Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category
Just ate at Patsy’s Pizzeria in Spanish Harlem with my wife and my parents. Founded in 1933, Patsy’s is one of only two coal-oven pizzerias in Manhattan (they’re no longer allowed, but the restaurants were grandfathered in). Several other locations have sprung up, but they don’t have the coal-ovens, and they aren’t as good.
The pizza at the original Patsy’s was delicious, as usual. Which is why it might seems surprising that the restaurant, if certainly not empty, was not overflowing with customers the way comparably excellent pizza joints like Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s or John’s might be on a Sunday afternoon.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Patsy’s is not in the most convenient location. On First Avenue by East 118th Street, there are no subway stops nearby. Second is that the neighbourhood has undergone a demographic shift. Patsy’s was once at the heart of Italian Harlem, but the Italians have moved away, and Puerto Ricans have moved in. Now the neighbourhood is Spanish Harlem.
The customers at Patsy’s, for the most part, did not appear to be tourists, but they did not appear to be locals to the neighbourhood either. Everyone loves pizza, but in this location, the restaurant seems to be surviving rather than thriving.
I suspect this was not always the case. The story of the old neighbourhood is told brilliantly in Robert Orsi’s book The Madonna of 115 Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem.
The book describes the massive yearly festival of the Madonna that took place on the streets of Italian Harlem, how this religious ritual reflected an ethnic community’s attempt to maintain tradition while also adapt to their new American surroundings. I’m sure Patsy’s was always packed then.
After WW2 especially, though, Italians moved away from the neighbourhood, and Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, moved in. Though also Catholic, these newcomers did not really embrace the tradition. Instead, other Catholic immigrants, like Haitians who lived further away, continue to participate in the the formerly Italian ethnic Catholic festival, as do Italians who return to their parents and grandparents’ neighbourhood.
That festival, however, only happens once per year. But Patsy’s Pizzeria remains, a delicious – and hopefully permanent – relic of days gone by.
I live in Columbia med school housing up in Washington Heights. It’s convenient for my wife, Julie, who goes to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Our apartment is great. But I live in a med school bubble, and I’m not a medical student. Also, the neighbourhood is a bit of a bar and restaurant wasteland. I don’t speak Spanish, and it’s 85% Dominican, so it’s difficult to feel like a part of the community. And I’m not religious enough for the bochers further north around Yeshiva University.
Further south, however, I just discovered a marvelous piece of history. At Jumel Terrace, just east of 160th and St. Nicholas, sits the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Built in 1765, it’s the oldest house in Manhattan. George Washington lived there during the Revolutionary War, and hosted a dinner in 1790 including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr lived there in the early 19th century. The mansion is now a museum; I got to see the dining room where that dinner took place, and Washington’s bedroom, servants’ quarters, the women’s rooms, the parlour, and more. In Washington’s bedroom, a small, amusing exhibit was set-up called “Washington’s Facebook.” A cartoon cardboard cutout of Washington sat with his laptop, on his Facebook page, his cell phone on the table. The implication is that similar to the recent Arab Spring, if Washington had had access to Facebook and Twitter, he would have used them to foment his own revolution.
Far more interesting to me than this colonial history, however, is the more recent history that surrounds the place. The bookstore, Word, or Jumel Terrace Books, open only by appointment, sits across from the Mansion at 426 W. 160th. It has a remarkable collection of African American and Africana literature. It also has a lot of left-wing, Marxist, and revolutionary books, noting that “books are weapons.” It even has revolutionary board games.
Class Struggle, the board game, serves “to prepare for life in capitalist America.” Funny, I thought Monopoly did that. Class Struggle is “for kids from 8 to 80.” Fun for all ages! It also comes with “directions for possible classroom use.” And it’s educational too!
Then there’s this one:
The X Game, with a large quote from Malcolm X on the front, asks us to “Stop the System By Any Means Necessary.” It is a “cooperative game,” noting “it’s a race to achieve unity–the key to Black liberation” and “winning requires working together to beat the ‘System’ … no one can do it alone!” Sounds perfect for those non-competitive parents, but I don’t think Amy Chua would approve.
