Saturday, March 31, 2018

Brooklyn Tides, El Quijote and Drinking with Ghosts in the Sea of Identical Details

Image may contain: 6 people, including Brennan Cavanaugh, people smiling, people standing
Scenes from the Brooklyn Tides book launch by Brennan Cavanaugh and Wendy Brawer and this writer.  BK lights by New York Light Brigade. 

So that one was one of the wilder weeks in recent memory
Between a book launch and a tv interview i only got to after losing my keys at the UN, before making it back on time, as the week spilled into itself, it was a week of recollections and drinking with ghosts, and recalling hero's. 

It all started on Monday at the United Nations, where number two and I were on hand for social work day. We ran into my friend Meredith Powers, who was about to speak inside. She snapped this photo as everyone was lining up outside. 

Inside, the speeches were great.  But when an administrator in charge of sustainability studies showed and gave a talk about how wonderful the city is doing around sustainability, i asked why the city was bulldozing community gardens from Bed Stuy to the Lower East Side. 
Later, I asked if wanted to join us for another gardens ride to go check out the community gardens. 
He said call me.  So far i had not gotten a call back. 

On the way home from the UN, we stopped for Indian on First Ave. 
And number two said, Dad did you get your id back from the desk?
No, i said. So we ate and cabbed back to get through security to get my keys and make it back for our interview later that afternoon about Brooklyn Tides and the big book launch taking place the next day. 

The interview and conversation were super fun and engaging. 
I'm a Brooklyn optimist.  So its not hard to make an afternoon of talking about our home here. 
Even when we lose, we win a lot here. We've created something wonderful here, worth preserving here.  Even when we lose, there's always another game, another day to string up those shoes and play again. 

Mark and I were feeling great after the show.  So we wandered off to José Parlá's studio in the Gowanus to drop off a copy of the book.  He contributed his hot gowanus to the book. 
Image result for José Parlá  new studio Gowanus
Image result for Jose Parla Hot Gowanus
José Parlá''s Hot Gowanus and the artist in his Brooklyn Studio by Snohetta.
Parlá invited us when we arrived, grabbing two copies of his book for us to have copies of as well.
I was talked by your book, he commented.  It seems like cities around  the world are trying to, starting to look like Brooklyn.
We were not sure if this was a good outcome or bad. But the point was an important one. 
Cities imitate each other.  Sometimes its a positive outcome. But more often than not, its a sea of blandness spreading. 

Jen from the Interference Archive suggested we frame the panel as a conversation about making the book, not merely a reading.  And she was right. 

So we'd put together a panel of stories about the process, about creating this space, this conversation.
For Mark and I, the book was very much inspired by Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900, where he writes:
“Not to find one's way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one's way in a city, as one loses one's way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.” 

The notebooks I started keeping about Brooklyn began in the summer of 2000 when Caroline and I moved here.   We'd been living in the Lower East Side, paying Fifth Avenue prices with the same old Lower East Side roaches. So we made our way to Carroll Gardens.  And we have not left except for a brief teaching gig in Los Angeles in 2006-7.  Even then, we didn't know what to make of the changes that had been happening since we got to Brooklyn. We'd left the Lower East Side after our favorite community garden was bulldozed.  But the same pattern of displacement seemed to be happening in Brooklyn. 
By 2004, i got an email from Beka E bemoaning a rezoning in Williamsburg that she describing as "gentrification on steroids."
By the time we got back from our year in California, the process had only accelerated.  We could barely recognize certain streets.  Glossy buildings were going up everywhere.  The sea of identical details was enveloping us. 
Yet, so were the elements of sustainable urbanism which might save us and cities like Brooklyn around the world - a cosmopolitan diversity, an engaged populace, community gardens, innovations in transportation, bike lanes, even participatory budgeting, affordable schools. Would these be enough to stave off the homogenization roller coaster making its way across the borough and the world?  

