Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Afternoon at Brooklyn College: "The Roots of Modern Brooklyn: A Look at the 1970s and 1980s" at the BC Library

This afternoon we went to the Brooklyn College Library to take out some books by Donald Barthelme and Gish Jen and we came across a small exhibit, "The Roots of Modern Brooklyn: A Look at the 1970s and 1980s."

We lived in Brooklyn throughout the 1970s, leaving only for our first apartment, in Rockaway, in October 1979. During the 1980s we were in the borough from time to time; we were mostly living in Florida, with summers and some autumns on the Upper West Side, though we did sublet briefly in Sheepshead Bay in May-June 1981 and in Park Slope in August-November 1985.

Most of our friends with whom we graduated Brooklyn College with in the early '70s couldn't wait to leave, and many of them, and their parents, did. When we'd come back from Florida in late April or early May, we were appalled with how filthy the streets of Brooklyn were. There were attempts to clean things up.

The loss of the Dodgers, probably, was the evidence of the decline that came home to a little kid. Everyone we knew but our summer bungalow friends from the Bronx were Dodgers fans. Our memories of Ebbets Field are real but vague; the exhibit showed the Times article from when the stadium was torn down in 1960 (note the Gay Talese byline!).

The Navy Yard closed, of course, but 40,000 jobs were also lost in 1961 when the Army Terminal was shuttered.

Brooklyn had been in decline all our lives, but growing up, we didn't realize it. This last issue of the Brooklyn Eagle is from January 28, 1955, when we weren't even 4 years old, so we have no memory of seeing anyone ever read the paper.

In junior high, we got the Herald Tribune at school, like a lot of kids in our class, and we got the Long Island Press delivered every afternoon by our little brother's best friend's brother. We also remember the tabloid Daily Mirror - particularly the day Marilyn Monroe died - and the afternoon Journal-American and World-Telegram & Sun. But we remember the Brooklyn Eagle only as history.

The Eagle's final issue's lead headline: "Landlady Beaten to Death." We couldn't read it, but according to a New York Times article,
The story, about a 58-year-old Borough Park woman, began: "Her skull and face bones battered and crushed by repeatedly brutal blows." Another story was titled "Tot Survives 11-Story Tumble."

There was a publisher's note informing readers of the folding of The Eagle, calling it "the last voice that is purely Brooklyn."

"All the other Brooklyn newspapers fell by the wayside years go," the note read. "The borough seems doomed to be cast in Manhattan's shadow."

This exhibit, though, was meant to be upbeat, spotlighting "some of the poltical, business and community forces and their leaders and who were pivotal in the economic, social and physical growth of the borough and the revival of the revival of numerous neighborhoods." And, yeah, some things and places started to get better in the 1970s and 1980s, like Park Slope. On the other hand, crack came in pretty late in the period. This is from 1986:

And here's a poster for the March 1985 Jazz Festival.

In some ways we miss the grittiness and despair of the old days, but obviously things are better for most people now (check with the people who live in Brownsville and get back to us if you think we should have written "everybody" instead of "most people"). Here's a newsletter announcing the 1986 Flatbush Frolic.

We were in New York during the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge centennial and it did feel that things were changing, a little. There were yuppies. In Florida, we'd wear our powder-blue Brooklyn Bridge centennial T-shirt that we'd bought at the Brooklyn Museum store till the shirt got too worn to serve as anything but a rag. We watched the fireworks that accompanied the grand celebration from one of the high floors (in the 80s) of a tower at the World Trade Center, in the offices of the New York State Department of Transportation, where our friend Nina worked. Here is a photo of the celebration with Mayor Ed Koch, Brooklyn Borough President Howie Golden (not a favorite of our parents, who had to spend money to "grease some wheels" to do business in the 1970s) and Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein (for whom Nina also worked; we were at the office the morning after John Lennon's murder, when she was writing a press release hailing "the poet of a generation" for the Borough President to issue).

We used to pick up The Phoenix, "the newspaper of brownstone Brooklyn," in the late 1980s when we were visiting Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights during the summer, usually when we went to between where we stayed on the Upper West Side and our grandmother's co-op in Rockwaway, where we spent a couple of days each week. Here are some Phoenix photos of the Crown Heights crisis.

