We Exist

“Walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist”

                                                                                                                                                                                -Arcade Fire

One out of many - Greenpoint

E Plurubus Unum – Greenpoint

“Hey there, where to?”

“We’re going t- hey, wait a second. You’re a native American!”

“If you’re suggesting that I was here before the white man arrived from Europe, you’d be sorely mistaken.”

“No, not *that* kind. You’re a native American, like…you’re from here.”

“Well, if you consider New Jersey via Wisconsin as being from here, then you’d be correct.”

“And your English is really good!”

“Well, I’d like to think it is. I’ve been speaking it for long enough.”

“Honey, can you believe this? We have a real American taking us home tonight.”

“Yup, we exist. Mind telling me where you’re going so I can drive ya there?”

This conversation (or something closely resembling it) goes on at least half a dozen times a week, every week since I started driving well over 2 years ago. I had a feeling when I first walked into the Taxi School and noticed that I was the lightest-skinned person in the room who wasn’t an instructor that I was in for a demographic wake-up call. Even after all of this time, I’m still amazed at how few native-born cabdrivers there are roaming the streets in yellow vehicles every night.

When I was growing up, the popular view of cabdrivers in New York held that they were old men, smoking stogies, and saying “Where to?” as someone in a fedora or some God-awful polyester and plaid ensemble hopped in and blurted out the destination in hurried tones. Old film noir movies would seemingly have a gangster or cop hurrying into a Checker Cab and ordering the driver to “Follow that cab!” as the vehicle sped away in hot pursuit of the bad guys. As I got older, my solo jaunts into the city quickly taught me not to jaywalk and to look both ways before crossing the street. Now that I’ve been behind the wheel, I realize that everything isn’t as black and white as those old films, or who’s right and wrong when it comes to who dominates the streets in the big city.

That would also include the drivers themselves. For generations, it was the Irish, Italians, and Jews that drove the Taxis of New York. As waves of immigrants from Far Western, Southern, and Eastern Europe came through Ellis Island, many of them chose to remain in the vicinity. Scores of tenements on the West and Lower East Sides of Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs were soon a patchwork of neighborhoods, each one defined by the group(s) that chose to settle there and become a part of the American melting pot.

Eventually, these groups did assimilate and later generations of them moved into the Postwar autoburbs of Long Island, new Jersey, Upstate, and elsewhere. Hours of pounding the pavement looking for fares gave way to white collar jobs, home ownership, extended native-born families, and cashing out the equity that could be built up through a Taxi medallion. As the number of Caucasian immigrants dwindled, those looking to make a better life in the New World came from new lands. Africans, Indians, Hispanics, and East Asians were coming to America in larger droves and like their predecessors inspired by The New Colossus at the base of Lady Liberty, they took up jobs that would allow them to partake in all that America had to offer.

Naturally, cabdriving was among those.

It was only in the last 20 or 30 years that the racial make-up of the drivers of New York City’s taxis really began to change. Even while watching reruns of Taxi or the bits and pieces of Taxi Driver that I’ve caught over the years (I still have yet to see it all the way through), it was apparent that in the 1970’s, Hollywood depicted cabdrivers as either being black or white. The former being the token minority of the day and the latter being the old-style persona that most people pictured behind the wheel in Gotham.

Today, they’re both minorities. Dana Rubinstein summed up the current demographics of Taxi drivers and passengers recently, and indeed it turns out that over 35% of drivers today are either from Pakistan or Bangladesh. India also turns out to have been a sizable origin country for many drivers and coming in at just under 6% is…

…the United States.

A deeper look into the 2014 Taxicab Fact Book reveals that 6% of the drivers who work a typical week driving a New York City Taxi reside in a place west of the Hudson River.

So to sum it up, having a native-born cabbie who calls New Jersey home isn’t so far-fetched.

Yes indeed, we do exist.

