Tag Archives: New York

Chester Himes Writes Harlem (and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones)

Grave Digger took off his hat and rubbed his short kinky hair.
‘This is Harlem,’ he said. ‘Ain’t another place like it in the world. You’ve got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of. Listen, there were two hard working colored jokers, both with families, got to fighting in a bar over on Fifth Avenue near a hundred-eighteenth Street and cut each other to death about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.’

That ain’t nothing,’ Brody laughed. ‘Two Irishmen over in Hell’s kitchen got to arguing and shot each other to death over whether the Irish were descended form the gods or the gods descended from the Irish.’ (52)

I love Chester Himes, take such deep delight in these books for many many reasons. Probably the least of these is how Himes describes Harlem, gives addresses and intersections, signals the character and quality of people by the side of the street they live on, illuminates interiors in all their shocking colour… But I confess, that aspect of his books are pretty fucking cool. There he was in France writing these, a love and hate thing going on for his place, his people. A complex understanding of race and politics form the context, humour the only way for survival, and every now and then a hope for redemption.

It means today I can imagine some of these surroundings in all of their technicolor glory:

Her gaze touched fleetingly on his tight-drawn face and ran off to look for something more serene.

But there wasn’t anything serene in that violently colored room. The overstuffed pea green furniture garnished with pieces of blond wood fought it out with the bright red carpet, but the eyes that had to look at it were the losers.

It was a big front room with two windows on Edgecombe Drive and one window on 159th Street.

She sat on a yellow leather ottoman on the red carpet, facing the blond television-radio-record set that was placed in front of the closed-off fireplace beneath the mantelpiece. (80)

Who would’ve guessed that those rows of forbidding houses down St Nicholas Ave once held such settings? Another one:

They parked in front of the bar at 146th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Chink had a room with a window in the fourth-floor apartment on St Nicholas Avenue. He had chosen the black and yellow decor himself and had furnished it in modernistic style. the carpet was black, the chairs yellow, the day bed had a yellow spread, the combination television-record player was black trimmed with yellow on the inside, the curtains were black and yellow striped, and the dressing table and chest of drawers were black.

The record player was stacked with swing classics, and Cootie Williams was doing a trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s Take the Train. (94)

I am fascinated too, by the way over and again Harlem is emphasized as a place of country folk somehow stuck in the big city, and transforming it to wring what they need from it, be it soul food or be it codes of conduct.

‘Listen boy,’ Coffin Ed said. ‘Brody is a homicide man and solving murders is his business. He goes at it in a routine way like the law prescribes, and if some more people get killed while he’s going about it, that’s just too bad for the victims. But me and Digger are two country Harlem dicks who live in this village and don’t like to see anybody get killed. It might be a friend of ours. So we’re trying to head off another killing.’ (113)

These are from The Crazy Kill (1959). Another thing I love about these books — the covers.

Then there’s All Shot Up (1960):

The apartment was on the fifth and top floor of an old stone-fronted building on 110th street, overlooking the lagoon in upper Central Park.

Colored boys and girls in ski ensembles and ballet skirts were skating the light fantastic at two o’clock…

‘Reminds me of Gorki,’ Grave Digger lisped.

‘The writer or the pawnbroker?’ Coffin Ed asked.

A story about a boy falling through the ice and the villagers search and do not find him and so the question has to be asked, was there ever a boy?

They went silently up the old marble steps and pushed open the old, exquisitely carved wooden doors with cutglass panels.

‘The rich used to live here,’ Coffin Ed remarked.

‘Still do,’ Grave Digger said. ‘Just changed color. Colored rich folks always live in the places abandoned by white rich folks.’

They walked through a narrow, oak-paneled hallway with stained-glass wall lamps to an old rickety elevator. (260)

Reminds me of Gorki? Happiness in a single line. The description of wealth trickling down — and the depth to which it falls also makes my writing-about-race-and-class-and-buildings-and-cities heart go pitter pat. We saw these graceful, beautiful old buildings.

