Nighthawks (art criticism)

The frame is squat and height-constrained, and all of your attention pulls to the right. The soda jerk stoops with a hunched back as the man and woman facing us lean forward. The angles of their spines are like a couple and a man on a subway that has just started moving;  the standing man has leaned into the stanchion nearby for support, and the painting is passing you by, just an image that you kept more tightly, for some reason, than others.

The only upright torso is the man with his back to us. The men all keep their hats on, which gentlemen did back then even indoors (though that would  change soon). You can’t see what he’s holding in his hand, but I think it is a menu. And he already has a cup of coffee.

The couple facing forward are well-lit and you can see their faces are weighing downwards at the sides. These are people who have just lived through a 14-year Depression, and now have younger family being sent off to the war. The woman is  wearing a candy-red dress and lipstick that are probably more appropriate on a younger woman, at least by the patriarchal standards of the time. The man is  smoking. The woman is looking at a tiny blot of green in her hand, which might be what? A lucky clover the man found and gave to her? The leaves of a white  flower whose petals blend in to the skin of her shoulder? Her right collarbone is visible; she is not a large woman. Her left hand reaches back past her right elbow resting on the bar, and reaches towards the man’s right hand that holds the cigarette. It reaches towards, but it does not touch. Sometimes we reach out and find our companions aren’t our companions, and we look down and wonder how this flower or clover ever came to be where it is.

The man in the couple is focused on the waiter. His fedora’s brim sits haughty on the flat horizontal middle line of the canvas. His disappointment is clear, though whether the waiter actually caused it or is just being punished for it is not. The waiter, meanwhile, reaches beneath the counter — for what? None of the three customers have food in front of them. And the kitchen is outside of the frame.

The diner is warm and lit but we are not: we are out just past where the  sidewalk would curb into the street, in the cold of the night.

I said earlier your attention pulls to the right but of course as humans we  feel the need to look where we are not pulled. The art historians say we are  probably on Greenwich Ave looking across West 11th Street: if so, there’s a  Boost Mobile storefront there now. The mixed-use building across West 11th  Street stretches as far as we can tell to infinity, though it is probably only 3 or 4 stories tall. But there is no sky. There are no stars. Even if it were a vacant lot where the building is, in 1942 you couldn’t see stars in Manhattan.

What’s really infuriating is that you can’t even see what the storefront across the street is selling: the display window is empty. That was probably common in 1942, like it was in 1991 or so. Entire blocks of Manhattan were vacant in the 1940s as manufacturers sought cheaper labor in the Piedmont. There’s something vaguely evocative about the one storefront not blocked by the diner: a mannequin with a woman’s dress on, maybe? And a cash register farther right.

If the green sprig in the woman’s hand is a piece of plant, it is the only  plant matter in the painting. But if this is 1942, they probably didn’t grow up in New York City. They probably grew up in small towns in the Piedmont and Midwest and rural New England, and knew the languages of flowers and grasses  and reeds. These are languages we cannot connect with anymore, even if we learn them, because they were effortless to that generation, who still knew what it was to touch with your hands the things that you have made for work, and to name the animals you eat for Thanksgiving.

The man in the couple, the disappointed man, has lost that, I think. He thinks (as I would have) it was a complete waste of time, like all of his life: too young for the First War, and never in the right position to get rich in the  boom, and then paying for the rich men’s mistakes in the bust. And now stuck with this woman, who keeps reaching over when he’s just trying to smoke. But this man also knows the language of that one bit of green the woman holds. He may wish he didn’t, but he does.

This diner was apparently a gas station a year after this painting was painted (again, according to some art historians: nobody actually knows). Time in a  city like New York or Mumbai or Houston is measured in the loss of spaces. You are a true New Yorker the first time you say “That laundromat used to be my dive bar”. You are a true Mumbaikar the first time you say “that FroYo was the place with the best vada pav in Parel”. You live somewhere when its lost past is more real to you than its present. You live in a city when its lights perform the function that the stars used to for shepherds: guideposts and beacons in your own realm of memory.

But, really, my initial response was right: It was just an image. A flash from a bus or train window. Soon to be replaced by an equally interesting scene. Until you get south of the Amboys. An anonymous world full of stories you’ll never know. I think that’s the real point of “Nighthawks”.