I never expected to be part of any majority when I decided to take this job on and it’s good preparation for what’s coming ahead in America. Already, there are 18 states that have a non-white race that leads that state in births and that number will rise in the coming years as the birthrate among whites continues slowly decrease. Sometime in the middle of this century, whites will cease to be a majority in this country and will a plurality instead. The number of blacks as a percentage of the U.S. population has also been decreasing and has shown sharp declines in many northern states as many of them return to their American roots in the south. The “browning” of America will continue as Asians and Hispanics continue their strong immigration here and racial barriers in leadership, corporations, governmental positions, and even in sports will continue to fall as demographic changes become fully apparent.

Even cabdrivers may become antiquated in the not-so-distant future, as Google is leading the way toward driverless vehicles that are on pace to debut by the end of the decade. It was conventional wisdom that drivers were one of the few jobs in America that couldn’t be outsourced or automated but what was a blue-collar bastion here for so long may go the way of stenographers, teletype operators, and money order agents as positions relegated to the history books and webpages of yesteryear. Driving has always been in my blood and one of the rites of passage for me that I’ll always remember was the first time I was able to go behind the wheel by myself and see as much of the World out there as a tank or two or twelve of gas would allow me to.

One of the big problems facing our nation today is what to do with the unskilled who are coming to our shores, willing to work but not finding enough jobs and tasks to perform for a living wage. The irony is that many of the positions that were available to recent arrivals may no longer exist within the lifespan of the current adult generation, as the drivers of yellow cabs may follow those of so many in the Big Apple. Blue collar and manufacturing work continues to dwindle in New York as newer low-wage positions now require more technical and trained proficiency, and offer less of a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Having all 13,000+ yellow cabs (and thousands more livery and green cabs) become automated would be a blow to those who would have used those vehicles as a stepping-stone to a better life for themselves and their families, even though the price of a medallion today has rendered ownership nearly impossible for those not willing to put in the diligence and 20+ years required to full pay off the purchase of one.

The joke that I mentioned at the beginning of this entry is one that I hear all the time, but it may soon be replaced by someone getting into a cab and punching in their destination into their phone or on-board computer. When the vehicle goes the wrong way, reads it incorrectly, or freezes up like a Windows computer, the person in the back seat would probably curse at the heavens and wish for a real driver, regardless of where he or she is from or how proficient the English spoken would be.

Hopefully, that day will never come to pass in the Big Apple.

Cliff - Greenpoint

Cliff – Greenpoint

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The Last Days of Bloomberg

The once and future Hudson Yards - West Side

The site of the once and future Hudson Yards – West Side

“Hey there, where to?”

“30 St. between 1 and 2 Ave.’s”

“Sure thing. How’d your day go?”

“Long.”

“Usually is for most people when they get out at this hour.”

So I made my way crosstown through the occupational centers of the Mad Men and the money shufflers, before whizzing down 2 Ave, engaging in a conversation with my lively passenger. Eventually, the topic of the inauguration after the New Year came up as I made the turn, proceeded to park, and stopped the meter:

“Are you ready for the new Mayor to take office next week?”

“Not really. I”m going to miss Mike.”

“Me too. There were a few things I don’t like about him but I think he’s not being judged fairly and only time will prove that he did a good job running this place for the last 12 years.”

“What don’t you like about him?”

“Well, here he is – running one of the largest and arguably the most important city in the world. He has power, lots of it too and what does of focus on? Trans Fats. Soda. Cigarettes. Bike Lanes. Now me, I don’t smoke, always buckle up and I don’t eat a lot of foods that are bad for me. You’ll never catch me doing that but if someone were to, I don’t think that it’s the job of the government to look over my shoulder and tell me what I can and can’t do. It’s the nanny state at its worst and a waste of time that could be spent on much more important things, like economic competitiveness, quality of life issues, and of course, housing.”

“I see your point but let me put it this way. Bloomberg realizes that all of those issues are negative drains on this city in terms of lives and capital. Take care of them now and they’re not issues down the road. Spiraling healthcare costs are something that could be averted ahead of time, saving billions from future budgets and allowing people to live longer as well. He’s doing his best to take care of those who have proven that they could be more capable of taking care of themselves.”

“Fair point.”