Even more interesting, however, are those African American elites who came to live in the still beautiful section of the neighbourhood, once called Harlem Heights or Sugar Hill. W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson all made their homes in this neighbourhood. Robeson first lived at 16 Jumel Terrace, but then, like several of the others, moved into 555 Edgecombe Avenue (also known as Paul Robeson Boulevard). Today, Alicia Keys lives in Robeson’s apartment, continuing the tradition. Maybe the history helps her retain her New York State of Mind
For a while the alleged rape of a New York hotel maid by the now ex-managing director of the IMF dissolved not into the expected narrative of “he said, she said,” but instead into a question of what France versus the US do with their women. Such a story line reduced an act of sexual violence to a question of gender relations, flirtation, or privacy by comparing the US’s ostensibly stellar record of bringing its politicians to task (Spitzer and Clinton) versus France’s bad habit of turning a blind eye. In an Al Jazeera piece, Mayanthi Fernando and Gil Anidjar seem to have been the first to question the application of a narrative of sexual scandal to a case of sexual violence:
By continuing to cast DSK’s case as one of sex… we obscure the fact that the case at hand is not about sex (discreet or otherwise) but about power and violence. Like a number of similar cases (for there are comparisons to be made), it has to do with the behaviour of powerful men in powerful positions. It has to do, in other words, with politics as full spectral dominance.
Four months ago, the NYTimes ran this headline: “Thousands of Rape Kits Sit Untested for Decades, but Change Would Be Costly.” Soon after they dealt with this controversy, “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance.” And this was still going on when DSK happened: “Jury to begin deliberating in New York police rape case.” Nonetheless, the NYTimes saw fit to ask a panel of experts this question: Are French Women More Tolerant?
It’s as difficult to know where to begin telling the narrative of the narrative as it’s obviously been to narrate the case itself. But I think we could begin by asking why DSK was more readily compared with Schwarzenegger and his love child than to the contemporaneous trial of two New York cops accused of rape (one for having actually raped and the other for having assisted). After all, both story lines involved men who wielded their power to commit sexual violence against women in vulnerable positions (one inebriated after a long night celebrating a job promotion, the other reportedly an African immigrant who was working as a maid in an NYC hotel). Again, Fernando and Anidjar’s article was the first I read to draw the comparison.
Rather than focus on DSK as a sex scandal or media trial, we should perhaps instead ask what questions the acquittal of the NY cops raises for DSK’s case. Because the French media [not to mention BHL — were he American he’d be a shock jock] has indeed gotten one thing wrong: trial by media is not the same as trial by jury. The public’s shocked reaction to the cops’ acquittal (including organized protests by various feminist groups) is testament to how divergent the media’s narrative was from that of the courtroom.
A few days ago the NYTimes finally did catch on that rape and sexual assault trials are notoriously difficult for the prosecution to win. Already DSK’s lawyers have indicated that they will argue that any sexual acts between him and the maid were consensual. So let’s take a quick look back to why the jury decided not to convict in the NY cops case. Here’s what one juror said:
“I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he said. “There is nothing to substantiate this. There’s no DNA, there’s no proof in any way that they had sex.”
Even more revealing was a great interview with Women’s eNews given by Melinda Hernandez, another juror who had initially voted to convict:
It all came down to the forensic evidence. There was none at all. No hair, no semen, no pubic hairs in the evidence collected from the apartment or in the rape kit collected at the hospital. There was a small red patch found on her cervix, but that could have been caused by several things. There was no solid proof from the evidence collected or the rape kit. Not even fingerprints. Not even fibers from police uniforms. Many pieces of material were taken from the apartment. But there were no fingerprints. There was nothing there.
All the evidence was collected by the NYPD internal affairs investigator and was taken to police crime lab. After it was examined there, then it was sent to the medical examiners lab.
Was there ever any question of police tampering of the evidence?
You can’t raise that kind of speculation. That’s why I think the system failed her big-time.
But why can’t you raise that kind of speculation at a trial? It’s the given duty of the jurors to judge the credibility of the plaintiff’s versus the defendant’s testimony. Why should the testimony of expert witnesses be exempt from similar considerations?
But more importantly, how does the assumption that corroborating medical evidence is necessary to convict (though–correct me if I’m wrong–I don’t think this is actually required by law) impact the prism through which other evidence is viewed and the way in which the narrative of sexual violence is itself constructed?
First it seems necessary to point out the obvious: DNA evidence does not an act of sexual violence make. Semen found on the maid’s shirt has been matched to DSK’s DNA, but “the defense is expected to pursue the issue of whether it is even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex,” reports the NYTimes. Which reminded me of something from Stephen Robertson’s historical article on the emergence of a medico-legal discourse in rape trials during the 19th century:
In 1823, in the first American treatise on medical jurisprudence, Theodoric Beck articulated what he identified as the general medical opinion on that issue: “I am strongly inclined to doubt the probability [that] a rape can be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength.”
