As we head into the holidays, New York is a city divided. It has always been a place of vigorous debate and contested policies, but the latest controversy over race and policing has dialed up the vitriol and indicates a further departure from civilized debate.
The past summer Eric Garner, a black man on Staten Island died in police custody after being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. A video of his arrest and scuffle with police was widely broadcast. A grand jury declined to indict the police involved in his arrest and the finding was met with instant and widespread protests throughout the city.
Some of my friends are out on the streets getting arrested or leading protests against the police. Some of my friends are in law enforcement or are retired cops who question the motives and the tactics of the protesters.
The Eric Garner grand jury findings came only a few days after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict a white police officer for the shooting of a black teenager there. In Missouri, the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown has resulted in several nights of looting and rioting and at least one blatant and under-reported racial killing.
The question is whether protests are going to hobble travel too much. The police are determined not to let that happen, but when thousands and thousands of people take to the streets at once, it’s usually the best the cops can do to try to steer them in a direction that doesn’t clog things up too much.
New York has had its race riots in the past but is less likely to have them today despite being one of the many epicenters in the country for racial disharmony. While we have the same constant churn of racial and ethnic distrust and ill will as the rest of the country, we don’t have the critical mass of complete hopelessness and depravity in large areas that usually act as a crucible for riots. And while our population of professional protesters helps promote a climate of racial grievance, it also knows it has to keep things from getting too violent if it wants to stay in business.
There used to be a gentlemen’s agreement between police and protesters. Years ago, protesters would sometimes block streets or buildings and get arrested. They wouldn’t get too aggressive and the police in turn would process their arrests on the spot and then let them go. Under Giuliani that changed. Police started putting protesters through the system, which can often mean a night in jail or at least several long hours in a police holding cell. Mayor Bloomberg generally kept to those policies.
I urge protesters not to attempt to stop the subways and busses from running; however just you think your cause is, when you throw a monkey wrench into the fragile works of the New York City mass transit system, you are playing with fire. Hell hath no fury like a New York City commuter purposely delayed.
The protests will continue and no minds will be changed by them. The divisions that existed before these latest incidents will remain and people’s views will only be intensified by what they see as the excesses or the ignorance of the opposition.
This past weekend the wife and I attended a co-ed baby shower for my friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi Jay Levitz and his wife Sarah. We were in Oceanside, Long Island, New York, a short drive outside the city for us, as we live in Eastern Queens. As we talked with Jay, the conversation turned to what constitutes the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
We all agreed that the term was more of a cultural construct than a geographic one, though we acknowledge that the two go hand in hand in many ways. Where I live now in Queens is not a trendy area at all and is too far from any of the celebrated night life to become popular among the moneyed classes or the upwardly mobile youth any time soon. That is actually a blessing. We happen to have decent access to public transportation, though getting into Manhattan always involves at least one bus and one train. My commute to work is at least one bus and two subways, and it is terrible, subject at all times to the fickle whims of the increasingly incompetent MTA.
The “bridge and tunnel” term may have been initially meant to denote people coming from outside of New York City—especially from New Jersey, considered by many to be a cultural leper colony filled with only guidos and hill people. But my current settings would qualify me as a bridge and tunnel crowd person when I venture into Manhattan for cultural events.
Manhattan was once the undisputed epicenter of New York City’s cultural life. Now that cultural life is much more diffuse and spread through the outer boroughs, most prominently in Brooklyn. New movie theaters, restaurants and music venues are more likely to be opening in Brooklyn or Queens today than in Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate prices in the outer boroughs are still going through the roof.
This shift has made use of the term “Bridge and Tunnel” a bit outdated, but the cultural chasm between whose who perceive themselves as cultured city residents and the people who travel to the city only on the weekends to party is not gone. Someone who takes the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola to see a concert in Brooklyn is considered part of the bridge and tunnel crowd, though they did not use a bridge or tunnel (yes, I understand that the LIRR in Brooklyn does use subway tunnels and uses overpasses on its way to the city; shut up).
And these social demarcations between what is city and what is not stretch to the outer boroughs as well. I mentioned that I drove to Long Island to attend a baby shower this weekend, but as I live in Queens, I already live on Long Island. When New Yorkers talk about “Long Island” they don’t mean the Island itself but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the parts of the Island that lie outside of the border of New York City.
I could never justify the expense of living in a more trendy or celebrated area of Manhattan. I had a chance to move to the Upper East Side one time. I looked at an apartment in Yorkville and realized that I would be doubling my rent and would still not be able to fit the modest furniture from my small studio in Ozone Park, Queens into the new place. It wasn’t worth the money. I could have said I lived on the Upper East Side, but I’d be living like a hobbit.
So while proximity to Manhattan is become less and less of a cultural touchstone to judge a neighborhood, I propose a new measure of the value of where you live: proximity to live Shakespeare.
A good measure of the value of any place to live is how far away you are from some free Shakespeare. When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan, it had yet to become a trendy place to live and people hadn’t heard of it. But I lived across the street from Inwood Hill Park which had free Shakespeare plays every summer. Score.
I can’t easily walk to free Shakespeare like that, but I am a very short trip from more than one of the venues of the free Shakespeare in the Park in Queens.
Some will argue that this Shakespeare standard is an unfair way to judge where you live, but I don’t think so. I don’t want my children to live in a world where they can’t easily see some free Shakespeare every summer. I’ll be dragging their soggy asses to Two Gentlemen of Verona this season; I won’t need a bridge or tunnel to get there.