Archive for February, 2010

From the creative kids of Bed-Stuy (okay, one was in Clinton Hill but close enough):

Snowman using fruit and veg . . .

Snowman Monk. Or musician:

Monk Snowman in Clinton Hill

And finally, something, I’ve never seen before – a snowman PacMan game:

Pac Man Snowman in Bed-Stuy

Pac Man Snowman in Bed-Stuy

Pac Man Snowman in Bed-Stuy

Pac Man Snowman in Bed-Stuy

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Second in a series: The surest sign that the cell phone has infiltrated every freakin’ sphere of life:

cell phone used underwater

A friend pulled this off a recent Skymall catalogue.

Can you imagine?

“Glub-glub! I”m on the reef! Glub-glub. The REEF!”

First in a series: Parallel  Universe of the iphone age

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Fire truck outside Freddy's Bar and Grill

Freddy’s Bar, in downtown Brooklyn, is fighting for its survival . . . .

Lately, the bar, and its manager Donald O’finn, have been very successful at getting media attention for the bars’ plight. Everyone from the New York Daily News (appropriately) to the New Yorker have all covered the bar’s fight against eminent domain, Bruce Rattner’s mechanism to seize the land below Freddie’s and the blocks aroud it for the Atlantic Yards Development. Even Fox News had them on for an interview.

I’ve known about Freddy’s since the early 90’s, when it was the local for workers from the Daily News Plant around the corner, though its been around much longer than that. I lived just up Dean and must have stopped in once or twice, but don’t remember much about it – it was very much a working man’s bar, a little anonymous, as busy in the morning as it was in the evening, with all the night workers and drivers coming off their shifts.

When the Daily News shipped out to Queens and, in what would be a foreshadowing of the Brooklyn to come, their former plant was converted into condos, I thought Freddy’s would close. But in what would be another foreshadowing, it was taken over  by artist-entrepaneurs who buffed up the old oak bar, brought in bands to play in the back room and turned the bar into the artist/ boho space it continues to be today.

Oak Bar with Decoration inside Freddy's Bar and Grill

I started hanging out in the very late 90’s, when I still lived in Fort Greene. It was nice having a good bar in walking distance. In those pre-hipster days, there weren’t many bars in Brooklyn with found video loops broadcast on a TV over the bar, or that played the whole Velvet’s Banana album or the Ramones or 80’s British punk. The back room featured everything from hardcore to experimental jazz, and even if it wasn’t a ‘neighborhood’ bar in the sense that the black people up Dean, or the fireman and policeman from the adjacent fire and police stations, seemed to hang out there in any number, it still had the feel of a neighborhood bar. Donald O’finn’s found video loops, featuring everything from early cartoons to shlock horror and snippets from Bruce Lee films, were mesmerizing. A little too mesmerizing – if you went with a friend, your attention would inevitably turn toward the screen, and all conversation would stop.

I still go down occasionally. The bar, like the neighborhood around it, feels besieged and a little standoffish. Freddy’s is something of an icon now, voted best bar in Brooklyn by Time Out among others, and like all icons it has lost its casual feel. Donald Ofinn’s found video still beams from its perch at the front of the bar. For awhile last year, with the Atlantic Yards development at a standstill, I wondered if it would even go through – even the anti-Atlantic Yards/ Eminent Domain abuse clippings in the info box were looking a little worn – but a late November court decision in favor of Rattner has Freddy’s fight a new urgency. The scale of the proposed development is incredible (simulation from 2006) :  what is essentially a section of mid-town Manhattan will be dropped in what had been a quiet, largely residential, neighborhood, making central Brooklyn largely unrecognizable.

Upside down bar signs in Freddy's Bar and Grill

On a Sunday afternoon before Xmas, Freddy’s held a special event to protest the coming storm. A fire had broken out a few buildings down and fire and police trucks were parked in front, though the fire had been contained with no visible damage by the time I arrived. TV, video and still cameras were present in great numbers, and Donald O’finn was interviewed many times inside the bar and out. “I’m just an artist . . . I’m the last person who should be doing this . . . ” He joked about the fire down the street. “We’ve been assured it was accidental . . .” A chain was put through the bar rail, handcuffs attached, and regulars duly handcuffed themselves to the bar while the cameras snapped and free rounds were handed out. A bartender jumped on the bar and took pictures of people taking pictures. Then more beers were drunk.

