Old School NYC Shapes An Anarchist

Old School

“People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.”
– Oscar Wilde

i was born in Kings County NYC otherwise known as the Peoples Republic of Brooklyn NYC to a Jamaican father and a Puerto Rican mother. When i was two my parents bought a small two bedroom house in Cambria Heights Queens. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on my mothers side still lived in Brooklyn and so i spent a lot of time between the boroughs of Kings and Queens. At 11 we moved again, this time to Jamaica Queens. It was around this time that i fell in love with comic books and started to take drawing seriously. i wanted to be a comic book artist. At 12 i took a test to get into a specialized High School in NYC, the High School Of Music & Art and got in.

When people ask me where i grew up i tell them i grew up in three out of the five boroughs of NYC, i was raised by Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The High School Of Music & Art was in Manhattan and at the tender age of 13 i took the subway from 179th Street in Jamaica Queens to 135th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem. It was 1982 and NYC was a very different place then. The city had been falling apart for years. City blocks were pock marked with abandon buildings and open lots. The paint on riveted steel elevated train track peeled as rust crept across the surface. Chunks of pavement from bridges crumbled and dropped into the East River. Strange liquids dripped from pipes coagulating in thick puddles on subway platforms. Landlords burned down apartment buildings, warehouses and factories for insurance money. The city went around marking the remains of those hulking shells with a boxed “X” as a symbol of condemnation. You could smell the city decaying around you. The disintegration was visceral it rubbed up against you even as you tried to avoid it.

The seeds of this collapse were sown in the 70’s with the bankruptcy of the city. In a last ditch effort in 1975 NYC looked to the Federal government for a bail out. President Ford at the time refused to do it prompting the infamous NY Daily News headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. In the aftermath of Ford’s refusal to help, and as the ink dried on the obituaries that were being written for NYC a chaotic and violent rebirth outside of financial concerns was taking place…

The idealism of the 60’s had given way to the militancy of the 70’s. The state responded to this militancy with the assassinations and the imprisonment of militants and radicals. The 80’s became a reactionist void of the previous twenty years. These assassinations and imprisonments were a warning and as the decade of the 80’s turned, radicals became reformers and agitators became activists. As the politics failed people turned to culture.

Hip-hop in NYC was a response and a reaction of Black and Puerto Rican youth left in the void of the failed promises of 60’s idealism and 70’s militancy. In the remaining oxygen of that void the frustration of it all creates a friction that lights a spark and from that ignition the phoenix of Hip-hop rose. While the powers that be did their best to forget the suffering masses that clamored for change, a new cultural resistance was taking shape. With the city broke the first casualties of the financial crisis were, of course, poor and working class Black and Puerto Rican families. Hip-hop was the response that Black and Puerto Rican youth developed to keep from being ignored. It was the rallying cry that existed, not as a means of being recognized by the outside world, but as a means of defining themselves within the void.

NYC in the 70’s and 80’s was a dangerous place but like most dangerous places it had a shifting set of complex customs that teetered on the precipice of becoming street law. These malleable street laws moved with a fluidity to a kind of off time rhythm. If you kept your eyes and ears open, you could sense the changes coming and you could ride the rhythm, you could figure out how to navigate the danger and you could apply the corresponding customs that would lead you to safety. There were certain neighborhoods in NYC that were for all intents and purposes were stateless. Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg, East New York, Harlem, Loisiada, El Barrio, Washington Heights, Jamaica were like these pockets of stateless territories. Nobody trusted the police and people would call a cab before they called an ambulance. The state had affectively cut off whole communities and left them to their own devices…

This isolation and poverty of the ghettos of NYC gave way to innovation and creativity. An autonomy developed in these blighted areas that refused to remain confined to the ghetto. The black out in the summer of 1977 created an opportunity for many a ghetto youth to liberate two turntables and a microphone, as well as a mixer, a PA system and a bunch of records. Graffiti artist created flyers for illegal park jams that stole electricity from street lights to power turntables and sound systems. The modern day graffiti explosion that left shrapnel on trains, buses, trucks and walls as reminder of who and what was left behind. It was a reminder both to those that who had grown out of their idealism and grown away from their militancy as well as those who wanted to further exile these problem communities, so that they could forget. B-Boys and B-girls took over street corner plaza train stations with cardboard mats or stolen pieces of linoleum flooring to break dance. Boomboxes went off on street corner park subway stations like portable protracted explosions.

NYC in the 80’s is where i grew up. The Nuyorican Poets had already rican-structed and rican-figured the written and spoken word and The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron smacked Hip-Hop in the ass in order to get it to takes it first breath. That cry was heard in the “outer” boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and in the “inner” borough of Money Makin’ Manhattan, Hip-hop was spreading to epidemic proportions. While the downtown Punk scene looked to Jazz and experimental music to lead it into a new form called No Wave, i opened my eyes to the possibilities. While the nouveau riche Wall Street money flooded the New York art scene making it possible for artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat to go from scrawling cryptic poetry in doorways to selling canvases at the Mary Boone Gallery in Soho, i was absorbing the vibe that anything could happen in New York Shitty…

This was the NYC i grew up in. This was the current of electricity that ran through my formative years. Looking back on it now NYC seemed stateless to me. No one called the police in NYC because the police were trusted less than the criminals. With the criminals you knew what you were getting with the cops it could go either way… In a strange way it was like living in a Dickens novel… “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Between the art that people were living and the stateless state of NYC the seeds of anarchism were being sown.

Growing up in the NYC of Mayors Beame, Koch and Dinkins was like growing up in an autonomous playground. This city fostered anti-authoritarian thinking because you could only count on yourself, your family, your friends and your neighbors. The state was not something you looked to. It forced independence on you and the community around you. The reason Frank knew that you if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere was because in NYC you made your own rules, your made your own way. To reference Frank again, NYC is the reason Sid covered ‘My Way’. When i look back on it now it was the old school NYC that shaped me into anarchism. It was the artistic creative turbulence of those times that fertilized my antiauthoritarianism. It was the chaos of my youth that made me the anarchist i am today.


5 thoughts on “Old School NYC Shapes An Anarchist”

  1. I grew up in a very different place and time, where wheat feilds and mountain tops were the only things that kept me from losing my mind to the monotnous sound of political rhetoric. I had not heard of New York city, or east coast hip hop until I was in my twenties raising my first child.
    This music still fosters anarchy today, within my own heart and mind, and now the heart and mind of my eleven year old son. Thank you for carrying on this tradition in a time where being on a farm does not mean being closed off to the fact that the empire is failing us all.
    I grow seeds of resistance with plants not infected with a terminator gene, and am constantly honored to hear and inspired by your words.
    From all the farmers who are willing to break out of the shell of Patriotic repression and hear your words of experience, thank you!

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