Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Tag: queens

The Coolest City on the Planet

So Hamilton Nolan thinks GQ is ridiculous for big-upping Brooklyn restaurants. And sure, the subhead is cloying:

Don’t take that as a knock onManhattan, which is doing ust fine. But for the first time since, well, ever, you can spend every New York minute of your trip on the far side of the East River and never feel like you’re missing out. Here’s how to explore the place where everything’s happening before it’s happening.

I mean golly gee whiz doody, I may be just a small-town rube, but that looks like a pretty good list to me. I mean, the real “coolest city on the planet” for food is Queens, hands down, but I don’t see anyone publishing that issue, least of all Gawker. (Well, New York Magazine did it, but I trust them on Queens as much as Nolan trusts GQ on Brooklyn.)

High Tide in Brooklyn

I couldn’t wait five minutes. I was walking to the subway from work and called a friend who was in a conversation: He’d call back in five. I stood next to the stairwell, pacing, flipping my phone open to see if the numbers had changed. 4:51. Then, after an hour: 4:52. I couldn’t make it. Tourists flooded past me, men handed out newspapers: 4:53. What would I do when I got home? 4:54. Read a book, I suppose. 4:55. Now I could see 9 p.m., and it looked like my living room, with the TV on and a book in my hands. And by the time my phone flashed 4:56, I was through the turnstile and headed to my sixth home in eight years.

My superintendent got the boot last week; the management company fired him without remorse or much warning, it appears. He’s lived here for 39 years and they sent him a letter giving him two weeks to get out. People in the building were outraged, and took to the building’s e-mail list to register their outrage and arrange for him to see tenant lawyers. They even put a signup sheet downstairs to pledge support, which I missed — by the time I got there, the list had been removed and it was just an exhortation and a pen on a stick. Presumably those names were passed along to the people who deliver my rent statements. I have to suspect my landlords know it’s coming. They’ve done this before, and they’ve dealt with this before. It’s really hard to get someone out of their apartment in this city if they’re willing and able to fight back and whether they have rights that have been broken or not. This is part of it.

On the bright side, I’ve never been the target of something like this. I’ve been forced to move twice. Both times I lived on the second floor of a house in Queens, both times the owner sold the house, and both times were between 2004 and 2007 — not surprising, in restrospect. The amount of money poured into real estate then was staggering. In Woodhaven, Queens, a cluttered, low-lying and middle-class-at-best neighborhood, there were full attached condominiums going up that started at $650,000 by the middle of 2004. I didn’t know much about real estate at the time, and I knew jack about subprime mortgages, but I knew something was off. When the bubble burst, it took a few months for me to connect the dots. I took it for granted: to live in a city was to be transient.

That’s not how things are in my building now. Here, there’s permanence. When I moved in the person vacating the apartment told me of two local species: the “lifers” and the “steppers.” Lifers are self-explanatory. Steppers stayed 5-7 years. I was 31, and he was 37: MATH. It’s amazing that in Brooklyn, where everyone fancies themselves special, I became another puzzle piece. I was probably one before, too, but I was off the beaten path and that was its own reward. There’s an emptiness from having left Queens to move someplace so rigidly spectacular. I’ve seen this place plenty in movie sets, in sepia-toned photographs you can buy off the street. This place evokes the forties, or the twenties. White, tree-lined, beautiful when it snows. It won’t be much different in 20 years; its about slow changes, and slow movements in and out like my own.

Queens? Queens will be different. Queens is a place in motion, a place where the world constantly doubles back on itself, like the remains a giant wave following gravity back into the ocean and the teeth of another one. It’s not like that here, and so when there is something to overcome — like an unseemly eviction — the people become riled. There’s no denying the goodness of their quest. But having been where the heavy waves crash, time after time after time, I know it never stops. Just as Long Island has its turbulent Atlantic shore and its placid North Shore, Queens (tubulent) and yuppie Brooklyn (placid) express this idea — even if in doing so they inversely geographically situated to the actual tides, a funny little note. What’s not funny is a man who’s lived somewhere for 39 years being cast away from his home at a moment’s notice. For him, the years probably went by like minutes: 1971… 1972… 1973… 2009… 2010. And now, in a manner of seconds, he needs a new home.

I bet I know where he lands.

Borders (not the bookstore kind)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a running dialogue today about a NYT trend story that basically says non-blacks are taking over Harlem. He disagrees, but more to the point is indifferent about what—even if true—it even means when there are like, real problems for black people. Something like: Gentrification isn’t new, and the root problem is bigger than any one instance of it happening.

But the better question is whether it’s happening or not. He asks in this post:

Still, thinking more on the geography the Times calls “Harlem” raises some questions for me:

“But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.”

