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.

No comments: