Archive for the ‘New York History’ 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.

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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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Poutine on a plate

We met at T-Poutine, a narrow hole-in-the-wall on Ludlow Street. Forty Canadians, a couple of Americans, there for that curiously popular French-Canadian specialty, poutine. French fries with cheese curds, covered in gravy. T-Poutine is run by an ex-Quebecer, Thierry Pepin, and they serve poutine in all kinds of flavors, from smoked meat to ‘tree-hugger’ (sliced mushrooms). In Montreal you always had poutine plain, so that’s how I had it. And it was the real thing, as close to the Montreal version as you’ll have in New York – or anywhere.

Memories of Montreal Pool Room in the early 90’s at the bottom of St. Laurent, just below rue St. Catherine, the long, long avenue that bisects Montreal east to west, English side to French. An area dominated by strip bars, and tavernes where they played hardcore porn on the overhead TV’s inside and everyone from the bikers (or would be bikers) and their women, to the old men who probably came in every day to the waitresses, totally ignored it. The once-great punk club, Foufounes Electrique, just around the corner, and after hanging out until two or three or four am, you’d drop into the Montreal Pool Room and join the line up of just out of the bar aficianados for poutine, hot dogs, or just the best fries in the city with the best cuisine in North America, hoping it would take off the worst of the hangover the next day. Which of course it didn’t.

Memories too of my first journeys to New York and America in the late 1980’s, riding the night train down the Eastern Seaboard. Drinking in a lounge car full of raucous, mostly blue-collar Americans from Vermont or Massachusetts,  knocking back one dollar cans of bud with shots of Jack Daniels, and some big black dude with an afro playing Jimi Hendrix medleys on a farfisa organ in the corner. Arriving with the Bronx dawn spilling out the train window, those magnificent power station chimneys rising up beside the Hudson. Stumbling out into Penn Station with two hours sleep, still drunk.

I hung out on the Lower East Side in those days, drank just up the street. The Lower East Side was still mostly Puerto Rican, the dealers lined Rivington, the bars that cover the area just starting to make inroads on upper Ludlow. I had a friend down on Clinton and I’d stay at his loft space overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge. The doorbell didn’t work so you had to shout up and hope he heard you over the traffic noise from Delancey so he could open the window and throw down the key four stories down to the street, the key insulated with a felt glove so it wouldn’t fall on anyone and maim them. I don’t recall the LES being heavy exactly, but when you stepped outside, you were aware of being somewhere not quite America, with the Spanish on the streets, the stores with the religious icons, the music, the food. And the energy – so much energy and tension in those narrow streets. Going back to Montreal always felt like odd, like a deflation, and it would take me days to find myself again.Front of T-Poutine, Lower East Side, New York

After the poutine, we drank vodka supplied by the good folks at the restaurant, then stepped onto a Ludlow I hardly recognized. Some of the old bars still there, Katz’s Deli still there, but I never imagined that the Lower East Side, like (to a much lesser degree), the neighborhood I hung out in up in Montreal, would become a hangout for the affluent. In this case, the very affluent. The same crappy streets, same wine-dark tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes – and a whole lot of bars, restaurants and very fancy cafes, the kind I would never have imagined down here even ten years ago. Even five years ago.

And on a day when the rest of New York was deserted with the holidays and the heat, the LES was packed. It had this strange gloss, like the gloss of a movie set, and I kept thinking of They Live!, John Carpenter’s godawful yet increasingly prescient portrayal of a world run by alien yuppies, because watching these folks, you’d never know there was a recession on, and I had to wonder, as I often do when I’m certain part of Manhattan or Brooklyn: who the fuck are these people?

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Now that summer’s here (in early April), what is there to do but dream of Coney . . .

As one commentator wrote ‘the eerie trippiness IS Coney Island’. With thanks to Amusing the Zillion who posted it first. By Sherwin Akbarzadeh. Keeping with the theme, some more memories of the dreamland wonder that was Coney Island . . .

Ain’t youtube amazing!

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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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Demon exhibit at Coney Island Hell HoleMy first association with Coney Island was a copy of ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti my parents had brought in a fit of youthful bohemia, long since abandoned to a top shelf. I was too young to have any grasp of poetry, much less Ferlinghetti’s free verse experimentalism, but I loved the black and white cover image of the fantastic lights, spreading  out for what seemed like miles. It seemed such an iconic place, embedded so deeply in the American psyche that everyone knew what it was to have a ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ (in that mid-70’s era of ‘Happy Days’, ‘American Graffiti’, everything I thought I knew about America seemed vastly more comfortable and inspiring and convivial than the spartan, parochial backwoods Canada where we lived.

