Saturday, October 20, 2007

Friday Night at Bluestockings: Brian Berger & "New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg"

This post appeared on Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Saturday, October 20, 2007:

Friday Night at Bluestockings: Brian Berger & "New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg"

Last night at 7 p.m. I arrived at one of my favorite bookstores, Bluestockings, just in time for a reading and presentation for New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, a fascinating collection of 28 essays and about 200 photos, all focused on the last thirty years of New York history.

I was disappointed that the book's co-editor, Marshall Berman, couldn't make it. The last time I saw him was over twenty years ago and he came to the Upper West Side apartment where I was spending the summer to hand me a check for a lot of money (it was for my best friend Nina, who was renting her Berkshires house to Marshall and his wife Meredith Tax, whom I knew from activities at PEN – they are both excellent writers whose work you should explore).

But Brian Berger, the poet, journalist and photographer who co-edited the book with Marshall, was there – appropriately dressed for the warm October night in shorts. Also there were three contributors to the anthology: the photographer Margaret Morton, longtime NYC political reporter Tom Robbins and food and culture critic Robert Sietsema. I overheard the latter two were discussing the arrest of their big boss, Village Voice Media's Michael Lacey, in my other hometown of Phoenix (those of us who live in the Valley of the Sun know it's dangerous to anger Sheriff Joe Arpaio). I also heard Robbins tell Sietsema that Ward, whoever that is, was editing something he was working on, which effectively meant that nobody was editing him at all.

(When a student in Brooklyn College's MFA program, I myself worked for the Village Voice in 1975 and 1976 in the exalted capacity of messenger for the display advertising department at the then-minimum wage of $2 an hour and all the subway tokens I could save by walking or using the discount "midtown shoppers" bus pass. There were 4 of us messengers, and the turnover was so brisk that within 3 weeks of starting the job, I was the senior messenger.)

Anyway, New York Calling is a wonderful anthology that probably should be read by a lot of people who call themselves (or are well-known as) New York writers, most of whom weren't around for the 70s and 80s and maybe not even the 90s.

Last night's group were the real thing: Brian Berger's grandparents lived a stone's throw away from mine, overlooking Playland in Rockaway, and he's probably traveled thousands of miles inside the five boroughs; he knows New York like the back of his hand. The same is true for the others who spoke last night, none of whom I can imagining living anywhere else but the city none of them would ever dare call the Big Apple.

Here's the take on New York Calling from The Financial Times:

"In 1977, the murder rate in New York City was nearly three times what it is today. Vagrants settled in shantytowns under bridges and in tunnels, and heroin addiction rose dramatically. But it was the growing frequency of arson attacks which unnerved the city's residents the most: from the 1960s onwards, fires - almost certainly lit by landlords to collect insurance money - had been gutting buildings and sometimes entire blocks in the city's poorer neighbourhoods. On the night of July 13 1977, a power cut brought mayhem to New York, and riots and looting ensued across the five boroughs.

But subtler forces than fire and crime had already been shaping the city's direction. In the mid-1960s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed most of the docks and shipping terminals around New York, prompting coastal trade to move to New Jersey. Separately, the Defense Department shut the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a facility that had, at one time, employed as many as 100,000 people. The result was that jobs and infrastructure moved south, and the city's character, both economic and cultural, became increasingly less focused on blue-collar, waterfront industry.

This is the backdrop for New York Calling . . . Through the lens of New York politics, music, art and counterculture, we hear several, often fascinating takes on essentially the same story: how the squalor, struggles, crime, drugs, and free expression of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to a cleaner and safer city in the subsequent two decades, but one in which commercial development has often trumped, protecting existing residents and preserving a rich past.

If not explicitly intended, the collection places a special emphasis on the Bronx, and the artistic movements spawned by the chaos of the 1970s. Particular attention is paid to graffiti art and the rise of hip-hop, which was ushered in by Grandmaster Flash's 1982 hit 'The Message'. Perhaps less revelatory - as writers often cover the subject today - are the numerous sections which pay homage to the bad-old East Village, where 'bodega' grocery stores sold dime bags of marijuana, and where - as one contributor remembers – 'no restaurants... stayed open past 6:00pm' . . . the essays, whether read discretely or as a complete work, offer a near-unforgettable impression of an era."