On a board labeled "Brooklyn's People Power," the exhibit noted, "Ultimately, it was the power of ordinary people that revived Brooklyn's proud but struggling neighborhoods." Here's a poster, undated, from the Crown Heights Neighbors Coalition.

The exhibit was well-crafted, though it seemed to slight the 1970s and to cheerlead a bit. You need a Brooklyn College ID to get into the library to see it, or indeed, on campus. The world of Brooklyn may have been worse in the 1960s and 1970s but anyone could walk on campus in those days. As a Midwood student in1966-68, we used to walk through the college as a shortcut between our high school and the B41 bus at the Junction.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday Evening in Downtown Brooklyn: 29th Annual Literary Arts Festival at City Tech, featuring Willie Perdomo

This evening we went to very familiar Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn, to City Tech's 29th annual Literary Arts Festival.

This year, in addition to student awards and student performances and readings, the featured writer was the great Nuyorican poet and author Willie Perdomo.

In case you didn't know,
Willie Perdomo is the author of Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and Smoking Lovely, which received a PEN America Beyond Margins Award. He has also been published in The New York Times Magazine and Bomb and his children's book, Visiting Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Honor. He is a NYFA Arts Fellowship winner, Pushcart Prize nominee, a Urban Artists Initiative/NYC grant recipient and was recently a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University. He is currently Artist-in-Residence, Workspace, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He is co-founder/publisher of Cypher Books.

You could tell how much the students could relate to what Willie said and enjoyed his funny, profound and daring poems. As Junot Diaz said, "Perdomo is the hurricane we all write home about. He is to the word what lightning is to the sky. . . what he knows about being of color, being between languages, being poor, being a man, being in trouble, could save your life."

Our favorite was his final poem, "Notes for a slow jam":
This is the poem
you always wanted
I've turned into
a fire -can crooner
to sing you this
slow jam
a farewell greeting
no sooner than the sun
set on our meeting
I had a song for you
but first
I had to sample
from the midnight
quiet storm
break up to make up and
make up to break up and
break up to wake up!
I was a three time loser
persistent fell in
heart over head
not even a chance
to carve the initials
of our romance
on the bark of a tree

There was nothing
no one left
to point at
and say
"its all because of you"
so I have an encounter session
with the bathroom mirror
the black crescents
that real makeup
under my eyes
couldnt cover
the cries
of walking down the street
falling of the park
of a broken heart binge
had to get high
so i buy a bag
to cure my love jones
and soothe my aching bones
I walked into a social club
and found the answer
boiling in the jukebox_
pick a song _
hip hoppin through life
I use to think that salsa
was just for the rice and beans
I was wrong
it' a remedy for those
strung-out love fiends
Would you think i was high
if i told you that Tito Rojas
was a greek playwright?
I'm saying that Euripides
sang salsa
for real
check it out
the tragic hero
is chillin on the corner
love epics and shit
spilling from his mouth
the chorus
is on the rooftop
giving echo to his pain
listen to the sound
of a heart breaking

aye aye aye
aye aye aye
y dicen que los hombres
nunca nunca nunca
deben lloran

and they say that
the men
should never never


I look into mirror
one more time
before i chase you away
and just in case
you dont speak spanish
ileave you sinking
into some muddy waters

you cant spend what you ain't got
you can lose what you ain't never had

My pockets are empty
and i'm letting you go
without a fight
but before you go
heres the poem
you always wanted

Our cell phone pics in the dark auditorium were blurry to the point of making people faceless, so forgive us our cheap technology. We didn't catch the name of the MC, but the young man handled his duties with real grace, humor and aplomb. After Willie got off to huge applause, there were some performances by students: Chino did some rap rhymes and Lee sang a song, "I Wanna Be Your Spider-Man" that made certain females sitting near us a bit wild.

Then there was the awards ceremony from City Tech's wonderful English Department (okay, we know folks who work there and they are all terrific writers) starting with awards for the best research paper and for excellence in English to Zachariah and Stanislaw respectively.

After that were the awards for those writers who are featured in the new, fifth annual issue of City Tech Writer, "the only undergraduate journal across disciplines in Brooklyn." There were three or four winners in each category, and first-place winners like Natrelle for poetry ("Urban Epidemic") and Nick for fiction (a story set in Calcutta) read from their works.

Other winners included John for drama, Anthony for humor, Laran for New York City essay, and Carl Garcia got the leadership award. (We probably screwed up some of these students' first names and didn't always catch their last names, so if someone can give us corrections, we'd be grateful.)

Finally, the faculty winner, Bernadette (McComish?) read her poems "Slipstream" and "Take Me On," the latter a riff on the '80s a-ha song "Take On Me.".

Kudos to the chair of the City Tech Literary Arts Festival, Prof. Caroline Hellman, and everyone involved.

People enjoyed some food and talked at the reception in the gym after we all left Kiltgore Auditorium.

We're always impressed with the creative drive and talent of CUNY undergraduate students, including not least the ones we've been lucky enough to teach, off and on, since 1978.

Thursday Morning at Instituto Cervantes: PEN World Voices with Bernardo Atxaga, Randa Jarrar, Roger Sedarat, Francisco X. Stork & Cathy Park Hong

This morning we went to historic and beautiful Amster Yard in midtown to a PEN World Voices Festival

panel held at Instituto Cervantes. Titled Writing, Speaking, Dreaming: Authors Talk About Languages, this was a special program for high school students - but luckily for us, they also let in at least one PEN member who hasn't belonged in that category since the Johnson administration. The panel was moderated by Cathy Park Hong

and featured writers Randa Jarrar, an old friend whose work we've loved for years (she read from one of our favorite sections of her novel A Map of Home);

Roger Sedarat, a great poet whom we had the pleasure of working with at Borough of Manhattan Community College;

Francisco X. Stork;

and Bernardo Atxaga.

There was also the empty chair that is at every PEN World Voices Festival event to represent our writer colleagues in repressive regimes who are in prison or detention.

We're very pressed for time this week, with classes ending at one college where we're teaching and dealing with a lot of grading finals and research papers, and lots of teaching elsewhere -- so with her kind permission, we will defer to il miglior fabbro, our fellow PEN memer Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, which Kirkus Reviews called a "poignant, often surprising and essential novel" and School Library Journal termed "a rare reading experience that both touches the heart and opens the mind." Here's Lyn's report, far better than anything we could come up with, from her blog at the PEN website (she has reports of other Festival events that are equally wonderful):

The 30 or so students from Enterprise, Business, and Technology High School in Brooklyn got stuck on the L train but arrived just in time to join a group from Fox Lane High School in suburban Bedford at a panel of authors who grew up speaking and writing in multiple languages. The students—all English Language Learners from China, Nepal, Yemen, Ecuador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic—heard the perspectives of immigrants and the children of immigrants, those whose home language was suppressed, and those who have sought as adults to embrace the language of their parents.

Moderated by Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong, the panel titled “Writing, Speaking, Dreaming: Authors Talk About Languages” included novelist Randa Jarrar, the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother; poet and translator Roger Sedarat, the son of an Iranian father and a U.S.-born mother; novelist Francisco X. Stork, the son of Mexican parents whose Anglo stepfather adopted him and brought him and his mother to the United States; and the Basque poet, novelist, and essayist Bernardo Atxaga. Although the focus of the program was language, bicultural identity was an important theme for both Sedarat and Jarrar.

After giving the young audience a taste of their writing, Jarrar, Sedarat, Stork, and Atxaga described their experiences as outsiders. Texas (my home state) proved an unwelcoming place for Jarrar, Sedarat, and Stork. Stork talked about how Mexican-American students in his El Paso school faced corporal punishment for speaking Spanish; it made him feel as if his own language was “not worthy of being spoken.” Even now as a writer, he feels the need to demonstrate his mastery of English.

For both Jarrar and Sedarat, the exclusion was as much political as linguistic. Sedarat attended school at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Jarrar during the First Gulf War. They had the names, faces, and languages of “the enemy.” Bullying at school and death threats over the phone made life difficult and even dangerous. Sedarat’s parents discouraged him from exploring his Iranian identity, which led him to explore it with increasing passion and vigor. His journey to find himself eventually took him back to Iran and to the awareness that he belonged to two worlds but would never be a full-fledged member of either. For Jarrar, writing became her way of fighting back against invisibility and exclusion.

