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Posts Tagged ‘Lower East Side’

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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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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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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My curious position in NY as a freelance housepainter brings me into odd neighborhoods, most recently to the area just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, the pocket of co-op hi-rises divided from the Lower East Side by the industrial bulk of the bridge, contained to the West by the ever-expanding bustle of Chinatown and to the East by the expressway and the river. 

The lower Lower East Side is a remnant of a time when the LES was Jewish (Leon Trotsky spent time there before heading back to Russia to play his part in the Glorious Proletarian Revolution), a collection of tenements like north of Delancey. In the 40’s and 50’s a coalition of Jewish socialists and organizations like the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union got together, bought land from the city, demolished the tenements and built co-ops to provide decent housing for their members – the current blocks of stolid brick hi-rises with their gated coutyards.

   Inside, the flats are comfortable enough, in that 40’s and 50’s hi rise kind of way with some odd curiousities – for example some elevators stop on every floor during the Sabbath because the Orthodox are not allowed to do work of any kind on that day. It is an odd neighborhood, neither one thing nor another. Parts of Grand Street remind me of suburban Jewish areas in Toronto, with Orthodox Jews in black suits and yarmulkes walking past strip mall like rows of bagel shops and delis. My first day in the neighborhood, a new deli had opened, and a woman was handing out containers of what smelled like chicken soup, next to a big bowl with what looked like the world’s biggest matzoh ball sitting in some sort of gravy – about as appetizing as a huge ball of lard.

Then comes the inevitable Chinese take-away, a pizza place staffed by overworked Latinos, a bike shop with the bikes piled up inside, repairs being done right out on the sidewalk with prospective customers standing around watching – an informality you rarely see in Manhattan amymore. 

Old Jews, pioneers I imagine from the original settlement, so old and bent over they need walkers or have to lean, bent right over, against a wall to wait for the bus, circulate in the daytime. Their children, or grandchildren, capitalists now, have sold off many of the co-ops and the professional class has moved in, yet for whatever reason they haven’t brought in the usual coffee shops, bars, what have you. 

Up Essex, the old pickle shop I remember from the first time I went to the area, is still there, further down the street a Jewish family-run paint store then, suddenly, in that classic Manhattan lack of transition, the Mandarin-scripted signs, the crowded streets of Chinatown. To the North, the brute industrial strength of the Williamsburg Bridge, the trains clattering back and forth behind the iron cage, then the even more brutal faces of the projects which ring that stretch of the Lower East Side, right up to 14th street – the ultimate example of the fortress style public housing, with sheer brick faces rising maybe fifteen stories high – housing built all over America in the 60’s, in an even more spectacular, and violent, failure than the the dismal concrete towers the same mindset built in Britain. 

Yet in the afternoon, the estates are quiet, the greens below the towers well-kept, city workers in blue uniforms circulating around the playgrounds, the old Puerto Rican men hanging around the shops along Pitt Ave, a postcard of the Manhattan I used to know . ..

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