At a bodega in Alphabet City, the cost of enlightenment is three dollars

The book bodega. (Steven Boone)
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"Never pay full price for aaanything in New York!" she said.

I forget all the amazing tricks and maneuvers she said she used to save money, but she insisted that her efficiency and frugality kept her and her family in a cozy house in Windsor Terrace. She was a tall, queenly black woman of about 50, in an African print summer dress, and I had struck up the conversation just to hear what such a person actually sounded like. We were sitting on a bench in Cadman Plaza Park, downtown Brooklyn. For reasons I can't recall (this was the summer of 2009), the subject was ripoffs and how to avoid them. She said that her entire magnificent ensemble was dirt-cheap, clattering jewelry and all.

"Class isn't about price," she said.

Oh, marry me, lady.

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As she broke it down to me, I nodded my head sore; I let her know that my entire outfit cost under $20. I'd seen dress shirts like mine going for sixty bucks at department stores but got mine two for ten at Fat Albert's Warehouse near the Prospect Park subway. My Airwalk skate shoes had been marked down to $15 at Payless. The slacks were free, scored from the basement donation bin at St. Joseph House, the same place went to rack up on designer, slim-fit dress shirts in my exact collar size. These added up to the reason that, when I’d tell a guy asking me for spare change that, sorry, I was homeless and broke myself, he’d look me up and down and go, “Yeah, right, asshole.”

New York City draws a lot of its crazy energy from the clash between standard of living and quality of life. I know some folks here who have no money in the bank, no health insurance, minimal education and slim job prospects who are happy as hell. I know plenty of upper-middle-class professionals who are miserable 23 hours a day. Standard of living does not necessarily provide for quality of life.

Last week at a bodega on Avenue D and 3rd Street, I discovered a book shelf full of great works, right next to the potato chips. On sale was Robert Caro’s classic 1974 biography of New York’s “master builder”, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. A recent edition, great condition. I had meant to get this 1,000-page Pulitzer-winning monster out of the library but never got around to it. Now I asked the deli man how much. He motioned for me to hand the book over, so I did. He looked on the back where the “U.S.” price was $21.95. My heart sank. He held the book in one open palm, “weighing” it by bouncing it lightly, frowning like a royal appraiser.

“For you? Three dollars, my dude.”

I was ecstatic. Except I only had 20 cents on me.

“I have to have this book,” I told him. “Can you hold it behind the counter for me? I will be back tonight to pay for it.”

He shook his head solemnly. I put the book back but on a higher shelf, the spine facing inward.

I didn’t have the three dollars until days later, after borrowing it from a friend. My assumption was that the book was long gone. The Power Broker is treasured as a historical document, the story of New York City in the 20th Century as experienced by the man who made the city the Nevada Proving Grounds of urban renewal. As the back of the book puts it: “The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city's politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.”

It was still there when I went back.

The weird thing about Alphabet City right now is the world of difference between blocks. On Avenue D between 6th and Houston Streets, the Lillian Wald Houses housing project provides the bodegas, pharmacies and pizza shops directly across the avenue with clientele who, I calculated at the time, didn’t generally go in for books about dead city planners. The Wald Houses, along with the Jacob Riis Houses, their neighbor occupying 6th Street to 13th Street, are Robert Moses creations.

As head of various New York Authorities, Moses filled the city with parks, playgrounds, expressways, bridges, beaches, private housing developments, and, yes, mile after mile of public housing. In the 1930’s, ‘40s and ‘50s, he was the nexus of all major construction projects in New York City.

Favoring development schemes that enhanced quality of life for folks of his stratum (he was to the manner born in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in prosperous enclaves of Manhattan and Long Island), Moses waged stealth war on the poor. Wrote Caro:

[Moses] evicted tens of thousands of poor, nonwhite persons for urban renewal projects, and the housing he built to replace the housing he tore down was, to an overwhelming extent, not housing for the poor but for the rich… When he built housing for poor people, he built housing bleak, sterile, cheap—expressive of patronizing condescension in every line. And he built it in locations that contributed to the ghettoization of the city, dividing up the city by color and income.

