Local guy Ralph Baker, a long-timer in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn ‘hood, was in the news the other day. Despite being blind and homeless he had the wherewithal to (allegedly) steal a building in the Fort Greene neighborhood, from a man with whom he shares the same name, and possibly has stolen another building on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. Here’s Gothamist’s report about the Fort Greene building.
Click on the photo above to get the latest news regarding a trial against Mr. Baker, which began earlier this month.
Back in ’94, I ran a story in Breukelen (a ‘zine I published back in the early ’90s) in which writer Joe Maynard interviewed many residents about the Williamsburg waterfront, including the perhaps modern-day visionary Robin Hood—Ralph Baker. It offers a back story to this current and unfolding episode in Ralph’s life.
Ralph’s interview is mid-way in the article (highlighted in blue).
Here’s the full story from Breukelen ’94:
The Waterfront Debate
A conversation with Kate Yourke, Ralph Baker, Inez Pasher, and Dennis SinneD
By Joe Maynard
Although I’m an outsider to the Williamsburg scene, I’m just as much of an odd-ball, left-out-in-the-cold artist/outcast, as anyone in 11211. I moved to New York in 1981 from Tennessee to go to Art School—Pratt. I lived in a squalid Fort Greene apartment between Myrtle and Park with a hole in the kitchen ceiling from which an eight inch thick icicle dangled to the floor the entire winter. I had two roommates, a half-Puerto Rican half-Jewish statutory rapist, and a half-Irish, half-Italian born-again Catholic. I didn’t like Pratt and dropped out after a couple of wasted years. I would have moved to the East Village, where everything was supposed to be, you know, “happening,” except that while I was looking for an apartment I came around the corner of Avenue B, and locked eyes with a thin black woman. It didn’t sink in right away what was happening because the terror communicated by her eyes was so shocking, but a mounted policeman was beating her with a nightstick. I walked a few more blocks, and noticed mounted policemen on nearly every corner past First Avenue, apparently sweeping undesirables past some imaginary goal line around Avenue C. I continued down Avenue B dodging bottles that a few natives dropped from their fifth floor windows. It was my first encounter with a financial mechanism I didn’t yet know the name of, but it was the “G” word.
A few weeks later, I was talking to a friend of mine who was quite a bit older than I was. (I was 21 or 22, so a lot of people were older, then.)
“You know what’s annoying?” she said.
“The other day I was down on Saint Marks, and this blonde punk chick walked by wearing the obligatory leather jacket with STOP GENTRY scrawled on the back.”
“Stop gentrification,” she continued, hip New Yorker that she was, “So, I watched her walk away and I was thinking, girl, you are gentrification.”
I moved to Chelsea, but I watched the East Village from a distance as hardware stores were replaced by restaurants and bars that most artists couldn’t afford, let alone the lower-income folks who were the primary inhabitants before the artists. In fact, the East Village became too expensive for most artists and I guess that’s one reason why Williamsburg became so infested with the creative lil’ shits, as did other lower-income neighborhoods like Hoboken and Jersey City, downtown Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook.
Gentrification has many forms, not all as blatantly violent as was the gentrification of the East Village. During the seventies, and more so during the sky-rocketing rents of the 80s, thousands of artists left Manhattan for Hoboken, Jersey City, and yes, Williamsburg. I know people who have recently moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn after gentrification in Hoboken boosted rents to near Manhattan levels, and the sleepy little town was converted into giant frat-house. Of course, in downtown Brooklyn, Metrotech, the last gasp of Koch-era development, displaced artists alongside lower income blacks and small businesses. In 10 years, will artists be in East New York talking about the old days in Williamsburg?
Decades ago, the Williamsburg Bridge was built, allowing the overcrowded ghettos of the lower east side a release valve. Lower income Irish, Italian, and Jewish workers made the crossing. Later, came Poles and then Latinos, then, you know, Artists. Over the years there have been famous skirmishes over housing, mostly between Hasidic Jews and Latinos. However, the artistic community has recently had a bit of mud slung its direction, primary by Dennis SinneD’s broadside “30 Days,” which advocated vandalism against businesses catering to “white artists” in its premiere issue.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve stumbled around the ‘burg with a tape recorder, trying to find meaning in the paranoid conversation I’ve heard, the exchange of words that have appeared in “30 Days,” and in “Waterfront Week,” the most widely read broadside within the Williamsburg artists’ community. I spoke with Kate Yourke, activist with WOOP ((Williamsburg/Greenpoint Organized for an Open Process), and of course, Dennis SinneD, Latino racial separatist, and publisher of “30 Days.”
