“There, where we live is, our country.”
–the Jewish Labor Bund
In Mount Carmel Cemetery, in Queens, there is a section devoted to socialist Jews.
Socialist Jews, you ask?
Yes. Socialist Jews.
Provided by the Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish mutual aid society that eased the entry of many an exiled radical into the New World, the socialist Jewish section of Mount Carmel is singularly low on God. Yiddish overrules Hebrew. Hands hold torches of enlightenment rather than making rabbinical signs. Up front, the whole radical pantheon of Old New York lies in state. Morris Hillquit, leader of the Socialist Party. Meyer London, the last socialist congressperson until Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who died when he was crossing the street while reading Chekov. He was hit by a streetcar and his last words were a plea not to blame the driver. Here lies Baruch Charney Vladeck, a radical from the Jewish Labor Bund, who had a Cossack’s sabre scar on his cheek, but went on to join Mayor La Guardia’s Housing Administration without ever losing his underground nom de guerre. A few skips away is the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Nearby the Bundists rest. The Warsaw Ghetto fighter Bernard Goldstein flashes three antifa arrows on his tombstone. The first time I visited, I lay notes on the famous gravestones. I took teaspoons of the graveyard dust, as if to use it for the sort of necromancy of which these staunch atheists would have disapproved. I was writing a book: I needed all the help I could get. What is history except communing with the dead?
I returned to the Jewish socialist cemetery in the middle of COVID. This time, I came with a brilliant journalist, some decades older than me and, like me, a student of Yiddish. She wanted to go to the tomb of Beilis, the last victim of a blood libel trial in Tsarist Russia, and ask him what he thought of QAnon. Instead, we ended up scampering down the hill that lies beyond the Honor Walk of Socialism to look at women’s tombs. These were overgrown, sometimes toppled over, and near illegible in their Yiddish, whose letters I had to trace with my fingers to read. Together, my companion and I decoded their epitaphs. Afterwards, we sat together and ate a bag of Puerto Rican chicharrons, fried pork bits, in a form of blasphemy that felt like tribute. Sure, pork isn’t kosher, but neither were the dead Jewish socialists. We didn’t worry about offending their ghosts.You don’t need to change to belong here. You don’t need to learn English—my abuela never did—nor to take off your turban, your sari, or your gele.
New York is the city of ghostly rebels. Of pirate queens and revolutionary kings. Of wild reinvention and diamonds plucked off the bodies of the dead. In 1712, on Maiden Lane, where I live now, 23 enslaved African men and women launched a rebellion, confronting their captors with guns and knives. It took the state militia to suppress them. Two hundred and fifty-seven years later, a young black trans woman named Marsha P. Johnson picked up a brick and decided that this night, the police would not raid a gay dive bar called Stonewall. Both of these uprisings are now commemorated with official plaques. Respectability comes with distance. New York is the city where the Puerto Rican flag was born, in exile, and where, in exile, Puerto Rico’s greatest poet, Julia de Burgos, drank herself to death. It’s the last port from which Trotsky departed to launch the October Revolution. But New York’s most famous insurrections are cultural. It’s the city of Basquiat and Joey Ramone, Baldwin and Khalil Gibran, Hettie Jones and Patti Smith, as well as a legion of burnouts haunting the gutted halls of the Chelsea Hotel. Near the UN, the great Palestinian poet, Rashid Hussein, died of smoke inhalation after his stacks of unpublished manuscripts caught fire from a dropped cigarette. Mahmoud Darwish memorialized him thus:
He flung out poems
At Christo’s Restaurant
And all of Acre would rise from sleep
To walk upon the sea.
Christo’s restaurant is as legendary, in its own way, as Acre.
