#128: The Cool Zone

The internet always pushes us to keep talking—when we stop talking online we vanish. That’s a problem during times like these, when listening to someone else is more important than saying something. As a white man I can’t fully understand what it’s like to suffer from racism, and now (as always) I need to hear what other people are experiencing and comprehend what they’re describing. The internet is actually a decent place for that if you’re willing to reduce your own footprint and disappear a little bit. The horrific death of George Floyd two weeks ago was a galvanizing event that could easily distract from the fact that overt racism and violence are only part of the problem, and many including me are guilty of less visible offenses better characterized by what we haven’t done than what we have done. Attending a protest in my neighborhood last night, I realized that showing up there was still too easy, and that I was possibly benefiting from my own presence in the park as much as anyone else was. Repairing the damage we’re facing requires sacrifice and won’t feel comfortable if it’s actually working. Black Lives Matter. I’m far from the best resource on where to donate but if you’re stumped and looking for something, I donated here (the money is divided among a bunch of different bail and mutual aid funds).

The future of cities was already compromised by coronavirus, but this moment reveals a different facet of the contemporary urban environment and the tradeoffs that make the gentrified city possible. The first time I ever visited the Oculus, the pristine Calatrava-designed mall and transit hub at the base of the World Trade Center, I immediately witnessed two police officers putting a homeless guy in a headlock while ascending an escalator. It felt like an accidental peek under the hood of state-of-the-art commercial space, a quick glimpse at the mechanisms that enable an enclave in the middle of Manhattan to feel like an airport. Hans Ibelings, who I mentioned in the last newsletter, writes that “public space has changed from a meeting place, the heart of social life, into a highly regulated domain where every individual imagines him or herself secure and also takes it for granted that this security is guaranteed.” Instead of robust communities that can ensure their own safety, he argues, we require surveillance by third parties that users of urban space consume without any corresponding responsibility to participate. The distorted, outsized role of police in American cities is yet another price we pay for our own atomization, and it’s no accident that they seem to defend property at least as effectively as human lives.

The pandemic that has dominated the past three months strikes a useful contrast with what’s happening now. Unlike coronavirus, racism and police violence are problems caused by humans. There’s a saying, “You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Similarly, the unrest occurring right now isn’t something that is happening to anyone, but a phenomenon that everyone is a part of, even if they haven’t left home or directly participated at all. Like traffic, the reason you’re surrounded by protests is partially because of you, regardless of your perceived level of involvement. The NY Times published an article today that surveys New Yorkers’ decisions to leave the city permanently, with at least one family pushed over the edge by this week’s events. Yes, the city is a riskier and less convenient place to be right now than under normal conditions. But for many New Yorkers the police have always posed a threat, and it’s hard to interpret the desire to run away from that conversation as anything but that of a consumer, capturing the benefits of urban life and externalizing the costs. That attitude, as Ibelings pointed out, creates a void that inevitably gets filled with more police.