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Always Do the Right Thing

I watched Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” a few weeks ago. Overall I found the movie well done and entertaining. A lot has been said about this movie and I don’t want to repeat what has already been said many times before, so I will only discuss a few pertinent points.

My favorite character in the film is Slick Dick Willie. In a movie with strong caricatures he stands out to me as appearing the closest to someone I have met in real life. That’s the first point in its entirety.

My second point of interest is, as you might have already guessed, is the decision to throw the trash can through Sal’s window. I don’t know what I would have done, but using a trash can as a projectile wouldn’t be my first thought.

A picturesque scene from Do The Right Thing

Wikipedia has this to say about Spike Lee’s opinion:

One of many questions at the end of the film is whether Mookie ‘does the right thing’ when he throws the garbage can through the window, thus inciting the riot that destroys Sal’s pizzeria. The question is directly raised by the contradictory quotations that end the film, one advocating non-violence, the other advocating violent self-defense in response to oppression. Spike Lee himself, however, has stated that only white viewers ask this question. Lee believes the key point is that Mookie was angry at the death of Radio Raheem, and that viewers who question the riot’s justification are implicitly valuing white property over the life of a black man.

I don’t know if this is Lee’s actual opinion, it is merely one attributed to him by Wikipedia. I find this opinion to be short sighted. In the movie it’s only Sal’s Pizzeria that ends up trashed, but real life riots are rarely are as sanitized and contained as this one. How different would it feel if Smiley did not make it out of the fire?

Finally there is the claim that this is an act of self-defense. The movie ends with two quotes, one of Malcom X, perhaps the most revered civil rights figure in Bed-Stuy:

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence. Malcolm X

Is throwing a trash can through a window self-defense? I find it hard characterize it as such. One could argue that the continued existence of Sal’s Pizzeria would be a direct threat to those in the neighborhood, but isn’t that precisely the argument used to invade Iraq preemptively? I think acts of self-defense do not include initial blows. It could be said that this wasn’t the initiation but the reaction to Radio Raheem’s death, but his death was caused by the police so the counter-argument is that the aggression is misplaced. This could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the movie, its message is a good one and I know there is far more to it than just this particular act. But since this crescendo is one of the most memorable moments of this movie, I feel it deserves consideration. What do you think?

There’s no question that this movie is one of the best of the 20th century. There’s a recent review on nytimes.com that says as much. It is merely my humble opinion that the message would be even more well received if it stayed closer to Dr. King’s quote.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Moving and shaking

The intersection of Myrtle, Nostrand and me is quickly becoming a thing of the past. I didn’t renew my lease, and so I will be moving out of everyone’s favorite yuppie spaceship. I’m off to another famous New York neighborhood, the East Village.

I found living at 756 Myrtle inconvenient due to the forced dependence on the G train. The G isn’t worse than any other line, but it suffers from being isolated and having no stops in Manhattan. Granted, if you spend most of your time in Brooklyn or Queens this might not be much of a problem. When you’ve already been on the subway for an hour and you still have a transfer left, you tire quickly even if it isn’t already after midnight. I’ve also been living alone for about two years, and since I’m new to New York it’s not an ideal situation for growing a network of friends.

Antbed.com will stay, any links will still work, but new content will probably be different.

Beware: Gentrification

Tonight presidential candidates McCain and Obama town-halled at Columbia University. I came in late at the end of McCain’s turn, but I caught a curious sound bite that I thought might interest you.

Obama said at one point “I could afford [some of the apartments around Columbia University] [in 1980], I don’t think I can now.” You are not alone Bed-Stuy.

Gentrify caution tape on Myrtle Ave

There is a couplet in the alma mater of Texas A&M that goes “There’s a spirit can ne’er be told \ It’s the Spirit of Aggieland.” Times are a changing, people are moving in and out all the time, yet the spirit remains. Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of those distinguished places with such a spirit. Like Aggieland, this neighborhood is not just a place, it is its own ecosystem. That’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t change. That’s the sort of thing you want to keep.

But what is the essence of that spirit?

Is it the race of the neighborhood? Is it the class? Is it its religion?

None of the above, it is what you make it.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement for this neighborhood. Changes will come in fits and jumps not be fast enough for some, but too fast for others. Bed-Stuy will survive. You are not alone.

TED talks about gentrification

Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice gave a talk at TED where he explained the core ideas of the book. Fortunately this video is available for you to enjoy.

At about 18:12 he says something very interesting.

