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Don’t Tread on Us: New York Should Secede From the Union

Don’t Tread on Us: New York Should Secede From the Union
June 23, 1975

As I write this, the streets outside my hotel are very quiet. Two boys are rolling rubber tires down the cobblestoned street, bouncing them off the walls. A few blocks away, thousands of citizens are gathering in a swirl of red banners, to march through the city. They are going to the park, where there will be speeches and talk and discussion. There is gaiety here, and excitement. The posters of a dozen political parties adorn almost every wall in the city. People rush for the new editions of an endless series of newspapers. The bookstores are crowded. There is a sense that the future lies ahead, and it will be bright and hopeful after a long dark time. I am, of course, in Lisbon.

But in the same newspapers there are stories about the collapse of New York. They tell the readers that the richest city in history is about to collapse, that New York cannot afford the teachers, police, firemen, or sani­tation men it needs.

“How is this possible?” my interpreter asks me. “You are so wealthy. You have so much money.”

It is hard to explain; the closest I can come is to tell him that New York is essentially a colony of the United States, that its people consume American goods to the tune of billions of dollars a year, to pay the mother country some $14 billion in taxes and receive in return about $2 billion, and that even that small return is given begrudgingly. New York, like all colonies, has a balance of payments deficit. The man raises his brows in surprise. “In that case,” he says gravely, “why do you not revolt?”

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And, of course, he is right. Clearly this is the historical moment for the New Yorkers to revolt. We have spoken for years now about the need for statehood for New York, pointing out that it was absurd for, say, South Dakota to have two senators for a population of less than a million, while New York, essentially has none for a population of almost eight million (James Buckley being basically a national senator, representing fetuses and conservatives, while Jack Javits plays at statesmanship, supporting Republi­cans and Israel with more passion than he is capable of generating on behalf of New York). New York’s money is taken by the Americans and plowed into defense con­tracts in Southern California, military aid programs for the likes of Franco and South Korea’s General Park. It is used to maintain 250,000 armed men in Western Europe, at least six separate intelligence agencies, in­credible bureaucracies in Washington and elsewhere. On the day that President Ford gave Abe Beame the cold shoulder in Wash­ington, the Americans were meeting in the Dominican Republic to guarantee $1.6 billion in loans to the Inter-American Bank, loans, by the way, that will be used to help build up the purses of Latin American millionaires at the expense of the people of Latin America. There is absolutely no way that a New Yorker now can have a say about the way his federal tax dollar is spent.

And there are reasons for this. Most of America hates New York. The citizens of America hate New Yorkers. They cannot stand our diversity, our great clanging mixed-up bowl of Jews and blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irishmen and Italians. and Chinese and Poles and Cubans. They despise our energy, the great driving engine of the town that sends us into sweating, muling, ferocious contact with each other every day of our lives. In most of America, people leave their homes, get into the home on wheels they call cars, and drive to the larger homes called the office or the plant, where they work. In Los Angeles, you have to drive miles to see a black skin, unless the black skin belongs to the maid. The hicks and the boobs arrive in New York for their tours in the summertime, and they can’t believe it: “Too much rushing around for my blood.” Of course. Too much talent too. Too much energy. Too much intelligence.

So they have decided to kill us off. Presi­dent Ford isn’t going to help a Democratic mayor of this town. He is not going to bail out a Democratic governor who might some day run for president. Instead, it’s easier to play the game of the Iron Noose. You make life intolerable in New York, and the middle class will move out. It will go to New Jersey and Long Island and Westchester, and will become Republican and fearful. There is nothing easier for a president to control than a fearful middle class. And once you have drawn the Iron Noose of middle-class whites around New York, it will choke to death.

New York cannot hope for help from the American Congress. Even the liberals there fear or hate New York. John Tunney, a supposedly liberal senator from California, went on the record a few weeks ago, saying that it was foolish for the federal government to help New York, because it was so “in­credibly mismanaged.” The day before this statement, he came out for the deregulation of the price of natural gas, a move that will make the oil and gas companies even richer.

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Tunney isn’t alone; not a single Senate voice has been raised in clear support of New York (Scoop Jackson and a few others have wrung their hands a little, but they still assume that the crisis is our fault). George McGovern, whose New York experience was epitomized by his ordering milk with chopped chicken liver in a garment center restaurant in 1972, has said nothing. Barry Goldwater still represents the thinking of the right, changing not an inch from his 1964 statement that New York should be sawed off the United States and floated out to sea.

Sitting here, in a city where unbelievable energy and self-pride have been released after 48 years of dictatorship, it seems more clear than ever that it is time for New York to call the American bluff. It is time to say to them: “Listen, fellas, enough is enough. Either you recognize that we are part of America, or you don’t. If you don’t — if you don’t give us a just share of our own money, and start putting the interests of New York ahead of all those nasty little games you play in foreign countries — then let us go our own way. Let us be free.”

I mean free. I mean secession, separating New York from the United States and mak­ing it a separate country. I mean declaring the Republic of New York.

Free of the continuous bleeding imposed by the Americans, this could be one hell of a country. Under the New York flag, we could create a governmental structure that would resemble that of Switzerland, with 20 or so cantons, governed by freely elected representatives. The president of New York would sit in the present City Hall, and we could probably convert the Coliseum to a National Assembly building, with representatives of each canton sitting for four-year-terms. We would have all the accoutrements of statehood: New York passports, a New York flag, and even our own National Anthem. I think a song that starts off “East Side, West Side” makes a lot more sense than one that starts off, “Oh, say — can you see?”

Internationally we would be a free port, like Hong Kong; with no import or export taxes, giving us enormous trading advantages with other countries. The United Na­tions would, of course, remain here, and the delegates would probably feel a lot more comfortable walking around the town know­ing that we were a free country. We would also make clear to the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, and yes, Portugal, that we don’t care what form of government they have, that we have nothing to do with the lamebrains in the Pentagon who see Communist Peril everywhere. If a country wants to be Communist, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. Just don’t spit on our sidewalks, comrade. And we won’t spit on yours.

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The Republic of New York would have plenty of work to do, and one of the major planks in our Constitution would have to be the requirement to work. We could become the first nation on earth to make the four-day week possible, but for the first five or 10 years, we would have a fifth day of work that would be devoted to the Republic. On that fifth day — and it would be staggered according to needs and professions — everybody from bankers and commercial artists to doormen and used-car salesmen would be required to pitch in and rebuild the city. We would have armies of citizens moving through the present ghettos exterminating rats and roaches, repairing plumbing and heating systems, scraping away the mildewed layers of old paint and linoleum and repainting the apartments, sanding down the doors, making every apartment in this city habitable. When that is done, all of those apartment houses would be purchased by the state from the old landlords (who don’t make any money from them anyway) and then turned into cooperatives, owned, kept up, and policed by the people who own them.

The same massive force of New Yorkers would be charged with planting gardens on the rooftops of all apartment buildings in the new country, creating a gorgeous vista to rival anything ever dreamed in Babylon. The backyards would be opened up, with access entryways punched through from the avenues. Those backyard areas, which are now densely clotted with garbage, would then be converted into an endless series of community parks, with miniature disposal plants for garbage (separate chutes for paper and glass), free automatic laundries for the people in the buildings, and recreation centers for old people.

This peaceful New York citizen army would also be charged with constructing day-care centers and miniature nursing homes, one on each block if population density re­quires it. The skills of artists and architects would be employed to make these centers aesthetic de­lights, and not decentralized jails. In the early years, while staff is being trained, these centers would also obtain their personnel from the Fifth Day workers.

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The medical profession would be brought into the government of the Republic in a major way, charged with one simple mission: to provide the best possible medical care known to man. They would train huge cadres of paraprofessionals, mod­eled on the Chinese “barefoot doctor” program, which would send people out into the neighborhoods to find out who is sick before they are too sick to be helped. The General Practitioner would again receive the accolades of his fellow citizens. The specialist would have time and money for research. Health would take precedence over wealth.

Here in Lisbon, the banks and insurance companies have been nationalized, and it is extraordinary to observe the spirit of camaraderie among the workers in those compa­nies, now that they are doing the work for themselves and their fellow citizens, instead of some owner sitting in a barricaded office upstairs. The Republic of New York would probably have to nationalize most of the domestic banking system. To obtain the loyalty of the middle class, it would forgive the interest on all outstanding mortgage loans, thus freeing millions of dollars for con­sumption or other purposes. And it would provide interest-free housing loans for all citizens, to encourage the establishing of permanent roots.