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More covers…there’s a whole book to be written about covers, and what they say about what publishers are selling.

From The Heat’s On (1961):

So we’re leaving Harlem, moving on to the Bronx briefly…and the abode of Sister Heavenly (this whole set-up, god damn, amazing):

Apartment buildings gave way to pastel-colored villas of southern Italian architecture, garnished with flower gardens and plaster saints. After a while the houses became scattered, interspersed by market gardens and vacant lots overgrown with weeds in which hoboes slept and goats were tethered.

Finally he reached his destination, a weather-stained, one-stories, pink stucco villa at the end of an unfinished street without sidewalks. It was a small house flanked by vacant lots used for rubbish dumps. Oddly enough, it had a large gabled attic. It sat far back of a wire fence enclosing a front yard of burnt grass, dried-up flowers and wildly thriving weeds. in a niche over the front door was a white marble crucifixion of a singularly lean and tortured Christ, encrusted with bird droppings. In other niches at intervals beneath the eaves were all the varicolored plaster sainsts good to the souls of Italian peasants.

All of the front windows were closed and shuttered. Save for the faint sounds of a heavy boogie beat on a piano, the house seemed abandoned. (351)

And we move on from housing and neighbourhoods and cities to music and grief — this from when Coffin Ed thinks Grave Digger has died:

It was a saxophone solo by Lester Young. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it had the ‘Pres’ treatment. His stomach tightened. It was like listening to someone laughing their way toward death. It was laughter dripping wet with tears. Colored people’s laughter. (468)

I’ll end with Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), the last of my Chester Himes reading jag in the run up to actually going to Harlem. I like how it opens with some philosophy:

…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.

Again we get down to the spatialities of class position:

Where 125th Street crosses Seventh Avenue is the Mecca of Harlem. To get established there, an ordinary Harlem citizen has reached the promised land, if it merely means standing on the sidewalk.

Himes writes a thick description of streets and bridges, patterns of usage, establishing how this corner means different things, socially and economically and spiritually, to Blacks and to whites. He continues:

Therefore many white people riding the buses or in motor cars pass this corner daily. Furthermore, most of the commercial enterprises–stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, etc.–and real estate are owned by white people.

But it is the Mecca of the black people just the same. The air and the heat and the voices and the laughter, the atmosphere and the drama and the melodrama, are theirs. Theirs are the hopes, the schemes, the prayers and the protest. they are the managers, the clerks, the cleaners, they drive the taxis and buses, they are the clients, the customers, the audience; they work it, but the white man owns it… The black people have the past and the present, and they hope to have the future.

What better explanation of the vast separation between use value and exchange value could you possibly ask for, or the contradictions of capitalism structured by race?

Now this, on tthe car belonging to Coffin Ed and  and Grave Digger Jones, just made me laugh.

…at night it was barely distinguishable from any number of other dented, dilapidated struggle buggies cherished by the citizens of Harlem…

Struggle buggies. I’m going to try and remember that.

More on space and race and class, and how these things confront each other from one side of the street to the other:

Across Lenox Avenue, on the West Side, toward Seventh Avenue, were the original slums with their rat-ridden, cold water flats unchanged, the dirty glass0fronted ground floors occupied by the customary supermarkets with hand -lettered ads on their plate-glass windows reading: “Fully cooked U.S. Govt. Inspected SMOKED HAMS 55c lb…Secret Deodorant ICE-BLUE 79c …

Notion stores with needles and buttons and thread on display…Barbershops…Smokeshops…Billboards..Black citizens sitting on the stops to their cold-water flats in the broiling night….Sports ganged in front of bars sucking marijuana…Grit and dust and dirt and litter floating idly in the hot dense air stirred up by the passing of feet. That was the side of the slum dwellers. the ritzy residents across the street never looked their way.