“A lot of them,” Dennis said, referring to the wave of young artists, “come here ‘cuz it’s cool, ‘cuz it’s the hip place, but how cool is it to know that they’re displacing people. All their phony activism and liberalism, the activism amounts to actively taking away our home.” He admits that the artists aren’t particularly power brokers in the situation, but is enraged that many artists refuse to accept responsibility for their role in the displacement of lower-income nativos. “The white artists create the demand, the power brokers supply, and unfortunately, the waste product is gentrification. That’s what affects us.” According to Dennis, the way white artists can help is to “go back to where they were. Fight Mom and Dad, whoever it was where they came from.”
Since the infamous first issue of “30 Days,” Dennis says he has evolved. He wants to have public discussions with what he refers to as “the white artists” in the community. Community Board member Inez Pasher mentioned to me that she admired Dennis for reaching an epiphany then stating his opinion, even though she didn’t agree with what he was saying. “Of course,” I told Inez, “when you’re 21, you can reach a new epiphany every three months.” Unfortunately Dennis’ language has fostered an almost comic display of xenophobia, most evident in the form of regularly published police reports in “Waterfront Week” that at least imply blame for local crimes on “30 Days” and separatists sentiment along with a myriad of other demons including homeless “transients.” What Dennis exposed was a real need for consciousness raising within the artistic community.
WOOP, a group that holds workshops to re-create the Williamsburg waterfront through community participation, had initially asked Dennis to participate, but later broke ties with him. Kate Yourke, Williamsburg resident, member of WOOP, and one of the “activists” Dennis referred to in the previous statement tells the story:
K: I guess [after the first meeting] Dennis left with some stuff he was going to translate. Then he advertised for our waterfront planning workshop in his first page of “30 Days” and people misunderstood and thought WOOP was responsible for the sentiments expressed. They left us death threats, horrible, horrible messages on our machine, and we didn’t know he was planning on this.
J: What’s the matter, people didn’t read things?
K: Well, it was the way it was done. It looked like we put it out. Here. (She hands me a copy.) So we had to say that we couldn’t have a racial separatist in our organization. Because we were a coalition!
At the heart of the matter is housing, or lack of, the aftermath of the 80s, the biggest government sell-out in history: HUD, originally created to maintain existing low-income housing restructured to fund developers, the Koch administration sucking up to developers, claiming to be liberal while supervising the elimination of nearly all of the lower income housing on the west side of Manhattan is drastically overpopulated with empty upper income high-rises, while lower income housing hardly exists. In Williamsburg…
K: The Polish community on the Northside has been gaining in population and in the Southside more families are doubling up. Then you’ve got these white artists coming and tipping the scales and rearranging the whole thing. I mean it’s just like thousands of artists moved here. So, people argue about whether we have an impact or we don’t have an impact, or do we just walking around feeling guilty about having an impact. I would hope that people are moving here would not see it as a transient cheap rent situation, and would understand their position this whole process, rather than not caring about the destabilization and not even having a sense about what that means to people, families, a lot of working class, a lot of poor people.
I asked Kate about the objectives of WOOP.
K: I hate speaking for the organization because I’m just a person in the organization, but WOOP formed to try to maximize community input into the 197-A plan, which is part of the city charter that allows communities to plan for their future development and have that plan meet certain technical requirements that would allow it to become city policy for that area once it goes through a bureaucratic process.
J: Are you one of the people who feel Williamsburg will be gentrified in the near future? I mean, for instance, like what happened in Hoboken.
K: Well, no, ‘cuz it’s not the 80s, and also, we don’t have the housing stock Hoboken has. There aren’t too many places that you can buy, fix up, and sell expensively around here. We don’t have the Path train, we have the L train. I don’t think it’s going to be quite the same story. There isn’t going to be so much money or power coming in, but I think there are similarities.
The possibilities of North Brooklyn’s development vary greatly, from a late 80s proposal for upper-middle income housing by Mr. Morton Bailey (who owns the waterfront property between North 5th and North 11th streets in Williamsburg), to the City Panning Commission’s suggestion for a sludge/compost site in its overall scheme to rezone some 578 miles of waterfront in the city. Recently, Bailey has proposed a strip mall strategy, possibly a Home Depot, or that sort of outlet.
