competitive victimology

I'm often at a loss to understand the constantly evolving nature of moral claims, much as I try. Yesterday, I touched on whether animals are more innocent than people (such "innocence" is not a new issue in this blog, the contradictions are profound ones).

In a great comment to my last "Right to Dry" post, "Brett" opined thusly:

Americans have been insisting their personal preferences are moral imperatives since the colonization of Massachusetts.

I find it intriguing that the intellectual descendants of the Puritans are to be found in our universities, laboratories, and hospitals rather than churches. The secular denizens of the educational/medical establishment would consider themselves the antitheses of the Puritans, but that is because they think they really are qualified by their superior morality to bully the rest of us.

Yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer had a front page writeup about a pair of leading architects who seem likely to design a $100 million dollar building which would be the new home to the famed Barnes Foundation. Interestingly, the article is as much about their personal business as it is with future plans for the Barnes. They are facing eviction from a tiny unit they occupy in Carnegie Hall, which wants to use the space as a music institute. (God forbid such greed!) But, they're going to fight:
Their landlord, Carnegie Hall, wants to evict them from the garret apartment they've shared for 30 years. So before they start laboring on the project that will admit them to the pantheon of the starchitects, they must first find a Manhattan condo they can afford.
A street protest is planned. And what they'll wear is important
And, oh, yes: They must hurry back so they can join their neighbors Oct. 3 for a street protest against Carnegie Hall's plans to convert its 30 remaining artist studios into a music institute.

"We were originally going to get one of those big blow-up rats," Tsien said, sounding as if she were recounting the technique for one of her exquisite, hand-worked architectural details. "But then we decided just to wear black T-shirts."

The T-shirts are probably a good way to remind the world that even though they are prominent architects, they're also residential tenants. As typifies tenants who fight these battles, they've been there a long time.
Newly divorced and unemployed, Williams discovered in 1974 that he could rent a cheap, postage-stamp-size studio with 20-foot ceilings in Carnegie Hall, in a suite of apartments built over the rafters of the concert hall. To survive, Williams teamed with a friend and set up an architecture studio in the apartment.

They squeezed six desks in the tiny front room, and Williams inserted a sleeping loft just below the north-facing garret windows. While there was hardly room to stand, the light was fantastic, and he could glimpse the greenery of Central Park every morning.

When Tsien showed up, she was assigned one of the desks. The small practice survived by designing corporate interiors and retail spaces. "It taught us a lot about putting materials together," Williams recalled.

Eventually, he moved the fledgling firm to Central Park South. But Tsien stayed at Carnegie Hall, and the two married. Not only did they raise their son in the 900-square-foot space, but they also often hosted Williams' two children and a rotating cast of visiting architects.

No wonder they're rushing back Oct. 3 to protest their eviction by the Carnegie Hall management.

I hadn't known about the eviction, but it's received press coverage in New York.

Struggles over rents there go back to at least 1981, when the argument was made that Carnegie was essentially subsidizing artists:

Mr. Karlsson said the corporation had started by arguing that the tenants were not covered by rent control or rent stabilization. ''Our main position,'' the attorney said, ''is that the tenants for the most part have been in Carnegie Hall for a long period of time, with leases periodically renewed at relatively reasonable rent increases.''

He said they were arguing ''cultural impact - they need space that probably cannot be replaced elsewhere.'' He said it was up to the corporation to operate so that rents could remain ''reasonable.''

Miss Shuman said the corporation was abiding by a city policy ''to maintain artistic balance,'' so that if a rental unit was given up by a painter it was ''obligated to try to find another artist'' to move in.

But that would really be like creating a special category of tenant -- protected almost as if by identity politics.

Even then, artist-tenants complained that this is not what happened:

The artists - including painters, dancers, singers and musicians - contend that the management of the city-owned building is is destroying its artistic nature by asking what they consider to be unfair rents.

The Carnegie Hall Corporation, which manages the concert hall and the studios under a lease from the city, maintains that it is only trying to charge enough so that the studios pay for themselves at rents still far below the market rate.

