Living in the Shadow of Yankee Stadium

The cheers this week for the Yankees are muted on 161st Street in the South Bronx, the main thoroughfare where two stadiums sit, one opulent, the other shrouded… this lull even amidst a World Series, the apex of American sports.  But on 161st Street, taverns, souvenir shops, and bodegas are facing the reality that the new, vastly profitable stadium – with $330 million in city tax money and abatements thrown in – was not for them.   Sales are down 70 per cent in some local establishments, hopes are down even more.   There was a time when Babe Ruth bought the house drinks at these taverns and Mickey Mantle came by after a 550-foot smash.   Despite Yankee assurances that no local business would be displaced by the new park, that’s exactly what’s happening, as the ballpark-cum-mall cornered the market.

It was a scam all along … parkland on which the new stadium sits was taken amidst empty promises of park replacement and with plenty of city hall grease.  Today, yet another gargantuan parking facility rises across an adjacent road two blocks west, a patch of land that like so many in the South Bronx is traversed by raised highways.  But this patch was a soccer field, with floodlights that allowed for play late into the night. And play they did: mostly Latino immigrants, some African, who in recent years joined the local largely black population in the neighborhood-by-the-stadiums, a welcome futbol diversion from the low-wage work that defines their lives, this city, and all the others.  The soccer field was temporary, whether they knew it or not, its fleeting quality hardly a surprise in a nation where politicians compete for a claim of credit due denying illegals health care.

The scam is everywhere.  Underpaid America was the story before The Great Recession, during The Recovery and now at this illustrious moment of Positive Growth … But the story – of a grossly undervalued workforce – hardly gets a mention, its substitute – insufficient regulation – a profound obfuscation.

The rhetoric of poverty as behavioral affliction serves to instill self-doubt among the poor and the millions in the process of joining them now.  But will that be enough to keep them in check as the numbers getting food aid approach 40 million?  With current proposals for health reform projected to cost working families ten per cent of gross income?  Reform that proponents concede leaves 25 million Americans without coverage in 2019?

More rhetoric: “Confidence and optimism grow in pockets of the USA,” volunteered USA Today above the fold one month ago.  And as if a compliant press were not enough, Bank of America ran ads, “America. Growing stronger every day.”

U.S. banks hold $13.3 trillion in assets and those are growing; B of A, with JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo … four banks with 40 percent of the country’s total deposits, two-thirds of its credit cards, and makers of half the nation’s mortgages.  One thing is for certain: Barack Obama believes in banks.  The bigger, the better.

It takes a thick skin – we now see it can be black or white – to hand out trillions to banks and their barkers, while simultaneously cautioning Americans that employment is slow in coming.  And to talk of good jobs when in fact there won’t be many good jobs among those that trickle along.  Free markets are not big on them.  What they do like is 30 per cent annual return– the number Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone averaged for the years 1987 to 2009, the corollary to untold Underpaid America.

In October 1966, a coalition of labor radicals, civil rights activists and urban organizers, even some Democrats (!), endorsed A Freedom Budget for All Americans, calling for job creation, guaranteed annual income, federal money to eradicate slums, creation of better schools and the building of public works … “freedom from economic want and oppression … is the necessary complement to freedom from political and civil oppression,” quotes Thomas Sugrue in his outstanding new book, Sweet Land of Liberty.  Today economic want defines our nation, federal money goes to banks and the elites … Slums are everywhere  — here in NYC amidst the 600 empty or partly empty new condo buildings and alongside the Yankees’ mall palace … the public schools are a disgrace, in a state of de facto segregation, funded strictly along class lines.

The Freedom Budget died within months.  Recall that Ronald Reagan was elected governor in California in 1966.  The Great Marginalization was germinated in its aftermath, an unbending commitment to profits without limit.  But who could have predicted back then that a black president would nourish that forest with such vigor?

CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com

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CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at carlginsburg@gmail.com

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