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Archive for September, 2009

Jim Carroll Book Cover

Jim Carroll Book Cover

I first read Jim Carrol in 1990 at an odd intermediate stage in my life after living in England for a couple of years. I’d been squatting, and living an underground life then it all ended and I was back in a very depressed Montreal, looking for somewhere else to go – and along came Jim Carroll, the Beats, Sonic Youth – a whole underground sensibility that was very New York, very different from anything in the Anglo-Saxon world I’d inhabited until then.

I had the ‘Downtown Diaries’ on my first and only trip across the US, when I caught the train from Chicago to Texas, went down to Mexico for a couple of weeks, then back by train to New Orleans and New York and Montreal. A year later, after visiting a couple more times, I moved to New York for the first time and caught the tail end of the 80s era (even if it was 1991, just after the first Gulf War), when money flowed freely if you knew how to tap into it, the Lower East Side was still a war zone, and the homeless covered Manhattan, sleeping in every second doorway, camping out in the parks.

New York City was still an urban frontier, though with common sense and a little luck, nowhere near as dangerous as people made out.

I’ve always liked Jim Carroll because of what he represented – a thinking Catholic, the same in-between classes writer with little formal education as myself, with long exposure to the streets – the kind of writer of whom I think Verlaine once said, “Got up to live before he sat down to write.” It’s amazing how that type of writer seems to have disappeared now, replaced by the mfa program trained variety: stylish, technically sophisticated, professional – and largely irrelevant. Carroll was of that great tradition in US letters, going back to Hemingway, maybe even Melville, that of writing from the perspective and even position of the underclass. When I first discovered him, coming from Canada where the Anglo-Saxon middle-class model was (and still is) the norm, this was a revelation indeed.

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

Jim Carroll with Patti Smith

He was so much a part of an era, the 80’s in New York. I was never that interested in his band. In his writing, he peaked in the 80’s, then didn’t do much after that. Friends who saw him read in later years,  said he read almost exclusively from his early work and routines. For better or worse, he became part of the junkie pantheon – Buroughs, the Velvets, almost any punk from the 70’s (and so on). Surely, he was thinking of heroin when he wrote: “it’s sad this vision required such height, I’d have preferred to be down with the others.”

Jim Carroll reading ‘For Elizabeth’ a video shot for the Lallapalooza  Festival (I don’t know the year).

We can’t wax nostalgic about New York in that period. Exciting it might have been, but it was also dark – very dark. You only have to read Legs McNeil’s ‘Please Kill Me’ to see how quickly the spark of creativity and energy that gave us punk rock spiraled into drug addiction and basic nullity, a pattern that was to be repeated across cities, countries, cultures over the next fifteen years, until bohemia was drained of any vitality, or even meaning. Perhaps it was unfair, but when I put my own druggy years behind me, I stopped reading Jim Carroll.

Carroll was from Manhattan of course, but in a way he was as much an exile because of his literary ambitions, his drug addiction, as the self-imposed exiles like Warhol, et al, who came from outside the city. With gentrification, a Jim Carroll isn’t even possible now – how can anyone who isn’t a profesional, and who isn’t college-educated, and thus trained to think like a college student, going to survive in present-day New York (or London. Or Paris. Or in any of the great cities of the West?). I’m not saying for a moment that drug addiction is glamorous – if it fed some part of Carroll’s art, then it killed and severely limited it as well. But without that underclass, and the people who embody that underclass enough to write/ paint/ film/ whatever, our cities are going to become dull, dull places, riding on myth and real estate.

Jim Carroll on the Dennis Miller Show (Partial Interview and reading).

Surprisingly, the best newspaper obit I read was not in the American papers, but the Guardian. Then a very touching obit from Tom Clark, who knew Jim when he went to California in the 70’s to quit heroin.

You can read about all things Jim Carroll at catholicboy.com

I hadn’t read Jim in years then last week I went and bought the compilation ‘Fear Of Dreaming’. I don’t read much poetry so can’t really comment on his abilities as  a poet. But I do remember the lines and poems that stayed with me, and going over those old poems had that reassuring quality of a seeing an old friend after a long, long absence, and I was sorry I’d forgot about him for so long, when once I’d had everything he’d written up to that point.

From ‘Fear Of Dreaming’ (and originally ‘Book of Nods’?):

Our Desires

There is a wind that seeks the crevice

under my heart

the way insects file at night

beneath a doorway

It’s edges are rough, it slits

the cords. It trips my steady breathing.

When it comes there is no one

I can trust

It seems, at times, I have designed

too well this vision of you.

I cannot survive your eyes

when they are scarred with a need

for some lesser form of love.

I admit to this conceit.

