We stood at the protest in the rain. Our cardboard signs had become soggy, and ink ran like tears from the handwritten slogans. The day before, the whole community had been excited to march in solidarity, but then the weather had turned and few had showed up. Our protest was futile anyway, a rally against big business’s inevitable victory. What terrible evil had corporate America committed this time? Toxic waste in the ocean? Faulty brakes on a new line of cars? Worse. Management was going to install vending machines.
New York City conservatism is weird.
Stuyvesant Town is a 110-building apartment complex that spans from 14th Street to 23rd Street in Manhattan (if you include the uptown section called Peter Cooper Village). Though it is sometimes mistaken for red-brick government housing, it has always been privately owned. Sort of. Stuyvesant Town owes its existence to Robert Moses, the all-powerful city planner who transformed New York in the 1940s and ’50s. He pressured insurance companies and savings banks to invest in housing for veterans, and then used eminent domain to destroy 80 acres of land on the East Side. The apartment complex is populated with trees and benches and playgrounds and lawns. It markets itself as a park you can live in. Yet despite these idyllic claims, Stuy Town—as most call it—has always been a place of brawls where the little guy loses.
You don’t just level a whole section of Manhattan without a fight. The neighborhood where Stuy Town sits used to be called the Gas House District because of the giant tankers of fuel that stood along the East River. People were born in that neighborhood. They started families there. It held parishes, schools, even theaters. A few blocks can be a whole way of life. These people fought Stuy Town’s development fiercely.
They lost. The opposition was no match for Robert Moses and his slum-clearing efforts. After all, rampant crime plagued the neighborhood. Some local residents were given a deal to move into Stuy Town once construction finished. A few of them are still alive today, and they carry themselves about like the last members of the proud Choctaw. It’s not hard to see why the development of this place angered everyone.
The residents of Stuy Town live in the gaps of political ideology, a place that often gets lip service but is rarely described in concrete terms. If Stuy Town were built today, the Left would throw a fit about corporations using city land—including closing public schools—in order to create a for-profit development. The Right would devolve into apoplexy over the government seizing land to create—evil of evils—rent-stabilized housing. To this day, an uneasy tension remains between public and private interests. Like with the vending machines.
Back when Metlife still owned the complex, management proposed tearing down three chess tables and installing vending machines adjacent to the basketball courts. It made sense. Play a pick up game; buy a bottle of water. The Tenants Association reacted as if they had proposed a drive-through brothel. Vending machines would invite graffiti. They would bring crime. They would drive our local bodega out of business. Automated Yoohoo sales were a magnet for the homeless. Someone could hide behind the vending machines and pop out. That was a big one. Ne’er-Do-Wells would pop out at you. Scare tactics are ubiquitous in national politics, but none have been as literal as when the Tenants Association of Stuyvesant Town warned about the dangers of popping out. Boo!
Despite the ridiculousness, we had good reason to oppose the plan. Chess tables offered a particular type of congregation. Every warm day, a man known to the neighborhood as Pete the Chess Guy brought out a shopping cart filled with chess sets and timers so that anyone who wanted could play. Some wait for mayors to drop groundhogs, but Stuy Town marked spring with the arrival of Pete the Chess Guy. A cadre of old timers always joined, smoking cigars and plotting ways to beat the Chess Guy. They never could. Legend had it that Pete was a grandmaster. He always made room for kids, and if you didn’t know how to play, he taught you. A whole generation of Stuy Town natives learned chess this way.
Many unverifiable myths swirled around Pete, but we knew for a fact that he had diabetes. We knew because his limp got worse; because, though he never arrived without several fully stocked chess sets, he did start to arrive with missing fingers. We kids knew not to stare, and looked the other way when he fumbled with the pawns. Pete disappeared for a time. When he returned, it was in a wheelchair. They’d amputated his left leg. Then one spring he didn’t come out at all. The chess guy was who we’d championed in the face of the vending machines. Screw a $2.75 Fanta, give us another Pete.
Just having chess tables offered an opportunity for a new chess guy to meander out. So we protested in the rain.
Alas, they tore down the chess tables and put up three vending machines housed in a green shack to protect them from the weather. They were only up a few weeks before a single word of ineligible pink graffiti appeared sprawled across the front. We boycotted, but every now and then you’d see a face from the protest flattening a dollar to feed the machine.