(My own take on NYC in 1977, roughly the year this collection starts with, is in my story "With Hitler in New York" and the other fictions in the 1979 book with that name.)

In his introductory talk, Brian stressed that despite the mythic narrative of the completely dysfunctional city in the 1970s, in fact New York never wholly lost its allure and back then there were still enormous opportunities for immigrants, artists and others willing to put up with the crime, the bad subways (in 1980, it seemed I encountered a track fire that delayed every rush hour trip), the arson, and the decline of city services, particularly to less affluent neighborhoods.

Brian mentioned three iconic movies of that era, all of which I love: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (best line: "What do they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents? To live forever?); Woody Allen's instant classic (and we all knew it at the time) Annie Hall; and Dog Day Afternoon (in real life I was only blocks away from the bank robbery when it happened). (I'd probably add The Warriors, Saturday Night Fever and maybe even Death Wish.)

Going on to describe various parts of the city that I sort of miss (the pre-Disneyfied Times Square, seedy and louche and somehow wonderful to me; the Fulton Fish Market; gritty, not chic, downtown neighborhoods), Brian contrasted this with the current hypercapitalist frenzy in all the five boroughs, from the suburban sprawl of Staten Island to the waterfront towers of Williamsburg – a lot of it soulless and all of it seemingly geared to the very rich. (Though some of us think this long party is about to end, kids.)

Margaret Morton presented her amazing photographs of homeless encampments of the era: the little huts by the Manhattan Bridge near the Canal Street off-ramp and plywood shanties on the bridge's other side – all of these places where people made their homes and lived their lives were eventually razed by the city – and the places by the Hudson River piers and most notably, the famous tunnel under Riverside Park where a community of squatters took shape and stayed for years (I met a few of these people when I lived in the neighborhood, and they were all extremely decent people).

Anyway, where are the homeless now? Thirty-two thousand are in shelters every night, including 13,000 children.

After Margaret's presentation, Tom Robbins began by speaking of the New York City of today, invoking the scene at Mayor Bloomberg's landslide re-election victory party, at which Magic Johnson MC'ed and a gospel group sang "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" – the classic McFadden/Whithead song that 1970s City Hall protestors used to sing when they began to realize that poor and disaffected New Yorkers were, in fact, the new majority.

Back in the late 1970s, the years of "white flight," it was assumed by all of us left that soon there'd be a city government controlled by blacks and Hispanics, that the power was shifting away from white elites. Yet our current mayor is a white Jewish billionaire from the suburbs of Boston. Wha' happened?

Tom, who has been a Lower East Side community organizer and who's covered politics as long as I can remember, took as the subject of his essay Herman Badillo, the Puerto Rican-born Bronx Borough President and Congressman who once seemed the hope of a lot of us. I worked for Badillo in the second of his runs for the mayoralty, in 1973, and I'd gotten to know him and his wife Irma the year before at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. He was a voice for the disempowered in the city, but Badillo morphed into a conservative power broker as – in Tom's narrative of minority power thwarted repeatedly – Badillo's campaigns for the Democratic nomination for mayor (in 1969, when he was overshadowed by Norman Mailer; in 1973, when he lost the runoff to clubhouse guy Abe Beame; in 1977, lost in a brilliant field that included Percy Sutton, Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, who shouted "death penalty" in a crime-ridden city long and loud enough to win); and most shamefully, in 1985, when the Democratic establishment, black and white, shut him out completely.

Badillo went on to work for Rudy Giuliani and his last run for Mayor was a pathetic attempt to get the Republican nomination. As a trustee of the City University of New York, he now works to raise tuition on its mostly poor student body – one of which Badillo once was – ironic, considering he was the foremost advocate in the 1970s for keeping the free tuition policy that he and I and countless others benefited from.