In the 18th century, before doctors had established their competence to judge whether a woman had been raped, the body of the female victim was examined not by doctors but by a group of respectable, married women. As the medical profession began to develop and professionalize in the 19th century, doctors asserted their medical expertise in legal cases including rape trials. While judges throughout the 19th and 20th centuries frequently challenged the conclusions doctors drew from their medical evidence, juries — largely made up of middle-class men — increasingly placed their trust in doctors’ sworn testimony.
In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Giorgio Agamben writes, “experience is incompatible with certainty, and once an experience has become measurable and certain, it immediately loses its authority.” Scientific verification displaces experience away from the individual onto instruments and numbers.
In her 1997 article evaluating the role that medical evidence has come to play in rape trials in Canada (which have many parallels to the United States), Georgina Feldberg wrote, “One clear force within the history of medico-legal reform was the goal of creating expert physicians who had the experience and skill to administer and interpret medical tests that would define the scientific fact of rape.”
The problem of course, is that while evidence might prove intimate contact or intercourse, there is no medical way to definitively prove consent or lack thereof. Historically, physical signs of violence have played better to juries (note the emphasis placed on the bruising of the victim’s cervix in the NY cops trial). But of course our definitions of both consensual sex and sexual violence have expanded: consensual sex can result in bruising, while the battering of a victim is not conditional for rape.
While lack of medical evidence casts doubt on the accuser’s claims and its presence may do little to lift the fog, Feldberg points out that the use of medical evidence opens up the pandora’s box of the victim’s sexual history, despite rape shield laws intended to place a victim’s sexual past off limits. Thus in the NY cops case, forensics didn’t find any traces of the accused cop’s DNA (despite the fact that he admitted to getting into bed with the woman, cuddling with her and kissing her shoulder). But forensics findings did open up questions about the DNA of three other men found on the woman’s sheets, while questions about the mechanics of penetration revealed the woman’s familiarity with various sexual positions. Of course ideally none of this would matter and courtroom reactions would not include “cringing, laughing or blushing like a fifth grader in reproductive health class.”
At the end, we’re left with a series of paradoxes. Testimony undermined by the absence of relevant medical evidence. Medical evidence that reveals decontextualized details from the accuser’s past. Medical evidence undermined by the question of experience itself: Was it consensual, was it not?
And so we come back to the question that DSK’s lawyers will want us to focus on: Is it physically possible for an older man of middling strength to force a woman to perform oral sex? At face value this seems to be a question of experience rather than medical evidence. Did the woman experience force?
Yet see how quickly a question of experience turns into a question of mechanics, of science, of experimentation and verification. Is it “even physically possible for an unarmed man, who is not particularly physically imposing, to force a person to engage in oral sex?” Can a rape “be consummated on a grown female in good health and strength?” Questions that expect experience to be generalizable rather than individual, and thus obfuscate issues of power, coercion, confusion, and fear.
It’s already known that for Janet Malcolm, no profession is sacred, not even her own. Yet while remaining hyper-aware of her role as journalist in her latest book Iphigenia in Forest Hills, she also assumes the mantle and mentality (with intense psychological portraits) of lawyer, judge, and executioner, not to mention father of the dead, daughter of the accused, state-appointed law guardian, and alleged murderess. Some might call it a performative contradiction, but then again she sees all the characters in the trial as performers with deep contradictions. Perhaps she’s merely joining the gang, or perhaps her own performance is intended to highlight the inconsistencies that surround her.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills recounts the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a physician and member of the Bukharan Jewish community in Forest Hills in Queens, accused of hiring a hitman to murder her ex-husband after a court ordered their young daughter be transferred into his custody. I recommend it wholeheartedly. About her protagonist, Malcolm writes, “she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.” This appears on page 32 of 155 pages, and by the end the reader is left with no further conclusion than that. Either we remain satisfied with this impossibility, or we start doubting Janet Malcolm’s authority. But why doubt Malcolm’s authority rather than someone else’s? Take the judge for instance: Robert “Hang ’em” Hanophy, whom one juror (apparently hand-selected for his gray everydayness) says (on page 96) is “real and down to earth and serious about his job. And funny. He had a good sense of humor.” But nearly 90 pages before, Malcolm has already described Hanophy as “a man of seventy-four with a small head and a large body and the faux-genial manner that American petty tyrants cultivate.”
