Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel By Nicolaia Rips

trying-to-float For a New Yorker, few things could be cooler than living in the Chelsea Hotel, residence of great artists, writers, and underground filmmakers. The place is adorned with great artwork, and the owner, a sentimentalist despite himself, used to let eccentric people live there without paying the rent. It was the home of Andy Warhol’s superstars, and residents included (at different times) Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, Dylan Thomas, and Dee Dee Ramone. From the get go, Nicolaia Rips makes her status clear; she grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, but she wasn’t invited to any cool parties or treated like royalty. If you think this is about a kid who grows up in the Warhol crowd, think again, because she’s too late. Warhol was long dead by the time she was born, and the Chelsea residents she writes about are all old. She’s the daughter of eccentric weirdos and the kids at her school all have
rich celebrity parents. She’s a free-range kid who doesn’t fit in with the socially precocious and over-sophisticated children of the elite. She’s born into an artsy crowd that’s dying off.

While this may sound harsh, keep in mind that she was born around 1998, so by that time there weren’t a lot of less-affluent educated families in the area anymore. She makes a horrible impression on her first day of kindergarten because (a) she doesn’t know how to read yet, and (b) her parents haven’t hired a million tutors to teach her Chinese, opera singing, and how to play the harp. She’s basically a kid, that’s it, but her classmates have been taught to be little grownups with fancy manners. When she causes a disaster at a rich upstate pool party, I wanted to cheer.

chelsea-hotel Rips exposes the city elite’s self-delusion of talent. She has a dance teacher who’s obsessed with the avante-garde, and on the first day of class the child is ridiculed for wearing a tutu. The dance program is all “modern” dancing, while the teacher despises kids who want to learn ballet or tap. When I read this chapter, the first thing that entered my mind was Holden Caulfield. The teacher has the same mindset, ranting about “phonies” and overcome with grandiose views of herself, even though she’s only a dance teacher for six-year-olds. Holden would’ve thought she was a genius for turning up her nose at conventional arts, but his sister Pheobe would probably have seen right through her. As for her classmates, the parents are like something out of The Nanny Diaries, pushing their kids to do activities that aren’t age-appropriate.

A lot of the blame goes to the author’s own nutty parents. They don’t get her to school on time, and she nearly gets held back, though her father has plenty of time to play pranks on the local dry cleaners. She gets into LaGuardia High School, that is good, but she still doesn’t fit in. Most of the white kids in the city by 2012 came from rich families. There aren’t a lot of kids in the city who come from families that are educated by not wealthy. It seems as though her parents were steering her chelsea-hotel2towards kids who came from rich families, rather than the ones that have decent social skills. Not all city kids are rich or sophisticated; as a private tutor I saw every kind of city kid, and not all of them push their children to excel.

Trying to Float is a great memoir, a cross between the manic Eloise and the cynical Holden Caulfield. Unlike most memoirs about crazy childhoods, it’s written by an 18 year old, so everything that happens here is still fresh in her mind. There were other children who lived in the Chelsea, like actress Gabby Hoffman, but she left around 1990. I was there twice in my life, once for a friend’s party in one of the rooms, and once while my apartment was being fumigated. Based on what I remember, I would like to have read a better description of the building, the famous art collection, the other things about the neighborhood. The problem is that when you’re a kid you don’t observe things the way an adult would, so it’s difficult to understand the mood.

Kids who grow up in Manhattan are often classed as spoiled and socially precocious, though the author doesn’t fit the stereotype. When compared to other similar writers, she could be part of what I call the “why is that kid here” school of memoir writing. Dalton Conley, author of Honky, was the only white kid in a Lower East Side housing project (obviously not sophisticated) and his memoir is all about social class structure. Then there’s The Basketball Diaries, where the working-class Jim Carrol attends Trinity School, plays basketball, and does heroin. As for MacCaulay Culkin, he hasn’t written a memoir, but his childhood on the Upper East Side involved dysfunctional parents and squalor. Let’s face it, growing up in Manhattan is great or horrible. Trying to Float pulls no punches and gives us both.

My research into the author tells me that her book began with complaints. Someone advised her to write them all down, and the long collection of gripes became her memoir. Currently she and her family live on the Upper East Side while the Chelsea Hotel is being renovated, and according to her, the neighborhood has nothing to do. I didn’t like it much myself when I lived there 17 years ago, and I don’t like it much now.

I wonder if people like her parents would’ve been better off in the Westbeth building, where most of the artists lived. There would’ve been a lot more kids there, and she wouldn’t have been such a misfit. Something tells me Rips will publish another memoir later on. I look forward to it.


Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century

public-housing-that-workedEvery city has its own unique public housing and problems that go with it. New York City has huge high-rises in bad areas, where land is nonetheless at a premium. Chicago had the Robert Taylor high-rises far from the city center, on a strip of land that nobody wanted. New Orleans had the Iberville Houses, only four stories high, and possible the very first of its kind in the USA. Boston had Old Colony, London had Broadwater Farm, and Paris has its “banlieues.” Wherever you go, public housing usually stinks. The questions of this book are as follows; why do they stink, and were there any that worked?

Nicholas Bloom begins with the Depression in the USA, a time when everyone in the USA was broke and desperate for work. In NYC, the crumbling fire-trap tenements needed to be torn down, and with Hoovervilles springing up in Central Park, there was also a need for cheap apartments. Under Mayor LaGuardia there was a lengthily study of this problem, and it led to the founding of NYCHA. The New York City Housing Authority would start with just a few buildings, and for the most part it went well. But as the years went by, NYCHA would build many more buildings and become less adept at managing them.

Bloom defines NYCHA as having higher standards than other cities, but staying cheap without going shoddy. New York City’s public housing does have a higher standard than Chicago, as with the poorly-built projects like James Honer, Robert Taylor, Ida Wells, and Cabrini-Green. Soviet visitors to Chicago once remarked on the poor quality of the Honer buildings, and how such terrible construction would cost a Soviet architect his job (and possible his life too) if he were to skimp on quality. Under Federal laws, the buildings couldn’t be far-off from the main parts of the city, or in an area badly-served by transit. This meant that to cram more people in, NYCHA had to use the high-rise approach, which didn’t foster a sense of neighborhood.

Robert Moses also comes into play here. He didn’t want the public housing in the outer-reaches of the city; that would necessitate bringing public transport all the way to the suburbs. He also designed the Patterson Houses to be occupied by two-parent families, no single moms, prospective tenants had to show their marriage certificate to get in. The wicked Robert Moses thought such a rule would keep unruly tenants out, and for a while, he was right. But here’s where the problem started, one which nobody anticipated. Once the small 1950’s houses came within their means, the regular working people left the projects, replaced by Black and Puerto Rican families. The next wave of tenants didn’t meet the “21 traits” of Robert Moses, and there weren’t enough gainfully-employed two-parent families to fill the buildings. Single mothers on welfare with unruly kids moved in.

Compared to Chicago’s housing and the Pruitt-Igoe houses in St. Louis, NYCHA buildings worked. But just because they’re still standing doesn’t mean they’re any good. They still look horrible, and they still diminish the sense of neighborhood. But unlike the extensive South Side of Chicago, NYC land is limited and costly. That’s the only reason the tenants in the worst buildings don’t move out. Did NYC public housing really work? Maybe, at first, it did.

They Wish They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption

they-wish-they-were-honestIn the late 60’s and early 70’s, New York was probably not “the place to be.” Never mind the rising crime, race riots, and arson; it was a time of anger and mean-spiritedness. You had the Baby-Boomers protesting the Vietnam war, pitted against the “hardhat” WW2 veterans, and the conservative police who hated anyone everyone. The city was bankrupt, defaulted on its bonds, and Mayor Lindsay caved in to striking workers. Could things have been any worse?

they-with-they-were-honest-serpico    “They Wish They Were Honest” is a book about a controversy of the Lindsay era; the Knapp Commission into police corruption. It was spurred by Frank Serpico and David Durk, a pair of NYC cops who went public about all the bribery that was going on. The man in charge was Judge Knapp, and the author of this book, Michael Armstrong, was one of the lawyers on the commission. I was glad to see this book come out, because information on the Knapp Commission is hard to find, even online (the Wikipedia entry is sparse.) But I hadn’t anticipated how the commission was hampered to extremes, regarding investigating the corrupt officers. According to the author, there were major problems from the start. Firstly, the cash-strapped city had a tiny budget to fund the investigation. Secondly, the investigators had to come from outside of the NYPD, so they had to bring them in from the FBI, IRS, Secret Service, Military Police, Army CID, and any other Federal agency that had trained detectives. Secondly, the city had to pay their salaries, no matter how high they were. Third, electronic surveillance was primitive at the time, and the city didn’t have the money for the best gear.

they-with-they-were-honest-phillips    Whatever information the commission gained was valuable in kicking dirty police officers off the force. For starters, it was commonplace to take bribes to scrap speeding tickets, ignore parking violations, and overlook unsafe construction sites. This passive bribe-taking was known as “grass-eating,” and the most common.  A more serious side of bribery was where a tow truck would arrive at the scene of a car crash, and the cop would say “you’d better take care of me if you want to tow this wreck.” Refusal would mean constant harassment from the police. This aggressive form of bribery was known as “meat-eating,” and was found among plainclothes cops who dealt with illegal gambling.

they-withthey-were-honest-phillips2    The “meat-eaters” among the NYPD were the source of the commission’s biggest bust. The investigators knew that Xaviera Hollander, the famous brothel owner, was paying off the cops; she had to, because there was no way she could run a huge prostitution racket without being arrested. The question was, who were the ones that she paid off? Bugs were planted, her place of business was watched, and sure enough they found their meat-eater, Officer Bill Phillips. When confronted, he agreed to testify and rat out other corrupt cops. Soon after, he was linked to the murder of a pimp, convicted, and sentenced to life in jail.

