Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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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

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

5 Pointz is long gone

A sad scene greeted New Yorkers this morning. This …

5 Pointz Biggie

5 Pointz Biggie

… 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.

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Outdoor sports break: 60 miles north from NYC on the Old Put

As a Westerner venturing into the wilds of the East, it takes time to appreciate the region’s natural beauty. No crags here, no canyons, no shimmering plains. No sweeping views that some overripe Victorian would have called “both terrible and sublime!”

Today, I took the bike path that follows the Old Put some 45 miles north of the Bronx all the way to Brewster in Putnam County (nearly 60 miles north from my house, which I only point out so that you know what a beast on the bike I am).

Out north of Elmsford, you begin to learn about the spirit of the Eastern woods. It is hard to describe, because it lacks that Occidental splendor factor. Sure, it’s the peak of autumn, so the colors are great — but that hardly gets to the heart of the matter. Mile after  mile, it creeps on you. And when I returned and lay down exhausted in my bed, I closed my eyes and, without effort, saw myself projected through deep yellowing forests, the trees like wispy old fingers, a gray sky, a winding path strewn with rusty leaves, going on and on.

Below, crossing the bridge at the New Croton Reservoir.




Nostalgia with purpose: Reflections on a New Yorker’s essay about leaving her city

Back when Rebecca Wolff was a kid, New York was so real, man, you guys don’t even know!

I liked eating this essay in Guernica, but then later I got a stomach ache.

As an expat native San Franciscan I identify a lot with her pining for a realer time — which is why I liked the essay’s flavor. But this writing exhibits what is in some ways the worst kind of it-once-was-realer nostalgia: the self-absorbed longing for the aesthetic of a harsh time, rather than for the lost possibilities that an earlier era held for a now-forgotten segment of the people. Through this privileged prism, being real is defined by running around snorting blow and making out with bouncers. The thing is, for most of the few people I know who were really in the grit of 70s-80s New York, I get a sense of being shell-shocked as much as anything.

Back then was other things, too. It was the taxi driver I spoke to who grew up in East Harlem and used to be scared to leave his house. It was feeling menaced by the evil lurking in the bushes when you jogged across a Queens park on your way home from 8th grade. It was AIDS, it was crack, it was the Son of Sam, it was a lot of people who didn’t make it to 2013 to talk about what a time of creativity it was — so I understand from conversations, and infer from my own San Francisco recollections.

It’s mostly true that all those people running around unironically ironically wearing “Obey” T-shirts in SoHo are Chumps, and probably I am too. But being cool is not really the point. The point is those bodies getting stepped over, which Wolff mentions but which don’t seem to elicit a more political perspective.

I appreciate Wolff’s essay, and it’s definitely worth a read. But the nostalgia to which I pledge allegiance is a different one: a longing for long-gone communities, uttering of the names of those who came before, who lived too fast or too close to the edge to tell their stories.

In the streets outside my house in San Francisco, members of these communities squared off, pulled weapons, revved the engines of rusted El Caminos, repped motorcycle clubs, covered wood-paneled station wagons and front yards with plastic figurines and schizophrenic sculptures, smoked glass pipes in stairwells, serenaded me to sleep with musical worship on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. It was not always an easy place, but in it was a promise of something greater. Saudades de vocês.

To acknowledge the raggedness of those times is not to give these cities’ current trends of chumpiness a pass. But in both New York and San Francisco, it is partly the solipsism of the reigning brand of nostalgia that has kept us from mounting a convincing counternarrative to those who would argue that the story of these cities has been, simply, progress.

In any case, have a read and let me know what you think.

So yes, it’s true. New York City used to be cool, and now it’s not. It’s not at all. It is boring and dismaying and stymied; everything potentially cool in it is overwhelmed and inflated and parodied and sold. You can’t even love the absurdity of it because it’s too painful and we cannot be allowed anymore to callously love, for their absurdity, systems that oppress and impoverish. New York is a giant sinking pile of crap compared to what it used to be. Literally sinking, now that the waters rise so much quicker, the winds blow so much harder than even scientists predicted. Lately I like to imagine that I will have the privilege of seeing in my lifetime real estate values in the city plunge wildly, freefall, as Climate Events force visitors to admit that they pay top-dollar to perch on coastal landfill.

In New York City these days I see loads and loads of formerly brilliant people—gender champions, visual whizzes, start-up ho’s, crackerjack dancers, actors, journalists, and chefs—who have stayed too long at the Fair, to use Joan’s wistful archaic turn of phrase, are baffled and internally conflicted as to why they can’t admit that New York sucks so hard. Why they can’t draw the proper conclusion: That if they are to work all the time in order to pay super-high rents that make it impossible for them to do their art, if they never have a chance to see the people they came here to see, who are also less brilliant now that they are muffled by the smog of wrongness that hangs over New York (thicker than the smog of smog that hangs over Los Angeles, another city that’s not even half as cool as everyone who’s moving there says it is), if they are living somewhere that is giving them less than they are giving to it, then they should leave. They should find somewhere to live, perhaps collectively, perhaps not individually, perhaps they should try to make sense of this whole living-somewhere thing in a way that doesn’t pretend, as New York City does, that we are all ruthless rock stars with amnesia and aphasia and lifetime amniotic sacs.


Old San Francisco (Bernal Heights 2013)

Election Night in Harlem

I am very sorry I missed it. My friend John put together this clip.

I was in the laundromat two days ago on Malcom X and 117th and overheard a middle aged woman talking to an older man.

“I go to work in the morning and I look at my boss and just smile,” she said with a laugh. “We’re ready for Barack Obama. I’m more ready for Obama than I’m ready for myself.”