(After reading about a slur he'd made against Mexican-Americans, I had a letter in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago saying that the Herman Badillo that I knew would be ashamed of the man he's become.)

After Tom's excellent piece, Robert Sietsema discussed the new ethnic cuisines of the city; before the 1965 immigration law was passed, there were only 17 different types of ethnic restaurants in New York and now he counts 78 different ones (and he seems to amalgamate different kinds of Chinese and Indian cuisines).

He showed us three odd edibles from Chinatown, which has long since burst its historic confines to take over a lot of lower Manhattan as immigrants, mostly from Fujian province, have come – legally and illegally – for many years. (One of my students, a lifelong Chinatown resident, said her neighborhood is not the same anymore; she misses the familiar Mandarin and Cantonese she used to hear spoken in the streets and dislikes what she calls the rough Fujianese dialect that she can't understand and the "smell of the stinky fish they like." The city's changes always seem to rankle oldtimers, if only just a little.)

I got to eat a dragon's eye, admired the colorful and weirdly shaped dragonfruit, and puzzled over a shiny black double-horned thing that Robert said was a "devil nut" – which he'd gobbled up one day the first time he encountered them in Chinatown, only to go home and uncover by research that devil nuts need to be boiled for at least an hour to rid them of a dangerous parasite.

Robert praised the many exciting new ethnic foods and went on a very New Yorkerish rant against Whole Foods (which will not deal with our city's wonderful ethnic bakers and instead sell long-lasting but bad-tasting "hippie" bread in plastic).

All of this, and a lot more, is in New York Calling. The co-editor and contributors answered a few questions from the crowd at Bluestockings and signed copies of the book. If you're interested in New York and how it got the way it is, New York Calling is a worthwhile investment.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tuesday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: Anthont LaSala & Seth Kushner’s "The Brooklynites"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, October 18, 2007:

Tuesday Night at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble: LaSala & Kushner’s "The Brooklynites" at OTBKB

At Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, I have a report on Tuesday evening's presentation by Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner on their book, The Brooklynites:

ON TUESDAY EVENING I attended a presentation at the Park Slope Barnes & Noble by Anthony LaSala and Seth Kushner about their excellent coffee-table book of photos and interviews, The Brooklynites. Casually dressed, they sat on either side of a screen on which they showed Seth's photos of Brooklyn residents from the book and discussed how they went about developing and executing their project and gave interesting tidbits about their subjects.

The first photo that the pair of Brooklyn natives (Seth has never left the borough for more than two weeks at a time; Anthony went away only for college) showed was of themselves back in high school in Bay Ridge in 1991.

When the two friends started their project to photograph the people of Brooklyn, they had a hard time. The neighborhood young women at the annual feast on 18th Avenue, thinking the guys were "perverts" trying to pick them up, were suspicious – as were many others.

Even Seymour, their local hardware store owner, was so dubious about what seemed to him a "not very successful" idea that he refused to be photographed – and would not agree to be until after a year had elapsed and the duo had already shot celebrities like Spike Lee (their first big "get," Spike led to others), Rosie Perez (who drove Anthony's car "with a very heavy foot" to the marqueta in Williamsburg where she posed), Jonathan Lethem (who also rounded up Brooklyn's other literary Jonathans, Safran Foer and Ames) and Marty Markowitz (photographed at his table at Junior's, where he posed with a slab of cheesecake that he would not eat – at least in front of them – but did take home).

Seth and Anthony said they gained of weight from all their travels around the borough: they got steaks at Peter Luger (whose chef is seen on the Williamsburg Bridge), pizza at Totonno's and DiFara's (Dominick DeMarco has his floured hands, as usual, taking his pie out of the oven), and cases of Fox's U-Bet syrup at the Brownsville factory where the crucial ingredient in eggcreams is still manufactured and which is permeated by the smell of chocolate.

