If real estate is the most notable thing about New York City, it stands to reason that construction should dominate the streets. We are well beyond paving the parking lots that once replaced paradise. Thanks to the policies of the current and former mayors and the city council, as well as Albany imbroglios and mega-graft, there are shell companies (or real estate tax shelters for rich foreign buyers) set up faster than social security numbers. To those who make policy, money is paradise, often attained by growth in the form of building more buildings. This process cryptically translates into the watch words, “job creation,” a term flowing into and making up that amorphous thing called “the economy.” Who is this paradise for, exactly? The middle class, who pay a higher share of taxes than anyone, the poor, who live day to day and hour to hour, discouraged by their intractable position, or these wealthy buyers who decline to list their properties as their primary residences so they can avoid paying income taxes?
For seven years I had a job, homeless outreach, that permitted me to drive in Manhattan. I know the streets as well as a taxi driver. I know their ebbs and flows: the FDR versus the West Side Highway, Canal Street avoidance, and the ludicrous East Houston Street renewal from Bowery to the highly trafficked artery at the FDR, which is still dragging on after seven years. It’s a pittance compared with the near decade-long 2nd Avenue subway project, recently reported to have been rushed to completion to fit the Governor’s New Year’s Day deadline last year, with the MTA failing to complete final safety testing — an eerie echo of the doomed space shuttle Challenger’s rushed launch for Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union speech. And though I know September brings the traffic back to top levels with the return of students and the reduction in people taking vacation, to drive or walk almost anywhere below 14th Street, now, is an unadulterated mess, the worst I’ve ever seen it. Grand construction projects, mostly on buildings and not the streets themselves, though streets are closed or blocked to work on them, harpoon any hope of a normal day’s work or a pleasant day’s stroll. Who lets this occur? The Department of Buildings doles out permits like a narcissist tweets. To say construction is at an all-time high is an understatement, with some 40,000 projects ongoing as of September. DOB commissioner Rick Chandler touts this fact at the same time that his department suffers from having too few inspectors to get people back into their houses via inspection five years after Hurricane Sandy, carrying its own history of graft, and lagging safety measures with increased accidents, injuries, and nearly three dozen construction deaths since 2015. Still, the Department continues to promote its $29 million computerized system, DOB NOW, which makes it even easier to get a permit.
Commissioner Chandler admitted in a WNYC interview that most of the building is going on in Brooklyn. The borough of choice some call it, others the borough of boom and bust. In much maligned and ballyhooed Park Slope, named one of the best neighborhoods in the country and locally reviled for its wealth and record-breakingly big baby strollers like somehow only giants were conceived there, my wife and I rent the upper unit of a piece de resistance, the brownstone, on land where once the Lenape natives lived before the Dutch formed it into a sprawl of farms. My street has a proud history and just down the way by 5th Avenue, the beginning of the Battle of Long Island took place in 1776. All that history is fodder for tourists now, the kind who take pictures of the unkempt statues of unimportant men around Grand Army Plaza, save the one of JFK. What they can’t keep out of their photos is commerce. Looking north down Flatbush Avenue, from the Plaza’s Sailors and Fountain, one would see, for over a year, cranes at work on two window-laden towers surrounding the Barclays Center—luxury condos more closely resembling erector sets.
I’ve lived in three different places in this neighborhood over the past five years. In walking it daily — to go to the park, the library, the food-coop (no, I’m not a communist, but who can say no to organic produce at 80% the usual price) — the thought that nearly every brownstone over Park Slope’s one square mile is worth approximately three million dollars, is a blithe though unrelenting reality, which upsets the picture of my little family’s humble existence, and more so of the billions who truly struggle in our time of the greatest income disparity in human history. A good number of the owners of these buildings have second homes up the Hudson or on Long Island, some have a third somewhere else. Since the unthinkable came true with Hurricane Sandy, I’ve often wondered about the liquidity of the insurance industry if say, 200 houses were to be destroyed by an act of God or worse. That’s $600 million. Can there be an insurance industry after such a situation? Beyond the Department of Buildings hijinks, people in New Orleans are still fighting to be compensated for their losses of $50,000 homes. I’m not sure any cliché approaches the situation’s indecency.