In addition to the usual list of famous, and commodified, dead, New York is also home of 9 million living humans, most of them working class, most not white, most without a college degree. They come from every corner of the earth, some speaking languages that have long since died at their point of origin, all fighting to hold on despite brutal rents and minimal safety nets. This willingness to fight is the only sort of assimilation demanded in this city. To say someone is not a “Real New Yorker” is a dubious bit of dick measuring, but there’s a grain of truth. You don’t need to change to belong here. You don’t need to learn English—my abuela never did—nor to take off your turban, your sari, or your gele. Your rituals and accent can stay. You just have to yoke yourself to the punishing treadmill of the place, and then, maybe, one day, the whole city will open to you like a rose. But probably not.
Hedge Fund Brett will never be a Real New Yorker. He will always smell faintly of Connecticut.
My family has been in New York City for a long time. My great-grandfather came here in 1904 from the slice of land that would later be called Belarus. For a Jew and a member of a banned revolutionary movement, the Goldene Medina seemed a brighter landing pad than the Siberian exile where his activities back home would have inevitably. My Puerto Rican family came later, in the 1950s. My abuelo traded sugar cane fields for factory work in still-industrial Greenpoint. His boss refused to promote him because he was brown, but still paid him enough to raise four children and buy a brownstone in Fort Greene. (My uncle sold it. Sometimes I walk by and stare daggers at this castle to which I never had a claim.) I grew up on the city’s outskirts, and spent all my time sneaking in. I have never loved any place as much as I loved New York. I loved it for the filth and glamour, for the way the crushed glass glittered in the pavement, for the cheap halal chicken carts, the no-name stores selling spandex dresses, the drafty artists’ studios where I posed, the half-broken rides in Coney Island, the all-welcoming libraries, for the old Vietnam veteran who put up mosaics over the lampposts in the East Village. Busted crockery that he sorted and spackled, and thus transformed into jewels.
These were sensual, not moral, varieties of love. Even then, I knew the city was not better. New York is not more gentle, enlightened, or intelligent than anywhere else. After all, Hedge Fund Brett might not be a Real New Yorker, but our waning 45th president most certainly is. I loved New York simply because it was the first place where I could imagine a future. When I was 14, and first started to cut class and take the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station, I used to pause for a second at the base of the escalator and wait for it to bring me up into the crush of 32nd street. Silver Babylon, I thought. Home.
“Home is where all your attempts to escape cease,” wrote the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. When COVID hit New York in March, I was one of many people who never thought of leaving. Where else would I go? My mother lives here. And the disease was everywhere. From Milan to Macao to Melbourne. Where else would it be better? Each day the deaths piled up, hundreds, then a thousand, then two thousand died. Some celebrities. Many elders. Many Black and Latino workers who carried the city on their backs. Outside of Wuhan and Guayaquil, New York was, I believe, the hardest hit city on earth. Many outside New York blamed us for it. It was our “density,” our dirty, crammed-together urban ways, our refusal to shun Chinese neighborhoods (though COVID came here through Europe). Our fault. Prisoners dug mass graves on Hart Island. The president sent a massive medical ship, mostly for the photo op in front of the Statue of Liberty. It did as little good in New York as it had done in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Our mayor bloviated, and as usual pleased no one. Our governor postured on TV, as if he had not presided over tens of thousands of deaths. As in any normal crisis, friends just wanted to hold each other. COVID locked us apart. If we were being responsible, we saw each other through screens, like scrying mirrors, our every interaction now mediated by tech companies, who would monetize even the beating of our hearts. And that was still better than it would have been without computers. The poverty came with the virus—all the people with no jobs, all the undocumented immigrants banned from receiving aid, all this misery made worse by the fear of touching each other.
I’d poke my head out my window and peer down onto the empty streets. Three hundred thousand people have left New York since the start of the pandemic. Some are young people who moved home, unable to pay their rent without their service sector jobs. Some are families who cannot take the grind of distance learning while locked together in a five hundred-square-foot box. But at the start, most of those who left were rich. They left blithely, as if from a nightclub that was no longer cool. I had never liked Hedge Fund Brett. For weeks, I tried to figure out why his departure made me so angry. I finally realized it was this: Brett and his ilk had had their good years. They dined, consumed, and profited. Over three decades, they had dulled the city to their generic, Connecticut tastes, driving out so many of us in the process. When a bad year came, they felt no responsibility. Why would they? They only had ties to each other.