They also got to go behind the scenes at Brooklyn's cultural and historic attractions. The pair got into the Brooklyn Museum on a Monday or Tuesday, when all of us natives know it's never open, to take a photo of director Arnold Lehman in the famed Egyptian room. They also went to Green-Wood Cemetery on a bright snowy day when it too was closed, to shoot director Ken Taylor – who told them it was often hard to convince pizzerias that, yes, the delivery should come to his home in a graveyard.

And that shot of Otis the sea lion and his keeper at the New York Aquarium also allowed Seth and Anthony access to places usually off-limits to the public. They even managed to get past the gate in Sea Gate, which Anthony said was unlike any other place in the city, when they shot gymnast Olga Karminski doing contortions on a ledge in front of the Sea Gate lighthouse.

Other photos we saw featured the Coney Island freak show's The Great Fredini, swallowing a sword on a street corner in Greenpoint; writer David Lefkowitz and his young son, who actually live on a Gowanus Canal houseboat; one of the young players for the Cyclones in Keyspan Park, with the Parachute Jump in the background; and singer Sufjan Stevens, photographed on the Brooklyn Bridge in one of the most artistic shots in the book (thanks to the wonderful geometric patterns of the bridge's cables).

They were most pleased to shoot Steve Buscemi on the block in East New York where he grew up; they were invited to his old apartment, which he hadn't been in since childhood and where he did his first acting for his mom and dad. But of course many of the portraits in the book are not of famous Brooklynites but of the regular people we pass on the street every day. In the book, all of them get to talk about what makes Brooklyn special to them. (When asked by Southerners to say something in Brooklynese, one wise guy photographed in the book said he told them, "Hand over your wallet.")

After the presentation, a lot of us lined up to get our copies of The Brooklynites signed by Seth and Anthony. I'm sending mine to my father who may have lived in other states for the past 30 years but who's still a Brooklynite at heart.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Geoffrey Philp: A Conversation with Richard Grayson

At his blog today, the great Miami-based Jamaican-American author Geoffrey Philp interviews Richard Grayson.

Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Wednesday, October 3, 2007:
Tuesday Evening at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble: Joseph Berger & "The World in a City"

Last evening I went back to the neighborhood where I lived part-time from 1984 to 1990, specifically to Broadway and West 82nd Street to the Barnes and Noble that opened after I left the area. When I lived there, part of the bookstore was a Chase Manhattan branch I wrote about in my story, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp," which originally appeared in the Lower East Side litmag Between C and D.

I always liked that Barnes and Noble store when I'd visit in the 1990s because it was one of the few bookstores in New York that carried my books. (So I didn't mind that they caused Shakespeare and Company a block down to leave; not only wouldn't they carry my books, they were pretty snobby about it.)

By 7 p.m. a big crowd was there to see New York Times reporter Joseph Berger discuss his new book, The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York.

Berger began by noting the changes in New York's ethnic makeup since the relaxation of the immigration laws 40 years ago. Old neighborhoods are no longer the bastions of one nationality; for example, Astoria is still somewhat Greek but now more Arab and Brazilian; Bensonhurst is still Italian, but the Chinese -- who love Bensonhurst's brick homes -- are beginning to dominate parts of the area depicted in 1977's Saturday Night Fever.

This is because as Italians, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Germans and ethnic groups established in this country for over a century become more affluent, current generations see no allure to the old neighborhood and light out for the suburbs, the Sun Belt, and posher places in New York City.

The Grand Concourse, where Berger grew up in the '40s and '50s as the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, now has many West African residents -- and stores that sell homes in Ghana to its immigrants who want to show their relatives and friends that they have truly "made it" in America.

While New York's newer immigrants often lead hard lives -- Berger tells the story of a Palestinian woman who has the incredible daily commute from Bedford Park in the Bronx to Jamaica, Queens, all for a $7-an-hour job as a home health care attendant -- they are usually better off than they'd be back in their native lands, and that's why they keep coming.

To anyone who explores the various neighborhoods of New York by bus and on foot as I do, none of this should come as big news. Flushing has been Chinese and Korean for a long time now; I have Guyanese friends who've dominated Richmond Hill (along with other West Indians, South Asians and Indo-Caribbean people) for years.

