The Subway Diaries

DSCN0592There’s something really humbling about living in one of the world’s coolest and most desirable cities, only to take a 40 minute commute back to the far side of the city, one borough away, where you actually live. In the grand scheme of things, a single train ride of 40 minutes isn’t all that problematic. Time isn’t the issue at hand. The symbolism of distance and the tired faces that sit on that ride with me from Midtown Manhattan all the way to Crown Heights in Brooklyn at 7, 10, or even 11 pm, still wearing the service industry uniforms that separate them from Manhattan folk say it all. I live in and around the neighborhoods whose populations service the city’s coolest and most desirable spots, as well as its hospitals and government buildings. The machine that keeps Manhattan going, if you will.

And yet the above description no longer applies to all of Brooklyn, nor my entire neighborhood for that matter. Fully gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn such as Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Williamsburg, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens are all populated by people who commute but end up right next to the same folk they interact with in the city. On my subway line, these well-dressed, well-to-do folk begin to step out of the train around 6 stops before mine – and pay around three to four times what I pay in rent.  This crude and in-your-face inequality is so hard to avoid in this great city.

With every cute little organic bistro that I spot on the shopping streets surrounding my apartment, I wonder how much longer the people who ride the train with me to Crown Heights will be able to live here. The apartment prices are hiking here too and if the businesses that service the neighborhood continue to cater to professionals as they appear to be doing, long-term Crown Heights communities that withstood the neighborhood’s grittier and most violent days will be priced out of the area very soon to make room for a new wave of gentrifiers who have themselves been priced out of more desirable areas in the city. Needless to say once this new wave has made the neighborhood “nice”, they too will be priced out until the neighborhood is yet another unattainable Carroll Gardens or Park Slope.

Displacement is one of those brutal consequences of “neighborhood improvement”, whereby improvement means sweeping out the poor and making a quaint and safe space for nice professional middle class folk to live in. And it happens. All the time. In cities way beyond New York. With no concern for human suffering and misery, and with full support of pro-development politicians who applaud such changes, postulating them as success stories. After all, they follow the logic that “mo bistros = mo hipsters = mo money” and in a world where global cities compete for these desired inhabitants/workers, gentrification is a welcome process.

New York is practically the birthplace of gentrification, but these are particularly interesting times for this discussion. The current mayoral elections are showing that the city’s people may finally be fed up with the constant destruction of their communities and marginalization of the city’s poor and working classes. Bill de Blasio – the democratic candidate who is treated essentially as mayor already – is a man who won the democratic nomination by being the most obvious opposite of the last two pro-business mayors of the city. His speeches address what he calls the “tale of two cities”: the increased income and lifestyle inequality in New York since the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. He speaks of gentrification as a problem, racial profiling of people of color by the NYPD as a disrespect, and is committed to taxing the super-rich in order to provide day and after-school care to the children of the urban working poor who work to service them. Quite a shift. In narrative, at least. Plus, Mr. de Blasio is married to an African American former lesbian – maybe bi? I was unclear on that from the NY Times article where she tells the story of how he got ‘the girl who likes girls’ – and has a socialist-leaning left-wing past. The latter, interestingly, is often said by New York intellectuals. Like no one could possibly have a socialist present. Although if you hear de Blasio’s speeches you might think otherwise. Socialism is clearly still a very dirty word in the US of A – one used to insult another high profile democrat daily.

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersFormal politics aside, commuter life and this confrontation with diversity and downright inequality is survived by what I call ‘audiovisual bubbles’, designed to block out the senses and all possible forms of human connection. This tactic isn’t a New York exclusive thing, but it is exercised very well over here. Headphones, books, smartphone games and – I kid you not – good ol’ ear plugs are coping mechanisms that allow New Yorkers to deal with the stimulus overload that is provided by the subway experience. From screeching tracks to begging hobos – and as you may remember from my blog post a few weeks ago, total perverts – riding the ride is a tough thing to get through shield-free. And yet I try to.

Never in my life have I been made to coexist with so many different people in such an enclosed space, for such extensive amounts of time, so often. My home town of São Paulo is huge, but our subway system isn’t. São Paulo is possibly one of the most unequal cities on the planet, but having lived there only as a teenager and going back as a local tourist of sorts, I tend to only really navigate through the three main neighborhoods where my friends, family and favorite restaurants and bars are. More often than not, by car. It’s a little easier to create a tunnel vision to the crude inequality around you when you’re racing past it, than when you’re seated next to it. So this whole thing is new to me. And the subtle observations that I make about human behavior on the subway or weird little conversations I get into with older folk who forget to bring a magazine for the train are priceless.

Miles away from my sheltered, now seemingly utopian – and, frankly, almost surreal – Amsterdam life, I have been learning to coexist with a lurking sense of unease brought on by a constant and inevitable exposure to both the haves and have-nots of New York society. And this is only the subway. The upper-east side is like another planet where all dogs have personal trainers who are Brazilian – a.k.a. dog walkers speaking Portuguese – and the child-rearing women on the streets are of color while all of their babies are as white as can be. Not to mention it’s clean. In Manhattan, experiencing cleanliness while being on the streets feels much like being teleported to another city.

There’s nothing quite like relative deprivation to waken a sense of class consciousness. Slowly but surely, I am becoming accustomed to thinking of New York problems as a reality of which I am a part.

It’s harsh, but rather refreshing, to be back in the real world.

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