Shortly after they were installed, Stuy Town management made a deal with New York University to provide housing for graduate students. We lost that fight too. It’s been different ever since. For more than a decade an inexhaustible horde of rootless suburban nomads have priced out families. A working family may have two sources of income at most. Yuppie nomads band together in groups of four or more, and turn apartments into glorified hostels so they can fulfill their HBO sitcom dreams. This is the tale of the entire city.
Why are communities politically important? Talk of community often descends into Arcadian longing. This leads people to assume that any group of individuals that can be sentimentalized is a politically relevant community. There is plenty of sentimentalism in this account of Stuyvesant Town, but it’s important to note that the communities outlined here all lost.
Nietzsche scholar Hugo Drochon wrote an article for The Guardian about Patrick Deenen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. He argued that Deenen and conservatives “seem to believe the communities and cultures that liberals share somehow don’t count. Between their museums, concert halls, universities and coffee houses, liberals also have their customs, practices and rituals grounded in particular settings.” Drochon’s upper-class examples highlight that “leftist” and “elitist” have become synonyms; they also, with the possible exception of universities, don’t actually unite people in action. The primary purpose of a coffee shop is to sell coffee. The primary purpose of a concert hall is to listen to concerts. These actions often include a group, but they don’t necessitate one. The Tenants Association requires a group and is defined by an act: preserve Stuy Town. A group that is defined by action has the capacity to lose. Drochon’s failure to identify communities with their actions offers a lesson to conservatives.
If community associations are the glue that makes democracy possible, we ought to stop portraying them as extended light beer commercials where everyone laughs at twilight garden parties. Conservatives who paint communities only in sentimental terms obscure what will empower local institutions, and if they are not empowered other forces will fill the vacuum.
Parkchester is another apartment complex built in the 1940s by Metlife and Robert Moses. Though it is in the Bronx, the same type of people live there. This is where democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born. Her political ad that eviscerated those who “don’t breathe our air” went viral, in part because native New Yorkers are sick of a city radically transformed by suburban immigrants. Her emotional appeal comes from resisting change that’s adversely impacted her community. That’s conservative!
Conservatives should have been in Parkchester saying similar things. It might not have that amber waves of grain crap, but working communities in New York City are engaged in a conservative battle to preserve their homes. Yet the Right is largely silent because the threat is from the market. To the people of Parkchester, to the people of Stuy Town, conservatives offer Economics 101 platitudes, which by their nature treat homes like any other commodity. If you can’t afford the rent, simply move. That is nomadic barbarism masquerading as sophistication.
This isn’t to endorse Ocasio-Cortez’s valley girl accent socialism either. It is not a coincidence that she grew up in suburban Westchester, pretends to be from New York, and espouses ridiculous top-down ideology. Rootlessness and ideology go hand-in-hand because the latter is easy to pack up and bring with you to Vermont. Most people who live adjacent to city housing, or wait for the G Train each morning, don’t need to be reminded of the inability of government to run anything.
Stuy Town is not called the Gas House District with new buildings. The Gas House District is gone forever. You could alleviate housing demand by tearing down every single building and replacing it with a 40-floor glass tower, but that city would no longer be New York. Urbanites are required to continually define what makes their home essentially their home. The market often undermines this local level conservatism. There is a non-material aspect to home—to personal responsibility, to family, to civic duty, to patriotism—that a purely materialist worldview can’t adequately express.
While communities defined by action can lose, they can also win. The vending machine story is a staple of Stuy Town lore because in the end the Tenants Association triumphed. After four, maybe five, years, the vending machines were torn down and replaced with new chess tables. Native New Yorkers carry themselves with a breezy truculence that suburbanites may find uncouth, but this attitude is often needed to protect places like the chess tables. Whether as the Gas House District, or as Stuyvesant Town, or as Parkchester, they fight recurring battles over the essential element of home, and neighborhood, and by extension nation. This tradition is kept alive through conflict. If we want the type of neighborhoods that foster Pete the Chess Guy, we have to first conserve the conflict by recognizing the complexities and paradoxes of having a home.
James McElroy is a New York City-based novelist and essayist, who also works in finance.