The Republic of New York would have some crucial problems at the beginning. It would probably be nec­essary to pass a mandatory treat­ment law for all drug addicts. Ad­dicts would not be treated as criminals, but they would be told that they are carriers of disease, and treated the way a civilized nation treats bearers of cholera or typhoid. Some of the estimated 250,000 heroin addicts will not respond to any form of treatment; they would be legally provided with heroin, in mainte­nance doses, required to work, in carefully chosen environments that might stimulate them to change. But they will never again be as free as they have been during the plague years. Anyone caught selling heroin would be automatically sent to pris­on for life. Since police estimate that as much as 70 per cent of the city’s present crime is committed by drug addicts, the result would be a safer city, with far less expense for police work; eventually, the police force could be reduced to about a third of its present size. In every respect — ­cost, humanity, firmness — New York would treat the drug problem more efficiently if it were a separate Republic.

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Because land is limited, and because millions of Americans would want to live in the Republic, there would have to be very careful restrictions placed on population. Everyone with an established residence in New York at the time of indepen­dence would have to make a choice: they could become automatic citi­zens of New York, or they could remain citizens of the United States. If they chose to remain with the United States, they would have to apply for a residence permit, to be renewed every year, and would pay approximately 50 per cent more in taxes.

Once New York is free, it would be out of the “We’re-Number-One” lunacy for good. If Tokyo, Los Angeles, London, and Shanghai want the title of Most Crowded City, they can have it. New York would have one basic goal: to become a humane state. Everything else would be decoration.

My own feeling is that such a New York Republic would function best under a system of democratic socialism, with industries controlled by the people whose labor makes them possible. There is no reason why the garment industry, for example, could not be revitalized, and made into the most successful in the Western World. If the design­ers, seamstresses, and managers all owned those plants (as compared to the state itself owning them), they would again become competitive, because technology could be employed in a humane way to produce more goods in less time than the present antiquated system requires. New York could begin immediately to build smokeless industry, based in industrial parks scattered through all the cantons of the city.

The decision on the economic structure would have to be made democratically, after extensive debate in a Constitutional Convention followed by a referendum. A Social­ist economy — provided that it is not centralized in a government bureau­cracy — would be the most rational, the most productive, and the most just that the new nation could create. And when the facts about such a state were made clear to the citizens, I have no doubt that they would choose it over the present corrupt and unmanageable mess.

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Some things would not change. The Mets and Jets would operate as usual, in about the same way that the Montreal baseball and hockey teams operate. Madison Square Garden would still be the capital of sports, and some attractions — such, as heavyweight championship fights ­— would be more easily available be­cause our taxes would not be as high as those of the federal government.

And some things would be added: prostitution would be legalized, until such time that it no longer is desired by citizens; that would be rather soon, I would imagine, since a truly just society would make it possible for prostitute and customer alike to satisfy needs like hunger and loneli­ness without a cash transaction get­ting in the way. The Republic of New York would also open legalized gambling casinos, in the Las Vegas style, capable of paying the best enter­tainers in the world, providing an outlet for visitors and New Yorkers alike to engage in activities that are totally foolish, and eliminating still another mainstay of that capitalist institution, The Mob.

Is all of this some dumb dream, inspired by the revolutionary fervor of a small country across an ocean? Maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t either. In the past few months, the world at large has changed. Vietnam and Cambodia stand as examples to many small countries of the world, teaching the lesson that if you fight, if you stay the course, you will beat anybody. In Africa, Angola and Mozambique are about to be free, for the simple reason that the mother country, from which I am writing this, decided to be free too; a free nation cannot enslave other nations.

I believe that the time for New York to assert its independence is now. All of us are moving into a world that is increasingly revolutionary and will almost certainly be mainly socialist by the end of the century. New York, which has many of the characteristics of a Third World or underdeveloped country, has history itself going for her now. The federal government in Washington, ruled by an unelected President and an unelected Vice-President, grows more dangerous by the hour, encouraged by the national response to the Mayaguez incident to prove its collective manhood in still more violent ways. The war ends in Asia; a policy of detente is established with the Russians; and the Defense budget increases. There is growing talk of war against the Arabs, to steal the oil the country will not pay for on the open market. Well, hey — New York should have nothing to do with people like that. If the Americans want to go around the world picking fights with people, let the Americans themselves pay for the cost of those fights. But they should not be allowed to sap the strength and morale of New York while they’re doing it.

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Can it actually be done? I’m cer­tain that if a national referendum were held tomorrow, with the terms of the decision framed correctly (e.g., “Should New York Be Thrown Out of the United States?”), the Americans would let us go. If we had to go the long route, through an Albany legislature that also feeds on our emaciated body, and then through a series of votes in the other state legislatures, the Americans would change their minds. They would gradually realize that far from being one huge welfare client of the United States, we are in fact a very lucrative colony. They would vote to hold on to us, the way England is holding Northern Ireland, until there was nothing left to surrender. There would be a lot of jingo rhetoric, many quotes from Lincoln, but they would keep us.

Perhaps we will not have to go that way. Mayor Beame has been marvelous during the weeks of the crisis — up to a point. He has placed the blame where it belongs: on Washington, on the Republican state legislators, on the banks. In that way, he has prepared the people of New York for the next step. That next step should be in the form of an ultimatum. If the federal government does not end its arrogant policies toward the city, and give New York access to some of the funds it has itself produced in taxes, then the mayor should immediately start withholding all federal taxes collected by the city from its 320,000 employees. That sum, amounting to many millions every week, would be immediately applied to pay off debts caused by federal policies.

If the federal government failed to respond to the ultimatum, then New York would simply declare the Re­public. This would create a constitutional crisis of catastrophic propor­tions in Washington, and New York would risk armed assault at the hands of the Americans. (In the great tradition of the Son Tay POW camp raid and the assault on Koh Tang Island, the Pentagon would probably invade Perth Amboy, try­ing to find Brooklyn.) But it is unlikely that Ford actually would order the B-52s. Goldwater and the rest of those characters would probably say, “Let the bastards go.” Kis­singer would hold backgrounders explaining to Marvin Kalb that this represents a grave threat to NATO. James Reston would thunder about the “irresponsibility” of the action. Art Buchwald would ask for citizenship. Variety would run a headline saying: “New York Goes Indie; Ankles States.” California would play tennis. And most of the world would cheer.

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They would cheer, because we would be setting another example to the world of the power and will of human beings when threatened with extinction. Most foreigners love New York and hate America; most Americans love America and hate New York. In one simple move, we would find ourselves aligned with the rest of the world, free at last from the asinine policies that have made America the most feared and hated country on the earth.

The timing of revolutionary ac­tions is always critical. For New York, the timing has never been better. The Americans have made their feelings brutally clear about New York. We should accept them at face value. It’s time for us to make the change. It’s time for us to em­brace sedition. It’s time for us to declare the Republic of New York.

Up the Republic!

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Good Evening, Mr. Reed

At one point or another on New York (Sire), Lou Reed commits every mistake in the activist singers’ handbook. Too often, these protest lyrics are gracelessly over-explicit, leaving you no room to discover anything. There are ironies so predictable that hearing them savored sets your teeth on edge, and moments of pathos undermined by their agenda-serving function. The blunt speech makes the sloppy thinking stick out — you want to know more precisely who’s being indicted, or accused — and one line exposes a whole style’s built-in fallacy: declaring “This is no time for phony rhetoric” is rhetoric. Beyond that, our poet of the heart’s back doors is now writing about subjects he’s only every bit as on top of as any newspaper reader. Sometimes less — it’s Richard Secord, not William.

I like the record better every time I play it, and I play it all the time.

Musically, New York’s among his very best. It reads worse than it sounds; irrespective of their other qualities, when you listen with lyric sheet in hand the words crowd out what his voice is doing to and with them, not to mention everything else going on. Once you quit reading, you’re hooked, even though three songs or so still sound lousy.

I could talk forever about just the guitar sound on New York, how basic it is, and how infinite. But it’d be bad faith to take the art and dismiss the politics — I don’t like the distinction, and I do like the politics, though Lou seems only fitfully aware that artfulness isn’t their enemy. I respect this album, and Lou and I do go way back (on my end anyway), so I owe my lover’s quarrel with it and him my best shot.

