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Steve CannonSteve Cannon turned 75 the week before last. His birthday party was held at the Tribes gallery, his home since the 70’s, with readings by Karl Watson, Michael Carter, Shalom Naumen, and the ‘Unbearable’s book release party.

I got there late, after both the readings were over. The food trays picked clean, though half a box of wine remained. Steve was sitting on his living room couch in front of the apartment doorway, the same place I’ve found him almost every time I’ve gone to see him over the last 20 years. Drinking wine, smoking, and hanging out with the dozens of people pressed in around him.On the walls were the striking photographs of the GirlEye show curated by the gallery. Everyone was drunk. It was just like old times.

Steve comes from New Orleans originally, but he’s been in New York since the 70;s. He is a poet, playwright, and novelist, and was a long-time professor at CUNY until he retired in the early 90’s. In the 70’s, he had a bestselling novel: “Groove Jive & Bang Around”, which gave him the money to buy the building he lives in now. He is almost fully blind, and has been so for the last dozen years, the end result of glaucoma. He has people read his books and newspapers and emails to him, but still gets out to shows and readings. He has plenty of help around the studio, and many people drop by.  I doubt he’s alone much.

When I first started going down in the early 90’s, the gallery was just starting up and Steve could still see, though he wore dark glasses, even at night. On warm days, he hung out on his stoop, and everyone he knew from in and around the neighborhood would drop by. Some days, you could get a reasonable cross-section of the Lower East Side of the time – young white bohemians like myself, old black poets Photo display from the Girleye Show
and writers who’d known Steve for decades, local Puerto Ricans, drug addicts. Many of the people around him were stalwarts of the 80’s Lower East Side writing music art drug scene. Some, like the poet John Ferris, had hung out in the political and writing scene in 60’s and 70’s Harlem.

I liked Steve and John and the other guys, and liked the connection to black NY history and art. Most of all, I liked to listen to them talk politics. They really knew their stuff, and in the self-referential, curiously parochial New York of the day, it was refreshing to talk with people who knew what was happening in what was left of the Soviet Union, Iraq, or Africa, unfiltered by the lens of the New York Times or CNN.

I had another connection with Steve: we’d both squatted in London, in roughly the same neighborhood, though 20 years apart – me in the late 80’s, Steve in the 60’s. I’d been in Westbourne Park, then virtually abandoned, Steve in Kilburn, the then Irish neighborhood in the north of the city. “We thought we were broke,” Steve said, “but there was a bunch of motherfuckers across the street – they had nothing at all! We were rich compared to them!”

Steve Cannon with Michael BlloombergBy the mid-90’s, the Tribes gallery was becoming something of a local institution. Despite the glaucoma, Steve was involved in the rebirth of the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, in the Living Theatre, and Bullet Space. His stoop, and his gallery became a popular hangout for a lot of kids arriving in town from Europe, Japan, across America. Bit by bit, I stopped going down.

But in a Lower East Side I hardly recognize, it’s good to see Steve, and his piece of history, still providing the conduit to the past.

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Notes from the G train . . .

Couple with two kids. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans – and very fat, not flabby fat like white people from small towns or the burbs, but ghetto fat, people who don’t drive but consume very bad food. Tough-looking, not unkind but dulled.

The kids were maybe five or six and keep acting up. First the mother tried to control them, then the father intervened, growing more exasperated as the boy talked back and finally the father who I guessed was actually just a boyfriend of the woman gets up and grabs the kid’s ear and gives it a twist. Not a hard twist, but just enough for the kid to yell, then cry with no tears, yelling at the boyfriend who sits down and yells back, “don’t you be yelling at me like that in front of people, don’t be making a fool out of me!”

The white people on the train glance over uneasily, wondering if they should intervene as the kid yells some more at the boyfriend and the boyfriend looks more and more angry and exasperated, everyone wondering if he is going to attack the boy, if it is right to twist a little boy’s ear. But even if I grew up with violence in the home, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the boyfriend since the boy is out of control, jumping up on his seat, hitting his sister and making her cry, ignoring his mother. I thought, what could the guy do?

