Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

Looking back to 2008 Kyle Cocchi views his taking a job in politics as a risk from the start — an endeavor he now compares to making it as an actor due to the lack of consistency in Washington’s political sphere. After finishing his undergraduate degree at The Catholic University of America and working on several campaigns, including John Edwards’ run for U.S. President, he landed a two-year gig with the think tank Friends of Cancer Research. There he performed several main jobs from around-the-clock data mining and news aggregation to program development, networking and advocacy. The end of that gig in September 2010, however, left him with no upward mobility in Washington, as the Democrats had suddenly lost steam and Friends of Cancer had less to tackle post-health care reform bill.

“It was discouraging at the time, but I wouldn’t take it back if I could,” says the 25-year-old Staten Island native. “Almost every job’s a gamble these days.”

Cocchi, who’s tall, fair-skinned and soft-spoken—at least until national politics or cancer research enters the conversation—decided to leave Washington for a new job arena, feeling burnt out and slightly abandoned. Capitol Hill had little left to offer it seemed. So he packed up his belongings and headed back to New York, home of the professional job juggler. As for his strongest credentials, Cocchi says he cultivated a work sensibility during his tenure at Friends of Cancer that places him ahead of the curve, or at least right on it: the ability to comfortably wear a dozen hats in times of severe austerity, growing political disparity and constant economic flux. Cocchi sees that as the realest sense of job security in today’s world, since few companies and organizations can guarantee long-term stability post-recession. When tough times call for flexibility, hats that aren’t needed can easily be replaced for other ones.

“When I went to D.C. I was an idealist looking for a career,” he says. “By the time I came back to New York I was a fully reformed pragmatist ready to enter any field that would pay me.”

After moving into an apartment with his father in Forest Hills, Queens, Cocchi began culling through all of the online job postings that required a similar amount of multitasking to his stint at Friends of Cancer; everything from a full-time editing job at the Huffington post starting at $40,000 a year to a part-time job at a small advertising firm with no listed salary. He settled on temp work in the finance industry; a more lucrative prospect with the opportunity to change fields again in the next year or two, depending on where the dice landed.

“I didn’t come back here looking for a job as a nurse or a teacher,” says Cocchi. “But I did come back here with my eyes on a lot of different industries; non-profit work, advertising, media, finance, even pharmaceuticals.”

The recent economic and political volatility impacting nearly everyone below the top 1% of wealth holders around the country has given way to a new sense of career gambling among young urban professionals. These days, unlike just ten years ago, the average 20- to 30-year-old with a colleague degree or higher expects reoccurring job changes and has at least two backup plans in motion at any given time. Job stability throughout both the private and public sectors has reached a drastic low since the peak of the recession, while individual mobility and adaptability have become all the more easy to maintain. In turn, fewer workers are considering the single-career path over the course of their professional lives, and more employers are finding ways to perform their own juggling acts when it comes to hiring, firing and taking on more freelance and temp workers.

We can tie it to our confused political system and fragmented labor market, even as the economy slowly recovers. We can also link it to the constant growth of the Internet and its most popular sites among those under 40—YouTube, Facebook and Twitter—making self-styled celebrity and entrepreneurial success seem all the more easy to obtain as traditional jobs become more scarce. But at the heart of it, the city’s and country’s populations are continually growing while the means to pay those for their fair work is shrinking, causing more professional loyalists to reconsider their professional loyalties.

“I have friend with a law degree who works as a communications director right now,” says Cocchi. “I also know a doctor who makes $45,000 a year. It can be hard to admit, but we’re not always as special as we think we are. Probably less special than we’re willing to realize.”

These days, artists who teach and actors who wait tables are just the tip of the iceberg. Meet the countless other divided young urban professionals: political workers who temp in finance, investment bankers who write on the side, journalists who work part-time in marketing and PR (and the list goes on…) They’ve always been around, but they’re growing in scope, and they’re no longer being discreet about their various survival techniques—or making their efforts and names as visible as possible.

On the upside, we’re beginning to wear our mismatched hats more openly, as we become increasingly compelled to think outside of the box and boost our individual productivity (even if that means a higher rate of tweets per day.) On the downside, we’re gradually abandoning long-term skill development and potentially diluting the quality of our better work. But love it or hate it, rapid socioeconomic shifts and industry changes throughout the country are causing many us to go through career paths like paper plates, as we begin to entertain the next alternative even when we find a steady gig for the time being. Those same shifts are also leading many of us to develop skill sets that may or may not work together on paper. But that all depends on how big industries continue to reshape and rebrand themselves.

