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McCafé Culture

Published on January 1, 2016, in Commentary.

A couple of years ago, the McDonald’s down the street from where I live made the news for being inhospitable to a bunch of Korean seniors. Here’s the setup: on a rather nondescript stretch of Northern Boulevard, a group of elderly immigrants claimed McDonald’s as their hangout spot. They would buy a dollar cup of coffee and sit there for hours and take up the seats for other customers. One day the management finally had it with them and called the police to forcibly remove them from the restaurant.

The media had a field day with the headlines. “Queens McDonald’s Terrorized by Pack of Senior Citizens” — intentional absurdity, and I guess it was meant to highlight the unfair conflict between a giant corporation and a small group that presumably had nowhere else to go. The whole episode presented a very welcome sort of narrative, especially about an insular and mysterious enclave neighborhood like Flushing: strange but familiar, amusing but also empathetic. We’re not so different after all. We just want a place to hang out with our friends.

But the funny thing is that Flushing has plenty of retail establishments that would serve these seniors. It has bakeries and restaurants and food courts, with wooden chairs and tables lined with glass, or plastic tables bathed in fluorescence, or metal chairs that are freezing cold in the winter. They are good places with good food. Barebones, maybe, but cheap, and certainly not so much less attractive than McDonald’s. Because surely you can’t ignore the immutable, obvious fact here: McDonald’s is terrible. It sucks. Not even Korean seniors think otherwise.

The real issue isn’t so much about why these elderly immigrants chose McDonald’s; it’s about why they didn’t choose all the other places that were open to them. What is it about the neighborhood that led them to do this? Because clearly their occupation wasn’t a protest against McDonald’s. It was a protest against Flushing.

 

new world mall

 

Flushing is a big deal nowadays. The Main Street 7 is the busiest subway stop outside of Manhattan. Rents are high and construction is constant. Restaurants are very well reviewed on Yelp.

This is not a place for old people. For the elderly who’ve weathered great upheavals in their lifetime, who’ve come across the ocean to live with their children and take care of their grandchildren, Flushing is not the retirement they imagined. Yes, they can find the same food that they’re used to. Yes, the people here speak their language. But the familiarity of the faces around them and the written characters on the storefronts must make their experience all the stranger.

The other restaurants in my neighborhood serve great food, wonderfully spiced and colorfully presented and cheaply sold. But you eat quickly and you move on, because you have work to do or school to study for, and the food is cheap because each restaurant competes fiercely on price. And if you’ve lived here long enough, you remember the many more failed and shuttered storefronts along with the successes. The constant, unforgiving pressure to move upwards and outwards is hard to get used to.  There’s no place to sit around and bask in the respect of the younger generations. There’s no time for idleness. So the seniors go to McDonald’s because McDonald’s is the least Flushing place in Flushing.

I’ve lingered around in that McDonald’s as well, and in the other small pockets of space that seem sheltered from the general movement of the neighborhood. A place like Flushing can be just as overbearing as the suburbs. And it causes a similar reaction too, as you’re sitting in McDonald’s, or as you’re wandering around after school with no place to hang out, wound up like a taut bowstring, or when you’re in the public library reading Hemingway and trying to imagine walking to a good, clean, well-lit café on the Boulevard St. Michel.

That’s the counterculture in a place like Flushing: a bunch of disgruntled seniors and maybe a few clichéd wannabe bohemians looking to get out as soon as possible.

 

Flushing Cafe

 

Of course, the Korean Seniors vs. McDonald’s incident was a tiny moment frozen in time. Urban neighborhoods constantly change, almost as surely as people change.

This winter, I came back to find a spate of new coffee shops opening in the neighborhood. They are obviously meant for the young people here these days – half a generation younger than me, and two generations removed from the seniors at McDonald’s. They have wood paneling, warm lighting, soft jazz, reliable wi-fi, wooden basket chairs painted delicately white, and long, deep rooms that put you far away from the opening to the cold New York sidewalks. The patrons have disposable income and time to kill. There’s a girl sitting across from me wearing black and white and bright red sneakers and big Bose headphones.

Conditions are much more pleasant now. You can even write in these coffee shops, like Hemingway.

