I have no information on this performance besides that in the video description. What presence and skill she plays with! Happy Friday.
Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem
A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.
It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.
But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.
In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading
The gangs of San Francisco: remarkable footage from the late 1950s
“Ask Me, Don’t Tell Me,” an amazing short film that I learned about through the Bernal Heights History Project, shows a glimpse of San Francisco street life in the late 1950s. (The film was published in 1961, but the aesthetic of its “juvenile delinquents” seems to owe more to the 50s, so let’s call it that. The 60s in San Francisco brings to mind flower children, which these aren’t.) It’s got some dated moments, but sparkles nonetheless as a little historical treasure.
The film is more interesting to me for its poetic pastiche of street scenes (and gritty bongos-infused blues) than it is as a record of the program, Youth For Service, that it was made to promote. I’ve never seen anything like this, nor have I read very much about these scenes in San Francisco. But as I watched the clip, I felt like I knew this world, if obliquely. These young men were the progenitors of the San Franciscans I grew up around. In their gestures, their expressions, their postures, and their voices, they foreshadow the later Bay Area culture with which I’m much more familiar.
This is post-War San Francisco. The Mission is just becoming a Latino district. The Fillmore — which the narrator calls “The Moe,” a nickname still in use today — has just undergone the disastrous redevelopment project that sent many of its residents to the East Bay. (Thus the “Harlem of the West” was stifled.) Eureka Valley, now known as the Castro, was still a working class Irish area. (Read all about it in Randy Shilts’s classic, The Mayor of Castro Street). The multiethnic San Francisco of the late 20th century was just taking shape — the city was still more than 70 percent non-Latino white. (The city today may be on its way to losing its exceptionally multiethnic character.)
Growing up, I didn’t know about any gangs with names like the Lonely Ones or the War Lords (feel free to correct me in the comments if I was simply oblivious — a distinct possibility). And aside from motorcycle clubs, the days of wearing cuts had passed by the time I was watching the city through Muni windows. But in the slouched posture of kids on the back of the 14 Mission, in their slang, in the braggadocio and micro-awareness of neighborhood distinctions in San Francisco rap music, in the men congregating on corners like Cortland and Moultrie in Bernal Heights, I saw and heard the echoes of these earlier times.
The film also has some value as an artifact of the type of program it was made to promote, Youth For Service. Considering what happened with street violence in the rest of the century, it would be easy to laugh at the naïveté of this simple program. (Others like it exist today, of course.) It seems to be the sort of thing Tom Wolfe humorously ridiculed in his 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers.” But the history of what actually happened in the decades after this hopeful-seeming project is really about much bigger forces: the Vietnam War, racism, the isolation of red-lining and the freeway system, the collapse of manufacturing in the United States, Reagonomics, the prison industrial complex, and crack cocaine and other hard drugs.
The 50 years since the film saw many changes in San Francisco, but there was some continuity to the story. Here’s an idealized bookend to that period.
And it is something of a bookend, because now, San Francisco has definitely entered some kind of new era. It’s the capital city for one of the fastest growing, most powerful industries in the world. Its high quality housing stock — in enforced shortage — is some of the most expensive anywhere. There is still grim poverty and occasional, horrific violence — like the massacre in Hayes Valley this winter. But for better or worse, the days of a hundred neighborhoods, each with a thousand tough guys holding down the corners, seem now to be a thing of the past.
This film is that history.
Some thoughts on economics, masculinity, and great journalism: MoJo article on the “men’s rights” movement
This story on the men’s rights movement in the latest issue of Mother Jones deserves a read.
This is the best kind of reporting on a fringe group that, if it is not a hate movement in the strictest definition, is pretty close to crossing the line. It’s thorough and dispassionate. It even draws the reader into the shreds of truth about male insecurity in contemporary America that inspired Warren Farrell’s earlier work on gender, in a way that only ends up emphasizing how off-base his movement is.
For example, male social standing in America is indeed tied to earnings ability, which is one of Farrell’s favorite points. But the dominant ideas about what makes a good man–a breadwinner who performs tasks that rely on physical strength and toughness to bring home the bacon–are out of sync with economic realities. In some cases, this work has been replaced by hand-softening office jobs. In many others, the work hasn’t been replaced at all, as American manufacturing jobs have evaporated over the last decades. In the vacuum, men have clung to vestiges and artifacts of a time when economic and social realities were more in line with valued models of masculinity.
This makes me think of hyper-masculine rhymers N.W.A. (and the 1980s L.A. gangsters they emulated), who frequently dressed as if out for a shift at the local steel mill (accessorized with a couple of gold chains).
Such manufacturing jobs–which had provided lots of employment for working-class communities in Los Angeles and elsewhere–were fast disappearing in this era. But men who might have been employed in them a generation before kept the same uniform for the streets.
The loss of these jobs was a major blow to the social fabric and economic situation of these communities (and certainly one of several factors, along with racism and segregation, that contributed to the explosion of gangs in Los Angeles). Also, men excluded from the labor market felt less powerful, their masculinity diminished. I don’t think I’m being original to point out that there’s probably a link between this and say, N.W.A.’s obsession with masculinity, which often manifested itself in misogynistic lyrics.