As of now and until the economy really improves, it’s open season for almost any budding professional who wants to try on another hat for the time being. Its as easy as covering several numbers on a roulette board. While freelancing on the side has become all the more manageable for those already employed (so long as employers provide a base salary to live off of), companies and organizations have begun to allow their workers more freedom to freelance on the side (so long as the necessary job requirements are met at the end of each work week.) That allowance includes fewer non-compete agreements, more flextime schedules and more open access to networking sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for personal use.

“During the last downturn there were very few companies that went above and beyond to make their employees feel secure about their positions, so the minute the job market started to pick up, a lot of those same companies faced serious retention and loyalty issues,” says Lorri Zelman, Managing Director of the Human Resources Search Practice at the staffing solutions firm Solomon Page Group. “There are few companies and organizations that aren’t concerned with retaining talent, so knowing that most people want to be fulfilled both personally and professionally these days, a lot of employers have loosened the restrictions on what their employees do in their free time.”

But with more ways for young professionals to find new work, or create their own, retention no longer seems likely when the big bucks and benefits aren’t there. As a result, whether out of a sense of necessity or a sense of newly found freedom, the 10- to 20-year job routine has become all the more rare; especially in a city that tends to feel like everyone’s oyster until the aftertaste makes them too sick to stay. Even in the best of circumstances, job security is worth less than half of what it was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, making the single-career path seem more and more like a high risk/high reward investment. Joining a start-up company that makes it into its third year and keeping your job in the process is an equally risky bet, but in times of uncertainty, that kind of gamble can seem more appealing.

Not to say that career investment has completely vanished (this writer is committed to journalism as a full-time profession.) But among the many working professionals who have their chips in one pot when it comes to their careers, the anxieties are often visceral. For the government workers, and those who rely heavily on government funding, it’s the concern over looming budget cuts and coinciding job losses. For the investment bankers and analysts, it’s the concern over new regulations and the result on financial salaries. For the medical practitioners, it’s the concern over weighted health care costs and a rising volume of patients per doctor. For the content creators, it’s a growing concern over the continuous abundance of other people’s content, and the mass audiences who now view music, news and other media as a free commodity.

In New York, the economics behind career longevity are tricky to measure, since no raw data for job tenure exists on the city level. The biggest indicators are in the movements of people themselves. The city’s population has continued to grow at an increasing rate over the past decade—slower since the start of the recession, but growing nonetheless—while unemployment remains almost twice as high as it was five years ago, up from 4.6% in April 2006 to 9% in April 2011.

As a result of those figures and a sharp decline in public and private spending since the beginning of the financial crisis, finding steady work in the city has remained an ongoing challenging for those in search, with fewer full-time positions available. In larger industries like advertising and retail, companies have started to hire again as business gradually picks up, but the majority of those companies are expanding their workforces in small doses with less of a cushion for new employees. Smaller industries like publishing, on the other hand, have found it all the more difficult to keep their books open, while the city itself has continued to shed government-funded jobs by the month.

For those who have maintained stable positions in their fields over the years, one of the biggest concerns is a growing compensation-productivity gap, which hit a national all-time high in the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the average U.S. employee is working more and receiving less in return at a growing rate. In media, the signs are obvious: AOL’s acquisition of The Huffington Post in February 2011 prompted a new requirement for the merger’s staff writers to produce between five and 10 stories a day, up from five or less, with no indications of a pay increase for their quicker turn-around.

“With so many developments in technology, more Blackberries, more means of remote access, etc, people are typically working longer hours and taking on more work,” says Zelman. “So burnout levels are increasing and employees are staying at one job for shorter periods of time. These days, a lot of people will go into a job saying ‘ok, I’m giving it a year or two, and if they take care of me I’ll stay. If not, I’ll move on.'”