Three weeks ago, a ceremony as frosty as the weather that descended over Gotham this January took place in Lower Manhattan. Bill de Blasio was sworn in as 109th Mayor of the City of New York. What people remembered more was not the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another, but the overall tone of the day. Ex-President Bill Clinton was there to swear in the former Public Advocate into his new position and singer Harry Belafonte gave a speech comparing New York is to a plantation. Making the spectacle that much more uncomfortable was that the outgoing Mayor was present throughout the whole ordeal, as other officials and dignitaries joined in in the proverbial trashing of his administration and its policies.

For someone that rose up at Solomon Brothers to the point of running its trading floor, to the founding of the media and financial information company that still bears his name to this day, to the running of North America’s most influential City on a self-financed campaign, the proverbial ending of his political career could not have been any more demeaning. Had anyone not noticed the relatively clean streets, low crime rate, return of cranes to the skyline, and the record 50 million tourists that came to New York last year, they would have possibly believed that the first decade of this Century had been a mistake, once the rubble at Ground Zero was cleared away in March of ’02.

So was New York really better off than it was 12 years ago?

There was no doubt that the resolve of New York had never been tested as much as it was on 9/11. A nation that was pulling out of the recession of the dot-com era was threatened with another economic downturn as the World Trade Center was leveled in a matter of hours, in what turned out to be the first shots of the War on Terror. The Mayoral Primary that was scheduled to be held that day was pushed back by a few weeks as emergency crews rushed down to Lower Manhattan and the rest of the nation came to a standstill. What looked like something catastrophic turned out to be awkward pause in the city’s recovery from the bankruptcy and municipal malfeasance that nearly drove New York into oblivion in the 70’s. Narrowly beating out former Public Advocate Mark Green that November, Mike Bloomberg was the choice of New Yorkers to continue the recovery both from the days of malaise and the mess that covered 16 acres in Lower Manhattan.

Bloomberg was unlike anyone that ever ran for the position of the second-most powerful person in the United States (apologies to the Vice President). Rich, centrist, and self-financed, Bloomberg stated that if elected, would serve the city for the salary of $1 per year. Given that New York hadn’t elected a true Republican to the office of Mayor in generations, he only switched affiliations to get on the ballot and to stand out from his Democratic challengers. New Yorkers did not know what they were getting with him since he didn’t have a track record and when he left office 12 years later, many were still unsure as to what his legacy would be for the overall metropolis at large.

Critics would say that he ignored the outer Boroughs at the expense of Manhattan and it’s monied elites while spending too much time worrying about trivialities like landing the 2012 Olympic games or redesigning streets for bikes and hastily-designed pedestrian plazas that were demarcated by spaced-out planters and concrete blocks and balls. Proponents pointed to the economic health of the City, low crime rate, and a majority of New Yorkers stating that they approved of his policies on the day when he left office. As is the case with anyone in a position of power, time will ultimately prove whether these claims have any real validity, but the early cues point to tenure that left New York in better shape than it was before he entered office.

Arguably, the two biggest gaffes during his tenure turned out to be blessings in disguise. One was the failed attempt to land the 2012 Olympics in the Big Apple, under the pretense that it would show the World how New York had bounced back from the attacks of 9/11. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton got on board and was shown on TV as being quite disappointed the day the IOC chose London as the host site. Many New Yorkers were quite vocal in their opposition to the staging of the games in the Big Apple, for several reasons. First was traffic, as the West Side of Manhattan would have been the site of the Olympic Stadium. It lacked any nearby Subway access and those would have gone to the events via ferry would have had to trek around the still-awkward Javits Center, which was never fully integrated into the surrounds upon its completion in 1985. Most locals didn’t want the Jets to call the stadium him once the games were over, as would have been the case had New York landed the games. Housing would also have been a tough sell, as the proposed Olympic village in Queens would had to have been built from scratch, on the East River waterfront. Schools, parks, expanded mass transit, and affordable housing was what the West Side and the surrounds needed, not another monstrosity that would have sat unused much of the time.

The other big mistake that Bloomberg made was thinking that he could change the City Charter and easily be re-elected for a third term. For the record, it was indeed changed but not after a prolonged and nasty exchange, instigated by many New Yorkers who viewed it as a sign of hubris and arrogance by Hizzoner. Many of those displeased by the proposed alteration of the rules had a chance to voice their disapproval in a public hearing but in the end, it was Bloomberg who looked better for it. Both the City Council Speaker who silently went along with the other party’s figurehead and the opponent who ran against him in the Mayoral Election in ’09 ultimately ended up being harmed by the third thought that he eventually sought out and won.

