Intimidating the Poor: The Ugly Underside of Hipster New York

peaches

Peaches

During the last two weeks, I visited two remarkable restaurants and gathering spots in once struggling sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the Clock Wine and Martini Bar on Lincoln Avenue in the Bronx, just south of the Bruckner Expressway, and Peaches on Lewis Avenue in the heart of Bed Stuy.

In both places, the atmosphere was hip and informal, the crowd multiracial and clearly at ease. Though I was there on the invitation of friends, these were both spots I might come back to on my own because I felt so comfortable there

This is not the first such experience I have had in neighborhood spots in what were once considered tough neighborhoods. I felt the same way at Teddy’s Bar and Grill in Williamsburgh, where I have guest dj’d at the invitation of my friend Dennis O’Neill, at the Bruckner Bar and Grill in the Bronx, and at Camaradas El Barrio, the amazing bar, restaurant, and music venue owned by my friend and former student Orlando Plaza in the heart of East Harlem.

I love places where the clientele is multiracial, where the food is affordable and good (and in the case of Caramarads El Barrio, better than good) and where I can find my favorite beers. If I looked at these places in isolation, I would think New York, under Michael Bloomberg, had become a kind of Hipster Heaven, where young cool people from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and from all over the world, could find their culture and sociability institutionalized in neighborhood spots all over the city.

But when meeting my friend and former student Tiffany Raspberry, a political consultant who lives on Myrtle Avenue, two blocks from the Marcy houses, I got a chilling picture of how Hipster Heaven is maintained in neighborhoods which adjoin large low-income housing projects.

Tiffany said, quite bluntly,” you never see kids from the Marcy Houses on Myrtle Avenue.” The police, she said, send a message that they are not welcome on those streets, where hipsters ride bikes and Hasidic families can be seen in growing numbers shopping and sending their kids to school.

“So this is what stop and frisk accomplishes?” I asked her.

“Exactly” she said.

greed poverty homelessI then thought about a couple of similar situations I had been in recently where a similar dynamic was at work. Every Thursday afternoon, I take my granddaughter Avery to track practice in Red Hook Park, passing by the Red Hook project on my way to and from the track.

On the more than 15 occasions I have gone to Red Hook, I have not seen one group of tough looking adolescents congregating in the school yard, hanging in the street, or walking through the park. If this had been 15 years ago, their presence would have been unmistakable, and something to be ignored at one’s peril.

What happened? Are all those kids working? We know that can’t be true, given Black, Latino and youth unemployment rates?

Are they all in jail? As full as the jails are, they aren’t holding the majority of adolescents in the city’s low-income projects. What seems to be going on is that intrusive, intimidating policing, and stop-and-risk tactics, are keeping young people of color confined to social spaces where they aren’t seen as a threat to middle -lass people.

Where those spaces are it would take young people themselves — or an urban ethnographer — to enumerate, but it sure isn’t in Red Hook park, it sure isn’t on Myrtle Avenue, it sure isn’t on the Smith Street Restaurant district, it sure isn’t on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, and apparently, it sure isn’t outside Peaches on Lewis Avenue or the Clock Win Bar in the South Bronx!

And though I believed Tiffany, it took something I saw heading down to Peaches to hip the point home. As we were heading into Bed Stuy, four blocks south of the Marcy houses, I saw a group of five, young white cops walking together in a group, heading north.

Never had I seen so many police patrolling in those numbers. But that was nothing! Three blocks south of that, I saw a group of eight police officers, two black, six white (or Latino) walking north in the same direction.

mark naisonThis totally freaked me out. I had never seen so many police officers walking in a group. Why were they there? Why this concentration of overwhelming force.

And then I thought about what Tiffany said. It required this concentration of police manpower to keep young people trapped in poverty penned into their project grounds, while the increasing wealthy people moving into their neighborhood enjoy the upscale restaurants and cafes without fear for their safety.

I certainly felt safe in Peaches, surrounded by Black folks of all ages, but at what price my safety. New York is the greatest city in the world if you have cash in your pocket and love culture and the arts, but if you are poor, and a person of color, Michael Bloomberg’s New York can be an expensively maintained prison that nullifies your existence.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Published: Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on June 26, 2012
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