Of course, in the fickle world of finance that mindset might prove slightly more fleeting as money markets steadily improve. But it’s no less significant considering the recent changes on Wall Street post-2006. After the subprime mortgage crisis hit and the federal government began to clamp down on banking, Wall Street suffered not only a revenue decline, but also a branding issue that it continues to struggle with even as profits steadily return. Bankers, no longer the well-protected risk takers of the 80s and 90s, have been left with three basic options in recent years: 1. Be the decent and accountable good guy and be willing to make less. 2. Be one the one who still plays dirty and nervously cover every track. 3. Be a big swinging dick and face public castration.

“In finance, there has never been that tactile sense of creating something, but for a long time there was the reward of being well compensated for dealing with the pressures and criticisms of the job,” says one New York-based sales trader, who has worked in the finance industry for 12 years. “Now people coming into the field are starting to realize that the big checks aren’t always guaranteed, despite the sweat. I think the underlying thought for a lot of these people is why not translate my skills into something more creative.”

The infamous Goldman Sachs alone has seen the passing of several financiers who were betting on something other than finance: Cristina Alger, the former Goldman analyst who’s getting ready to publish her family-drama novel The Darlings; J.C. Davies, the former Goldman analyst who recently published her nonfiction book on interracial dating, I Got the Fever; Allen Mask, the former Goldman analyst who released two online hip-hop albums, “Pilot Season” and “Sweet Dreams.” While working in finance and pursuing a side career in the arts has become common practice in recent years, it’s no secret that many of the same professionals doing so would have received far less acceptance from their employers and colleagues no more than a decade ago, when moonlighting and rapid job changing in the corporate world signified disloyalty.

In 2011 it’s more often a matter of self-preservation. And few can criticize. In tough times like these, the best potential outcome of more people taking on more roles is a rise in productivity and innovation throughout the country, especially in big cities. Ideally, the employed, self-employed and unemployed are spending less time resting on their laurels and more time coming up with new ideas and viable ways to make money, as fewer long-term job opportunities become available.

When Kyle Cocchi cashed his chips in on making a lifelong career out of political advocacy, he felt momentarily defeated—like a frustrated tourist leaving Atlantic City with empty pockets. But in the long run, remaining on unemployment for too long was like getting barred from the casino. With that in mind, almost any industry would do as long as it provided an open window for another year of work and another set of skills to keep him marketable.

“It’s not really about what kinds of jobs you do to get by in tough times like these,” says Cocchi. “It’s about the amount of time between each job on your résumé. It had already been a few months for me and I didn’t want that gap to get any bigger.”

—Damian Ghigliotty

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By Damian Ghigliotty and Matt Townsend

For years, savvy New York smokers avoided cigarette taxes and saved money by rolling their own.

But after President Barack Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance bill in February, the taxes on a pound of roll-your-own tobacco jumped more than 2,000 percent from $1.10 to $24.78 when the law went into effect on April 1.

“I was buying regular packs of cigarettes before the price went up to $9,” said 21-year-old Eric Reeves of Brooklyn. “Then I started rolling my own. Now that the price of rolling tobacco is going up as well, it’s hard to say which one will save me more money.”

City smokers already faced the highest cigarette taxes in the country at $5.26 per pack. Add a recent bump in the state’s non-cigarette tobacco tax and the price of roll-your-own, once a cheaper alternative to cigarettes, has doubled to as much as $10 a pouch within the five boroughs.

Now as New York delis, pharmacies and smoke shops have begun raising prices on roll-your-own tobacco, smokers are seeking out the last of the pre-tax inventory.

“They’re running all over the city looking for cheaper prices,” said Dhillon Singh, a sales clerk at Village Cigar in the West Village.

The federal government has taxed tobacco products since the early 1950’s, but roll-your-own tobacco was exempt until a 96-cent tax was imposed on every pound in 2000. The tax rose to $1.10 in 2002, and remained unchanged until congress increased it in April to mirror taxes on regular cigarettes, according to congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. A typical pouch of roll-your-own tobacco makes 40 cigarettes and is now taxed at 5 cents per smoke, the same as a pack of Marlboros.

“These products have been perceived to be replacements for cigarettes,” said Darreyl Jayson, vice president for the Tobacco Merchants Association, a non-profit trade group. “The thought was that these should go up to an equal level.”

The state began taxing all non-cigarette tobacco, including roll-your-own, in 1989 at 15 percent of wholesale prices. On April 7, state lawmakers increased that tax from 37 percent to 46 percent as part of the budget. The state separately taxes a pack of cigarettes at $2.75 and the city adds another $1.50.

