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As the gentrification of New York City pushes the Big Apple around the corner from yesterday to tomorrow, a handful of true believers battle to keep hip-hop history from fading away.
"On a park bench, on 12th Street: my whole crew's famous; / You tried to bust your gat and keep it real but you nameless." Prodigy of Mobb Deep, 'Give Up The Goods (Just Step)', The Infamous (1995)
At the corner of Ludlow and Rivington on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there once stood a storefront you may have seen, bearing a name that should ring a bell. Paul's Boutique, reads a hanging sign that doubles as the title of the Beastie Boys' sophomore wonder LP, released on vinyl in the summer of 1989 with a cover that, a quarter century later, doubles as an iconic snapshot of a New York that no longer exists. The shop on the album cover burned down in 2011. And the name on the sign, in fact, was borrowed from veteran WLIB deejay Gil Bailey's signature radio ad for a Brooklyn haberdashery that's also no longer in business.
For the past several months, Brooklyn native and former Bad Boy Records promoter LeRoy McCarthy has been petitioning the Lower East Side's community board to co-name the Paul's Boutique intersection "Beastie Boys Way." Although he's won some support and a few hundred signatures from local residents, McCarthy has yet to convince the powers that be that the Beastie Boys are all that important—at least not important enough to the grand scheme of New York to warrant renaming a street. Twice, he's confronted the Lower East Side's community board, and both times his testimony was met with shrugs.
In March, the City Council drafted a proclamation to formally, officially shout-out a dozen native pioneers of hip hop's first wave, including Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, and Afrika Bambaataa. A month earlier, Hot 97 teamed with local Fox 5 to produce an hour-long, prime-time special chronicling hip hop's South Bronx origins—just as VH1 was airing its Tanning Of America series, anchored by urban branding champion Steve Stoute. As hip-hop's biggest, most expansive documentary debuted, Tanning illustrated this New York–born street culture’s domination of pop culture globally.
In New York, hip-hop’s home-sweet-home, the ruling class isn't so receptive to the gist of so many rap narratives.
But in New York, hip-hop’s home-sweet-home, the ruling class isn't so receptive to the gist of so many rap narratives. Even in Brooklyn, the late Notorious B.I.G. can't catch a break. His hometown Community Board 2, which recently rejected McCarthy's proposal to christen the corner of St. James Place and Fulton Street—where Biggie grew up—"Christopher Wallace Way." Likewise, Community Board 3 in Manhattan shot down (twice) McCarthy's petition to place 'Beastie Boys Square' at Ludlow and Rivington after three rounds of public deliberations.
Across all five boroughs, similar campaigns have made little headway in cementing neighborhood pride in some legendary rap acts from around the way. For now, Big Pun lives in color on a wall straddling the intersection of Westchester Ave and East 163rd Street in the South Bronx. If Pun's sister ever gets her way, that corner will forever be known as "Big Pun Place" in the official topography of New York.
In 2009, Russell Simmons lobbied successfully for "Run-DMC JMJ Way" in Hollis, Queens. But elsewhere there's little official preservation of hip hop's cultural legacy in a city that birthed rap music, among other genres, and isn't otherwise shy about memorializing other artists' legacies wherever the city can spare a corner or avenue. Along 110th Street on Manhattan’s East Side, native salsa pioneer Tito Puente’s got his own grey mile through Spanish Harlem.
Gentrification and urban renewal have shuttered landmarks across the five boroughs — rainbow spray can mecca 5 Pointz in Queens being the latest fatality after the building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, whitewashed the 200,000-square foot factor complex, which is targeted for demolition to make room for two luxury condo high-rises. To New York’s surprise, one November dawn saw 5 Pointz’s walls entirely bleached. Wolkoff told The Wall Street Journal, “It was torture for [the artists] and for me. They couldn’t paint anymore and they loved to paint. Let me just get it over with and as I knock it down they’re not watching their piece of art going down. The milk spilled. It’s over. They don’t have to cry.”
As the rap scene retracts, the history dissolves, leaving only nostalgia among former Tunnel regulars and those already in the know. And yet another chrome tower or Connecticut Muffin displaces one of those old haunts that the old heads reminisce, and sigh.
"So when I come in the Mall, and then I start to roam, / You wouldn't think it's a store; you would think it's my home!" Biz Markie, 'Albee Square Mall', Goin' Off (1988)
Jay Z, Ghostface, Raekwon, MF Doom, Gang Starr's Guru, Big Daddy Kane, the Beastie Boys, and, first of all, Biz Markie—all of these guys could rap you to sleep with stories about the old Albee Square Mall.
