Adieu to the Funky Flea Market

May 28, 2011

This is the last weekend for the Funky (Fresh) Flea Market in its current location, the Florida Market, and today I made my last visit. The Florida Market, just a few minutes from my house, quickly became one of my favorite parts of DC when I moved here, a bewildering example of “multiculturalism from below” that brought together the DC area’s less wealthy immigrants to haggle over halal meat, overripe produce, cheap Obama merch, and designer knockoffs. Outside the crumbling DC Farmer’s Market building, men in makeshift kiosks blast go-go on amps that sound like they were blown twenty years ago, slinging go-go CDs, sneakers, and contraband cigarettes.

The Funky Flea Market supplemented this heady mixture with all sorts of amateur commerce, mostly of the “roving garage sale” type of dingy electronics equipment, old clothes, and DVDs of second-rate comedies. But you could also buy kompa CDs while listening to a debate over the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, check out hats emblazoned with the Eye of Horus in rhinestones, watch negotiations over tools conducted by people who don’t speak the same language, and pick up cut-rate cleaning supplies. Lately the food options at the market had ballooned: in addition to the half-smoke cart and the Cambodian soups and barbeque in the farmer’s market building, you could get actual lengua tacos (real Mexican food is a rarity in the District; more common are inferior Salvadorean facsimiles), homemade Jamaican curries, sweet bean pies sold by the Nation of Islam, and, inexplicably, Uighur food — greasy succulent kabobs and samsas, a kind of empanada stuffed with potatoes, all cooked on an electric grill.

Like any good flea market, there are records: the usual assortment of decaying Kool and the Gang LPs you’ve never heard of, and of course the occasional gem. Once I named my own price for some UK rave records from a Mexican guy selling mostly drills. Once I encountered a table full of books that must have once belonged to a hapless grad student: I picked up each volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Derrida’s Of Grammatology for a dollar a pop (I left the Pynchon). Today I bought some records from one of the shrewdest vendors, who inevitably stakes out the southwest corner of the lot. He speaks at least four languages of hustle, but prides himself on his customer service: he offered me a small stool to sit on while a pawed through boxes of records. His assortment today was mostly rap 12-inches from 2003-2008 in excellent condition; I almost pulled Young Gunz’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” but I think I have that record somewhere. I did enlarge my collection of Lil Joe compilations of Miami bass music — the story of how a Jewish tax attorney from Long Island became the major purveyor of 2 Live Crew tracks is one that could only come from the music biz. I got three today: Pimps, Playaz, and Hustlaz, Booty Summer Party, and Dirty South Booty Freaknik, a “NON STOP CONTINUOUS GHETTO STYLE DJ’S PARTY MIX.” Highlights: Freak Nasty’s “Da Dip,” MC Shy D’s “Rapp Will Never Die,” and electro classics from Ade and Gigolo Tony.

The Funky Flea Market is more than a place for business, it’s a place for performance. Fortunes are not made here, but an average worker can realize the American Dream of being his own boss and presiding over his storefront, if only for a weekend, and maybe getting a little spending money for the evening. Customers hunt for bargains and audiences, opportunities to display their knowledge of tools they can’t afford, boast of a legendary deal they made or offer advice on how to strap a sofa on top of a conversion van. It’s a social space: you can’t buy something without having a conversation. I did an ethnographic project on the market, visited regularly, talked, and vended one day. I woke at 5 AM, paid my $30 for a space, and heard dozens of stories and fantasies spurred on by the attractive guitar I was selling. Today, proprietor and MC, Mr. Omowale, paid respects to Gil Scott-Heron over the loudspeaker. “He was an artist and social activist, and he faced struggles, just like we all do at some point,” he intoned, before putting on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man.” The Funky Flea Market is about community as much as commerce.

This community is mostly black and brown, mostly poor and working class, with a large proportion of immigrants, a community in a city whose space for such people is dwindling. The sandwiched between the ersatz bohemia of H Street and the ravenous condo/office space bubble of NoMa (where they pay nonthreatening black people to greet yuppie neophytes when they exit the Metro), the neighborhood has changed from one that catered to the down-and-out to one that caters to the upwardly mobile, the newly propertied, the college-educated and gainfully employed. Something happens to people when they buy overpriced row houses — suddenly everything about a place becomes quantified, transmogrified from the opaqueness of everyday social life into the subtle calibrations of property values. Poor people, working people, or, to use the appropriate parlance, those who struggle or hustle, are unwelcome. Every violent crime, every syringe in an alley, every Central American day laborer passed out in front of a loading dock, threatens an investment. The sheltered suburbanite’s irrational racist and classist fears for safety become the rational profit-maximizing actions of the petty bourgeoisie with a mortgage. They hate the Flea Market, and the Florida Market in general, and they lie and speculate about it — it’s full of criminals, the merchandise is stolen, the people sell drugs — even as the more courageous will venture down for a local-blog-approved taco.