I keep noting the timeline of the book because it tells us something about what Malcolm’s doing here. Malcolm doesn’t ask the reader to reach his or her own conclusions as testimony is laid out; she doesn’t pander to expectations of objectivity. The jurors and judge are already biased toward actions and behaviors that seem legitimate to their own understandings, and Malcolm isn’t about to let them get the monopoly on prejudice. Yet while Malcolm gives her narrative precedence, the nature of the written form allows her thoughts to become interwoven with those of other characters’; the reader flips back and forth to re-read a Malcolm characterization of someone an interviewee has presented in a very different light. And so Malcolm’s own narrative can be retroactively challenged. While I was initially convinced by Malcolm’s claim that Borukhova both couldn’t have and had to have killed her ex-husband, at some point I began to doubt that she couldn’t have. Despite this deep paradox, Malcolm is more convinced that she knows Borukhova’s character than I am (though in a recent Paris Review interview, Malcolm admits, “As I went along I felt I undestood her less and less… [Borukhova] becomes who you imagined she is.”) Flawed legal evidence abounded, and Borukhova appeared to be a successful career woman, a devoted mother, and quite possibly an abused wife, but none of this convinced me that she couldn’t have done it. Perhaps this makes me the radical relativist to the contrarian Malcolm, characterizations that make generational sense given her birth in 1934 and mine in 1983.
There’s a lot to chew on in Paul Krugman’s new magnum opus on the failures of the Euro. But I wanted to riff off this point he makes:
“America, we know, has a currency union that works, and we know why it works: because it coincides with a nation — a nation with a big central government, a common language and a shared culture. Europe has none of these things, which from the beginning made the prospects of a single currency dubious.”
Although Krugman doesn’t frame it this way, his argument is to some degree about geographic scales. The problem with Europe, among other things, is that the space of the Euro is larger than the space of any particular political unit’s fiscal policies. As such, when the fiscal policies of a particular country—Spain, Italy, Greece, etc…– get the country in trouble for whatever reason (often from causes not necessarily the country’s fault) they are unable to devalue their currency, since it belongs to the bigger unit of Europe. As such the Greek people are stuck using a currency that is, from their perspective, too strong because it represents attitudes towards the entire European project (including the stronger economies of Germany and France), when devaluation would actually benefit their economies. In the end, he argues for increased fiscal integration, bringing the space of fiscal decision making closer to the space of the European currency.
I’m in no position to judge the economics of the argument (as if that ever stopped me…). But I think the so called “spatial-turn” in history may have some valuable insights here, as what is occurring in Europe strikes me as analogous in some ways to recent moments in American urban history. In American historiography, scholars have begun analyzing how power is written into social space, and how different and competing geographies affect politics and economics. The work I’m most familiar with is 20th century histories, especially those of suburbanization and urban planning. I’m particularly thinking here of Robert Self’s American Babylon, Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic, and the Thomas Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis, each of which studies post-war urbanization practices in, respectively, Oakland, New Jersey, and Detroit. Each are intricate and important works, which don’t always agree with each other, but to me, highlight one important insight: when the effective economic space of a given market does not coincide with the effective political space(s) governing that market serious political and economic problems arise.
In urban politics the fact that, for instance, labor markets can be “bigger” than the political unit which theoretically manages the economy has encouraged things like white flight and suburbanization. Middle class parents can continue to work downtown, while taking advantage of lower-taxes, cheaper land, and (likely) their own conscious or unconscious preference for de facto racial segregation in the suburbs. Take New York City, for instance, which in the 60s embarked on a series of ambitious social democratic measures (free higher education at the CUNY system, public hospitals, public housing, etc…). These measures, which primarily benefit the poor and working class, all require taxation and/or debt financing. If an individual, let’s say, ad executive, can continue to work on Madison Avenue while living in lower tax Westchester County or Long Island, where there are no poor people to support, he will move out there. The suburban resident, then, essentially is parasitic, taking advantage of the urban labor market while self-seceeding so as to avoid paying for its maintenance. And bondholders will prefer lending to fiscally conservative suburbs which are, theoretically at least, less likely to default, driving up the cost of borrowing for urban polities.