When I went down a few days ago, the neon beer signs in the window had been turned upside down. The bar, the chain, and the video along the bar rail were all there, though heavy machinery was edging closer, taking over a lot next door. Freddy survives, but for how much longer is uncertain . . .

Bartender standing on bar taking pictures inside Freddy's Bar and Grill

More bars of New York:

Mars Bar

Nancy Whiskey Bar


Drinking Saturday Afternoon

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Stuyvesant Diner

The Hotel 17, on 17th and 3rd, is the first place I lived as opposed to just stayed, in New York . . .

The room cost $150 a week and was just wide enough for a cot bed, a dresser and a sink. The Arab looking guy who ran the place would glare at you from the pexi-glass shielded check in desk every time you came in and especially when you paid for the week, as if he took your presence in the hotel as a personal affront.

In the daytime, the old-timers hung out on the stoop next door. They must have been a holdover from a time when the Hotel 17 and all hotels like it were basically lodging houses. Sometimes they’d clutch beer bottles in brown paper bags (in those pre-Guiliani days, you could still do this without fear of being arrested). In nice weather, they hung around every day, all day.

What must have been good-sized rooms at one time had been divided with cardboard-thin walls, so if you were unlucky enough to have a noisy neighbor on the wrong side, you had to endure them talking, or their TV turned up, or whatever. On the weekends, people came in from the outlying areas and drank and screamed and fought in the hallways. Each hall had a single rotary telephone next to the toilet stall and one night some metalhead chick with the appropriate bouffant hair spent an hour on that hall telephone screaming at her boyfriend. But if you had the right room, it could be surprisingly quiet, and you could put your milk and sandwich meat out on the ledge to keep it cold. 3rd Ave wasn’t all gussied up then. At the Gramercy Diner on the corner, you could have a cheap breakfast or dinner, and get to know all the people from the neighborhood who hung out in the evenings. Just up from 17th was a Jazz bar, and every time you walked by a hologram of Dizzy Gillespie would follow you, the horn raised to Dizzy’s lips and his cheeks puffing out . . .

I met a guy later that spring who’d lived in the hotel back in the 80’s. He said they had big parties on the roof and trannies hung out in the halls and everyone was on blow. He claimed the Arab-looking guy had pulled a gun on him once. But I never saw anything like that and even the guy at the front desk became more genial when I’d been there a little while. Maybe he saw the leather jacket I wore then and figured I’d be trouble . . .

But I didn’t want any trouble at all. The room was a place to crash, to write in a notebook in the evenings. I got a job just up the street. Even if it was just a llabouring job on a construction site, it was one of those sites which were about to disappear when the last recession really hit, where the money was practically being thrown out the window. I was making a fortune and just out the gilt-framed windows of the penthouse suite we were renovating, I could see the golden dome of the Mutual Life building, the spire of the Empire State. Trust New York City to make a labouring job seem like the American Dream.

In the morning when it got warm enough, I’d sit in Stuyvesant park and have coffee. The homeless still slept in every second or third doorway on 3rd Ave and on maybe a quarter of the park benches and in the morning a few would just be waking up, hacking into the morning cold. The homeless were a part of New York I didn’t understand, so ragged and isolated, in greater numbers than in London or Canada or anywhere else I’d been. The kids from nearby Stuyvesant High School would be out, smoking cigarettes, sharp big city kids carrying novels, smoking cigarettes, clustering in ever-changing groups like kids anywhere and I used to wonder how their world intersected with that of the homeless sleeping on the benches, what one thought of the other.

I went back recently. A young Arab-looking guy was at an open front desk. He was easygoing, friendly. A room cost $80 a night. I don’t know if they’d made them any bigger. The jazz bar is some sort of absurdly upscale yoga studio but the Gramercy Diner is still there, though it costs a lot more and I doubt it has the same clientele. The old guys hanging around outside are long, long gone . . .

Hotel 17

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View of snowstorm through my window View from the window in the eye of the storm.

