Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Gentrification’ Category

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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



Read Full Post »

Mickey Mouse in Times Square

Note: this post is from a couple of months ago. I just didn’t get around to putting it up until now.

I went down through Times Square last week. I haven’t been through the Square in a few years and I was curious what it was like now.
I admit that i’ve never been a fan. To me, when it was just down and sleazy, it was, well, down and sleazy. I used to go to a great Brazilian place, gone now, on I think 45th where a plate of more food than you could eat cost 6 or 7$, and a caparinia which would knock you out, cost about 3.I found the place through a friend when I first came to New York in the early 90’s and ten years later, the prices were much the same.

Times Square was very anonymous in those days. A few dive bars, peep shows – even thinking about it now, I can’t remember much. it was just sort of blank, dingy, the haunt of drug dealers, the homeless and kids getting drunk. I knew about it’s storied history of course – I’d read my Buroughs. But perhaps because I’d  given up drugs by the time I moved to New York, that part of city life no longer interested me.

Roxy Sign on Times Square

I do remember the YBY people, the strange semi-cult led by Yaweh Ben Yaweh, a blue-eyed black guy from Florida who preached extreme hatred of white people. In the evening, they’d set up in front of the Army recruiting station. They looked like Sikhs, with turbans around their heads, fake swords, beards, and long white or black robes, but they claimed to be the real Jews, descended from the Israelistes of the Old Testament. They would put up signs showing the other lost tribes of Israel, a shifting cast that usually included Puerto Ricans, Native Indians, Jamaicans, and sometimes Brazilians (or just plain ‘South Americans’). To reinforce their claims to Jewishness, they’d put up a picture of an old Hasidic man, his face crossed out and a line in big black text underneath reading: ‘This is not a Jew!”
They were a fun bunch. One night, this guy went on: “White people, we’re going to enslave you, we’re going to rape your women . . . ” while a half dozen others stood guard, arms folded, staring straight ahead. I watched, transfixed by their naked hatred, for maybe fifteen minutes then finally broke away. I guess I’d been more unnerved than I thought because when a black guy – a local hustler – gave me that appraising look that was common currency in the New York of the day, I flinched. He laughed and grabbed me on the shoulder “Don’t worry, man, I ain’t gonna hurt you,” and I laughed as well. But almost every time I went down after that for the next couple of years, the YBY people were around, part of the Times Square circus.

American Apparel Ad on Times Square
After the Guiliani clean-up, I never went down unless I had to. It was just too frenzied, too much of a mall. I used to think of Times Square as the world citadel of global capitalism, a kind of high-neon, over-touristed, capitalist Vatican, replete with the Hardrock Cafes and other chain restaurants that seemed absurd in the context of New York.  If I went to the Brazilian place, I made sure to enter around 6th. The YBY people were gone at that point. I guess the authorities cleared them out.
But on that afternoon a few weeks ago, it seemed a little less frenzied, if not less capitalist and geared up for the tourists. Instead of the YBY people. there was the Naked Cowboy, that quixotic figure who is a reminder both of pre-gentrification New York’s quirkiness, and its extreme narcissism. He was a big hit, posing for a stream of lady tourists, hugging them for pictures from the front, then turning around, sticking his butt in the air while each lucky lady put her hand on his derriere and he gave his best sexy Naked Cowboy look. In five minutes, he went through a half-dozen women, keeping up the pose and his character with a sort of jovial stoicism, just as he does, day in, day out, year round. Judging from his press, it’s not a bad living. I guess.
I have to say though I didn’t hate  Times Square in it’s present incarnation, not like I did a few years ago. I wouldn’t go out of my way to be there, but with the open spaces, and a very good lady musician playing a half-block down from the Naked Cowboy, it wasn’t a bad place to hang out for half an hour.
Times Square is representative of a basic dilemna New York (and many other cities) faced with de-industrialization – namely, what do you do after you stop making things? I’m no fan of Guiliani, but he did realize one basic thing: if New York was going to have an industry outside of Wall Street, it was going to be tourism, and if New York was going to attract tourists, it was going to have to be safe, in every way. And if that meant diminishing what gave New York it’s distinctive personality, then that, to Guiliani and his heirs, was a price worth paying.

Naked Cowboy with friends on Times Square

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

A guy at my Manhattan watering hole, a theatre director and Soho resident since the 70’s, claims this is the most interesting time to be in New York sicne, well, the 70’s. “Everyone’s moving out of the city, no one knows what’s going to happen . . . ”

I don’t see the 70’s, or what I know of the 70’s in New York, just yet. If anything Manhattan and central Brooklyn feel like more of the same – more gentrified, less life around the edges, more of a homogenization I’ve never seen in New York before. Wall Street still pays out the big bonuses, and another bar regular who runs a high end catering business says business is up, that his Wall street clients are back splashing out for the big events.

Yet everyone I know is broke. Not desperate, not yet, but I wonder where they’ll be if this continues for a year.  In my corner of central Brooklyn new cafes, increasingly upscale, are opening up and middle class white folks with babies are moving in even as the great condo binge edges threatening to transform the neighborhood crawls to a stop – some days a half dozen workers show up to work on a fifty unit building, and a 20 unit building completed last year sits empty, threatened with foreclosure, on the chopping block for a million and a half – for the whole building. Yet despite the recession, and the increasing gentrification, the still mostly working/ lower-middle class black folk in my neighborhood, by and large have retained the optimism they picked up after Obama was elected. Though I wonder too how much longer that will continue if things continue . . . .

A friend with relatives down on Wall street said the feeling is that the street will not return to anything like its pre-Crash level anytime soon. In the Atlantic, Richard Florida (the Creative Class guy), writes that New York will have to re-define itself beyond Wall street once again.

Regardless, I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time reading New York. I’ve never seen the city so withdrawn, so homogenized – so like everywhere else.  Nathan Kensinger, in his excellent post, The Bloomberg Era Pt. 1, maps out a scale of development that  rivals the changes brought about by Robert Moses. I was away for most of the development period, returning for a few months at a time and often with a year or so in-between, and so experienced these changes almost second-hand. Beyond the deflation that came with Bush’s re-election, I did notice a change setting in in late 2006 – people I knew here began to withdraw into smaller and smaller circles, my favorite bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan became more homogenized, and that wonderful New York quality of random contact and possibility began to go on the retreat. And many people I knew started leaving the city, a process which is still going on now.

Yet that cycle is over, and another is about to begin. If New York feels sometimes like just another city now, I’m sure that in one year, two, it will be something else entirely.

Guy down on Wall street last summer:

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »