On Puerto Rican Pride

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It’s that time of year again. Today, thousands and thousands of Boricuas line up alongside Manhattan’s 5th Avenue for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, a bombastic celebration of the tiny island and its culture.  A seemingly endless stream of floats trickles down the avenue, with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony in tow.  The sounds of salsa, merengue and reggaeton fill the air; people dance in the streets.  Puerto Rican flags wave wildly as far as the eye can see and adorn nearly every article of clothing.

[Image Credit: Adam Pantozzi via Flickr]

Puerto Rican pride is unparalleled.  Observing other parades or even nationalist marches, I have rarely seen such fierce pride demonstrated.  And for Puerto Ricans it really doesn’t end with the parade. After today, the flags don’t disappear, but merely redistribute themselves throughout the city, to be hung on walls, clipped onto bicycle handlebars, draped onto car hoods, stood on desks, or occasionally worn as capes.

I have long wondered about what drives the ferocity of this pride.  For example, Why do I, a Puerto Rican born and raised on the mainland, and countless others possess such glowing nationalism for an island many of us have never lived in?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Puerto Rico is not a nation, but a Commonwealth territory of the United States, a special relationship that is almost entirely unique in the world.  Puerto Ricans receive federal benefits, such as welfare, but have no elected representatives in the U.S. Congress, and thus pay no federal income tax.  Procedural government is almost entirely autonomous on the island – the Governor has all the institutional authority of a president – yet the U.S. government retains military jurisdiction and can enlist Puerto Ricans to fight American wars, as was done in both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and countless other conflicts.

Any person from any developing nation that has visited Puerto Rico will comment on what they see as the undeniable benefits the island has received as a result of its special relationship with the United States.  They will marvel at the relatively higher standard of living and invariably make a remark along these lines:  “Puerto Rico reminds me so much of my home country…except the roads are better.”

Of course, Puerto Ricans themselves don’t see it this way.  Ask us about the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when 20 people were killed and hundreds wounded when police opened fire on Puerto Rican nationalist demonstrators.  Ask us about the mass sterilization campaign,whereby the U.S. initiated a program that sterilized 1/3 of all Puerto Rican females by 1965.    Ask us about the 60-year U.S. Naval occupation of the island of Vieques, where explosives testing occasionally took lives and where toxic materials left behind were argued to be causing serious health problems.  Today, ask any Puerto Rican about their island and they will lament the brain drain that has resulted as educated Puerto Ricans freely moved to the mainland, leaving behind an island prone to economic stagnation and crime.  Today, there are more Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States than on the island.

Which makes the whole Puerto Rican pride question all the more interesting.  Formally, the Puerto Rican flag is never flown independently of the American flag.  The Teodoro Moscoso Bridge in San Juan is almost a celebration of the special relationship, with hundreds of American and Puerto Rican flags flanking its edges.  It is this constant juxtaposition, this understanding of Puerto Rico only within the shadow of its American benefactor/exploiter, that fuels the burning pride that blazes up and down 5th Avenue each year, and throughout wholly acculturated Puerto Rican households across the U.S., and on the island daily.

I recently came up with a parallel involving the relationship between Manhattan and its outer boroughs.  Borough residents are all proud New Yorkers, but the undeniable attention lavished upon the borough of Manhattan leads to a sense of discomfort.  The borough communities and cultures are wholly different, and to lump them in with Carrie Bradshaw and Gossip Girl would rightly send shivers down any borough resident’s spine.  As a result, borough pride is through the roof, no matter how much time is spent in Manhattan.  To represent your borough is to celebrate your distinction from the Manhattan ideology, to show that you have your own style, your own food, your own music, your own culture.  Yet borough residents love as much as anyone to bask in the collective glory of New York, while strategically disowning some of the more criticized aspects of Manhattan life.

Puerto Ricans have settled into a nice 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where they can both preserve their culture and embrace that of the United States.  They can go to the MoMa or stay at the Brooklyn Museum.  They can unce-unce in the meat-packing district or hit up a dancehall party in Flatbush.  They can shop chic in SoHo or thrift it up at Beacon’s Closet.  And lest anyone get confused, they’ll never hesitate to let you know where they come from.