I talked about my city of friends, the kind of space that Whitman described, the people who had shown up all these years, the people who's always been there, who support an engaged democratic space. 
And asked the panel if they were enough to stave off the encroaching waves? Was there still going to be room for oddballs and outsiders here? 

Everyone at the panel spoke to these questions in their own ways. Savitri D, of the Church of Stop Shopping, talked about the 2004 rezoning battle in Williamsburg. It was like neoliberalism coming home to roost.  After years of fighting around global justice issues and feeling at the end of a loosing streak, activists felt a palpable sense of failure.  So they turned to local issues, around zoning, etc.  We lost some battles, such as the Williamsburg rezoning.  But won others, saving the old businesses of Coney Island.  Its always been a democratized space.  A lot of people were willing to fight for it. It means a lot to a lot of people.  It was an example of friends being friends and helping save something really precious.

Our next speaker, Dragonfly aka Robin Laverne Wilson followed recalling the campaign to beat back Walmart from moving to New York City. "Related wants to build a Walmart and we say no no no," she sang along with everyone, recalling the flashmob we all participated in during the successful campaign.  Ben asked me to talk about Walmart, Black Lives Matter and Immigration Rights, she explained.  I guess thats what we call intersectionality.  Like Ben, I'm a Texan.  I cam here a few years ago. SO i guess that makes me an immigrant. But i started knocking on my neighbor's doors when i got here.  I need to know you.  Thats what it means to be a neighbor to me.  We need teach other.  The issues get so separated. But we need to connect. But we've all been through it here.  My rent has gone up $700 dollars like a lot of you.  We all need each other, she explained.

My friend Dulcie Canton continued, following the same theme. She wanted to know people and get around. So she started riding bikes.  Plus the subway is too expensive.  So she got on her bike, meeting cyclists citywide, with WeBike, BlackGirlsDoRIde, and Transportation Alternatives, getting hooked into the movement.
But riding is dangerous in the city.  She was injured by one of the many cars who assume they own the street, instead of looking out.  LIke a lot of people, especially poor people, her accident was ignored by the city.  It was not until lawyer Steve Vaccaro started snooping around that she made some headway. 

Reading from Bike Lanes are White Lanes, she pointed out that bikes are rolling signifiers.  Spaces become delineated.  But it might be time to break through some of those demarcations. 

Brennan Cavanaugh, whose body of work, extends through years of photographing Brooklyn, told us about his work. Many of his pictures are featured in this book.  Looking at his years of photographing a changing space, he recalled the approach of the Family Bonfils:  "....before progress has completely done its destructive job,before this present which is still the past has forever disappeared we have tried to fix and immobilize it in a series of views."  All these years, Cavanaugh has tried to document some of these moments before "progress has completely done its destructive job." Brooklyn Tides is filled with his photographs. 

Images of a borough and a waterfront in transition by Brennan Cavanaugh. 

Mark Noonan, the co-author of Brooklyn Tides, concluded the session.  He referred to the Hudson River School movement, suggesting a new movement, an East River School may be at hand today. 

East River rubble in the seaweed by BS
He situated his discussion with a reading of the cover for Brooklyn Tides, a photograph by Caroline Shepard, whose works pulse throughout the book, the product of countless Brooklyn bike rides, exploring and documenting the constant flux taking place here. She took the cover of the book in Louis Valentino Park in Red Hook, the afternoon sun shining on it, the view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance. This was a space where the Dutch brought in trade, establishing Red Hook as a port, which thrived from the 16th to the 20th centuries, when containerization robbed the dock workers of jobs. And the neighborhood of jobs. The park was named for a firefighter. 
"On February 5, 1996, Valentino lost his life while searching for wounded firefighters in a three-alarm blaze in an illegal Flatlands garage."Debates about globalization tend to consider the impacts in terms of economics and culture.  But its not just one or the other, pointed out Noonan.  The cover of the book includes an image of water pouring onto rocks on the bottom, an old decaying pier and a blue sky. The warehouse is covered in graffiti and murals. To the right, Martin Luther King's homage to interdependence, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," to the left, an artists rendering of Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa.  Situated in Red Hook, Brooklyn, just off the pier where worked disappeared, a casualty to economic forces far far away, the wave evokes a feeling those forces, globalization, consuming all of us. 