K: It’s important to get community input in terms of what people want on the waterfront, and get people talking and thinking about it. Create a situation where his or her opinions have impact, not just a situation where someone says, “That’s very nice, but go back and sit down, because you won’t be the one choosing what happens on the waterfront.” We want to create a situation where people actually have a say. When WOOP first started, we were protesting a closed meeting that the waterfront committee and the community board were having to show a plan that they had paid for with public money that was going to be supposedly on the process towards their 197-A plan. They called it a design study, but meanwhile, they invited [City Planners] to this closed meeting that wasn’t even open to the community board members who weren’t on the waterfront committee—and that was announced at a public meeting, that it was a closed meeting at Gianado’s Restaurant.
So, they invited the Mayor’s office, the Planning Commission, the owner of the property: it was obviously a big presentation. Their design study hadn’t even been released to the public yet, and it called for low-rise, market-rate condominium residential development on the waterfront. We felt it wasn’t the direction this community actually wanted to go, and this is supposed to be a community-based plan. We felt the community hadn’t been a part of it. So we set up a big meeting outside. The Open Waterfront Committee. We Xeroxed copies of the plan and made them available, got fact sheets together, and the history of the process and tried to inform as many people as possible and mailed a million invitations. Newsday got involved, partly because of David Santiago, a Latino activist, they knew his name. At that time, he was with Southside for Fair Housing, and he worked with us to set up a first meeting. I don’t think Newsday ever came out with the article, but they called Marcie Boyle who was the chair of the CB Waterfront Committee and kept it very much in her fist. She resigned since, but was said, so I hear you’re having this closed meeting. She said, oh, it isn’t closed; we’re just having problems getting out all the invitations, or something. Yeah, right. It had been publicly announced that it was closed. I didn’t converse with her, but that was like third-hand what she told the Newsday reporter. But they did open the meeting so we all went inside and like, made some trouble for them, and explained that we didn’t think the community had anything to with this plan. That’s why they hate us so much, because we sort of embarrassed them in front of a lot of public officials and Inez was there, she was furious. Marcie was furious.
However, still furious Inez Pasher, Community Board and Waterfront committee member who was present at the Giando’s meeting had a different take on the situation. Inez, who describes herself as a tough cookie from Fort Apache raised with the socialist values of the 30s and 40s finds the younger generation of artists like Kate somewhat whiny kids who are still living off their parents’ credit cards. They sorely lack a sense of history. They are “café intellectuals.” The conflict that arose around the Giando’s meeting she chalks up to WOOP’s ignorance of how things work. “The thing that bothers me the most,” she told me, “is they don’t do their homework.”
Inez explained that, “in the tricky business of politics, the ability to finesse your way through different types of people is crucial.” According to her, in 1987 or 1988, Bailey first announced his plans for a waterfront housing development with only one street in and one out, as if it wasn’t adjacent to the urban blight of the surrounding area. “While you or I might not have thought it was such a great idea, it was his property and he held the trump card. You can’t just walk up to someone and demand that they do such and such with their property. At that time Bailey was open to alternate ideas until a bunch of “yahoos” completely alienated him with outrageous demands, insuring an energy draining, drawn-out fight for all involved.
A year or so ago, the Community Board had contracted with an independent consultant to do a rough study of the waterfront area. It consisted of several meetings throughout the community where hundreds of people attending were asked what they would like to see in a plan for the waterfront. Inez explains that that was the open process that WOOP claims never existed. “There was no blueprint, as such, that anyone was planning to railroad through city bureaucracy. It was only a rough study with a few architectural renderings, nothing elaborate, nothing concrete. It was the result of the consultant’s numerous discussions with the community to determine its needs.
When the City Planners and Department of Environmental Protection announced their plans to revamp the entire waterfront system in the New York City area, which included a sludge-compost site and a 100-foot pier off Noble Street, the Community Board decided that an immediate meeting, in order to put something on paper that would be more indicative of community needs, was essential. “The Giando gathering was not a meeting, but a public relations move to send the message to city and state agencies that they were actively concerned about what gets developed there. It was a matter of timeliness,” said Inez. This was how the closed meeting occurred.
