Feels as if I’m living in a theme park: that’s my line these days. A theme park called “The Brooklyn Experience” (as in: people who are paying top dollar will want the New Brooklyn retail experience, a line from some recent article about gentrification, maybe in Crown Heights, I can’t even remember—I get so many links on that topic forwarded to me…).
Or as if I’m a historical re-enacter of the present. Someone who actually lives here, anachronistically, in a place that became a brand while I wasn’t paying attention. Tour buses regularly visit my neighborhood now. Construction is nearly completed on the revamped Lincoln Road entrance to Prospect Park, along with the landscaping around the Lefrak Center. As our Borough President infamously promised, “build, baby, build” is the order of the day, with cement trucks blocking traffic on Flatbush Avenue, readying the foundation for the 23-story tower that is slated to stock our historically working-class, Caribbean immigrant neighborhood with more people who are so delighted to be paying $1800 a month for a studio apartment, because in Manhattan….
A friend of mine, one of those old-fashioned types who still imagines the “outer boroughs” represent cultural exile, is being displaced from a West Village rental because the building is going condo; he moans about the insane Manhattan prices. Some apartments he wanted to look at came with a $10,000 broker’s fee. So he girded for the inevitable and looked in Park Slope, but wasn’t impressed. Friends in Clinton Hill are losing their great apartment on the ground floor of a mid-19th century mansion, a place they’ve rented for 20+ years, because the owner is selling the building—with prices what they are, she’ll realize “a nice little nest egg.” They want to stay in the neighborhood, and wonder how they’ll swing it.
Even if one’s own housing situation is relatively secure, it’s hugely unsettling to hear, increasingly—and from people at a range of income levels, renters and home owners–that they just feel like they need to leave New York; it isn’t affordable, not in the long run, certainly not for people approaching retirement.
A rent-regulated apartment has become like an heirloom—I actually have one friend who has lived long enough in a second floor East Village walkup that her place is rent controlled, as opposed to the far more common rent stabilized. Her mobility impaired because of a back injury, she uses a leg brace and manages stairs with difficulty, but believes her income is too high for subsidized senior housing.
And meanwhile: it’s a truly beautiful summer in New York, so beautiful that it feels a little unreal, as if the weather had been ordered up so that the folks on the upper decks of the tour buses and the folks just moving into the new “luxury” buildings like the one at the corner of Nostrand and Empire Boulevard that’s suddenly injecting a stream of purposeful young palefaces with earbuds and coffee mugs into the work-bound throngs climbing down into the Sterling Street 2/5 station of a morning can benefit from the New Brooklyn weather experience. I have to admit, I’m really enjoying the low humidity, the clear light, and evenings like the one I spent at Poets House last week, when the reading was held on the terrace out back. People from the whole length and breadth of my New York poetry life had magically come together. There was Bob Hershon, who published one of my poems in Hanging Loose in 1972 or ‘3, even before I moved to New York; Joan Larkin, whom I met in the first year I lived here, the motive force behind our women’s poetry group and Out & Out Books, the cooperative publishing venture that issued my first book, after touch; Patricia Spears Jones, who briefly lived downstairs from Elly and Anna and me in the four-family building at 193 Park Place in the very early 80’s; Mervyn Taylor, from those heady days at Eugene Lang College, the New School, in the early ’90’s, when Jane Lazarre and Sekou Sundiata ran the writing program. Black fireflies swooped low over the audience in the dusk, so huge and dramatic I had the paranoid thought that maybe they were bats (though they didn’t move like bats), and afterwards I walked down by the water and saw the romantic lights of New Jersey and a three-sailed boat gliding past and a waxing crescent moon perched between the high-rises, and it was all lovely and glamorous and mysterious enough to almost cancel out what I’d just said to Steve Turtell: that I find Battery Park City creepy and frightening, with its synthetic vibe and its hordes of well-dressed people who apparently can handily afford the rents around the corner from One World Trade Center, that hideous mirrory phallus with its triumphalist spear-crown. To which Steve replied, simply: they live in a different city, a totally different city than we do.
But the weather: its unearned deliciousness is making me so uneasy, and I realize it feels like a snow day, when you’ve geared up to face a mean world but instead you get to stay home reading Tolstoy or Karl Ove Knausgaard, or go for a snow walk in the Botanic Garden, or watch Game of Thrones in the afternoon. Here I was braced for the usual misery of humidity, heat that doesn’t dissipate at night; the small ordeal of life in New York in July without air conditioning, which I refuse to install because with ceiling fans and a basement, even a heat wave is eminently survivable, and I hate the way of life that AC represents. There’s an unsettling, grief-tinged disconnect between knowing the planet is warming catastrophically and this luxury of sitting sipping iced coffee at a sidewalk café, on a day when all you need is a little shade and the promise of evening coming on to feel pleasantly cool.
And the backdrop for all of this (backdrop isn’t right: adjacent to? interwoven with?): Gaza, Gaza, Gaza. Gaza, Gaza, Gaza, Gaza, Gaza.
All month, I have been haunted by a line from a Steven Erlanger article I read in The New York Times on July 11, a sort of human- interest-amid-the-carnage piece about the impact of the religious calendar on Gaza’s experience of Israel’s attack: “War during Ramadan has a particular tension. It is not just the normal anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city….”
All month I have been wondering: what is the “normal” anxiety of airstrikes in a crowded city? When is there anything normal about such airstrikes? And how does my crowded city bleed over into Gaza? Why are “we” “safe” while this is going on? I know it is true what Muriel Rukeyser wrote in “Waterlily Fire”: “Whatever can come to a city can come to this city.”