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Tuesday, October 21, 1997
By Paul Ford
New York City as a Boolean Algebra problem; also the first piece ever written for Ftrain, at the tender age of 22.
It's a complicated place to live, but a map of New York City is a cultural Venn Diagram; you can break down the components and see the prejudicial logic that underlines the place. I live in Brooklyn, on a street wedged between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, on 9th St, below the overlapping shadows of the F train and the elevated Gowanus Expressway. In September, at a McDonalds below the Gowanus, some Black kids from Red Hook stole a watch from some Italian kids from Carroll Gardens. Walking home in a rage, the Italian kids beat a 41 year old Con Ed employee, nearly killing him, because he looked like their 17-year-old assailant.
So get out your Hagstrom Map and draw the lines: the set of teenagers in Red Hook are Black and Hispanic, the set of teenagers in Carroll Gardens are Italian. You'll find some, but little intersection. Get a clear plastic sheet; layer it on top. This will represent time of day. Color in the entire area with the exception of those empty places close to the dock. These are the places you can walk through the areas during the day and feel safe. At night, there are only a few lines of real safety (because those streets are crowded) and several of relative safety.
A third sheet: this one is knowledge. The least known areas of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens are strictly unsafe, regardless of ethnic makeup. Know where you are at night in New York and you'll remain safe. Midnight wandering is not rewarded.
You could go on forever: the fourth sheet could be public services. The parks in Red Hook are sloppy and overgrown, uncrowded, their benches broken. A forgotten area. The subway stop closest to me is decrepit and crumbling. Another bad sign. Carroll Gardens park is well-tended by the community and carefully mowed. The sidewalks are not mossy; the yards are tended.
I redraw these internal maps, the voting districts for my private country, based on race and faith, on experience and hearsay, every day. I ask Jacob, downstairs at work, if it's good to go to Pelham Park in the Bronx. "Yeah, that's way up there, out of the South Bronx. It's fine. Lots of bike riding." And how about Flushing Meadows? "Flushing Meadows is great, perfectly safe." The wrong color skin can get you in trouble if you're not careful. Subtle but plain, residents draw their own Venn diagrams. Herd animals, we choose our friends from the set of people who find our jokes funny and our faces familiar. And we sketch out our maps so that we can hear the news of a beating and say "I'm safe. I know where I am."