Of course, they wouldn’t realize it until they ran for that same position four years later and lost to the person that was sworn in three weeks ago.

Bloomberg might not have known what to do when it came to issues but he put the right people into place that helped him craft the legacy that will define his years in office. Without a doubt,  the most important was Dan Doctoroff, who will be remembered for generations as the person who took the failed bid for the Olympics and reworked into the Hudson Yards proposal that’s finally starting to come into fruition. The parks, schools, open space, housing, new Class A office space, and Mass Transit extension that New Yorkers were clamoring for could all be found on the West Side, over a platform that would place the railyards there out of sight. It was being done on a smaller scale in Brooklyn at the Atlantic Yards side and since so many were enamored with the Barclay’s Center, they could only look uptown in greater anticipation at what would ultimately rise in the former wasteland between the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods.

It wasn’t all rosy for Bloomberg during his time in office, though. It took forever to get anything rising out of the ground at the World Trade Center site, although that was also the fault of the Port Authority, Governor of New York, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the insurance companies that were sued, and a host of other agencies and corporations that had a stake in what would emerge from the ashes of 9/11. Housing and office space continued to skyrocket in cost around the city as the number of affordable units that were built were nowhere near enough to keep up with rising demand, and whole sections of Brooklyn and Western Queens became unaffordable to all but the uber-wealthy. Streets in the Outer Boroughs took forever to get plowed in major storms and even someone as powerful as him was unable to have a transit strike averted in the waning days of ’05, as Ed Koch and John Lindsay also found out during their helms of the World’s Greatest City.

Bloomberg also found out that being one of the 100 richest people in the United States doesn’t allow you to stand stoic as the tide of history threatens to wash over everything in front of it. As this cabdriver learned the hard way, Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy were two events that no one was unable to stop in their tracks. Both left New York radically different in their aftermath and had many questioning whether Gotham would be prepared for similar events that seemed inevitably on their way to striking. It was with that gusto, as well as the premise of change that elected a Senator from Illinois to become America’s Commander-in-Chief 5 years prior, that finally saw a Public Advocate become the person that New Yorkers trusted to lead them in the post-Bloomberg era.

Immediately into her new term, that leadership has already been called upon as a rash of pedestrian deaths via vehicles, a crippling snowstorm, and even the promotion of Hizzoner’s wife to a paid government position have drawn harsh lines in the proverbial sand. Is 30 M.P.H. too high a speed limit for traffic? Was the Upper East Side plowed properly for the evening rush hour? Did New Yorkers elect de Blasio’s family to serve the public-at-large? These answers remain to be seen, but before housing, inequality, taxation, universal Pre-K, and better representation of the Outer Boroughs could be addressed, this was what would have to be dealt with during the key “first 100 days”.

It’s way too early to tell whether New Yorkers pulled the lever voted for the right person last November but it’s pretty sure that they did the right thing during the previous three elections. For all the complaining that my fellow cabdrivers made about how overbearing the NYPD was on them (and I have to agree with my fellow drivers on this one), Bloomberg did his best to ensure that City would be left in better shape than how he found it. Leaving de Blasio with a balanced budget was the ultimate sign that whatever pitfalls faced in future could not be laid at his feet, even if the $35 billion budget that he submitted in ’02 was nominally half of that of the final one that he presided over years later.

Once the life expectancy of New Yorkers levels off or neighborhoods stagnate years after Hudson Yards is completed, the legacy that Bloomberg had a hand in creating will be fully visible for all to witness, and ultimately judge him by. His billions will continue to be donated to worthy causes and hopefully, his expertise in running a major city can be handed down to those entrusted to handle the challenge of the repopulating America’s urban centers in an increasingly technological and greening world. Those who wish to make cities relevant into the 22 Century and beyond would be wise to learn from the person who was able to successfully bridge the World’s premier metropolis from the 20 into the 21 Century, as it went through and emerged from its darkest hour.

You are here - Times Square

You are here – Times Square