If some of what enables people in our societies to make all the choices we make were shifted to societies in which people have too few options, not only would those peoples lives be improved, but ours would be improved also. This is what economists call a ‘Pareto improving’ move. Income redistribution will make everyone better off, not just poor people.

Replace ‘societies’ with ‘neighborhoods’ and you have gentrification. Does this mean what is going on in Bedford-Stuyvesant is unilaterally a good thing? I don’t think so. I think this process, as he argues about choice, is good up to a certain point and bad after that. Very little is not enough and a lot is too much.

I don’t know of many people who are waiting on pins and needles for a Starbucks or McDonalds to show up on Myrtle Ave, but I don’t think their mere presence will improve the quality of life one bit. What will improve the quality of life is more options for people to improve their community. Fortunately for Bed-Stuy there are public forums for this sort of thing. In fact, Bed-Stuy blog just added one! Go there, sign up and make your voice heard.

The only thing we can do about gentrification is try to control the beast. Allow progress and keep it from annihilating all that beautiful Bed-Stuy-ness. You Go Girl.

How I got here part II

In response to Edie Spencer‘s comment, today I will reveal why I chose this particular 421a yuppie spaceship in this historic neighborhood. I’m starting in the middle because that’s when the story is the most relevant.

Dakota Blair

It would be inaccurate to say I had never heard of Bedford-Stuyvesant, I am a Billy Joel fan after all. I had even stayed here with a friend right off the Kinston-Throop stop for a few days in 2006. Even so I was only dimly aware of the history in this neighborhood. The beginnings of urbanism, the civil rights movement and hip hop were all things that had to do with New York, Robert Kennedy and Jay Z as far as I was concerned. Little did I know they all had the common thread of Bed-Stuy, a place I would come to call home for a year.

No, when I was standing there in Williamsburg, right off the train after finding out I had my job, I had no preference of where in New York I wanted to live. I just knew I needed to find a place fast. So I wandered into the aptsandlofts office on Bedford and asked for a place to rent.

The lady at the counter informed me I was in the wrong place and directed me to the rental office on Driggs. I entered and confirmed with the receptionist that I was in the right place. After filling out my basic information an agent came and began talking to me about places to stay.

I said, “I’d like to spend no more than $1500 per month if I can help it.” This really is the upper limit of what I could afford with my new job and, in retrospect, I should have said something like $1200 per month. You first live and and then learn. He told me he had the perfect place for me, a new construction right on the subway. That was great for me because the subway is my primary means of transportation. He told me that I could set up an appointment and view the place the next day. Perfect!

I found my way to the Myrtle-Willoughby stop and then to the intersection of Myrtle and Nostrand. I finally gathered that the building I was looking for was behind the scaffold and the broken sidewalk. I went in and met my leasing agent. I told him what I was looking for and he showed me my future apartment. Once I saw it I knew it was going to work. I was going to be able to live here and ease into the New York City way of life.

But there was urgency! The agent had shown the apartment to someone else who seemed very interested! No time to waste, I had to put down a deposit as soon as possible. I hurriedly walked to the Bank of America between Waverly and Mary Pinkett on Myrtle, withdrew the deposit and got back to the building as soon as possible. With the deposits ready the agent began the rest of the paperwork. I filled out a credit check form and was done for the day. The agent mentioned to me that Jay Z grew up right across the street. “That’s very interesting,” I said thinking back to a friend in my hometown who really loved Jay Z. I wasn’t very familiar with him, but any connection with fame interests most people.

The monthly rent is $1700 which, again, is at the very edge of what I can afford. As with all the initial renters I got a free month which brings the total averaged rent per month to $1558. When you look at it that way it isn’t so bad. But after that freebie when you’re still paying $1700 per month it’s easy to forget that free month ever happened.

But what did I care? I got the first apartment I looked at! Huzzah! What’s this about the NYC real estate market being tough? It didn’t phase me much then. What were other people complaining about?

The next week I read how my building was supposed to be the next “hipster enclave.” I thought, “What’s a hipster?” Then I started searching around teh internetz for other news and views. Next I queried, “What’s gentrification?” And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. “How did I end up personifying and living in one of the more controversial manifestations of gentrification?”

And that is where we began.

I am rubber and you are glue

Yesterday’s post ended up being much longer than I had intended and not really funny at all. Not that gentrification is funny, but I like to find humor in everything. This post will be short and humorous.

Today I was hit with a water balloon.

a popped water balloon

As I walked down the playground side of the street a band of rogues jumped from behind a bush, lobbed their aqueous projectile at me and began to run. It glanced off the left side of the seat of my pants and landed impotently on the sidewalk. Stunned, I just kept walking at the same pace, looking back to see the posse disperse.