New York survived the blizzard. Schools closed, businesses closed, New Jersey closed – it was a big deal!  From my perspective, the worst thing was all the ice this morning, and the expectation of days of slush to come (a few years ago, when I was here for a big snowstorm, huge snowbanks blocked off streets in Manhattan and weary New Yorkers had to climb up down jump across the slush, then climb up and down again, repeating the cycle at the corner of each street).

As a Canadian, I am of course used to snowstorms. What amazes me, however, is how New Yorkers respond. In Toronto, people clear their sidewalks grudgingly. In Montreal, where block long convoys of snowploughs and dumptrucks have most streets clear by dawn in even the heaviest of blizzards, the ice can remain on the sidewalks for weeks, even months. On my Brooklyn street, my mostly black American and West Indian neighbors are out almost as soon as the snow starts falling, and will come out repeatedly through the night and into the morning. You can hear them at three am, shovels scraping steps and sidewalks, like there is some sort of competition over who can get their steps and patch of sidewalk clean first. By morning, everyone is out on the street, shouting over the street, commiserating, even going over to help people stuck in deeper than the others.

It’s really one of the few times people on this street openly greet each other, a reminder that New Yorkers like to connect through calamities, big and small . . .

Brooklyn in the eye of the storm

Nice slideshow of reader photos in New York Times

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Protests in New York City

The tea party convention came and went this weekend. Sarah Palin, avatar of the American loopy right, gave a speech. 600 people paid a lot of money to attend, see Sarah speak.

The tea party people get a lot of press from the mainstream media they claim to hate, and all that press about grassroots rage has made me think back across the years, all the way back to the beginning of the Iraq War.
The MSM, including the ‘liberal’ New York Times, were bellicose in their support of the war. Certain lawmakers and many commentators from the above-mentioned loopy right, called anyone who dared to question the march to war foolish, naive, even treasonous. I’d come down that winter after a few months back in Canada (where Prime Minister Jean Chretien, that old fox, hemmed and hawed then, with obvious satisfaction, announced on national TV that Canada would not be among the Willing), and I was shocked by the war fever in the media and across the nation. I’d never seen anything like it.

Yet, on a brutally cold February day, 600,000 New Yorkers came out to march against the war. I went down with my girlfriend and we joined the crowd on the Upper East Side, since midtown was too crowded. The wind whipped off the East River, and the police were out in force, directing the crowd this way or that, making it difficult to reach the main body of the protesters. The cold got so bad, we ducked into an Irish bar on 3rd Ave. At the top of the hour, between ‘Money Matters’, some show about pets, and other irrelevances, both NY1 and CNN made by the way updates on the biggest protest since the 60’s.

Of course, the marches made no impact whatsoever. I can’t remember if Bush even acknowledged that they’d taken place.

A year and a half later, some half a million marched against the Republican convention held in Manhattan that year because it made for great optics. In the West Village, where the marches began, it was so packed traveling a single block took an hour. The cops were out in force, but the mood was relaxed, and some of the cops even seemed supportive. Security around the conference centre was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Choppers, riot cops with machine guns, secret service agents in aviator shades and earpieces, racing off off in black SUVs with reflective windows. I’d never seen anything like it, not even in 80’s London where terrorism was a real and daily threat.

That protest too made little to no impact. But both protests did redeem my faith in New York.

I wonder if any of these tea party people, devotees of Glen Beck and the Avatar, has ever made a connection between the parlous state of America’s finances and the long, long war that followed the invasion, an invasion that was against the wishes of so many in the city where 9/11 did the most damage?

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Black and white bank lobby

For some time now the Williamsburg Savings Bank has been shuttered for renovation.

I’d heard that the whole building, from the iconic clock tower (biggest in the world apparently) on down to the old bank lobby, was to be turned into condos and living spaces for the rich. I’d look out on that iconic tower, visible from pretty much anywhere in downtown Brooklyn, with some sadness, thinking it would be one more New York space which I’d only have access to from a distance. This summer, I looked over Nathan Kensinger’s photo essay of the still-being-renovated building and wondered if the public would ever have access to these spaces.