WOOP took the position that the board was secretly pushing a plan, and picketed Giando’s where the meeting between the Waterfront Committee, the DEP and the CPC took place, accusing the Community Board of excluding the community. A year and a half later, when the Community Board met, Inez tried to explain that they could input ideas into the plan at future meetings, but WOOP members replied not by merely refusing her offer, but by saying it was she who could offer suggestions at one of WOOPs meetings. Inez feels that the board’s responsibilities are much broader than WOOP’s bit of turf centered on the Bailey site, and doesn’t feel that WOOP accomplishes anything that a well-attended community board meeting wouldn’t accomplish.
WOOP’s objective is to be more creative in the development process. However, they have been accused of not representing a broad cross-section of the community, even though their first workshop was attended by several faculty members, community board members, a couple of representatives of elected officials.
K: It was held at Boricua College, a Puerto Rican college on the Northside, and several faculty members attended, some Community Board members were there, as well as David Santiago from Legal Committee for Equal Justice. Some people from El Puente, and the People’s Firehouse, Brooklyn Legal Services, El Regresso Drug Rehab Facility, Concerned Citizens of Greenpoint, Friends of McCarren Park, and others were there. We had done a certain amount of groundwork, but it’s still in progress. And we have affiliations with many other organizations. It takes a long time. Also, we spent so much time being attacked this year, WOOP kind of had a rough time. Dennis came out and started attacking us, and Medea and the Waterfront Week was attacking. We felt so much on the defensive.
J: What were the things they pointed to most?
K: One of the things was that we claimed to represent the community, which I don’t feel we ever said, or did. We were organized for an open process. That’s what WOOP stands for. Most of the people involved were people who either knew us personally or had already been part of the process, so we didn’t reach that many people who had been excluded completely, your sort of regular folks. So we were attacked for not having that representation from the rest of the community because it was basically white. So there was that, and it was perceived that we were organizing for a gentrified waterfront. We’re looking for something unique that comes out of the community’s own needs, trying to see how land use strategies can be used to resolve some issues in the community, whether we want low income housing, or whether we need more jobs, because this has always been a community that provided jobs as well as housing. People have always worked as well as lived here and the jobs have all left, not all, but a lot of them.
J: So, what sort of ideas did Bailey have for his land? He’s bankrupt, right?
K: It is on public record that he’s bankrupt, and apparently some Dutch bank has the mortgage on that property. As far as I understand, he started out with an idea for a residential development, but that would involve zoning changes. Now the overall comprehensive waterfront plan from the Department of City Planning calls for a change to residential zoning for that site, the Greenpoint Terminal Market site, and the Lumber Exchange, and another site on the waterfront which was pretty upsetting, sin the Lumber Exchange is an operating business. They are not going to pay for the environment impact survey or anything that for the zoning change, so any developer would have to shell out that much money and there’s probably tons of toxic waste.
J: Good. Then it won’t get developed.
K: Right. I mean it would be a problem for anyone developing it, even if they had a brilliant idea. We’re trying to create a space for something new to happen where some imagination, some creativity, both in terms of how the process is developed, and how people’s thought processes are encouraged. Also, to reach into community land trusts, to find out whether that’s possible. Community organizations can actually buy some of the waterfront.
At Kate’s invitation, I showed up at the doorstep of John Rubin, filmmaker/enthusiast, the guy who did those projections on the mustard seed silos at Organism, and the host of this evening’s WOOP meeting. Although I was embarrassingly early, John guided me up to his studio, offered a seat. I felt as pretentious as hell, and as the WOOPsters filed in, I kept saying, “I’m not a real reporter,” as if that purged me of some sort of ego-sin. One by one they filed in, piling offerings of chips, guacamole, pretzels and cookies onto the table before someone exploded a half-gallon of seltzer on my lap. I figured it was like a secret handshake, and I was accepted into the group.
John Rubin opened the discussion about a plot of land with huge molasses and sulfuric acid tanks. When I came to my senses, a video artist named Hank brought up the idea of turning part of the Bushwick Creek into wetlands. There was discussion about researching or visiting different waterfronts such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and the Coin Street Project in England, where waterfront land was purchased and developed by a community organization.
Ralph Baker, indeed the only non-white in the meeting, was dressed in tattered clothes looking either like an artist, or a hobo, playing a game on his pocket computer, occasionally running his fingers over his nappy head, grimacing at comments he felt were less than intelligent. He told the group he had been to Bailey’s court hearing earlier that day. Bailey was in some kind of financial litigation, and his coveted plot of land may soon wind up at public auction. Bailey had asked the court for two to four years to work on a plan to sell the property to a retail conglomerate. I envisioned a white tornado of strip malls ripping through the sleepy little bohemia.
