Archive for November, 2009

Big Blue House

I tok this picture while walking down 9th street in Brooklyn where it slopes from 5th Ave down to the Gowanus Canal. This stretch of the lower Slope has fascinated me recently, since it remains quasi-industrial, with a half-dozen cheap and primarily blue-collar bars, just around the corner from the flashy restaurants and hipster bars along 5th Ave. The street is an outpost of industrial, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, a reminder of the blue-collar sensibility which lingers in Park Slope in the form of cheap diners, bars like the Carriage House and Farrells, the sweep of this blocky, utilitarian street down to the elevated railway lines of Smith-9th Station, and the factory and warehouse buildings along the Gowanus Canal.

And there, next to a bunker-like post office, is the Big Blue House.

I’d walked by the house countless times before, but this time it was cast in yellow light from one of those spectacular New York sunsets and I had to take a couple of shots. As I was putting my camera away, a middle-aged woman standing by her porch said: “If I had a dollar for every time someone takes a picture of that house, I’d be a millionaire.”

I laughed and we started talking. She said she was always out on her stoop, that she’d been in the area for decades, that she was ‘the mayor of 9th Street’. She thought the changes over the last few years were pretty good: “Brooklyn’s coming back – for so long it was a place no one wanted to come to, but look at Park Slope now . . .”

She said the Blue House used to be an ink factory, that tunnels had once run from the basement right up to Prospect Park because the house had been used as a conduit for runaway slaves. Now, it was a music academy, Slope Music.

When I got home, I googled the Big Blue House, and found a post on Gowanus Lounge (Blue Jewel Revealed), and thebigbluehouse, run by Jake Rockowitz, a web designer who grew up in the house. At one time the site had a photo tour of the interior of the house, but now it seems to have been stripped down to a Portfolio site. Mr. Rockowitz  writes:

“… The big blue house is a central theme to my artwork. Sitting in front of a computer in the basement of this big blue house is where I learned how to build websites so it seem fitting to call my company, which I incorporated in 2000, ‘The Big Blue House Production’.”

And from website for Slope Music (where you can still see pictures of the house’s interior, like the one below):

“The building inspires a sense of history because it was built in 1850, before the brownstones, before Prospect Park, before the Brooklyn Bridge. The house is awash in music because its owners, Vita and Charles Sibirsky, who moved there is 1981, started a music school called Slope Music. Since those days Slope Music has grown to include a staff of a dozen teachers, each one bringing their owns special gifts to the art of teaching music and making each student’s learning experience a personal adventure.

“…Vita’s studio is the cupola at the top of the building. When the afternoon light filters through the 13 windows, one feels like they are momentarily suspended above the building. Vita tries to create a warm, welcoming space for the students. The unusual setting encourages people to relax and be open to learning. The unique space makes every lesson special.

“People need more good music in their lives. They need to make it and to learn to listen. This improves them in every way, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Music relieves the stress people feel in these times,” Charles says.”

Piano in room Piano on top floor of blue house (from Slope Music website).

According to the Gowanus posting, the house was built in 1855, when this area of Brooklyn must have been mostly rural, and predates the brownstones which now dominate the area.  The house was designed by Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish immigrant who designed some 500 Catholic Churches in the US. The posting makes no mention of underground tunnels or abolitionists, but it does mention the ink factory, which was housed in the big brick building behind the house – the big blue house was the factory office. The ink factory has now been turned into condos, but I was heartened to see that the Big Blue House has retained elegance, charm, and culture.

That’s the thing about areas like Park Slope: gentrification can never entirely erase history, nor the area’s natural beauty. I’ll be running a few more snapshots from Park Slope’s (and Brooklyn’s) surprising history in the weeks to come.

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The dog walk down on Marcy Ave here in Bed-Stuy (the other are the bodegas and, curiously, the Tiny Cup cafe on Nostrand) is one of those places where the old and new Bed-Stuy meet – and clash. The other weekend was a good example.

A crowd had gathered by the dog walk in the corner of the park. I heard some yelling, and at first I figured it was just kids hanging, but as I got closer I saw it was mostly adults. Mostly women in fact, with two guys at the centre doing the yelling.

The smaller guy was holding back a medium sized dog. I couldn’t make out what kind. It wasn’t a killer, but it was one of those dogs that could be vicious in the care of a bad owner. Anyway, he was yelling at a much bigger guy in the dog walk, who was holding back a big, if benign looking, pit bull. The big guy had a  big jacket with a hood and with his dog he looked pretty much ghetto but he seemed more outraged than out and out angry as the smaller guy yelled at him.

“Motherfucka you can’t even control your dog. I told you to control him, and you wouldn’t control him and that’s why people don’t like to come to this dog walk and I got a right to come here and walk my dog without . . .  ”

And so on. The small guy was really steamed. Most people in the crowd seemed to be on his side. He was a buppie looking dude, with nice clothes, and well-trimmed facial. He was so angry the veins were bulging out of his neck. The other guy seemed a little more calm. Or perhaps more defensive.