It wasn’t just in places like South L.A. where economic shifts contributed to some men feeling as though their masculinity was in crisis. The disconnect between ideal and reality grew just about everywhere. For an example from a completely different kind of media, take a look at the masculinity-appealing Chevy commercials that have changed only a little in the last 20-odd years.
It’s interesting to think about these commercials beamed across America to dads in easy chairs watching the Super Bowl after a long week in the cubicle. The ads’ agriculture-themed brand of manliness is irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of Americans (fewer than 2 percent of whom work in the sector), but American men still buy the idea.
Without getting into any of these details in MoJo, author Mariah Blake does a great job of alluding to the situation. In the course of her narrative, there might be a moment or two when we’re even tempted into a little bit of sympathy with Farrell in the early days of the formation of his ideology.
But of course, economic changes were only part of why so many American men have felt increasingly less powerful over the last few decades. The bigger reason was that American women were finally making major strides toward throwing off the great burden of oppression, and were gaining a more equal social, political, and economic position. By the end of the article, it’s obvious to the reader that the men’s rights enthusiasts have self-servingly crossed wires on all these issues. And whatever truth there is to some of Farrell’s critiques of the organization of our economy and its relationship to masculinity is overwhelmed by the odious outcomes of the movement he spawned.
Blake takes us to this place of understanding simply through good story-telling. We’re able to see the movement for what it is: organized misogyny with the sheen of intellectual justification. Well done.
A spooky evening walk in Morningside Park (photos)
I just “developed” some photos from a walk I took in Morningside Park in late December. I think they do a good job of capturing the feeling of upper Manhattan parks, particularly in the off-season. They’re a tangled mass of leafless branches overhanging stones and hideouts and raccoon dens and shooting galleries that were better hidden in the summer’s foliage. There’s a bit of a sense of resignation to the grime of accumulated years of intense use by millions of people — despite the fact that New York parks are so drastically improved and better cared for these days.
Morningside Park is a particularly good spot to experience this feeling. For one thing, it’s one of the few places in Manhattan where the natural geography really overwhelms the human modifications to the landscape. (Other such places are St. Nicholas, Fort Tryon, Inwood and especially Highbridge Parks.) There’s an escarpment of schist here that prevented the area from being developed in the same way as its surroundings. It also long served as the fortress-like barrier between Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, and central Harlem. This was part of the reason the 1968 protests over the proposed Columbia gym in the park were so energized — the design of the gym would have underlined this separation even more. When I moved to New York in 2007, Morningside Park still felt like a striking geographic barrier between the mostly black, poorer flatlands and the wealthy heights around Columbia. (That distinction has faded somewhat as this portion of Harlem has transformed into trendy, so-called SoHa.)
Walking through the park in early winter, you think of all the many visitors who have passed time in this little geographic anomaly over the last 140 years. My grandfather, for example, grew up across the street on Morningside Avenue and 122nd Street, and supposedly pitched his pup tent in the park for afternoons spent reading Peter Pan. Later, the park gained a reputation for danger, and in its shadows there is still something of the noirish menace of The Warriors’ Central Park fight scene.
Various details lend the park an air of even deeper mystery: an indiscernible figure on a neglected stairway, a crevice between two flat stones on the castle-like wall that you can imagine leads to a secret passageway, a strange rustle and breaking of twigs somewhere behind a glacier-scoured boulder.
Layered on top of all that are the echoes of the shouts and music of barbecues of countless summers — in the years I’ve been here, people sit on the picnic benches from 8am every summer weekend to reserve spots for parties later in the day.
It all makes for an intriguing if melancholy walk, and a great place to ponder New York’s remarkably dense history of human lives.
Take a look at the rest of the photos below. Continue reading
The significance of a small tour of the Mission’s gentrification
Buzzfeed ran a video following around Kai, one of the main characters in the pick-up soccer game flap that took on a kind of remarkable life of it’s own last year. Have a look:
I liked the clip. I’m not sure it lives up to the headline Buzzfeed gave it, but I relate to Kai’s sentiments. I’m also a San Francisco native, originally from Bernal Heights, which is a Mission satellite neighborhood. I too pine, oddly, for the days when I fell asleep listening to Hells Angels revving motors and, more sweetly, the sounds of gospel music from the now-defunct church catty-corner from my mother’s house.
But this clip may not do much to convince the unsympathetic about why anyone should care about the kind of change that has now all but taken over San Francisco’s once-working-class and and economically mixed neighborhoods. Let’s not beat around the bush: here’s a sampling of an uncharitable reaction to Kai from another soccer-playing native San Franciscan who was never fully convinced by the whole brouhaha over the pick-up pitch argument.
He romanticizes the loud motorcycle bar, give me a break
“The wealth is directly related to people’s displacement from their homes” Weak argument. The real issue is the eviction laws (specifically Ellis Act), not wealth/gentrification.
He says: “20th & Mission, um…not alot has changed” Hmmm, dude’s already weakened his position
“Dia de los Muertos street art juxtaposed with luxury restaurant + luxury condos on top.” Weak again.
