Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

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By Damian Ghigliotty

Surrounded by uniform sterile brick buildings, a rickety cab pulled up to the corner of 97th Street and 57th Avenue in LeFrak City.

A small group of men in their late-40s and 50s came over to see what Freedom had brought for the day. An old friend, Black, had come to help him unload several brown boxes from the trunk. Duke and C. were the first customers of the morning. The rest had stopped by simply to chat with familiar faces congregating on a familiar street corner.

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom with a smirk of self-satisfaction as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

“Today this is my corner,” said Freedom as he began to open one of the boxes. “Mine alone.”

Freedom, 58, a retired maintenance worker turned local part-time merchant, has become LeFrak City’s only art vendor. “One day,” he said, “I plan to have my own flea market here.”

Freedom’s goods ran the gamut — framed posters of southern blacks on porches, portraitures of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, religious proverbs encased in floral designs, and scenes of a disgruntled Scarface holding a smoking tommy gun. Most cost $8 a piece, or $15 for two, but Freedom was apt to bargain with nearly anyone who asked, bringing more people from the neighborhood over to browse as the day went on.

“This helps the neighborhood,” said Duke, a retired hotel management employee from Ghana, as he paid for two framed posters of silhouetted jazz musicians blowing on yellow saxophones. “Children see the pictures of historical blacks with familiar images from the movies and they ask their parents, ‘what’s that?’ It opens people’s eyes.”

Freedom, who has walked with a wooden cane since he fractured his hip in 2002, decided to sell posters after retiring from the LeFrak City Maintenance Department. Surrounded by several take-out restaurants, an income tax office, two beauty salons, and two sportswear stores, he said he had found the perfect place for cheaply priced artwork; an outdoor market overlooked by other vendors in the neighborhood.

“I’m doing something new and positive here,” said Freedom as more customers showed up to his corner. “This is for the five generations of LeFrak,” he added in reference to everyone living in the community — small children to the elderly.

LeFrak City had always needed a stronger sense of identity, Freedom said, a place where people could stop and chat as they went about their day. One effort was to have the side wall of Fluffy’s Salon on 57th Street painted with a mural of local and historical figures: LeFrak City native, Al Blake; Jackson Heights native, Sen. John D. Sabini, Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan; and local hip-hop artist, Noreaga. Freedom and several community activists, including Al Blake — now the chairman of the LeFrak City Tenants’ Association — organized the project in the summer of 1994.

As the new mural attracted more and more people walking by, Freedom soon thought of commerce in art as another way to bring disconnected neighbors together.

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Outside of LeFrak City, city planners, historians and academics looking in have shared Freedom’s dissatisfaction with a community that lacks an identity despite its racial and religious diversity.

“On a visual level, LeFrak City has always been rather depressing,” said Architectural Historian Barry Lewis. “It’s like being in the middle of nowhere.”

When Samuel J. LeFrak began development along the Horace Harding Expressway in 1960, he and his investors envisioned a self-contained community with the basic essentials — a local grocery store, a local pharmacy, and a few nearby restaurants, surrounded by parks, playgrounds and private homes. In his view, Manhattan was close enough for those who needed to purchase luxury items.

Lewis said that in an effort to suburbanize parts of New York City, the movers and shakers behind community projects like LeFrak City and Stuyvesant Town failed to predict the shortcomings of their developments. Suburbanization never came to fruition as those “progressive thinkers” expected, he noted in a tone of sarcasm. Especially once New Yorkers realized what a neighborhood without bustling streets would actually look and feel like.

“People in the city gravitate to where the shopping streets are,” said Lewis. “Shops attract social activity. They’re the microorganisms of the city people love — older folks chatting, young kids hanging outside of candy shops.”

After LeFrak’s vision of a prepackaged suburban community in Queens began to collapse in the mid-80s, the area become notorious for gang violence and drug deals, a reputation the neighborhood still carries today, even though crime has dropped with the rise in Eastern European and Muslim immigrants.

But with a continual lack of interest among landowners and private investors to diversify the neighborhood’s commerce, individual efforts have only amounted to small accomplishments on small scales.