Take Big Daddy Kane, for instance. He first met—and battled—Biz Markie there in 1984, before either of them had made names for themselves beyond their neighborhood crews and the nearest Wendy's. Kane recalls, "Biz rhymed like the Harlem cats did back then," with a certain jazzmatazz flair that preceded his signature goofy style. "After the battle we became good friends."
Christened two years after demolition of the grand Albee Theater in 1980, the Downtown Brooklyn shopping complex was brand-new only two decades before it was throwback, and now it's demolished. Filled in with condos, of course.
Gone, but not forgotten.
Stroll past any given corner of Brooklyn today, and within three blocks of your awareness, you’ll likely spot a construction crater or two. Nostrand Avenue, once BK’s own... Gaza strip, reeks of fizzled cappuccino froth these days. New-New York is the gluten-free renovation that we fantasize as the backdrop of Lena Dunham’s critically-acclaimed HBO series, Girls — not just the fact of the show’s popularity, but that the magazine media class have latched on to its geography and characterizations as the realest New York City this century will ever know. Dunham has mastered the modernization narrative, which rings most poignant among those Millennials who’ve already up and followed the stars from Hometown, USA, to The City.
Dunham’s fellow BK native and hometown auteur, director Spike Lee, isn't having it. When asked about the gentrification of Brooklyn a few weeks back, at a Pratt Institute lecture in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, Spike gave the moderator a piece of his mind; it’s since gone viral:
If you were to delete Biggie Smalls from the concrete memory of Brooklyn, the borough would be left with a certain, conspicuous void.
You can't discover this! We been here. You just can't come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin' African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can't do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. ... We bought [our] motherfuckin' house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin'-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!
Lee has long ranted as chief antagonist of the gentrifiers, unrelenting as they may be. When the New York Times film critic A.O. Scott elevated the complaint that Lee is a hypocrite of sorts—he now lives among money on the Upper East Side—Lee clapped back in a blog post. "Mr. Scott," he wrote, "what you fail to understand is that I can live on The Moon and what I said is still TRUE. No matter where I choose to live that has nothing to do with it. I will always carry Brooklyn in my Blood, Heart and Soul."
Kevin Walsh of the Greater Astoria Historical Society runs a project called Forgotten NY, a non-profit program that photographs and chronicles "artifacts of a long-gone New York." Walsh's blog runs long on narrative of redevelopment projects, landmark demolitions, and residential displacement, and neighborhood campaigns against all these sweeping changes. In his chronicling the century-long transformations of Albee Square and the six-mile length of Brooklyn's Fulton Street, a common worry of Walsh's observations is the inevitability of upscaling, condo-stacking, and shuttering of local storefronts in favor of fast food franchise counters and office lobby space. As far as wistful native histories go, there's Walsh's "Forgotten NY" series, and there's Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind."
34-year-old Long Island native Jason Shelowitz, aka Jay Shells, is the gallery bandit behind several cheeky street art projects, including Rap Quotes—an expansive campaign to catalogue and tag NYC coordinates that emcees have shouted-out on wax. And though he's handy with the paint, Shells' signature tool is a custom red street sign that he screws to traffic poles; at bus stops, for instance. "Am I gonna try to get permission?" Shells wondered at the onset. "That's not gonna work." After crowdsourcing a couple dozen crucial spots, Shells printed the signs and took off to the corners with rivets and gusto. "A, it was fun. And B, I thought it was important for people to know that these spots are important."
Textbooks are authority of a sort—photographs, narrative captions, correspondence excerpts, parchment samples. Official accounts of place and time verified by historians and validated by the state. But artists—of all media and genres—are the alternative vestiges of our nostalgia. If you were to delete Biggie Smalls from the concrete memory of Brooklyn, the borough would be left with a certain, conspicuous void. If you were to purge hip hop from the history books and memorials, some of us might even doubt whether New York City had ever really existed.
"How do you feel about New Brooklyn," Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé asked Big Daddy Kane.
"Honestly?" Kane answered, "It ain't my thing."
"Yeah, homie, in New York niggas like your vocals / But that’s only New York, dawg, your ass is local." 50 Cent, 'Piggy Bank', The Massacre (2005)
With a final vote of 16-FOR, 19-AGAINST, the full Community Board 3 upheld the lower committee's rejection of LeRoy McCarthy's proposal for Beastie Boys Square at the corner of Ludlow and Rivington in the Village. In an email to supporters of his petition, McCarthy attributed the board's unyielding opposition to "generational, cultural, cronyism, and other divisional lines."
