NYC has a short memory

Today, the Staten Island neighbourhood that the Wu-Tang Clan came out of retains much of the hardscrabble working-class character it had when the group dubbed it “the slums of Shaolin”. Photo: Clarissa Sosin

Today, the Staten Island neighbourhood that the Wu-Tang Clan came out of retains much of the hardscrabble working-class character it had when the group dubbed it “the slums of Shaolin”. Photo: Clarissa Sosin

B-I-G
P-O-P-P-A
No info for the DEA
Federal agents mad cuz I’m flagrant
Tap my cell and my phone in the basement
– Notorious B.I.G. from “Mo Money Mo Problems”

I grew up on the crime side,
The New York Times side,
Stayin’ alive was no jive,
Had secondhands, Mom’s bounced on old man,
So then we moved to Shaolin land
– Raekwon of the Wu Tang Clan from “C.R.E.A.M.”

Following a declaration at the end of last year by New York City’s council to co-name 164 streets with notable figures from the city’s past, the street on which Notorious B.I.G’s childhood home sits will now bear his name — Christopher Wallace Way. Likewise, the intersection of Vanderbilt Avenue and Targee Street in Staten Island, where the Wu-Tang Clan shot some of their videos, will mark the location of a district named after them.

For fans of hip-hop, New York’s street corners and intersections are already a sort of living museum memorialised in lyrics memorised by diehard fans.
They also serve as a sort of unofficial map of the city’s tumultuous past. 

What form the memorialisation and preservation of hip-hop in New York City takes is still contentious. In the context of the banning of subway dancers and the removal of graffiti art, one can’t help but wonder: How would a stand-in for a young Wallace view the neighbourhood around the street named for him today?

Raised the son of a single, Jamaican-immigrant mother, Wallace was born in Brooklyn during one of the roughest social and economic periods of the borough’s history. Coming out of what was at the time considered a no-go zone by many New Yorkers, he was discovered and managed by a young Sean “Diddy” Combs. He would soon rocket to mainstream American consciousness on the back of gritty street tales, spun in intricate lyrical webs on top of popular R&B samples.

Biggie Smalls was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997 at the age of 24. At about the same time, the centre of bourgeois art in New York was shifting from Soho to the Lower East Side and east across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn. Its cheap rent and vast warehouse districts attracted punk and skater kids who would have been fans of Biggie, but lived a different daily reality to his. These young bohemians revived the borough, eventually leading to the creation of corporate media juggernauts such as Vice and Afropunk, which still sell Brooklyn as the contemporary epicentre of American cool. Biggie’s face was already dotted on the walls of this new creative mecca, so it was perhaps natural that he would become a sort of patron saint (replacing Catholic Saint James).

St James Place, in between Fulton Street and Gates Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, where Biggie Smalls lived,was renamed in his honour. Photo: Clarissa Sosin

His mantra “where Brooklyn at?” is still tumbling into the future off the walls of high-rise condos that have replaced dilapidated brownstones and warehouses.

The neighbourhood where Biggie grew up, Bedford-Stuyvesant, usually referred to as Bed-Stuy (Do or Die), is now unarguably called Clinton Hill. The apartment that Biggie grew up in sold for $825 000 in 2013 and the area is filled with upscale restaurants and shops. But, across Brooklyn, the remnants of the war against black communities, dubbed “The War on Drugs” by then-president Ronald Reagan, echo on in the form of killings by police, mass incarceration and displacement through gentrification.

The beauty of hip-hop is its ability to make visible the lives of young people on the margins of society. These young people, whether from Brooklyn, the South Side of Chicago, the favelas of Rio or the townships of Durban, are the true caretakers of Biggie Smalls’ legacy. So, in some ways, the official memorialisation of Bed-Stuy’s most iconic hip-hop figure by a city that seems content with the erasure of those he represented also seems like an official forgetting.

Just as Biggie emerged in the early 1990s, so too did the Wu-Tang Clan, founded in Staten Island by Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, aka the RZA. With a roster of about a dozen members, their debut release, Enter the 36 Chambers, would be hailed as one of the best rap albums of all time. They told street stories using abstract metaphors, linking their favourite kung fu movies with their everyday reality surrounded by hustlers and drug dealers. Each member eventually pursued a solo career, and many of the resulting albums would also enter into people’s top 10 of all time lists. The intersection of Targee and Vanderbilt streets where they would have witnessed the violence of the crack era, and where they filmed some of their most iconic videos, will now bear their name.

Today, the Staten Island neighbourhood that the Wu-Tang Clan came out of retains much of the hardscrabble working-class character it had when the group dubbed it “the slums of Shaolin”. Walk down Targee Street, past mini-marts and black beauty supply shops on the way to Park Hill, and you’ll see people of African descent with Southern-inflected New York drawls greet each other. Turn the corner on to Sobel Court and to your left you’ll see a mural dedicated to the fallen soldiers from Shaolin, signalling that you have entered a hip-hop mecca. But, once you enter the bowels of the sprawling apartment complex popularly known as the Park Hill Projects, something changes. The smell of palm oil might waft into your nostrils, the accents seem to change ever so slightly, and then you suddenly realise that the source of the Southern drawl isn’t South Carolina but rather Grand Bassa County, Liberia.

Founded by former slaves from the United States in 1822, Liberia and the US have always had a particularly intimate relationship. But it wasn’t until the Liberian Civil War, which took place from 1989 to 2003, that many Liberians fled the country and arrived in great numbers in the US.

The Park Hill housing complex became the greatest concentration of Liberians outside that country, sometimes leading to clashes between young African-American residents and their newly arrived African neighbours.

Today things have more or less improved for the residents of “Little Liberia”, but some challenges resulting from the current political environment remain. 

The story of Park Hill reflects wider demographic trends in New York City. Although African-Americans from the Bronx to Staten Island are getting pushed out, large influxes of African immigrants from across the continent are moving in, reshaping the city and shifting the cultural norms of its black population. Although the days of crack and cocaine dealing that the Wu-Tang Clan witnessed as youths and so deftly painted in lyrical gymnastics may be gone, the violence against communities of colour on behalf of the state remains, most clearly illustrated in Staten Island by a cellphone video of the murder of Eric Garner by police.

Beyond the already isolating reality of being part of a newly arrived immigrant community, this is also a reality that the Liberian community has to contend with as black Americans. So, what will it mean for the young Liberian-Americans of the nearby Park Hill Projects to live in the Wu-Tang Clan District? What legacies will they feel they are a part of, or not? What message is the city sending about its priorities?

The meaning behind statues, street names and murals occupy a particular place in our subconscious. Every once in a while these buried meanings are forced to the forefront of our minds. Around the world young activists of colour awaken these buried meanings as a symbolic reckoning with colonial and white supremacist legacies such as Cecil John Rhodes in South Africa and Confederate general Robert E Lee in the US.

Although the attempt to honour the lyricists of New York hip-hop’s storied past is admirable, the gesture in the time of gentrification and displacement seems, at best, romantic and, at worst, politically regressive. What it means for the current generation of working-class black and brown youth in New York, many of whom are the first of their families to be born in the US, is also not yet clear.

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