A vicious circle begins, in which the infrastructure and social programs of the city decline, hastening the flight of middle and upper class taxpayers into the suburbs. The result, of course, is a process of class and race based segregation that undermines social democratic urban policy. After the debt crisis of the 1970s– brought about in no small part because the city lost so many high and middle income taxpayers to the suburbs– New York City retreated from any serious commitment to its working class citizens and hasn’t looked back since (see Josh Freeman: Working Class New York). In cities like Atlanta this is being taken to the absurd extreme of outer-ring areas seceding from the city, in order to avoid having to pay to maintain urban facilities (and, once again, to avoid political integration with the African-American core of the city).
Meanwhile the fact that there is one market but multiple, and competing, political units, each smaller than the market, only aggravates this problem. My father has served in a number of thankless positions in our local town government. Almost every year, our town government face some sort of dilemma that goes like this: Company A asks for a tax break or the right to disobey an ordinance or whatever. If they don’t get it they’ll leave. The problem is each town council knows if they don’t give in, their neighbors might, and Company A will just relocate. So even if every local government sees through this crass corporate blackmail, they’re all stuck in a collective action problem. In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick is under a bit of attack for funneling 58 million dollars to a solar power plant, on the hopes of keeping employment in state, only to see it turn around and move to China. But what choice did he have? If New Hampshire was willing to give them $57 million, he had to pony up. The solar plant violated the terms of the informal contract only being rude enough to leave so quickly. This is a long way of saying, of course, that capital can play individual political units off each other, setting off a race to the bottom.
And what happened in a minor scale, in cities across America, is now occurring across the globe. In Greece and Ireland, for instance, the debt crises have forced a massive reduction in the welfare state, even while, as in Ireland, corporate taxes remain low in order to continue to attract highly mobile international capital.
David Harvey is the theorist who has most extensively written on this, arguing that one of the main strategies for renewed capital accumulation in the neoliberal age has been what he calls a “spatial fix.” Part of this is as old as capitalism itself, which has always had the tendency towards constant geographic expansion (“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”). The annihilation of space and time that accompanied the rise of the internet, containerization, and trucking all sped up and intensified this pre-existing process.
But spatial fixes become especially useful in the post-war period as a form of top-down class warfare against social democratic regimes. The greater mobility of capital is one of its most powerful weapons against both labor movements (which are most often local or nationally based) and against government regulation. Are wages too high in this country? Did the voters just implement some pesky environmental regulation? Did the government just approve taxes in order to finance some social program? Capital can find somewhere else that is friendly to its continued accumulation. Especially attractive are undemocratic states like Dubai or China where you never have to worry about the citizens getting in your faces if you pollute their river. And even if the factory doesn’t move, just the threat that they could relocate serves as a powerful disciplinary tool. Go try to organize a union of manufacturing workers in America. See how long it takes before management puts up posters reminding people that “In the past, when factories have unionized, these jobs have been forced to go overseas, hint, hint, nudge, nudge.” Under the Breton Woods system, as I understand it, it was actually fairly difficult to move capital in and out of countries, as nations maintained strong restrictions on the out-flow of capital.
But now this is possible, of course, because with 30 years of “free trade” globalization combined with technological improvements, the effective space that capital can operate has become much larger than the effective space that capital’s main antagonists (organized labor and democratic oversight) generally function in. And, of course, the fact that the era of globalization has also been one of increased repression and restriction of immigration (i.e. labor trying to move around just as capital does), only highlights the mocking farce that is the ideology of globalization.
The problem, then, is that by making the market bigger than the democratic institutions which used to oversee it, the neoliberals have undermined their own ability to regulate that market, even in ways they might want to. In their honest moments, neoliberals even admit this, as when bankers threaten to move overseas if the rabble taxes them, or when Thomas Freidman writes about the “golden straightjacket,” that limits the policies governments can implement if they want to grow economically. Now Europe, it seems, is suffering from the ability of capital (in this case bondtraders) to operate in a significantly larger arena than other agencies.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the left about the undemocratic nature of the various international agencies that oversee the world economy– the IMF, the World Bank, G-20, etc… But to some degree, these critiques miss the point. The problem isn’t the undemocraticness of the IMF itself as in institution, though that might be true. The problem is that by creating a market bigger than our nation-state, we’ve undermined our ability to democratically control the market through our normal channels of citizenship and democratic participation.