Which is all to say that I believe the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, which paves the way for Puerto Ricans to decide between statehood, independence and the status quo, will end as similar initiatives have in the past, with a resolution to continue as a commonwealth.

Boricuas have carved out a space where we can embrace the best of the United States while preserving our culture,  waving a Puerto Rican flag  and lamenting el tirano.  It may seem funny, but I think we’ll continue to do it proudly.

Posted on June 13th 2010 in ideas, news

Public Pianos come to NYC!

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Music, good or bad, will soon flow freely through New York City.  Since 2008, artist Luke Jerram has been around the world dropping pianos off in public spaces for anyone to hop on the ebony and the ivory.  And this summer the pianos are coming to NYC! (they’ll also be in London and Bath)

Public Piano

[Image Source: Luke Jerram via The Village Voice]

The initiative, dubbed Play Me, I’m Yours, will place 60 pianos throughout the five boroughs with the help of Sing for Hope, a collaborative of musicians that volunteer for humanitarian causes.  They will be out from June 21st – July 5th, so click here for complete maps of where each piano will be located and get out there and jam.

I wonder how they will deal with the weather.  And I would imagine theft would also be a concern.  But seeing as how they are not my pianos, I could care less.

There is going to be one piano right in my backyard at Gantry Plaza State Park.  I might have to go out there and show off my Hot Cross Buns.  Hopefully others with more talent will also be out in tow.

Posted on May 28th 2010 in Artful Impact

Artful Impact: If Manhattan ate strictly local

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I prefer my videos with a little music, but this silent film created by MVRDV is pretty damn cool.  It demonstrates the spatial implications if Manhattan were to attempt to grow all of its food on the island of Manhattan.

Money fact: growing it all in a single building would require a 23 mile-high skyscraper.

[Props: good]

Posted on March 7th 2010 in Artful Impact

Sharing cabs: been there, loved that

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In case you missed it, New York City has begun experimenting with cab sharing:

…the New York City taxi ride — one of the city’s few remaining redoubts of solitude — will go communal. Up to four passengers will be able to share a yellow taxi ride, car-pool style, along three preset routes in Manhattan.

The flat fare will be $3 or $4 a head, significantly less than the regular metered rates, and riders can ask to be dropped off at most points along the route. The shared rides, which will pick up passengers at designated taxi stands, will be allowed only on weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m.

At first I was skeptical.  There is talk about how the practice of sharing cabs is commonplace in D.C., but that is because cabs there used to operate using zones, with designated fees for the neighborhoods travelled to, instead of meters.  Higher fares and certainty gave incentive to share.  If you know you are going to pay $16 to get anywhere in Logan Circle, it’s easy to find a couple other bums heading that way willing to split the cost.  But it wasn’t universally loved.

Cab sharing seemed less natural in New York because you never knew exactly what the cost might be.  It’s hard enough to fairly split a cab with a friend when your destinations have approximately 68% of the route in common and the fare is yet-to-be-determined.  Imagine trying it with multiple strangers.

But a predetermined route with a flat fare made sense to me after I realized that it wasn’t particularly that innovative.  I first saw it during my semester in South Africa in 2003, where the majority of residents live in townships and slums outside of the urban centers.  Taxis are prohibitively expensive for most people and buses are not that much better.

Entrepreneurial South Africans started cab sharing businesses.  They bought Volkswagon kombis and began running predetermined routes in and out of the city center, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.  They are creatively crammed in – around 16 riders is pretty standard, but I read about one that managed to squeeze in 38 people!  The fares are a fraction of the cost of any other form of transportation.

As a matter of fact, the practice has long existed in New York.  All day, every day, unmarked Dollar Vans drive recklessly up and down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.  They weave in and out of traffic, veer to the curb without warning, slide the door open, out hops a resident from Prospect Lefferts Gardens right in front of the Atlantic Center, and off goes the van.  The whole thing has the appearance of a sting operation in some bad movie.