But it also makes you think that there is a café culture for every generation, no matter what the cafés actually look or feel like. There are the post-war Parisian cafés of painters, poets and winos. There’s the Flushing cafés of today, with its cute PG-13 pleasantness. But even in my day, half a generation ago, we had something too. We had McDonald’s, and cold streets, and the feeling that you had to get out, to fly upwards and outwards like an arrow shot from a taut bowstring.

And you realize that the bustling, uncomfortable bakeries and food courts, the pace of movement that made you antsy and always pushed you to get a move on – that was as purposeful and effective of a design decision as any. And it ended up mattering a lot more than the arrangements of the tables or the warmth of the lighting.

 

The Question That Must Be Asked

elmhurst protest

 

Flushing Exceptionalism does a piece for Next City about successful, “self-made” working-class immigrant neighborhoods vs. pockets of entrenched urban poverty, and why our inability to productively compare the two really isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Elmhurst, Queens is a predominantly Asian working-class immigrant enclave not known for political action. But a few weeks ago, a crowd of 500 with bilingual signs and bullhorns demonstrated heatedly in front of a former hotel that the city had converted into a homeless shelter. A group of mostly black and Latino families had moved in, and while many people are apprehensive about America’s homeless population, the protesters responded with a vitriol and unpleasantness that hinted at something else: a tension underlined by race, resentment and perceived entitlement. “Why does the government want to support this group?” one Chinese resident and restaurant worker was quoted asking in the New York Times. “Why do they want to give them free money? We have to work from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

 

 

Spider-Man: The Greatest Story Ever Told about Growing Up in Queens

Published on July 17, 2014, in Commentary, The Basics.

The “Queens is the Future” handball court mural in Jackson Heights recently got a makeover. Here’s the before and after:

mural beforemural after 2

 

In all the times that I’ve thought and written about Queens, I don’t think I’ve ever had a single, unconditionally positive post about all the things that have happened in our fair borough. But this time Flushing Exceptionalism gives its unqualified endorsement to this piece of urban renewal.

People are interested in Queens now, and they are looking for things to grasp onto, cultural tidbits by which to brand the borough and make it understandable to them, and they’ve gravitated toward the diversity and authenticity of the borough. Okay, sure, whatever. But people here have responded in kind, and we’ve completely obliged this kind of branding, and so the stories we tell about ourselves these days generally fall along tired, contrived cultural and ethnic lines. It’s unfortunate because in all this grubbing for community pride and solidarity and native storytelling we don’t ever think about Spider-Man anymore.

Since FE trucks exclusively in hyperbole and speaking as if our personal experiences represent the vast swaths of people in Queens, we’ll come out and say it: the story of Spider-Man is the work of art that best embodies the singular experience of growing up in Queens.

 

spiderman train

 

Of course I’ve always liked Spider-Man, but it only hit home when I was about to graduate college and I found myself binge-watching a cartoon for preteens. When all the seemingly beyond-my-age, beyond-my-means schoolwork was done, and adolescence as I experienced it bumped up against young adulthood as it was dictated, I sat around in my packed-up apartment and watched The Spectacular Spider-Man. And it all started making so much sense.

We know he’s from Queens – Forest Hills, to be exact – but geography is always subtle and hazy in Spider-Man. There are few references to the places here, or to what counts for icons and landmarks in our borough. We see his house in a row of houses, but it mostly serve as a break in the action; it’s treated as background information, not just by the narrative but by the characters themselves. The house is important, and Queens is important, but you should have the tact and the self-awareness to not talk about it too much. That’s the way kids of ambition grow up in these neighborhoods. The main story still lingers between the tall buildings of Manhattan. You live two lives, and you have two identities, and you inhabit two different cities. Like any real work of art about Queens, it’s necessarily also a work about Manhattan.

 

queens manhattan composite

 

You see Manhattan and the extremes of everything that could be done in life, heroism to be earned and villains to be overcome, and an arena in which you can unleash your talents and hard work and ingenuity. And because you’re so close to it you feel it in yourself too. You always have the clanking of the subway and you go into the city everyday and you leave it looking back at it the whole time.

Yet the city also makes you aware of all the things you don’t know, all the things you have to learn, and all the ways you seem to be behind everyone else even before the race had started. And you’re told that your background and upbringing have their own value, that they hold hidden but powerful lessons if only you could bring yourself to see them. Unfortunately, they are not so obvious, and usually all you see are your disadvantages relative to everyone else.