I realize the analogy with modern European problems isn’t perfect: I’m not totally sure that the bond market, for instance, operates in the same way that other markets do. And since countries are bigger than urban spaces, and produce strong affective ties, I’m not sure that individual taxpayers move around that much. But capital certainly does, blessing Ireland one day, and then pulling out the next. And the fundamental point, that the problem arises from the mismatch between the space of the market and the space of the effective political units, preventing the regulation and management of the market, I think holds. (I say effective, since in this case the actions of the Greek or Irish parliaments are clearly more salient than the largely meaningless European Parliament).
One solution, of course might be reintroduce restrictions of various sorts, as those who wish to leave the Euro suggest. The other is to “scale up” the various political units so that they more accurately coincide with the various economic marketplaces. This seems to be Krugman’s preference. Theoretically there are certain UN bodies, like the ILO, which have some universal jurisdiction. But at this point the ILO is completely toothless (I know, they condemned NYU, my employer, for its labor practices in no uncertain terms back in 2008, and here we are still without a union.) And given that the international community has been unable to agree on some proper management of the carbon in our atmosphere, the clearest example of a global commons, there isn’t a lot of hope that, at least in the near future, countries would give up their sovereignty over issues like taxation, labor policy, and their welfare state. And the UN, whose various agencies are perhaps best positioned to oversee some of these issues, is still only indirectly democratic, with both India and Belize getting the same votes in the General Assembly, and the Security Council dominated by those countries which happened to win World War II. And of course, the other major global institutions—the World Bank, the IMF, the G-20, etc…—are far less democratic, dominated, at best, by unaccountable neoliberal technocrats, and at worse by the naked influence of the financial industry.
And so any real global integration of global politics seems, at this point, to be almost completely utopian. Which is to say, that the problem Krugman hints at, that the spaces in which global capital operates in will continue to be larger than the spaces in which the countervailing forces operate, will not be restricted to Europe. Hopefully we don’t all end up like Detroit, but I’m not optimistic.
This blog might have a history of ragging on Boston (or Cambridge) in favor of New York, and I might feel a little lousy contributing to it, but after having spent my first “working week” (as opposed to “recovery week/end” of which there have been a few) back in New York since I left it a year and a half ago, I can’t help but feel a very strong reaction to the differences between the two. Fair warning that this represents my most narcissistic, “self-exploration” post since that time I thought really hard about what it means that I can’t remember song lyrics for shit.
Let’s start with sleeping. This may be a weird category of analysis, but I seem to need less sleep in New York — I think because New York literally wakes me up. Walk out the door and your pace immediately has to flow in with that of the rest of the crowd. I was doing a Washington Heights to Morningside Heights commute nearly every day and was pulled back into the rapid and impatient pace of morning subway traffic, so that even before I’d settled into the library with my first cup of coffee I was buzzed and awake. Also I was reminded yet again that Harvard’s main library feels like a mausoleum compared to Columbia’s. On the other hand, New York also translates to me being less healthy—less sleep, less running (the commute seems like exercise enough), more bars, more drinking.
Weirdly enough, for a city supposedly built on artifice, I think New York allows for much more naturalized social interactions than Cambridge. In my experience, people in New York are more easily and informally befriended and absorbed into goings-on; social gatherings come together sporadically/organically during a given night while in Cambridge they tend to take a week of pre-planning. Part of this has to do with the crowd — in Boston/Cambridge so far (and this may be my fault) people seem to stick within their occupational crowd, while in New York, friends and friends of friends extend over a variety of interests/activities. Boston seems bubbled, New York networked.
Ok, now for some Cambridge positives. The slower pace of life often allows for more sanity (New York neuroticism is no myth). I am, shall we say, more domesticated in Cambridge than I think I would be in New York. I cook more, I’m more invested in my home environment, my mind is in some ways clearer about what’s going on in my life. Admittedly, I was a feckless undergraduate for most of my time in New York and I spent nearly a year of my working-life living in a cockroach-ed apartment at 151st street, which I mainly avoided by organizing daily happy hours with friends. And my initiation into domestic-heaven may have begun when I moved to Park Slope, where I regularly feared getting pregnant by osmosis. Nonetheless, there is something calmer, quieter, and in some ways more lovely, if not more beautiful, about Cambridge.
Cafes are an interesting question. New York ones tend to have better working environments (Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, Think Coffee near NYU), and I think this is because, despite the fact that Cambridge has a greater number of cafes around it than Morningside Heights, Harvard Square tends to centralize both a student and work crowd in the same square mile or so, making everything (the square itself, sundry coffee stops) feel distractingly crowded. People in New York tend to be dispersed among any number of cafes/delis/restaurants, which means that each establishment, whatever it is, is saved from being overrun by an onslaught of people seeking the one place they can grab both a coffee and a sandwich.
