Photos by Brennan Cavanaugh
(We rather spontaneously interviewed longtime Stop Shopping advocate and current Green Party candidate for Mayor Reverend Billy Talen and despite interruptions — at one point, in his zeal, he wandered out of cell phone transmission range — got some of his ideas for “bringing the city back to the streets.” He jumped around a bit, and so will we.)
So what’s it been like, running for Mayor?
I don’t know what to compare it to in my lifetime. It feels like a gritty, novel of the streets — feels like Richard Price, combined with a touch of Italo Calvino.
People are literally standing their doorways wanting to defend their neighborhoods That’s visceral, that is in the air, and that’s our slogan: The Rise of the Fabulous 500 Neighborhoods. There’s epidemic of evictions by the landlord-developer-predatory-equity landlords — there’s a phrase tenants rights people use: a war on families. There are whole sections of our city where raising your child, having a stable family situation, is becoming impossible because market forces are a virulent storm…
Let’s imagine you’ve been elected Mayor. What do we call you? Mr. Mayor, or Mayor Billy, or Reverend Mayor —
Reverend Mayor! That’s the way people are saying it. That’s good, it’s got the right hip-hop infection.
What’s the agenda for the first 100 days?
There’s the way that Giuliani and Bloomberg let this tragedy of immigration abuse, this American gulag taking place right inside these faceless warehouses, these for-profit prisons take place. We just visited one in Elizabeth, New Jersey… you flee for your life from some civil war somewhere, your life is saved, and you’re on the plane coming to America and you see the Statue of Liberty in the window — and then these mysterious security people take you away in shackles and you’re in these prisons.
That’s the first thing: I would close the detention centers. I would disinvite ICE, the biggest federal agency in Homeland Security. I would not let the most vulnerable among us be treated that way.
How would you deal with immigrants then?
You have a conversation, maybe you vet them a little bit. With all the money we’re spending, they have 33,000 people in these prisons — but New York of all places, it’s an immigrant city, we should welcome them. Be happy when they get to JFK! They’re happy to get here. Let’s get back to that…
And we have to have a green city. This city can’t export its garbage to the rest of the city just because we can afford to pay for it. That’s not what a city does, that’s what a corporation does. The earth is sitting at the table at every meeting we have. I’m the candidate of the Green Party and that’s hard for a lot of New Yorkers, even progressives, to get their heads around. But all the climate change models have the water rising up in our streets.
What a leader would do isn’t something like Bloomberg’s Plan 2030 — that’s greenwashing, gradualism, naive. He can sell it to us because of all the advertising. But you can’t be that timid about green issues… We have to support mass transit and shift the culture. It can’t be an easy decision to drive a car right now. That’s leadership, going among the public and showing that it’s impossible.
Let’s say you’re taking your program to the city council, and says Christine Quinn says we have to make some adjustments here —
Yetta Kurlander is gonna overwhelm her in the Chelsea district, Christine sold her soul to the devil and I’m sorry, she’s got to go in the desert and pray for 40 days and 40 nights. She has aroused real opposition in her home district. As long as we’re fantasizing, let’s fantasize Yetta in that seat.
Okay, so let’s say you have a sympathetic city council —
In some ways we already do. There’s the strongest rent control conversation going on now than we’ve seen in 15 or 20 years. I don’t know what kind of bill is coming, but you can’t be a public official and not be aware of the eviction-foreclosure epidemic. It reached a fever pitch last year when the cranes were falling on our heads, he had a corrupt agency that was being paid off, and every two or three days a worker would die — retaining walls were falling, it was a tragicomedy in that hyper-development phase and, I believe, Mike Bloomberg’s equivalent of Bush’s Katrina. Remember a year ago, in May, the Mayor assembled a press conference in front of the rubble of a fallen crane and said let’s go for it! Don’t let them stop us! They barely had the bodies out of the rubble — it was a mortal embarrassment.
We have a greatness in this city and it doesn’t come from mayorally building things in to the sky, it doesn’t come from making some people rich. We have here a place where working families live side by side with artists, and they create safe and exciting neighborhoods together.