Admittedly, hearing a politicized, socially conscious Lou Reed is weird. He hasn’t worked out how he feels about those associations either — after including “Bono” on a list of fanciful names for his unborn child in one song, in another he denounces self-righteous rock singers claiming a direct line to God. More broadly, he can’t make up his mind if his message is best served by keeping the messenger unobtrusive, or whether he should remind us that he’s Lou Reed, who after all has a distinctive take on this stuff.

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The unacknowledged subject of New York (I assume the title’s a switch on ’73’s Berlin: he used to be out there, now he’s right here) is Reed’s own change of heart, and his coming to grips with how best to honor the demands that today’s political imperatives put on a materially comfortable, middle-aged avant-gardist. In some ways, the submerged themes are more provoking, and almost certainly more pertinent to his actual audience, than the trenchant but unsuggestive narratives packing the album’s surface — people getting shot, blighted ghetto lives, bad crud washing up on the beach.

Well, Lou can’t live without dichotomy. But this born aesthete has usually framed the argument with himself in different terms. Up to now, his solo career was about the choice between his faith in rock & roll primitivism and — contradictory, he thought — high-art aspirations. At least in the liner notes, that schizophrenia crops up again here: Lou goes out his way to say you can’t best the basic rock & roll combo, but also directs that New York should be experienced in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie.” (Why not as though it were an album? you wonder.)

In the grooves, on the other hand, snaggly, unadorned riff-rock wins out, to its and Lou’s permanent glory. But while I delight in New York’s great noise, I find the rationale behind it as specious as I did the high art vs. riffraff dilemma. I think Reed’s now willing to accept basic rock as his best medium on the grounds that it’s so serviceable — i.e., that it’s generic structures have grown so familiar that today they can carry any message desired, the same way folkies conceived their use of Appalachian or Elizabethan ballads. While the music sounds wonderful, it doesn’t do the job he wants it to.

“Romeo Had Juliette,” the opener, does achieve not only grit but immediacy, its signature guitar phrase impatiently wheeling past every billboard the lyrics put up. (All right, fuck it: it’s cinematic.) But most often, the music doesn’t support or amplify what the songs are saying — except in melodramatic lapses like the climaxes of “Strawman,” the worst cut. On “Dirty Blvd.,” Reed brings in Dion on the coda, but instead of being brained by the intended irony — here’s what the Belmonts’ street corner looks like 30 years later — you’re just blown away by the beauty of Dion’s vocal, which takes off from the sputter-butter riff and makes the same notes, well, sing.

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Above all, the sound’s autonomy keeps reminding you that Lou’s coming to his subjects from the outside. It isn’t as anachronistic as folkie ballads, but it isn’t contemporary either. It stays identifiably his, and even more identifiably not theirs — the urban underprivileged he’s depicting on the record’s most problematic songs.

They stay a “they” in other ways, too. The archetypal Lou Reed song makes you feel compassion for somebody you never understood and never expected to feel compassion for. Here, though he tries earnestly and usually unsentimentally to imagine his way inside the skull of, say, a Latino teenager on the Dirty Blvd., you never believe he met the kid. You also know beforehand that compassion’s the emotion you’ll be called upon to feel.

Folkies turn the disenfranchised into victims the same way bureaucrats turn them into statistics. Reed only commits that sin outright once, on his Vietnam-vet tearjerker “Xmas in February” (the title tells it all). More characteristically, and astutely, his subject is brutalization: these aren’t the noble poor but the degraded poor, and even at his remove Lou understands that the worst of what society does to you is what it makes you do to yourself. On “Endless Cycle,” he dresses in different socioeconomic drag the Oedipal patterns that have long fascinated him autobiographically, to modest, persuasive effect — only the title is schematic.

Among the other songs, “Sick of You” is the sort of sardonic-surreal bead-stringing — shaggy-dog protest — that hasn’t ever quite worked for anybody. Faring considerably better is “Last Great American Whale,” which you expect even less of — Lou the environmentalist is his one role here that always throws you. But in making his endangered species a mythical beast, the singer can endow him with wonder (“They say he could split a mountain in two/That’s how we got the Grand Canyon”).

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Still, the shift in tone between these cuts and “Halloween Parade” is the difference between caring about something because you know it’s important and caring because it’s important to you. Honesty begins at home; as Lou takes in the sights on Christopher Street on the gay community’s national holiday, noting which faces are familiar and which are missing forever, you’re moved by the realization that in a sense this is the return of the prodigal son. His acknowledgement that to him AIDS is a death in the family is, among other things, reparation for his denial of his gay past in the ostentatiously heterosexual albums that have followed his marriage, an apostasy for which many gays probably never forgave him. This album’s finest moment is the throwaway line at the end of this song, voicing a hope as determined as it is unwarranted: “See you next year.”

“Halloween Parade” is also almost the only song whose specificity fully lives up to the album’s name. If anybody can claim New York as a title, it’s Lou; the irony is it would’ve fit nearly any of his other solo LPs better. Here, he’s so bent on being all-inclusive that he generalizes too much — what true New Yorker gives a fuck about the state of the rest of the union? This Jersey homeowner is most believable when he caps “Hold On” ’s catalogue of flashpoints with “That’s New York’s future, not mine.”

Partly as a result, left sounding more anomalous than it probably needs to is “Dime Story Mystery,” Reed’s farewell to his old band’s erstwhile patron, Andy Warhol. His sense of occasion for once accurately recognizing the obvious move as the right one, he designed the song to bring back memories of the Velvets, both in the flesh (Maureen Tucker sits in on drums, as she does on “Whale”) and in spirit (an uncredited string part simulates John Cale’s viola). Even the fact that the religious imagery feels pretentious also makes it feel apt. The problem is that “Mystery” is the final cut, leaving unresolved an album whose structure demands that it end with a definite Yes or No. It would’ve made more sense to close with “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” the tune about Lou’s impending or anyway potential fatherhood, or would that have been too Hannah and Her Sisters-ish for him?

Whether he’s expecting or not, Lou sounds rejuvenated. Getting politicized may not always make him more interesting, but it sure makes him sound more interested. Even so, I wonder what it means that my favorite song on New York is the one whose politics I most disagree with. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” disposes quickly of its early, unexceptionable targets — Waldheim for being Waldheim, and the Pope for receiving him — to take urgent issue with Jesse Jackson over his imputed anti-Semitism and refusal to repudiate Farrakhan.

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The ironies pile up fast: the Jew doing the chastising used to bandy the work kike around pretty freely in interviews, and for another thing one of Reed’s inspirational numbers here, “Busload of Faith,” is built around a Jacksonian image. Nevertheless, after some sententious moments (“What about people right here right now/Who fought for you not so long ago”), Lou reluctantly decides that he and Jesse share no common ground.

I like the song partly because its sprightly tune strikes just the right conversational level, before at some imperceptible moment ratcheting off into what you only gradually notice is a ferociously intricate guitar duel (both Reed and co-guitarist Mike Rathke sound like they’re playing through clenched teeth). I like it more because its tension gives it something even the best cuts here otherwise lack, namely developments: you really want to hear whether Lou’s good will or his doubts will win out in the end. Though Reed would hardly see it this way, the song’s existence is a tribute: you can’t imagine a singer addressing another politician this familiarly, at least with any but ironic intent.

