March 11, 2009

Where The City Begins

Where The City Begins
Mulberry Street 1900
Our community meets again tonight, 50 intense people. Wrestling with issues, readying position papers. Going back to basics in our downtown basement, while the financial buildings overhead still try to scrape the sky, but “everything that is solid melts away.”

Our city is now a conservative corner of the world, when it was once a capital of progressive compassion. Rudy and Bloomy have left us slapped down by 16 years of a brutal market, the unseen hand that was supposed to guide us if only we kept up our faithful consuming. Most Americans now know that this idea that the corporation is the only grown-up institution – is a costly lie. A new town must rise from this rubble of logos.

What a feeling of openness and opportunity we have at this point in history! Can we really go back to basics to plant that seed of change? Or are we too timid, from our 30 years of dazzled consumerism? If we have the courage, we can journey back beyond ordinary economic theory, to talk directly about human beings living together, families and children, and the everyday function of a healthy neighborhood. As mayor, Mike Bloomberg has always dismissed any talk about the working poor, as if a mother with a job and a child is a quandary that demonstrates its own guilt. Even before the present crisis – he closed 17 day-care centers across the city with his usual snippy invocation of corporate efficiency.

All of New York’s less powerful citizens are colonized by the financial class at City Hall. This is official policy, masked as “tough decisions by an experienced manager.” The street vendors get thousands in fines, asylum seekers are put in chains, the “open container” laws become a profit-center, the parking tickets double and triple, the city inspectors victimize the local bistros and diners, the bus routes are canceled… The most classic example is that chain stores get special seed money as local shopkeepers learn that it comes from their own pockets. We tax ourselves to eliminate our own businesses. That’s why to so many of us, Bernie Madoff seems familiar…

Compassion is economical. Cruelty is not efficient. We must start there. For most our history most of our economy was based on that ethical – and practical – premise. I suggest to our position developers – let’s go back to an unhurried review of how we treat our children and all the “least among us” at the bottom of our human eco-system. Ultimately this must guide the financial classes above us. When American CEO’s began self-dealing 500 times the income of their workers – they shielded themselves from any exposure to their workers’ children.

So we start with things that the economists don’t even call money-making. We start with helping each other with the neighborhood kids. Then let the big institutions grow again, but cooperative compassion must be the thing that makes the first dollar.