And though you will not accept it

You love it nonetheless

It is just like you. Our desires

will always be kept sharp

by a kind of perversity. A need

to be each forever alone . . .

Its colour is violet, like lips

that have been smashed at night

or robbed of blood by lack of breath.

The wind I was speaking of does this.

I can feel it now.

Jim Carroll 19   – 2009 RIP

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Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

Since the Pink Elephant Shopping centre continues to be the number one hit on this blog (who knew?) I should provide a link to my other blog ‘live from the heygate’. I started this blog when I lived on the Heygate Estate from October, 2007 until April the following year. In part I wanted to record the experience of living on the estate and the Elephant in what I thought might be it’s last moments before being demolished. Since then, I have followed developments both from while living in adjacent neighborhoods, and now from New York. I try and keep up with the regeneration, how the tenants are faring, and any artistic projects taking place in or around the estate – with anything to do with the Elephant generally.

Posts specifically about the shopping centre:

Elephant Saved (one month ago)

The Mall (from March, 2008)

and Deja Vu All Over Again (today)

I also have many posts about the regeneration, the heygate estate, the Elephant and Castle area in general.

Include from Time Out: a fine post about the Elephant and Castle mall in 2006.

Also, for a bit of recent history: A great post from Micheal Collins from 2001 (The Likes of Us), about growing up on the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle: “The Elephant’s Graveyard”

Escalators to Bingo Palace

Escalators to Bingo Palace

I’m interested in marginal areas in transition, and the Elephant is about as marginal and in transition as it gets. I have also lived in the Elephant, on a mostly transient basis, since 1987, when I first came back to the UK as an adult after growing up in Canada. I lived in a squat across the New Kent Road in one of the inter-war brick estates. Squatting was very common back then – the law supported it, and there were many empty flats across London. I’ve heard it’s making a comeback now, but I doubt it will ever reach the popularity it had in the 80’s, when basically any newcomer to London with any sense lived  in a squat.

The regeneration scheme, the largest construction project in all of Europe, is designed to completely remake the entire area, including the estate, the mall, and the roundabout, encompassing several city blocks, is falling further and further behind schedule. No deal has been signed with preferred bidder Lend Lease. In the latest statement, Councillor Nick Stanton of Southwark Council says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that a deal will be reached with preferred bidder Lend-Lease by the end of 2009, but no deal his been reached.

People remain on the estate – including exactly one lease-holder living on the Kingshill Estate, a building which once held 800 or 900 people. One person in an empty building, the flats covered in thick iron slabs to keep out squatters.

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As I wrote a couple of posts (and at least a month – I’ve been AWOL on this blog lately) ago, I was invited to observe/ participate a Brian Lehrer form at the WNYC sound studios a couple of weeks ago. The invitation came basically that morning and I went because I thought it might illuminate some things about Bed-Stuy, where I’ve been a part-time resident for six years, and my quest to understand the roots of gentrification. 

And it did. 

Some stats: 

– According to one participant on the panel, Ibrahim Abdul Matin, a community organizer with the Black Muslim community in Brooklyn, 50% of black men in New York are unemployed. What he probably means is, not officially employed. They are unemployed the way I’m unemployed, working off the radar, here and there. Nonetheless, that’s huge number of people not integrated into the official economy. 

   He pointed out that the underground economy is not as strong in New York as it once was:

“As someone who grew up watching the crack era and seeing it all evolve, there was a time in New York where things were not that great, but you could join the underground economy and make a lot of money. You can’t do that any more. People aren’t making big money hustling.”

   Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does point to one reason why crime rates remain relatively low, despite the job losses, the unemployment. Folks in the inner city don’t want to do crack. 

– According to Pam Green, a____, the sub-prime mortgage hit Bed-Stuy hard. People lost their homes, left the neighborhood. Conversely, this has hastened rather than slowed down gentrification. She claimed there has been a 255% increase in white people moving into Bed-Stuy in the last year. “This change is too fast – you see the architecture changing, symmetry of housing changing, big condos going up . . .” 

– Ironically, those very factors that make Bed-Stuy a more liveable place for it’s residents than it was  a few years ago – stronger sense of community, a massive drop in crime rate, obvious drug use – has made it more vulnerable to gentrification. Crime rates are actually higher in neighboring Fort Greene and Park Slope, where more people have more money. Long-term residents have worked hard to make Bed-Stuy more safe, so now it’s more safe for the condo developers, and the people who want to live in those condos as well. 

– Which leads to: Rental prices in central Brooklyn have tripled in the last few years. Where the average price for a one-bedroom was five hundred, not it’s fifteen hundred. As storeowner Atim Annette Okim (calabra imports) pointed out, who can afford $1500 a month making $7.50 an hour, which is what so many low-skilled jobs pay?

   So gentrification marches on, even in the recession . . .

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