Atxaga’s experience of two languages may have occurred in fascist Spain, but his experience of oppression paralleled that of the three writers who grew up in Texas. (As a native Texan, I’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions.) During his nearly forty-year regime, dictator Francisco Franco sought to eradicate regional languages, such as Basque and Catalan. One day, a policeman caught Atxaga’s mother speaking Basque in a supermarket and ordered her to speak only Spanish, because “we are in Spain.” Since the speakers of these languages were often some of the most ardent opponents of fascism during and after the Civil War, Franco’s agenda was clearly political as well as linguistic—to wipe out the language was a way of wiping out resistance. Atxaga’s writing in Basque became his way of asserting his resistance.

All of the panelists agreed that being different, being an outsider, makes one a natural observer, and the ability to observe closely, to see things other don’t see, is the essence of great writing. They sought to inspire their audience of students struggling to learn a new language; for each of them, having two languages has proven an advantage. Sedarat considers himself a literary emissary, picking up the style and themes of literature of one country and bringing them to another. Stork’s ability to express himself in Spanish allows him to explore and express emotions that would be difficult to describe in English.

Each author encouraged the students to write their own stories. Jarrar wrote the book she wished she could have read as a teenager. Sedarat sees writing as a way of clearing up stereotypes, and Stork added that through his novels, he rights the wrongs he sees in society, most notably changing the image of Latinos by means of characters with whom readers can identify. Axtaga and Jarrar cited recent English-only laws in Alabama and anti-immigration laws in Arizona, respectively, as two wrongs that call for a response. And moderator Hong had the last word, reminding the audience how they can fight back against the injustices in their lives through writing, and they can make their voices heard.

- Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Thanks to the panelists and especially to Lyn for that eloquent and elegant report.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Night at Grand Army Plaza: Cezar Del Valle on "The Movie Houses of Brooklyn" at the Central Library

This evening we had the joy of attending an entertaining and highly informative talk by theater historian Cezar Del Valle on the history of movie theaters in Brooklyn. By the time we got to the Brooklyn Collection room on the second floor of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, we were able to find a seat, but not without difficulty, because this was a pretty hot ticket.

No, there wasn't a riot like the one at the 1927 opening of the Universal Theatre on New Utrecht Avenue when 20,000 people stormed the place trying to get in, but we learned an awful lot and had a great time with a charming, knowledgeable and funny man who seems to know more Brooklyn theater history than anyone in captivity.

Cezar began by showing an old photo and gauging the crowd's age by asking if everyone knew what a johnny pump was. The vast majority of the older audience did, though the term had to be explained for the younger people, most of whom were probably foreigners from places like Ohio anyway. Anyway, Cezar pointed out some clues in the background of the kids playing: an ad for a 1928 Ramon Navarro film playing at the Loews Premier on Sutter Avenue.

Ken Gordon, the silent-film expert who curates a long-running silent film series at the library, added his valuable two cents, as he did at several points during the talk, with friendly joshing between him and Cezar.

Cezar's slide show was amazing; our own pics here are mostly not the ones he showed, but stuff we swiped from the Brooklyn Public Library's amazing Photography Collection and from the website He did show photos of the Loew's Coney Island

and the nearby RKO Tilyou,

as well as the old Meserole in Greenpoint,

which we wrote about last week.

At one time, Cezar said, there were 506 theaters in Brooklyn with a total seating capacity of over 300,000. This was at the height of "the nabes," the neighborhood movie houses which usually did not advertise outside their own area because, well, they didn't need to.

Cezar took us back to May 1893, when the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences sponsored a talk by Thomas Edison, who conducted the world's first public demonstration of films shot using his Kinetograph. Weirdly, the exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths. Here's Edison's Kinetoscope for showing films to individuals, like at a peepshow; Cezar said Edison preferred that idea to showing films to big audiences because he thought it would be more profitable.

So Brooklyn played a big role in the early history of motion pictures. One of the earliest films was this one by Edison taken in May 1897 at the Sheepshead Bay horse racing track.

And the year before, 1896, there's "Shooting the Chutes" at "Bergen Beach, Coney Island":

There were several competing processes of both creating and presenting motion pictures at that time, and the city of Brooklyn was home to all of them. Most of the early venues for showing films back then were not so much theaters (below is the interior of the Metropolitan in downtown Brooklyn; we saw The Graduate there) but stores.

These rented "store theaters," Cezar noted became larger, but the big change came in 1913 with a new law that allowed common-show licenses to have audiences of more than 300. The Regent, below, in Harlem, was one of the first "movie houses."