All of this…how is this not a kind of love song to Harlem? Despite the realities of this:

“Why would anyone live here who was honest?” Grave Digger said. “Or how could anyone honest stay honest who lived here? What do you want? This place was built for vice, for whores to hustle in and thieves to hid out in. And somebody got a building permit, because it’s been built after the ghetto got here.”

This building is owned by Acme Realty — they own a lot of buildings in Harlem, superintendent doesn’t know much else, only they’re all white. There’s more about slum removal:

The New York City government had ordered the demolition of condemned slum buildings on the block of the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, and the residents didn’t have anywhere to go.

Residents from other sections of Harlem were mad because these displaced people would be dumped on them, and their neighborhoods would become slums.

…they were absorbed by the urgency of having to find immediate housing, and they bitterly resented being evicted form the homes where some had been born, and their children had been born, and some had married and friends and relatives had died, no matter if these homes were slum flats that had been condemned as unfit for human dwelling. They had been forced to live there, in all the filth and degradation, until their lives had been warped to fit, and now they were being thrown out. It was enough to make a body riot.

One angry sister,who stood watching from the opposite sidewalk, protested loudly, “They calls this Urban Renewal, I calls it poor folks removal.”

And to end not just with the lies of development and progress, but how those fit within the context of generations of lies. Grave Digger Jones sums up the frustrations of a generation:

And you and me were born just after our pappies had got through fighting a war to make the world safe for democracy. But he difference is that by the time we’d fought in a jim-crow army to whip the Nazis and had come home to our native racism, we didn’t believe any of that shit. We had grown up in the Depression and fought under hypocrites against hypocrites and we’d learned by then that whitey is a liar…

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New York Cityscapes

Just as we walked past them…

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Urban Infrastructure: Trains, High lines, Bridges and Garbage Trucks

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More trains.

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That was taken from the the high line… I was so looking forward to this but THERE WERE SO MANY PEOPLE. You walk in a line of people up one way then back the other. They stop in front of you. They are slow. They have selfie sticks. They are everything I hate as a fast walker in the big city.

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Bridges and ferries:

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And to end? Trash collection:

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and garbage trucks. They gotta park somewhere.

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Public Art of All Kinds, NY

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.

Ah, the Lower East Side…

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For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.

I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.

I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.

I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.

Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.

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A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.

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I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:

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New YorkAnd finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.

 

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Harlem, Sugar Hill and the unmarked homes of legends

There is a wonderful and all-too short video of Faith Ringgold talking about Harlem’s Sugar Hill, and the many people who lived there on the New York Times website from 2010. This comes just above a map that shows building by building where some of the people I admire most once lived.

I wish I had found this earlier. I love hunting down the homes of people who have inspired me, because it always takes you into residential streets, among the everyday places of the city that as a tourist you never see. It also allows you a slightly different glimpse of the person  themselves — after all, I believe places shape us just as we shape places. Of course, a lot has changed in Harlem since these incredible days. There is so much nostalgia not for segregation, but for these spaces that concentrated community in such a way. Look at all of the people who lived only a few blocks from each other.

We did, however, know to find 409 and 555 Edgecombe. But the best site I found (also post-visit), was from the NY architecture site from a report prepared by Elisa Urbanelli, Landmarks Consultant (excerpted here, there is another good history of sugar Hill found in the docs establishing Sugar Hill as a historic district, much of it reintegrated into  the arguing documents to extend the Sugar Hill historic district to include Hamilton Heights).

The Ebony article characterized Sugar Hill society and the residents of 409 and 555 with the observation that “Harlem’s most talked-about men and women in law, sports, civil liberties, music, medicine, painting, business, and literature live on Sugar Hill.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. presented a portrait of the Hill’s residential grandeur in 1935:

On Sugar Hill…Harlem’s would-be ‘sassiety’ goes to town. ‘Midst panelled walls, parquet floors, electric refrigeration, colored tile baths, luxurious lobbies, elevators and doormen resplendent in uniforms, they cavort and disport themselves in what is called the best ofay manner.”