Beauty comes at inopportune moments, including during a plague. Sometimes, our city’s loveliness would slay me. Hedge Fund Brett was gone. New York was ours. I took walks in neighborhoods as still as Judgment Day. One morning in Soho, I passed a violinist who stood on a corner, mask over his eyes, playing for no one in particular. I tried to sketch the mail carrier who sauntered down the street, costume jewelry adorning her uniform, keeping the city running with her swagger. Or the cool-as-a-cucumber old man in his long Cadillac blaring James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” The kid riding a skateboard down the entire length of the subway platform while his buddy filmed him for Instagram. My friend Caroline quarantined at the Chelsea Hotel, where she held seances and posed in hot pink fishnet like an apocalypse princess. I drew her too. Each night, vandals left more presents on the walls. No money, no jobs, no nothing, except to squeeze a bit of fun out of the moments we had left.
To deal with the economic ruin, activists set up mutual aid networks. My friends and I took part. Grocery deliveries for old people. Free groceries for broke people. Cash sent over Venmo to strangers. Punks painted old refrigerators with bright cartoon characters and filled them with free food. Seventy such fridges dot the city. They quickly empty out. There have been many cute articles about mutual aid groups, but each such effort represents a failure by the state. As the concentration of Hedge Fund Bretts would suggest, New York is one of the richest cities on earth. Why are mostly Black and Latina organizers packing grocery boxes without pay just so their neighbors can eat? They shouldn’t have to do this. But they do. Because Hedge Fund Brett never paid his share, and little of his wealth ever reached them. They needed to grind. It wouldn’t get done otherwise. They wanted their city to live.There have been many cute articles about mutual aid groups, but each such effort represents a failure by the state.
COVID hit Black and Latino workers hardest. Often these were the same workers doing the essential jobs and bearing the brunt of police violence. Throughout spring, the NYPD had been assaulting Black people on the pretext of enforcing social distancing. One officer, Francisco Garcia, screamed a racial slur at a NYCHA handyman, then slugged him in the face and knelt on his head. Police had slammed a young mother face down in a subway station, in front of her screaming toddler. They dragged off a little boy for the crime of selling candy. When the George Floyd protests hit New York in May, these actions formed one context. All that grief, that suppressed energy and desire for connection poured out into the streets. I remember one march through the Bronx, where the old ladies hung out their windows beating pots and pans in approval. Coming home, I crossed a police courts van on boarded-up Broadway. Its windows were smashed. Someone had scrawled FTP, short for “Fuck the police,” on every side. When I walked by, a kid in black stood atop it while his friend shot photos. I asked to take his picture. He agreed. “You’re gonna get a million likes on Instagram,” he told me. He stood there as if he were straddling the world. The occupation of City Hall Park happened not far from my apartment. Its initial goal was to pressure City Council to cut a billion dollars from the police budget, but soon it became a sort of Occupy Wall Street part two, albeit with pandemic protocols. People, mostly young, desperately wanting to be close after several months of quarantine. Many days, I’d bring rice and beans over to their free kitchen and find myself there 12 hours later, picking up trash, talking with friends, watching kids coat the streets with graffiti, then build barricades to section off a space they could not ultimately defend. City Hall Park is empty now, behind police barricades. Only cops and squirrels can enter.
The police beat so many people that summer. They punched, tear gassed, bludgeoned, and hit protesters with cars. During the first two weeks, police collected $115 million of overtime for this service. The brutality lawsuits they provoked will cost the city tens of millions more. Where was this munificence when it came to helping the poor? My friends and I and legions of other volunteers spent the spring navigating the fluorescent hallways of public housing, dropping off groceries to people who couldn’t get them otherwise. The city said it was broke. The city had no money to help its people. It only had money to break their skulls.
