wanted to postpone the 2001 election, a bit of useless Caesarism that he otherwise would have pulled off. Other than that, mine's a no vote -- no to City governance as corporate governance, and to the idea that we are merely employees in a giant conglomerate with a shitty benefits package and a glossy annual report.

I know not what course others may take -- well, I do know. It doesn't matter. It may be that in 2009 I'll be sitting in Far Rockaway, trying to finish my election essay in time to get a few hours sleep so I can catch a train at dawn. Never mind. I've seen it go from bad to worse, and I'll see this thing through to the end. I'll be here when Bloomberg has fucked off to whatever tropical island he'll reward himself with when this piece of his resume is completed. Perhaps that will be victory enough.

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