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Haiti

I was going to write a series of blog posts commenting things happening around Brooklyn, but events in Haiti overshadow that. The earthquake has flattened a good part of Port au Prince, the capital, and estimates put over a hundred thousand dead.

I am Canadian and our head of state, the Governor General (an albeit largely ceremonial role), the elegant Michaelle Jean, is Haitian born (she came to Canada at age eleven). She made a very emotional appeal today on Canadian television. Ms. Jean has relatives in Haiti, and maintains many links there, and in turn, Haiti has many links with Canada. Montreal in particular has a very large Haitian community.

There is a mass of information out there, in everything from the big newspapers to blogs to twitter updates.  I don’t see how I can add anything useful here. I will donate to the Red Cross this evening. They seem the safest, and most efficient organization. Hopefully, this response to this disaster will be as quick and efficient as possible, and no more lives will be lost.

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Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

Volunteers Painting Mural for Market

An organic market opened this summer in Bed-Stuy, behind the community garden on Marcy and Clifton Place. I’ve been going regularly when I’m in the neighborhood. I have mixed feelings about things like organic markets. In Fort Greene, the organic market that opened along the park in 2003, was pretty much the beginning of the end of Fort Greene as an affordable neighborhood. Going to the Fort Greene market now – and I say this as someone who has always enjoyed going to markets, of all kinds – is about as pleasurable as fighting your way through a crowded shopping mall. And cheap it ain’t.

Hattie Carthan Market hasn’t reached that point, though. The times I’ve been there, it has been pleasant, relaxed. The market is the child of  Yonette Fleming, who rescued a vacant lot behind the Coummnity Garden which developers had been using to dump refuse from construction sites. She cleaned up the lot, mostly with volunteers from the neighborhood. She runs cooking classes every Saturday afternoon for a small audience, explaining what she is doing, then serving whatever she has cooked. Yonette is a community food educator, and the market is part of a larger mission of introducing healthy food into poor communities. From the press release for the market opening:

Young woman in front of mural

Young woman in front of mural

“. . .   In New York City neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant in Central Brooklyn where a third of residents live in poverty, more than 12% of adults have diabetes, compared to 8% nationwide. . . . The farmers market is also a community’s effort  to reclaim its agricultural heritage and contribute to the cultural, social and economic vitality of  Central Brooklyn.”

The first time I went down, volunteers were painting the murals which now adorn the site and the next Saturday, Travis from ‘Band of Bicycles’ was down with his ‘blender bicycle’ serving fresh juice mixed in a bicycle-powered blender. The market takes food stamps, and prices are better than up in Fort Greene.  I like going to the little market, having lunch from Yonette’s food stall – she cooks every weekend, with produce from the community garden –  then touring the community garden next door. Most of the vendors come down from organic farms in Vermont, and there is a strong Vermont connection, with a lot of white people with the usual neo-hippie garb: t-shirts celebrating the Cuban Revolution, tie-dyed hair, beads, even sandals. It is amazing how little that basic style has changed in three decades. Last weekend, on the Oktoberfest celebration, there was even a bongo jam session, and spoken word poetry. Even if it is relaxing, even refreshing, this turn from a steets of barracks like brick housing projects with metal bars over the windows and the teenagers hanging out on the street into a slice of rural hippie Vermont is just a little odd.

Blender Bicycle

The Hattie Carthan Community Garden is one of a network of small gardens which you see all over Bed-Stuy. I also remember seeing a few up in Harlem, and a couple down in the Lower East Side, and apparently there are a few really big ones up in the Bronx. The gardens are the work of the Green Guerillas, an early 90’s movement to turn vacant lots in poor, mostly black neighborhoods, into garden plots for local people, many of whom came from the rural South. In particular, activists wanted to get the kids involved, most of whom had been raised in the city and lost touch with the soil.

It is usually mostly  old folks around when I tour the garden, who seem to have been around for years. They hang around in the shade at a BBQ in the back, next to the long greenhouse where Yonette gets a lot of her produce.  Once, I met a young black guy from Belgium who was sightseeing with his wife and young daughter. He said they’d been to community gardens all over New York, that people were always happy to show them around, that they made it a regular weekend activity to go around the gardens in New York.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Old folks sitting by the BBQ behind the garden.