People are messy. Capital likes its cities to be clean. I sometimes think that Hedge Fund Brett would prefer a New York without us. A bare minimum of peons could commute in to do the grunt work, but the city would belong to him and his friends: investors in seldom-visited properties, the consumers of exquisite urban experiences. Ghosts whose natural haunting spots are the luxury apartment towers. Interchangeable glass rooms, halls of mirrors through which wealth can easily glide.
Long before the plague began, money was hollowing out our city. The more expensive a neighborhood, the more vacant storefronts it had. I remember my favorite art supply store, New York Central, which had been in business for over a century. A ramshackle paradise where clerks drew mean sketches of the customers, and you could find any rare art supply. Any pen nib. Any sort of special paper. Anything. Stuff you hadn’t even known existed. Then the owner got sick and died, and the kids sold the building for fast cash. It remains empty four years later. It’s better for landlords that way, I guess, though I never understood how.
Hedge Fund Brett doesn’t care. He makes nothing. He glides about in an Uber, never touching the streets, never poking his head into the tangled hodgepodge of small businesses whose owners care too much. Both the plague and the plague measures seem designed to liquidate these small stores. Regulations on what should open and close are often baffling, and cops hand out thousand-dollar tickets if an outdoor dining booth somehow breaks the rules. Rents stay high. Businesses have to pay insurance whether they are open or closed. Apps like Grub Hub eat up restaurants’ profits. When we emerge from the plague, how many of our old haunts will just be shells like New York Central, dark holes between the endless bank branches? How many restaurants will be gone, replaced by ghost kitchens, churning out food for app delivery services? A quarter of New Yorkers aren’t paying their rent. Soon old-school, often-repellent small landlords will have to sell those buildings for a song. We will miss them when they’re gone. In the future, we’ll cut our checks to REITs, real estate investment trusts, that sell slices of the potential profits for their rental properties. It’s a lot like the mortgage-backed securities that crashed the economy in 2008.
In The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman writes about an entire queer, working-class bohemia murdered by the AIDS crisis. All of those rent-controlled apartments went market rate after their inhabitants died in their hospital rooms where their partners were not allowed to visit. Their cherished art magazines were chucked onto the curb. In the 1980s and 90s, over a 100,000 New Yorkers died of AIDS. Afterwards, the city emerged as something different. Sterile. The city of Hedge Fund Brett. In the last nine months, at least 26,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19. Many more will die this winter. Then spring will come, and with it a vaccine. That’s when Hedge Fund Brett will deign to retake the city. A week ago, The New York Daily News wrote an op-ed begging for the rich to come back. Infection rates are low. Crime is low, the writer begged. We are here to serve and entertain you, please come back with all of your tax dollars. The article was humiliating, mostly because it was unnecessary. Of course, Hedge Fund Brett will be back. His tax dollars, not so much.
A very smart friend of mine, a philosopher who calls himself Fuck Theory, anticipates a privatized New York City divided up into zones for the haves and the have-nots. The haves will live on corporate campuses, in sleek glass buildings owned by their companies, move about in Ubers or in private buses, like the notorious San Francisco Google bus, order their food from apps, be served by gig workers, and will touch as seldom as possible the other city, our city, rotting just like the subway now rots. It’s not hard to imagine. This is how things are in many places in the world. A few more years and it could be us. We only lack the omnipresent armed guards that elites in more unequal countries hire to protect them from their fellow citizens. Maybe soon there will be an app for that.
What do we do now? This is supposed to be a Message from the Library, and not yet another invitation to dystopia. So, I should make a call to action. Maybe, in the style of Governor Cuomo, I could do a PowerPoint.
I only have one answer. We fight for our city. For our home. For the place where we cease our attempts to escape.