Another problem that the author discusses is the unreliability of a lot of the witnesses. For starters, Officer Serpico, with his large beard and funny mannerisms, made a poor impression. David Durk, the blonde Amherst graduate, made a better impression, but didn’t get anywhere near as much attention as Serpico. Then there was Teddy Ratnoff, a fat and fish-lipped techie who handled all the electronic surveillance. He was deathly afraid of Bill Philips, and may have been involved in some shady dealings himself. Lastly, the tow-truck operator who testified to being extorted by corrupt police officers, told a few fibs of his own while under oath.

Few of the high-ranking police lost their jobs because of the Knapp Commission, mostly the rank-and-file officers were targeted and that amounted to few. For instance, Officers Greenberg and Hantz, the subject of the movie Supercops, had a terrible reputation, with hundreds of complaints for thievery and excessive force. One of their arrests ended in them shooting a driver, and their version of the shooting contradicted the evidence on all counts. The commission was certain it was a murder, but they could not have won the case against a PBA lawyer. Both of them later got into trouble for various offences. Greenberg left the NYPD, was elected to the state assembly on an anti-crime platform, was convicted and jailed for financial fraud, then went to jail again in the late 1980’s. Hantz remained on the NYPD, lost his detective shield for drug use, and retired in the late 1980’s. Nobody knows where they are now.

Most of the problems made public through the Knapp Commission involved bribery, but I suspect that a lot of it ended with the legalization of the lottery. Then the city gave the NYPD a raise, so that may have lessened the incentive to take payoffs. Other changes, such as allowing businesses to open on Sunday, may have removed possible offenses for which store owners would pay off the police. Nowadays, most police complaints have to do with excessive force and not bribery, while the police who get convicted of crimes usually commit them off-duty. However, it’s easier to get a conviction for theft and bribery than excessive force. Sovereign immunity plays a big part in excusing a police officer who beats a handcuffed suspect. But with bribery, it’s much easier to prove, and if the Knapp Commission investigators had iPhones, I bet there would have been a lot more officers losing their jobs.

Just Kids

just-kids“Just Kids” is predated by a 1995 biography of Maplethorpe and his relationship with Patti Smith. It takes you back to an era when bohemian life was possible, when there wasn’t a great obsession with being a success, and people were satisfied with less. It was the 1960’s, a time when there were cheap apartments, abundant jobs, but also greater dangers. It wasn’t a safe time to be in Manhattan, but if you didn’t look like you had money, you might survive. If you did survive, life could be quite fun.

Patti Smith came from a liberal family in a conservative town near Philadelphia. At the start of the memoir, she doesn’t fit in with local mores and norms, so she takes a bus to Brooklyn and expects to stay with friends near the Pratt Institute. When she gets there, they’ve moved out, so she couch surfs and ends up with a dropout artist named Robert, who might be gay. For the next four years, they hop from one dirt-cheap pad to the next, eating one meal a day, and making art from cast-off junk.

just-kids-2   The title of “Just Kids” is perfect for the book. It’s about young people doing what all young people dream of; living far from their parents, doing whatever they want, not having a care in the world, working just enough to support themselves. All those things were possible in 1968 New York. Rent was cheap, and as long as you didn’t carry any valuables, you were relatively safe. Nowadays, however, I can’t see any of this happening. If Patti and Robert had come to New York City (or even Brooklyn) in 2013, they’d never be able to live this way. The only cheap apartments are in the worst neighborhoods, and it would be a long commute from anything they’d want to do. The commute to work would be long, and you’d never be able to have an apartment on a bookstore clerk’s salary. Would they mind living six to a tiny apartment in Williamsburg? Would they mind commuting from Brighton Beach all the way to midtown? Would they be happy without an iPhone, a laptop, internet, gym membership, the latest footwear?

Bohemian life doesn’t flourish in this city the way it did in the 60’s. Most of the so-called “hipsters” live on money from their parents. You’ve got to remember, patti and Robert wear a mix-and-match of whatever they can get. Today’s “hipsters” wear expensive clothing, eat in costly restaurants, and have high-priced technology.

I give this book 4 stars instead of 5, only because it’s repetitive. There’s too much name-dropping about all her favorite poets, and that distracts from things. I would have like to have seen a greater description of the physical aspect of New York at the time.