Most days, when Freedom isn’t offering framed posters for sale, he sits outside of Fluffy’s Salon, helps sweep up, and sells packs of Newports for $4, which he buys in bulk for far less.

“I get frustrated sometimes, because everyone around here has their own agendas,” he said, gazing across the street at a group of young teenagers. “One day I’m going to get myself a big stage right on this corner, and then everyone will see what I’m trying to do.”

After the sale of his last poster, Freedom’s spot to one day run his own flea market became encompassed by the slumped shadow of an unemployed community member struggling to get by. With no financial support from the LeFrak Organization since his injury, it has been hard for him to support a family, let alone a community.

“I guess that’s it until the next batch comes,” Freedom said with a sigh as he picked up his cane and headed home.

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Photograph by Michael Hicks © 2007.
 

I’m suddenly reminded of Robert Oppenheimer and the movie Blade Runner when I think of all the ambitious scientists and researchers working on the next generation of advanced prosthesis. I can’t help wondering if they’re as detached from the purposes of their research as Oppenheimer was. Or as keenly in touch with the idea of a Cyborg culture as Philip K. Dick was. Or maybe both.

With the discovery of myoelectricity, which allows artificial limbs to be powered by the remaining nerves of muscles that once existed (a phantom limb put to practical use), bionic prosthesis has developed to the point where dismembered soldiers are now being urged to jump back into action after losing a leg or two—or an arm or two. And while it all might seem too science-fictionally implausible to picture on a grand scale, let’s say to tally benchmarks against casualties for once, so was the Atom Bomb before the world saw its effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s where the often forgotten past of World War II and the bleak fantasy of Philip K. Dick suddenly seem all too prevalent and real.

Thirty-one amputees, including Capt. David Rozelle, who lost his right leg above the knee, and Marine Sgt. Sean Wright, who lost both of his hands, have already returned to active duty. Rozelle is one of ten amputee soldiers to return to the battle field after surgery, and now helps architect the amputee program at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. Wright currently teaches martial arts to fellow Marines heading over to Iraq. Other amputees, including Army Specialist Max Ramsey, who lost his left leg above the knee; Army Sgt. Neil Duncan, who lost both of his legs entirely; and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, who lost parts of both legs in different places, have appeared in the media alongside President Bush.

MSNBC reported on their website on June 28, 2006 that, “Despite a slight drizzle, Bush and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge took a slow jog around a spongy track that circles the White House’s South Lawn. About halfway through their approximately half-mile run, Bush and Bagge paused briefly for reporters. ‘He ran the president into the ground, I might add,’ Bush said, as the two gripped hands in an emotional, lengthy shake. ‘But I’m proud of you. I’m proud of your strength, proud of your character.’”

The psychology behind the push for bionic prosthesis can be a bit deceiving at first glance; just like with Robert Oppenheimer and Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard. While amputee soldiers deserve unconditional praise for their bravery, regardless of whether or not they choose to return to active duty, the attention they are given is somewhat askew. Military doctors like Mark Heniser have come to find that amputees who suffer the loss of a limb later in their military careers are more likely to return to service. Amputees who suffer earlier are likely to take an honorable discharge and whatever benefits they can receive. While the Bush administration has celebrated both groups equally in the public eye, treating all amputees duly as heroes, if it weren’t for those who were willing to keep up the fight, the funding wouldn’t be there for the latter. Military prospect precludes scientific advancement.

And as long as the guilt of feeling obsolete exists within human nature, giving those in power the opportunity to exploit it, I won’t be surprised to see a unit of well-seasoned soldiers with one or more of their limbs replaced standing on the front lines. Right now is the first testing phases. The driving thought behind the Pentagon’s funding for advanced prosthesis is that if you can make a wounded solider feel whole again by throwing him or her back into action once, morale can never die — as long as body parts can be replaced. Now that’s scary. And the eight-year-old nerd inside of me is slumped over, depressed as hell, because the things we thought we’d never see always get exploited as soon as we get to see them.

 
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President Bush jogging with Walter Reed amputees Max Ramsey and Neil Duncan. Photograph taken from ‘The White House News & Policies Page.’

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Development along the Brooklyn Waterfront.
 