A lot of what Berger talked about also echoed what I'd heard at Saturday's lecture on Brooklyn by historian Mike Wallace, who, like Berger, mentioned the incredibly diverse Ditmas Park -- a neighborhood familiar to me all my life and now home to great restaurants like The Farm at Adderly and the righteous coffeehouse Vox Pop.

Berger discussed material in the book that came out of stories he did for the Times, such as the Little Neck controversy over the Korean-language signs over the stores once dominated by the neighborhood's Italians and Jews; why you can find so many ballroom dancing places in Russian Midwood and Brighton Beach; how Bukharian men in Rego Park have responded to their adjustment problems and being financially dependent upon their more adaptable wives by resorting to domestic violence; and how an Ecuadorean couple in Jackson Heights go to a videoconferencing store to be a presence in the lives of the teenage children they were forced to leave behind (they can't go back to visit for fear of never being able to return to the U.S.)

Berger discussed the last story in light of how the nature of immigration has changed. While Italians, Irish, Jews, Germans and others who came over decades earlier essentially lost nearly all contact with the old country -- Berger's mother could communicate with her only relative in post-Holocaust Poland through occasional aerogrammes back when international phone calls and airfares were prohibitively expensive -- technology and cheaper prices have made it possible for immigrants to have much more contact with their homelands.

Any New York immigrant can watch satellite channels found in her native land, Berger said. I still have the fan I got at the Dominican Day parade for Television Dominicana -- advertising the ability to get ¡Toda la emoción de tu tierra está aquí!

Younger people adapt more easily. Berger said he used to exhort his parents, "This is America! Speak English!" and today's young immigrants often chafe under their parents' old-country ways and rules, such as the Queens Afghan girls who rebel by wearing makeup and who dread arranged marriages. (I heard recently from an Indian teenage girl who bemoaned this "tradition" she knows will be forced upon her.)

There are also conflicts between more established immigrants and the newcomers from their homelands, Berger said. Just a few days ago, a friend who's lived her whole life in Chinatown complained about the Fujianese who have recently come to the neighborhood, speaking not Mandarin or Cantonese but a dialect she can't understand, as well the "smelly fish" from this province that she gets a whiff of every time she goes home.

Berger took many questions and his talk was fascinating. He emphasized that while New York is unique, the world is coming to cities and suburbs and even rural areas all over the country. Asked what New York's new rising immigrant might be, Berger guessed the Mexicans, who have largely taken over the stores in East Harlem, once the barrio of Puerto Ricans, who've moved on to the suburbs as they became more affluent and educated.

After I left Barnes and Noble, I walked along Broadway in the neighborhood I called home two decades ago and wondered what happened to the Korean greengrocer, the Lebanese hardware store owners, the Chinese-Cuban and Sichuan restaurants that were once the local specialty of the Upper West Side. As they used to say in Liverpool, Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

Back in 1980, when I was living in a Rockaway neighborhood once known as Irishtown (and not so Irish anymore), my friends Marie Cincotta and Stuie Hershkowitz from Brooklyn College took me along to a party at the apartment of their friend Carol.

It turned out to be in the building on East 54th Street between Snyder and Church Avenues where I lived till I was eight. Most of the people at the party were West Indians from the neighborhood. When I told Carol that I used to live just a few houses down as a little kid -- of course I didn't say that the block was all Jewish in those days -- her reaction was one I'll always remember because it illustrates how we all idealize the past: "It must have been beautiful back then before the Haitians came and ruined it."

Arthur Avenue is more Albanian than Italian now, and the Albanians own many of the city's "Italian" pizzerias. No doubt some little Albanian boy fifty years from now will go back to the neighborhood of his childhood and say that some other nationality has ruined it.

Meanwhile, as Berger said, New York's population has gained a million residents since the nadir of the 1970s, and we'll have nine million people here in 2020.

Joseph Berger, who currently writes the education column for the Times, is an engaging speaker as well as an excellent stylist. I look forward to enjoying his book as much as I have his reporting.