Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Sunday Feature’ Category

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)

Advertisements

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 »