A key question I’ve always wondered about is which place is better (i.e. results in better work) to do a PhD. I’ll let the other tentacles weigh in on this as I think we’re about evenly divided between the two. Personally I’m torn. I was a less focused undergraduate in New York than a graduate student in Cambridge. The energy of New York can be just as distracting as it is inspiring. At the same time, I think there is more talking going on in New York, and I’ve learned much more about what it takes to actually do history through conversation than through reading (which is partly why I like to engage in talking’s poor cousin, blogging). And it’s possible that the discipline that a PhD demands might give one the ability to harness the city’s energy in the interest of completing a dissertation. In any case, consider the floor open for your opinions, complaints, accusations of urban snobbery, as well as examples of reduction, misrepresentation, and nostalgia to rival my own.
There is a certain joy to be found in contemplating the hipster, perhaps even universal for any who have had the dubious privilege of living in their vicinity. Figuring out where they “live” is a much easier feat than determining who they “are” — one of the more narcissistically self-effacing species of our time (and that’s saying a lot), you can get off at the Bedford stop in Williamsburg and run into someone who looks like this
and they will still deny their hipster affiliation til doomsday. Needless to say, hipsters are more prevalent in ironic urban centers on either coast, though a great many seem to have originated in and then wandered out of America’s heartland, only to find themselves a tat sleeve, an unpaid internship, and fifteen roommates in Bushwick. (Digression: Last winter I got a taste of the Los Angeles hipster lifestyle when a friend brought me to Red Lion Tavern in the Silver Lake district, a kitschy German bar with electronic organ and, it must be said, a delicious apple strudel. What was fascinating was that everyone looked as if they could have been hanging out in Bushwick, but they were all so shockingly good-looking I felt like an extra in “Hipster: The Movie.” Brooklyn is obviously to Silver Lake what Broadway is to Hollywood)
Boston is a town nearly bereft of hipsters — they’re concentrated at Berkelee College of Music and Emerson perhaps, and in Jamaica Plain. At Harvard they’re likely to be spotted in classes where they can conspicuously consume Continental philosophy, though there American hipsterdom and Euro-ness get blurred in a way I always find confusing.
Of course I try to do my part for Boston — not as one (and though denying being a hipster is part of being a hipster, you can trust that I’m much too earnest and take my German kitsch way too seriously to ever be mistaken for one) — but by trying to inject speculations on hipsters into as many classroom contexts as possible. Case in point: reporting on Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction for a class in early modern material culture this fall, I talked about how it seemed a very “French” book (which Bourdieu himself and many of his reviewers also noted), and used the idea of the New York hipster as an example of an American cultural species that seemed to undermine his claims. Mostly it was just an excuse to talk about hipsters, but it was said with some conviction.
To give a quick rundown, the heart of Bourdieu’s argument is that assertions of taste are assertions of power, by which various groups try to maintain dominance over others through the deployment not just of economic, but of cultural capital. Unlike Kant, who sees beauty, found first in nature, as something true, autonomous from human judgment, universally valid, beauty and taste are relational in Bourdieu. The subject, and hence his/her taste, is co-constituted through objects that make up the world of his or her class and educational milieu. Class and education are determinative for one’s habitus, one’s taste patterns.
Ok, let’s get back to hipsters. Mark Greif, a professor at the New School (and co-editor/founder of n+1), just wrote a NYTimes article about the hipster issue of self-denial: why is talking about and identifying hipsters often so fractious?
These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters…Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.
So basically in calling someone a “hipster” and denying the label oneself, a member of a certain cultural community tries to undermine another’s authenticity, in part because one’s own position is so precarious, which I would argue (though he doesn’t really) is due to the fact that what constitutes accepted taste in certain American cultural communities, especially young, media-oriented ones like “hipsterdom,” changes so rapidly that it can easily appear non-serious and superficial.
For Greif, conflicts between so-sorta-called hipsters divide as they do for Bourdieu along class- and education-based lines:
Once you take the Bourdieuian view, you can see how hipster neighborhoods are crossroads where young people from different origins, all crammed together, jockey for social gain. One hipster subgroup’s strategy is to disparage others as “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands”; the attack is leveled at the children of the upper middle class who move to cities after college with hopes of working in the “creative professions.” These hipsters are instantly declassed, reservoired in abject internships and ignored in the urban hierarchy — but able to use college-taught skills of classification, collection and appreciation to generate a superior body of cultural “cool.”