Thinking back, I should have turned around slowly shaking my fist in their general direction and saying something like “You meddling kids!” a la Mr. Wilson.

You meddling kids!

I don’t know what to make of it. It’s kind of endearing, to be the target of a water balloon.

The chicken and egg problem

Most of the comments from my newfound audience thanks to the Times sought to explain the increased police presence. Honorable mention goes to KR in TX, emily from the mynt and Edie Spencer whose comments I will address in future posts.

However things are not always as they appear and therefore deserve further attention. I will explain, but first let me summarize.

Why was police presence increased immediately after the first residents moved in? Commenter anon chalks it up to this experiment being a government collusion with real estate developers, while brooklynborn says that whites and those with higher incomes get more police protection. Similarly jessica says I get “Special treatment because [I'm] white and can afford it.” But 5-0 contends that “[The police] didn’t “suddenly” decide anything” and their increased presence is given “merely for being the latest pin on the weekly crime map.” Then walking complaint # echoes this sentiment with “They are more vigilant because you’re not.” Finally quincy joins the fun by describing your dear blogohost as a “petulant, demanding, and vocal … newcomer.”

I would first like to mention that

  1. it was the LA Times who said police presence was increased. I don’t think it’s usually considered an unreliable source. It also mentions a crack bust which happened immediately after the first residents moved in.
  2. I have not heard of anyone in the building being robbed or mugged. I have heard of car break-ins on the street, but then again I regularly see a pristine Jaguar parked on the street. I don’t know how to explain this disparity.

Both brooklynborn and jessica attribute the increased police presence to my race and economic status. I can see the case of economic status being made, but not everyone here is white. A hearty mix of asians, blacks, hispanics and whites live on my floor which is probably typical of the building.

On the other hand 5-0 and walking complaint # think it’s entirely our own naive fault the cops came. Their logic is we came, crime increased then the cops came. But see note #2 above. I have not heard of any increase in crime in the area, but the LA Times still claims that police patrols have increased.

Then quincy’s argument is that old axiom, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” We came, we complained, the police followed. Maybe, but I don’t know if my comrades would have known about the crack ring before the wrangling a month after we got here. That seems a bit too convenient.

Even so it’s not as simple as “higher incomes means more taxes means more protection.” I’ve indicated before, the rent I pay is reduced due to a government tax abatement program. Hence, in the short term at least, the government is losing tax money here. Apparently at the end of this program they get it back in spades. I can’t imagine Myrtle Place LLC holding on to the building for that long, but they would have an interest in the short term appearance of the neighborhood.

From all this I gather that there must be some money involved elsewhere. Clearly those like 5-0 and walking complaint # would rather not believe this since they are either in the force themselves or are closely related to someone who is. But they can take solace that it’s probably not on the level of the beat cops who you can see arresting people periodically. It is probably a few levels higher than that, at the people who decide where the beats are.

Strangely 5-0 also contradicts himself with his “cops only for the need” argument.

The police don’t care about your income, they care about the level of crime you’re generating. If anything, expect there to be fewer and fewer cops assigned to your area as (or if) it continues to improve economically.

Later brooklynborn offered another gedanken as to why CompStat cannot be the only explanation.

It looks like anon’s hypothesis is more sturdy than one might originally consider. When I started writing this post I thought that his comment was very conspiracy theoryish, but after some thought it seems to be the only proffered explanation that doesn’t contradict the circumstances. Weird! Any other suggestions?

P.S. When commenting, try keeping your comments to brief one point responses. This will enable your point to be clear and respondable. You can (now) always email me any extra comments you have at dakota at antbed dot com.

Not at all obvious

Bed-Stuy Banana asks:

“I’m curious … if the interviewees have more to say than what was quoted [in the article].”

I know at least I told Manny a lot more than was explicitly quoted, but I can understand with the constraints on an article like this. Here are what I felt were the most important things left out of the article.

