Feministing Readz: Tales of Two Cities

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sheila Bapat. 

Book cover

Economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century emerged as the most prominent work addressing wealth inequality and the problems of capitalism this year. Capital provides data to demonstrate that the chasmic wealth inequality of today is unprecedented and is poised to only grow worse.

Piketty’s book, and works like it, satisfy the need for hard evidence of the problem of wealth inequality. They also satisfy the left (and by left I mean analytical) side of our brains. And that’s important — the notoriety of Piketty’s work positions the book to help influence dialogue about the problem of inequality as well as generate broader public awareness. A dispassionate work like Piketty’s may also be useful in debates against those who champion low wages or other manifestations of unregulated capitalism.

But what about how this economic picture affects our daily lives, our families, not to mention our hearts and our souls? In the end, it is personal narratives that drive our understanding of the world and of injustice. This is the contribution of Tales of Two Cities, a collection of essays by thirty writers in New York City released by OR Books today. (Proceeds from the book go to Housing Works in New York, a community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.) The stories in Tales of Two Cities show how wealth and poverty are juxtaposed in New York City, and how both can be found in so many segments of city life — within families, inside of boroughs, at the neighborhood watering holes.

In elegant, crystal clear prose, editor John Freeman (who also teaches at the New School and Columbia) introduces the book by telling the story of his mentally ill brother’s experience trying to survive in New York City, in contrast to Freeman’s own life of privilege: As his brother lived in homeless shelters and struggled to find work, Freeman was able to buy an apartment in Manhattan with his inheritance. “[T]he juxtaposition of our fates and fortunes is simply too much to assimilate. Too unequal,” Freeman writes.

Freeman’s introduction also defines the objective of Tales of Two Cities, which is to “help to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the city.” To this end, Freeman recruited an ensemble of writers whose essays show the many ways in which wealth inequality manifests. “It’s hard not to feel that what defines the modern city — perhaps any city now — are the challenges it places in front of those struggling to achieve basic rights and dignity,” Freeman writes.

And the book reveals exactly this — New Yorkers struggling to maintain their own dignity as well as keep a roof over their heads. In “A Block Divided Against Itself,” prolific journalist Sarah Jaffe, who covers labor and economic justice for many publications, tells the stories of renters and the problem of gentrification in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her fellow renters had enough and finally organized their first public action. She writes:

The disappearing heat wasn’t just a problem in my building. All over Crown Heights, tenants were shivering through nights without heat…As the residents exchanged stories, they began to conclude that it was more than just the usual neglect that working class neighborhoods expect from absentee landlords, that it was a calculated effort to drive residents out so that people who looked like me – young, white, presumably more affluent – could move in….And so there I was in the cold, huddled with forty or fifty strangers and some acquaintances I didn’t recognize at first under their hats and scarves.

Jaffe’s piece also addresses the complexities of gentrification in New York City:

It’s almost too easy to write clichés about gentrification in New York. And yet you find contradictions everywhere – the bodega owner who tells you that it’s good to have more people like you in the neighborhood and the neighbors who invite you to their backyard barbecue, not to mention the white woman who is the angriest that there are “yuppies” in the neighborhood. And then there’s that feeling of rage I too get at my new white neighbors.

In addition to the problem of gentrification and skyrocketing rent, Tales of Two Cities addresses perhaps the most well known example of wealth inequality today: the plight of low wage workers. Rosie Schaap, who writes the Drink column for the New York Times Magazine, contributed the essay “Service/Nonservice: How Bartenders See New Yorkers.” Schaap’s essay reveals the contradictions inherent to being a bartender. Relying on tips, it’s often hard to make ends meet, yet “the happy truth is: Most people are nice. I love my job.”

Despite her joy in her labor, Schaap notes, the job of being a bartender has changed over the last generation in that it is no longer a means to economic security. She writes that her college friend’s father worked as a bartender and “made a good enough living behind that bar to buy a nice house in a nice New Jersey suburb, and put two children through college.” Today, Schaap notes, bartenders almost always hold down some other job in order to make ends meet. “Most weeks, I’m asked at least once what else it is that I do,” she writes, pointing out that “good tips alone don’t pay mortgages and tuition” – especially since the federal tipped minimum wage persists at $2.13, and it hasn’t increased in many years. Between 60-70 percent of all tipped minimum wage earners are women.

Writers like Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and Junot Diaz also decorate the pages of Tales of Two Cities, not to mention Molly Crabapple’s illustrations. So many of their stories — stories about seeking basic dignity against such wealth inequality — are also found in cities throughout the world. (Indeed, Freeman describes the rent increases in New York City as “catastrophic,” which is the precise drumbeat in San Francisco today.) As a writer based in San Francisco and a lover of New York, I found that many of the themes of Tales of Two Cities resonate. Above all else, the anthology, full of pieces varied in tone and deeply personal perspectives, helps convey the reality of today’s economic inequality in ways that an academic tome simply can’t.

Sheila Bapat is a former employment attorney who now writes about gender and economic justice. Her book about the U.S. domestic workers’ movement was released by Ig Publishing in June.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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