Given the location of the projects where I grew up, people actually thought we were from a fancy neighborhood. From a young age, I became hyperaware of where I lived: The Jacob Riis Houses, located on Avenue D in Manhattan, between East 6th Street and East 13th Street. It’s public housing managed by NYCHA, but people will say, “Oh, wow, you live in the East Village? Great food in that area!” But in this city, crossing a single street can mean being in a completely different tax bracket. New York is filled with these microcosms, great neighborhoods with great food, parks, nightlife — and just across the street, a different narrative. It’s one of policing, conflict, and suppression.
As I got older, this divide became clearer and clearer. On my side of the line, police presence was the norm. Walking to school? Police. Going to a summer job? Police. Made it to school? Police greet you as you walk through metal detectors, a reminder that we were always being watched. The system was imposed on me, on us, whenever I stepped outside.
Floodlights hover above Avenue D, blasting brightness and noise, the constant hum of their petrol engines. They surround every building and everybody. People move quickly; businesses close early.
But on Avenue C, one street west, rows of businesses are open and masses of people drink on the street. Cute shrink lights adorn white picket fences. The energy is relaxed, and the atmosphere is casual. Nobody sips their beer nervously. Nobody is worried a cop will pull up.
New York City has public-drinking laws, of course, which include the regulation of open containers. Some New Yorkers have treated the city’s temporary takeout-cocktail laws as a cause for celebration, an opening of the streets. New Orleans meets Manhattan. But not me. While bars and restaurants reopen, the lines between which people get to enjoy these laws and which people do not are clearer than ever before. There are no alfresco dinner parties in the projects.
Recently, on an evening walking through Tompkins Square Park, I stumbled upon what I can only describe as Coachella in the city. It was a block party within the park, a boom box accompanied by a large LED light show, a pandemic discotheque. And, yes, you guessed it, there was alcohol. Beer, wine, and cocktails from all of the neighboring bars. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant reprieve, but it only brought the divisions into sharper focus.
Things weren’t all that different before COVID. People would lie on the lawn and enjoy white wine and beer. Back on Avenue D, it was a different story. On May 3, around 5:30 p.m., I witnessed an act of police brutality right on the street where I grew up. A plainclothes police officer approached two people and asked them to disperse. As the arrest took place, a bystander named Daquan Owens started recording the incident. He describes two people talking outside a deli, social distancing, living their lives. A confrontation ensued. Another bystander, Donni Wright, was punched and thrown to the ground. An officer can be seen kneeling on Wright’s head.
How can we exist in these parallel worlds, in one of the most liberal cities in America? Some people can walk confidently while drinking in public, flouting laws — coronavirus has even got cocktail bartenders gentrifying nutcrackers — while others worry about being attacked by cops for standing outside a deli, following the law? Nobody is drinking pouches of colorful cocktails underneath the floodlights on Avenue D.
As a kid from the hood, you learn at a young age that the good guys aren’t really the good guys. You are taught to behave a certain way while on the street. COVID-19 has laid this bare. It’s okay for some people to play outside — and it’s not okay for others.
Whether or not these laws were written with racist intent, the enforcement is consistently carried out in a hateful and racist manner. It gives police the opportunity to stop and punish certain people for something that everyone does. It’s clear that if you enjoy a drink in a public space like, say, Central Park, or on the sidewalk of your brownstone, you are not as likely to be policed, to be watched, to be told what to do.
If public drinking is socially acceptable for some, how will these laws change after COVID? If the city plans on keeping these restrictions “relaxed,” will the police and government allow similar freedoms to everyone?
Realistically, I might actually have a beer walking down the street, but I understand there’s a weird privilege to it. I live between worlds — I’m still a photographer, still a young professional — and it’s not the same as my peers on Avenue D. Not all of my friends can walk down the street, getting buzzed, not thinking about the cops.