There were racketeers and gamblers who called the Hill home, living side by side with judges, scholars, and writers. In the 1940s Ebony reported that Sugar Hill incomes ranged from $3,000 to $7,000 per annum, most being within the upper half of wages in the United States, yet also estimated that one-quarter of Hill dwellers had to take in boarders and make other sacrifices in order to meet expenses. Rents in Harlem were generally high, but in Sugar Hill they were even higher. At 409, tenants paid from fifty to ninety-eight dollars per month, while at 555 Edgecombe, two-and-one-half rooms rented for sixty-six dollars and five rooms for eighty-seven dollars. As one observer commented, “…Harlem prices leave little for luxurious living. The main difference between those on Sugar Hill and those in the slums is the knowledge of where their next meal is coming form and, at night, a spaciousness which helps erase the memory of a Jim Crow day.”

There’s a link to http://www.hometoharlem.com/ at the end of this, but it connects to nothing. I honestly do not know why I didn’t become a landmarks consultant. Best. Job. Ever.

But to return to who actually lived here — I’ve pieced this together from multiple sources, which I find astonishing. There is also an absence of plaques or markers, though it was nice to see a number of streets named after the famous people who had lived on them.

363 Edgecombe is where Faith Ringgold herself lived — I was hoping to see her quilt at The Studio in Harlem, but much of it was closed in preparation for new exhibits. Still.

365 Edgecombe – Cecilia Hodges

375 Edgecombe – Roy Eaton

377 Edgecombe – Sonny Rollins

381 Edgecombe – Joe Lewis

409 Edgecombe: Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois (Du Bois!), Aaron Douglas, William Stanley Braithwaite, Clarence Cameron White, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Jimmy Lunceford (conductor at the Cotton Club), Dr May Chinn.

I remember from Walter White’s autobiography that he shared a building with Du Bois, it’s actually hard to imagine the two of them and Roy Wilkins occasionally meeting in the lobby. Back to Elisa Urbanelli:

No. 409 Edgecombe was certainly the most prestigious of addresses on Sugar Hill in the 1930s and ’40s. Counted among the residents of this very special enclave were people of national and international significance. As one who grew up at 409, Arnold Braithwaite eloquently explains, “…nowhere in New York City, and perhaps the country, will you find any other apartment building, whose halls and suites echo with the ghosts, as it were, of distinguished men and women, many of international repute, who were forced to over come the obstacles of poverty, for most; of pernicious racism, for all.”

As Ebony stated in the mid-1940s, “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” Indeed, residents have included such notable African-American luminaries as scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois; former N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White; White’s successor, Roy Wilkins; and Thurgood Marshall, who was then special counsel to the same esteemed organization and later became the first African-American Justice on the U.S.Supreme Court. They were joined by New York State Assemblyman William Andrews, Assistant Attorney General of New York State Harry G. Bragg, and Charles Toney, a municipal judge, as well as others who had crossed the racial barrier into the fields of politics and law. Residents involved in the arts included renowned poet, critic, and literary anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite; Aaron Douglas, the famed painter and illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance and head of the art department of Fisk University; Luckey Roberts and Jimmie Lunceford,, popular jazz musicians; actor and singer Jules Bledsoe; and classical composer Clarence Cameron White. Another long-time resident, prominent physician Dr. May Edward Chinn, had an office at the ground story and lived upstairs. (For more information about these and other tenants of 409, see the Appends.)

What it looks like now? Sadly with scaffolding — it felt like almost every building we hoped to see had scaffolding:

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A view beyond to see how it sits on this street, looking down Edgecombe towards the more modest buildings (but still Sugar Hill):

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An atmospheric view down the backside of this stretch of Edgecombe:

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And from here you can see all the way (looking up, it must be said) to 555 Edgecombe.

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555 Edgecombe

A 2010 New York Times piece lists Paul Robeson Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Lena Horne.