“It was YOUR dog bit my dog . … ”

“That’s because YOUR dog threatened mine . . . and I told you to keep him on a leash and you wouldn’t do it . . . ”

This went back and forth.. The crowd watched dispassionately, and from the way a lot of people murmured along when the smaller guy talked, they seemed to feel the dog walk WAS being unfairly monopolized by people like the big guy with the big pit bull. Then a middle aged lady with a West Indian accent said to some people murmuring around her: “Don’t be fooling yourself just because he’s got a smaller dog. His dog bit the other one . . . ” And the crowd seemed divided again. A few women chimed in, telling first the smaller guy then the bigger guy to leave it alone, it wasn’t worth it. But they kept on yelling at each other until, finally, the smaller guy started to walk away.

“It’s people like you give black people a bad name . . . ”

“What about you?”

“Me? I got a PHD! I ain’t worryin’ about ME!”

The smaller guy kept yelling back over his shoulder as he was walking but the crowd was losing interest. A white guy came up to a young black woman in the crowd and they greeted each other warmly. “Hey, I got a dog walking group next week – are you going to come?” “Sure!”

What was remarkable to me was how different the fight was from how a fight would have been in this area  even a few years ago, when there was still visible crack use, gunfire at night and so on. I doubt anyone would have kept it to words then.

The eternal question: does gentrification bring the violence level down, or does the violence level going down bring about gentrification?

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Some Graffiti and wall murals from around Bed-Stuy:


Man with shopping cart

Man with Shopping Cart

This mural appeared a couple of weeks ago at the corner of Greene and Classon, on the wall of a store advertising ‘International News’ on it’s now very tattered awning. The store has been closed as long as I’ve been in the area – five years – but I think I’ve seen the man in the mural around the neighborhood, though not for awhile. A guy asleep on a chair usually inhabits this space but I haven’t seen him around for awhile either.


Mural For Nucy

Mural For Nucy

Corner of Greene and Macy. Along with the Holy Quaran picture on the right, the blocked off windowframe has votive candles.



Community Mural

Community Mural

Community Mural on Green, corner of Nostrand.


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Outside of Nancy Whiskey Bar

Nancy Whiskey Bar on a sunny day

See first of the series Bars of New York here: Farrell’s

Nancy Whiskey Bar is located just off the Canal Street A train, in an odd zone between Tribeca, Soho, and Chinatown. I used to go for happy hour when I worked in the area because they had one of the best around – 2$ a pint – and a couple of tables where you could sit on the little patio and watch rush hour go by. The regulars were an curious assortment of off-duty cops from a nearby precint, college kids, and out and out drunks, and fluctuated with shift workers from the nearby Post Office and the AT%T building. The bar had a pinball machine, a shuffleboard, Irish and American flags over the faux wooden roof behind the bar, and an old tin ceiling, painted brown and so low in the terrace in the back you almost had to stoop over.

But the best thing about the bar, aside from happy hour, were the bartenders who, on a good night, provided pure entertainment. I can’t remember them all now – there were a few – but the one that stands out was Barry, an Irish guy who’d been in the States for years. One night, when I went in with a friend, he was wearing a Toronto Maple Leaf t-shirt. I’d just come back from Toronto so I asked if he was a Leafs fan. He looked at me askance: “No, no – it was the only clean shirt I had around . . .”

Me being Canadian did get us a free round. We paid for the next then he stopped taking our money. A stack of bills sitting by the old metal cash register kept falling onto the floor and when we pointed them out, he’d waved us off. “Ah, never mind, I’ll get them later.” Some suits had been playing shuffleboard and one of them came over. He’d left his card behind the bar to run a tab and wanted to know how much the drinks were, so he knew how much he’d spent.

“It depends.”

“It depends?”

“Sure. I’ll see at the end of the night how much you’ve drunk then I’ll know how much your drinks are!”

The guy looked perplexed, then evidently putting Barry down as a character, went back to his friends without his bill or his card. When the guy’s back was turned, Barry gave him the finger, hissing “Fucking yuppie pricks!”.

Interior of Nancy Whiskey Bar

Interior, Nancy Whiskey Bar (from Andrew Karcie, New York magazine)

We stayed five hours. Two blonde girls sat down and ordered some wine. They told him they were from the Midwest somewhere and had dropped in by accident. He drained one wine bottle then when that one was emptied, he opened another. I didn’t see him take any money. Before their glasses were finished, he kept topping them up, and when I talked to them one hour in, they were both totally drunk. He rummaged around behind the hard liqour bottles and found two more dusty bottles of red. “We don’t get many orders of wine in here, I’m afraid,” then topped up the girls again. They went behind the bar and took turns posing with Barry and one of the wine bottles he’d retrieved. By the time they left, three hours in, they could barely stand up and he had to call them a car service. About halfway in, he started filling our pint glasses the same way, grabbing them when they were half-finished and filling them up and when we called for our tab we were nervous about how much it was going to be. He said:

“How much do you want it to be?”