Last week, I talked to one of the old guys who was at the very back of the garden, trimming the hedges. He had a thick southern accent and I guessed he must have come from North Carolina originally, as do many of the old people in the neighborhood. Some of the hedges had been trimmed into little domes, others wound through the market like a garden path. He said when the garden had first started 17 years before, the hedges had all been wild, and he’d trimmed them into shape and kept them up every year. They’d planted the fig trees, which now stood fifteen feet high. At the back of the garden, overlooking Marcy street, was a Magnolia tree, planted in 1885. Hattie Carthan, a local enviromenalist, secured landmark status for the tree before she died in 1984.

I wondered what the area had been like when the garden had first started. Even a few years ago, the park across the street was a sort of blank zone of scrubby grass, drugs consumed in the corners. Several blocks of low-rise projects cover the area behind and around the garden. Except for the barracks-like front doors, they aren’t bad as projects go, but they have that slightly abandoned air of New York housing projects, and a few years ago, they were much worse. The garden must have been a curious oasis amidst the decay that was Bed-stuy in that era, and I wondered what the old folks thought of all the white people moving into their neighborhood now, if they’d ever thought it possible in the dark days of the early 90’s, when the garden first opened.

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

Almost Ripe Figs on the branch

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The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

The infamous Vazac's (or Horseshoe Bar) - now a college bar.

I’ve been down the last couple of weeks with the cold virus that seems to be sweeping the city. And what a virus – haven’t experienced anything like this in years. In the meantime:

From Patell and Waterman’s History of New York:

Hunkered Down in the East Village with Jeremiah Moss and EV Grieve.

Jeremiah Moss is the pseudonym behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and EV Grieve ditto for, well,  EV Grieve. They talked with P&W HONY blog host Brian Waterman about everything from selecting a blogging alter ego (Jeremiah Moss was originally a character from the writer’s unpulished novel), the ongoing gentrification of the East Village to the ‘East Village blogging mafia’. In particular, they talked about the changing demographic of people coming to New York, the East Village in particular, since 9-11. JM said:

“Many of the people who come to the city and specifically to the East Village today seem different than the ones who came 15 or 20 years ago. Their values are different. Their behavior is different. Their attitude toward the world around them is different . . . Basically, it boils down to a lot of people moved to NYC after 9/11 who seem to hate urban life and everything about it. It baffles my mind to wonder why they came in the first place”

The others concurred. I thought it was interesting that they feel the change set in after 9-11. In the East Village, the real shift, for me at least, began in the mid-90’s, when a whole new type of international affluent young person began to find the EV began to arrive in great numbers. In New York in general, I’d say the years after 9-11 weren’t too bad, preferable in many ways to the late 90’s, when a kind of hubris ruled, particularly amongst anyone connected to the dot.com world (for a reminder of just how awful that era could be, see ‘We Live In Public’ by Ondi Timnover).

Immediately after 9-11, pain, shock, brought New Yorkers together again – and scared off a lot of the kinds of people who have saturated it now. In February, 2003, 600,000 people marched against the Iraq War, coming out in minus 15 cold, with winds off the East River –  going up against a venomous lockstep media ready to label anyone who dissented from the Bush administration line a traitor.

In 2004, another half-million marched against the Republican convention in mid-town. That was a good time to be in New York. Again, there was a sense of solidarity in the streets, an energy and open-ness that hadn’t existed since just after 9-11. It was like a more genteel version of the New York I experienced when I first started coming here in the late 80’s. Even the East Village seemed to take a momentary respite from gentrification. If there were more white people with kids on Ave. A than ever before, they were a welcome change from the internationally trendy.

I’d say the latest big change in New York started happening in Bush’s second term. I came and went a lot during those years, and every time I came back, Manhattan seemed a little more affluent, a little more bland, even withdrawn, the bars I used to go to more expensive, familiar neighborhoods that much more homogenous, cellphone/ computer/ corporate culture that much more intrusive. By 2006 or so, the process seemed to have taken over everything else.

But if New York is about anything, it is change. In my limited (fifteen year) experience, the city seems to change direction every five years or so. Possibly, we’re at the end of one cycle now. I’d hoped that the big crash last year would put the breaks on gentrification, and bring back the city I’d loved, but that hasn’t happened yet, at least not in any obvious way.

What do you think, readers? What will the next cycle bring – in New York, London, Toronto, wherever?

Down Ludlow street

Down Ludlow street

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The Mall in all it's glory

The Mall in all it's glory

You wanted it . . . you got it.

The most popular posting on this blog has nothing to do with Brooklyn Obama Art Culture  or even Planet Toronot  but . . . .

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall.