And they’ve won, as they so often do in DC. Condos again. Full of the transient upper middle class, faces whiter, younger, richer than the faces that populate the market now. Do condo buildings furnish memories, community, stories, urban sociality? Let’s leave that rhetorical for the moment. For now, we know the flea market’s space will be an empty parking lot, the Uighur food and computer parts will be sold on U Street, whose special flavor of gentrification seems more inclusive of black DC (though who’s to say?). Here on H Street, the gentrifiers smile and do what they’re supposed to in order to pretend like they aren’t constantly thinking about how to expunge what’s here so they can turn a tidy profit when they flip their houses in the next decade to the next generation of overpaid bureaucrats. This is the American city, where “improving the neighborhood” means getting rid of the people to fix up the housing stock.

I feel betrayed. But of course, without ownership I have no right to any of this. I just live here.


Comparative Travel Advisories

June 13, 2010

So I’ve been in Mexico City for a week, and will be here for at least seven or eight more, something I haven’t written about, because, well, why should I have anything interesting to say about Mexico City? I just got here and I don’t know anybody. Ideally this will change. I spent a large portion of that week listening to people with more interesting things to say at Postopolis!DF in between bouts of delicious food.

As a conscientious traveler, I took advantage of the concerns of my government and read the State Department Travel Advisory for Mexico. It’s a terrifying and salacious document, full of narco-terror, resort rape, taxi kidnappings, prison torture, natural disasters, rehab cons and killer hotel pools. Nothing like the State Department to make a country seem like a land of corruption, violence, and crime, as if American news media didn’t already do that enough.

Of course, the tables can be turned, since foreign ministries issue their own travel reports about the good ol’ U.S. of A. These reveal as much, if not more, about the country issuing the warnings, a fascinating look at cultural norms. A friend forwarded me the travel advisory from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the U.S. — a Google-translated synopsis follows below.

First of all is the obligatory warning about terrorist attacks, with a helpful link to the terror alert system, which apparently still exists.

With that out of the way, the ministry takes care to outline the particular neighborhoods to avoid in major U.S. cities. Specifically, the ones where black and hispanic people live. And helpful maps!

Watch out -- minorities live here!

  • “Boston traffic on foot and at night should be avoided in the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.”
  • “Do not go alone in Harlem, the Bronx and Central Park at night.” Not sure how Brooklyn didn’t get a shout out here.
  • “Washington: avoid areas northeast and southeast, and the bus station and train station ‘Union Station’ at night.” Apparently the French haven’t been alerted to the district’s newest nightlife branding effort. There’s even a shuttle so you can avoid the prolish bus system! Well, it’s probably better to declare half the city off-limits at night. Don’t forget, “The Anacostia neighborhood is not recommended day and night,” so the French will have to forgo Nation of Islam bean pies on their visit.

    Minorities are also in these places!

  • “Philadelphia: avoid frequent the northern districts except group.”
  • “Baltimore is considered a dangerous city except downtown.”
  • “Chicago: avoid the West Side and south of the city after 59th Street.” This was a sop for Hyde Park, so feel free to explore the wonderlands of State and 35th!
  • Some of the sharpest words are reserved for our most French of cities. “New Orleans: do away from tourist areas that are the old square (French Quarter) or the Garden District, including that day. At nightfall, walk out, whatever the area, including Garden District would take a risk statistically significant (with the exception of the busiestcentral streets of the old square). Also, do not walk around with bags or equipment visible value (cameras), even in broad daylight in the busiest areas. Do not hesitate to take a taxi, even for a short distance. … In general, it should always be on guard, not to stop when you are arrested, not to resist in case of aggression or racketeering: possession of weapons at an attacker is common.”
  • “Los Angeles: Large areas should be avoided in particular neighborhoods east, south and south-east as Watts, Inglewood and Florence.” I have no idea why tourists would go to these places, unless their itinerary has been shaped by Dr. Dre songs. But better to exercise caution.

After that embarassing show and the cursory warnings of natural disasters, we move on to some rather interesting cultural differences.

  • “Medical infrastructure is excellent, but expensive. There is no social security agreement covering the health insurance between our two countries. In an emergency, an ambulance only provides a priority upon arrival in the emergency department of the hospital (conditional admission to a financial guarantee).” Yes, other countries warn their citizens of our fucked-up health care system!
  • As in any good militarized nation, “Americans are generally very respectful of the law, respect is expected of tourists who are required to comply strictly with the regulations.” And don’t forget that in a police state, your ass could be beaten for any suspected insubordination: “In case of contact with the police, it is imperative that we do not raise your voice, make no sudden movements or aggressive and not make false statements.” Ne me taze pas, l’homme!
  • And then of course the legendary romantic inclinations of the French must be attenuated to: “Remarks, attitudes or jokes, harmless in the Latin countries, can lead to court. Complaints of sexual harassment may also be filed against the minors.” And a good note to end on: “Having or attempting to have sex with a minor constitutes a crime punishable by law. The law severely punishes all forms of use, encouragement, persuasion or coercion of minors in the production and dissemination of explicit sexual images, using traditional or electronic.” Sometimes we find out a little bit more than we expected!