There’s not a neighborhood in the city that has ever stayed the same for more than a few generations. If they don’t get better, they get worse, but they always take on a new face after a certain amount of time.”

My friend Lee said this to me about four years ago, when I told him overdevelopment does more harm than good to the city. There I was sitting on the L train, reminiscing back to when DUMBO was an absolute no man’s land and Williamsburg was a pretty sub-par place to go drinking — back when New York seemed a bit more comfortable with itself — and somebody else had to rain on my pessimism by reminding me of a time before the time I remember, when Brooklyn Heights was a ghetto and Flatbush was an epicenter of commerce. Sure, taking the longer view always makes things easier to digest, but neighborhoods in New York City have stopped going down since 2002.

And why does that matter now?

Because suddenly, in the media’s eye at least, Mayor Bloomberg might conceivably run for president in 2008. And try as I often do these days, I’m still unable to disassociate New York’s wealthiest and most accomplished leader from all the overgrowth in the city as developers are given greater access to lower- and middle-class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

Of course, it’s not Bloomberg’s fault alone that the cost of living won’t stop rising, and while some New Yorkers have trouble noticing, it’s not only a local phenomena. Neither is overdevelopment, which might be inevitable in the long view. But apart from all the new people coming in and no longer going out, Bloomberg has certainly helped speed up the process a lot faster than it was moving before.

On the horizon, city planners are projecting: redevelopment of the Atlantic Yards, a revitalization of Coney Island, expansions for the Jacob K. Javits Center, further spreading of NYU facilities in the South Village and Columbia in Manhattanville, another convention center in Willets Point, new condos in Bed-Stuy, and the long sought after 2nd Avenue subway line.

Some of these initiatives are for the city’s benefit, some are ruination on the horizon, and others are for the most part innocuous. But when they all happen at the same point in time, a lot of New Yorkers will have to struggle to keep up, and City Hall, these days, seems incapable of not giving developers the green light. Hence the dozens of articles printed within the last few months in Time Out New York and umpteen other magazines about how underappreciated Queens and the Bronx are, and about how many little gems of culture they both hold.

And while the features that promote economic development might not come from the mayor’s office directly, they all carry Bloomberg’s invisible seal of approval. Ironically, most New Yorkers who live in Queens and the Bronx know that the best thing to appreciate about the “other boroughs” is how they haven’t become real estate hotbeds like all of Manhattan and the outer half of Brooklyn. Which causes me to wonder whether the mayor and his associates are simply projecting another million by 2030 or equally endorsing that amount.

The toughest question these days is when does development suddenly cross the line. Is it the misuse of eminent domain?

I’d say it’s when too many neighborhoods no longer have the capacity to change and New York becomes stuck one way for too like an overfed waterbug lying on its back. Bloomberg’s vision of the city has always been new developments and high-rises from the west end of Northern Manhattan (also known as Harlem) to the corners of every other borough, which admittedly has its ups and downs. But pace is key. As is affordable housing.

It might be hard for advocates of city development to notice, but the nicest neighborhoods in New York City got to where they are through gradual spurts. Like healthy adults who grew up properly; foolish fist fights and arguments to valuable lessons learned. DUMBO, on the other hand, is that unbelievably awkward kid in high school who started taking steroids, and Bedford Ave is the 30-something-year-old nerd who still tries to overcompensate for a late entry into hipness. So, yeah, that whole aspect of the Bloomberg legacy still makes skin crawl.

Or… as Lee would likely point out if I were reading this to him on the L train back in 2003… maybe I’m just being too nostalgic over everything old about New York these days. After all, the UN is estimating 3.3 billion people (half the world’s population) to live in cities by the end of next year and 5 billion by 2030, while apart from overzealous development plans, there’s not much else to criticize about Bloomberg’s incentives: going green, raising the standards for public education, dumping the Republican Party for political independence. Not to mention the fact that he’s incorruptible with or without affiliations. And 311 is the best thing for the general public’s protection since Giuliani stopped being mayor. Imagine that on a national level.

So… the question has been asked and everyone has an answer… “Should Bloomberg run for president in 2008?”

I would have to say I’m completely torn to say the least. That’s what happens when you take the personal view and the long view both at once.