Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Morning in Gramercy Park: Breakfast at Stuyvesant Square

It was gloomy this morning when we got off the L train on our two-stop trip from Williamsburg, and kind of chilly still, but at least it had stopped raining on this last day of the rainiest recorded March in New York City weather history.

We got an iced tea and oatmeal at the Starbucks that's part of Stuyvesant Town on First Avenue and on our way to teach Twelfth Night to our students at the fabulous School of Visual Arts - which, incredibly, we were doing this semester exactly thirty years ago, during the Carter administration and Iran hostage crisis -

we stopped off to sit and have breakfast on the east side of Stuyvesant Square.

It was pretty deserted and quiet at this early hour. We put our blue plastic New York Times wrapper down on the bench and sat down and looked around, hopefully, for signs that spring is coming.

Antonin Dvorak was noncommital.

All the rain should make things green. This tree, by Beth Israel hospital, offered some welcome greenery.

And the flowers looked good to our winter-hating eyes.

We could go over to St. George's Church to pray for better weather, we guess.

But we had to go to work and explore Illyria, trying to do as good a job as Mr. Neil Berger did with Shakespeare when we were in 8SPE2 at J.H.S. 285 in East Flatbush back in the spring of the 1964 World's Fair or as Mr. Joseph Grebanier did four years later in Midwood High School in our honors class in that tumultuous spring of 1968. Fat chance, but we'll strive to please every day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Night in Williamsburg: Story-Based Strategies for Action Design with Doyle Canning + Patrick Reinsborough at The Change You Want to See Gallery

This evening, just as the emergency workers at the rubble of 34 Conselyea Street's building collapse were quitting for the night, we walked over a few blocks to Not an Alternative's space at 84 Havemeyer, The Change You Want to See Gallery, for "Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagaination: Story-Based Strategies for Action Design," an exciting talk by SmartMeme's Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough, authors of Re:Imagining Change.

We got to the space early but it soon filled up. Video cameras were livestreaming the event, starting when Beka Economopoulos came out, and before her introduction, talked about Not an Alternative’s work around the interstices of art, activism, technology and theory and its growth as a group and movement stemming out of the 2004 Republican National Convention demonstrations.

Not An Alternative Product from Not An Alternative on Vimeo.

She talked also about the power structure’s idea of artists as engines of gentrification who are then priced out of the neighborhoods whose transformation they triggered, and how 84 Havemeyer Street was on the verge of becoming unaffordable with Williamsburg’s changes. Then she segued to the relevance of the work of SmartMeme and Patrick and Doyle in the local campaign to “open-source the city.”

Patrick began their program by discussing how movements for social, economic and environmental justice need to become better storytellers and to more effectively strategize what narrative frames and devices they use in their efforts. SmartMeme provides training tools, partnerships, and conceptual help for movements, and out of this work came the basis for Patrick and Doyle’s book, which includes case studies, tools and sample workshops.

Basically the question they are both asking and answering is: How can social movements use the power of narrative? We are in a moment in history when dramatic change seems to be accelerating exponentially, and the development of shared narratives around social movements is essential to achieving their goals.

The speakers gave some examples of successful local movements they've helped, like this environmental group in the Northwest.

Social justice-minded people, Doyle said, must frame the conversation effectively, for this can be more crucial than networking. She and Patrick both spoke about the power of branding, about the irresistible human impulse toward narrative, and about the concept of memes. (They seemed to define memes as units of self-replicating cultural information and frames as the larger story structures and boundaries of particular narratives.)

They had us pair up, with one partner telling a story to another. (We spoke with a friend of theirs who’s associated with the Then, after some feedback, Patrick and Doyle spoke about what we’ve always talked about when we‘ve talked about writing fiction in our creative writing classes; namely, that crucial elements of storytelling include: conflict, characters, imagery (the lethal “show, don’t tell”), foreshadowing, and shared underlying assumptions between the teller and her audience.

Patrick and Doyle spoke about the difference between truth and meaning; leftist groups often think that if they just present the facts clearly enough, people will be on their side, but the salient and satisfactory lies that make good stories prove otherwise. (Our own thought: many Americans did believe in “death panels” in the health care bill because it was a satisfying story that meshed with their political preconceptions).

