Recession City


Anti-capitalist street art, SoHo, New York

It’s a Saturday evening and the Boston subway is packed. The train is stalled on the platform at Downtown Crossing station, and the car has been filling up for nearly thirty minutes. Tensions are rising. One new arrival finds me slumped in my seat, impatient:

“Aw, look at this!” he announces to the train. “This guy can go wherever he wants, but can I go to his neighborhood? I’m not hating on him. I don’t know anything about him. I’m just saying, I’m angry, and I want to take it out. I want to do something to him. Because times have changed. It’s gonna be like the new 70s.” He is middle-aged, black, bedraggled, carrying a dusty briefcase. He looks like he is struggling, but not destitute. As he begins to be surrounded by more impoverished riders – and more affluent targets – he finishes his rant, asks for the time, and starts wondering, incessantly, when the train will move again.

Cities by their very nature are points of attraction for dense masses of people, compelling exchange, activism, and interaction. But when the world starts to become unpleasant, cities begin to manifest the dark side of these normally positive activities. The shimmering skyline becomes a symbol of excess; public spaces become fora for unrest rather than green lungs or safety valves; begging, crime, protest, and selfishness become more rude, more common, more crude.

In the midst of crisis, urban life unwinds. At the G20 Summit in London this week, bankers ceded their suits – and their streets – to an angry, roiling mob. When class conflict comes to the fore, it’s no secret that the wealthy would prefer to hole up somewhere other than the thick of things. The less fortunate often have little choice but to decamp as well, while an upbeat commentariat lectures the turned-out on the productive benefits of slums. Economics aside, there is more than a little coincidence that this theory is catching on when tent cities are expanding across the United States.

Twenty minutes after being excoriated in the subway, I give up on public transportation and launch into the streets of downtown Boston, luggage in hand. I am on my way to the bus station, and, from there, New York, which, if not the recession’s locus horribilis (that might be the forceclosed-upon former paradises of Phoenix or Fort Myers), then at least its site of impact, its Ground Zero.

The streets of Boston’s gutted retail district are deserted, the background noise a distant fugue of heels on cobbles and beggars’ guilt-inducing pleas. I pass the recently-shuddered Boston Stock Exchange, a surreal sight – it is boarded up like an abandoned home. Across the street, even the Propagation of the Faith Store announces its going-out-of-business sale; salvation, apparently, came at too high a cost.


The bus station is eerily empty, the normally-packed bus even more so. But by the time I reach New York, four hours later, the city is still active, as if in denial of its recent misfortunes. The following day, my meetings are postponed. I wander through SoHo and NoLiTa, taking in the iconography of affluence in its latest stage. What must be the last shopping tours are carousing through streets littered with half-boarded storefronts, lining up for stuffed, gourmet cupcakes (which became, in the last few years, the apotheosis of bourgeois decadence here). Rice-to-Riches, a popular pudding place, is defiant: “damn the recession” reads the sign on its door.

But where Manhattan’s boutiques are not gutted, they are in “clearance”. Among the deceased retailers, one stands out: “Trust Fund Baby” appears to be no more. But it’s an illusion; the store is merely dormant, closed half the week. Recessions are for cutting back, not total loss, and the city — its surviving storefronts mustering a crooked, gap-toothed smile — bears witness.


This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Sunday April 05 2009at 04:04 pm , filed under Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Recession City”

  • In Hong Kong, people who lost their savings in the mini-bonds scandal hold daily protests against banks and the government.

    But on the whole I think a lot of people here are thankful they’re not in the United States. There are stories in the local and international media about expats who have decided to stay here when they’re laid off or asked to move back home.