Livery Cab Driver

We are speaking of the history of BK, of the areas through which we drive. I try to give the driver directions, but  he’s like, “oh I know. I’ve lived here my whole life. Before Atlantic Avenue was even a thought in your mind, I was riding my bike down it.”

It used to be bad, he says. In the fifties, all middle class white people used to live in these areas. Then they built the projects, and all the white people moved out and all the black and Hispanic people moved in. When my cab driver was growing up in this neighborhood, it was poor. “It was bad, so violent. I used to get real mad.”

He thinks it’s better now. All the artists and students living in this part of BK bring in the attention of police and authority. The crime is kept in check, or at least it’s not in the streets anymore. He says a lot of his younger passengers have parents and aunts and uncles who used to live in these very neighborhoods; but these individuals moved out once they became economically/financially stable. Now the children live here again. Cycles..

We talk about education, cops, the environment; covering an extraordinary amount of ground for such a short cab drive. I do not mention the guilt I feel for taking a car home; this is his livelihood.

As we pull up to my apartment, below the rumbling LIRR, he brings up the subject of Occupy Wall Street. He sees the world changing. The driver has a daughter, and he has her enrolled in a charter school in Harlem. “I don’t want her in any damn public school.” I ask if he knows about the protests in Harlem the other day: 500 people howling in front of a public school being closed down. No, the driver had no idea. I ask him about the #1 Slave Theater; did he know about that? No. How about Occupy Bed-Stuy? Nope.

“I wanted to go down to Zuccotti, but never got the chance before they shut it down.”

Just wait until spring, my friend.

Words by Kathleen Purcell

The Future of Higher Education

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December 8, 2011

At the New School University, a panel of high level higher education administrators and leaders discuss their vision of the future of higher education: including the controversial Matthew Goldstein–chancellor of the City University of New York–and Jamshed Bharucha, president of Cooper Union. CUNY is facing stark resistance to its recent tuition hike, and Cooper Union to its proposed instatement of tuition, after a long tradition of being a free university. Oh yes, there were direct actions. Mr. Goldstein could not speak without a member of the audience coughing or sneezing loudly. When the panelists decide to take questions–moderated by New School University’s President David Van Zandt–Goldstein faces antagonistic query. He sweats and suffers. I do not feel pity, but I am honestly fascinated by what he has to say. Funding is being cut from all directions: state, federal, and individual donors. Administrative costs are high in response to student demand for more and more comprehensive services. I am getting an inside view to the pressures that lead these men to make the decisions they do; Decisions which seem outright dismissive of public need.

Finally, it is my turn to ask a question. I waited in line for half an hour to reach the microphone. I am a continuing education student. Undergraduate. It has taken me seven years to reach the microphone, actually. I tell them, they’ve mentioned competition a lot. I tell them, they’ve mentioned preparation a lot. I tell them, they’ve also spoken of integration and producing happier, more well-rounded graduates. I ask them, doesn’t that seem to be what our generational paradigm shift is? Isn’t it a war between the desire to be great and the desire to be whole? I ask them, who are we competing against? The global market? Our fellow graduates? Or perhaps a generally adversarial environment, often fallaciously referred to as “the real world”?

Mr. Van Zandt says, “I’m so sorry, but we’re out of time.”

Words by Kathleen Purcell

Painting by Kathleen Purcell

New School Occupation: Retrospective Observation

Many bottles and cans in many bags; bottles and cans once filled with– I had thought it a good idea at first, to loosen everyone up; but looking at the material result of our revelry–

Some of the graffiti is artful (Lists of things. Paintings of things– A totally incorrect representation of the Globe– Rainbow Vomit.) but it wasn’t supposed to be on the walls.

A boy takes a picture with his phone at the general assembly. Another boy stalks towards the first boy and we all begin to scream. I get lots of twinkles but no practical support. I also facilitate for the first time. We’re all smelling blood and I have so much that I want to say. There’s a lot of free gourmet bread still on a table in the corner. Mr. President comes to visit. Immediately left of him is a rodent. I am immediately left of a rodent. Fifty plus students listen in silence to a soft ultimatum and fifty plus students speak through one kid to say, “thank you for the offer, we’ll consider it.”

No one can make up whose side they’re on, because neither side is worth it. I am two-faced and visit everyone. I take part in a destruction dance and also help to develop ideas for a more welcoming space. I sleep on the floor and then apologize to my fellows. I am ashamed but do not regret. A kid in black wants me to add to the list of terror, to write my demand. I demand commitment. Neither of us know how to react.

Later, riotous decay.

All City Student Occupation at the New School

November 17, 2011

90 Fifth Avenue New York, NY

The New School is being occupied, right now! Fifty plus students (and one or two faculty members) are gathered on the second floor of 80 Fifth Avenue. It is 10:00pm when I receive the text. They’ve been occupying the space since four o’clock.