Another was the TNF Theater, in "aristocratic Flatbush," actually Midwood at 597 East 16th Street, which offered claim-check parking, "retiring rooms" for the ladies, and ushers who would bring cake and ice cream to your seat. It closed before World War II. Sorry, we don't have any pics of it, but Cezar also talked about Feltman's aerodrome (outdoor theater) attached to his restaurant and hotel in Coney Island.

Another place where people at the turn of the 20th century could watch outdoor movies was at the Venetian Gardens of Park Slope's Prospect Hall, where admission was free - "with food and drink." Prospect Hall was home to The Crescent Motion Picture Company in 1908 (Cezar said they had their laboratory underneath the stage) until legal pressure from competitor Thomas Edison forced its closing.

But perhaps the largest airdrome ever, the biggest outdoor theater for the showing of films was - and this was one of Cezar's most amazing facts in a presentation full of them - Ebbets Field. Marcus Loew rented the stadium out as a theater, charged ten cents and included a vaudeville show, adding a second screen for the crowds in 1914.

Cezar also talked aboutr Brooklyn as a home to early movie studios like the Midwood-based Vitagraph, which got its land only with an easement for the old property owner to move her cows through it.

There was more information than we can possibly post about here, which is why you should get to one of Cezar Del Valle's next lectures. He told the audience about the entire twentieth century history of movie theaters in Brooklyn, and he touched on all the well-known Brooklyn theaters like the Kings

and the across-Flatbush-Avenue legendary rival palaces the Brooklyn Paramount and the Fox. He showed the bill for one of the Murray the K shows at the Paramount (it featured "Little Stevie Wonder" billed about seventh) and explained how Ginger Rogers got from one show at the Manhattan Paramount to another at the Brooklyn Paramount by traveling in an ambulance.

He had a treasure trove of anecdotes, from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's historic opening night at the Albee in 1925 (we went to this theater as late as 1969 or 1970) to material about little nabes that are probably remembered only by the very old and theater historians.

For example, we'd never before heard of the Jefferson, on Myrtle Avenue, the Jewel on Kings Highway (which we remember only as the Cinema Kings Highway, though Cezar reminded us that when it became a porn theater triplex, they had straight porn in one theater, gay porn in the old balcony, and foreign films in the last theater), the Starr on Knickerbocker Avenue, or the Marcy in Williamsburg, which Cezar said switched to Spanish movies .

Loew's Pitkin was legendary, at least in the memory of our father and his parents, aunts and uncles, who lived in the neighborhood (Brownsville). We certainly remember it being open but can't recall ever being taken there. Cezar noted that Al Jolson gave his final performance here in 1949. By the way, "Loew's" was always pronounced with two syllables by everyone we knew, but Cezar said the owners couldn't stand that and gave space into their handbook for employees about the proper way to say "Loew's" (lows). The Pitkin was one of the Loew's palaces' "atmospheric theaters," with a cloudy, starry sky and romantic lighting effects.

We thought we knew all the theaters around Flatbush and Church Avenues near where we grew up - and we were going to the Kings, Kenmore, Albemarle, Rialto, and Astor till the 1970s - but we didn't know about the Flatbush Theater, which closed about the time we were born.

Anyway, our notes from Cezar's lecture gave us a lot of names of theaters and a lot of information. His talk was filled with anecdotes - we do remember stories of "dish night" and the other rituals of the 1930s and 1940s from our grandparents and parents, and we have first-hand knowledge of the flashlight-wielding matrons who patrolled the children's sections of the Brooklyn nabes in the 1950s and early 1960s.

And we pretty much expected a double feature on Saturday morning when we and our friends would go to the movies. Of course, as Cezar explained to those few in the audience too young to realize it, the advent of TV in the late 1940s led to the decline and closure of most Brooklyn movie houses.

The talk ended well after 8 p.m., and it still seemed too short. If you can ever catch one of Cezar Del Valle's lectures, you'd be smart to go. We had the feeling he was telling us only a small fraction of what he knows about theater history, and not just in Brooklyn or New York City.

We wrote about our own experiences in "The Lost Movie Theaters of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach," a story-memoir that first appeared at the webzine Eyeshot and is in one of our collections.

And we also wrote "Forgotten Movie Screens of Broward County," which appeared in the anthology Life as We Show It: Writing on Film, co-edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn, and also online at The Rumpus.