Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Even More Reflections On New York

To follow up on some earlier thoughts, New York has always been a city where new arrivals, lured by the cultural roil of the City, managed to add some new element to it that created something new and unique. Throughout the 20th century, the results have gone on to have a global cultural impact. Whether it was Southern and Mid-Western jazzmen during the Harlem Rennaissance, or the returning GI's and bohemian avante-garde turning post-War Greenwhich Village into a beat paradise, what shook New York went on to shake the World: Swing, Be-Bop, Post-Bop, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art.

While I was busy developing the proposition that my generation represented a break with that tradition, I realized that in fact we are perfectly consistant with it. Because if on first glance hip hop, rap, graffiti and breakdancing all seem like indigenous New York art forms, they actually represent the demographic shift in immigration to New York during the Seventies and Eighties. 

So while professionals and the middle class might have been fleeing to the suburbs during New York's dark days, a steady tide of Caribbean immigrants began to arrive. Anyone familiar with hip hop's roots will know about Kool Herc, a Jamican sound system DJ, and his formative influence on the early DJ culture. Likewise, many of the early graffiti writers and breakdancers were Puerto Rican or Dominican.

I'm not sure if the tension I recall from the mid-Eighties between "native" New Yorkers and the newly arrived existed during the previous immigration waves. And by that, I don't mean the kind of racism that greeted 19th century immigrants. In the Eighties, there was a palpable resentment towards the new wave of Reagan-era Yuppies that had less to do with race (unless it was reverse racism against their extreme "whiteness"), and more to do with class.

More significantly from the point of view of culture, the demographics had again shifted. Instead of attracting the starving artists and desperate refugees who create culture, New York began attracting an affluent class that consumes culture. And that trend has only accelerated in the post-Giuliani era, where New York has for all intents and purposes adopted a third-world colonial profile: wealthy non-native elites who inhabit the center, with an indigenous servant class (cashiers, drivers, cleaners, etc.) that commutes from the periphery. And while the elites might be multi-ethnic in appearance, they share an identical "dominant" mainstream culture of globalized consumerism.

The result is a stifling sense of conformity, which in the New York I grew up in was the mark of insignificance. It's no coincidence that the worst of all possible transgressions among early rappers was to "bite" someone else's style. Uniqueness was valued above all else, and even if rap quickly became brand-conscious, the emphasis was still on appropriating elements into an individual statement, not copying a style.

There are still individuals who stand out for one reason or another, but I've yet to see anyone who struck me as representing a distinctly "New York" style. Which makes me wonder what cultural innovation will result from the blend of New York's current indigenous generation and its new arrivals. What will the next New York School send out into the world? Or has the globalized consumer economy and YouTube rendered that model of distinct poles of culture obsolete?

Questions that only time can answer. 

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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