Archive for December, 2009

NY Billboards

Quel Price H&M

Grand street side of Grand st-Metropolitan in Williamsburg.

I’ve always liked how New Yorkers deface their billboards in the subway. Unlike, say, Canada or even London (admittedly in London the authorities put the billboards across the electrified tracks, making it difficult – and dangerous – to get at them), New Yorkers merrily abuse the advertising that appears in the subway system, tearing off strips to juxtapose two or three different ads, making comments, drawing figures – or all three, until the original ad has been rendered into something else entirely. This has always seemed like a refreshingly anarachic response to corporate culture. Thankfully, even in these goody-two shoes, hyper-gentrified Bloomberg days, this tradition doesn’t seem to have disappeared entirely.

Brothers posterThis in Williamsburg again. In the middle left, someone has thought to correct the original commentators grammar, complete with a useful lesson on the use of ‘we’re’.

Needle Doctor posterSomewhere in Manhattan.

NYC MarathonThis poster, along with comments, appeared in Bedford Nostrand subway station shortly before the NYC Marathon

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Riding the G train, the cross-Brooklyn local, on a Saturday afternoon . . .

A big guy was sitting by the door with a little kid. The kid was maybe five or six, of indeterminate sex, except for a set of pink rubber boots. Probably a girl. The guy had a big head and thick, almost coke-bottle glasses with thick rims. He looked almost exactly like a friend of mine, a painter who lives off the G in Williamsburg, except that his neck and wrists and even his hands were covered in tattoos, fiery metalhead tattoos, with letters tattooed across the knuckles of each hand, which at first I thought read GODS W111. Yet he looked far too mild-mannered to be a hardcore metalhead and from the way he sat with the little girl he appeared to be her father.

Tehy had a book, a trade paperback with a black cover and big yellow letters on the front. The little girl spelled out the title: “O, W, O . . .”

“That’s an ‘I’,” the guy corrected her a little sternly. Then: “Do you want to read it?”

“No!” The little girl giggled. “Its boring!”

“Boring! Maybe if I read it to you . . . ”

“Okay!” The little girl wriggled close to him, starting in the middle of the book, and reading over her shoulder so she could see the page. He read in a soft, flat voice and I could barely hear him over the clattering of the train. “The theoretical . . . backlash of the administrative mindset . . . multiplicity of identities . . . ”

From what little I heard it sounded like a combination of Derrida, a political pamphlet, and an office memo. He read slowly, deliberately, turning the page while the little girl squirmed in her seat, laughing at first then looking confused then laughing again and I couldn’t tell if the guy was being ironic and this was a recurring game with them, or if he was serious and she was laughing at him because he did that kind of thing all the time . . .

When I got off the train, I realized his knuckles read ‘God’s Will’. When I got home I googled the phrase, wondering if it was a band. But no band came out and I wondered if he hadn’t been some sort of Christian metalhead, like those Christian hardcore kids I’d read about somewhere, out thrashing for Jesus . . .

Christ-core band Norma Jean

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Bed-Stuy, or this corner of Bed-Stuy is being flooded with condos.

Two four story, close to hundred unit condos on Greene between Franklin and Classon.

Two condos on Greene Ave

Another 20 units (give or take) on 270 Greene (at Classon).

Condo on Greene and Classon

What looks like another four story, possibly close to a hundred unit building going up on Clifton Place between Franklin and Classon . . .

Condo clifton place

Another 20 unit place overlooking Beford and Greene . . . .

Condos on Bedford

Another 100 or so units down Bedford, off Dekalb, off Myrtle . . . .

Condos on Dekalb

And smaller units dispersed around a ten block radius everywhere else.

This section of Bed-Stuy is on a corridor between gentrified Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and trendy hipster capital Williamsburg – and thus desirable real estate. Now – ten years ago, this was still a desolation zone. Not quite the war zone it had been in the mid-90’s, when crackheads and hookers lined the street that gentrification forgot, but bad enough. At night you’d hear fights on the street, periodic gunfire, and, sometimes in the mornings, crackheads standing on the sidewalk coming down off a binge, radiating menace.

Community activism, declining drug use, heavier police presence, and the inevitable sweep of gentrification changed all that. The local council needed development so they didn’t impose the same height restrictions as neighboring Clinton Hill, with the result that the Condos have marched in. En masse.

Almost all the lots these condos are being built on were vacant, or occupied by abandoned factories, so at least there hasn’t been any destruction of indigenous architecture. Many¬† of the lots are owned by Hasidic Jews, who have moved up block by block up Bedford from Williamsburg, right to Myrtle. The Hasidim have huge families, and their particular (and oft peculiar) brand of Judaism forbids higher education, so many go into real estate speculation and construction. Possibly, the owners of these properties have held them for decades.

