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New York City: The Last Conservative Place Left

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.

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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 [1], 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 unintelligible 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 [2] 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 [3], 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 [4] 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.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "New York City: The Last Conservative Place Left"

#1 Comment By Dan Hayes On August 30, 2018 @ 12:18 am

You are wrong! The same type of people do not live in Parkchester. The original Irish occupants have been ethnically cleansed and replaced with Hispanics and Blacks.

#2 Comment By cka2nd On August 30, 2018 @ 1:58 am

“…don’t need to be reminded of the inability of government to run anything.”

Talk about a conservative platitude.

#3 Comment By BillWAF On August 30, 2018 @ 3:19 am

This is a good piece. Some of my relatives formerly lived in Stuyvesant Town. It was a great place where school teachers, firemen, cops and others could live in Manhattan. One of my college classmates lived there (Columbia, 1981). His father was an FBI agent. Stuyvesant town was a great place that the non-wealthy could afford. Furthermore, it remained safe even when many other areas were not.

After my uncle died, my aunt moved there from Long Island. She had a second life, going to theatre and many events in the city. It was great to see.

#4 Comment By Jon On August 30, 2018 @ 9:30 am

Neighborhoods and their inherent conservatism are all well and good if there are affordable. Thus far not one essayist in the New Urbanism of TAC have ever come up with any solid proposals effectively addressing this dilemma.

Could I find an apartment in Stuyvesant Town or even along Metropolitan Oval in the Bronx? How long would the waiting list be for these co-ops? Drifters are unwelcomed to be sure but along with these yuppies are community minded citizens who are likewise left out.

Solve the problem of economic exclusivity and I am all ears.

#5 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On August 30, 2018 @ 11:44 am

A thought provoking article, I appreciate the call to conserve in not just a political manner but in a real and material manner. This is an area where left or right people can understand why the chess tables were more important than the vending machines. It’s the conservative of place, and I can get behind that.

#6 Comment By Chim Ritchalds On August 30, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

This site has become an absolute joke. National-Review-lite at this point.

#7 Comment By Ed Kozak On August 30, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

Is this article supposed to be a joke? New York’s original inhabitants have long been ethnically-cleansed from their neighborhoods. The city is positively brimming with criminal aliens and sexual deviants. Its economic engine, Wall Street, runs on the fuel of globalization and exemplifies the worst sort of greed imaginable. I was born in Manhattan and still think of New York City has home to some degree, but conservative it is most certainly not. It is indeed our own Gomorrah.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On August 30, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

Ed Kozak says:

“Is this article supposed to be a joke? New York’s original inhabitants have long been ethnically-cleansed from their neighborhoods.”
*********************
New York’s original inhabitants were Indians. Everyone else has migrated in over the centuries & there have always been people of color in NYC.
One of my children took graduate studies at Columbia & lived in the Bronx, renting a room from a Dominican grandma who shared her supper with him. She was an absolutely lovely & gracious lady.
I don’t doubt there’s crime & deviancy in NYC, but I don’t think it’s unique to any ethnic group.

#9 Comment By Ignato On August 30, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

“New York’s original inhabitants were Indians”

No. The Indians lived there before there was a New York. Like it or not, New York was created by the European diaspora.

“there have always been people of color in NYC”

That’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that New York’s original European descended inhabitants “have long been ethnically-cleansed from their neighborhoods.”

#10 Comment By SeanD On August 30, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

James, you nailed it! I grew up in Stuy Town (from 1974, when my family moved out of a Lower East Side tenement to make room for my kid brother, to 1990). I saw it slowly transform from a place of cops, firemen, nurses and homemakers to one of doctors, lawyers and kids with nannies. You didn’t know your neighbors as well as in low-rise housing, but kids bonded in the playgrounds, and the tenants’ organization – as you say – was an odd mix of explicit liberalism and implicit conservatism.

I might add that in 1989, tenant activism made me more conservative – but very inadvertently and unintentionally. I was on the annual trip to Albany to lobby for the unaltered renewal of Stuy Town’s Michel-Lama housing status, and we were boarding for the ride back. Two older women were chatting, and the issue of abortion came up. One told the other in a confidential tone, “We don’t need it, but, you know, the Black and Spanish girls…” The other nodded knowingly. It really shocked me, as I was raised to believe that people were Pro-Choice because they cared about women and the underprivileged, while racism was for conservatives. I don’t recall becoming Pro-Life at that moment, but I know I considered myself Pro-Choice when I voted (for the first time) in 1988, then voted for the Right to Life Party candidate for NYC Mayor in 1989.

