December 27, 2009

According to this article, New York lost the second-most residents in the United States in 2009, and was only 620 defections from California in earning the dubious distinction of being America’s most deserted state.

However, for the aughts, New York lost more residents than any other state.  Over the course of the decade, New York lost 1,686,583 residents.

We tend to have a provincial view of our lives in New York City.  We constantly hear of young desires to move here as the city has been glamorized in recent years in movies and film, as it has in every decade before this one.

But though I’m no native or lifelong New Yorker, I think this city (which for the purposes of this entry, I’ll use as an extension of the state – because, let’s be serious, it is) will undergo massive transformation in the next few years.  As the tax base continues to whittle, as the government abrogates financial bonuses, and as the fabricated wealth developed over the decade fails to return (because it was never real to begin with), if ten people move to this city, only a small number of them will be contributors to our tax base and our quality of life.  Only a small number of them will help lower the cost of a subway ride, eliminate sundry taxes on our goods (brown sodas, rolling papers, imported beer, pizzas with paper plates).

More and more artists will arrive and starve; more entrepreneurs will attempt and struggle; more college graduates will depart with frustration when nobody will hire them.  And the city will continue to be expensive – its temptations unrelenting.

I’m home for Christmas and every time I come back to Massachusetts, I face the same battery of questions that I did last Christmas.  Everyone wants to know why I live in a closet, why I live up six flights of stairs, why I choose to live in the filthiest city in the world.

I tell them that, comparatively, my game’s not that bad because I don’t have to wash my dishes in the shower.

My sister commented that three of her closest group of friends from college – a couple and a single male – both live in the city and never see each other, because one lives in Fort Greene and the couple lives on the Upper East Side and that’s probably an eighty minute door-to-door visit.  Everyone wants to know why I put up with it.

I can dip into my arsenal of stock answers to parry off these questions, but often enough I’m left unfulfilled at my own answer.

It seems, over this decade, over a million people have given in.  I’d given thought to moving in a few years, but a good part of me thinks I’ll stay in this city for a long time.  But the city’s response the new economy – brilliantly (and I rarely say this about the good writer) summed up by David Brooks last week – will be a major decision influencer.

Brooks writes:

What really matters, Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia argues, is economic culture — attitudes toward uncertainty, the willingness to exert leadership, the willingness to follow orders. A strong economy needs daring consumers

It’s interesting stuff, and the article requires a few worthy reads.

But a better way to think of it is that the economy, our society, and New York City, will continue its evolution into a malleable organism that we’re responsible to shape.


The Corner (Part II)

December 27, 2009

If you read around, you’ll find dozens of David Simon interviews online. Vice just published a new one this week, and he’ll surely line more up as his new show prepares to launch in 2010. In that interview, he remarked that after writing this book, he wrote an editorial for the Sun about an addict who wakes up every day and has to harvest metal to pick up his $10 so that he can chase a blast. The Sun didn’t want to run it, instead pushing that “Dickensian” theme that Simon lambastes in Season 5 of The Wire. He identifies that as one of the moments when he knew he had to leave print journalism. Let’s be thankful that he did and admire what Simon has done to present inner-city issues for public view.

Inner city Baltimore is its own economy and Simon makes that clear. He emphasizes it more in the book than the miniseries, but it’s evident in two instances. Consider DeAndre’s pursuit of a job scrubbing tables at Wendy’s. For a manchild that can earn more money slinging heroin and coke to support his child, he sees no self-growth or actualization in such a path. Is it any wonder why DeAndre slings spider bags when he has no education, needs more money every day, and can’t find a real job because (by the way) nobody manufactures anything anymore? There’s no need for unskilled or even semiskilled labor in this country, what’s the boy to do?

And then Fran’s struggle to cope with sobriety and readjust to an unknown life. She’s gotten high every day for 4+ years. Her body and mind have been controlled by drugs. Drop it all for some algebra classes and a job two hours away stocking makeup kits? What we consider normal human life, they think alien. Gary says it once (and Bubbles says it in The Wire): “I don’t know how ya’ll can do what ya’ll do every day and not want to get high.”

Simon drives home this point that dope fiends define themselves as dope fiends. The waking up broke, scraping or running capers for money, copping, firing blasts – this becomes their identity. They resent fiends that have cleaned up and gotten sober. Witness Bunchie always offering Fran dope, Fran insisting that Scoogie is getting high even when he claims he’s been six years clean. You’ve probably seen this self-identity to a lesser extent with people who smoke a lot of weed. They talk about weed, they reminisce about bong rips and quality strains, they surround themselves with other potheads. Weed is a big part of their lives. Or you see it with people who drink a lot, how they brag about how many 30-racks they can knock down in a weekend or how much vodka they slurped off the ice luge at that party on Saturday. Now write this ten times larger and make the drugs leagues more destructive.

Not even the miniseries supporting the book does enough to put readers or viewers in Gary McCullough’s place. Every day, the man wakes up and scampers through West Baltimore like a rat, picking apart houses for scraps of metal, surviving off the bowels of a city that is becoming ever more barren because everyone is turning away from it. Without sounding heavy-handed, can you believe this happens in America? Can you believe that right down the street the Orioles offer $160 million to Mark Teixeira but Gary McCullough has to pick apart row houses or strip apart renovated construction just to survive? There are limited detox beds because there’s limited city money put toward drug treatment (but millions put toward New Westport). Simon keeps calling Baltimore “the world that America left behind” and it’s purple but it’s true.

I would lose interest in Ella Thompson’s sections of the book, but found her portrayal in the series much more engaging. I’m guilty of saying, “why doesn’t she just move out of Baltimore?” but she can’t. And Simon can’t either, because that would concede everything to dope and remove even the smallest crumbs of humanity from Baltimore’s table.

I could have done without the theatrical device of Charles S. Dutton questioning characters at the beginning and end of each episode. However, his interview with the real Fran, Blue, Tyreeka and DeAndre at the end of the miniseries was unexpected but helped close the circle. DeAndre had that glassy look in his eyes, and Fran equivocates about his chances for survival. As Simon did with this book when it was complete, and as Fletch does with his biography on Bubbles at the end of The Wire, prescreening it with the subjects it shows compassion and commitment to truthful reporting. I think Simon wavers before calling the sum of his products “journalism.” His media agnosticism has done more for inner-city issues than anything else produced in this country over the last ten years.

I think you can include The Corner in a larger discussion with with The Wire and Homicide and evaluate Simon’s message. Obviously The Wire is Jupiter in his pantheon, and its large theme is how individuals operate within institutions. The Corner is a granular depiction of one of those system actors, and it’s the most harrowing portrayal he delivers.

The Corner

December 7, 2009

I finished David Simon’s The Corner it last night and found it more gripping than his Homicide. The nature and surrounding of his embedded reporting among the country’s lowest class, most addicted and hopeless populous made for engrossing journalism, and I thought that this was his best character study, outdoing of some of The Wire’s portrayals.

I ordered the DVD’s and will probably watch them later this week, but The Corner painted a picture of drug addicted Baltimore that was even more bleak and hopeless than The Wire could imagine to do. This is because The Corner didn’t have to spend 1/3 or 1/2 of its time addressing policing or government or the systems of drug dealers. Instead, it was 500 pages of what we knew as Bubbles, Michael, some Namond, some Cutty, etc.

After reading his work and watching The Wire twice, then consuming some of David Simon’s interviews and editorials, I’ve come to hold Simon in even higher regard than I did after closing The Wire and saying that it was the best television show of all time. Simon’s writing is so real and vivid, his grasp of street language is so precise and his ear is so attuned to nuance and realism. Then you get to think about the undertaking for this book – years spent with drug addicts, embedded journalism in what he so trenchantly defines as the world America left behind – and realize that it goes beyond authorship and into sociological and ethnographic research, taking form as a character study from one of our best contemporary writers.