I had to interview this guy. I mean, Ralph, a homeless man with a cellular phone and a compact computer. I left the WOOP meeting with him. He talked a mile a minute about hydroponics, allocating megabucks to do such and such, while I cursed the button of my jacket pocket, trying to get my Walkman out. I asked him where he was from and he said Delaware and Flatbush. In Flatbush, he remembered backyards. I’m picturing gardens, gas grills, and people’s hobbies. Ralph struck me as the kind of guy that you invite over to your backyard or garage and show him your hobbies. He would be interested. Talking to him about his hobbies, I’m honestly not sure if he’s some kind of eccentric millionaire, or just crazy. He lives in a warehouse on the Bailey property, and conducts an enterprise.
R: They write grants and put on shows (he says, talking about WOOP, and groups like it) they interact around each other to have a personal inside slant on government.
J: How long have you been living at that place there?
R: Kent Avenue? Oh, four years. I sleep there, operate a business there. I’m technically listed as homeless.
J: What’s your business?
R: I operate a camp called Camp Innerprize. It’s a place to sleep, eat, fish, and walk around.
J: Are there other homeless people there?
R: Everyone is there according to my letting him or her be there.
J: So, it’s an organized squat.
R: No. It’s not a squat. It’s a business that’s waiting for a financial opportunity to exist in the harmony of the government. [Sic]
J: You make a commodity?
R: I provide sleep, and I have technical instruments, equipment, yeah, that’s the word.
J: Which are cots?
R: No. Life capsules.
J: Life capsules?
R: Yeah. It’s a 4 x 4 x 8 bed with a security curtain, mattress, and light.
J: You wanna show me one?
R: Sure, you can see ‘em. I rent out 2500 of them, I have to pick a day when I should bring people here.
J: Holy crap! Twenty-five hundred of them?
J: That’s quite a few. Are they those metallic things I see around?
R: It’s the same concept. For my particular purposes, wood is the element of choice, as the first layer. From there it will probably be porcelain or plastic cover. They’ll be equipped, fitted for certain actions, like some will be for long-term sleep and work, some will be for long-term sleep and exercise, it will depend . The camp facility at its completion will have a video library, up there with the best video libraries possible with the conversion of CD ROM access as soon as it’s there. (I laugh) Really.
J: How come you went to the WOOP meeting?
R: I went to the meeting because the meeting could benefit me in a very, very significant way.
J: So what kind of plans do you have?
R: Well, the creek projects for one, what I would actually like to see done myself. I’d like to see a recirculated water supply pumped up onto that land and just plain flood it and let it turn back into marsh. It would in two or three years. We should also implant more of the indigenous wildlife. Put them back there. I’ll give them $5,000 or $80,000 to do that.
J: You make a lot money off that project you’re doing?
R: Well, it’s about a half a million dollars a month.
J: Yeah, that’s pretty much. (C’mon…I mean, oh, never mind.)
By this time we were at the Bailey site. We walked onto a long cement runway of sorts with grass growing four feet tall through the cracks. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover until later that my tape jammed. The rest of our conversation I’m telling by memory.
“Over here,” Ralph said gesturing with his arm outstretched in the direction of the Barretti waste site, “can be parking. “This here,” and we re-direct our walk down a cement runway, watching two karate kids fighting like absurd marionettes against the Manhattan backdrop. “This will be the rollerblade rink. The first one of its kind.” With the sound of the oily East River lapping against the concrete seal-wall of the Bailey property, we strolled past the sparring youths. We took a trail from the runway to the shoreline, which was as peaceful it surely was to the Nederlander 300 years ago. Ralph told me his plans to rent out jet skis. We entered a building and walked through corridor after corridor. He showed me where they would have morning calisthenics, the 500 bed dormitory, he also showed me a couple of life capsules, which look more or less like those sleep compartments they rent out by the hour in Japan.
We came to a room with pits in the floor that Ralph said were going to be for the bathhouse. “What were they,” I asked. He said they used to be pits where the mechanics worked on trains, but now, they’re going to be mud pits. “Mud pits?” Yeah, I’m going to import mud from Arizona and set up a spa. “Oh, like in Mexico, where all the celebs go.” I imagined Liz Taylor, her fluffy white chest caked with imported muck and baby-shit green paste on her face, and she’s talking to the Bukowski character in the cheap domestic mud next to her who smells like last night’s third fifth of Georgi-boy Vodka. “What better? Mississippi Mud or the Marseilles?”
