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Occupy Wall Street: The View from Across the Bridge

With all of the media now focused on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan, it’s easy to lose sight of the real human tragedy unfolding right across the bridge. I’m referring to Brooklyn, New York’s most populous borough, which has suffered mightily since the economic meltdown of 2008. Though the crowds participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement are now more racially diverse than at the outset of the protests, most disadvantaged Brooklyn residents are still shying away from demonstrations. This fact is most glaringly evident when one takes the 2 or 3 train from Fulton Street near the protests and heads out into Brooklyn: while most of the protesters are young and white, the subway riders are predominantly African-American and Caribbean.

For the time being, the protesters certainly enjoy a certain degree of momentum and enthusiasm. However, if demonstrators want to see Occupy Wall Street turn into a mass movement in the long-term, they will have to learn how to appeal to poorer Brooklynites and to address residents’ local concerns. As they continue to organize, activists should recognize a simple premise: in New York, not all districts are created equal. Indeed, the unemployment rate in Brooklyn rose from 4.7 percent in 2008 to 10.1 percent in January 2011, making it one of the worse afflicted counties in the state. Though the recovery is helping to spur some job creation, for example in the health field, other jobs have vanished forever. In particular, crucial sectors such as construction and manufacturing have been hit significantly.

For Brooklynites, the situation is vexing and befuddling as many are forced to choose between changing careers or trying to cobble together a couple of smaller jobs. Some university graduates have become so discouraged that they have ceased looking for new employment altogether and instead pursue other options like heading to graduate school or continuing to work their old college jobs. Perhaps that is understandable given that young people have few options other than retail sales, with an abysmal starting salary of about $15,000, and waitressing.

From The Hipster Generation to Food Stamps

Think of Brooklyn and images of affluent young hipsters may come to mind. In recent years, the district of Williamsburg has become synonymous with this up and coming generation. Meanwhile, many residents living in other prosperous white neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill may be oblivious to serious economic dislocation afflicting other parts of the borough, where some are forced to subsist on social security and food stamps.

Indeed, there’s been a great racial discrepancy in the jobs figures, with black unemployment in New York averaging five points higher than whites, and Latinos averaging four points higher. Overall, New York ranks as the third most unequal city in the country in terms of wealth disparity. Hollywood, however, continues to focus upon Brooklyn’s affluent elite as witnessed by such recent films as The Switch. The movie, which stars Jennifer Aniston, deals with a young woman who finds happiness with a wealthy sperm donor friend who lives on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights.

A world away from the Promenade, teachers are being handed the pink slip and it is disadvantaged kids in poor areas like East New York and Brownsville who are getting hit hardest. Cuts in educational services are just the tip of the iceberg for impoverished communities, however: reportedly, food pantries are being stretched to their limits. Facing a stagnant economy, high unemployment and low levels of charitable giving, not to mention high food prices, soup kitchens in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Midwood and Bushwick are feeling the pinch with administrators reporting a dramatic increase in whole families turning up for help.

Reportedly, even the hipster women of Williamsburg are turning to waitressing to make ends meet. Known for its concentration of so-called “trust-funders” or, more humorously, “trustafarians,” Williamsburg has a reputation for gentrification and white entitlement. Now, however, parents of the younger generation are scaling back and have stopped buying their children new condos, let alone subsidizing rents or providing cash to spend at local boutiques or coffee houses.

In a sign of the times perhaps, one web site has sprung up to draw attention to locals’ economic plight. Called Unemployed Brooklyn, the site is run by a single woman named “MatchGirl.” While looking for a job in the fashion industry, Matchgirl uses her sewing skills to make stuffed animals and sell them over the internet to make some extra income. Matchgirl’s objective is to “vent frustrations, insights and inspirations about being unemployed…tips for cheap places to eat and shop in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

A Painful Four Years

The recent troubles cap a number of painful years for local residents. The problems started in 2008, when Brooklyn families started to face eviction and foreclosure on condos they had purchased from corrupt developers. As a spate of real estate crimes proliferated, ranging from deed forgery to mortgage fraud schemes, Brooklyn’s district attorney belatedly announced it was time to set up a specialized unit to investigate and prosecute such offenses. When a group of young filmmakers started to produce a documentary film about the mortgage scandal in Brooklyn called Subprimed, they received harassing letters in the mail from lawyers representing local developers.

Humans weren’t the only ones to be affected by the foreclosure crisis --- even pets were displaced. In an unusual protest, animal rescue groups brought more than 400 dogs to the Brooklyn Bridge ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. According to organizers, many pets lost their homes to foreclosure and animal shelters had been hard hit by the economic downturn.