Vulture biting dog at Coney Island Hell Hole

But when I  made it out nearly two decades later, it wasn’t Ferlinghetti I thought of, but the closing act of ‘The Warriors’ which I’d seen about nine times when I lived in a group home in my teens. The decrepit subway train clattering through the last bend of the elevated, the bedraggled, exhausted gang confronting a psychotic Sean Penn rattling coke bottles in his fingers while the trash blew past the graffiti shutters outside. The station was almost derelict, and panhandlers and drug dealers lurked around the station entrance, and the street outside the carny looked disheveled, half-abandoned.

As I noted in a previous feature, I’m a sucker for abandonment and Coney Island became a regular part of my NY itinerary. Who could not love the abandoned roller coaster, half-overgrown with vines, or the vista of the elevated elongating out behind the ferris wheel, and the Cyclone, or the old-time creepiness of the carny itself (what gives carnivals this slightly sinister quality? they have have given expression to some buried pagan mysticism, the allure – and power – of the outcast, the freak. The Disney version gets rid of this hint of sleaziness and danger, this hint of the subconcious, the dream).

Painted garbage cans on boardwalk Coney Island

I liked Coney best in winter, when everything was shut down, and the boardwalk was deserted but for a few forlorn Russians out on the pier, hauling in their traps. The fog made the carny, the projects at the end of the boardwalk almost otherworldly. An old guy from the area pushed a shopping cart up and down the boardwalk selling hot latkes wrapped in tin foil. Once, not long after the collapse of communism, he said, “I’m not going to say communism was a perfect system, far from it, but the world has lost something with the disappearance of a state built around the working man.”

The carny retained a few freak shows: a sign promising a ‘man-eating chicken’, a ‘flesh-devouring rat’. I paid one dollar to a very bored looking teenager to see the rat. The two black women behind me giggled nervously, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the killer rat turned to be an oversized hamster, half-buried in straw next to a bowl of kibble.

I did go to the stage show once. I think it cost three bucks. The audience was mostly Puerto Rican teenagers, the performers a troop of very unhappy looking white people, some with piercings and neck tattoos. One guy hammered a nail through his (pierced) tongue, another guy put on a straitjacket, and had someone from the audience tighten it up then, after some struggle, broke free. Between acts, the emcee plugged whoopee cushions – I guess they had a shipment they needed to get rid of. The kids were amused enough but the performers obviously hated their show, their audience, and wanted the whole thing to be over. The seats and the stage were hammered together with uneven lengths of plywood, the floor littered with trash; in those moments Coney Island seemed a symbol of the decay of Brooklyn itself.

But even in its decay it was surreal. A friend told me once how she’d been on the ferris wheel, and the guard dog down below, a Rotweiller or maybe a pit bull, had gotten it’s head stuck in a trash can and for the whole length of her ride she’d watched the dog thrashing about, banging the can against some nearby posts while the ride supervisor looked on, oblivious.

Freak Show on the side of the Coney Island Film Festival

I didn’t go back for a long time, part of a general withdrawing from New York and the world I went through at the time. Friends told me it had become hip, with the Coney Island Museum, the Coney island Film Festival. When I did go back last year, I was shocked at how little of the old Coney remained. Gone the overgrown roller coaster, the derelict bath house, and the flesh-eating rat. Bloomberg plans to revitalize ‘the people’s playground’, but we’ll see if it will indeed be for the people or just another of the rich man developments Bloomberg seems to favor, whether the spirit of Ferlinghetti’s book cover, the Warriors, and that seedy old carney will live on.

Sunset on Boardwalk, Coney Island

More Coney Links:

Coney Island Freak Show in the 40’s

CO Moed’s ‘My Private Coney’

Coney Island Mermaid Parade

Classic Coney Island Movie: Little Fugitive (thanks to CO Moed)

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This was supposed to be a draught to be published later. Hit the wrong button. and now what’s done is done. I’ll add more to it later.

Coney Island in the 40’s

Ride the Cyclone

The Warrior’s: ‘Come out to play-ee-ay’

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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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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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