But I like it best because I disagree with it, and therefore have to think about why. That challenges me in the way political music is supposed to, and seldom does. In a recent interview in the L.A. Times, Lou backed off from implying that his album could change people’s attitudes; instead, he defended preaching to the converted, which he described as giving sustenance to people who might otherwise believe that no one else felt as they did. It’s an interesting justification — if only since it lines up New York with the rest of his oeuvre in ways you might otherwise have missed — and I bet anything he didn’t think of it until after he’d finished making the record.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook FILM ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Deck the Halls With New York’s Greatest Christmas Movies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in New York City — when the throngs of tourists crowding decked-out store windows threaten to devolve into a stampede at any moment, and the waffle cone filled with mysterious chicken chunks you bought at a holiday market that shall remain nameless brings on a DEFCON 1, 24-hour stomach crisis. (That second thing? Happened to me, last week. Be careful out there.) But from Dyker Lights to Radio City, there’s something extra magical about Christmas in the city, a phenomenon of which Hollywood has taken note. Here are seven of our very favorite New York–centric Christmas movies. Can’t you smell the chestnuts roasting on an open street cart already?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Don’t be fooled by its title: This Warner Bros. classic is very New York. Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) leads a professional double life, writing a popular newspaper food column in the persona of a married mother living on a farm in Connecticut. In reality, she’s actually just a champion scammer. Our proto-lifestyle blogger heroine lives alone in her tiny Manhattan apartment and never cooks — instead, she orders in from the restaurant downstairs, whose proprietor ghost-writes Elizabeth’s recipes for her. Her publisher, unaware of Elizabeth’s true life circumstances, demands she host a war hero at her (nonexistent) family home for Christmas. Her sort-of boyfriend offers up his Connecticut farm and his hand in marriage to help with the ruse. They even borrow a neighbor’s baby. When the soldier arrives, though, he turns out to be unexpectedly hunky. It is crazy that there hasn’t been an Instagram-age remake of this movie.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
Ah, 1992! When anybody, even a small child, could just wander onto any old plane going anywhere and no one would say so much as a “bah humbug.” For a second consecutive year, Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) gets separated from his family when they leave on their Christmas vacation. This time, he ends up all by himself in New York City, in a swanky suite at the Plaza Hotel, no less. Let Home Alone 2’s tear-jerking mother-and-child reunion beside the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree serve as a heartwarming reminder of the meaning of the holiday. And let the rest of the movie serve as a chilling reminder that the creepy businessman who gave you directions in a hotel lobby could one day become the president of the United States.

Scrooged (1988)
Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is the ultimate Manhattan Scrooge, a power-hungry TV network executive planning a sexy, action-packed, and altogether family-unfriendly live musical production of A Christmas Carol. Lo and behold, Frank gets the Charles Dickens treatment himself. The New York Dolls’ David Johansen is a delight as the Checker cab–driving Ghost of Christmas Past, but Carol Kane’s violent fairy version of the Ghost of Christmas Present is possibly the single most compelling reason to revisit this dark comedy.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Erotic thrillers sure are an underrepresented genre of Christmas movie. You might have forgotten amid all the nudity, but Stanley Kubrick’s final film very much takes place during the holiday season, which apparently has rendered everyone in the five boroughs both extremely horny and extremely terrifying. The warm Christmas lights and wreaths of Greenwich Village — the streets of which Kubrick meticulously re-created in a London film studio, having dispatched envoys across the Atlantic to measure their exact dimensions — serve as an unexpectedly chilling backdrop for the journey Bill (Tom Cruise) takes through Kubrick’s paranoid fever dream. By the end of Eyes Wide Shut, the bright colors and oversize teddy bears of the packed FAO Schwarz–like toy store where Bill and Alice (Nicole Kidman) take their daughter shopping somehow seem just as obscene as the movie’s infamous orgy.

Serendipity (2001)
Just as much a Christmas movie as it is a rom-com, Serendipity begins just five days before the holiday, when Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) meet cute over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a jammed-to-capacity Bloomingdale’s. The one romantic night they share is a solid itinerary for anyone visiting New York City in December: ice skating in Central Park, joyriding the elevators in the Waldorf Astoria, and frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity 3. That said, it’s worth noting that the main characters in Serendipity did not have to wait in line at Serendipity, given that in their universe the movie Serendipity had not yet come out. Rude.

Elf (2003)
What Miracle on 34th Street did for Santa, Elf does for the big guy’s little helpers. Buddy (Will Ferrell), a human raised as an elf, travels from the North Pole to New York City to track down his long-lost biological dad, Sonny Corleone (James Caan). Buddy finds himself a fish out of water at the department store Santa Land where he accidentally lands a job, but he saves Christmas when the real Santa’s sleigh crashes in Central Park. Come for Buddy perilously squeezing his way through Lincoln Tunnel traffic on foot; stay for Buddy losing his mind with excitement over the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” sign on a nondescript diner.

The Night Before (2015)
For more than a decade, Isaac, Ethan, and Chris (Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anthony Mackie) have gotten together every Christmas Eve to drink enough booze to turn the rest of the reindeers’ noses red. But now that the men have grown older and drifted apart, they have just one last chance to track down the fabled, invitation-only Nutcracker Ball, a mega-party that turns out to be accessed via the freezer in the back of an unassuming bodega. This all-of-the-drugs-fueled riff on A Christmas Carol takes the best friends from the holiday glitz of Fifth Avenue to the dive bars of Alphabet City, with stops in between to perform Kanye West’s “Runaway” on the FAO Schwarz keyboard and to puke in the middle of midnight mass at St. Bartholomew’s.

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How to Get Over Tragedies That Aren’t Yours

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Escape to New York

Loubna Mrie reclines on a couch in her disheveled Bushwick apartment, a computer in her lap and a half-empty jar of Nutella by her side. She’s a petite 26-year-old with hair that explodes around her face in wild ringlets. As she talks in accented but fluent English, she periodically digs a knife into the chocolate spread and eats it with gusto.

“I have never felt like I’m an outsider in New York, because everyone here is a foreigner,” Loubna says. “Everyone here is broke. That’s the norm here. Living in shitty Brooklyn is not the exception, you know? And here, no one really judges you. Maybe New York is good for traumatized, fucked-up people, because you don’t have time to think of yourself. There is always something going on. You don’t really have time to be like, ‘Let me just sit and cry about what’s happened to me.’ ”

She pauses to consider this. “Maybe I’m one of those hipsters now,” she says with concern.

Loubna came to the United States in May 2014, fleeing the civil war currently ravaging her country, Syria. Last year, the number of asylum applications pending in the U.S. hit 194,000 — a number that is growing quickly. Loubna’s is one of those. The average time for a petitioner to wait for a decision is about two years, though many wait much longer, trying to navigate a complex and overburdened legal process that could mean the difference between life and death.

In the year ending September 2016, 5,028 resettled refugees ended up in New York State, about 6 percent of the total number of people granted asylum to the United States. But though New York City is home to a diverse population of immigrants, a mere 283 of those were resettled in the city.

New York has never been an easy city in which to start a life under the best of circumstances, and the high cost of living stymies formal refugee resettlement efforts. Those who arrive, like Loubna, with developed talents and international connections through their work are still thrust into the maelstrom of New York’s competitive cultural life. Others — those resettled with the help of aid organizations, family arrivals from troubled states, undocumented refugees from war and repression — are cut off from the only lives they’ve ever known and struggle to navigate through New York’s pitfalls and opportunities.

Refugees, both formally documented and not, flee situations that test their humanity and resolve. For people who have been subjected to torture and violence, or who are escaping political persecution, asylum in the United States means an end to the uncertainty and fear of not knowing if they will be sent back to the places they are running from.

The recent enactment of harsher immigration policies by the Trump administration, including a halt to the refugee resettlement program and more stringent asylum regulations, has immigrants all over the country nervous about their status — including those living in New York. Now new policies are prompting an uneasy anticipation of the worst from those who have already experienced it.

“The narrative coming out of this White House is that asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants are terrorists, are fraudsters, are criminals, and that is absolutely not borne out by the clients we work with,” says Jennifer Kim, co-director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the City Bar Justice Center, a pro bono legal advocacy group.

Loubna was an activist in Syria when the war between President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces broke out in 2011 — dangerous work at a time when people opposing the regime were already disappearing into jails at an alarming rate. The violence of the Syrian civil war has claimed dozens of family members and friends, including her mother. Loubna is adamant that she not appear to be a victim, but there is a nervous, haunted quality to her movements as she discusses that time in her life.

“My first experience with death was at a protest,” she says. “It was the first time someone fired at us. I was like, ‘No way is this happening,’ until I saw someone dropping dead. And my heart and brain just froze and I knew that I couldn’t do anything but run. I kept praying I wouldn’t get shot in the back.”

Loubna says she has since seen dozens of people killed in front of her. “Dude, it’s a civil war,” she says when asked for an approximate number. “You go to sleep in a place like East Aleppo, and you don’t even know if you will wake up the next morning.”