I’m trying to take class out of my intersectionality matrix

Last year a researcher at I believe Illinois discovered that when white students are exposed to evidence of systemic racism, their memories of their own poverty become more intense even to the point of (to put it politely) “confabulation”. White people, when shown they have an advantage, actually invent disadvantages we had to overcome, and come to believe them.

After I learned this, I took on two behavior changes: I don’t talk about the material conditions of my childhood anymore, and I don’t include class when I look in intersectional questions. And after a few months of this, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Whatever poverty did to me as a child, it didn’t limit me or define me. White poverty (even when intergenerational) is capable of being and is seen as being transient.

Sometimes it’s OK to tear down old buildings

Honestly I wish we would do it a lot more than we do. Old buildings were designed for old uses, and trap us into continuing use patterns that don’t make sense anymore.

Case in point, Herndon is finally moving forward with tearing down this old Subaru dealership to build an arts and recreation center. This could be a great development with a lot of benefit to downtown (particularly as more dense residential also comes online a couple of blocks away). But it had to dick around with knee-jerk “this building is old and so we can’t touch it” nonsense for way too long.

We need a better phrase than “market rate affordable housing”

Last week the Alliance for Housing Solutions held a forum in Arlington, VA to discuss the city’s and region’s housing situation in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed. One problem held up in particular was the lack of “market rate affordable housing”, a phrase that makes no God-damned sense whatsoever. Consider this pop-out definition from a paper prepared by Arlington:

Market-Rate Affordable Housing, or MARKs, are apartments that have rents that are affordable to low- and moderate-income households by virtue of the age, location, condition and/or amenities of the property. These properties do not have a limit on income for tenants and thereby serve low- and moderate-income households as well as households with higher incomes. The rent is not regulated by the County or any other public agency.

If rents are not set, and for the most part they aren’t, then the rate is market. If the apartment is rented, the rate is affordable. It’s “affordable” because people are scared to articulate the “for whom” that the word “affordable” has to contain to have any useful meaning.

Between living in Arlington and working in Herndon, I have a kind of front row seat to the process of both towns becoming like each other, and people’s attempts to stop that process.

When I first moved to the DC area, 20 years ago, I had to live in Columbia Heights because I couldn’t afford to live in Arlington (let that sink in, Millennials). Columbia Road was full of divey immigrant restaurants, Columbia Pike was car dealerships, “nice” restaurants, and even had an avian veterinarian, and Herndon was a bedroom community of white civil servants (though already AOL’s presence was starting to diversify it). By 10 years ago, Columbia Heights was too expensive for me to live in, the immigrant restaurants were being pushed from the Road to the Pike, and the avian veterinarian had moved out to Great Falls. Now the whole region is starting to smudge: a man running for the Herndon city council was born in Punjab, and Arlington is starting to re-gentrify as lower-tier hipsters get priced out of the city proper.

Ten years ago, in Herndon, it was still politically tolerated for white exurbanites to complain about “Mexicans” (they were almost certainly not Mexican) standing around in front of the 7-11. That nativist contingent have mostly donned their MAGA caps and moved out to Loudoun County (where, in the nature of things, the “Mexicans” are steadily following them), and the chief complaint now is that Herndon is being built more densely, with a Metro stop coming soon and a bunch of row houses “that don’t even have side yards!”.

The complaints of white Herndonites are easy enough to mock but I think it’s important to admit that they are largely the other side of the same coin that community activists in already-dense places are using in the name of protecting neighborhood character: the ultimately doomed idea that we have control over the demographics of the area we live in, or some kind of right to “freeze” those demographics in a configuration we like.

The question everybody has buried in their urban policy and nobody (except the MAGA types) wants to actually ask outloud is: “who deserves to live in this town?” DC apartments are expensive because there are fewer of them than there are people who want to live in the city, and the city has made sure that there will remain fewer of them for the near to medium term because it’s basically impossible to build large high-rise units (the elevator is the most effective form of mass transit ever invented, remember).

The problem with gentrification, really, isn’t rising rents, and simply keeping rents low won’t solve the problem (a landlord would still generally rather rent to me than to a person of color, even at the same dollar value). The way to solve the problem is to get the people who live in a gentrifying neighborhood enough money to continue to live there if they wish, or move somewhere else if they would prefer.