Monokinis also forbidden -- how the mighty have fallen

I haven’t spent any time looking up other nations’ travel advisories, but I can only hope they are as revealing and entertaining as these.

Columbus Still Best City in Ohio…

September 7, 2007

…in spite of its reactionary corporate media. It’s not every day you see the Columbus Dispatch pop up on your favorite British Marxist blogs, but it’s not every day the Dispatch has such a horrible cartoon. That’s Columbus: richer than Cleveland, less racist than Cincinnati, still backwater enough to be embarrassing.

Barack Obama Isn’t Black Enough

August 30, 2007

Or more accurately, Barack Obama is just white enough. Enough to what? Well, to be a presidential candidate that “mainstream Americans” (i.e. white middle class Americans) find credible.

I don’t mean to say that Barack Obama isn’t phenotypically black. He obviously has black skin, and he certainly has more than the required one drop of “black blood” coursing through his veins. But blackness is much more than skin color, or this debate would never occur. It’s a performance, a set of particular behaviors, speech patterns, ways of dressing and acting that signify a particular racial group, that inform your audience what role you’re playing.

It should come as no surprise that in a nation born and raised on racial violence, the people designated as “black” had limited input over how their role was written for them. The fantasies, desires, and political needs of the white ruling class have allowed rampant misinterpretations and distortions of the cultural life of the descendants of African slaves, creating such well-known archetypes as the Sambo, the Mammy, and the Black Buck. These roles were policed by symbolic and actual violence: an “uppity” black man could be tortured and murdered for the crime of speaking or dressing too white, when caricaturing him as “Zip Coon” wasn’t enough.

Of course, the white ruling class didn’t have complete control over making these roles — how could they? Blacks used these roles as a kind of camouflage to thwart the hostile white gaze, shuffling while the master was around and cursing him when his back was turned. Blacks constantly critiqued their roles while inhabiting them, often through symbolic play and exaggeration that whites misinterpreted as manifest signs of cultural difference. This was no organized conspiracy of subterfuge; rather, just a natural response of human beings to physical and cultural bondage, expressing their forbidden hopes, dreams, and desires through a coded language. And it is not to exclude the possibility that some enjoyed their roles, or at least made ingenuous attempts to perform them.

And yet a performance is not something completely inauthentic and artificial: who we pretend to be informs who we are. And so the complex and misunderstood history of “black” culture: that it is not some African essence, transmitted throughout the centuries through darker-skinned bodies — and it is always pertinent to point out that descendants of slaves all have white ancestors as well. Black culture is forged in the tension between the projection of white desires and expectations on to ethnic others and how those others meet and challenge those desires and expectations. As historical contexts change, so do the roles, the performances, and what exactly it means to be — authentically — “black.”

And so we come to Barack Obama, the black candidate who excites white voters, particularly young liberal ones eager to display their progressive egalitarian leanings. Phenotypically, and by the laws of this land, the man is black. His skin is dark enough, his father a black Kenyan. And yet, he doesn’t seem to fit into the roles our nation has built, through media propaganda and violence, for black performances. The U.S. has never had very compelling roles for the black middle class, although I see that changing as the black middle class, anxious over its precarious place in America’s hierarchy, attempts to wrest the white gaze away from its endless fascination with poor blacks (they are rooting for Kanye to beat 50 Cent a couple Tuesdays from now). The limited middle-class black roles that exist are typically negations of the stereotypical poor blacks — smiling, industrious, overall nonthreatening to the status quo, but with enough signifiers of blackness to come across as authentic — think of the light jazz music and African art in The Cosby Show. But Barack comes across as something different. In his speech and comportment, he strikes one as foreign and other, yes, but not black; he simply doesn’t fit into pre-established semiotic molds for what a black man should be. And because blackness is, at its core, nothing more than a construct, a performance complete with makeup and costume requirements for what certain individuals in our society should be, must be if this perverse set up we call a country is to keep going the way it is, then that leads us to one conclusion: Barack Obama isn’t black. Or not very black. Certainly not black enough to be black black, like the people we see on cop shows and music videos. But at the same time, black blacks never get to be real presidential candidates, just side shows.

Not black enough is actually just black enough to be a serious presidential candidate. Not black enough is the only amount of blackness he could be.