Though she had majored in English literature at university, Loubna, as a media activist during a war, learned photography out of necessity. In May 2014 she received a photography fellowship from NYU. Loubna moved to New York and applied for asylum a year and a half later, in 2016. Human Rights First, an advocacy group, is representing her. But it’s a difficult process, and with the sudden shift in approach to immigration policy brought on by Trump, she anxiously awaits the ruling on her application.

“Even if you have the best lawyer on earth, it’s not something that’s up to the lawyer,” Loubna says. “The only thing that the lawyer can do for you is just file your case and send it.”

At her apartment, she types on her laptop while sucking thoughtfully on her Nutella-covered knife. Loubna explains that despite the bigoted rhetoric about people like her, who are fleeing unimaginable devastation and carnage, she dislikes it when people say Americans hate refugees.

“Seeing the travel ban demonstrations [in January] really moved me,” she says. “I have never seen any demonstration in Lebanon or in Turkey welcoming the Syrian refugees. Those countries are supposed to welcome us because we speak the same language or we [share] borders. But we didn’t see any demonstrations like that. So, for someone who lives across the globe who is not really affected by this, to see them with their children, with their whole families, going to the streets to show love and support, that is what makes this city home for me.”

Loubna Mrie: “I came here and had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here.”
Loubna Mrie: “I came here and had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here.”

While she is nervous about her asylum application, Loubna refuses to dwell on the difficulties she now faces. She maintains contact with many other refugees, including friends who have been displaced all over the world. They keep in touch by instant message or Skype; Loubna says many are living in much worse circumstances than she is, desperate for the opportunity she’s been given.

“I already started to build my life here,” she says. “But those who have been in camps for like two years now, three years, waiting to be vetted, they are not able to come because Trump shut down the program.

“I’m not that worried about myself right now,” she continues. “But what worries me is in the future, if I had to leave at some point, you know? Because I came here and I had nothing. I built my life and myself from zero here, and I don’t think I will have the energy to do this in another country.”

As difficult as the asylum process is for those, like Loubna, who have legal representation, it’s utterly incomprehensible to many refugees unable to find lawyers to take their cases. And for asylum seekers from less privileged backgrounds, without an education or fluency in English, life in New York can be a daily struggle.

In a tiny apartment atop a five-story walk-up in the South Bronx, Cirandou Sombou, 27, and Pierre, 40, sit side by side on a green velveteen couch. Cirandou is an attractively round Mauritanian woman wearing a hijab; she works as a security guard. Pierre, whose name has been changed at his request, is a tall, thin man from Burkina Faso in a baseball cap. He speaks very little English, so Cirandou translates from his native French.

Cirandou herself has a difficult story. Not long after she was born, her father was jailed and tortured for political dissent in Mauritania, then in the midst of a war and still a troubled country. Her mother fled to America and received asylum when Cirandou was 7. Her father followed soon after. For most of her life Cirandou’s family lived in Cincinnati; she became a U.S. citizen in 2016. Cirandou has a 1-year-old son. Her husband, who is also from Mauritania, moved to the U.S. shortly after they got married.

Cirandou says her husband was the one who wanted to move to New York, and she agreed, somewhat reluctantly. She speaks of her time in Cincinnati wistfully, missing the quiet and affordability of the Midwest. After a long and fruitless search for another place in New York — the open tabs visible on her computer are mostly Zillow apartment postings — she’s looking into moving back there, if she can get her company to transfer her to its Ohio office.

Having grown up mainly in the U.S., Cirandou is fluent in English and immersed in American culture. Her roommate Pierre, though, whom she met through a friend, is here illegally, having fled his native African country last year because he is gay and homosexuality is not tolerated there. Pierre says that after word got around he was having sex with men, he was harassed and abused by the people in his town — a pattern of violence that escalated until he was eventually beaten almost to death.

“I got married [in Burkina Faso] and had children, just to cover up the fact that I’m gay, but the people in my town already knew what I had been doing and it didn’t work,” he explains, looking at his hands in his lap as Cirandou translates. “I’d try to act a little more manly, especially when I went out with my family, but people knew I used to hang out with gay people, so they would attack me. Eventually, I was tortured and almost killed. Now my family is secluded, in hiding.”

“He’s afraid even to call them,” Cirandou jumps in with concern. “I tell him, phone calls are all right, but sometimes he uses my phone just to call, because he doesn’t want anyone to know where his family is. They could be tortured too.”

Pierre explains that members of his own extended family were responsible for almost murdering him in Burkina Faso, after his wife called him at work and told him they had taken his 10-year-old daughter to be circumcised. Female circumcision, a practice also known as female genital mutilation, is supposedly meant to keep women “pure.”

“I went to tell the police because I did not want her to be circumcised and I was attacked again, this time by family members,” Pierre says. “They said it is part of our culture and with a father like me — when they were finished, they left me for dead. [The doctors] said I wasn’t going to make it, but thank God I did. After that happened, I knew I had to leave.”

According to Pierre, he knew someone well connected enough to procure him an American visa. But the favor wasn’t cheap, and he is now thousands of dollars in debt to this man. Most of the cash he now earns doing odd jobs under the table, such as washing dishes at restaurants, goes toward paying off the money he owes.

Pierre reaches into his mouth and pulls out a set of false teeth. Without it, his gums are empty and puckered.

“This is from when they attacked me,” he says with a lisp. “I still have a difficult time walking and bending over. Until now, I don’t feel safe, because my family is there. My mind is still on what’s happening [in Burkina Faso]. I still talk to my wife and kids on a daily basis, but I thank God that I found a way to be free. I have hope that I can help my family by being here. I don’t know if I should go back to protect my family, but if I do, they will kill me.”

Cirandou and Pierre in their apartment in the Bronx
Cirandou and Pierre in their apartment in the Bronx

And for undocumented survivors like Pierre, life in New York City is complicated beyond even the weight of their experiences and fear for family members back home: All the while, they must also cope with the near-constant worry that they’ll be deported.

“There are a lot of layers,” says Matthew Kennis of the Libertas Center, which provides support for survivors of torture and other human rights abuses. “There’s the layer of the trauma and the torture, there’s the layer of new beginnings and integration, all of that, and then there’s the foundational aspect of immigration status.”

Cirandou says she tried to set Pierre up with an advocacy organization, but despite physical evidence of his injuries, they were told his case wasn’t strong enough. “He’s the type of person — he can’t trust anybody, so he’s afraid to tell a lot of people his story,” she explains. “I tried to explain to him that it won’t happen that way, but from his experience, he feels like they could knock on his door at any time and tell him, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ ”

Pierre is preoccupied by the thought that he will be swept up by the new immigration policies and sent back to Burkina Faso. He says fear of being asked about his immigration status keeps him from traveling far from his apartment or socializing much. “That’s my number one worry now,” he says. “This president says he’s going to get all the illegals out. I’m afraid that I will be one of those people. I came here for safety, and they want to send me back.”

“He doesn’t have many friends either, but since he came here, we’ve become very close,” Cirandou says, putting her hand on his. “We’re like family now. We eat together; we cook. We comfort him, because we know what it’s like. We all came here as immigrants.”

In a coffee shop near Union Square, Kevin, a handsome 39-year-old from Guyana with a shy smile, sips his drink as he talks. Kevin, whose name has also been changed at his request, came to the U.S. seeking asylum because, like Pierre, as a gay man, he could not live safely in his home country.

“If I displayed any feminine traits growing up, I was scolded for it,” Kevin says. “I was keeping the fact that I was gay a secret until my mom passed away…after that, I would be called names in my neighborhood and attacked. I had to move. I went to a different area and was basically experiencing the same thing from people.”

Kevin describes a pattern of relentless intimidation and violence that followed him as he moved from island to island in the West Indies, which culminated in a humiliating, abusive experience with the local police in Saint Kitts.

“One night my partner and I were out, just hanging out around the beach area, when some cops pulled up on us,” he says. “We didn’t know they were cops immediately, until we got out of the car and saw them. At the time, the crime rate was spiking with guns and stuff, so we initially thought we were being robbed….Then we realized they were police. They asked us what we were doing. Then they took photos of us in positions — like my partner is giving me head, stuff like that. They put their guns in our mouths, saying since we liked stuff in our mouth, feel that in our mouth.

“We got home, and then everything just sank in,” Kevin continues, looking at the table. “We just were bawling. We were shaking. I was upset, because here it is, happening to me again. I was worried for my partner, because he’s never experienced anything like that.”