Turf soccer field: “Not until it got nice did the permits start coming” No shit, no insight here.
On Natives vs Tech worker soccer incident: “Instead of deciding to play with us they decided to play on half the field… so there’s still this segregation of people”. No, weak assessment again. When you play pick up soccer you can generally include everyone. Though it’s not all that fun to play with kids so gotta draw a line somewhere. But more so those tech workers came that night to have a team practice. It wasn’t the time to switch to pick up and include everyone in some utopian gesture. So the solution of playing separately but sharing the overall field was a good solution. Not, as we are lead to believe, evidence of class segregation. Its more accurate to say it was evidence of team play vs. pick-up.
He says: “If you know something is wrong, you can’t just accept it for what it is. And if there’s a law in place that shouldn’t be in place, change it.” Finally we get to something good and useful. I support this.
Dude has to tighten up his argument and get to the crux if he wants to be a community leader. Otherwise he just ends up railing against vague malevolent forces of change. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of change. Change is going to happen. Don’t resist it, learn how to harness and direct it.
To which I say, Damn, some of those are pretty good points. Most of them are arguable, at the least. There’s really no need to rehash what the soccer pitch row did and didn’t represent — much time spent on that already here and here and here . But there’s one thing I think my friend missed in this reaction: the validity and value of Kai’s memories of the way things were. Here’s what I would say if someone made a video of me standing on my corners pointing at the new high-end businesses (I’m accepting invitations btw):
Some people talk about all the new restaurants and bars and expensive property like it’s just a net gain for the neighborhood. Like things were blighted, and now they’re better. But you have to understand that the Mission wasn’t blighted. That could have been true of somewhere else, but not here. There were a lot of great mom and pop businesses here, and they’ve been replaced by things that cater solely to a luxury market. I’m not saying you can stop that kind of change, but showing the changes can maybe help people relate to the sense of loss we feel — those of us who grew up around here — and think twice before assuming that fancier is better.
My memories are not fantasies, though the new money seems to mock them. The worst thing about the soccer pitch fight wasn’t who got to play at what time and where. It was that painful moment, when someone off camera throws a “who gives a shit about the neighborhood” into the mix. In that moment, all the weight of “progress” and the power and privilege of new money came down like a giant eraser on the stories, passions, triumphs, and pain of a neighborhood that thought it existed.
Turns out, you don’t matter at all, the new millionaires seem to tell us. Oh, but we’ll hang on to some Dia de los Muertos tchotchkes. That stuff looks kinda cool.
San Francisco as Ghost Town, via @thebolditalic
The Bold Italic recently published this photo essay with pictures of San Francisco photo-shopped, free of cars and people.
The essay is pretty, but I found it incredibly sad. It is perhaps the perfect conceit for this era in San Francisco, when the City can seem more a sterile backdrop for young, monied newcomers than an actual collection of communities. It’s San Francisco as your desktop wallpaper. San Francisco as seen from the Marin Headlands, or as seen from a drone. San Francisco as depicted in infographics and sweet logos with clean lines, San Francisco with neighborhoods efficiently renamed. But rarely the City as its people. We need a Humans of SF. I’m not sure if the artist put these photos together as this sort of a commentary, but it works as such.
The images are so lonely. They remind me of the 1959 film On the Beach, about sailors stuck on a submarine after a nuclear war. Radioactivity is sweeping over the world, and the cities are being emptied one by one.
There’s one sailor from San Francsco, and when the submarine reaches the Bay, he insists on going ashore to his beautiful city even though it means death. Looking at the photo essay, I feel just a little like that sailor.
SF’s techie communes: hippies minus the politics?
An SFGate.com article from a couple of months ago, about communal living among techies in San Francisco, caught my eye recently. Have a look.
5 Pointz is long gone
A sad scene greeted New Yorkers this morning. This …
… had turned into this (photo from the LICPost):
Yes indeed, after a drawn-out battle that seemed pulled from the pages of a break dance movie script (except without the happy ending), world famous Long Island City graffiti installation 5 Pointz is long gone. The owner of the building, who had reportedly done nothing with it for 20 years besides allowing the artists to squat there (so I was told during a tour), is tearing it down to make way for these glorious luxury condominiums. (Photo from Atlantic Cities.)
I only found out about the place a couple of years ago, and it has surprised and delighted each of my NYC guests ever since. It was a true urban gem. I don’t know enough about the legality of the issue to comment much on that dimension of the art’s destruction, but one thing is for sure: the loss of this site is pretty much a major cultural tragedy for New York City. I sort of hope that if there really is 10,000 square feet of blank wall dedicated to aerosol artists’ use in the new development, as has been proposed, it remains mutely white in protest.
Here’s a brief slide show from my first visit to 5 Pointz.
Surprisingly decent capoeira rap song
I consider myself a bit of a capoeira purist, so I raised a suspicious eyebrow when I saw that a rap song about the Afro-Brazilian martial art had been posted to YouTube and is making the rounds on Facebook. So much could go terribly wrong!
But this comes together quite nicely — and even uses rhythms that evoke real capoeira music. Related to this film, which I’ve yet to check out.