“The hope is that if New York can get the prices on alternative forms of tobacco up, we can discourage the next generations from picking up smoking,” said Julianne Hart, the New York State director of advocacy for the American Heart Association. “The tax revenue can be used for other important public health programs, which are desperately in need of revenue right now.”

As a result of the tax increases on all forms of tobacco, the Department of Health projects that 20,000 of the city’s 1 million smokers will quit.

“Before you were paying half as much and getting twice as many smokes, so rolling your own was the obvious choice,” said Philip Nicolazzo, 23, a Brooklyn resident who works for the U.S Census Bureau. ” I really don’t know what I’m going to do at this point. I might have to quit smoking.”

But die-hard smokers looking for a deal still have alternatives.

Joe Kearns, a 49-year-old homeless man, recently sat on a bench outside the Classic Smoke Shop in Greenwich Village and said a few weeks ago he would have been puffing on Top tobacco, one of cheapest brands of roll-your-own, for $2.50 a pouch. But now that it’s doubled to $5, he’d rather bum cigarettes and smoke thrown-away cigars he finds on the street.

“I’m not going to pay $5 for that,” he said.

Mohamed Khlid, owner of the Classic Smoke Shop for the past 10 years, said roll-your-own sales have fallen 75 percent since the tax increase.

“It’s not just 50 cents, it’s doubled,” Khlid said. “People are shocked.”

The tax increase has also forced some tobacco companies to discontinue roll-your-own products. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribal Tobacco Corporation, based in Grove Oklahoma, stopped selling its one-pound bags of Skydancer rolling tobacco after demand plummeted.

“The people just don’t want it anymore,” said Seneca general manager Steve McCormick. “What’s happening across the board is people are going back to cigarettes.”

 

As George Orwell put it, “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

If these words mean anything to consumers and investors around the world, it’s to those anxiously waiting for the bottom:

The bottom of stock markets, the bottom of housing and credit markets, the bottom of ambiguous recessions muddled by GDP reports.

Perhaps Orwell would top even Warren Buffet as an oracle.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Buffet assured investors that now is the occasion to buy American stocks. Not a bad idea, considering the Dow was at a low of 8,578 the day before his piece ran. But that suggestion looks less promising than it did two weeks ago as stock markets continue to tumble. Today, the Dow closed at 8,176.

Buffet, himself, has lost $9.6 billion in equity this year, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal.

He did write in his call to investors, however, “Let me be clear on one point: I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market. I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month — or a year — from now.”

The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway can certainly afford the gamble, despite his loss. For the rest of us, there are plenty of opportunities on the horizon to buy cheap and lend at high risk with a chance of reward, plenty of opportunities for new home seekers to go bargain hunting, and plenty of opportunities for graduates to find jobs once companies start to hire again. But not until the economy — at least ours — truly bottoms out.

It’s a matter of physics. You can’t pick something up when it’s still in the process of falling. Sure, you can try and catch it mid-fall, but that might just hurt your hands.

In the meantime, enjoy the little perks: overheated rent prices are beginning to cool down; Barack Obama stands a better chance in lieu of McCain’s displays of financial ineptitude; there are more free ATMs available for WaMu customers (maybe even ATM fees will start to decline as a result); and everyday goods and services, with a few exceptions, are getting cheaper – just wait for gas.

Some of those perks might not help lift the economy, but se la vi, the economy’s going to the dogs anyway…

—Damian Ghigliotty

Vinyl Records

By Damian Ghigliotty

We used to call the best places and things gems because they were hard to find. Places and things you had to dig for.

Back in high school, my friends and I would spend a lot of our time (and lunch money) at the record store Fat Beats in the West Village. The biggest craze among us, as 16-year-old Brooklyn kids, was original, unfiltered underground hip-hop. It was the same music anyone can find on iTunes today, but back then — ’95-’99 for my graduating class — it was usually local, almost always on vinyl, and extremely sacred compared to what everyone else was listening to on the radio at that time. The only exceptions to that were Stretch & Bobbito, two well known voices on 89.9 FM (WKCR.) From 1 am to 5 am on Thursdays, they spun nothing but good hip-hop. And a lot of us stayed up to record it.