An American friend explained to Kevin the process of requesting asylum for the reason of sexual orientation and told him he would likely be eligible. “He said, ‘You don’t have to live like that anymore, you know,’ ” Kevin recalls. ” ‘We can apply for asylum, and that will take care of it.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve never heard of asylum for being gay.’ He told me more about it, and I started researching it. It was a scary thought: Is that something that I really want to do? Do I want to come out like that?”

Kim, of the Immigrant Justice Project, explains that she often sees uncertainty like Kevin’s among LGBT refugees still grappling with their sexual identity. “We have clients within our LGBT community who have experienced a lot of harm growing up, and they come here and it’s still a struggle for them,” she says. “They might still be in the closet here because they’re living with family members or people from their own community. They’re replicating those systems of oppression that they were fleeing from, and it sometimes takes them longer to be able to be in a place where they feel safe and able to navigate what can be a really difficult asylum process.”

Cirandou gives her 1-year-old son, Amadou, a view out the window.
Cirandou gives her 1-year-old son, Amadou, a view out the window.

In Kevin’s case, despite discouragement from family members who worried what people back home would think if it got out that he had admitted in legal documents to being gay, the decision to apply for asylum, when it came, was a huge relief. “When I looked at how I’ve lived all my life, having this secret, having to live in fear, it just came down to ‘I’m going to take a chance,’ ” he says.

Kevin was granted asylum in September of 2015. He now lives in Brooklyn and works at the Anti-Violence Project, an advocacy program run by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In a number of ways, Kevin’s is an asylum success story: He is now safe, he no longer has to live with a secret, and he is finding a niche in New York, working with the same organization that helped get him on his feet when he first arrived. At his bright, bustling office in the financial district, Kevin seems relaxed.

“When I come here, I know I’m going to work as me, and I don’t have to worry,” Kevin says, his eyes bright with tears, which are quickly smiled away. “That’s all we want: to just breathe, to live without having to think about it.”

But even in these promising circumstances, there is a major absence. Kevin’s partner, still in the Caribbean, is in the process of applying for asylum. Kevin worries for his safety, and the current political atmosphere is compounding his nerves.

“This administration is certainly looking to make asylum harder to get,” Kim says, pointing out that the new administration has further impeded an already overburdened, inefficient system. She notes that the administration’s aggressive rhetoric on the dangers posed by immigrants is not supported by any statistics or studies.

Those statistics — or the absence thereof — may be small comfort for those already building a life in New York. Loubna awaits the results of a vetting process that’s likely to take at least eighteen months, with approval far from certain. For someone who has been rootless and vulnerable for years, it is a painful feeling: to have escaped indescribable suffering and made a life, and yet to know it could be stolen from her at any time.

“When you flee a war and you come here with this huge package of shit in your brain and in your heart, it’s nice to find a place where you can settle down,” Loubna says. “This is where I want my children to be. Of course, they will always know about Syria, and at some point, hopefully, if the war stops, I will take them back. But I do want them to be raised in a place where they can grow. And I have grown so much since I came here.

“That is why I feel like, if my asylum application gets rejected, I will be heartbroken.”

 

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Deportation by Detention: What Are the Options for Green-Card Holders Locked Up Without Bail?

At 6 a.m. on a Saturday in August of 2015, Tony and Tracy Chen woke up to knocks on the front door of their Brooklyn apartment. Tony fumbled down the stairs to find three ICE officers. “Are you Mr. Chen?” one asked. “Get dressed and come with us. We need you to sign some papers at immigration court.”

Tony, 46, was a lawful permanent resident, which means he has a green card; his wife, Tracy, and their three children are U.S. citizens. As Tony changed out of his pajamas in a corner of the living room, Tracy pleaded with the officers. “What did he do wrong? Where are you taking him?”

“Don’t worry,” an officer said as he handcuffed her husband. “Give him $20 for the subway. He’ll be home soon.”

Tony was gone for over eight months.

Tony was arrested more than a year before the President Trump executive action that could spur an era of increased deportation. But for years, ICE has been arresting green-card holders like Tony with nonviolent criminal records and warehousing them in detention facilities without bond hearings. Now the Supreme Court is about to decide whether this practice violates due-process rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The case is Jennings v. Rodriguez, and the plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

If the Court upholds a lower court’s decision and rules in favor of the ACLU, it will require the government to give detainees a bond hearing within six months of detention. In a bond hearing, a judge can decide that a detainee is at “low flight risk and not a danger” and grant release, allowing him to return to family and work while his case is pending. If the Court rules against the ACLU, prolonged detention of immigrants will continue and, under Trump’s immigrant crackdown, likely grow to an unprecedented level.

Tony and Tracy moved to New York City from Guangzhou nearly twenty years ago. At first, life unfolded as they had hoped. Tony opened a shipping store and Tracy focused on raising their three children. But as Tony’s business profits grew, he began gambling with clients in Atlantic City. One night, he gambled $500 and won $80,000 within an hour. “I felt so lucky, I started going two times a week. I couldn’t focus on my business. Every second I had money in my pocket, I wondered if I should call a cab and go to New Jersey.”

In 2007, Tony quit gambling with the help of a therapist, but his problems didn’t end there. In 2010, police arrested Tony because boxes sent from China to his shipping business contained  counterfeit jewelry and purses. He was also charged with welfare fraud for underreporting household income and receiving Medicaid. Tony pleaded guilty to counterfeit and fraud — both felonies — and received five years’ probation. At the height of his gambling luck and business profits, Tony was rich. By 2010, he was destitute and ashamed.

Over the next five years, Tony paid fines and followed probation rules. Some nights he came home early enough to cook red-seared pork or salmon with star anise and ginger. Despite financial troubles, Tracy says “there was a lot of joy and laughter in our family.”

After completing probation in April 2015, Tony traveled to Toronto for his nephew’s graduation. On his way home, airport customs officers warned him.

“They said there was a problem with my green card,” Tony remembers. “I was shocked.”

 

The Chens at home in Brooklyn: Ji Ming, Tracy, Tony, Kathine, and Kelly
The Chens at home in Brooklyn: Ji Ming, Tracy, Tony, Kathine, and Kelly

When ICE arrested Tony later that summer, he was brought to a section of the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey nicknamed Chinatown for its Chinese detainees. ICE contracts with places like Bergen, which it pays an estimated $200 a night for a detainee to stay in a wing that advocates say has worse conditions than most prisons.

Immigration lawyers asked for $50,000 to take on Tony’s case. “I’m not sure your father stands a chance,” Tracy warned her kids. The next week, they visited Tony. They found him on the other side of a glass partition, wearing an orange jumpsuit, weeping.

“I don’t want you to bring the kids to visit,” Tony told Tracy. “It’s too painful for them to see me like this.”

“No,” Tracy replied. “Your whole family is here for you.”

As he struggled to make sense of his situation, Tony met other green-card holders whose criminal cases had long been resolved — paid for in probation, fines, or prison time. Some, like Tony, had been rearrested after traveling internationally. A law designated them “arriving aliens” because of their criminal record. This, Tony learned from other detainees, triggered deportation proceedings. Some planned to represent themselves at their hearings, to hasten deportation. At least that way they could work in their home country and send money to family in New York. Tony feared he might have to do the same.

On September 16, guards awoke Tony at 2 a.m. and announced he was headed for the Varick Street courthouse in Manhattan. Tony saw other detainees pulling extra socks over their feet and hands. That was the Varick uniform, meant to protect against the bone-chilling cold of the courthouse waiting room.

Tony planned to represent himself, but at Varick, he met Zoey Jones, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. BDS is part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which provides free representation to detainees whose household income is less than 200 percent of the national poverty level. Tony qualified.

With the prospect of a drawn-out case, Tony entered the conundrum at the heart of Jennings v. Rodriguez: whether he was entitled to a bond hearing. Michael Tan, an ACLU lawyer, says: “Most people would be shocked to know that we have a prison system in America where the government can lock you up without the right to see a judge who can determine whether you should be locked up in the first place.”

As studies by the ACLU have found, the majority of detainees given a bond hearing are deemed not to pose a flight risk and are allowed to leave detention. Many ultimately win their claim to remain in the U.S., which supports the ACLU’s argument that denial of bond hearings disproportionately affects immigrants, like Tony, with strong cases.