By my estimate this basically places Morningside Heights (amongst other things) inside of Harlem. I imagine that might have been true at some point. But those borders sound really permissive to me. Am I off?

What I thought (and wrote a comment to this effect that is basically reproduced here) is that it’s no different than a phenomenon I was writing about earlier in Queens, where most black neighborhoods are referred to as “Jamaica” on the nightly news, et al., because it’s expedient. If the Times is including Morningside Heights in its map of “Harlem,” maybe they’re going by an old map that places it “inside” a greater Harlem, but I agree with (Run) T-NC that that seems a little off. Which gets us to the idea of how a place is defined. If Harlem did once swallow Morningside Heights whole, why doesn’t it now? And to where does it extend? Most importantly, why do we consider it to extend to wherever it extends?

A friend told me a long time ago that I was into the idea of “place,” and I’m really starting to feel that. I’m about 200 pages into William Vollman’s Imperial, which is already the most exhaustive account of the idea of “place” I’ve ever read—and I have 800 pages to go. It’s all about Imperial County, California and its sister region on the Mexican side and treats the area (wisely, I believe) as a single entity, with this crushing vivisection that makes it almost impossible to view as a unit. But for most of history it was a unit, and at some point it very well may be again. On top of all this, I was in Imperial County last week, spending 48 hours of Christmas break in Palm Springs with pops and bro. I wanted to see the Salton Sea—a reeking, festering, dead body of water around which a good portion of Vollman’s Ouija-like narrative revolves—but was talked out of it, or rather basically forbidden (as family time was short) by my stepmom, who said she had investigated it for kayaking purposes and found it “disgusting.” I didn’t have the heart to say well yeah…

But it all gets to the idea of defining a place. I’ve tried to do this before with MV and think I did a bad job [note: I just re-read it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I feel like I was grasping for something I didn’t quite reach] but I’m trying with Queens now and I think I’m getting some good stuff down. Definitely helps to not be from there and not be there; while there’s something to be said for writing things down as they happen*, there’s also a value in using what you remember—it’s our memories that make places what they are, to us, and it’s important to be true to that.

* Of course, I did write everything down already, but that’s not the point.

Queens Stories

This may not have a point, and I’m not sure why I feel like writing it right now.

As many of you know, I used to work for a newspaper in Queens. I actually worked for two of them. The first one was shit-eatingly bad at the time, but is humorous in retrospect. I was there for 9 months or so (a solid year on my résumé, thank you very much) before quitting, Office Space-style: I just stopped going. And actually, the story I was about to tell you happened when I worked for the first newspaper when I assumed, because of its geographic location, that it was for the second, and I just realized the trick my memory played on me. How about that?

I was the Sports Editor, Southeast Queens editor and eventual Assistant Managing Editor/Managing Editor/only editor to survive two nearly-entire staff purges and quitting epidemics that took place there in about the same time it takes to make and hold a baby. I’m not going to say my innocence was ripped from me, or any shit like that: I was working in Queens, not just la-di-da Astoria where I live now, and where I saw dozens of people, daily, who had lives that were really shit, not “Rich white kid following his dreams” shit. (The fact that I consider Astoria “la-di-da” ought to tell you the effect the rest of Queens had on me.)

Anyhow, to our story, which, again, came from absolutely nowhere. I was assigned to do a story on the Beach Channel High School rowing team, the only one of its kind in the city, which made some sense because it was the only high school to be located right on the fucking water. It was on the Rockaway Peninsula, the farthest eastern stretch of the city from Manhattan in absolutely every way possible. Rockaway makes the rest of Queens look like suburbia. I shit you not. It’s about 10 straight miles of housing projects and, well, housing projects before suddenly turning into a mansion-lined beach community. This part is where American Airlines flight 587 crashed, incidentally. Go farther west and you’ll hit a State Park and eventually Breezy Point, a gated community basically for Irish only that’s chock full of police and firemen. All the houses are bungalows, and there aren’t any streets; you have to park your car at a lot, with permit supplied by one of the owners, and walk your ass in. The bonus is you can drink while you walk around there, provided you’re using a koozy. I’ve actually been there twice, because I know an [Irish name] whose father has a house there, and in the summer it’s quite fascinating. That’s the word I would use to describe it. I have good memories of the place despite the fact the first time I went there I had a near-complete personal meltdown, and the second time it basically rained the whole time and we spent the whole time watching DVDs. Actually, that time was fantastic.

