How Gentrification Is Criminalizing New York City’s Subway Dancers

How Gentrification Is Criminalizing New York City's Subway Dancers
Photo Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine for Okayplayer

Priscilla Ward breaks down just how gentrification and the police are criminalizing ‘Showtime’ for a generation of youth looking to make a way for themselves.

Gentrification is shifting the culture of MTA’s underground performance ecosystem, particularly for African American and Hispanic youth. Police are finding a means of controlling what can’t be taxed and removing an art form misunderstood, but present since the 1980s. There’s a fourth wall that exist between Showtime performers, passengers riding the train and the police. There’s a language of survival that exist within the Showtime community that’s misinterpreted. Unfortunately, it is written off as a crime. Showtime has a way of commanding attention. It’s a form of hip-hop. Meanwhile, New York newbies have deemed it disruptive and unsafe.

As an alternative, programs such as Showtime NYC and Music Underground are zoning Showtime performance to places like Battery Park and Union Square. Police are advised to handout slips to performers with information about where they can, rather than arresting them. Ainsely Brundage, a former Showtime performer, said, “It’s micromanaged and structured in a way that puts limitations on dancers and performers in general.”

He started performing at the age of 14 and stopped in 2014. During his stint he was arrested 14 times and experienced all manner of rudeness from subway passengers, from being called the n-word to being tripped. It was never about a childhood hobby when Brundage started dancing on the train, it was about making money for food. The criminalization of the Showtime performance over the last couple of years has caused an erasure of a job market, while redefining what is permissible and impermissible when it comes to performance on the MTA. While Brundage was trying to make ends meet by dancing, he was also trying to figure out what freedom of expression meant apart from his home.

One of the most vivid examples of having his freedom of expression policed at home was when his father cut off his locs.

“I came to the realization that my last exhale was when I had locs. The moment that my stepfather forced me to the barbershop, forced the barber to cut my hair because he thought that was the reason I was getting in trouble and misbehaving in school. Ever since then I feel like I’ve never been the same. Over the years I’ve made attempts to grow my hair back, because I feel like that was my way of trying to reconnect to that feeling of actually being free,” Brundage said.

A policed state is something he’s had to work with his entire life. So for Brundage these “organized” efforts of controlling Showtime performance are seen as yet another attempt to police. “These programs are great and all. Zoned performances and all, that’s great. But we need to decriminalize it. Because while they are doing zoned performances people are still being arrested for performing on the train. And I think that’s wrong.”

Brundage is only 22, but his resilient response to life is a fully formed testimony. A Midtown pizzeria is where we first met. Without many introductory questions, he immediately began to share his life’s story. He opens up about his tremulous relationship with his family, being kicked out of his home and going from homeless to becoming an acting student all within a year’s time.

Originally from Bushwick, Brooklyn, he was raised in a West Indian household by his stepfather and mother. During his time living at home, he chronicles how his parents wouldn’t feed him. His stepfather even went so far as to lock food away.

Showtime was his meal ticket. He learned by getting on the train at 2 and 3 a.m. when the carts were empty and trying out routines.

Most Showtime performers have a team they do routines with, but for the most part Brundage was a one-man show. He said, he wanted to make as much money as possible by doing it alone. On a good week he could easily make between $800 and $1000 dollars, which he used to attend his first year of school at Brooklyn College.

During his time as a solo Showtime performer he met Malcolm Fraser. “We both just met each other through hard times. That’s how we just started dancing on the train together. I have a hat, you have a radio, let’s make this money together,” Fraser said.

Ainsley’s performance name was Top Star, which he has tattooed on his forearm. “That’s what he considered himself to be a ‘top star’,” Fraser said. Fraser went by Richie Rich after his uncle’s name. Fraser began dancing on the train when he was 15.

The two formed a brotherly bond, Fraser only a year older than Brundage would teach him various moves. And then just like that it all came to an end for the two in 2015, they found new jobs where there wasn’t a constant risk of being arrested.

How Gentrification Is Criminalizing New York City's Subway Dancers

Photo Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine for Okayplayer

Fraser is originally from the Brownsville, Brooklyn, and is still teaching. We spoke for the first time over the phone, where he began to share his stories of encountering the police and effects of gentrification as a Showtime performer. “They complain about these kids who are just trying to make money for food, or find a way out. Nobody likes looking at the dirty train. And you complain about these kids dancing. That’s what gentrification does. The culture is hustle.”

Fraser has an international audience and dances on above ground platforms. He’s traveled everywhere from London to China showing others the techniques of litefeet dancing. However, both Brundage and Fraser noted that they would never go back to Showtime performing.

“I would rather put myself in a performance light, where people come to you. It’s kind of a degrading feeling. It’s kind of embarrassing. That’s not everyone’s take on it. You learned out of necessity, because there was no other way for me to eat,” Fraser said.

Today, they are using their craft in a different light. They’ve even had the opportunity to star in an Intel commercial together.

“I like to give people an outlet to express themselves. I don’t have a set place that I teach right now. I have people who are willing to fly me overseas. I have a set job in London and I’ve taught in China,” Fraser said.

He hopes to one day own a lot of land and have a lot of arts programs. “People are really connected to the arts in some sort of way. I think if the arts caught us at an earlier age, and killed our ego it would really change things,” Fraser said. Brundage’s plans for the future include attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts for acting. There are plenty of other narratives similar to Fraser and Brundage’s.

Black and Hispanic youth in the city deserve spaces where they can make money while exercising their freedom of expression, ones that aren’t policed. Showtime is not meant to be polite and this where it’s unfortunate relationship with law enforcement stems from.

Like Brundage, Fraser his experienced getting ticketed and arrested during his time as a Showtime performer. “I danced really clean. I try not to kick anyone. They just saw that I had speakers on me. They knew that I had just finished dancing. That’s the only reason they ticketed me,” Fraser said. Eventually, the $100 ticket Fraser received was dropped. He noted that it all started because they finally realized how much untaxed money these kids were making. “They move to New York for the culture and then call the cops on the culture,” Fraser said.

“People who don’t understand, people come here and romanticize our struggles. They turn it into something for profit, that’s what is happening,” Fraser said.

Subway performances like violin, guitar and piano playing are engaged with like a harmless backdrop.

How Gentrification Is Criminalizing New York City's Subway Dancers

Photo Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine for Okayplayer

One Organization’s Fear of Gentrifying Subway Performance Culture

Matthew Christian is the founder of Busk NY, an organization that believes in a New York where public performance is a vibrant and celebrated part of artistic life. Christian, originally from Vermont, started the organization three years ago after moving to New York and choosing to play his guitar on the subway platform as a hobby.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to perform and one of my favorite things was the larger town near mine had a festival where they would gather on Main Street and a local business invited my brother and I to play, and that was my favorite thing. So when I came to the city after college, I learned that performance was allowed in the subway, so I went out for the first time in 2011 and the second day I went out I was wrongfully arrested and that was sort of my introduction,” Christian said.

Back in 2013, Christian was arrested for playing his guitar on the subway platform. Since then, his organization has built a community around performers who have had similar experiences. We first met near Grand Central on 42nd Street, where he began to discuss the community that Busk NY has formed since its inception.

Christian said he believes Busk NY is potentially aiding in the work of gentrifying subway performance culture. Busk NY is faced with the challenge of making sure their work is reflective of and advocating for the diversity of subway performers and not just another white faced organization unconsciously becoming a fresh face for subway performances. Instead, organizations such as Busk NY have to do the work of breaking through the cultural barriers that exist between Showtime performing just trying to make a living and those playing an instrument on the subway platform as a hobby.

“It’s not common in the city to see young black men or Hispanic men get a chance to perform, so it’s really powerful particularly as a high school teacher to see them in that space,” Christian said.

Showtime Diagnosed With Broken Windows Policing

Former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton diagnosed Showtime performance in the MTA with Broken Windows Policing.

In theory Broken Windows Policing was implemented to prevent “disruptive” anti-social behavior and vandalism. Introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, it was an extension of “Stop and Frisk” and became just another excuse to troll and terrorize Showtime performers to the point of largely putting an end to it on the MTA.

The rise of gentrification is rewriting the rules of what can and can’t be done in public spaces based off preconceived ideas of what is a potential “threat.” As neighborhood demographics change and longtime residents are priced out, it’s important that we consider gentrifications many repercussions on marginalized communities of color.

These laws were written without prior knowledge of the people, their language or economy that came before it. These days Showtime performances are pretty scarce. It’s a treat if you get to experience it even once a month during your daily commute on the MTA.

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Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured on Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.

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