New York’s immigration court backlog is infamous. It can take years to resolve an immigration case, even longer when a case is appealed. Without the possibility of a bond hearing, more immigrants will stay locked up during this process. Jones, Tony’s lawyer, works on dozens of these cases. She was struck by Tony’s sweetness and his family’s desperation. “His case epitomizes the immigration system’s tendency to punish someone indefinitely for something he’s already paid for….What possible purpose does it serve to detain him while we litigate? It’s punitive, and it’s destructive to his family.”


For Tony, punishment took many forms. Detainees kept their belongings on rugs they constructed from plastic bags and ate each meal seated on their beds. Breakfast consisted of dry cereal, pancakes, and a choice of soda or coffee. Rice came once a week; chicken every two weeks. Detainees protested with a hunger strike, but guards said they had no control over the food. Tony lost thirty pounds.

For a dollar a day, Tony started cleaning toilets and floors. A buck twenty-five bought a cup of instant noodles, which could be traded for a haircut; three bought a chicken wing from another detainee’s dinner. With two AA batteries, Tony got an extra blanket.

Tracy started working three jobs, one in a daycare center with kids from single-parent homes. “Most of them are broken,” she says, “and the children really suffer.” Now she was a single parent herself, and the fractures she had witnessed in her clients’ lives began showing up in her own.

The teacher of her eleven-year-old daughter, Kelly, called to say Kelly was no longer doing her homework and had begun making macabre drawings of dead people. Tracy worked thirteen hours a day but couldn’t afford their monthly expenses. Ji Ming, the oldest son, grew evasive and started smoking marijuana.

Every week at Bergen, a fight or mental breakdown sent someone into solitary confinement. Tracy sent Tony tai chi instructions to calm his nerves, and they spoke on the phone daily. Jones filed petitions for a bond hearing for Tony, but a judge denied them. So Jones filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. (Few detainees can afford an attorney with the time and resources to do this, though the U.S. government argues that establishing a right to a bond hearing in six months is excessive, because detainees can access their right to due process through habeas corpus.) On April 6, 2016, Tony was released on bond.

Tony’s deportation hearing is scheduled for January 2018. Were it not for a free attorney from NYIFUP, Tony might be waiting in Bergen until then. Mayor de Blasio has proposed limiting NYIFUP, saying the city should no longer provide free counsel to detainees convicted of a list of 170 offenses ranging from murder to minor burglary. In some ways, Tony was lucky, and the fragility of his status shadows his daily life.

“It feels like the whole family is still paying for a conviction that Tony repaid to society years ago,” Tracy said.

Their son Ji Ming, now a high school senior, joined the Army. “This family will have one less mouth to feed,” he explained, and the Army will pay college tuition that his parents can’t afford.

Old business partners offered Tony the chance to open a restaurant, but he worries about getting deported after making an investment. “It’s like a time bomb,” he says, “and you don’t know when it will go off.”

And the situation only became more volatile after January 25, when Trump outlined plans to redefine priorities for deportation. There are an estimated 42,000 immigrants in detention now, and a study by the Los Angeles Times estimated that if authorities were to follow Trump’s new criteria, 8 million immigrants would become a priority for deportation. If the Supreme Court rules against Jennings, many will languish in detention centers without due process.

On a Sunday when Tony was at a restaurant job, Tracy, the kids, and her parents gathered in their living room to stuff shrimp and pork dumplings. Tracy’s mother murmured approvingly as her granddaughters folded dough. The family began to discuss the topic that’s usually too painful to broach: what they would do if Tony were deported.

“Let’s say your father goes back to his country of origin,” Ji Ming said, “and you only see him on a computer screen — that’s going to kill you, right?”

Tracy stroked her daughters’ hair and glanced at her mother, who had spent decades trying to leave the country that Tony might be sent back to. “Technology is awesome, but it’s not real,” she worried. “You can’t hug, you can’t kiss.”

When Tony was first in detention, the children imagined joining him in China if he were deported. But Tracy said it was impossible. “We can’t go back. You don’t read Chinese, and you can hardly speak it.” Neither daughter has Chinese citizenship; they would be foreigners there, without access to government services or publicly funded schools.

“No,” Tracy said. “We’ll stay here. We’ll fight to keep our family together.” She gestured around the table. “We’re all citizens here.”

 

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Forget It, Jake: Exploring Cuisine, Immigration, and Chinatown’s Underworld

Heather Lee, preeminent scholar of Chinese restaurants in America and assistant professor at NYU Shanghai, and I, just a guy, were making our way through the dry storage of Pulqueria, a Chinatown bar, on a recent Friday night. We had just left Chinese Tuxedo, the high-end contemporary-Cantonese restaurant that opened in the crook of Doyers Street’s elbow ten days after the presidential election. With Trump’s hundredth day in office having just passed, much of the country was feeling like us: lost in a subterranean passage with no way out.

It was Lee’s idea to go tunnel hunting in the first place. In the early years of last century, as she well knew, an entire network of well-organized tunnels coursed through Chinatown, used by criminal gangs called tongs and serving as underground arteries for the illicit. Today, only one tunnel remains, and it is bricked up in the bottom-most floor of Chinese Tuxedo’s triple-basement space. Postprandially, we were searching for the open end.

But that Chinese Tuxedo, a dazzling nexus of succulents, suits, and sex appeal in a former opera house, contains the terminus of one of the last tunnels wasn’t even the reason we were there. We are living at the dawn of a new nativism, and I wanted to check in with those who know how this might affect the way we eat, now and in the future. There seemed no better place to do this than at Chinese Tuxedo, and no better person to do it with than Professor Heather Lee.

Few ethnic groups have been more baldly discriminated against in America than the Chinese, the targets of 1882’s frustratingly prescient Chinese Exclusion Act. As for Lee, a second-generation Taiwanese academic who grew up on the West Coast, she has spent her career compiling a massive database of Chinese restaurants of the past. Part of Lee’s scholarship has explored how the American government’s anti-Chinese immigration laws — inadvertently, perhaps — gave rise to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants across the country. As she explains over a bowl of fried eggplant as crispy and sweet as a churro but with a can-can pepper kick, in 1915 a federal court ruled that Chinese restaurateurs were entitled to a merchant-status exemption from the blanket exclusionary acts. “As a result,” Lee tells me, “the Chinese have a much greater interest going into the restaurant industry. In the early twentieth century, there was an explosion of Chinese restaurants.” Today, there are more than 45,000 across the country.

Most of the early restaurants weren’t fancy, but some were. One, in fact, was famous: Chinese Tuxedo. The original version opened in 1905 on the corner of Doyers and the Bowery. It was a cushy spot, judging from postcards, filled with what Lee calls “slummers,” gussied-up white folks looking for a little bit of the Other. (It is now, naturally, a Chase bank.) As for its reincarnation, “I think the naming of this place is really clever,” says Lee, looking around the room.

But the existence of the current Chinese Tuxedo, and really any restaurant in New York, would be unthinkable if Trump had his way with our borders. First of all, like all restaurants, it runs on immigrant labor. Add to that the fact that co-owner Eddy Buckingham, who looks like an elongated Patrick Swayze, is from Australia, weirdly among our new nemeses, and there’s simply no way Chinese Tuxedo would ever get going in the first place.

Even more fundamentally, without immigration we would have neither the original template for Chinese Tuxedo nor the flavors for Chinese Tuxedo’s chef, a Scotsman named Paul Donnelly, to play with. There would be no bigeye tuna in strange-flavored dressing or char siu pork with a glaze sticky like Grandma’s no-sit furniture. “Overgrown fear of immigrants means that not only are we depriving others of their opportunities,” says Lee, “but we’re robbing ourselves of our own opportunities, too.”

Other than well-done steaks, what would we have? Doyers Street itself tells the story. The growth of the tongs and the burrowing of their tunnels was also, partially at least, an outgrowth of the government’s relentless persecution of Chinese immigrants. Without legal means of protection, many Chinese turned to illegal channels such as the tongs. These, of course, turned against one another, and for a while Doyers Street was called “the Bloody Angle” for the death that flowed along its crooked hundred meters. In 1905, where well-heeled Tinder date shtuppers and trendy noodle slurpers now dine, the street ran red after a deadly massacre.