''This is one of the rare buildings in the city where artists can live and work,'' said Lorraine Geiger, the tenant leader. She said that rent was only one of the issues in the controversy. Another, she said, is that studios used for years as artists' residences are being changed to commercial use for architects and other high-paying customers. Carnegie officials deny this.

Hmmm.... I guess maybe an architect isn't a "real" artist -- even if he's raising his family among the filing cabinets.

In a piece on the recent dispute, the New Yorker touches on the genuine resentment that the artists feel over the evictions:

Astor led the way up some stairs to the fourteenth floor, then across the building and down some more stairs to the eleventh, to a studio occupied by the writer and radio host Jonathan Schwartz, who was eating an avocado, under a framed print that read "AVOCADO." He'd been in the space since 1970, having inherited it from his father, the composer Arthur Schwartz. "I represent Carnegie Hall when I'm out in the world," he said. "I hope that's not presumptuous."

He lives here with his cat, Nelson (named after Nelson Riddle), and occasionally with his wife, whom he married in the building in 1984. The wedding was in Studio 906, which had belonged to Joe Raposo, who wrote music for "Sesame Street." Wilfrid Sheed and Jerzy Kosinski had been there. "The party spilled out onto the landing," he said. "We had a big glass bowl of caviar."

The studio, full of books, CDs, and not much else, gave rise to that old misguided desire for a prison sentence that would afford a man the time to catch up on his reading. "That's one of the points here," Schwartz said. "There are dozens of studios like this in the building that have, if not this essence, then another like it. It's not a conceit--it's a feeling. To dislodge us is insulting."

I can certainly understand why anyone would not want to lose a really cool space which has been in the family for so many years. There's an old expression called "possession is nine tenths of the law," and the passage of time not only leads to a feeling very much akin to ownership rights, but legally, can create issues of estoppel.

However, I don't want to focus on legal issues here. Legally, Carnegie Hall is the owner, and the people living in these studios are tenants, so ultimately Carnegie Hall will prevail.

What I do think is going on is that self interest has been translated into a claim of morality. Morally speaking, few people like landlords. In American popular culture, we were raised to think of landlords as evil Snidely Whiplash types, evicting widows and children at Christmas time. Tenants are downtrodden. The near-universality of this appeal can be found in quotations from either Marx or Jesus.

On the other hand, New York is New York. Apartments sell for millions and rent for many thousands of dollars a month, and no one has a right to live in New York without paying the going rate. I can't afford to move there (nor do I want to), but let's suppose I managed to find a rent-controlled apartment through some wild miracle and moved in, by what system of morality would I have a right to live there forever at a low rent? I'd see it as a windfall. Of course, if condo-coversion "eviction time" were to occur, the temptation to fight for the maximum buy-out would be enormous.

Having a cheap and cool place in New York is a bit like having won the lottery. Or striking gold. And it's human nature to fight like hell to keep these things.

Thus, a prominent architect fights to portray himself as a victim. Of immoral behavior by the landlord.

I understand why he fights, as it's natural to defend what you see as "yours."

But it's the moral claim with which I have trouble, as I can't perceive that there is any rule. Much of what we call "morality" is just made up according to circumstances.

In many of these situations, it is really important to be seen as a victim. That's where the comparison with the gold rush claim-staker fails. The guy who strikes gold and fights to keep what is his is not a victim. Rather, he behaves more like a warrior. He came, he found, he won. And he will keep what he found. The people who managed by whatever means to get hold of these rental units also came, found, and won. But they are not behaving as warriors; they are behaving as whiners.

It's hard to see a prominent architect as a victim, though, and I'd have more respect for him if he just said he's fighting the bastards so he can keep the place he's had for so long that he feels that it's his and spared me the protest march and the implied moral lecture that goes along with it.

