Broken Glass, Broken American Dream: Hip Hop’s Come a Long Way From the South Bronx to Times Square

New America Media, Published December 5, 2008

Editor’s Note — The new art exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York — Broken Glass — gives the commentator a shocking view of the South Bronx during the time Hip Hop was making it’s first infant cries in the poverty stricken borough. Russell Morse is a New York based writer for New America Media.

NEW YORK — On a recent crisp afternoon, I walked through Central Park with my hands in my pockets to the Museum of the City of New York. Up a short flight of stairs, I found an exhibit called Broken Glass, a collection of photographs from Ray Mortenson, taken in the abandoned neighborhoods of the South Bronx in the early 80s. I spent over an hour walking from one photo to the next, crunching my forehead and shifting on my feet.

The images are astonishingly bleak portraits: a vacant lot littered with umbrella skeletons, cinder blocks, tattered car seats, empty anti-freeze jugs and paint cans, sitting in the shadow of sad-faced, hulking, sinking apartment buildings of smudged brick and melted fire escapes. The interior shots are striking in a more personal way: floors covered in rubble, a tiny t-shirt still on a coat hanger. There is not a single human form in any of the photographs. These are images of an abandoned and lifeless place, like Chernobyl or Dresden or the liquefied Jewish Ghettos of World War II. This is what the alien visitors will find once we finally off ourselves.

The tragedy of the South Bronx in this era was the result of a perfect storm of American experiments: freeway building, slum clearing, the middle class exodus to the suburbs and eventually, the instantly popular Ronald Reagan/Rick Ross crack-cocaine collaboration. There was also, of course, the vaguely named and now echoed “fiscal crisis of New York City.”

This is the desolate wasteland that spawned the most influential cultural movement of my generation: Hip Hop. In fact, the name of the show “Broken Glass”, is taken from a line in the iconic Grandmaster Flash song, The Message:

Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs
You know they just don’t care
I cant take the smell, I cant take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice

Later that same evening, I went for a walk around Times Square. On the day American auto executives panhandled in Washington DC, the largest and most prominent movie screen in the square flashes dazzling advertisements for GM vehicles. The ad that loops this night is for the Pontiac Vibe, an absurd and cartoonish vehicle. In the commercial, the car is hawked by an absurd and cartoonish rapper named Shwayze, who raps in his song Buzzin about girls and backyard parties over a mellow and summery LA beat. Shwayze is among those in my generation who is famous for being famous: he had a song, a reality show on MTV, a Pontiac Vibe commercial and now the sun appears to be setting on his beach party.

Sadly, Shwayze, Buzzin and the Vibe can’t save General Motors, but this appears to be all they’ve got. On the Morgan Stanley building next door, acronyms and numbers zip past: SBUX, KFT, ADBE. None of the numbers are positive.

The second most prominent screen in the square also has a rapper on it. It’s playing the video for a song called Pop Champagne, which features Jim Jones, who (oddly enough) took his name from the cult leader famous for his role in the mass suicide of 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, 40 years ago last month. The music video is a montage of Jim Jones and company pouring champagne on women, pouring champagne onto a giant cascading pyramid of glasses, pouring champagne on themselves, pouring champagne on the ground, and so forth.

The message of the song seems to draw from the Scarface mantra, uttered by Michelle Pfeifer: “nothing exceeds like excess”.

Jim Jones, incidentally, is from Harlem, where the unemployment rate for young black men recently passed fifty percent. It is also just across the river from the South Bronx, birthplace of the culture and now home to the some of the highest foreclosure rates in New York City. A new ghost town looms.

All that I know of the epic poverty of the past comes to me through art: the Broken Glass photographs of the South Bronx, the plain prose of Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Melle Mel’s words in The Message. Most of the time it’s unreal, like peering backwards through a twisted, dirty kaleidoscope.

In the past months, though, some of those images have appeared before me, very real: the young man on the street, near tears, asking for money for infant milk, the lost group of men and women huddled around a campfire, living in tents and makeshift shacks in the woods of Athens, Georgia.

And what in our culture is reflecting this anxiety, this terrifying early skid? Nothing. Jim Jones is drinking champagne through a straw and Shwayze is selling a car that nobody wants for a company that will be bankrupt by Christmas.