“Sociologically he’s sick,” Officer Krupke edition

In recently watching the 2021 film version of West Side Story, this stanza from “Gee, Officer Krupke” stood out.

Yes, Officer Krupke you’re really a slob
This boy don’t need a doctor just a good honest job
Society’s played him a terrible trick
And sociologically he’s sick

The whole song plays with this idea: the Jets are not responsible for their actions as they have been failed by their families and society. Elsewhere in the song, they are said to have a “social disease.” Sure, you could penalize an individual offender – with the police, analysts, social workers, and the courts involved in the song – but that would fail to reckon with the sizable social problems at hand. Of course, the song is meant to invoke laughs.

How much is an individual an individual given their social surroundings? This is one of the questions I raise early on in an Introduction to Sociology class. In the United States, the emphasis is typically on the individual: they make their own choices, develop their own identity, and are responsible for their own actions. Sociology pushes back on that individualistic emphasis by analyzing the social facts and forces that shape and outlive individuals. And West Side Story has its own ideas about individuals and society with its retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

Claim: Broadway brought NYC back from the 1975 brink

A New York journalist suggests Broadway helped revive the city and improve Times Square:

Much credit typically goes to mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up vice districts, pushed out undesirables and clamped down on nuisance crimes. Once the infrastructure was functioning and crime reduced, the argument usually goes, the natural asset of a great city, the draw of its history, the life-affirming force of its romance, its prestige and its pull, could all be trusted to work their magic. The politicians just had to make it possible for New York to be New York.

But Riedel argues that it was actually the theater and restaurant owners — people sick of plying their struggling trade in an environment that was collapsing all around them — who did the real work on the ground that transformed the fortunes of New York. The offices of Gotham City chugged along; people could head home right after work. But you can’t run an entertainment or dinner business if the police are telling people to get off the streets by 6 p.m.

So, in Riedel’s telling, the late Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization went to work, back there in the mid-1970s. He harassed cops on the take to do their jobs and arrest the pimps and prostitutes; he organized all of the businesses in and around Times Square so that they had a collective voice; he found private cash to fill the potholes and empty the garbage cans that the city was leaving full; he waged war against corruption and vice. Retail-style.

With some well-chosen allies, he went about this mission block by block, nasty business by nasty business, sometimes resorting to unsavory, hardball tactics. This was controversial at the time — streetwalkers had rights — but Schoenfeld and his pals also were confronting a massive sex business with documented ties to the mafia — a sex business that dominated the very streets where kids now go to see “Aladdin.” Schoenfeld’s contribution was not least his figuring out that the one had to go before the other could arrive. Ergo, the circle of life.

This may be a popular argument these days about those in the arts and some urbanists: culture industries can help revive moribund cities or neighborhoods. The artists or creative types move in first and then others follow, drawn by the intriguing cultural experiences and economic opportunities.

The story above complicates the narrative a bit though. These theaters had been present for a while – they didn’t move in all the sudden in the mid 1970s. The theater industry also had resources in terms of social connections and money to use – poor artists they were not. The narrative told above may lend itself more to growth machine models of urban development rather than cultural ones. A collection of powerful business owners (probably with the aid of political leaders) were able to make things happen behind the scenes to clean up and revive Times Square.

Quick Review: Nickel and Dimed (theater version)

I recently saw Nickel and Dimed in a local theater production. The text is a staple of Introduction to Sociology classes but I was not aware until recently that the 2001 book had been adapted for the stage. While the New York Times reviewed the play in its 2006 New York City debut, I have a few thoughts about the production I saw:

1. Like the book, the play follows Barbara to her three new professions that pay minimum wage (or a little higher): working as a waitress at Kenny’s, working as a housecleaner for a maids company, and working on the sales floor at Mall-Mart. From what I remember of the book, the basic story is the same: Barbara decides to do this in order to understand the experiences of the American working poor, finds that the work is physically taxing and also takes time to master, and concludes that such a life is quite difficult and unfair.

2. Besides Barbara, the key characters are some of her co-workers. These people are often caught in dead-end jobs that offer little money and few or no benefits. With nowhere else to go, some of the coworkers doggedly follow the rules in order to maintain their jobs, others rebel a bit, while others show Barbara compassion that she was not expecting to need. In the final moments of the play, we hear about some of these workers have fared in the long run even as Barbara has returned to her cushy life.

2a. One of the more interesting scenes from these co-workers comes toward the end of the play when her Mal-Mart manager speaks directly to the audience for a few moments. As a manager, he says “the numbers don’t lie” and suggests that there is little that can be done to improve work for he or his employees as the prices dictate the wages and benefits. Of course, he is suggesting that the problem extends higher up in the company.

3. One of the fun parts of the evening was thinking about how the audience was reacting to these scenes. Barbara plays up some of the class conflict ideas and says some uncomfortable things, particularly to a fairly wealthy, suburban crowd.

4. This particular production included four musical numbers which I don’t believe are part of the typical stage production. While I am not a fan of musicals, I thought these numbers added something to the show. I always find it interesting to hear cheerful-sounding numbers about less-than-cheerful themes such as unjust working conditions.

5. Several of my students saw the show and their comments to me suggested that the play hit an emotional nerve in a way that a lecture on social class in America in my Intro to Sociology course has a hard time doing. In additional conversations, we found that my students and I have worked in some similar jobs but the difference was that we knew that we had better educational and career options down the road.

Overall, I enjoyed thinking about these topics in a new way though the theater. Now that Ehrenreich’s book is 10 years old, is there another book that was recently published or that is in the works that can address some of the same issues while attaining the popularity of Nickel and Dimed? That might be a tall task but such works help keep sociological discussions alive in the public sphere.

(I also found that Ehrenreich’s personal page for the book includes positive reviews from a number of sociologists.)

Turning Robert Moses’ life into a musical

Among American planners and builders, Robert Moses is a towering figure. In much of the early 20th century, Moses exerted a tremendous amount of power in the New York City region and had some impressive achievements. What better way to honor him than to turn his life into a musical?

This Saturday the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is offered a sneak peak of “Robert Moses Astride New York,” a musical about New York’s infamous infrastructure czar. In honor of the event a reporter from the New York Times watched a recent rehearsal in the company of Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer-winning and iconic biography of Moses, The Power Broker. Caro, it appears, enjoyed the performance:

Mr. Caro said he was particularly pleased by the musical’s last section, which recalls Moses’ dedication of a bench in Flushing Meadows, one of the parks he’d built. It is the poignant scene that concludes “The Power Broker,” in which Moses wonders why he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated.

Turning infrastructure into song. I would be curious to read the lyrics to the other songs to see how Moses, a polarizing figure, is portrayed.

How many people outside of New York City are aware of the legacy of Robert Moses?