 

M3 High School: Obviously a reference to Stuyvesant

M3 High School: Obviously a reference to Stuyvesant

 

Of course, deep down, you feel you’re just as good as they are, and maybe even stronger, smarter, more deserving. With time, you think you can do all the things that they do, but better. So you throw yourself into that world, and you actually do pretty well. You make some progress, you convince some people, and maybe you even start to feel that your narrative has attained a certain sense of heroism. Look at how far you’ve come. Look at all the responsibilities you’re shouldering.

But the funny thing is the more you succeed in one life, the more it messes up your other one. Being Spider-Man makes Peter Parker’s life worse on basically every level – that’s the central conflict of the entire story. He is distracted in front of his family and friends, he misses his obligations, he is no more popular at school, and he has no way of really communicating what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, even to those he cares about the most. Don’t they see what sort of heroism it takes to do this, to lead these two lives? To earnestly strive for greatness while staying loyal and grounded? But your real life doesn’t cut you any slack because of your wild and precious ambitions, and your ambitions don’t care about your heartrending tales of overcoming. This is a lesson that you will never stop learning.

And behind all of this is the hard and unchangeable fact that you’re just a kid from Queens, no matter your ambitions and talent and powers. The city is full of people and things far beyond your comprehension. Every once in a while, Spider-Man gets a glimpse of how the city really works, and how the good that he does means so little in the big, scheming, momentum of things. Sometimes he labors to save people who turn out to be dirtbags and cowards and sub-humans. Sometimes he finds that he’s unwittingly done the work of his enemies. More often than not, I think, he becomes aware of himself as the fool that he is, a naïve, melodramatic, self-sacrificing rube.

 

spiderman and tombstone

 

But there is such a thing as living by a code, and the dual lives he leads hold each other together, precariously, and he is a better man because of them.

Peter Parker is a good kid, with genuine interests and desires and friends, and an inner life, and he deserves to be happy and do dumb things as is his right as a teenager in this America. But because of vague morals and restrictions and personal codes that’ve been placed on you, you don’t do those things, from day to day, for years on years. And then you realize you were different from them all along. Spider-Man is about these joys and tragedies of growing up within boundaries, of being buoyed by Manhattan and the world of excitement it promises while being constrained by home, curfews, values, piety and exigencies. It takes real imagination and a sense of heroism to capture this story of so much self-restraint and so much freedom.

And finally: Spider-Man is known for wisecracking all the time when he’s fighting. He’s seen as a kid superhero, and people often compare him unfavorably with far inferior superhero characters, because I guess they don’t take him as seriously.

Really? Well, who do you think he is wisecracking for? It isn’t for you.

Eventually you come to understand that Spider-Man is joking around for himself. He is cracking jokes about the life he’s chosen to lead, just so he can get through the day. He’s mocking himself for his own amusement, as someone so smart yet so dumb, operating in a city he doesn’t understand, continuing to play fair and shoulder his responsibilities even as his personal life threatens to crumble around him.

Here’s hoping for more monuments in our borough to our hero, and for kids in Queens to forever grow up in this way: irreverent, determined, imaginative, and with a real appreciation of the tragicomic.

 

 

The ’64 Fair and the World of Tomorrow

Published on May 8, 2014, in Commentary.

The New York State Pavilion and the Unisphere from the ‘64 World’s Fair are some of the few icons the borough of Queens has ever had. And yet for those of us who live here, they’ve always seemed like relics from a different, abandoned world. On its 50th anniversary, in light of the changing context of Queens, the Fair and its relevance are still vague and unclear. I’ve tried to make some sort of meaningful connection to it as a local kid who hears about the Fair talked about as some fantastical, epochal event. But it always seems a bit tenuous and just a little out of my grasp.

imgur user tdvx

imgur user tdvx

 

The ‘64 Fair was an extension of the World of Tomorrow theme from the last Fair held at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The exhibits about the promises of the Space Age and exceptional American technology and industry would not prove to be as prescient, however. The ‘39 Fair introduced people to TV and the car-oriented future of America. The ‘64 Fair had moon colonies and underwater resorts.