“How does twenty bucks sound?”

Twenty bucks sounded fine. I think we had a shot for the road and tipped him another thirty or fourty or so. We were both hammered.

I went back a few more times but, like a lot of dive bars, it could only occasionally – and by chance – approach that kind of levity. It was on a circuit that included the Old Town, the Ear Inn, and a couple of others which had since been taken over. Nancy was such a dive, I was sure it would never be gentrified but the other night when I went back, the college kids were out in force, and I got the sense from the absence of anyone over the age of 25 that this was the norm. The shuffleboard was still there, along with the paraphernalia along the bar (a sign, probably there before Barry: “Hiring – but no Irish!”), but it had the feel of a college bar. I asked the bartender, a blonde woman I’d seen before, if Barry was still around.

“Nope. He was let go. A couple years ago now.”

I can’t imagine what his relationship was with the owners, but he was part of a New York that’s likely passed, when bartenders could get away with passing out free drinks to customers they liked, and you repaid their generosity not only with a healthy tip, but by coming back again and again for the show they put on, the atmosphere they generated.

A couple of reviews: New York magazine gives it 10 out of 10

Addendum: In case you don’t check the messages – a reader writes that Barry is still tending bar at Hudson Yards, 35th and 10th, Wednesdays through Saturdays.

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Runners Headed down Bedford to ManhattanSunday was Marathon day and I got up with a bad post-Halloween hangover to find my normally semi-deserted neighborhood packed with people. The NYC Marathon is a big deal and brings in people from across the world – some 42,ooo runners participate. It runs through all five boroughs, from the Verizona Bridge in Staten Island, through Brooklyn, on into Queens and through the Bronx before turning back into Manhattan and ending up near Central Park. In all my years in NY, I’ve never seen it, even when it ran right through my neighborhood, so this time I thought I’d better catch it, hungover or not.

For some reason I thought it started in the afternoon so by the time I arrived around one, the main body of the runners had already passed, and some local people were already taking up their stools and canvas deck chairs and heading home.The crowd was thickest around Bedford and Lafayette, where the runners turned and headed back into Manhattan. One lady, who must been there all morning, stood on the corner, bellowing encouragement over and over, and even slapping the backs of ailing runners.

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Woman Cheering on corner of Bedford and Lafayette

Still, watching the stragglers was enetertaining enough. One guy (presumably French) dressed as the Eiffel Tower . . .

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Man running in Eiffel Tower outfit

Another who juggled while running . . .

Running Juggler

Running Juggler

The best scene was up at the housing projects up Lafayette. The projects are the usual twelve story, brick buildings with the black grates over the windows that make them look a little like prisons – the same kind of public housing built all over the US in the 60’s. Normally, you hardly see anyone but the old folks outside in the daytime, but a BBQ had been set up in the playground with big speakers blaring out old Motown. Periodically, an MC (dressed in NY Giants colours – see below) chanted encouragement to the stragglers “You’re doing great. . .keep going, keep going . . .  ” People stood by the side of the road, chanting encouragement, I guess glad to get out and be a part of it all . 

The kids were out in force. One kid, dressed like Micheal Jackson (that’s the pre-wierdo, 1980’s Micheal Jackson that seems to be the image black people want to keep of him. The Micheal Jackson that was still BLACK), complete with oversized silver glove, stood on the side of the road with his buddies putting out his glove for the runners, then all of them would do cartwheels back and forth across the street, in-between the last of the straggling runners.

Kids Welcoming Runners

With the motown and people dancing on the sidewalks and the kids doing cartwheels in the street, it was a scene I haven’t seen in New York for some time, and I remembered how common this energy was here a few years ago – how you could go out on a weekend afternoon in Manhattan, and feel this same edgy, vibrant, black American energy running through the city like an electrical current. You would meet someone’s eye, someone you had nothing else in common with – say a black kid from the Bronx or Harlem or Brooklyn- and you’d have this instant empathy because you were sharing that moment of being out in New York City on a fall afternoon, digging the people, the city, the energy, and you knew just from looking at each other that you felt it, that you were aficianado.

And I realized that the difference came because these were mostly poor people out on the street, enjoying free entertainment, that poor people had to a great degree become invisible in the New York of today.

Kids Dancing on the road

The kids had such remarkable energy, and unself-concious joy. I thought of Park Slope, the mostly white, increasingly upscale neighborhood where I worked last week, and how the kids there seem uniformly miserable – constantly crying, screaming. Even if it was heightened by the release of a special event, these kids had the magic of childhood in their faces, and watching them made me feel joyful as well. And it was good to be reminded of all the things I’ve loved about New York all these years, why I’ve come back again and again.

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Kid doing cartwheels between runners

Couple on Lafayette

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Girl holding flag with her teeth

Cops on corner of bedford and lafayette watching the runners

Kids Posing along the route

Kids Posing along the route

Couple on Lafayette

Couple on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

Two kids on Lafayette

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