Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Hardly Recognize my Neighborhood

My typically quiet and quirky neighborhood is transformed this morning by 30,000 do-gooders in running shorts, by helicopters, police and army cadets, and former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. The bombast, jumbo screens and loud speakers are part of the annual Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers run, taking place in more than 35 cities this year (I learn this from the announcer whose voice is carried right to my desk through my open windows). The starting line is marked with a piece of metal scavenged from the WTC site. It's an event founded to commemorate the life of Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Battery Park Tunnel (which leaves Brooklyn only a few blocks from where I live) to the World Trade Center on September 11 to help evacuate occupants of the towers and died. This run and the "In the Name of Love" and "In the Line of Duty" programs were set up by the foundation to raise money to support those in the fire department, police department or armed services who have lost their faculties or loved ones in service. In short, my cozy neighborhood, full of independent-thinking shop-owners, restauranteurs, carpenters, writers, architects and ne'er-do'wells is overrun with a class of Americans it has moved here to be separate from. It feels like an invasion. An inescapable version of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" echoes off the warehouses and brick buildings that abut the Red Hook fire hall. Now the national anthem. "Rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air." Deafening cheers to the long note held with "free." And bells rung for those who died.

Behind all the sentiment extended to "heroes and victims" is an undercurrent of American nationalism that is inseparable from any 9/11 event, a wave of self-love that masks and prevents the necessary self-examination the US should be undergoing right now. Barricades block the roads, buses come and go, firemen in full dress walk in hordes, American flags bob in the air. A beach ball bounces above the crowd. "We're a country that comes together to 'never forget' those who died in service. We take care of our heroes and their families. We're strong enough to weather any storm." It's a powerful idea, that we are a cohesive nation that knows how to love the most vulnerable, to protect our own, to remain an isolated bastion of peace and hope" in the midst of 21st century turmoil. But it's a myth. A powerful one that really only serves the purposes of the state and it's structures: the police department, homeland security, corporate entities, the existing gridlocked political system. It scares me.

And it scares my neighbors. As I sit on the corner of Van Brunt and Dikeman reading the Sunday paper and drinking a cup of deli coffee, unwilling to give up my Sunday morning routine, hundreds of Army cadets ran past in crisp rows. Their grey shirts and shorts emblazoned with "ARMY." A german friend joins me on the corner as they all trot past. "What is this, a fascist state?" he blurts. The announcer thanks CBS News for its coverage.

The "Tunnel to Towers" event starts in the Ikea parking lot here in Red Hook and travels past the Wall Street squatters, past the World Trade Center site, and ends at the UPS shipping facility near West and Greenwich streets. It costs $50 dollars to register for the run, $75 if you do so late. The announcer tells us, the participants and the residents alike, at a giant decibel, that the organization is building 38 homes for victims' families. "Couldn't they just rent?" I think.

What does this outpouring of charity and sentimentality mean amidst discussion of a bankrupt nation (we're not bankrupt, we've got plenty of money, we just spend it unwisely)? Amidst failing schools and disintegrating infrastructure? Against the backdrop of a political discussion about how to best care for the "most vulnerable." One block away from the hoopla stand the Red Hook Houses, an extensive project complex that along with the BQE divides Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. The juxtaposition of thousands who have paid $50 dollars to build homes for soldiers' families and scream at the world "free" to the systemic impoverishment (financial and more) of so many minority others is stark. Who defines "vulnerable," "hero," "victim?" Who is entitled to this outpouring of emotion, to both give and receive such attention and care?

If you call it charity it deserves canned Michael Jackson and cheering shoppers. Consumers of sentimentality. If you call it a social service, it's a beast that deserves to be starved. That's our current "home of the brave."

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