There is the mild incongruity of persisting in such a neighborhood, to be seeded in an area that represents some of the most capitalistic, ill-liberal thinking, though the vast majority of the neighborhood’s residents might justify their righteousness by citing their political leanings (88% are registered Democrats). My self-professed detestation of the rich can’t hemorrhage too much, when I tell my writerly self: It’s all material. Writers have a way of culling from their situations, whatever they are, though I don’t imagine a novel on the order of The House of Sand and Fog’s immigrant house-flipping tragedy anytime soon. U.S. literary history shines another light. Henry James had to infiltrate the houses of great wealth in order to eviscerate them, but of course, he was born with an entree, coming from a well-off family — so he had to keep current. And Upton Sinclair? He grew up poor and wrote dime novels in his teenage years, a practice which paid for moving his parents into a better apartment. He went undercover in a meat-packing plant to write the country’s most famous whistleblower novel, The Jungle. I’m not really breaking into the brownstones of the Slope, but I’m seeing the day-to-day operations of wealth: the West Indian nannies, the thousand-dollar baby strollers, and the miniscule orange cones across the sidewalk alerting people there is a cord and it’s plugged from the ground-level unit of a brownstone into a large Tesla, owned by a young entrepreneur who dresses like a page out of 2001’s The Hipster Handbook with a wife beater and his rangy hair hooded by a mesh beer hat. Do I gab with my neighbors about real estate, decrying the latest intrusion on this picturesque world, the loss of parking spaces for Citi Bike stands (amounting to around 20 spaces), or about how they are making a killing by Airbnb-ing their upper floors and will continue to do so because their listings are legal? No. We mostly smile and talk about the weather, as the reverse beeping of the Awesome Finish Carpenters van blares while it parks for the fourth week in a row.
On a ramble through the neighborhood, it is de rigeur to hear another sound of such distinction, like a high-powered drilling of one of King Kong’s molars. In actuality, it is a high volume chipper, not so many decibel notches under a jackhammer, for removing the outer layer of that sedimentary stone on a brownstone’s exterior or staircase. This is just one component in that niche larceny called Brownstone Renovation, which boasts over 20 companies locally. When I hear construction, I know in many cases there is a good reason, and I would be a fool not to admit that one of these was to make it better in order to sell at a higher rate than it was bought for, or to charge more money in rent. One can defend everything on some kind of ground, whether moral, high, or low. I’m not interested in extremes, I want some peace. Daily, the chipper starts up, promptly at nine a.m. and three or four hours go by with the block polluted by this noise. Or some days, a landscaping person comes to weed-whack or leaf blow a yard, usually 10 by 10 feet. These noises — the chipper, the weed-whacker, the leaf-blower; the jet-ski when on vacay — these are products of a certain comfortability, and whether earned or inherited, the high blasphemous whine of all those tools sound the same. As a young irritable boy, I was made to weed my family’s miniscule front and back lawns. I used a short two-pronged weeder, grabbing the root of the nettle or dandelion with a heavy gloved hand to safely remove the entire offender. As any bourgeoisie will tell you, the memory of yard work is one of the great reminiscences one can have, because, of course, that time is probably well over or drastically fallen off. I don’t know the station of my neighbors’ souls, but many, although cognizant of money, carry the same memories as me, and possibly the same futile wish that all the prettifying could surcease, but surely it won’t. If I heaved my heart into my mouth, I would risk being seen as a fool, or worse, a rabble-rouser. Yet there could also be a tenuous connection, a forged common ground, and we could share a shrug from across the street at the early morning sound of the chipper or the hundreds of honks at the inconsiderate person who leaves his car, which costs more than a decent house in Detroit, blocking the road after street-cleaning time begins, and all would be sotto voce, the preferred way to express our quiet desperation.
As it should, much is made of Virginia Woolf’s small piece, “The Death of a Moth,” written between the two World Wars. According to W.G. Sebald, “There is no reference made to the battlefields of the Somme in this passage, but one knows as a reader of Virginia Woolf that she was greatly perturbed by the First World War, by its aftermath, by the damage it did to people’s souls — the souls of those who got away and, naturally, of those who perished.” In keeping with this, the key line is not at all about the moth but the forces outside the room where the moth dies: “Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular.”
Has anything changed? Woolf would say, like Heraclitus before her, that everything is connected, and everyone has a hand in the quilt that makes up our collective life. If quality of life is seeing a few movie stars at a coffee shop, or having a nice park and good schools, you could say Park Slope’s quality is high. Unfortunately, it is ruled by the free market of commerce. It is a unique freedom to have $15 ramen, organic frozen yogurt, and artisanal gelato whenever one wants, the latter two specialty stores being 161 feet away from each other. But a few hundred feet further from where people sit and lick sweetness, men work on brownstones. Many are non-union and some are undocumented and the probability of them getting a working wage commensurate with the type of service provided is slight, especially when some reported working for $12 an hour during a WPIX investigation.
I wish more of my compatriots disbelieved the “construction is good for the economy” crap line that politicians fall over themselves to ape along with myriad statistics, the catnip of rationalization and a bulwark against deep thinking, exercised with faulty aplomb in all presidential debates. We each have our statistics, and it’s easy to find any study to spin our own personal political propaganda, as I have. But does it take a fellow at the Brookings Institute to see the connection between $12 an hour labor and $15 ramen? Or Middle East oil and the ubiquitous SUV’s overfilling the streets in our country? Or those beneficiaries of credit-default swaps, the donors to political parties, and other greedy financiers and the exploding homeless population and rising crime rates — though the figures on white-collar crime are underreported? The day we stop scoffing at the efficacy of the phrase “everything is connected,” belittled by many inner consciences as a platitude, might be a day of reckoning.