Society and Culture

How Creatives Can Save New York

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Last night, my lovely editors here at Law Street sent me to cover PEN America’s “Talking Transitions” event. Go, they said. It will be interesting, they said.

Fuck yeah it was!

Basically, a whole bunch of writers gathered in a super-fancy tent at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, and addressed Mayor-Elect de Blasio town hall style. One by one, they got up on stage, and read approximately three-minute speeches about how they’d like to see him differentiate his administration from Bloomberg’s.

Yes, every single person read their speech. Writers, am I right? We could all use a serious public speaking class.

Anyway! There were about 20 or so speakers, addressing an audience of maybe a hundred. And there were tons of professional photographers trolling about, not to mention an incredibly expensive looking video camera set up in the back. Very official. I’m hoping the videotape will ultimately be sent to Mayor de Blasio, since he—shocker!—was not in attendance last night.

Bill de Blasio

No show. Courtesy of Jon Mannion via Flickr.

So why should all you legal junkies care about a bunch of writers gathering to bitch about Bloomberg? Like, don’t we all do that in our apartments every night, sans fancy cameras?

Yes. Yes, we do. But here’s why you should care.

PEN America is a surprisingly influential group of people. Its member list is huge, and includes people like Toni Morrison, David Sedaris, and (really?) Molly Ringwald. This is an organization with clout, and it’s got a little army of writers whose words literally have power to influence public policy.

Also, most of the speakers were politically focused and highly self-aware. Last night wasn’t about flowers and poetry, it was about policy.

Let’s get into that, shall we?

yespleaseFirst of all—a quick note about the speakers. Being who I am, I took a little tally as they each graced the stage, and discovered that, while the majority were women (represent!), all but two of them were white. Only four people of color spoke in total last night. We can do better than that, can’t we? Also, every single speaker was normatively gendered. No queerness anywhere in sight.

PEN, you’re fabulous, but please step up your diversity efforts, mmkay?

Moving right along! Issues of affordable housing, gentrification, and unethical (actually racist, let’s just be real here) policing were all major themes throughout the night.

Sergio de la Pava, a public defender by day and an award-winning novelist by night, made the excellent point that, while actual crime rates have never been lower, New York City’s arrest rate has gone up by 20 percent.

Which is a fact that makes absolutely no sense. Except for the fact that different zip codes are policed differently— unjustly funneling poor people, queer people, and people of color into poverty, substance abuse, and the prison industrial complex, regardless of whether or not they’re actually criminals.

So really, while de la Pava was up there talking about crime rates, he was really talking about racism.

“It’s of little use if New York City is the most diverse city in the world,” he said, “if its prison population is monochromatic.”

Got it, de Blasio? End the racism of the Bloomberg era. End it now.

Affordable housing and gentrification were big talking points last night as well, introduced by none other than super-rich philanthropist George Soros. He claimed, accurately, that New York is a city “where decent housing can’t be found for less than two thousand dollars,” and that’s not the kind of environment that breeds creativity, innovation, or community.

Or really, anything other than a gated community of asinine gazillionaires who are in love with the status-quo.

George Soros

George Soros, philanthropist extraordinaire. Courtesy of Niccolo Caranti via Flickr.

But last night’s speakers didn’t stop at telling de Blasio what needed to change. They also told him how to do it.

Masha Hamilton, a novelist who just came back from spending the last 16 months as the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, told de Blasio exactly what to do.

Put a poet on his communications team. A street artist on the Housing Authority.

Why? Because according to Hamilton, artists are innovators. “It’s part of their job description to help us dream up new solutions,” she said.

It’s the creative community—that is currently getting crowded out of this overpriced, over-policed city—that can save New York City from itself. Or, more specifically, from corrupt, elitist assholes like lame duck Mayor Bloomberg.

So, what do you think de Blasio should do to improve New York City? Do you want a street artist on the Housing Authority?

Blow it up in the comments!

Featured image courtesy of [Tom Roeleveld via Flickr]

Hannah R. Winsten
Hannah R. Winsten is a freelance copywriter, marketing consultant, and blogger living in New York’s sixth borough. She hates tweeting but does it anyway. She aspires to be the next Rachel Maddow. Contact Hannah at



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