On the other hand, the Fair might have played a curious role in the transformation of Flushing that followed. Because the Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, most major European countries didn’t participate. Instead, smaller countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Greece made up the International Pavilion. Aside from introducing the beginnings of certain international cultures, many of the vendors made Flushing their home during and after the Fair. They spoke English and were generally educated, and middle-class in their sensibilities if not in reality, and so they wanted to settle in a proper middle class community. And they allegedly went on to anchor the immigration and demographic shifts of Flushing for the following decades.

But of course, the Fair was about a specific time and a specific mood more than anything else. The pictures of it were the earliest color pictures I remember seeing of anything in my borough. There was the clean look about it all that set the tone for what the popular imagination thought of Queens and urban American life. New York is diverse and bohemian and subversive and all of that, but there in the park, in the crowds, they made up a world of tomorrow that was good-natured and oblivious enough that it embodied something else.

world's fair 5

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What we wanted out of Queens was what the World’s Fair promised. But it’s not so simple as the way everyone now talks about diversity and multiculturalism and inclusiveness, as if our everyday differences were cause for celebration. This seems a pretty strange reputation to have for any of us who’ve grown up in an immigrant family and can recall the frank and casually bigoted conversations at the dinner table. It’s the unfortunate truth that even in this borough there is no real harmony and understanding between peoples. But then again that was never part of the deal.

The neighborhoods along Queens Boulevard were settled by people who were at war with each other before they got on the plane. When they landed they still did not like each other. It was a new country though, and there was an unspoken understanding that there is a new way of living here too. The togetherness they envisioned here was quiet and modest and assimilative and maybe a bit Disney but there is something inspiring in that too.

I’ve been thinking about cities all my life, and I go to grad school now just to study them, and contrary to how I might come off sometimes, I still like cities and I still believe in them. Like our parents before us, we have also been looking for a kind of togetherness, those of us who grew up in New York and still take some bit of pride in that. I’ve been looking all this time, and  I couldn’t find it in the secret, bohemian corners of the city, and as far as I can tell it’s not in the exclusive world of the rich, and I’m sorry to say that it’s not in the humble neighborhoods of working-class immigrants either. But we’ve all envisioned it, in one way or another.

worlds fair 2

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The ‘64 Fair seems to be popping up everywhere I look these days. In honor of its fiftieth anniversary, the Times did a sweeping piece about the Fair as a moment in time and space, along with a beautiful feature on the old Fairground. Different World’s Fair stories pop up everyday on my Google Alerts about Flushing and Queens. A couple of weeks ago, the New York State Pavilion reopened to the public for a day. And all around there seem to be new caretakers working to revitalize and recreate something about the Fair.

salmaan khan matthew silvaSalmaan Khan and Matthew Silva are the founders of People for the Pavilion, a volunteer-run organization trying to preserve and ultimately develop a long-term plan for the New York State Pavilion. Khan is a Long Island kid, and he told me how he became curious about the Fair in much the same way as I did, driving past the Unisphere on the Long Island Expressway while I was riding past it on the 7. You don’t think much about it or pay it much notice, but the small details stay with you until later on when you really start wondering about it. People for the Pavilion now raises awareness about the structure through programs, events, and communications. Ultimately, they hope to encourage the development of a sustained community around the Pavilion.

Things have changed since the Fair and Queens does not look the same as it did in the pictures. Khan works hard in his free time to build support for his organization, and public response is quite positive. People’s memories of the Fair and their enthusiasm for such a singular moment in time have been great. But Khan also noticed that his efforts drew an audience that was not entirely representative of Queens. He has a hard time engaging anyone who actually lives around the Pavilion now, in Corona and Elmhurst and Flushing and along Queens Boulevard in the neighborhoods that have settled in some manner like what the conspicuous internationalism of the World’s Fair suggested. I told him I felt the same way writing this blog, and talking about my ideas to my fellow grad students and well-intentioned young urbanists, and yet the people that I went to grade school with, whom I still see in Flushing and whom I always thought I was writing for — I don’t think they care much for this at all. I guess this is also why we don’t have World’s Fairs anymore.

world's fair 6

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Khan said that he doesn’t want to preserve the Pavilion as how it used to be. “I don’t want it to end up as a tribute to the World’s Fair,” he told me. “I don’t want it to be a museum.” It has to serve the people who are here now.