It left off that list Zora Neale Hurston. Wikipedia notes Kenneth Clarke (who wrote an amazing study of Harlem) but forgets his wife Mamie who was equally brilliant, Andy Kirk and Canada Lee. Joe Louis lived here a while too, he, Basie and Robeson are noted in the AIA Guide to New York City. The Lonely Planet adds Billy Strayhorn.

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One of the few old pictures I was able to find:

Here is Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ up to Sugar Hill (though we took the C)

The loveliest thing of all is that musician Marjorie Eliot opens her room up in the building, inviting people into her living room on Sundays for live jazz.

The saddest thing — that the National Park Service listing for this historic building only lists Robeson. Which is fucking crazy.

I did find one lovely site — While We Are Still Here — that is displaying information about 409 and 555 Edgcombe Ave.

Mission
While We Are Still Here (WWSH) ensures that the “post-gentrification” community of Harlem and beyond will honor and find a meaningful connection to the legacy of African American achievement, and its paramount importance to world culture.

What we didn’t see?

749 St Nicholas Ave — Ralph Ellison

773 St Nicholas Ave — C. Luckeyth (lucky) Roberts

But here’s the view down St Nicholas Ave:

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Harlem though…Harlem is so much more than this of course. We Went to the Schomberg Library, I remember Ella Baker describing coming out of the subway here, staying in the Y.

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Saw The Studio, saw the Apollo, walked past this:

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Walked down some of these streets of the famous brownstones I have read so much about (how can I see these the same after reading Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones?)

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Found 267 W 136th St, a rooming house where almost everyone from the Harlem Renaissance stayed: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett and others, and closely connected with Fire! magazine.

Nothing here either to note the brilliance these walls have contained.

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We saw memories of Marcus Garvey:

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A bit of East Harlem (SO not enough), memorialised in a Tito Puento street sign:

There is so much more we didn’t see here of course. So much left to see, I should say.

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Piri Thomas on Harlem’s Mean Streets

I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.

Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.

Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.

Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.

Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.

It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)

I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:

I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”

“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.

The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.

I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)

Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.

He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.

I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)

I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.

Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.

So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.

Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:

“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”

“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”

“Yeah.” (122)

I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.

Luke Cage: Back to Essentials #1 and #2

Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.

Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:

origin-imageTrue enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.

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Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?

There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:

There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…

img_4868Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.

You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…

img_4870C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.

I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:

“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client

There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.

Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).

img_4875See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.

Of course, the city in these stories plays its traditional role in the American consciousness — dangerous and dirty, home to criminals and those on the run. Still, it’s refreshing to see an ex-prison guard referred to in such terms, who’s the criminal now?

This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…

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Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.

img_4881Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:

img_4883Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.

You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.

On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:

img_4894and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.

img_4895But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:

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Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…

I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska

img_4900Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.

My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.

I love it.

Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.

Oh, Iron Fist.

So annoying.

I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.

I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely,  though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.

Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.

billygraham

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Janette Sadik-Khan: Streetfight

Janette Sadik-Khan StreetfightIn Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, Janette Sadik-Khan describes what she was able to achieve after being hired as New York City transportation commissioner by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. She would hold that position for six and half years, part of his new vision for a radical change.

This is a book packed full of good ideas for transforming cities into places where people can walk, bike, sit, enjoy public space. It is a story of how such spaces were created both in terms of design, and as importantly the political know-how and processes required. It is also a brilliant place to go for ammunition in the struggle to get similar, livable, safe streets in other cities where there is a desparate need for them.

And yet.

As always, a serious engagement with issues of history, equality, and economy are pushed to the side. Who are these spaces for? How do they affect land value and the forces displacing communities? How did such devastation happen in the first place? These aren’t really questions asked, so this is to some extent a superficial urban revolution, a street fight amongst elites. Perhaps this was a political or practical choice — both in the winning of her battles, and in the telling of these stories. We all know that these days equity isn’t actually all that popular, but it begs the question of just when planners lost that battle and started making practical choices about the discourse they use.

Still, every time I go to Tucson and watch the terrifying sprawl into the desert and the constant widening of streets into a city that makes it ever more unpleasant if not impossible to walk, I feel deep in my bones the kind of uphill battle even this kind of project, with constant reinforcement of its economic benefit, represents.