“Humans are narrative animals,” Patrick said. (No kidding.) “The currency of narrative is not truth but rather meaning.” (Double no kidding, though we guess it’s news to some.) He discussed how our conception of Santa Claus, and thereby Christmas, stems from the successful narrative strategies of the 1920s Coca-Cola ad campaigns. (Calling Ed Bernays!)

Doyle showed us Heidi Cody's corporate alphabet, and yes, audience members could name the corporation behind every last letter, almost in a visceral way. As Doyle said, the real obstacle in trying to change things is not ignorance – what people don’t know – but what they DO know, the dominant stories in our culture. (The narrative of the first Thanksgiving, with its attendant imagery, was just one of the examples they gave; another was the Hurricane Katrina white “finders”/black
“looters” captioned news photos.)

Anyway, this was a thoughtful and exciting presentation (reminding us a lot of a book we just read, Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and we were as impressed with the questions asked by others in the audience as by the responses of Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough. Re:Imagining Change looks like it can provide a lot of much-needed information for social activist groups.

Monday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Building Collapse on Conselyea Street

We were coming out of the subway at Lorimer and Metropolitan at 2 p.m. when we saw fire trucks everywhere. A building had collapsed on Conselyea Street on our side of the street and across Lorimer. We didn't know if anyone was trapped in there. Some people said two people were, but we also heard a firefighter tell a man that nobody was in there. A man coming from as far away as Manhattan Avenue said he heard a loud bang. (UPDATE, 4 p.m.: Apparently four construction workers were injured in the collapse of 34 Conselyea and taken to the hospital. Here is the New York Times City Room blog post.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday Morning in East Williamsburg: Signs of Spring in Cooper Park

This morning we walked east to Cooper Park, taking our newspaper and iced tea and our eagerness to see some signs of spring.

We found them.

There were a couple of photogenic dogs and their human companions in the dog run, a homeless man sound asleep on a bench with his shopping cart nearby, and some little kids playing in the Cooper Park playground.

Across Maspeth Avenue, at the wonderful Red Shed Community Garden,

there were even more signs of spring.

And on Kingsland Avenue, by the southwest corner of the old Greenpoint Hospital grounds (this building now the home of St. Nicks Alliance), there was the quintessential Brooklyn sign of spring we remember contributing to in our childhood: a bouquet of sneakers on a wire.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saturday Afternoon in Williamsburg: The First Day of Spring at Jaime Campiz Playground

After a harsh winter - our last, we hope, in New York - along with a lot of folks, we're delighted with the unseasonably warm weather at the start of this spring.
Leaving Brooklyn College around noon after teaching stories by William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor to our wonderful BMCC class, we spotted the first buds on a cherry tree. Our hands were full so we didn't get a pic, but there were definitely red flowers starting to form.

Soon after getting off the G train in Williamsburg, we got into our T-shirt and shorts and joined the crowds enjoying the outside. After getting a copy of Dante's Inferno at the Leonard branch library, we got a soda on Metropolitan Avenue and took our book to the Jaime Campiz Playground by the BQE.

The playground's named after Jaime Campiz, a Puerto Rican athlete - who played baseball in some Puerto Rican leagues and as a boxer was a finalist in the Golden Gloves in the 126-pound division - and Williamsburg civic leader. A Korean War vet, he was active in Williamsburg as a baseball coach and then as president of many local baseball leagues (Canella’s, Pedrin Zorilla’s, Collazo’s and the Pan American) and organizer of the La Calsana Social Athletic Club.

The playground was hardly crowded; the chess/checkers tables and benches were empty.

But a few little kids were playing on the swings or sliding pond;

a couple of skateboarders zoomed by; one group of guys was playing basketball;

and a few of us hung out on the benches. That's the Church of the Annunciation in the background.

We read about eight cantos of The Inferno but the warm sun on the day of the vernal equinox made us feel more like we were in heaven.

Walking back home,

we spotted this sporty convertible on Metropolitan Avenue in front of the laundromat.

It was another welcome sign of the warm weather to come.