The courtyard that often saw the manic, restless line to get in at Flytrap was peaceful that night. Ralph told me it was the perfect place to have outdoor concerts. I got the tour of the soon-to-be medical facility, his garden that he has been growing for two years, and at my prodding, he got down to his method of fundraising: get 25 people to max out their credit cards and you have $100,000 that can secure a loan for a million, that can secure a loan for 10 million. Teach me to not listen to those info-commercials. But seriously, he’s been wandering around the property for four years, turning a useless pile of bricks into a useful shelter for himself and a few others. The city can’t even manage that much. He’s involved with organizing a consensus, even if the WOOP people might be a little standoffish to his enthusiasm. He’s a capitalist visionary in a true sense.
The difference between Ralph and Donald Trump is that Trump has the capital, and Ralph has the imagination to build something worthwhile. I mean, Ralph’s idea is a million times more interesting, and more useful to society than what, another casino? Trump Tower, the butt-ugliest building ever conceived by mankind? What kind of a contribution to society is that?
But Ralph has put four years of thought into this. He’s roamed the empty corridors of the warehouses, looked across the bay. Found the pastoral in a garbage heap. I’m sure that Ralph has a better grasp of the land’s potential than anyone else. Mr. Bailey, that Dutch bank, City Planners, if you’re reading this, I’m giving you the tip of a life-time—free of charge. Think about the constituency Ralph represents? Like he said, the transplanted artists, although not rich, are still on the flip side of where he is coming from. If you figure there are somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 artists, writers, dancers, musicians in the city, there are roughly similar numbers of homeless who are also connected through underground networks. Think of the possibilities.
A couple of days later, I join Dennis and his three sidekicks at a corner table at Teddy’s, a favorite neighborhood watering hole. They were dressed impeccably hip, which made me realize that I was now middle-aged. I fiddled with my Walkman and stammered to find a relevant question. The waitress came by and I ordered a beer. I motioned to Dennis, but he said, “I don’t drink.”
J: At one point, I guess you went to WOOP, and, uh, I was talking to Kate and she said you seemed kind of into the project.
D: I was. I was into the project, but I dissented on a lot of things. A lot of their methods, a lot of the things they did for the simple fact that they were very exclusionary. You know, it’s funny. I spoke to Jennifer Downey at first. She was basically selling the group to me as a Latino. She was telling me, oh, we’re multi-cultural, we’re representing the neighborhood, it’s a multifaceted neighborhood, and it’s a multi-cultural neighborhood. She kept using the world “multi-cultural.” I go into their meeting and I’m like the only non-white in the meeting. They had their flyers in English; they didn’t have the desire to put their flyers in predominantly Spanish neighborhoods. You now, they just put their flyers in Teddy’s, in the Ship’s Mast, and they felt like they were doing the politically correct thing.
J: Kate mentioned WOOP’s split with you was over endorsing violence.
D: My philosophy, my ideologies are not within the ground rules of whites.
J: Well, I don’t think they’re within the ground rules of Blacks or Hispanics, either.
D: I beg to differ on that. I think if you sit around and talk to people in a certain way, you realize that things come out of them. When I would speak to my own brothers and sisters about things, I’d speak to them in a manner that’s a little more comfortable than when whites would speak to them. I think they could see the phoniness in what the whites were saying, and when you speak to them, a lot of them do endorse violence, a lot of them believe that it’s not working through the system.
J: Locker room talk is what you’re talking about?
D: Not necessarily locker room talk, more like when a quiet man needs to be heard he has to speak loudly. You know, it’s not like gentrification hasn’t been spoken about before, but they were never willing to hear what we have to say, but then when I came out with this newsletter, boycott or vandalize, and violence and this, all of a sudden they were willing to listen. I think whites are more violent than non-whites are because they don’t react to anything unless it’s to the extreme. It’s not like we enjoy violence. Like you said, locker room talk. That’s like something between people who brag and boast. Nobody that I know and myself. I don’t enjoy violence. I don’t enjoy aggression, but you grow up with it and you realize it’s a technique you need to use for someone to hear you, then you use it.
J: Do you think anyone in the neighborhood is putting forth something forward to solve the problem of displacement?