On the side of good — part of what made Sadik-Khan’s campaigns possible was grassroots advocacy. She writes:

This new vision came into focus as a growing advocacy movement hit critical mass, spurred by Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the Straphangers Campaign, and political outsiders who often understood the goals of government more keenly than many people in office. With the release of PlaNYC, the advocates suddenly found an administration proposing traffic solutions beyond traffic signs and signals and dedicated to safety, efficiency, and transportation investment based on data. (xiv)

This is part of what allwed her to start with certain assumptions — proved in studies over and over and over again, yet ignored by planners around the country:

Streets for the last century have been designed to keep traffic moving but not to support the life alongside it. Many streets offer city dwellers poor options for getting around, discouraging walking and stifling vibrancy and the spontaneous social gathering and spending that energize the world’s greatest cities, dragging down economies that would otherwise thrive. (1)

Building new highways, widening streets, and endlessly sprawling the city’s limits have merely multiplied the damage to city cores and smothered the very assets that make cities places where people want to live — their accessibility, convenience, diversity, culture and immediacy. (2)

The idea of the many things streets have been, could become again:

Streets are the social, political and commercial arteries of cities…identify social status. … mark political and cultural boundaries…play critical roles in democracies and in the transformative moments of history. … City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them. They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space. (3)

Which brings us to just what the streetfight is all about — to make such transformations against the push-back of the status quo.

She starts with Jane Jacobs, everyone among this new flood of books about public space, density, and livable streets does — the idea that streets aren’t just for traffic, that observation will help uncover a street’s multiple real uses and help solve its problems.

Rocket science it appears. Because, of course, Jacobs has been both celebrated and all the while practically ignored for decades of disinvestment in urban cores and white flight and building the suburban dream — even when it comes to rebuilding it in city centres.

Sadik-Khan’s analysis of what her team was facing at the beginning of her term:

Downtown Manhattan street life … amounted to sidewalk hot dog vendors and lunches eaten standing up. What public space there was could be found in front of courthouses and official buildings, grim and uninviting spaces likely to be occupied by homeless people and the city’s less savoury elements…

The city’s previous minimalist agenda for these spaces? ‘Basic maintenance, repair and safety from crime.’ (14)

This is the world of the traffic engineer, like those under Bob Moses who worked to transform NY: The City of the Future. She shares this image, where pedestrians were only ever an afterthought:

futurama
I have seen the Future, Futurama. New York World Fair, 1939 “the world of Tomorrow”.

Yet Sadik-Khan distances herself in some ways from Jacobs’ fight against Moses in that it came to mean constant battle to preserve what exists against change. Sadik-Khan argues that cities have to change after many decades of disinvestment and decay, she writes:

retrofitting our cities for the new urban age and achieving Jane Jacob’s vision today will require Moses-like vision and action for building the next generation of city roads, ones that will accommodate pedestrians, bikes, and buses safely and not just single-occupancy vehicles… (19)

This book is something of her Moses-like vision (!), the struggle to bring it to life, and how it worked…

Density is Destiny

I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city…Cities’ geographic compactness, population density, and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world. Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth… New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically, and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services (23).

I think this is a good point. Cities linger in our conscious and subconscious as unsustainable. There are the other biases against cities that are bound up in racial and class fears and a particularly American ideology:

Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on a view that cities are dangerous, crowded, and havens for crime. (24)

Which helps explain why

After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city. Instead of fighting to preserve the spotted owl in the forest, they are taking the fight to cities, advocating smart of compact urban growth as part of an antisprawl strategy. (25)

Instead of? I don’t think so. There are as many campaigns as there are kind of environmentalists as there are issues that need to be resolved for our very survival on the planet. Loss of biodiversity is hardly less important than sprawl, why simplify global warming into oblivion? But anyway.