Formal cab sharing in New York is being piloted on a limited basis.  And now that D.C. started using meters, cab-sharing is only officially available from Union Station.  It seems constraining to try choose the routes.  There doesn’t seem to be much value added by a cab-sharing route running down Park Ave, directly on top of the 6 train, and there may be signs that D.C. riders are still craving the option to share in other areas.

So I say let the practice evolve on its own.  As in Brooklyn and South Africa, the routes where it can work will emerge organically; it actually already happened in Manhattan.  And who knows?  Cab sharing may just become an art.

Check out these bonus links:

Posted on March 3rd 2010 in news

Commuting patterns by city

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The Infrastructurist put together the cool graphic below, which breaks down the different modes of commuting in some of America’s big cities.

Money facts:

  • NYC, naturally, has the highest proportion of public transportation users
  • DC puts forth the biggest chunk of walkers
  • Houston may have the highest proportion of drivers, but it also has the highest proportion of carpoolers

[Image source: The Infrastructurist]

    Posted on February 22nd 2010 in news

    It’s time to get on the bus


    Brownstoner noted last week that the NYC DOT received a big chunk of federal cash to continue implementing its Select Bus Service, and has now begun work on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.  The idea is to move towards creating dedicated bus lanes that operate more like trains, with prepaid fares and near independence from non-bus traffic on the street.

    [Image Source: Brownstoner]

    It is modelled after the TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia, which the city has been studying for years.  You can read more about it here, courtesy of Good.  You can also check out a video, courtesy of StreetFilms.

    [Image Source: Rail for the Valley]

    This is the real answer to our urban transportation woes.  While we’d all love to see a modern train system, building new transit infrastructure is costly and politically difficult.  The oft-ridiculed 2nd Avenue Subway is a case-in-point.  In contrast, buses are easy and more efficient to maintain and implementation would be much cheaper.  And we’ve done a pretty decent job at making them more energy efficient.

    There is also potential for service improvements and increased revenue, a smart choice given the MTA’s interminable budget problems.  The city piloted the Select Bus Service on Fordham Road in the Bronx and found that it reduced travel times by over 20% and increased ridership by 7%.

    We may have to forgo our dreams of 21st century trains and just continue perfecting that 17th century breakthrough, the bus.

    Posted on February 11th 2010 in news

    Fewer sticks. Next: tastier carrots

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    Finally.  The city signals its intent to rely less on the criminal justice system as a first resort for teens:

    The Bloomberg administration plans to merge the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice into its child welfare agency, signaling a more therapeutic approach toward delinquency that will send fewer of the city’s troubled teenagers to jail.

    Research, such as the 1998 Department of Justice study on what works in crime prevention, has demonstrated that arresting juveniles for minor offenses can cause them to become more delinquent.  This is something I believe we’ve understood for some time.  As last, someone is acting on it.  The NYTimes outlines the city’s plan:

    Juvenile offenders, usually between the ages of 11 and 16, are typically in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice before trial and sentencing. The department, which handles about 5,500 offenders a year, places them in group homes or in one of three detention centers. A judge’s typical options at sentencing are to release offenders on probation or send them to one of the state’s juvenile prisons or residential facilities run by nonprofit organizations.

    Under the new plan, city officials will more frequently recommend to a judge that a young person be allowed to return home, provided the family submits to intensive visits by therapists and social workers supervised by the Administration for Children’s Services [ACS].

    Of course, this means that we have to make sure ACS has their house in order.  With petty crimes, it is most often an issue of creating a home environment that promotes high expectations, structure and discipline.  When kids turn to crime, they are likely channeling frustration at some deficiency in other support structures.  Kids may steal to compensate for low household income.  They may hang with crowds that provide a familial atmosphere, but lack the expectation-setting and authority needed to influence behavior.  Real crime prevention strategies must look beyond the offender: jobs, schools, extracurriculars, etc.

    This is ACS’s burden, and it is far more challenging than tossing teens in jail.  We must focus on these programs and dispense with the ‘soft-on-crime’ stuff that easily creeps into our mayoral elections.

    Posted on January 21st 2010 in news
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