But thanks to a Brit in Brooklyn posting the week before, I found it that the newly renovated bank lobby is the winter home of the Brooklyn Flea Market.

Stained glass windows

And my, what a lobby . . .

I used to bank here, coming in to change money or even use the ATM, just for the chance to gaze up at the exquisite mosaic ceilings, or be served at the old-time metal teller grates. You felt like you’d stepped back in time – and indeed the bank, if not the building, had the feeling of being marooned in time since the Hanson Place of that pre-Atlantic Terminal era had a desolate, edge of the world feeling, a last repository of the near-abandonment which had once engulfed downtown Brooklyn. The destruction of the old Atlantic Station in the late 80’s, I’m sure, played a part, but apparently the bank tower, built in 1929 has been an analomy since its inception in 1929, when it was assumed that many like buildings would go up aside it. Alas, the Great Depression then central Brooklyn’s post-war decline put paid to that.

Chandelier and ceiling

I’ve read (I can’t find the freakin’ links now) that the hall is marketed as a venue for luxury acts, so I’m a little unclear what its long-term function will be. Apparently, the spaces behind the teller grates are to be reented out for retail, though there are no takers yet. Cultural ‘industries’ like Bomb magazine have rented out office space in the upper floors, and BAM has some kind of presence. Let’s hope this magnificent and historic lobby remains a public venue for years to come.

Teller windows Creative use of old teller windows

last stop

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Old Time Coffee Klatch Back when coffee was just coffee

I’ve been sick off and on all freakin’ month so haven’t had the energy to gather material for this freakin’ blog . . .

On better days, to get out of the house, I’ve been making it out to those strange hybirds of our increasingly strange culture, the coffee shop.

I have, however, been in the habit of going in the mornings for some time. I had a bad injury ten or so years ago and during the long, long period of convalescence, it was a relief to go to a public place and scribble in a notebook for half an hour to an hour. ‘Morning writing’. It didn’t have to be serious, or even make sense. The act of writing, forcing my brain to form words and get them on the page at a time when I was often in the worst shape, set the tone for the rest of the day. I had to find the right place. enough people to make it interesting, but with enough space to remove yourself, have the space to write. An aural background to shut out the higher pitched distractions.

Not easy to find. The steady encroachment of the cellphone hasn’t made it easier. Starbucks, oddly enough, often provides the necessary mix . . .

Outside of the mornings, I’ve never really been into the whole cafe thing. Even when I lived in Montreal.  Italian coffee places, great. Cafes in Paris, wonderful. But North America never really got the concept. Even if I’m not drinking, I’d rather go to a bar. I’ve especially never been down with those hip little cafes that  with the funky art on the walls, the hipster barristas, the range of muffins, cupcakes, and  the thousand coffee blends – the places that sweep in just ahead of any serious wave of gentrification.

We got a half-dozen of them in my neighborhood now.

This weekend an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail (‘Where Did Cafe Culture go?,  more or less a rewrite of WSJ’s No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users) talked about the spread of laptops in cafes, how people are increasingly coming in for one coffee, opening their laptops and staying for hours (or even all day) so many owners are pulling the plug on wifi because they can’t make any money. I wrote before about the electronic galley slaves that have taken over many cafes now.

It seems that many cafes have become surrogate offices now. I know a lot of people, in this area at least, who go to cafes in the daytime are freelancers or students, or unemployed. A lot them probably live packed into cramped apartments where it’s easier to work in a cafe, even a crowded one. But you rarely see anyone using pen and paper anymore. In the last few years, I’ve come to feel like some kind of anachronism, writing with a pen, in a notebook.

I could understand all that – hey, times change – but what I really don’t get is people who pull out their cellphones and start yapping haut voix so their voice dominates their entire space (especially when the cafe is practically empty). I really don’t get people who can spend hours gaping into their laptops when they could be outside, walking around. The recession, gentrification – all have played their part in the decline of New York’s famous open-ness – but the spread of these cafes with their electronic hives have done their share as well. I mean hey, I love computers, but this is still, even in winter, one of the most entertaining cities in the Western World. Why would you want to spend hours in some dumb-ass cafe talking checking updates on facebook?

Paris Cafe outside Paris, some time ago. They still do it better.

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