Setting the Agenda

The collective impact of these plans, processes, and policies was a wholesale government rebranding. We were changing the language and the expectation of what the department was capable of and responsible for, and how it should use the resources under its control. (40)

How do I hate ‘rebranding’? Let me count the ways, principally in that rebranding as a word actually doesn’t mean changing actual responsibilities or use of resources, and so in practice is thrown around as indicative of great changes when only superficial change is made.

But to give her credit, she made actual changes. She gives these wonderful examples from Island Press’s Urban Street Design Guide from the National Association of City Transportation Officials as some of the inspirations:

None

There are multiple ways to transform streets through extending curbs, adding bike and bus lanes, and this chapter has a lot of good places to look for the studies that will bolster the struggle to stop street widening and promote similar kinds of projects in other cities.

She hits it on the nose:

Cities today are designed for private vehicles not because it is the most efficient mode, but because other transportation options were rendered impossible following planning decisions made decades ago. (64)

Of course, power and money were behind those decisions so this is quite complicated, there is rather uncritical praise of the redevelopment of Broadway in LA, which I know to be a deeply troubling contribution to the racial cleansing of downtown. In particular you can go back to Kevin Lynch’s descriptions of Broadway half a century ago, and it is all too clear that Broadway didn’t actually need much help to be a vital cityscape, it needed changes for whites to feel comfortable there. The development of Hollywood density is quite similar.

These are troubled histories. Like this one:

Before there was a New York City, there was a Broadway. Originally brede weg in pre-Colonial Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam, Broadway was one of the island’s first roads at a time when there was an actual wall built at Wall Street to keep out native incursions and Five Points was a pond within a swamp. (73)

Pre-fucking-Colonial? The wall built to keep Native Americans off their own traditional lands, a people who didn’t believe in walls to begin with, or private ownership?

It troubles me how sentences like that sit alongside great ideas for city transformation, acknowledgment of what she calls desire-lines and the importance of city sidewalks:

the natural, spontaneous way that people use public spaces, often contradicting the way the space was designed. … Desire-lines are a road map of opportunity… (74)

Sidewalks aren’t raised concrete streets for pedestrians. They are the front yards for city dwellers, as important as any suburban lawn. … these in-between places are a stage for New Yorkers, the urban filament where people sense and connect to the city’s energy. (75)

She’s the one who brought Jan Gehl on board to look at how NY’s public spaces could be improved. His own book detailing some of this is an interesting and very worthwhile complement. She quotes Speck as well, but that was more likely to set me off more given his focus on planning to increase property values.

But back to what can be learned. I particularly liked the way they used paint — like the blue-line project that once partially transformed my Bow neighbourhood in East London.

By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined in paint. (79)

She gives this example

Streetfight -- Pearl Street Plaza
Pearl Street plaza in DUMBO, one of New York City Department of Transportation’s first place-changing projects, in 2007. (NYC DOT — Ryan Russo, p 81)

It’s great. But again, she notes the joy with which the local BID agreed to take care of it — and practically that makes sense — but there has been a constant struggle against BIDs for the use of private security guards to control who has the right to access space. Anyway. This conflicted process of improving neighborhoods, yet generally for a wealthier kind of person, continues.  On the High Line, she writes:

…it was becoming clear that the area would soon resemble the nearby upscale Greenwich Village, abandoning its bleak past as an after-hours drug-scoring, cruising strip. (83)

She notes the role of independent media in supporting their work, for better for for worse, particularly Streetsblog, which chronicled the

urban revolution unfolding on new York City’s streets’ that newspapers and ‘blogs obsessed with conflict’ could not tell (84)

Honestly, I think some of the deeper conflicts around equity and justice did need a lot more telling, but newspapers rarely get to that level either, there was clearly a lot of much less worthwhile NIMByist arguments going on.

Another note, both very positive if the change is positive, and yet more than a little frightening:

Once you changed a space, its new configuration became obvious and unassailable, and people immediately abandoned whatever attachments they had to the way it used to be. (84)

The Battle for a New Times Square

Times Square is iconic to all factions around the development of city spaces.