But as I read through great, evocative recent coverage of the Fair, I think about the people who went there and their memories of the place, and I see the nostalgia and the Kodachrome optimism of the Fair and I picture the exhibits in my head. It’s almost like I was there.

5 Pointz and the Aspirational Outer Boroughs

 

I know 5 Pointz as the first thing you see when the 7 line subway breaks above ground on its way into Queens. The graffiti changed regularly as the curators rotated different pieces, and you barely noticed it when you passed by every day. The one bit I remember well is that for all of my high school years, someone had written “Made You Look” up at the very top of the building, like a childish throwaway joke. But it was right, and it got me to glance up at it every time and think, however fleetingly, that the New York I lived in was in some way connected to the New York of legend, full of graffiti and transgression and casual urban swagger, even though my everyday life in the early aughts was already pretty far from it all, and life in New York has only changed more since then.

Now 5 Pointz is painted over and slated for demolition, and everywhere you hear lamentations of its demise. But what exactly are we mourning? People talk about 5 Pointz in generally nostalgic terms, with an appeal to the sanctity of art and the culture of local communities. Hard to argue against something like that. But it’s also funny how the loudest champions of preserving street art seem more likely to be future residents of the newly-built towers of Long Island City than those who grew up in this borough. After all, 5 Pointz is most certainly the borough’s leading attraction for those looking to impress their high school friends visiting from Ohio. It’s been a long time since art and transgression and bohemianism stood for homegrown community interests in our cities.

Of course, there should be a place for art in Queens. Even the duller, poorer, and less romanticized boroughs deserve beautiful things. But what does it mean to see the aerosol on the walls every day?

Here in grad school, we talk a lot about the details of city planning and design, from the widths of the sidewalks to the landscaping of open spaces to the orientation of the buildings. The idea is that every little thing in the physical environment has an effect on our quality of life, and of course they do. Still, so many of these things seem subtle to the point of pettiness, and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they are mostly irrelevant until you’ve achieved a basic level of affluence and comfort.

But the one exception is that the urban environment is always aspirational. No matter who you are, and no matter the circumstances, you can feel it in the things you see every day. The city constantly gives us ideas about what we should aspire to, what we should want, and how we should want. It has always played an important role in molding and guiding the development of its citizens.

So of course it’s true that the art on those walls allow us to think about who we are and what we hope to become. But so does everything else. The way Broadway curves down Manhattan and the way the bridges span the East River, and even the way that Long Island City condos rise from the squat buildings around it — that’s aspirational too. The important question is what you want people to aspire to. What do you want to communicate to those who pass through 5 Pointz on the 7 line every day? What is it that they need? This is not so clear in today’s New York. Perhaps it’s not what they want, and not what you want them to want either.

The end of 5 Pointz doesn’t say much at all about the fate of street art, or that of transgression and marginal culture in New York. Certainly graffiti as an expressive form will still be there even if there is no convenient exhibition space. Really, it takes a new and special kind of person to decry the loss of indigenous culture in Queens. It’s not so much about whether you see it and consume it or not, and whether it’s spelled out on run-down, yellowing walls.

Instead, 5 Pointz is a snapshot in time of changing New York. In the boroughs that used to be about vacant buildings and ignored, fringe groups, now anything that’s not the highest and best use will have trouble holding on. In light of this, what kind of message do we want to pass on, through the built environment, to the people growing up in the city today, who need to lean on the city for the kinds of life that are open to them? That’s what’s at stake in 5 Pointz and the many more developments that will come after it.

I will say that 5 Pointz was an institution for me, in the way that it stood for something to look for on the way through the mire that is the western Queens landscape. When you can recite each stop on your long commute in your sleep, and you know when to look out on the left side to see the Unisphere and the churches and schools that pass for landmarks, and then the rows of houses that you like, and the way the borough changes in ethnicity and character from one to the next – 5 Pointz was one piece to hold on to in the long journey that reminded you of the spectrum of lives that one lived in the outer boroughs, on the fringes of Manhattan.

But times have changed, and what it means to be on the fringes of Manhattan has changed, and the idea of art and transgression and bohemianism and urban romanticism has changed, and so the message you convey to the ones who are here might need to be updated too.

 

New York Graffiti Mecca Erased By Developer