Chelsea Awaits the RNC: Angry, Apathetic, Apprehensive

Election '04

Chelsea, the neighborhood closest to the Republican Convention, is decidedly not Bush country. On New York's electoral map, both the Penn South Houses, a nonprofit co-op dominated by elderly working-class Jews, and the Elliott-Chelsea projects across Ninth Avenue stand out distinctly as several shades more Democratic than the rest of lower Manhattan. To the south, below 23rd Street, Eighth Avenue is second only to Christopher Street as the main drag of gay New York.

Six weeks before the convention opens at Madison Square Garden, the strongest sentiment in the neighborhood seems to be a wish that it would happen somewhere else. "I'm miserable. Can you imagine what's going to happen?" asks a white-haired woman sitting behind her walker on a bench in Penn South, the six blocks of high-rises that line Eighth Avenue a few streets south of the Garden. "I'm a Democrat, so what do I want with the Republicans?"

"It's going to be hell for us around here," adds Carmen Ramos, a middle-aged woman who lives in the Elliott-Chelsea Houses on West 26th Street. "Chaos!" exclaims a black woman with close-cropped gray hair waiting at the counter of a Chinese-takeout restaurant just across the street from the Garden. "Why couldn't they have it somewhere else?"

"People are very, very angry about the Bush agenda," says Estelle Katz of Chelsea for Peace, based on her experiences tabling in the neighborhood. "There are only a few people who say anything pro-Bush." The antipathy to Bush doesn't necessarily translate into sympathy for the protesters, though. "Who wants Bush? I don't want Bush!" exclaims a Penn South resident, but she dismisses a leftist bi-weekly that's distributed in the complex as "that communist paper." Others worry that protesters will try to sleep on the complex's lawns and playgrounds. In a nearby building, a goateed Puerto Rican man in his mid-thirties worries that the protests will keep him and his family awake. "You know there's gonna be some blowhard with nothing better to do, screaming all night."

Penn South management has already warned co-op members to "if at all possible, stay inside" during the convention, to carry photo ID in case police seal the area, and to avoid Eighth Avenue, which will be closed. But many people seem to lump the hassles of a police state together with a vague notion of the demonstrations as "trouble." "It's frightening," says a woman in her sixties, the youngest-looking one on the benches. "So many people expressing their hostility, us having to carry photo ID." Like the other women on the benches, she doesn't want to give her name.

Still, a random sample of Saturday-afternoon pedestrians in the area-people in the impromptu flea market of jewelry and old videocassettes outside Elliott-Chelsea; the aged bubbes sharing the Penn South benches with their Jamaican health-care aides; and passers-by outside the Big Cup coffeehouse on Eighth Avenue, a popular caffeination spot for the kind of men George Bush doesn't want to get married-finds more people who wish Bush dead than ones who say they'll vote for him.

"Bush should be executed and tried for treason," explodes a sixtyish white man-he refuses to give his name-standing outside Elliott-Chelsea. Bush took power under "false pretenses," the man sputters, and the Republicans coming to New York is "terrible and a disgrace."

"Send 'em back where they came from," rages Calvin, a fortyish, shaven-headed black man selling used jeans on Ninth Avenue. "The economy is messed up. I've been looking for a job for eight months. I've never been out of work for eight months in twenty-five years. It's disgusting." He's not going to join the protests, though. "I'm not going anywhere near there," he explains. "You might get arrested for walking on the wrong block."

About the most positive sentiment anyone musters about the convention comes from Mark, a 51-year-old resident of Clinton, the neighborhood northwest of the Garden. He opines that "it's wonderful to bring all that money to town." He pauses. "I plan to be out of town that week." The protests, he adds, should be allowed inside the Garden.

The Republicans should "absolutely not" come to the neighborhood, says David, a thirtyish Asian-American standing outside the Big Cup with his companion. He doesn't specify the "obvious reasons" why he feels that way, but later shyly asks if any of the protests will be "gay-affiliated."

Nick Curto, handing out flyers for the "Fresh Fruit" theatre festival, says the protesters "deserve to be heard" and "should be in a prominent place." If Bush had his way, he jokes, "they'd probably be in Connecticut."

Many neighborhood residents, however, have minimal knowledge of what's happening with the convention. Fewer still have followed the details of which streets will be closed and which groups are protesting. "There hasn't been much reaction," says Gloria Sukenick, a Penn South resident and longtime housing activist. "All I've heard is mild irritation. People don't want to be inconvenienced." She herself, like several other neighborhood activists, has been focused mainly on trying to stop Mayor Bloomberg's plans to pack Chelsea and Clinton with office towers, luxury high-rises, and a new stadium.

"The younger folks are the ones who are really coming out. The older folks are tired, they've struggled, and a lot of them are not well," says Estelle Katz. "Most people are opposing the war now, but they haven't woken up to that their voting rights might be taken away, There are a lot of spokes to the wheel." And in a Penn South laundry room one night, a middle-aged man notes that his window faces the Garden and wonders what his rights are. "If the FBI comes to my door," he asks, "can I tell them to go fuck themselves?"

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