The albums and 12-inches that generated the biggest buzz across the five boroughs were quickest to disappear off the walls of Fat Beats, and one day my friend Frank and I became the envy of 20 other Brooklyn teenagers for having found two of the last original pressings of the debut Juggaknots LP (later re-released on CD as “Re:Release.”) I soon came to learn with a tinge of jealousy that Frank also owned an original pressing of the Company Flow “Funcrusher” EP, a fresh clear-green vinyl, and Frank later became a little jealous as well when he found out my sister’s friend had given me a copy of the original Slim Shady EP (though he won’t admit it now that Eminem’s beyond famous.) Funny enough, all three of those records had plain white sleeves, meaning no cover art and no pictures of what the artists looked like.

When the internet started to become a recognized place to find and buy independent music — I would argue around the beginning of 1997 — my friends and I discovered a website called Sandbox Automatic that gave us instant access to even harder to find records. It was a sudden maturity in our exposure to the whole subculture of hip-hop and we went to the site as much as we could to buy albums, EPs and singles that record shops like Fat Beats and Beat Street in Brooklyn didn’t carry. Less local, but just as precious and just as tangible when the packages finally came in the mail. Then suddenly, the next few years shot ahead something like this:

I quickly jumped into the first wave of the Napster phenomena in my first semester of college, went back to buying records when I came back to the city feeling guilty, had trouble getting those records onto my computer, awkwardly began buying CDs (blasphemy though it was), got tired of spending money on full-length CDs, quickly moved onto LimeWire, then SoulSeek, and occasionally iTunes, where my access to music — hip-hop, rock, soul and otherwise — thrives today.

Needless to say, most of the value we placed on underground hip-hop throughout high school has dissipated with the past. The physical records will always look and feel like gems in a way, especially caked in dust these days, but in 2008 that same music is ubiquitous and no longer hard to find. And that’s a disappointment at times. Not just due to personal nostalgia, but also due to a fear that when I have kids one day they won’t be able to cherish something the rest of the world hasn’t already seen or heard.

And here’s the much needed caveat I can’t seem to find a proper place for: I hold no resentment against the growth of the Internet and digital music (only a minor grudge), nor am I adverse to other forms of digital media, or digital networking sites like facebook, or blogging (though I hate the word.) But I do believe the ultimate downside to the digital era hasn’t been fully realized yet. Or I’m too reluctant to join an online chat group about it.

Since last year I’ve been a regular contributor to one of the world’s oldest hip-hop magazines, HHC, based out of London. As a personal formality of sorts, whenever I interview artists I ask them what they think of the Internet as a promotional tool. And almost every time I get the same response albeit in different form: “It’s great.”

“But don’t you feel like hip-hop is becoming oversaturated?” I ask.

“Nope, I stand out,” is the usual reply.

It’s arguable that iTunes and LimeWire have been good for most independent artists — since so few choose to stay underground. But something was lost in the transition to ubiquity and it wasn’t just the physical embodiment of music.

Father Jim

Father Jim performs first communion at Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway.

By Damian Ghigliotty, Clark Merrefield and Mathew Warren

Before Father James K. Cunningham relocated to Far Rockaway in 2001 he barely spoke Spanish and had served a predominantly white congregation in his six years of priesthood. Now the 39-year-old pastor, known as Father Jim, leads a multi-ethnic parish at Saint Mary Star of the Sea with a growing number of families from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

And as a leader among Catholic immigrants he now performs his services in Spanish as well as English.

“When they first sent me here I thought they made a mistake,” Cunningham said with a laugh as he sat inside the 88-year-old rectory. “You usually had to be 25 years a priest and I was only six years ordained at the time. But I guess they figured I could adapt – that adaptability was one of my strengths.”

Saint Mary embodies the sea of cultural and economic changes that have occurred on the Queens Peninsula since the early 1970s. As the bulk of second- and third-generation Irish, Germans and Italians packed up and left over the past four decades, a growing number of Hispanics and Caribbean Islanders have made Far Rockaway their home.

Today, the most recent immigrant groups – including Guatemalans, Mexicans and Guyanese – make up more than 70 percent of the 1,400-member congregation.

