January 2009

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FordtoCityDropDead.jpgLots of chatter lately about the economic crisis bringing a return of an older, grittier era. Crime on the rise, city services down, that sort of thing. A couple Sundays ago I saw three shell games going on in a three-block stretch on Broadway … in SoHo! So something must be up.

Jeremiah, like many, hopes it means an end to the luxurification of the East Village. But EV Grieve, writing in the comments, warns that the media hand-wringing about the return of crime and dirt is a ploy by Bloomberg’s people to get him elected to a third term.

Whether you’re nervous about the return of street cats and corner trash can fires or giddily rubbing your hands waiting for the yuppies to evacuate (maybe we’ll have a new reason to celebrate Evacuation Day?) you’ll probably get a kick out of the video playlist over at Gawker capitalizing on the buzz.

Bonus round: Earlier in the week The Bowery Boys took us back to two filmic takes on SoHo in the 70s.

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From The Onion‘s historical archives, a digitization of its October 6, 1783, edition. The editors note by way of preface:

In late 1783, change was sweeping the Western world. The Revolutionary War
had drawn to a close, the Treaty of Paris had been signed, Mozart’s Great
Mass was performed for the first time, and, with the Montgolfier brothers’
balloon, mankind was poised on the threshold of flight.
And only one newspaper, H. Ulysses Zweibel’s The Onion, had the courage to stand against it all.

Actually, in October 1783 the British hadn’t yet officially vacated the city. That wouldn’t happen until November 25 of that year, a day that would be celebrated for decades as “Evacuation Day.”

Anyway, in the spirit of Irving:


(h/t Meg)

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E.B. White’s Here Is New York will never suffer from a lack of fans. So I don’t feel bad (especially since we sell at least 100 copies a year for the old fellow) posting a link to a contrarian view, published in Salon back in the pre-9/11 era. According to Charles Taylor, White was a big old phony, his descriptions of NYC a string of cliches:

Thus, White can
encounter the residents of the Lower East Side sitting on their stoops
on a hot summer night and banish the crowding and poverty by
transforming it into “the nightly garden party of the Lower East Side
… It is folksy [emphasis added] here with the smell of warm
flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and
cooking.” Visit exotic New York! See the quaint and colorful peasants!
“A large, cheerful Negro” panhandler begging coins from a crowd exiting
a Broadway show prompts White to observe that “a few minutes of
minstrelsy improves the condition of one Negro by about eight dollars.
If he does as well as this at every performance, he has a living right
there.” (And eventually, no doubt, a summer place in the Hamptons.)

The rest here.


p.s. Speaking of dead New Yorker writers, RIP John Updike (1932-2009).

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Thumbnail image for clinton_lazio.jpgToday’s lecture in our Writing New York class is devoted to E. B. White’s Here is New York, which will function as a kind of overture to the course. We’ll introduce it whimsically, first with a clip of Speed Levitch’s homage to White from the documentary film The Cruise, then by recalling Hillary Clinton’s run for the Senate in 2000 and her debate with Rick Lazio.

Asked to “define a New Yorker,” Clinton displayed her customary learning and book smarts:

Well you know, E. B. White and others have done that over the years. And what’s so great about being a New Yorker or defining a New Yorker is that New York has always been a magnet for people from literally all over the world. People are drawn to New York because this is a place that you can stake your claim, you can build a future, you can dream your dreams.

It is the place that my grandparents came through as well. And it is a place that I’ve always known welcomed everyone from everywhere, including immigrants from Washington, D.C.

So for me, New York represents the best not just of America but of the entire world. . .

Later on, Governor Pataki disparaged Clinton’s response:

Rick Lazio looks, sounds and talks like a New Yorker. Mrs. Clinton quoted some guy, Wyatt or somebody–I don’t think he was from Brooklyn–with some definition of a New Yorker that she must have read somewhere. I don’t know who that guy was. I don’t know what he wrote. I don’t know where he was from. But it sure doesn’t sound to me like that guy was a New Yorker or understood New York the way we do.

Still later on, the governor’s daughter reminded her father that he had read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to her, leading the governor’s office to issue an apology of sorts: “He just forgot … The Governor values learning. He thinks everyone should be reading Charlotte’s Web to their kids.” Lazio, by the way, made the connection between White and Charlotte’s Web right away when asked. Out of politics for a while, Lazio is apparently now thinking of running for governor.

We’ll point out, however, that during this brouhaha White’s book was discussed in the media as if it were a timeless portrait of New Yorker and New Yorkers. And we’ll ask: In what ways is it, in fact, “timeless”? Which of White’s characterizations of the city are still applicable today? Which seem out of date? In what ways is White’s book not timeless but time-bound — and to what times is it bound?


From the Queens Museum website:

Queens International 4
January 24 – April 26, 2009

In 2000, the US census revealed the borough of Queens to be the most diverse county in the nation.  Two years later, the Queens Museum of Art inaugurated Queens International, a biennial exhibition of artists from around the world who live and/or work in Queens.  Celebrating the most recent artistic achievements of Queens with 42 artists, collaborations and collectives from 18 countries working in a broad range of traditional and unorthodox media, the exhibition examines the boundaries of culture, tradition, heritage and nationality.