#11 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 30, 2018 @ 9:16 pm

James McElroy writes that “Nietzsche scholar Hugo Drochon wrote an article for The Guardian about Patrick Deenen’s book Why Liberalism Failed.” Mr. McElroy comments on the Drochon piece and quotes from it.

Hugo Drochon called his April 21st Guardian article “The anti-democratic thinker inspiring America’s Conservative elites–In his new book, the Catholic writer Patrick Deneen launches an attack on pluralism–and the Conservative establishment is cheering.”

I have read Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” twice and after reading Drochon’s article I have concluded that Drochon could not possibly have read Deneen’s book. There are just too many factual errors in the Drochon piece.

Patrick Deneen tweeted about the Drochon article: “If The @guardian can’t spare fact checkers, at the very least they should be able to identify and avoid publishing religious bigotry. An astonishing review about a book I didn’t write, purportedly feted by a vast right-wing fandom…The book has been widely criticized, but almost always fairly and honestly. I have appreciated those interlocutors. This was something else altogether.”

#12 Comment By D On August 30, 2018 @ 11:08 pm

There’s also crime and deviancy wherever the hell Ed Kozak lives now, just well hidden or committed by people Ed is happy to overlook. NYC is brimming with people: nothing more, nothing less. And if you want to play this asinine “ethnic cleansing” game in the US, and particularly in NYC, you better be prepared to go all the way back.

To the author’s point, the NYC Subway is indeed in a sorry state but the fact that it runs at all is almost miraculous. Part of the issue with retrofitting and fixing NYC train lines also lies in the history of essentially proprietary private lines, rather than uniformity of design. Anyhow, there’s a lot here, and a lot of it is misguided, but still a thoughtful and humane take.

#13 Comment By mrscracker On August 31, 2018 @ 11:24 am

Ignato,
I don’t think it’s a question of “liking” it or not, but more about history.
The Indians lived in NYC before it was New Amsterdam, & it was New Amsterdam before it was NYC.

I think the first non-Indian inhabitant was a Creole person of color from Santo Domingo-like my son’s landlady in the Bronx.

Waves of all sorts of peoples have settled in NYC including 17th Century Jews from Brazil. Over 40% of colonial NYC households had slaves. It’s always been a mix.

It was also a British Loyalist stronghold & many of those folks were evacuated to Nova Scotia. So if not ethnic, that was certainly a political cleansing.
Neighborhoods have a way of changing inhabitants over the years. I’m not sure why we should assume that experience would be unique for Europeans.

#14 Comment By cka2nd On August 31, 2018 @ 9:15 pm

Hey, Ed Kozak and Ignato, if you can replace “ethnically cleansed” with “white flight,” “driven out by Robert Moses and his highway schemes,” “followed the mid-century American dream of suburban living” and “priced out by rising property values and exploding rents,” then maybe we can talk and you won’t sound like racist putzes.

Stuyvesant Town used to be reserved for folks with middle incomes. I knew a lesbian couple that was on their waiting list for eight years, if I remember correctly, in the 1980’s. Then, over the protests of tenants, MetLife began the move to “market rents,” which are anything but middle income.

#15 Comment By Wizard On September 3, 2018 @ 12:25 am

I’d hardly call TAC “National Review lite”. Many years ago, NR helped bring me into conservatism, but the current incarnation exemplifies why I moved on. I would not call myself a conservative today, and I certainly disagree with some of the things I read hear at TAC. Nonetheless, I visit regularly just to remind myself that not everybody on the right has completely lost their minds. While other right wing sites I once enjoyed have descended into howling, poo-flinging idiocy, TAC manages to retain a measure of thoughtfulness and civility. Even when I disagree with other commenters, we can talk to each other instead of screaming at each other. Given the sad state of politics today, that’s no small thing.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On September 4, 2018 @ 10:45 am

Wizard says:

“Even when I disagree with other commenters, we can talk to each other instead of screaming at each other. Given the sad state of politics today, that’s no small thing.”
**************

My thoughts, too.

#17 Comment By JoS. S. Laughon On April 1, 2019 @ 11:14 am

@ ethnic cleansing claims

What a profoundly stupid sentiment. Upwardly mobile Irish residents moving to middle class neighborhoods hardly counts as ethnic cleansing anymore than Mexican residents of various LA neighbhorhoods moving to the Valley or Long Beach (only to be replaced with educated white hipsters) is “ethnic cleansing.”

Go visit Srebrenica or elsewhere in the Balkans and see what real ethnic cleansing actually constitutes of.