The guy looked around wearily, but the tension had dropped and everyone went back to staring at the ground. Even with the warm weather, white, black, Hispanic, whatever looked tired, drawn – even defeated – I didn’t think I’d ever seen New Yorkers as beat down as this winter and the whole scene, the family, the train, depressed me.

Then, on the upper platform of Bedford-Nostrand, I heard a violinist. I didn’t register him at first. After everyone had walked ahead of me off the train, the station was almost empty and I almost walked by, closed off in that way you get in New York. I noticed the sound, ringing off the station walls, filling the dank space of the station, and one guy standing alone, his head covered with a hood, his violin case half full of bills. I gave him a dollar and leaned against the wall to listen. He was playing something that sounded like Bach, and the sound was as full as a violin playing in a concert hall, so full and loud I could feel it all around me like a vibration or a liquid, feel it trailing down into the platforms, through the metal bars into the halls and up onto the street.

When he’d finished I went up and thanked him. He had an accent and looked like he came from southern Europe. I asked him if he played in the station all the time and he said no, he’d been on the subway and stopped at random then been amazed by the acoustics so he’d stayed.

I didn’t get his name. He said he’d be back but I never saw him again.

interior of bedord nostrand subway

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motorcycle shop in Tribeca, 1970's.

Photo: Allen Tannenbaum

I’ve been busy with out of town guests and this curious (and lately very rare) thing called paid work so haven’t posted for a week. I’ll be getting back in the swing soon, but in the meantime a blurb courtesy of The Selvedge Yards.

An essay and photo gallery by Allen Tannenbaum:

New York in the 70’s.

Exciting, edgy times, especially if you were young. And had a thick hide.

More anon.

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Budding Trees in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

The blossoms are out on the tree outside my front door, almost obscuring one of the last empty houses on the street (five years ago there were at least a half-dozen). The slightly menacing and very monotonous tingle of the ice cream truck echoes up and down and all around the street . . .

Saturday morning, the block association on my street came out to clean up the planters, getting ready to put out the flowers in a week or two. People are out on the stoop, kids are on the pavement, and the first of the killer motorcycles has come roaring down the street. A few more fire trucks than usual were out today, but so far, no major repeat of the craziness that came with the warm weather a couple of weeks ago.

The dogs are out as well, barking in the back yards for any reason at all, their barking magnified by the canyon formed by the backs of the three and four story brownstones . . .

Half-finished condo building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

Down Greene Ave. one condo is almost finished, another sits three-quarters finished and almost wholly abandoned, the guard post unmanned most of the time, windows smashed out on the upper levels, a the two by fours and netting of a personnel barrier hanging off an unfinished balcony. The ten story tower, the tallest building in the area, looks over the neighborhood like an unmanned lighthouse. The almost finished condo, however, advertises the usual luxury flats and, from the polished condition of the flats inside the windows, the owners seem confident they’ll sell. The sister condo – almost identical in size and style – is going up just as fast.

On The Street that Gentrification Forgot, new housing built a year or two ago has made it seem almost like a normal street. Almost. An auto body shop has been converted into a woodworking studio where, amongst other things, the owners make violins. A yoga studio, sure sign that the neighborhood is reaching the gentrification critical mass, is rumored to be opening in a converted warehouse loft. Yet just around the corner is another condo, thin as a razor, also three-quarters complete and seemingly abandoned. The lower levels are open, guarded by a wooden fence that is so flimsy the whole thing fell right into the street during the storm a couple of weeks ago – where it remained for three days until someone finally came to put it right. I keep  waiting for squatters to move in and inhabit the spaces with the floor to ceiling windows and, I’m sure, fine views of the neighborhood.

Abandoned condo building on Bedford Ave.

Up on Classon and Greene, in the old liquor store building, a mural has been painted on the side facing Greene, obscuring some of the old historic logs of companies that don’t exist anymore. Two young guys, one black, one white, were hard at work a couple of weeks ago, and I thought they might be producing some sort of community mural. Instead, it is an ad disguised as a community mural. It reads:

“This art wall installation  was designed by (two real estate agents who shall remain un-named) and was inspired by the Ford Fiesta Movement project, Mission#1. The mural highlights (said real estate agents)’ top 10 favorite locations in Brooklyn. They are one of 20 teams of agents throughout the country who are challenged with showcasing the vibrancy and creativity of their home town.”