In other words, in the middle of last century, Moses created the New York we live in today. So the “world of difference” I refer to is the difference between Avenue D and Avenue C, just one long block’s length west of the housing projects. If any of the cleaner, tidier delis along Avenue C had carried The Power Broker I figure it would have disappeared within minutes of hitting the shelf. On those blocks, since the early 1990s an influx of white and Asian urban professionals has been joining (and, in many cases, pushing out) the working-class Latino population that predominated after the Jews, Italians and Irish moved out of the area a couple of generations ago.

Gentrification’s eastward tidal wave hit C and spilled out along the side streets between C and D. Moses’ housing projects are the seawall.

You might have guessed where I’m going with this, and so did I, until just this afternoon, when I took a break from writing to get a snack at the book bodega. The clerk who sold me the book was there, and I asked him how often the store received new books, and from whom. For some reason, he couldn’t make out what I was saying. I realized his English was mostly restricted to prices and basic greetings. “Next week, maybe,” said a guy behind me. I turned. A medium-height Hispanic man of about 45 was coming from the back of the store.

“I’ll bring some more in next week,” he said. I said, “Man, y’all got some great stuff here. Look at this...” I flashed my copy of The Power Broker. “You heard about this guy Robert Moses?”

“Yeah, I know,” the man said. “I brought that one in. I know about that Moses. He built all of this here…” He gestured out the door at the Wald Houses and then north toward the Riis Houses. His name is Manuel Hernandez. He was born in Puerto Rico but lived on and near Avenue D for most of his life. His grandmother was one of the first residents of the Riis Houses. “When she first moved in, it was somewhere in the 1940’s, when my grandfather got outta World War II,” he said. “And we’ve been living here ever since then.”

His family was one of the first two families to arrive at Riis Houses, he said.

“It was the Browns and the Rodriguezes, which is my grandfather’s name. And they both moved in at the same time. Both families used the elevator at the same time. All my uncles were raised there, and on holidays, [the Browns’] door was always open, and my grandma’s door was always open and we all would go in and out, back and forth. The funny thing about it is, my grandma didn’t speak English and [Mrs. Brown] didn’t speak Spanish, but they understood each other. And they would sit every morning, have a cup of coffee and whatnot and talk.” He sketched a neighborhood picture that I knew well. I grew up across the street from the Levister Towers housing project in Mt. Vernon. In the 1970’s and ‘80s, the Boones and Bryants were just like the Browns and Rodriguezes. We had some times.

“Back then, everybody knew everybody. If they seen somebody’s kid acting up, they would snatch ‘em up and bring ‘em to their parents and let them know, ‘This is what they were doing wrong.’ It’s not like that anymore.”

He didn’t see gentrification in economic terms, just said he liked the new “more racial” mix that characterizes the neighborhood now. “We got everything now, blacks, white, Chinese, this, that. It’s a good thing.”

My little impromptu interview got cut short when we ran into Manuel’s wife, who he says has been his sweetie “since the Third grade.” They have an apartment on 4th Street, and I watched them go into the lobby, lovingly ragging on each other (“Come on, stinkybutt!”).

I realized my barely conscious calculation about there not being much demand in that bodega for books like The Power Broker was no less a failure of imagination than that of the panhandler who thought I was rich.

Likewise, I’m only a hundred pages into The Power Broker, but Manuel Rodriguez has already complicated some of Caro’s assessments. It’s true that Moses uprooted many of New York’s vibrant poor and working class communities. It’s true that he jammed expressways up against their cramped new living spaces, favoring suburban commuters in their gas guzzlers and the Manhattan elite.

But it’s also true that untold thousands of the poor people somehow found a way to live, love and be happy, even in the 14-story shadow of Moses’ contempt for them. Lots of elitist, racist power brokers have come and gone over the years. Maybe they started out like young Robert Moses, with the ambition to help the poor and deliver equitable, incorruptible public service, and ended up constructing ever more elaborate cloisters for the haves. Caro says something happened to Moses when, early on, he went from the discreet elitism of Yale to the extravagant snobbery of Oxford: He fell in love with the idea of cultivating a superior class of public servants—hardly servants at all, but municipal lords. Moses carried his obsession with status far into adulthood, finding a way to express it in the landscape of New York.

But was he happy?

I have trouble imagining true happiness in a life spent building massive monuments in the service of a petty idea. Money isn't everything, and neither is power. 

Steven Boone is a film critic who has been writing for Capital about his experiences with homelessness. His previous installments are here.