Occupy Wall Street

October 3, 2011

I work a block or two north of Zucotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street demonstration has been going on.  When I checked it last time, a couple of weeks ago, there was a young woman holding up a sign saying, “Blame Barney Frank!”  Hmm…better choose your targets more carefully, sister, is what I thought.  Today, the crowd, many of them encamped, was much larger, and the slogans were various.

A generally scruffy bunch – goes with sleeping outside in a park, I guess – some with pretty wacked out messages.  A wondering crank denouncing adultery was on his own.  More common were protesters against The Federal Reserve System, fiat money, central banking generally, and so on.  This group is heavily influenced by the intellectual wing of the anti-establishment wave, some of which sloshes in the Tea Party’s cups, and is libertarian, pro-silver, and a bit loony as far as I can tell.

Most of the people were simply angry at the usual and well documented offenses of “Wall Street.”  Oversize-bonuses for CEOs while people get evicted from homes; hand-outs, bailouts, guarantees, and golden parachutes for the financial élite while most people hunker down and suffer.  The capture of government and politics by the super-rich, and so on.  One sign that I liked a lot said, “Lay off CEOs, not teachers.”  Pretty good idea, pretty simple.

There was a man there making buttons with a T-shirt that said Un-Locke America, and had a picture of venerable John Locke with an international ‘NO’ sign on top of his face.  “A pretty smart guy, but a schmuck,” is how the man described the granddad of British Empiricism and the intellectual godfather of our American bourgeois revolution.  In particular, he took issue with Locke’s ideas of natural rights, and property rights being prior to all governmental arrangements.  That was all a convenient assumption for a 17th century philosopher to make, and so very congenial to his patrons and his class.


September 3, 2011

These days, I have garbage and economic cartels on my mind.  And Wall Street, of course.

In New York, the Department of Sanitation picks up residential garbage, but commercial waste is disposed of by private carters.  In the 1950s, the Department still picked up commercial waste on residential streets, i.e. streets that mixed apartments and businesses, but they discontinued that policy which opened up a vast market for private carters.  The Mob saw a great opportunity and moved in with force.

Until the late 1990s, the Mob controlled the collection and disposal of commercial waste with a cartel that all businesses were required to join.  Refusal was not a viable option.  It was, as they said, “A beautiful thing.”  Recalcitrant trash haulers were intimidated, firebombed, or beaten to a pulp.  Members of the club charged businesses exorbitant rates:  three, four, five, ten times what the cost would be in a market with competitive bids.  If any business protested, mom and pop grocer or Fortune Five Hundred multi-national, the answer was the same:  “Pay up!  Who youse gonna call?”

If a carter got out of line and actually submitted a bid for service that was below the cartel price, the Mob came down hard.  If the carter actually won the job, taking the “stop” from a cartel member, howls of protest were heard:  “He stole my stop!”  Restitution would be paid, or the stop would be forfeited.  The heavies in the cartel would try to set the rebel straight.  Submitting low bids did nobody any good.  It only ‘educated’ the customer that the price structure was simple gouging.  “And when that happens, who wins?  The customer wins”  Can’t have that!  It was the American way.  As the gangsters liked to say, “Hey, it’s a free country!”

I learned all this from a book called Takedown:  The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.  It’s an in-depth recounting of a three-year NYC undercover operation that resulted in the complete destruction of the mob cartel.  It began by chance, when a detective interviewed an honest carter who just wouldn’t knuckle under:  some thugs walked in and asked who he was.  The carter, thinking fast, and knowing that being caught talking to a cop was a death sentence, said “That’s my cousin Danny.”  Thus was Rick Cowan, Irish NYC detective transformed into Danny Benedetto, member of a large Italian-American family that had been in the wastepaper business for generation.  He carried a wire and worked himself into the cartel for years, living a double life that I cannot imagine.  As Danny, he paid enormous amounts of extortion to the Mob, and got it all recorded.  The principals, among the Alphonse “Allie Shades” Malangone at the top, were convicted, fined, imprisoned, and debarred from the industry in perpetuity.

Reading this book, I reflected on the similarities between the mob cartel and the wall street cartel.  They both have beautiful things going.  Wall Street buys the politicians, makes the rules, comes up with derivatives that serve no purpose other than to generate massive fees, produces junk mortgages, and it’s all legal.  Transparency is anathema them all.  But what really got me, was a certain catch phrase.  When a cartel member was bumped from an account by an honest low bid, the cry was,  you have to make me whole! That is, pay me extortion to compensate me for loosing my good deal.  I thought I heard that during the Bear-Stearns debacle.

“In this room are people who have built this firm and lost a lot, our fortunes,” one Bear executive said to Mr. Dimon with anger in his voice. “What will you do to make us whole?”

After the takedown, prices for commercial waste collection in NYC fell by 40%, and in some cases much more.  The service vacuum left by the exit of the mob outfits was filled by big companies coming in, and they promptly began to raise their prices.  As a friend of mine who is an expert said on an NPR production about the topic a few years ago, prices are nearly back where they were under the cartel.  And the carter who started it all remarked, “The only difference between the Majors and the Boys is that the Majors won’t really kill you.”  Well…that’s a pretty big difference even so.