By 2009, one could walk down any commercial street in Brooklyn and spot vacant storefronts and advertisements announcing 70% off sales. Take Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, middle class immigrant communities with large numbers of Chinese, Ecuadoran, Lebanese, Mexican, Russian, Ukranian and Yemenite families: though these enclaves managed to escape the high foreclosure rate hitting Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Bushwick and Crown Heights, local entrepreneurs started to hurt with businesses ranging from restaurants to jewelers to clothing stores going through a downturn. In a brainstorming fever, business owners wracked their brains in an effort to lure customers, offering up everything from holiday chocolate tastings to weekend brunches to Feng Shui consultations.

Poverty Enters the Popular Culture

The economic malaise has advanced to such a degree that it has begun to have an impact upon popular culture. As far back as 2009, a local exhibit called “Plan B” explored how artists had been affected by the downturn. One exhibitor created a photo series documenting how she had been laid off by Hearst Magazines, featuring shots of boxes piled up one on top of another. Yet another artist constructed a sculpture made up of discarded circuit boards, meant to signify the “garbage economy.”

In a second work, the same exhibitor featured a simple easel meant to symbolize the local plight of artists. The idea behind the work, the artist remarked, was to “create an easel that can be stored in your room if you're renting or you only have one room and you've been kicked out of your studio due to financial concerns. What happens to a lot of artists in New York is they don't make art anymore, and then they're stuck in this crappy job where they're not really happy but they can't earn enough money to rent a studio to make more art, so I'm trying to offer them a solution.”

In theater, too, the theme of economic hard times has figured prominently. Take for example a recent play which ran at the Brooklyn Lyceum Theater in Park Slope, based on one of Arthur Miller’s lesser known works. In “The American Clock,” a Manhattan family moves to Brooklyn after losing its fortune. Playwright and essayist Miller himself moved to Brooklyn as a child, and his play is based on his own experiences during the Great Depression.

A large ensemble cast, including train-riding hobos and Wall Street tycoons, retells the story of the depression. “It’s very satisfying to be able to do this play during what we hope will be the end of the Great Recession, because I don’t think it ever really had its moment in Arthur Miller’s lifetime,” said the play’s artistic director. “He hoped this would be a warning to people, that the clock is ticking on the American dream, and the play needs to be heard.”

Brooklyn musicians, meanwhile, have been singing about economic hard times. Take Dan Costello, a songwriter based in Bushwick who became exposed to socially conscious musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie through his politically active parents. In Recession Songs, his 2009 album, Costello sings on one track “Hey Mister, where’s my bailout? Give me a bonus Mister, you gave one to AIG.” On yet another track, Costello sings “I think I’ll dumpster dive at Whole Foods, Day old bread that can still be chewed. Organic Apples that are slightly bruised, but ugly produce is still good for you.”

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Brooklyn

With all of the economic dislocation occurring just across the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s disappointing that Occupy Wall Street has not been more successful in attracting the poor and destitute to its cause. Yet, when you consider that many Brooklynites are simply too stressed out to attend demonstrations and are having a difficult time keeping their heads above water amidst the downturn, the lack of diversity in major demonstrations becomes understandable.

Another difficulty has to do with the spatial geography of Brooklyn: though it’s the most populous borough in the city, communities are spread out and isolated from one other and bridging cultural differences amongst the dizzying array of nationalities is a formidable task. A new group, Occupy Brooklyn, hopes to remedy the situation and has already started to organize locally. Perhaps, this most recent offshoot of the Wall Street movement might concentrate its efforts on downtown Brooklyn and Borough Hall, a busy district which by day is extremely diverse from a racial standpoint.

Though Occupy Wall Street has now become much more of a mainstream movement, it will need to do much more outreach to marginalized communities across the river if it wants to ensure that its demonstrations have the desired effect. At long last, it seems that the protesters have opted to take up my earlier pearl of wisdom and Occupy Oakland has called for a general strike no less. The action is scheduled for November 2, and could also spur a similar effort in Lower Manhattan.

If it does call for a general strike, Occupy Wall Street will have to shut down major thoroughfares like the Brooklyn Bridge. A couple of weeks ago, when protesters attempted to do precisely that, they were turned back by the police. Yet, perhaps this time the demonstrators will have increased numbers on their side and may link up with their compatriots in Brooklyn.

Will Occupy Wall Street remain a Manhattan movement, or will it manage to marshal the sympathy of those living in the outer boroughs who are most affected by the recession? In the coming weeks, Occupy must prove that it can move beyond its own base and become a truly mass movement capable of bringing about real, systemic change.

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