Anyway, not 10 miles away from this, you’re basically in hell. I’m not saying anything bad about the people that live there: it’s a problem without a good solution, and as the communities are so far removed from decision-makers in Manhattan to make it a joke, the city more or less pretends Rockaway doesn’t exist. The people living there have enough trouble getting by, leastwise fixing these problems. One class of people, albeit a very small one, which does acknowledge its existence, are full-time Queens-specific sports reporters, of whom I was one of two at the time, and the only one who actually left the office on a regular basis. (My editor at the time was a rather large former Daily News reporter who had lofty dreams for the Sports section, and whose time at the Daily News gave him sort of an entitlement not to go on the most tedious types of stories; unfortunately, these comprised about 90 percent of the stories that made up our section.) So when we got a press release from the school, or read in Newsday — we read a lot of Queens-edition Newsdays — that Beach Channel High School had the only rowing team in the city, I was dispatched to get my butt down there and “cover” it. Only now am I asking questions like “Who do you compete against?” and “What happens when you get drenched by a fuel dump from a JFK-bound plane?” Ah, young reporters. I probably actually asked the first one, but I have no idea what the answer was.

(Okay, this is not true either, and I’m just starting to remember: this team would compete against squads as far away as Pennsylvania, and teams from Connecticut, I think — I think there’s a paucity of public-school rowing squads pretty much everywhere.)

The first time I went to the school, it was a dreary, drizzly day. I drove through the communities of Ozone Park, Howard Beach and Broad Channel — preposterously differentiated communities, stacked one on top of another, that I would later have the privilege of covering as a single entity for three years. You want to see psychic scars in action? Ask me about Ozone Park. Please. I beg you. You don’t know what you’re missing. Remember that near-breakdown I referred to earlier? Well, that was pretty much entirely caused by working in these three neighborhoods. Pounding the pavements there day-to-day made me pretty much go insane, but thankfully on the day in question, I drove straight through them, marveling at things like the small distance between traffic lights in Broad Channel and the cutesy $2 toll on the bridge that took you to the Rockaways, the name of which I can’t recall now. I’m sure a snotnose kid like me wouldn’t have found it so cute if he had to pay it every day. (The Cross Bay Bridge. Thanks, Googs).

The high school was right over the bridge, and it is, in fact, really the first thing you see when you look to the west. I parked my car and got out, hustling over to the front doors, which were pretty much iron-clad. The school had a metal detector and there was no walking around the halls without permission, no matter who you were. It was the first high school with a metal detector I’d ever been inside. This was in February, so I was escorted by a police officer or teacher to the gym, where I found the team practicing on rowing machines and talked to the coach for awhile, before interviewing some of the students who seemed pretty astounded that I’d come all the way out just to talk to them. And really, that’s all I remember about the day, except that I promised to come back and watch them practice when the weather got nicer. Which I actually did. I loved that the school was far from my office; it gave me a legitimate excuse to waste time away from an absolutely poisonous office environment. You’re practicing in Brooklyn? Even better! At the coastal edge of a largely-defunct airstrip where we’ll have to wait an hour for a vintage plane to take off first? That’s perfect? Let’s do it! So, in April, we did just that.

There are two bridges that go to the Rockaways, which are also connected to the mainland on the eastern edge. If these are the three entry points, Beach Channel High School is located on immediate Rockaway side in the middle one, while Floyd Bennett Field is located immediately on the Brooklyn side of the western one. It is vast and largely overgrown by vegetation off its beaten path; once a large military airfield, now it’s owned by the government, and they basically let people do things there that require such an egregious amount of space by New York City standards that they’re willing to practice them, well, there. You can’t see the water from the actual fieldhouse, but we snaked along back roads, me in my trusty Ford Taurus, until we reached the point where the kids unloaded the skiffs and hauled them down to the beach. The coach seemed as proud at their ability to do this as anything else. They did some warm-up exercises and soon shoved off into the water while we watched, shivering: it was certainly warmer than it had been in February, but it was still cold. I don’t remember the conversation or anything, I just remember scribbling down some rote quotes from high schoolers, taking pictures with the staff’s one digital camera, and keeping remarks about how disgusting the water was to myself. Oh, did I mention that we were parked out directly underneath the Belt Parkway, the city’s always-jammed embarrassment of a highway that runs from JFK to Coney Island to the Verrazzano Bridge? Under the bridge — which is just after the Mobil station if you’re coming from Queens, and just before it if you’re on your way — was no small among of crap in the water, a whole lot of God knows what. The kids were shoving off about 20 feet from this. There’s grit, and then there’s grit: this was just plain gross, but the kids were happy to deal with it, and block it out. Hell, going to school where they did, they’ve seen much worse. You know what they probably haven’t seen? Much better. And that’s the fucking sad part.

Add up these little sad parts and the job starts to get to you. Eventually, it overwhelmed me, in a different form under a different banner. You hear the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” and you don’t know it until you see stuff like this, day in and day out. I was looking for beauty, for the rose growing out of a pile of shit; they were just trying to keep the shit out of sight. Focus on the task at hand — rowing, stretching, life — and just get it done. When you can’t, it’s time to move on.