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

Britain’s oldest indoor mall, like the Heygate Estate behind it, is part of an earlier regeneration scheme for the Elephant Castle, which had been devastated during WWII. The mall , like the Heygate Estate and pretty much everything else in the Elephant, is slated for demolition to make way for another attempt at ‘regeneration’, though the mall likely won’t be torn down until 2012 – at the earliest. 

It’s easy to hate the mall, and up until a couple of years ago I basically did. In the late 80’s, it was depressing, and the tunnels that fed into it from the nightmare roundabout were not just depressing but sometimes even dangerous. Packs of kids hung around the mall, especially on the upper levels, along with more than a few drunks. The few cafes were dingy, served terrible food; the garish reds and pinks, the muzak, the vandalized phone boxes, made it seem like some awful caricature of the malls I’d left behind in North America. 

 

Perhaps it was just familiarity, even sentimentality, but eventually . . . while I can’t say I came to love it ,  I had to admit a sneaking affection came over me when I lived on the neighboring Heygate a year ago. 

Columbians had taken over many of the stores on the upper level. They served great coffee, and you could sit and watch the waves of pedestrians in and out of the concrete terminal of the neighboring train station. There are two kiosque type places, and La Bodeguita, a Columbian restaurant with big glass windows that plays Columbian music out into the mall, offsetting the muzak classical drifting from the ceiling . . . 

Cafe on second floor

Cafe on second floor

Underneath the railway arches, where there’d been the original raver’s clubs back in the 80’s, were more cafes with more good coffee and that rarity of rarities in London: good, cheap food. They also have South American music, films. Nice place to hang out for a half hour or so. Up the street was a bike shop, with the bikes stacked up outside.  

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

The Charlie Chaplin pub had been taken over by squat Latin American men with profiles straight out of the great Mayan frescoes. The first time I went in, I thought I was hallucinating and that I was back in New York. 

The Elephant's most famous citizen

The Elephant's most famous native son

The murals. The kids breakdancing on thursday (or was it wednesday) evenings, inhabiting the airport lounge space on the second level, almost out of sight as you went by for the train. The great used booksellers on the lower level (I never had the money to actually buy any books, but that’s London for you). The Chinese Herbal medicine place by the 2nd floor entrance advertising remedies for ‘man problem’. 

Pink elephants racing through the mall

Pink elephants racing through the mall

And the market, open most days, running through the concrete cavern next to the mall. ‘Cheap and cheerful’ clothes, some electronics – mostly junk by and large. But I’d stop at the fruit and veg market just beside the ground floor entranceon the way home. For London, it was almost cheap and the young South Asian guys who ran it were always friendly, a welcome pause after the frenzied, usually alienating ride home.  

Market on a weekday afternoon

Market on a weekday afternoon

Curiously the Super Bowl was still in use. I didn’t know people still bowled in the Elephant or anywhere else, but on the weekends and evenings, I’d see families going up and down the escalators. There was some sort of patio bar place on the roof behind the Super Bowl and there always seemed to be people out in the evenings, even in winter  . . . 

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper level

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper leve

The mall is decrepit certainly, but it’s that  very decrepitude allows people like the Columbians, the market, the used booksellers to flourish. Once it’s gone, the Elephant will look just like any other part of London – that is to say, homogenized, gentrified – and boring. If they do blow up the Heygate this summer and, as expected, not have the money to put up anything in it’s place, how will the mall be in one year, two years time? What will happen to the booksellers, Columbians, the South Asians in the market? Whither the Elephant?

For more (and continuous) posts about the Elephant, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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New York Times Photography special:

Picturing The RecessionPicturing the Recession

Readers and journalists from across the world send pictures detailing the impact of the recession.

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New York women, as every NY man knows, are difficult. If they have great poetry, vitality, curiousity, personality – an awful lot of them are wounded as well. A little blunted at their core, overwhelmed by the sensory and emotional contradictions of their city.

Not just women . . . an awful lot of people here are wounded in some very deep way. High-functioning, dynamic – but New York is a city of damaged people and this contributes a great deal to it’s character good and bad. I don’t know that London has the same quality – or maybe New Yorkers wear it on their sleeves more.

At it’s core, New York is a frontier city, a much larger, infinitely more sophisticated version of the frontier towns where I grew up. Maybe this frontier quality contributes to the city’s odd mixture of compassion and indifference. part of the New York ethos is to become hard, to be a survivor. But maybe after awhile this self-imposed shell destroys something inside as well.

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