Cheap rents and a vibrant culture

I’m a native New Yorker. My wife isn’t, but lived all her young adulthood there and is as committed to the idea of New York as any convert. She and I were both in theater there, often at the same theaters but at different times, so we didn’t meet until the 90s, when I moved to Los Angeles.

Often we sigh and say how much we miss New York… and then correct ourselves—we miss New York in the 70s and 80s, not New York now, debilitated as it is from money poisoning. Making a living is for losers—they want to make a killing. Commercial rent is jacked up not by 10% but by 100%, 200%, more, there is no top. And if space remains empty, the political and tax system support that. Once vibrant streets in the West Village are ghost towns, not because of Covid—this is from way before Covid—but because of rents. I suspect, but don’t know, that this is at least partly because landlord families are losing ground to hedge-fund and Wall St landlords who feel zero stake in the life of the city and the culture around them, and only respond, AI-like, to simple numerical metrics.

We may be seeing a return to cheap rents as Covid-19 hollows out cities and telework keeps people at their desk even in a remote location. Soon, some say and I hope but don’t dare believe, cities like New York can be places where people interested in collaborating on projects that don’t make all that much money can congregate and thrive.

These projects will seep into the culture and create a new, fresh American culture, which will replace the one we have now, decadent and rotting into the ground, and whose fate is to be compost for what comes later.

Oh, that’s fancy!

But New York is a disaster now. Its culture was embodied in the people who lived there and who left because of rents, maintained at an artificially high level by oligarchs parking money and by a Wall St mentality, driven by numerical metrics and divorced from any kind of human experience.

Even, though, at its most optimistic—the city empties out a little, rents ease, oligarchs complain about reducing value and decamp to seasteads, and artists can move back to the city—I wonder if it will, over the next few generations, become a fountainhead for American culture anything like it used to be.

In the 60s there was already a culture shaping across the country, so when it focused and concentrated in New York, it was a vibrant, transformational event. Post-war prosperity combined with a still-extant (soon to die) cultural egalitarianism that the whole world admired.

That’s gone now.

I can’t go on. I’m too vexed and upset… I’ll never be able to go home to NYC, and if I could (if rents dropped a LOT), it’s a cultural nothing.

The hedge-fund landlord

Corporations—the AI we’ve been living with for centuries… As Cory Doctorow writes in Skynet Ascendant: We humans are the inconvenient gut-flora of the corporation. They aren’t hostile to us. They aren’t sympathetic to us. Just as every human carries a hundred times more non-human cells in her gut than she has in the rest of her body, every corpora­tion is made up of many separate living creatures that it relies upon for its survival, but which are fundamentally interchangeable and disposable for its purposes. Just as you view stray gut-flora that attacks you as a pathogen and fight it off with anti­biotics, corporations attack their human adversaries with an impersonal viciousness that is all the more terrifying for its lack of any emotional heat.

Elon Musk’s stated fear of AI seems ironic in that he is such a corporate creature, and corporations behave exactly how he describes AI in such apocalyptic terms. But that is exactly what is happening, not only to cities, but most visibly there, because cities are were value and capital are most concentrated. Yes, a family that owns a few buildings—like my old landlord and his Greek immigrant family; they started with a diner and ended up owning a few dilapidated buildings in midtown, one of which I lived in for 17 years—would form a corporation which owns the buildings; but that is qualitatively different from a financial corporation whose management decides that the ROI they need to justify their bonuses is waiting in real estate and rental properties rather than boring old equities, bonds, and complex derivatives thereof.

I’m not clear on the difference, but I suspect, as with most things, that it’s a gradual difference, a sliding scale, rather than a nice, simple toggle switch. My old landlord wasn’t a financial corporation with no view of what was in the world except certain select metrics, blind to culture and human life, and chewing through humanity to get the coins in our pockets, then pulling the hair and buttons from its teeth. But he did live in Long Island City among his ethnic and religious counterparts, and I don’t think he cared personally all that much about people like me in Manhattan. So he did that thing that landlords do, which is to send in unlicensed contractors to do horribly destructive work on the building for years and years, in the hopes of either driving us out one by one, or, better yet, provoking a tenant lawsuit, the result of which is that the building would be condemned and … we’d all be driven out at once.

So was he better than a hedge fund landlord? He was, if only that I could actually talk to him and he would respond, and he was answerable. Also, he didn’t have megabucks to spend on lawyers to salt the soil around his enemies. He had one awful, but not THAT awful, lawyer whom we used to see in court.