D: No. I think WOOP’s agenda, everything they do, and their objectives, are self-serving. They’re a bunch of white liberals who feel they’re becoming heroes by doing the little things that they do—and they do nothing. And then, they think they’re dong something great by pointing out the racism of obvious racists. But when you point the finger at them, and say, you too, you hypocrite, you too, you white liberal, then they turn around and say not me, not me. They don’t want to have to include themselves.
J: Have you had any contact with David Santiago? Los Sures?
D: No. I’ve never wanted to. Actually, I’ve wanted to contact David Santiago, and see what they’re about, but you see their way of thinking is more along the lines of working with the system, and I don’t believe in that. And I believe that if all I have is rhetoric to try to convince people that it’s not us that’s messed up but the system that’s messed up.
J: What’s the difference between your rhetoric and the white liberal rhetoric? I mean either way, nothing changes?
D: Oh, I think it did. It certainly changed me. I didn’t think like this before. It wasn’t until I heard black Muslims and their rhetoric that I found out things about Malcolm X and other people that changed me.
J: Except that when Malcolm X was ranting like a hysterical preacher, the FBI didn’t care what he said because he was just another hysterical preacher. When he started connecting races and making it a class struggle….
D: That’s what’s said, but who has said that. White activists have said that. But if you look at Malcolm X when he was with the Nation of Islam and he wasn’t, he was reaching more people when was with the National of Islam. I go to socialist meetings and crap like this, all they talk about is how Malcolm X changed. They never want to talk about his National of Islam days where he was reaching more blacks.
J: Yeah, but do you really believe all that stuff about how 220,000 years ago a mad scientist in Africa invented white men?
D: No, no. I don’t believe that.
J: Yeah, well, that’s the hook that gets people into that stuff. (I mean to say makes people irrational racists.)
D: No, that’s not the hook that got into me. The hook that got into me was when he said all whites are guilty of racism whether they are conscious of it or not. He didn’t become an integrationist when he stopped. Remember that.
J: When I first saw 30 Days, I thought, to be honest, it was kind of crazy ranting. It’s because of advocating violence.
D: But none of it can be refuted, can it?
J: Well yeah, it’s crazy to tell everyone to go around throwing bricks through windows.
D: Do you think so? I don’t think so.
J: It doesn’t accomplish anything.
D: Who does that affect?
J: Well, they’ll just have an insurance company fix it up.
D: And it’ll be torn down again. Who’s to say it won’t be torn down again?
J: And then banks red-line the neighborhood, and you’re in worse shape than before.
D: And we haven’t been red-lined before? What’s worse shape? That because whites aren’t here? That’s worse shape?
J: It can get pretty bad. You can go to East New York, it’s worse than here.
D: In what way? How do you define worse? This is the poorest strip of land among Hispanics. The poorest strip in the nation.
J: You can go out to some rural….
D: There are Hispanics on the Southside that are poorer there than they are in Puerto Rico. I don’t think the use of violence is dumb. How come when everyone is talking about whites moving into Bosnia, that’s not dumb. Us being drafted into going to war that’s not dumb. That’s violence. When we get drafted to go to war for our country that’s not dumb. When we go off and we don’t even know what we’re fighting for, you could be fighting for the president of Texaco, but if we fight here for what we know about, that’s dumb.
J: Well, what can you do that’s concrete to empower the Latino community? What suggestions?
D: First of all, I would suggest that they begin to ignore white cultural values, to believe that to be good in this society is to be equal to the white man. Using whites as a yardstick for equality and unity, and prosperity, we don’t need that. Also is to become self-sufficient. Buying from Latino businesses. Creating Latino businesses. Staying within our own boundaries. Separation doesn’t necessarily mean just physical separation. It could mean many things. You could be economically separatist. You could be culturally and politically separatist. It doesn’t mean you have to be a physical separatist where you can draw a borderline here on Grand Street and say whites over here and Latinos over there. You don’t have to do that. Separation works many ways. It’s an ideology that has not been explored.
J: The other thing I’m interested in is that you tend to refer to the artists as the “white” artists, but there’s no particular race or social class within these artists.
D: They’re dominantly white. Do you want me to collect every single artist and bring him or her here? If you have a group of 200 people and you have five blacks in them, are you going to tell me it’s integrated just because there’s five blacks in the group? No, it’s dominantly white, and they’re dominantly white artists. You look at the ones that aren’t white, they act white. They’re a bunch of house niggers—traitors to their race.