White walls and fluorescent tubes. The escalator is shut off. At the top, a table blocks my way. “Are you press? Are you administration? Are you plainclothes?” I flash my student ID and am permitted entry. An impromptu General Assembly is being held. The students are tired. They are discussing whether to have a GA at all. I step away. I am super tired. There’s food, beer, wine, San Pellegrino. All donations. A giant cardboard box full of gourmet bread is ripped open and graffitoed: “a cornucopia of carbs”. A cinema is being built. The computer stations are dedicated to tweeting, getting the word out, and monitoring news from the outside world. There are canvas and poster board signs taped up. Some very large canvas paintings hang out the window, covering a TD Bank marking. “Zuccotti’s Dead, The Virus Will Spread”, is decorated with a great big eyeball.

Stark factions among the students. Pseudo-fascist radicals, psychology majors, social and civil rights activists, young politicians, artists and writers all gather in the main hall. Anyway, I’m having excellent conversation. Occupants chatter and celebrate.

The next morning, all is peace. Most are asleep. David Van Zandt, President of the New School University, brought coffee and donuts. More excellent conversation with those who are conscious. The viability of occupying this space is in serious question. Wells Fargo rents it from a private owner, and has donated use to The New School. Said private owner, purportedly, is not happy. There is also contention whether this occupation is really an act of civil disobedience if the students negotiate with administration. A few display less than what could be called gratitude for coffee and donuts.

There is a Student General Assembly today at 2:00pm. Teach-ins and events are planned. Some people ask for the formation of a free university. Both political and domestic policies are discussed. Reporters from the New York Times, the New School Free Press, and the Wall Street Journal wait downstairs for over an hour while we debate whether to allow them access, or to speak to them at all. The progressive stack and consensus processes always take time.

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Words by Kathleen Purcell
Photographed by Kathleen Purcell

Two column accounting and how it progresses

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Two column accounting and how it progresses

There is a room with a very high ceiling on the 5th floor of what was the largest brownstone in the world when they built it. The room is shaped on the west by the angle of 4th Avenue as it runs to meet Bowery Lane, and is further indented on the west by the backside of the round elevator shaft built by Peter Cooper to house the elevator upon its invention. Every light in the ceiling has a slightly different tone. The shades are open if their pulleys aren’t broken and through the windows is the taupey glow of street lights, and the red of car brake lights bounce off of the windows of the buildings across the street as traffic pauses, resumes, speeds up, halts, pauses, resumes, and so on. Twenty people who have each existed about 17 years sit around several white formica topped tables. Every one has just written for several minutes in 1-subject notebooks beginning with the phrase “There is something I have been meaning to tell you…” Some students sit very close to the table, pressed to it by the elevator shaft’s diameter. They await the voices. Then they begin. Going in a circle from the first to raise a hand, clockwise they take a breath and speak.The clock is three years behind. On the 8th floor the men stood and watched from behind the clock in the sharp light of mid morning as the women turned their backs and moved downstairs, where they sit around a table in a windowless room.

10 people sit variously posed in rough circle, angled on the east going inward south by the Bowery, light traveling into their eyeballs in the shapes of the letters of St. Mark’s Hotel except the one that is out. There is silence and they long after the moment of understanding. Know already whether they have achieved communication. Almost know before they enter the room. Having spent 20 to 25 years on earth, they are completely responsible. Completely responsible for producing understanding. But the sense of sound without earth’s force of gravity pervades their attempts. The universe follows the eternal growth model and consequently its emptiness increases.There is something we have said, but the vibrations of our voice boxes end where they begin and nothing tunnels into the ears. The universe has misplaced its Q-tips.

Downtown under the dome of sky whose atmosphere reflects back city lights hundreds of bodies are touched all over by the night air. Light bounces off of their forms and their cardboard signs into the camera lenses of high school students, and again from their negatives onto their pieces of photography paper, and again into the 5th floor lobby of the Cooper Union where they look out from the walls.

On the 7th floor at 8pm the ghost passed down the south stairwell, causing the door to widen open for a moment.

On the sidewalk in the afternoon a hundred people wonder in separate groups about the story. Mark Twain wrote: “the man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather.” Without roofs or walls they write and rewrite in many languages, and gradually they form their explanations, and at night they will grow busy in their compositions, and tomorrow they will show them to us

This writing is occasioned for me by the discussion, which became public in late October, between Cooper Union’s new President and some members of the Board of Trustees, as to whether The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, founded “to improve and elevate the working classes of the City of New York”, which has not charged tuition to any of its undergraduate students for the past hundred and nine years, could begin to charge the incoming class of 2013 and beyond. The concept of transforming the school’s educational-economic model into a tuition-based (perhaps even profit-based) model of most American higher education programs was introduced alongside the revelation that Cooper Union’s financial deficit, the President and head of the Board Mark Epstein say, will reach a crisis point if allowed to continue for three more years. Cooper Union’s endowment reached the height of $600 million in 2008. However, like a great number of individuals and institutions, its successes apparently rested on the assumption that the stock market would recover and economic growth would resume in order to pay for its loans and inflating costs. Now occupied with scrambling to uncover the details of the situation and creating solutions, the community does not understand why a proposal which would fundamentally alter the spirit of the institution, with an explanatory impending financial crisis, was presented instead of a public forum on the issue of the deficit itself, how it came about, and how to resolve it using our collective resources so that Cooper Union may continue to be a place where people come together, not pay, to do service to the global community by means of science and art.

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Words by Annabel Roberts-McMichael
Image by Nolan Hermann