Thursday, May 24, 2018

Protest the Rising Tides.... reflections on changing tides book talk at Greenlight Bookstore

There was a moment after we left the Greenlight Bookstore when Mark had taken a few friends to one German beer hall on Fulton Street. We'll see you there, he said, as I talked with a few people. And I took a group of our other friends  to the other beer hall on Fulton Street.  Were we at the right beer hall, I thought. Whose on first, I wondered, realizing we were caught in the maze, with the sea of identical details encircling us. The same thing used to happen with Reverend Billy when we did invisible theater in the three Starbucks stores in Astor Place, talking loudly on the cell phone about not being able to find the friend we were meeting at Astor Place at Starbucks. "I'm in the Starbucks at Astor Place" one caller screamed into the phone interrupting the coffee line at the Starbucks across from Cooper Union.  "So am I!" declared the other, at the Starbucks across from the cube. 

It had been a weird week. On Sunday I rode through Manhattan, snapping a few photos, seeing friends, going to theater, saying a few goodbyes, including one to Olive, a dog who'd attended thousands of bike rides with us through the years.   

Monday was the big reading at Greenlight Bookstore.  
It was a challenge even finding a local bookstore that wanted to host the event. 
Books are Magic, the store on my street, said yes and then no to having us give a reading there.  So much for community bookstores. 
So thank you to Greenlight for hosting this local event, I declared, beginning the event on Monday night.

Welcome the changing tides…I began, telling the story of our life in this strange place where I've lived longer than anywhere. We moved here in 2000 when we were priced out of the lower east side, with fifth avenue prices still accompanying lower east side roaches.

We were one a few of the waves of people who had come here through the years.
From the Lenape, to the Dutch, to the English, to the countless immigrants, waves of industrialization which displaced green spaces, and today's seas of identical details looming and flattening everything in the distance.

As soon as we got here, we felt the same process coming Brooklyn, with a rezoning plan that my friend Beka Economopoulos called “Gentrification on Steroids.”

We fought that battle and many more over bike lanes and community gardens, real estate and old business in Coney Island, battles against big box stores and Wal Mart, police accountability and recovery after Sandy.

Brooklyn was a part of something larger, quietly transforming the space.

When a backlash formed around the Bedford bike lines and immodestly dressed cyclists riding through them, I talked with a reporter about the dynamics of the problem Brooklyn faced  as a global city with subsequent problems. Brooklyn was connected to a larger city and world.  But forces of gloabization were hard to see.  Yet, they were still impacting this home. And we had to account for them, even when green projects met a backlash. We had to adapt.  So we kept on organizing.

We won some battles, but not all; it was hard to make sense of the process. Over and over, we were trying to fashion a distinct model of sustainable urbanism – built of civil engagement, alternative transportation, cycling, green spaces, participatory budgeting and an engaged populace, even  as we grappled with the dialectical nature of the changes crashing in on our shores.

My friend Mark Noonan, who quickly became a co-author for the project, suggested we think of the changes as tides, in homage to Whitman’s Brooklyn, offering a literary reading of the history of Brooklyn:

City  of  the  sea!    City  of  hurried  and  glittering  tides!
City  whose  gleeful  tides  continually  rush  or  recede,  whirling  in

Could Brooklyn be a city of friends as Whitman imagined?
Could we beat back the tides?
And how should we tell its story?
Was it possible to record a people’s history of Brooklyn? 
If so, how?

Our panelists address a few of these questions.  Each had a story that is part of this project. 
I introduced them.

My friend Robin Laverne Wilson was the first to speak.  Dragonfly  is an auteur, raconteur, and benevolent provocateur. She is a Baptist deacon’s daughter turned radical deaconess with The Church of Stop Shopping, and continues sharing large and small stages with Reverend Billy--from opening for Neil Young to a featured set at Cabaret Voltaire and residency at Joe's Pub. Her alter-identities include Miss Justice Jester, the flamboyant firebrand guerilla street and performance activist. She calls Brooklyn home, but still unabashedly says "y'all" and makes a serious pot of grits.

She stood up to talk about the black migration to Brooklyn.  Everyone is always coming and people are leaving, she declared. Displacement is always part of the story.  But today, the dynamic is shifting.  Yet, it feels like the big nothing is coming, she declared. People are leaving to go to her home of Detroit, to displace people there, the place she left for Texas only to come to Brooklyn. But am I am immigrant or a refugee?  Where will I go after this?  I see how displacement works, how people don’t talk to each other.  Brooklyn’s greatest strength are its neighborhoods so talk with each other.  Act like a neighbor, she pleaded.  Be neighbors.

Neil DeMause, the author of The Brooklyn Wars: The Stories Behind the Remaking of New York’s Most Celebrated Borough, followed, tracing his own Brooklyn lineage narrative. Writing for the Village Voice, he covered the battles over the Coney Island rezoning and so many others.  How many of the changes are are simple policy shifts and how many are part of larger economic trends, he asked.  How much is income inequality?  How does the housing supply really work?  And can we make Brooklyn a livable city, accessible for all people?  That was the big question on everyone's mind. 