My inability to crack the militant shell was frustrating. I wanted to find out what he thought, rather than what dogma he has read. I started to leave, but somehow we talked. About what, I don’t remember, but it got interesting and Dennis introduced me to…
D: …Tarif, this is Manku, and this is Rob. Oh, Rob doesn’t live here, but Manku and Tarif have lived here basically all their lives.
J: So what’s your take on all this (I asked them simultaneously)?
R: Well, really, what I think is there is a lot of racism in this neighborhood, and I think it should stop. That’s all I have to say. Everything should be equal between everybody. And like what Dennis was saying about the Southside, and how the artists, you know, they don’t put fliers up in his neighborhood and this and that. You know, you come around here and that’s all you see is like artists. You see them putting up fliers. You go to the Southside you don’t see none of that.
D: They’re exclusionary. They really are. Phony white liberals.
R: I’m not racist at all, but I just don’t like what’s going on.
J: Well, to tell you the truth about the art community, I don’t even feel comfortable myself half of the time, I mean. It’s not like whites have this “in” thing. It’s smaller than that, and there’s even more people trying to get into the smaller circle…. It’s not necessarily white in the center.
D: Well, the artists try to say that I blanket condemn whites. I’m just trying to say the major groups within the artists are white. I don’t blanket condemn all whites….
I have ethnically white friends. I have my Polish friends, and they don’t like the white artists either. I know many Italians agree with what I am saying. They’re not threatened by my pride, because they’re proud of themselves too. They’re not threatened by what I’m saying. I’m not racist; I’ve got a racial perspective. It’s all a matter of identity. Poor Latinos, you can put hem along side with poor Polish, poor Italian, ‘cuz you know why? ‘Cuz a poor white artist can get an apartment here. But a poor Latino won’t.
R: You know it is kind of true, because over here on the North 9th they, uh, the rents are pretty high, and like, Puerto Ricans can’t afford it. You see some of these scruffy artists ….
D: And they say they’re poor.
R: You know, they don’t even dress nice or nothin’ and they get these $500-$600 a month apartments, and they don’t even hardly work, you just see them roaming the neighborhood.
D: I was reading how when you’re a child the world is an extension of yourself, and as you grow older you begin to realize that you’re an individual within a mass, but these white artists, the way they think, the way they act, they are 40-year-old babies. They think the world is an extension of them. They walk around, they think that they’re poor, yet they can afford these apartments. If they’re poor, then what the hell are we? Non-existent? $500-$600 a month is for us, unreachable.
R: That’s another thing around here, about the raising of rent. You know a lot of the Latinos end of up moving out and they have to go to Queens or somewhere, you know, other places, but meanwhile you see who replaces them, the white people. And you go, what the hell is going on around here?
D: I have a landlord who won’t rent to anyone but white artists.
J: I’m sure that exists.
D: Then I look at it like this: If you know racism is going on, you don’t patronize the business that is racist. Just like you said, the white artists aren’t the power brokers, but they patronize the power brokers. Now, my landlord is also a realtor and I see droves of white artists going in there to get apartments, and they know he’s racist. Everywhere I go they say, yeah, he’s a racist. But you were in there getting an apartment, weren’t you? And you’re telling me you’re liberal. Then I tell them you’re full of it, get away from me. You want me to tell them how liberal you are? Go get a gun and travel down to the White House and shoot the president. Then I’ll believe how liberal you are, because to me the right wing flaps with the left wing.
But at least I got a glimpse of Dennis’ “center,” how his friendships work, how he wants to be liked just like the next person. He’s part of the community, not just a ranting head. Rob, who is black, said he just wants things to be equal. That’s what is frustrating to everybody, except the few who are extremely rich and indifferent. Most anyone would agree, the system is corrupt. The system isn’t fair. Why work within the system? That’s where half the story is.
The other half is working to change it. If we all lock ourselves up in studios without interacting with the world, the world will run it’s course around us as if we’re obsolete machinery. Isolation doesn’t help you make better art, become a deeper intellect, or become a better neighbor. It keeps you naïve, and limits your options. If WOOP, whether they have or have not been effective so far, whether they have or have not yet learned the rules of city government, at least they are reaching out for input, trying to have community. So why attack another pawn? Let’s get our act together so we don’t get swept under the rug. Again.