Tag Archives: New York

Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.

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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.

New York - Central Park

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.

New York - High Line

New York - High Line

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.