Like Jeremiah wrote in a post last week, street art is being/has been colonized by the corporate world so “sometimes . . .  it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at gallery art, graffiti, or advertising.. .”What’s curious about this mural is its sheer dippiness, and its location on the border of Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy (and across from another finished, but empty condo building). This makes no mistake that it is advertising, according to the video on the website it is part of a nationwide team of real estate agents “working with the best local talent to reimagine the way Fiesta gets advertised”. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope the mural it is tagged and defaced (in the grand NY tradition) very soon.

Corporate Mural on the corner of Greene and Classon



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Blurred shot of Manhattan at night Image: Jefft

Hanging outside my lower Manhattan local with D., who has lived in Soho since the 1980’s . . .

A guy came up to us, holding what looked like a $20 dollar bill. He had the usual NY homeless look, with bundles of clothes wrapped around his body and his head so only his craggy, bearded face was visible. The glazed look of days and nights on the street, booze and who knows. The guy showed D the bill, the laughed and pulled it apart to reveal that it was fake.

“Not bad huh? They’re gettin’ better at these things.”

His voice was hoarse, like he didn’t use it much anymore. D laughed as well, and gave him a cigarette and they examined the bill and I gathered they knew each other. Then the guy said he was going to try and pass the bill at the Koreans up the street. When he was gone D said:

“I’ve known that guy siince I first came to the city. He used to deal weed in Washington Square. The Jamaican dealers in the park kicked the shit out of him ’cause they didn’t want the competition. You know, like a turf thing. I saw him afterward – he had one of those wire things around his jaw.
“He lost his place after that and ended up on the street. The amazing thing is he stayed clean – once he came up to me with a big bag of coke, all rolled up, he’d found on the street somewhere and wanted to know if I wanted it. I had no interest at the time so I didn’t take it, but it says something about where he was at then.

“Once he got to that place where he was down, he couldn’t get up again. I’ve never forgotten that. You slip through the cracks and you can’t come back. He started going downhill a few years ago. All those years on the street. People give me grief for giving these guys money. ‘They’ll just blow it on drugs!’ they say. But hey, I’m glad they blow it on drugs! Wouldn’t you blow everything you got on drugs if you were living on the street?”

D claimed a good panhandler in NY can make 20 grand a year. “You know, the ones that are personable, have the patter down, know where to go. But I don’t think our friend’s at that point anymore, if he ever was. The Koreans won’t pass that one, they’re open 24 hours, they see everything . . .”

I wonder how many people slip through the cracks, even as I”m writing this.

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Ill today so can’t write a full post. But here are some links, inspired by a fine post over at cynephile with a couple of the old 3rd Ave. El.
NYC Graffiti from 73-75

NYC subway cars in the 70’s

And related, since it does touch on NYC’s infrastructure, and therefore its basic look:

Penn Station: vandalism on a massive scale.

Subway Train at Smith and 9th station

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Carnegie Library - Braddock PA

Carnegie Library - Braddock PA

Perhaps. But likely not anytime soon.

I first became aware of Braddock, PA last summer, through an article in my Google news alert from the People’s Weekly World (‘We take sides – Yours! Working class opinions and views since 1924’) entitled:

‘Future for the Mons Valley: “Hell doesn’t have to last forever”‘.

At first what amazed me was not Braddock – but that an old time leftie journal like People’s Weekly World still existed in today’s America. Or today’s anywhere, since our political conversation has shifted so rightward that what would have been centrist in the 70’s is now ‘radical’ left. But then I got interested in Braddock.