Since March, COVID has trapped all of us in place. It has forced us to realize that we had no homeland except the ground on which we stood. Wherever we are right now, that is ours. Patriotism gets a bad rap, for good reason, but I’m talking about something different, which is a clear-eyed love for your born or chosen home. It doesn’t matter if the rats are dancing bachata, or the train station floors are oozing like open sores. Love the place even if it is dying around you. There is something subversive about this love in our atomized and uprooted age. New York City is home to Big Real Estate and Finance Capital. These forces want you to be attached to nothing, and thus to love nothing; to move in a world mediated by your smartphone screen. Interchangeable rentals and interchangeable rideshares and dinners provided by interchangeable app services, delivered by the interchangeable, invisible, non-unionized urban poor.I only have one answer. We fight for our city. For our home. For the place where we cease our attempts to escape.
The next COVID wave is supposed to peak in January, just in time for the CDC eviction moratorium to end. People have gone through what little savings they had. It will be a brutal winter in a broke and traumatized New York. When I walk through Chinatown, I pass lines of old people queueing for bags of free groceries. Need piles upon need. Meanwhile, Hedge Fund Brett will be waiting it out elsewhere. Perhaps he will choose a tricked-out apocalypse bunker, or merely a country compound, where he will throw rapid COVID test-enabled parties while he is doted upon by contractually isolated servants. Wherever he is, it will be far away from us. Sadly, the law won’t permit us to take over his abandoned condo. But, in his absence, there are a few things we can do.
First, recognize that the city is not composed of consumer experiences, but of its people. If somehow you haven’t yet, get to know the ones around you, in your building, on your block. Cook dinner for your neighbors. Pick up groceries for the old lady who can’t get them herself. Hold each other up through this miserable winter. And hold your friends close. Safely, of course! But not just through screens. The isolation COVID forced upon us has been enthusiastically exploited by Big Tech. Show your friends you love them through actual things done in the actual, physical world—even if done at a distance. Maybe write a letter on actual paper. Make beauty and joy and comfort with each other, in defiance of all this pain.
As much as you can, live in a way that supports your city. Don’t just tweet. Do. All these suggestions will be inadequate, because we are facing a financial collapse and global pandemic too big for any one person to fix, but action is still better than anxiety. First, stop supporting Amazon. Jeff Bezos’s net worth has grown by over 90 billion dollars since the start of the pandemic, while his workers are dying, and small businesses are shutting their doors. No, you can’t defeat Amazon by a boycott. It undergirds too much of our infrastructure. But if you buy everything you can from small businesses, you can help them survive. Donate blood. Drop off groceries for neighbors who can’t go into stores. Help out at homeless shelters. Support mutual aid efforts. No, volunteering cannot stem the tide of poverty, but it can make some people’s lives better in the here and now, and ultimately the here and now is where we live.
Demand better. There is so much this city, and this country, could have done to prevent the sickness and financial ruin that COVID inflicted on so many of us. There is so much they still can do. A city belongs to its people. New York does not have to be the land of supertall luxury towers and empty investment properties. It can be a city for all of us, but we need to organize. Join campaigns to tax the billionaires, to get money to workers, especially the immigrants who kept the city alive but who were denied access to most help. In New York, where 70 percent of people are renters, join the campaign to cancel rent. Get involved with eviction defense. Neighbors have already stopped illegal evictions by blocking landlords’ entries into apartments with their bodies. In January, the movement will need so much more.
If you can, stay.
Stay because this is a city of ghosts, and we need someone to remember them. To lay flowers on the Day of the Dead shrines, or to scoop up graveyard dust and eat chicharrons in the cemeteries of our impious dead.
Stay because this city belongs to the living. To us. To the union guys hauling their inflatable rat in front of a job site that hires scab labor. To the undocumented moms selling mangos in plastic bags. To the vandals whose fingers are caked with wheat paste. To the owner of the Puerto Rican boxing gym in the Bronx. To the fake pocketbook vendors on Canal Street. To the home health care aides, to the bomba drummers, and the old queer artists still clinging to their rent-controlled apartments. To the guys hanging out on a beat-up old couch outside a bodega in Sunset Park, shooting the shit before the weather gets too cold and forces us all inside. The city belongs to those who love it enough to stay.
This talk was originally delivered as part of Brooklyn Public Library’s “Message from the Library” lecture series.