Yet, is there still room for agency?

Or will we be washed away?

Finishing the talk, the New York light Brigade brought us images of BK LOVE, putting on a radio playing No Sleep Till Brooklyn.  On nights like Tuesday, I do feel like a city of friends still exists.  It can come together even if waves are enveloping us. 

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa above. Brooklyn Tides' cover below. 

The next morning, i made my way out to 23rd street to grab a drink with ghosts at El Quijote, next door to the old Chelsea Hotel, where Leonard Cohen and Janis cavorted, artists wrote manifestos, and my dad used to stay when he was in town. It was his home in New York.  He'd always worried about the sea of identical details enveloping everything. 

It had been four years since he passed on March 27th, 2014. So, while activists protesting, marching against traffic over the fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man in Sacramento, I sat for a drink with dad at the bar of the old landmark.  The night before Brennan told me the old place was closing, another casualty. The New York Times wrote:

I ordered a mojito for me and a Mexican beer for dad, looking down the bar, to the space where dad and I watched the Seattle Seahawks play during the NFL playoffs in January of 2010 during his last stay at the old hotel.  He returned to Texas. We went for a few more road trips and he shuffled off four years later. 

Dad might have liked Brooklyn Tides, with its homage to literary and activist history.  He worried my writing was too influenced by French theorists hell bent on destroying literature. But he might have liked this one. So this was our time to think about these and other matters having to do with writing, the arts in the hotel, gossip, marriage, kids and the like.
That last time we were at the hotel, Dad told me he had a dream about a porno movie. We'd looked out his window and indeed someone was projecting a porno movie from the Chelsea onto the wall across the street.  The stories were many.  I always knew we'd share a lot of them when  i went to visit dad, riding up 6th ave to 23rd street to see him there.  He was usually onto the whisky by the time i got there.  But that was ok. 

All over people are talking about the fate of the fabled restaurant.

"Old New York is dying," a man to my left comments.
"Everything with character is dying."

"These curtains are just like you see in Madrid," explained Larry, , sitting by me at the bar, talking with his friends. 

"Two drinks by yourself," noted Larry.
"One for me. One for dad," I explained.
"Oh" said Larry.  
He's come for years, drinking every December, meeting his friends for their calling for the year. 
"He's dead too," noted Larry, a Cuban New Yorker whose been here for years.
"Its ok."
Larry and i started talking about the murals on the wall from Don Quixote. 
"He's the master," noted Larry, referring to Cervantes. 
"I know.  All my heros loved him, Faulkner, Marquez, my favorite.  Tell me about him?"
"He didn't have a happy life. Spent years in jail."
"Do you like him or the Latin Americans?"
"Cervantes, of course.  Marquez is boring."
"I don't like any of the Latin American writers, except Men of the Maize."
"I love that book and the Death of Artenio Cruz."
"Me too."
"Its like this old place, a story of Indians whose intimate links with the sacred corn are disrupted by economy-minded outside modernizers." 

Just then, Greg my beach beneath the streets buddy, dropped by.
Larry talked with his friends again.

And we went about our conversations. 
Barbara and Austin joined us from the riot.
And we talked about parents and friends and dads and cities, taking in a final round at my favorite restaurant in New York. 

Scenes from the Chelsea Hotel.

Burn Sugar plays Bowie. 

The next day, we all met at the Brooklyn Museum to see Burnt Sugar play Bowie songs.
I fell in love.  "We are trying to conjure up some ghosts," one of the singers confessed.
And so they did, reminding us of the color that makes Brooklyn dynamic, reminding us of rock and roll suicides, disco parties and starmen. Ziggy was there and so were all my friends as Brooklyn eluded the tides at least for one night.

chasing windmills with friends at el quixote

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