Where’s the money going to come from?
The big ask for the stimulus plan is medicare relief that I wish they’d give New York… the source of stimulus funds are federal, and to the extent we can influence their expenditure, I would encourage it to go to neighborhoods as opposed to big banks. Bloomberg’s bubble economy has made us all unsafe… The neighborhoods that have been outside of that edge of gentrification and all the forms it takes, the neighborhoods that are free of that invading financial monoculture — those neighborhoods are okay. Their credit unions are accepting deposits and they’re loaning money out…
Bloomberg is aiding and abetting a bubble economy that considers the boroughs and neighborhoods to be a soft colony, a third-world country that you invade with your extracting industries. If you give a dollar bill to FedEx or Kinkos, 50 cents goes away, you can’t follow it. You give a dollar bill to the Source Copy Shop on 9th Street, you see that dollar bill come back into th community — Santo and Margaret, they’re local people, they’ll spend that dollar right there. That’s the magic of neighborhoods — neighborhoods are economies. But they’re not corporations! Corporations have to expand every quarter, and we’ve seen what happens from that: chaos and mayhem.
You were at NYU last week. What happened there?
I was at Gallatin at 715 Broadway, where I was interviewed by Gary Hunter, and then walked to Kimmel and tried to be a moderating influence between the police and the anarchist kids who were intent on shutting down the street — there were some people trapped in tax cabs, I tried to wave ’em through. There I was, bouncing around in my cobalt blue suit. It was a near riot…
NYU has fallen into an opposition to the neighborhood. They have the corporate model, with billionaires like Tisch, just trying to grow bigger — they should invent a sustainable university.
As Mayor, are you still going to go out in the streets?
You have to embody your post, you have to be out there with the people who elected you. We’re out of practice. The present politicans are highly protected, the police are militarized. You have to go out there and take that risk.
Some of my preparation for bringing the city back to the streets is that I’ve been on those sidewalks, preaching on the subway, trying to break through that embarrassment zone. At the beginning in the 90s this was a performance art project. Then came 9/11, and I became a real pastor.
Was it a call from God?
It was call from people, and God is in people, the earth is in people. I tend not to make gods up, that doesn’t help, in fact we seem to end up killing each other. People are on a spiritual quest but they’ve walked away from organized religion.
So the original parody of an Elvis-impersonator religion got washed away by the tragedy, and we had to be together and take care of people… We miss our art form sometimes, but our church is a commons, it’s where people gather, a public space to gather and wish each other the best — that’s what prayer is.
I regard a healthy neighborhood as a kind of holy place where people can share stories and laugh and push each other around in a joshing way, and make sure the cars are slowing down for their children, and a place of independent shops where the shopkeeper knows the products and it isn’t a $8 an hour entrapment but a healthy place where we service each other: How we can help you? How can I be of service? And money comes later.
That’s fun — and that’s why I laugh so much. That’s where the greatness of New York is, waiting for us to recognize it and cultivate it. That’s the flower of our culture. The people we think of as our leaders, the Charlie Parkers and the Allen Ginsbergs and the Zola Neale Hurstons and the people we think of as having created this amazing city… You look at their lives, they were bouyed up by their neighborhoods. And their neighborhoods have been allowed to die. Now we have silent neighborhoods where you can’t live for less than $200,000 a year and there’s no culture at all. Culture’s got to be public, it’s got to be on the streets. Since Giuliani, the police methodically break up any group of three or more people they come across. But those people are us, that’s America.
People say they don’t connect Bloomberg’s third term to what I’m talking about. They localize it as a maneuver by power — but it has a huge impact: It makes people lazy, vague, not interested in government. Their citizenship fades — they know its not a democracy anymore, and they pull back. It’s a natural thing to do. He’s running against democracy. It’s Bloomberg vs. New York City!
We have a raffish humor and music and its in the streets and in our speech, and a generosity, and we make it livable for each other. We might be boisterous but we care about each other. And I want to bring New York back to that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 21, 2009