Better would be Art Stabile, the lefty Catholic who lived down the block, who owned the building he lived in and rented out the apartments to young (Catholic mainly, I believe) international students. He had a stake in the building, the street life, and the world from which he earned his living. I don’t know who owns his building now…

Cities become prey to certain cultures. Los Angeles was for a while a creature of Hollywood. The dreams and desires of those who worked in entertainment were the legitimate dreams and desires. Others were… less interesting. Hollywood includes artists and craftspeople, so Los Angeles has always been receptive to artists, though somewhat contemptuous of those who don’t—or, the suspicion is, can’t—sell out.

New York is under the spell of Wall St and has been since the 80s. But Wall St’s culture itself has changed and dragged the city behind it, helpless in its wake. And information technology has supercharged its ambitions, so that, while years ago, it would have been a chump’s game to invest in rental real estate, because management was complicated and expensive, today, rental real estate is pretty good for a return.

I go back to the first episodes of Planet Money—when it was good, when it was important, before they did inane “brand stories” about Hydrox vs Oreos and “ain’t business grand.” The inception of Planet Money was a This American Life episode called The Giant Pool of Money. Investors used to park money in Treasury bonds, but interest rates were lowered to speed up the economy. This meant the T-bills yielded less. So all those smart guys ‘n’ gals on Wall St (really mostly guys, especially then) turned their Ivy League-honed minds to where else they could invest.

Turns out mortgages were just sitting there being valuable. So they proceeded to process them via the alchemy of high finance—tranches, derivatives, derivatives on those derivatives—until a small number of folk made a lot of money and many, many people lost their homes in the Great Recession.

They have no stake in Main St. Just like with Tyson (of the Foods), Wall St parties are so much more fun than those annual BBQs they use to keep their staff happy with their low pay and shrinking benefits.

After the Depression and WWII, there was, for a brief while, a time when the nation’s culture was egalitarian. All Americans (let’s not get crazy; not Blacks really, and not women, not really) were equal, and your boss could live in your neighborhood. He might have a pool and you might not, but big deal! You were all equal, you were all Americans.

But (see Piketty) that was an anomaly, brought on by a confluence of disasters and FDR. Now we’re back to the status quo ante. And, while other nations still strive to emulate America in the 60s, America is turning its back on that and looking to the 1880s.

I don’t like it. No sir, not one bit.

Charlie Hebdo and the Muhammad cartoons

The new issue of Charlie Hebdo is featuring the same Muhammad cartoons that provoked the terrorist killers five years ago to attack and kill CH staff members and cartoonists. The trial is starting now, so the magazine republished the cartoons. I subscribe to CH (digitally), and I’m trying to download the issue now, but the app isn’t responding. I’d ascribe that to popularity or to interference, but I suspect it’s just an unreliable app… NOTE — it worked. The app responded, and I’m looking at the issue.

So, where do I stand on CH? They should have the right to publish and not be murdered. Just so you know what I think. I suppose I think that, if they were wise, they would do more outreach in schools. Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed to, that would be supporting atheism… It’s only natural that Muslims consider attacks on Islam to be attacks on their bubbe and zayde (or teta and seedo). Many communities do not make the distinction between insulting “the religion” and insulting “the believers.”

There is research that shows that we react to attacks on values that are core to our identity (e.g., gun control) in ways indistinguishable from how we react to physical attacks. See the brilliant podcast You Are Not So Smart, #171.

(And, frankly, if you have to explain a joke or a cartoon that much, it isn’t working… you can blame the audience if you like for not “getting” it, but that doesn’t cut much ice when you’re sweating in front of the bare bricks…)

A good old friend of mine is disturbed that a recent poll (article in CH, article in Le Figaro) shows only 59% of French approve of CH’s publication of the cartoons, and that 18% of Muslims “do not condemn” the murders of the CH staff. My friend bemoans the lack of support for the French concept of laïcité.

As I understand it, laïcité just means that religion shall have no sway over government, which I think has a lot of support. I suspect that this is more, why should Muslims or young people who are sympathetic with them, be OK with a magazine that gratuitously offends a people who (in France) are underdogs and experience discrimination.