The question, as EV Grieve asked about development in the Bowery is, who are these being built for? What happens if they remain empty? Will they be converted into affordable housing, or will the owners hold out for the inevitable yuppie condo buyer? At 270 Greene, a 2 bdrm ‘loft’ will cost you as much as $635,000, what an entire brownstone would cost you just a few years ago.

You can see businesses on the main streets starting to rev up. On Franklin, the New Millenium has removed the hard plastic barrier in front of the condo, installed an LCD banner, and now advertises organic food. A new restaurant is opening up on Bedford, by Lafayette. On Franklin, a Fench pizza place has opened up near Bistro Lafayette. Perhaps they’ll even have to put a few more cars on the G train.

Time will tell . . . .at least nothing has come up like this I’m sure unintentionally hilarious ad (courtesy of Jeremiah Moss) for high-end (and evidently very white) condos in Harlem.

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Bar#3: Nancy Whiskey Bar

Mars Bar

Mars Bar, East Village, NYC

If the Mars bar wasn’t the first bar I went to in New York, it was close. It was the fall of 1989. I had a friend who lived down 3rd street, a few doors away from the Hell’s Angels clubhouse and a few blocks away from the desolation zone that, a few years earlier, had been the fabled early 80’s Alphabet City (documented in Lech Kowalski’s ‘Story of a Junkie‘), and he took me round.

I’d just come off a couple of years squatting in London, and a couple years before that hanging around the hardcore scene in Montreal and Vancouver, and the Mars was very familiar. The walls were covered in graffiti and shock art, a Rolling Rock and a healthy shot of JD cost about two bucks, the jukebox was stocked with all the British punk/ hardcore and New York noise bands I liked. Best of all, it had the rollicking open-ness of the East Village bars of the late 80’s. You’d sit at the bar, have a drink, and talk to just about anyone – musicians, art school chicks, junkies, dealers, some old lady from up the street who’d lived in the neighborhood her whole life – even out and out hicks rolling into town for the night. People’s open-ness came from confidence, and a desire to make contact. The brick windows allowed for a good view of the circus outside. After London’s self-concious cliquiness, and Canada’s faux British snobbery and insecurity, the Mars and all NY bars like it were indeed a liberation.

After the first couple of years in New York, I didn’t go down so much. I quit drinking for awhile, which probably had something to do with it – the Mars wasn’t the kind of bar you’d hang around without a drink. But year after year, it remained, even after the area cleaned up, even after the condos moved in, like a pool that remains after the tide’s gone out. I went down once in awhile, but figured it would disappear or be taken over by kids like all the other grungy bars I used to go to in the day.

Little did I think it would not only survive, but become an icon, written about in the New York Times as ‘the grimy dive where tourists go in search of authentic punks and authentic punks start drinking at mid-day.”


Condos across the street Condos across the street from the Mars Bar.

I went back a couple of weeks ago, inspired partly by a post in Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, and my recent desire to trace my own past in the Village. The bar was as filthy as ever, the walls covered in graffiti and the same shock art, but it felt comfortable, like a decrepit living room. Fruit flies hovered around the toilet in the closet-width bathroom. The walls were still covered in graffiti and shock art. Boxes of bottled beer were stacked behind the bar and there was still no draught. A sign over the bar read: ‘If you can read this, go the fuck home.’ The bartender, surprisingly, had not attitude – in fact she was almost excessively polite.

On first glance, the clientele was something like it would have been a decade or so ago, when I’d last been in. Some big guys with big beards and ponytails who looked like hipster farmers were punching music into the jukebox while the woman they were with kept falling off her bar stool. A black couple hovered around the bar, the woman alternately talking to her man and into her cellphone. Some huge Italian looking guy came in, flopped down on a padded office chair in the corner and said to everyone and no one in particular, “How ya doing? Haven’ a good day?” He seemed familiar with the bartender and a few old guys along the bar, like he was a regular – and when he didn’t order a drink I wondered if he owned the place.

A girl was sitting at the bar. Early 20’s, maybe European, maybe American – I couldn’t hear her accent. She had peroxide blonde hair, shiny black Doctor Marten’s, and hi-tech tattoos beneath her slick leather jacket and from the way she looked over the bar with an odd mixture of ownership and pride, I figured she must have worked pretty hard to reach her perch at this scarred and storied bar, dressed up in her new outfit . . .

I didn’t stay too long. It felt too self-conscious,¬† too much like the past, a reminder of how little of the world I knew in my own early 20’s survives.

Then again, maybe the old place still has some life. Or something: A post from Slum Goddess

Nice shots from Gog Log: No Worries, Saturday night at the Mars Bar

The East Village is Dead mural outside Mars Bar Mural outside Mars Bar

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