As any historian worth her salt knows, you need to mine the past for the veins of the future. So, after dinner, we entered into any promising doorway on Doyers that looked like it led to a deeper story. Eventually we ended up here, stumbling past Metro shelves in sub-basements laden with nixtamalized corn flour. “I think this is it!” exclaimed Lee, ever the optimist. For my part, I was going over in my head what I might say to a startled barback, if we ran into one.

Eventually, Lee and I ended up in a dead-end closet that petered out into nothing. We turned around, retraced our steps, and headed up a narrow flight of stairs and back into the dark night of the present.

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Rakim, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop

Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.”

The club was Disco Fever, and “Sal” is Bronx-bred entrepreneur Sal Abbatiello, whose forty-year love affair with black and Latino club culture has made him a pivotal figure within the overlapping scenes of r&b, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, and salsa. This Saturday, with legendary producer Marley Marl and scratch-master Grand Wizard Theodore on turntables, a who’s-who of hip-hop pioneers, including Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Melle Mel, and Rob Base, will gather at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate hip-hop’s ground zero.

Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in an increasingly nonwhite section of the South Bronx, Abbatiello decided that creating multicultural havens for music and laughter was better than falling prey to the dubious career paths offered by local wiseguys. So, one day in 1977, he persuaded his nightclub-owning father to let him transform their brand new r&b bar on Jerome Avenue into a space where — one night a week — emerging hip-hop DJs and rappers would perform. The overwhelming neighborhood turnout for those first weekly parties quickly transformed his father’s r&b bar into a hip-hop palace, strategically showcasing the most competitive street DJs and emcees seven nights a week.

It’s a world Netflix subscribers may recognize from Baz Luhrmann’s early-hip-hop fantasia, The Get Down. Abbatiello certainly did: Two years ago, when he brought his first Hip-Hop Fever reunion concert to the Lehman Center, The Get Down was not yet turning rap history into a colorful fairy tale, but Luhrmann showed up at the concert looking for inspiration. “He saw me, met Kurtis Blow, met all the rappers, got phone numbers, and I never heard from him again,” Abbatiello recalls, with barely contained frustration. “Now, if you stream the show, you’ll see how he ripped off and changed the image of the Fever to put this imaginary club up there called Les Inferno.” On the show, Les Inferno is run as an organized-crime front, a far cry from the way regulars remember the Fever.

“To me, the Fever was a safe haven for hip-hop,” says Marley Marl. “It was a dope place to go just to see the culture evolving, and to see all the players that were involved in the culture.”

One of the reasons almost every rap star who matters — even those loyal to rival crews, boroughs, and labels — remain supportive of Sal is because Disco Fever never exploited its clientele, routinely gave back to the surrounding community, and was determined to remain neutral ground amid irrational city turmoil. The entrance sported both an airport-grade metal detector and a locked weapons-check area. Departing patrons deemed too drunk or unfamiliar with the neighborhood for their own safety were escorted to cabs or the subway. Nonaggression pacts were negotiated with local gangs and drug lords, as well as with local police.

“My best personal memory of Disco Fever,” recalls battle-rapper and veteran Juice Crew member Shanté, “is being in there at the age of fourteen, in the back room, doing my homework at about three o’clock in the morning because I had to go to school the next day.” Usually escorted by other members of the crew, Shanté — whose life story is set to hit big screens this fall with the Pharrell-produced biopic Roxanne, Roxanne — stresses that Sal never let anyone take advantage of her or any woman in his club. “Sal was that real man of honor among ordinary men,” she says. “And that’s why I love and respect him so much to this day.”

As Marley and Shanté attest, nightly networking at Disco Fever consolidated a dynamic community of hip-hop managers, artists, producers, label owners, radio jocks, and mobile DJs. It was a unique environment with the innate potential to elevate everyone’s game. But this was the Bronx in the Seventies and Eighties, and Disco Fever saw its share of tragedy. Surviving devastating epidemics of drugs like cocaine, angel dust, and crack was no easier for the Fever family than for the patrons of any other New York nightclub. Over the course of a decade, substance abuse, gang activity, disease, and sheer urban misadventure killed several Fever habitués and employees, both on and off the premises. Abbatiello took every loss personally, and continues to raise money for cancer victims, foster kids, and college scholarships in memory of his fallen comrades.

When assessing the historical importance of Disco Fever, Rakim, one half of Eric B. and Rakim, the rap duo famous for landmark singles like “Paid in Full” and “I Know You Got Soul,” speaks of the taste-making gestalt of the club. “If you could make Fever your home, or get some shine for a track there, it was a turning point for an artist,” he says. “Fever was this unique universe where all of the aspects of a culture that was just starting to figure itself out had an open door. It defined New York for me at the time. But looking back, I now see how it helped all these different people come together to also start to define hip-hop.”

Thus Disco Fever’s fortieth anniversary concert will present soul survivors like the Sugarhill Gang, former Furious Five frontman Melle Mel, and the “God MC” Rakim, as living repositories of iconic star power, while also commemorating the contributions of lesser-known lights of hip-hop, less prolific innovators whom Abbatiello believes deserve tribute.

“The significance of these concerts for me is to at least give credit to all the pioneers who paved the way for others but didn’t really get financial gratitude out of it,” says Abbatiello, who could just as well be speaking about himself. “These guys are the ones who broke the ground for hip-hop to be as popular as it is around the world.”

HIP-HOP FEVER!
Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
250 Bedford Park Boulevard, Bronx
lehmancenter.org

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How the High Line Changed NYC

There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line. Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

In recent years, mountains of ink have been spilled about how the ills facing contemporary New York and cities around the globe have been exacerbated by the High Line’s complicity, including its fostering of income inequality and “growth machine” politics, inequitable parks funding, and private influence over public space. Other books about the High Line either don’t engage these critiques or only do so through the eyes of Hammond and Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David, who authored a book promising “the inside story” in 2011.

Hammond often says the High Line “gets too much credit and too much blame” for the redevelopment of West Chelsea. But this elides the fact that the High Line was joined at the hip with the West Chelsea rezoning, which did not include affordable-housing mandates. The park’s sleek design and elite supporters also place the High Line at the center of a “creative class” vision for a hyper-gentrified Manhattan, to the point that the neighborhood’s transformation has even priced out all but the most expensive art galleries.

Defenders often praise the High Line as a modern-day project on par with Central Park, but beyond noting the role both parks serve as iconic green spaces, few make the connections illuminated by journalist Tom Baker. Both parks, he says, are pastoral constructions of an idealized past — for Central Park, a rural vision, and for the High Line, an industrial one — serving as romanticized respites in the ever-quickening city. Picking up that thread, architecture professor Christoph Lindner also notes the irony that both parks were built with the goal of spurring real estate development: These spaces are meant to be experienced slowly, but are also designed to accelerate the surrounding city.

Yet for all the High Line’s flaws, there is a silver lining, argues anthropologist Julian Brash: It was built primarily with public funds and envisioned from the start as a city park open to all. “We need to see the High Line not as representing a new paradigm of public space, or as its betrayal,” he writes. “Instead, we need to see the publicness of the High Line as an unfulfilled promise.” Without this belief in the High Line as a public endeavor, there would be little space for the parks-equity movement to question the wisdom of using private funding to support discrete components of the parks system while parks in less well-off areas face continued budget cuts.

While academics and the public continue to learn lessons at the intersection of private interests and public space, the billionaires who made the High Line possible are continuing down the road of ever-greater private influence. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who gave tens of millions of dollars to Friends of the High Line, have donated an even larger sum to the Hudson River Park Trust to build an elevated, undulating concert venue on stilts above the Hudson River at Pier 55. It would be open to the public but managed by a nonprofit created by Mr. Diller and his family foundation.

It’s this type of conspicuous, plutocrat-driven development that makes the High Line (and modern Manhattan itself) iconic, but it remains an example with limited utility to other places. Other elevated parks are either completed or proposed in Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and essays in Deconstructing the High Line look at efforts in Queens, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, each with its own series of parallel and divergent tracks from the glitzy West Side showpiece.

While other cities pursue their own elevated parks, the High Line’s location in the backyard of billionaires makes it a powerful symbol at the center of debates over our increasingly unequal and divided society.

But sometimes, it’s just a nice place to take a walk.