"I'm talking to a wall," McCarthy says.
As far as permanent, official commemorations seem so far unlikely, Shells is convinced that the community boards are beyond convincing. "It's easy to appease some very conservative uptight people because they're the ones who'll make the biggest noise," he says. "Cities are very happy to be put on the map by the hip hop artists that did it for them. But the cities won't give credit because it might upset some people. It's a pussy stance."
In the past year, Shells reached out to the Metropolitan Transit Authority in hopes of collaboration—a street art advertising campaign, perhaps, something like Shells' "Subway Etiquette" campaign that first landed his moniker on the Huffington Post in 2010. As of late, the MTA is slow to return Shells' calls, and the bureaucratic apathy is driving him mad—and away. "I've skipped them to try to talk to big influencers like Russell Simmons, who might be able to cut through the bullshit that I might get caught in," Shells tells me. "Russell is great example: he's a very respected businessman but rooted in the culture, and he had a direct line to these people who have the ability to make it happen."
Aside from Russell Simmons' backdoor effort to preserve Run-DMC JMJ Way, the rap mogul class—Jay Z, Puffy, and 50 Cent—haven't yet lent their clout to these turf wars, at least not publicly.
In New York, there's no shortage of pride among young and old of the hip hop past—even as the mecca's creative relevance dwindles. It's hard luck being a New York emcee right now. And the veterans seem even less certain of hip hop's regard in the official history of New York. Aside from Russell Simmons' backdoor effort to preserve Run-DMC JMJ Way, the rap mogul class—Jay Z, Puffy, and 50 Cent—haven't yet lent their clout to these turf wars, at least not publicly. But there's always a chance that the industry veterans will peel from the sidelines.
After I'd given him a rundown of McCarthy's petition efforts and Jay Shells' guerrilla memorials, Ossé tells me, "I wanna get involved with these guys. That’s where I see myself. Being a spokesperson. Being credible. Being in a position where I can argue for hip hop."
Like McCarthy, Ossé suspects that race and class and respectability account for the political opposition to the street re-namings. But at this zenith of hip hop's cultural predominance, Ossé insists that the artform's productive impact is undeniable. "RUN-DMC, they paved the way. They broke down all the walls. They completely legitimized hop-hop culture." Ossé gestures wide, swelling yet louder and prouder, "Jay Z, he doesn’t just inspire Marcy Projects. He inspires America! He inspires businessmen, the tech world, Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue. He inspires Oprah! He inspires the President!"
Jay even inspires Mayor DeBlasio, who's twice called into Hot 97 to chop politics with hosts Ebro and Peter Rosenberg. After two grueling, contentious decades of Giuliani and Bloomberg, finally, hip-hop's got the mayor on line one.
Meanwhile, the city council of Englewood, NJ, recently approved McCarthy's petition to co-name West Street, the HQ of Sylvia Robinson's former Sugar Hill Records, as "Sylvia Robinson Place." Robinson and her husband founded Sugar Hill in 1979 as one of the earliest rap labels, publishing the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and Funky Four Plus One until litigation with MCA Records shuttered the label in 1986. The commemoration passes just a couple years after Robinson's death. Mind you, Sylvia Robinson was born and raised in Harlem—McCarthy is frustrated that New Jersey beat New York to the punch.
Not that McCarthy is beaten down. Not yet.
Last month, McCarthy met with Upper West Side councilman Mark Levine to make the same case for "Beastie Boys Square" that's lost him three rounds on the community board dockets. Levine is the chairman who oversees the city council's Parks and Recreation Committee, which is ultimately responsible for all street namings in New York.
No word yet on whether Levine will elevate the "Beastie Boys Way" petition with an official hearing. But McCarthy is hopeful. Despite his spree of defeats before the community boards in Manhattan and Brooklyn, McCarthy's still emailing local supporters and international news writers with the gusto of a master tactician. He's just one man with three email addresses and a populist temper. But after last month’s showdown in a rented lecture hall packed with news crews, lifelong L.E.S. residents and stalwart carpetbaggers alike, the delegates of Community Board 3 will tell you: LeRoy McCarthy is a loud dude.
Justin Charity is a fiction writer and freelance struggle correspondent. He tweets as @BrotherNumpsa.