Braddock, Pennsylvania, sits just outside Pittsburgh, and has a population of 2800, down from 200,000 in the 50”s. The mayor, John Fetterman, has become a celebrity of sorts. Most recently, he was profiled in the Atlantic’s ‘Brave Thinkers’ series, but many papers have profiled him from the Guardian: America’s coolest mayor? to the New York Times: Rock Bottom For Decades but Showing Signs of Life. Fetterman makes great cop: a 6’8”, 300 pound, heavily tattooed white Harvard grad with a shaved head who wants to revive a dying steel town where the remaining population is mostly black. He seems a dedicated man, has built a website dedicated to the town braddoc; ‘destruction breeds creation – create amidst destruction’ (‘braddoc’ was the local Crips’ spelling of the town’s name).

Having grown up in a town surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned mines, a town that is itself almost now completely abandoned, I’ve always been fascinated by abandonment: what it means, what places become after they’ve been abandoned. But the story of Braddock and Mayor Fetterman’s attempts to revive it, struck other chords.

Abandoned Street, Braddock PA

Abandoned Street, Braddock PA

In an excellent article from ReadyMade Magazine( ‘One Man’s Mission to Save Braddock, Pennsylvania’), the writers illustrate not only how black people were left behind by the GI Bill, by a lack of seniority in the workplace, but how Braddock is in the absurd position of possessing the last operating steel mill in the Valley, yet how almost no one works at the mill actually lives in Braddock. As Mayor Fetterman says, “the mill’s only contribution to the community is pollution – one of the main reasons white workers, when they could, moved out.”

The mayor would like to see the white folks come back. Not the white working class – no one expects that – but the only white folks who re-inhabit depressed urban areas their parents or grandparents fled – artists, urban frontierists, chasing cheap living spaces, an off-the-grid community, freedom, or sometimes just escape.

I’ve lived in some (albeit much tamer) version of Braddock since my teens – depopulated or recently de-industrialized neighborhoods occupied by the artists and misfits Fetterman wants to attract. Since about the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that cities like New York and London would have less and less space for people on the margins, I’ve thought real artistic renewal would come from smaller centres – like grunge came from Seattle. That hasn’t happened on any meaningful level, and cities seem to be separating into two types – gentrified and depressed (or semi-abandoned). The question remains – can any kind of real cultural movement form in places like Braddock (or Detroit, Buffalo . . .). And if they can, can they revive not just the city but the fortunes of the people who already live there, or resist the uber-gentrification (a little gentrification, like a little poison, can be a good thing) that seems to follow any cultural flowering?

Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA

Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA

The Lower East Side is a half hour’s walk from the power centres of mid-town and Wall Street – even at its most abandoned and depraved, when drug lines circled around blocks of abandoned tenements, the separation was more psychological or cultural than physical. In many respects, New York was a more egalitarian place in those days, and drugs, art, thrills, formed the nexus where the powerful and the marginal rubbed shoulders. All those spaces I inhabited (or squatted), were in the heart of the city, in properties that are in some cases now worth millions.

It takes a certain kind of person to live off the grid, and the communities that formed were often riven by drugs, conflict, or an extreme (and crippling) marginalization. Isolation, drugs, blightend landscapes, crime – these aren’t easy to take day after day, especially as you get older.

Another street - Braddock, PA

Another street - Braddock, PA

What else are communities like Braddock to do? Unless the West re-industrializes (and there seems to be a growing awareness that this might be a good idea), there isn’t much that can be done. The solution that is proposed again and again for depressed communities seems to be big box malls, gambling or a prison – Fetterman’s opponent in the last election wanted to bring in a gas station. The homesteaders provide population, new ideas, energy. Maybe, as our economy changes, the inevitability of gentrification for successful cultural communities will change as well. Maybe new industries will one day come back to Braddock . . .

In the meantime, Braddock remains an experiment worth watching. Even if it doesn’t become the next Lower East Side. And if it is successful, perhaps my little town will attract people in like fashion one day . . .

Uranium City, Saskatchewan Uranium City, Saskatchewan, where I grew up. Empty buildings stretch for three or four miles

More articles:

former steeltown

From the Monthly Review: Braddock, Pennsylvania – Out of the Furnace, Into the Fire

Thread in city-data.com about Braddock, mostly from people from neighboring areas

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