Times Square  by that point had already outgrown most of its legendary seediness and shed the peepshow theatres… (91)

In their planning they worked with the business district, the Times Square Alliance, and sure enough, a measure of progress was a massive increase in property value:

The Real Estate Board of New York found that per-square-foot rental rates for ground-floor properties fronting Times Square doubled in a single year, a figure that would eventually triple. (102)

Poor Luke Cage, banished from downtown New York just when it needed superheroes the most. It seems to limits the conception of ‘people’ to write this:

These changes weren’t just quality-of-life improvements. They opened a city to its people and through that expanded its economic prospects. (103)

Stealing Good Ideas

Shock horror, the point of this chapter is that you should learn from other cities. It looks at (the admittedly wonderful) example of Medellin and Bogota. Which I shall, I must, examine separately on its own terms, as both are extraordinary.

I do like the encouragement of people to make space their own.

These DIY acts reveal the power of signs, signals, paint–seemingly minor cues from the streets that shape our lives. It takes only a little bit of imagination to transform a  sidewalk into a place-making feature of the street. In an increasing number of cases, city planners are being inspired and, in turn, inspiring these kinds of unorthodox strategies, blurring the lines between the sanctioned and unsanctioned and also erasing the barriers between the people and those who represent them. (136)

I hope we see more of this, and I hope we see more bike lines, but woah! The crazy battles over bikelines! Because I do love bikelines and lanes, particularly of this kind, separated from cars by a painted shoulder or by concrete as in Holland (sadly not like most of London or Bristol).

Bike share? Very cool. Safety in numbers of pedestrians and streets that require constant attention and vigilance from those driving them? All good.

And then, the chapter title:

Sorry to Interrupt, but We Have to Talk About Buses

It opens.

I get it. A lot of people don’t like to ride buses. So why would you want to read about them here? (233)

I am glad when she returns to Bogota and a quote from Penalosa which I have heard before,

An advanced city is not one where poor people drive cars, but where rich people take public transportation. (235)

So true. At the same time, those poor people actually form the majority in cities, they take the bus, the issues with equity and justice are clear despite the framing of this, suddenly bringing into even higher relief the audience for whom this book is written. She gets, of course, that it’s a question of equity, I like her for it, but equity is rarely visible in this book. Possibly, as I said earlier, because of that audience. Buses are a hard sell where equity is not a primary consideration.

This lack of equity as a worthwhile object in itself leads to the next section, and quote:

Next to safety and mobility, which should be the first considerations, the economic power of sustainable streets is probably the strongest argument for implementing dramatic change. (252)

I don’t quite understand how we have arrived in a place where commonsense fails to find problematic a lack of fairness or justice in these first considerations, or to leave unquestioned the public good in this scenario:

In Minneapolis, a 5.5-mile former rail right-of-way converted into a bike and recreational path spurred $200 million in investment over the last decade, resulting in 1,200 new residential units. (261)

When displacement, and the shuffling of the poverty deck, is always a huge related issue.

Nuts and Bolts

I love that she loves infrastructure — I confess I don’t think about this enough myself. It is an issue few think about, I know, and undoubtedly why this should be the last chapter. Sadik-Khan writes:

But no one want to hear about infrastructure. It’s even less sexy than buses. (265)

Poor buses. Compare the US to London where the buses are iconic and much loved — and they work.

But I share her love of bridges, and am so jealous of her chance to climb one. I rather love her love of asphalt, the details of this chapter of rock and its sources, its processing, its new life as a surface.

Her last lines.

There is a new vocabulary for street designs that serve the needs of the people who live in cities. There are new expectations for streets. And there is New York.

If you can remake it here, you can remake it anywhere.

I am glad we have developed a new vocabulary, a new portfolio for design, new expectations.

Now, for social equity to become something we care about again.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

[Sadik-Khan, Janette and Seth Solomonow (2016) Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. NY: Viking.]

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