  • I stole the term “Yuppie Spaceship” from Bed-Stuy Banana because I really like her blog. She always has great pictures and shares her honest opinions. Her posts and responses often challenge and force me to consider a perspective I would not otherwise.
  • The people of the Greater Free Gift Baptist Church are about the friendliest people I’ve met living here in Bed-Stuy. I have never felt more welcome in a place I visited for the first time. Thank you.
  • I told him that I felt like the building was a failed experiment, but later I realized this was imprecise and this lead to Hypothesis Shmypothesis. This is not a refutation of that thought, merely a clarification.
  • I think the half destruction of the ‘Underground Murders’ memorial seems to be a sign that the building owners are apathetic to its presence, which I feel is wrong. If this is progress, I want no part of it.
  • To reiterate, the post An Interesting Encounter describes an isolated incident and it is not commiserate with my general experience in this neighborhood. I have heard anecdotal evidence that my experience is somewhat unusual, so keep that in mind.
  • In my mind $1700 per month is not what I would consider a “good deal,” even for “luxury” accommodations as this place is billed. I don’t consider myself a hipster, a pioneer or a clever real estate shopper.

This article and the resulting comments have really opened up the possibilites for discussion and I will be addressing them in the days and weeks to come. Clearly I will revisit topics such as Identity and Restart and others as they become relevant. Now that my quasi-anonymity is nonexistent, my tone will be more personal and perhaps it will be easier to understand each other. I hope that is the case.

Hypothesis shmypothesis

June was apparently a big month for this crazy yuppie spaceship. It got an article in the New York and LA Times. What publicity! And it seems like everything is going great for those wanting to live like Gordon Gekko on a budget.

But au contraire baby bear, something is rotten at Myrtle Place and these two articles see only the calm duck above the water.

I recently told someone that I felt like this building was a failed experiment, but I think I spoke too hastily. After all, experiments require a hypothesis, but what is this one’s? Join me as I hypothesize a list of possible hypotheses of this peculiar experiment. The LA Times article has a subheading that includes “It’s a test of coexistence.” That is enough to begin the list.

  • Can a load of newcomers to the established community of Bed-Stuy coexist with current residents?

But perhaps there is more to the story than this. What about for those who built the building? Do they care if the people in this building coexist with the neighborhood? The fact that it is a for-profit business shows that their chief aim is to make money, so coexistence is not required. We have (and have been promised more) amenities to keep us in: doormen, an on-site laundry, a “fitness center”, Fresh Direct delivery and our very own convenience store.

Our own little minty fresh ice cave.

  • Can a load of newcomers to the established community of Bed-Stuy coexist with current residents?
  • Can a load of newcomers be sold condos rented apartments in Bed-Stuy if they are sufficiently separated from the established community?

But then again the owners of this ludicrous speed vessel had help. These units are subsidized baby, by none other than the friendly folks at your State and Local government. What is their angle?

  • Can a load of newcomers to the established community of Bed-Stuy coexist with current residents?
  • Can a load of newcomers be sold condos rented apartments in Bed-Stuy if they are sufficiently separated from the established community?
  • Are property values inversely proportional to crime rates?
  • Bonus How far can we ride this crazy wave of gentrification?

Concerning crime rates, apparently the police presence around this area was increased significantly once we moved in. Where was that heat coming from? Why would the police suddenly decide this block was worth policing? It’s a question which might have answers that many would like to ignore. Heck, I’d like to ignore it because it’s quite uncomfortable to think that I am being given special treatment just because I’m new. But I will not. I cannot. Now that I’ve worded the question, I need to find its answer, or at least acknowledge it. I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe they were already going to do it. Maybe it was, as someone else told me, all for the Jews. Maybe they only did it briefly which would explain the response time to pantless wonder who as it turns out was a resident (oops).

That’s where I could use your help dear reader. Which of these hypotheses have been proven true? Which are false? What are others that I have missed? What changed in Bed-Stuy?

P.S. An experiment normally requires a control group, but this ‘experiment’ could be construed as a measurement of a truth value, in which case no control group is necessary. Think of flipping a coin, but where the coin is shaped more like a basketball.

Reach out and touch someone

This morning on my way to take the B44 to Billyburg plaza, I noticed the buses on Bedford passing Myrtle. They may have all been going to Flushing, but the B54 was a mere block away, so I decided to take it to the Myrtle stop on the JMZ instead. Standing there on the corner of Myrtle and Nostrand, I noticed this

An innocuous looking payphone, or is it?

Wait, what’s that sign say?

Holler Back.

That’s what I thought. Holler back!

If it were a snake it would have bit me. Instead, it’s a subtle signage hack which made my day. The reverse side says “I can hear you bro.” I love this kind of thing. You could miss it for months! Then one day you discover it and you never look at that particular pay phone in the same way. It could be a piece of corporate art, but phone companies are hardly known for their subtlety and nuance. I haven’t noticed any other signs on other payphones, but I also haven’t been looking.

Does anyone know the story behind this sign?