Kelly Anderson, the director of the 2013 documentary My Brooklyn, followed, noting that she loved our book but felt uneasy about the term tides.  It implies these changes are simply natural, she suggested. That people just come and go. Yet, market forces are transforming the city.  She applauded us for tracing resistance movements as well as the cultural trends.  But more work is necessary to grapple with the policies and processes that are rapidly redrawing the contours of the city. How do we look at global finance and its role in city policy?   How do we resist on all these fronts?  How do we change community boards?   Who had a right to the city?  

Mark Noonan, the co author of Brooklyn Tides  and prof of English at city tech, began with an image of the books cover, telling the story of its incarnation in the context of globalization.  Difference always contends with sameness in this story, of bright colors washed with drab tones. 
But what are the costs? He showed  a few images of Starbucks, first in downtown Brooklyn, then in Germany and Belgium.  Our book is not just about Brooklyn, its about cities and what happens to cities.  But lets consider the coffee shop's namesake, the character Starbuck, from Moby Dick. He is the first mate and administrative mind of the ship, who is less enured with Ahab's seeming obsession with the whale.  But the coffee is not called  is not called Ahab's, noted Mark.  Its called Starbucks, the story of a taming voice. We don't have Ahab's coffee. Protesting the rising tides of conformity, whats the cost of erasure?  What is the cost of the loss of the popular bookstores, where Greenlight seems to be fighting the tide.  Riding a train in Germany, he saw a man reading a book about an Africans visiting and commenting on African Americans.  He didn't ask the man, but he wondered what he was thinking. Progressive ideas cross borders.  Globalization has a double edge, with ideas crossing borders along with people. We're not just talking about Brooklyn, we're talking about ideas, making their way around the globe, sometimes dancing. 

This was a theme Mark and I continued talking about the next day with Reverent Billy and Savitri D on their podcasts.  Can we be a city of friends, asked Savitri.  Why friends. In a world of xenophobia and nationalism, maybe the world can learn something from Brooklyn?  In embracing a stranger and saying lets be friends, we engage a dialectical reversal.  It something the world could use a lot more of. 

My friend Erik followed us in the talk, tracing the story of his journey to Brooklyn from Lima Peru. 
Erik McGregor is a New York City based photojournalist.  His work considers a history of social activism in New York in ways few others come close. He began as a landscape and nature photographer in Lima, Peru, and was moved to documenting human stories during Occupy Wall St. where he was on the team that co-authored the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. Erik’s distinctive photographic style captures the individual small moments during large protests that help to illustrate the larger narrative of social justice movements in present time.

Narrating images from years of work here, he suggested that: 

#1 Brooklyn history needs to be told because it is often ignored by mainstream media. ● Displacement & Gentrification ● Climate Crisis: Extractive Industries ● Police Brutality: Criminalizing and murdering minorities. ● Corporate greed. Exposing those in power. ● Resiliency: United on the face of disaster

#2 Revolution is creative. Art amplify messages and create icons to change popular consensus."

Our friend, Robin Michals concluded the talk, highlighting the ways we can document the changes in Brookyn's neighborhoods, the toxic waste below the ground. She is a photographer whose work explores the complexities of the urban environment. Since 2010, she has been developing Castles Made of Sand, a series about the communities in New York City impacted by sea level rise. In 2009, Michals photographed Toxi City: Brooklyn’s Brownfields of over fifty sites in the borough with legacy pollution, which was exhibited at the Brooklyn Lyceum. She teaches photography at New York City College of Technology and lives in Brooklyn.

by Benjamin Shepard and Mark Noonan
Transcript Press, 2918

Brooklyn has all the features of a “global borough”: It is a base of immigrant labor and ethnically diverse communities, of social and cultural capital, of global transportation, cultural production, and policy innovation. At once a model of sustainable urbanization and over development, the question is now: What will become of Global Brooklyn? Tracing the emergence of Brooklyn from village outpost to global borough, Brooklyn Tides investigates the nature and consequences of global forces that have crossed the East River and identifies alternative models for urban development in global capitalism. Benjamin Shepard and Mark Noonan provide a unique ethnographic reading of the literature, social activism, and changing tides impacting this ever-transforming space.  The book also features images of a rapidly transforming global borough by photographer Caroline Shepard, including its magnificent cover, as well as other artists including Brennan Cavanaugh, Robin Michals and Jose Parla.


Erik and Kim took great pics of the event. 

I took a few decent pics of us. 
But Erik's pics are much better. 

The following day, Mark and I joined Bill Talen and Savitri D for their podcaste.
Where is your favorite place in the world, Savitri D asked me.
Right here in Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

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