This is an excellent book to read if you want to know what the Mob is really like.

Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.

Triangle Shirtwaist

March 24, 2011


Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.  In that blaze, more than 140 female workers in the ‘needle trades’ lost their lives, many forced to jump from burning windows to their deaths on the hard pavement below.  The workers were mostly young women, many were just teenage girls, of Jewish immigrant families.  The stories and newspaper images of the women’s horrible deaths deeply shocked the entire city, and brought about serious changes in fire safety regulation, as well as spurring important activism by garment workers’ unions.  

The building was sturdy and withstood the blaze, while everything inside was incinerated.  There were no fire escapes, and many internal doors were locked shut to prevent the workers from taking breaks away from their stations.  Such was sweatshop life in those days. 

This was my grandmother’s generation.  My father’s mother was one of five sisters.  The eldest supported the younger ones by working in such places.  One story I recently heard was that one of my favorite (great) aunts refused to go into the trades when her time came – she stayed in school and then high tailed it for California.  Her older sister resented her action for the next sixty  years.  Such choices they faced!

Today the building sits smack dab in the middle of the student scene around Washington Square Park and NYU.

Along the waterfront

September 12, 2010

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A walk down the Hudson River shoreline of Manhattan, from 125th Street to about 65th Street.  The driftwood sculptures just appear there – I don’t know who makes them.  Riverside Church does battle with the Dog of Satan.  Signs of Drainage are present, as always.


August 13, 2010

On the way out of the city, approaching the on-ramp to the George Washington Bridge, I managed to snap a picture of one of my favorite places in NY, although it isn’t a good photo.  I was driving with one hand and clicking with the other.  It’s the back view of a three-level basement to a small apartment building that looks for all the world like a dungeon or a piece of fortification in an Italian hill town.

Gangs of New York

April 5, 2010

The neighborhood of Five Points, an intersection in lower Manhattan now occupied by the Federal Courthouse and Foley Square, is the setting of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York. Basically a simple revenge tale, it attempts to impart epic stature to the history of rioting, mayhem, and ethnic gangs in NYC of the Civil War era.  The art direction is fantastic, almost too good.  Everything seems just right, too right.  Like a stage set, a movie set.  I wonder, did it really look like this?  I couldn’t shake myself of the feeling that it didn’t, that it was just too good to look at, too interesting to be believable, although I did love the costumes.

Daniel Day Lewis, an actor of amazing intensity, plays Bill Cutting, a Nativist, Know-Nothing, anti-immigrant gang leader who loves  to wreak violent havoc on poor Irish newcomers to America.  (He speaks with a Noo Yawk accent, and you expect him to come out with De Niro’s line from Taxi Driver:  You talkin’ to me?)  He regards himself as a “real American.”  Leonardo Di Caprio plays a young man who witnessed Cutting’s killing of his father during a legendary gang battle that established Cutting’s dominance in the Five Points when he was a young boy.  Sixteen years later the boy, now a man, returns, incognito, for revenge.  He insinuates himself into the good graces of Cutting, tries and fails to kill him, and finally forms a rival Irish gang.  In a final confrontation, he takes his revenge and slices up the killer of his father.  For some critics, this justifies the encomium, Shakespearean.

The movie is another love song to violence and gangs by an incorrigibly romantic director who seems bewitched by the notion that in violence, the essence of our humanity is laid bare.  Why not in gathering nuts to eat, I wonder?  Not so much fun for movie makers.   In the finale, the two gang leaders recognize themselves as having membership in a common tribe, the bounds of which transcend religious bigotry.  Yes, they are both violent thugs, and their world is crushed by the arrival of blue-coated Union troops that put down the draft riots that wracked NYC for five days.  (Largely Irish, the rioters were fueled by resentment that moneyed folks could buy an exemption to the draft for $300.  The history of racial integration in the area was ended when the mobs turned their anger on free blacks and lynched many of them.)  Oh for the days when men were men, killed with axes, knives, and clubs, and were not automatons in well-drilled ranks, with rifles and fixed bayonets. (The gang battles are depicted like confrontations between chivalrous, if brutal knights leading their loyal retainers.)  A few rioters go mad with rage and charge the troops – they are shot to pieces, and their deaths are portrayed as a martyrdom.

In the end, we are shown the graves of Cutting and the boy’s father, “Priest” Vallon, side by side, sharing a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Vague noises are made about how such people gave birth to our fair city.  Well, they were a part of its history, perhaps a forgotten part, as the narration says, but they no more built the city by thieving, brawling, whoring, and murdering than did Boss Tweed by perfecting his political machine and his “honest” grand larceny.  Or they all did, with a lot of others.  But preoccupied with the world-view of turf-obsessed thugs, Scorsese seems to believe that gangs like the Dead Rabbits and The Bowery Boys were, as the Marxists like to say of the proletariat, the true object of history.