But really, I don’t think you can take a French sociologist studying a very specifically 1960s French society (though published in France in 1979, its research was carried out 1963 to 1967/68 — i.e. before 1968) and apply it to the hipster conundrum today. To name just one very French thing about class/education and cultural capital at that time (and today): the French have a completely centralized education system. A schoolchild in Metz learns the same thing as a schoolchild in Paris; the higher one goes in education the more comprehensive tests one takes to verify a certain body of knowledge mandated by a state body which everyone else at that level of education will also have mastered. There is a coherence of cultural capital in direct alignment with education that I think is not at all replicated in the United States — the closest you get are the Great Books programs at universities like the University of Chicago or Columbia. The worth of cultural capital is also more blatant in France: intellectuals are held in much higher esteem than in the U.S. (often without necessarily deserving it: here’s looking at you Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of an astoundingly inane musing in The Atlantic on “America” — I dare you to read it in full. Quick brainstorm: perhaps a comparison of Sarah Palin’s Alaska! to Lévy’s America! is in order. By the way, I consider it a PSA to direct your attention to a few clips from Alaska now up at Gawker).
The reason I immediately thought of hipsters as a contradictory example to Bourdieu’s ideas on taste is that they seem to represent both how American society allows and encourages one to break out of learned taste patterns (fake it ’til you make it) and also how decentralized and non-hierarchized American taste and taste arbiters can be. Not that class is unimportant — take a look at who’s working for 25k as an editorial assistant at one of the New York publishing houses, and you’ll capture a contained socioeconomic milieu. But there is no central, dominant arbiter of taste — the Upper East Side embraces charity balls, while hipsters embrace dive bars. Each involves social boundary-making but hipsters wouldn’t want to be at those balls (a predominant trait of the hipster is efforts to reject historical social norms), nor UESiders at those dive bars. Further, what seems most important for Bourdieu is that certain taste patterns are internalized from a young age and restrain a person from being able to leave one’s social milieu. But isn’t hipsterdom (as is New York and LA) chock full of people who have left the social milieus they grew up in and self-consciously assumed a new habitus? Now I haven’t published a whole book on “the hipster” as Greif has, and I’ll allow that Greif is surely right that socioeconomic background is important in some way for the residents of Hipsterburg:
Both groups, meanwhile, look down on the couch-surfing, old-clothes-wearing hipsters who seem most authentic but are also often the most socially precarious — the lower-middle-class young, moving up through style, but with no backstop of parental culture or family capital. They are the bartenders and boutique clerks who wait on their well-to-do peers and wealthy tourists. Only on the basis of their cool clothes can they be “superior”: hipster knowledge compensates for economic immobility.
But I do think hipster culture contests more than confirms Bourdieu’s Distinction, and illustrates why the idea of determinative, internalized taste patterns can’t be applied to a country with vast geographic mobility, decentralized cultural and educational structures, cities like New York and LA which give the opportunity to immerse in and learn a new habitus, which consciously tell you that this is your opportunity to leave pieces of that old one behind, and a national ethos that cheerfully if inaccurately says that, with enough elbow grease, you can remake yourself as something entirely different (Hello, Don Draper?). For Bourdieu the mental and the material are co-constitutive — and America has a very different mentality than France.
A little etymology never hurts. According to the OED, the word hipster first appeared in 1941, meaning “a know-it-all.” In the 1967 the medical journal Lancet claimed that the hipster movement “seemed to be an outright rejection of accepted standards and values.” This rejection of standards and values, of the norms of one’s social arena or one’s own habitus, still seems at least superficially important to hipsters today. So does the “know-it-all” status — it’s part of the hipster mystique: “How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s a really obscure number, you probably haven’t heard of it.”
Which gets us back to why hipster identifications can be so fractious. I really haven’t thought too long and hard about this, but the term connotes a lack of seriousness, dirtiness, bed-bugness, “posing” (can we bring back that great ’90s term, ‘poser,’ please?), self-absorption, insufferable know-it-all-ness, and I mean have you seen them? But “hipster” is broad and vague enough a category, yet one that is based on a recognizable appearance, location, and culture, that many bright young neurotic things have been given to wonder from time to time: “Am I that name?”