During a recent Mass, as Cunningham alternated between English and Spanish, more than a dozen children lined up to receive their First Holy Communion. Flags representing 37 different countries lined the inside of the church.

“The parish has had two or three turnovers since I’ve been a member,” said Josephine Kelly, 81, who moved to Far Rockaway from Buffalo in 1964. “Each turnover has caused a bit of an exodus among older members.”

And as those new members came in, so did new customs: from clapping and cheering to outward displays of affection among families.

“Back when it was predominantly white and European families the most you would hear was an occasional whisper,” Kelly added. “Now during services people tend to be a lot more expressive. You’ll often see a son put his arm around his father without giving it a second thought.”

While those changes have helped redefine the church’s inner-culture and the way in which the priests perform their sermons, they have also impacted on the parish’s finances. New groups appeared, but old money faded.

“Far Rockaway has faced the classic phenomena,” said Joseph Barden, executive director of Margert Community Corp., a neighborhood preservation group dedicated to helping struggling homeowners in the area. “In the 1970s there was a lot of white flight followed by a high concentration of poverty and a growth in public housing. Those forces plus immigration drove the original people who used to live here out. The problem for the church has been that most of the new immigrants don’t have the same economic base.”

One of the most apparent cultural and economic shifts can be seen in the fall off of donations given to the church.

“A lot of the churches in South America and the Caribbean are supported by their governments,” Cunningham said. “In the United States, that’s not the case and people aren’t as accustomed to tithing. A lot of the new members put a few dollars in the basket a week and think that’s enough of a donation. As a result, it’s become hard to pay bills when our collection is good, but still not good enough.”

Raul Hernandez, a 33-year-old construction worker who came from Mexico with his wife and two children, is part of the newest wave of immigrants to join the church. While some of the congregation members see a link between their parish’s financial struggles and the growing proportion of immigrants, Hernandez links it to external forces.

“Today things are really difficult,” he said. “The economy is really bad. Before maybe I could give $10 a week, now it’s $5.”

Jason Fernandez, 7, was one of the first children in line to receive communion. After Mass, his mother, Maria, shed tears of joy while the rest of her family waited to take pictures with Cunningham.

“When I have, I give, and it’s from the heart,” she said. “Without the church and without God, I don’t think we could survive in this country.”

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Last night I played pool at a small bar in my neighborhood with a 27-year-old Tibetan named Jigman who is seeking asylum in New York City. He was upset about the riots taking place in Lhasa between Tibetans and the Chinese military, as well as a protest outside of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan that had been broken up by police that morning.

“The Chinese president has often said religion is a dangerous thing,” Jigman told me. “That might be true, but Buddhists are usually peaceful people. The Chinese provoke us.”

Since the riots started on Friday morning, 80 Tibetans have been killed and 72 injured, according to the Tibetan government in exile. And with fears that international scorn will jeopardize the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government has imposed a strict curfew in the area.

Despite Jigman’s frustration, every shot he made was nearly perfect; straight, angled or banked off the sides. By our third game, a stocky 26-year-old Marine named Josh with a fresh crew cut and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth joined in. A few beers later, Josh and I got into a conversation about the war in Iraq — which is nearing 4,000 American deaths and over $1.2 trillion in costs — and Josh told me, “We shouldn’t ever have gone over there in the first place.”

When I asked him why not, he spit some of the tobacco into a plastic bottle and looked at me to see if I was about to play devil’s advocate. I wasn’t. He told me when he had served as a sniper in Fallujah in 2004, he had fully supported Bush and the removal of Saddam Hussein, but looking back he realized how much of a mess the original plan was destined to be.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he said. “At this point too many soldiers have died trying to fix the war.”

“You’re right,” said Jigman as Josh offered us both some chewing tobacco from his $2 Red Seal tin.

I declined and went outside for a smoke. Jigman told Josh it reminded him of a tobacco often sold in Nepal.

After the three of us got tired of pool, the Tibetan having won almost every game against the sniper and the journalist, we all had one more round of drinks and went our separate ways.

In my cynical mind it’s gotten increasingly harder for strangers to talk openly about politics and find any common ground, especially with so many conflicts reaching new heights at home and overseas. I guess Jigman and Josh felt far enough removed at a random dive bar in Woodside, Queens that they could speak about Tibet and Iraq with no less concern, only less apprehension about what they said.

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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.