The whole thing reminds me of a horrendous dispute I had years ago which should never have happened at all, but which became viciously personal. I built a fantastic nightclub pretty much from scratch, and in so doing I had to go through all the necessary and lengthy permit applications. Berkeley is one of those cities which just says no to almost everything, and the power of neighborhoods is very strong. (Especially anything which might touch on "tenants' rights.") Fortunately for me, the location of the club touched no sacred cows, and seemingly, on no one's rights, at least not the rights of the kind of humans who could be expected to whine. On one side was a fence bordering a freeway, on another, the back side of a huge quasi parking lot which stretched for hundreds of yards under the freeway exit and on to a nearby restaurant. On another side, the parking lot fronted a large salt water lake, and on the other side was an operational railroad track, with a signal crossing device that anyone coming into the nighclub would have to drive through. (It seemed there'd be maybe get three or four trains a day, but I didn't count.)

For blocks around, the entire neighborhood was zoned industrial and commercial, and there weren't any houses anywhere nearby. This made the usual concerns over nighttime noise superfluous, and no hearings were held. One of the bureaucrats did do a driveby to verify this, and I was told by him and by the police chief (who also had to sign off) that I couldn't have found a better location for a nightclub if the goal was to avoid city concerns about noise and traffic. So the permits were issued.

It didn't take long for trouble to start, though. The nearest building to the club was a deteriorating industrial warehouse just across from and right alongside the railroad tracks. An ugly building made of corrugated rusting steel, it didn't even seem to be used for anything in particular, and of course it was zoned as an industrial building (which use was reflected in the city records). But the problem was, some lazy landlord had leased it out to artists -- not residentially, of course, but as studio space. Meaning they weren't supposed to live there, because after all it had no insulation nor any of the amenities required by the code.

Any guesses as to whether the artists lived there?

They damned well did, and they considered it their "home." And I became the invader of their "privacy" and "tranquility." These people did not fight me legally, but they fought -- and fought dirty. There were numerous acts of vandalism, and the most irritating thing they did was to trigger the railroad signal box so that the barricade came down and blocked the road. Except there was no train! When this would happen, pandemonium would result, especially on a busy Saturday night. Eventually, customers broke the barricades to drive through, (there was no way to make them go back up), and a lengthy dispute developed between me and the railroad rep, who insisted that what happened could not have happened as the signal was tamperproof. I explained to him that it was not, and that anyone with a piece of electrical cable or a battery jump cable could make it go down simply by jumping the opposite tracks (that was what had been happening, but it was hard to find in the dark). He said this was not possible, but his attitude changed dramatically when I took him out and showed him by fastening the jumper cable to the rails. Lights started flashing, and down the damned barricades went!

Anyway, the tenants were driven by one especially frustrated artist who not only hated having to listen to the loud thumping music all night, but who hated the club's design, not out of sincere artistic concern, but because (in a sick and bizarre coincidence) she had once had an affair and been passionately in love with the club's artistic designer. So attacking the club became a very personal vendetta for her. She led the other tenants in what they did their best to disguise as legitimate moral indignation.

Again, I call such morality "manufactured," because I think it is. I'm not much of a believer in religious texts, but I think a good argument can be made that recently manufactured human morality is harder to grapple with than the stuff said to have been dictated by God. (At least you can look the latter up, and argue over things like context, date of manufacture, etc.)

What annoyed me the most about the artist who messed with my nightclub was the way she considered herself an aggreived, "innocent" victim. In her view, this gave her a claim to moral superiority, and the right to victimize her persecutors. Never mind that she had no right to live there.

Imaginary innocence is worse than guilt.

posted by Eric on 09.24.07 at 11:05 AM


Here on the evidently more affluent West Coast - Southern California - we have "artists lofts", newly-constructed buildings in which these "lofts" sell for between $500k and $1 million. Precious few "starving artists" there.

In recent days, the city of Anaheim (which like to say it's the "Anaheim Resort") is in a battle with gentle giant Disney over a new housing project. Demonstrators clamor for "affordable housing". Probably along the lines of "we're entitled".

ZZMike   ·  September 26, 2007 7:58 PM

Wow, amazing story about the nightclub! Thanks for sharing that.

anon   ·  September 27, 2007 9:26 AM

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