Friday, October 3, 2014

Richard E. Ocejo's "Upscaling Downtown"

Richard E. Ocejo is assistant professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. He is the editor of Ethnography and the City: Readings on Doing Urban Fieldwork.

Ocejo applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City, and reported the following:
I have always thought that readers will be drawn to my book because it is about bars and nightlife, but they will enjoy it because of the interesting people in it. This thinking explains why page 99 is one of my favorites in the book. It comes in Chapter 3, in which I show how an important group in downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, where advanced gentrification has transformed them into an upscale destination, has reacted to the proliferation of bars and the growth of nightlife scenes. This group, which I call “early gentrifiers,” or people who moved downtown at the start of gentrification and remain there, continuously fight against more bars opening up and other changes in their neighborhood. In the chapter I show how a sense of symbolic ownership of their neighborhood and a nostalgic narrative about its past motivates their protests, which yield few positive results.

This page features one of my favorite people in the book, a man named Virgil. Like many longtime residents who protest bars, Virgil moved to the East Village in the 1970s, and encountered a poor, crime-ridden place with abandoned buildings. He also looks back on this time nostalgically, when the neighborhood was diverse and creative with colorful characters in the streets, before gentrification, new bars, and young revelers came. Here he expresses his fondness for one of these characters:
“There was this guy, Marty, who would play basketball in the morning and then he would, he actually taught a lot of the people basketball, because he came here to be in this kind of environment. Then he would hold court in the park. He had students, they would come to him and he’d teach literature, he’d teach art, history, philosophy, even though he didn’t know anything about philosophy. He would hold court, and then he would go back to his place with his ‘patients,’ whom he could psychoanalyze. This is such a characteristic thing, that this guy would just do this kind of stuff, and he would take money for it too. You’d have to pay him something. And he was highly respected here. People all over knew Marty, ‘Oh yeah, Marty!’”

“He was like the ‘mayor’?”

“Yeah, they called him the philosopher. He was the philosopher, but he was also the basketball player, and the psychoanalyst, and just a very prominent, important person.”

“What happened to him?”

“He jumped off the Williamsburg Bridge.”
For residents like Virgil, people like Marty were what made downtown an “authentic” or “real” place, and what made them feel attached to it. But lurking beneath these stories of the area’s past is the harsh reality of its negative conditions as a place in decline, which added so much of what newcomers came to appreciate about it: cheap rents, homeless bars, a diverse population, and quirky characters. These residents arrived downtown as it was transitioning into a place of rebirth, a desired destination from an unattractive slum, a process they also helped bring about. Their nostalgia narrative, then, not only compels them to protest today’s new bars, but also neglects facts from the past and shows the privileged position they are in to make such claims about what is “authentic” or “inauthentic” about their neighborhood. This page provides a short, but clear and powerful, example of this important finding in my book.
Learn more about Upscaling Downtown at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue