A friend of mine recently returned home from California after two months traveling in France and England. As he unpacked his bags and settled back into his house, he sorted the foreign coins and bills accumulated while traveling and unspent at duty-free. Looking ahead to future travel, he organized the currency into separate packets; when he was done, he had an unusual coin left over. Not sure what it was, he sent me a photo, asking if might be legal tender and if so, where.
It is in fact a very rare and interesting coin that was once legal tender in a place many of us call the People’s Republic of New York. They could be inserted into analog machines at the entrances to the most expansive public transit system in the world as payment of the fare; once in the system one could ride as far as one wanted for a flat fare. They could also be spent, at full value, to buy snacks and sodas in bodegas and delis out in parts of Brooklyn like Bedford-Stuyvesant before they were gentrified. I know this because, one day in architecture school and short of cash, I paid for lunch with one.
Artifacts like old coins tell us about worlds past, and this is no exception. The People’s Republic of New York existed de facto as a city-state that enjoyed a unique status in the US as the center of culture, art, innovation, fashion, finance, commerce, architecture, and industry. While the quality of its leaders varied, it was generally well-regarded as an enlightened progressive democracy that administered, in addition to its world-class transit system, an extensive network of public hospitals and clinics, the largest public housing program in the nation, and one of the oldest and largest public park systems in the country, free and accessible to all. The Republic was also committed to education, a legacy of both the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th Century, who valued education above all, and the reform movements of the early 20th century; the result was the creation of the largest public school system in the U.S. that produced generations of progressive leaders, successful professionals, acclaimed scientists, and world-renowned business people, and a municipal university best known for producing more Nobel laureates than the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford combined. The Republic was also home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in the U.S., who consistently supported progressive social and political movements out of a sense of obligation to the common good. In spite of its tremendous concentration of wealthy elites, the Republic also boasted the most economically and ethnically diverse population in the nation: people of all origins, races, and economic achievement lived together harmoniously in close quarters. The Republic’s commitment to liberal values was such that reactionary aspirants to the Presidency of the U.S. sneered at its “New York Values” as a way to achieve acceptance among like-minded reactionaries across the nation; the residents of the Republic were taken aback, knowing as they did the things they valued most are education, hard work, success, and tolerance.
The decline of the Republic began in 1980 with the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency of the U.S., who declared government the source of all that ails society, installed hypercapitalism as the official state religion, and whose minions began the looting of the U.S. and the transfer of its wealth to gated communities in Orange County, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Silicon Valley in California; selected neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, Texas; a family in Wichita, Kansas; all of whose denizens acquired ever more expensive apartments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and bought their way into the formerly progressive elites. Despite glimmers of hope in the intervening years, the decline was irreversible by 2009, when the elites of the Republic sold the mayoralty to a local billionaire, who retired in 2013 and handed the office, reduced substantially in power, to a local populist as a sop to the masses. In early January of this year, the Republic formally became known as Oligarkistan and is a province of Russia administered from Washington DC.
Today, the Republic’s public hospital network and housing system are in various stages of distress. Wealthy donors support the parks lavishly, but selectively, focusing their efforts and cash on the park across the street from their apartments. The transit system remains, although when it will be privatized, with the inevitable service cuts and distance fares imposed in the name of hypercapitalism, is anybody’s guess. The coins themselves went out of circulation in the early 2000s when the information technology/data harvesting oligarchs took control of the monetary system.
My advice to my friend was to hang onto his coin as a symbol of a lost society. It will almost certainly increase in value.