(Sidebar—Note the difference between the US idea of Freedom of Religion and the French concept of laïcité. Here in the US, the government cannot establish religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof. In France, religion may not interfere with government! I love that, and I wish we had more of it here—no more political “prayer breakfasts”, things being Under God, and so on. If only that were considered rude and wrong, as it is in France.)

(Sidebar to the Sidebar—Different histories explain this. Our revolution wasn’t explicitly about religion, but many colonists left England because it had an official religion that was not theirs. As soon as the Puritans got here and could exercise their religion freely, they set about docking the ears and noses of Quakers. They weren’t for “freedom of religion” except for their own. In France, the Revolution was against the aristocracy and the church. In the immortal words of Diderot, “The revolution is not over until the last King is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” For the history of this not-really-a-quote, see here.)

(Sidebar3—I wonder, since the French government owns all places of worship, why they permit Saudi petrocrat financing of Wahhabist extreme Islam. I suppose it must all be about the Euros. I have no information about this topic, but this is a blog that, after all, few people will ever see.)

And a lot of French people support the publication of the cartoons for what I would consider the wrong reason, namely that it does offend Muslims — that it “owns” them, to use the modern US phrase. I don’t think the pure, intellectual “freedom of speech” argument especially impresses kids in the banlieues who can’t get a job; and I don’t think it’s what is motivating a lot of the people cheering CH on — they just don’t like Arabs and Africans and enjoy seeing them insulted and humiliated.

I know that CH claims (vociferously!) that they are not aiming at Arab or African individuals but the religion, and they have anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic cartoons (and they must have anti-Protestant cartoons, but none come to mind…). Also, that Islam is a vastly powerful structure with a billion people under its sway. And this is very true. A lot of people who have strong opinions about CH have no idea what they actually publish. If you can read any French at all, I recommend taking a look. It’s quite amazing and very different from what you’d find in the US. If you’re thinking, Oh, isn’t it like Mad Magazine? you’re so, so wrong. There just is no equivalent.

While I am not religious myself, I do identify with Judaism and can feel personally threatened by attacks on the religion I don’t believe in (I do say the prayers on Friday night sometimes, though). But I do love a good “Hasids behaving badly” story when I see it in the Forward… And when CH mocks Judaism, it is more about Israel and circumcision and Hasidim and Haredim, which I agree are good targets for mockery (they’re not me, after all! Well, circumcision, sure, but I don’t have religious feelings about it; I never had a bris). They don’t have nice, bien-pensant Reform or Conservative Jewish congregations in Europe AFAIK, so there’s less of a target there and I am pretty much spared. So I acknowledge that it’s easy for me to support the right to negative speech that isn’t about me.

I love CH, and I love the culture that produces it, but I don’t agree with everything they do. They recently had a piece with several cartoons about how ridiculous it is to target Confederate monuments in the US—complete with what I consider offensive caricatures of black people. Their claim is the monuments are “just” speech. Of course, the speech they embody is saying, You will always be second-class citizens, you will always be under threat, you will never be safe, you will never be equal, we will kill you if we feel like it and we will be backed up by the police and justice system and we will never face punishment, while you must do as we say immediately and without question or we will kill you and get away with it because “we were scared”.

You know what I think about Confederate monuments? I think melt them into slag right there on their plinths. But, yes! I acknowledge that’s not a pure, principled, “all speech must be sacrosanct and left to express its message loudly forever” ideal. I prefer Germany’s approach that decided that pro-Nazi speech (in the form of monuments, among other things) should be removed. They made a national decision that certain speech was bad and had no place in a modern Germany. I’m perfectly OK with that.

I think Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Fear are in conflict much of the time. I understand that Congress cannot infringe FoS, but can’t do jack-shit about FfF, which is a “freedom” made up by FDR.

I know that fans of Confederate monuments claim that the “speech” they represent is something anodyne about pride, valor, respect… just like the Confederate flag is about sweet tea and magnolia blossoms. I am reminded of something a school friend’s older brother used to do: he’d swing his fist at his kid brother’s head and, at the last second, stop and coolly brush his hair back. So, induce fear and then claim deniability. He wasn’t going to hit him! (he just wanted to see him flinch…) This is cousin to the Schrödinger’s Douchebag phenomenon.

Anyway, I haven’t got a nice, tidy wrap-up. I approve of freedom of speech, including speech that intends to contradict or criticize someone else’s speech. And—just so it’s explicit—I’m against murder. I know! Brave stand.