Like its predecessors, Queens International 4 addresses the relationship between “internationalism” and “multiculturalism” from a local standpoint.  Culture is the logic by which we give order to the world.  No one stands outside of it.  In Queens, one comes to recognize that nations are not walled fortresses but rather permeable containers for the fluid shifts of culture. Here, multiculturalism does not imply a static representation of international identities but rather an ever-changing shift amongst multiple cultures that blurs ethnic, racial, gendered and ideological boundaries.  Circumventing conventional art discourse to engage with their immediate surroundings, the artists of Queens ignite a critical dialogue through lived experience, often in the form of collaborative, site-specific and public practices.

Opening Reception TONIGHT: January 24, 6pm-12am

Join us for the opening reception of Queens I nternational 4, the 4th edition of QMA’s biennial. The opening will feature a gallery walk-through and screenings of “A Frame Apart: Short Films on Queens.” Music by Flushing’s own The Unstoppable Death Machines (distorto-dance-psych-rock with a punk flair), DJ Witnes (with a special old skool Queens hip hop set), and DJ JuanMapu (representing Queens’ Latin flavor). Performances by QI4 artists Chin Chih Yang, Ryan Humphrey accompanied by BMX pros including trick ramp legend Dizz Hicks, and Carol Periera with Jonas Olson. Food served up by Vendy award-winning street food vendors.

The piece featured above is by my friend Derick Melander: “Flesh of my Flesh” (2008), second-hand clothing, wood & steel, 144 x 24 x 24 in.

One of Derick’s two pieces in the show is a customized Goodwill clothing bin; feel free to bring stuff to donate! For NY1 coverage (including a brief interview with Derick), click here.

Directions: E or F to Roosevelt Ave/74th St (express in Queens), switch to 7 to Shea Stadium; Shuttle buss from there, or a 15 minute walk through the park to The Unisphere.



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melville.jpgOnly three days left in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Melvillapalooza fest, which has been going on for the last few weeks: original plays, poetry readings, and general Melville-inspired mayhem on E. 4th St.

Several of the remaining events are free (though they require reservations as seating is limited), including the final “scholar’s roundtable” on Sunday evening at 7:00 pm. The roundtable will be made up of — ahem — the two of us plus our colleague Thomas Augst, who wrote about Melville in his book on nineteenth-century clerks in the city and is the author of our Melville chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion. We’ll be talking about Bartleby, Ishmael, and Pierre, showing some slides of Melville’s New York, and eliciting lots of audience participation.

So if you’re inclined, as I am, to fall on your knees and thank the deity of your choice for producing someone who wrote so much fantastic prose, head on over to metropolitanplayhouse.org and save a seat or two. Hope to see you there!

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The Do-Over

So President Obama had to retake the oath of office yesterday, because he and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed it the first time.

There’s a New York angle to this story.

Obama joins Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge as the only presidents who have had an inaugural do-over. In the cases of his predecessors, however, the irregularities arose because they were taking over for a sitting president who had just died in office.

Arthur’s initial oath was administered in his Lexington Avenue residence on September 20, 1881 by John R. Brady, the Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, after President Garfield died from wounds received when he was shot in the back the previous July. The oath was readministered when Arthur returned to Washington, DC, two days later.

pi02801.jpgArthur has the distinction of being the last incumbent president to seek renomination and fail to obtain it: the Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine, the Secretary of State and former Speaker of the House to run in 1884.

Blaine, in turn, lost the general election to Grover Cleveland, a New Yorker.

(I’ve written a little bit more about Obama’s misadventure over at patell.org. The image above comes from the Library of Congress’s Presidential Inaugurations site.)


In response to Cyrus’s injunction to “Ask Bryan” what the hell “Rhinestone Cowboy” would have to do with our overview to a course on New York lit, I’ll offer this link, which takes you to a version of what I said this morning in my part of our opening lecture. The bit on “Rhinestone Cowboy” comes at the end, and I’d just add here what one of our students mentioned after class: that Campbell’s persona isn’t even a Rhinestone Cowboy, at least not yet: he’s just feeling like one, which is even a little sadder than the song was already.

In other news of the flâneur (and yes, I read the sad, would-be rodeo star’s saga as fitting in the tradition of the flâneur), I’ve long wanted to direct readers to the terrific blog Walking Off the Big Apple, a daily log of city walks. The site’s author, Teri Tynes, describes her project as “an homage to the flâneur tradition and to the literary heritage of New York arts and letters.”

Here’s a link to one of her year-in-review posts. You’ll also find plenty of links to NYC lit and culture walks and loads of ideas if you’re itching to get out and strut your stuff.

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Today at 9:30 a.m. Bryan and I will be greeting a new crop of 120 NYU undergraduates who’ve enrolled in our Writing New York lecture course. Last year, because of a knee operation, I was limited basically to the role of occasional guest lecturer, so I’m looking forward to shouldering half the load once again.

This year we’ve made a few changes: we’ve eliminated some of the Dutch materials from the first week, which will now focus on E. B. White’s Here is New York and Washington Irving’s A History of New York. The Irving readings are excerpted from Betsy Bradley’s fine new edition from Penguin, which we’ve written about here already. We’re also going to try out one of the volumes from Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of brief monographs about individual albums: Patti Smith’s Horses by Philip Shaw. (Bryan and I have each submitted proposals to the series for albums by Television and the Rolling Stones respectively. If the proposals are selected, we’ll be including the books in future versions of our course. Fingers crossed!)

The big change this year will be the use of essays from our forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City. We’re about to turn the manuscript in to Cambridge, so our students will be getting unpublished, cutting-edge stuff!

Some things that won’t be different this year: Bryan and I will share the stage today, something we do only twice more during the term. And we’ll be showing a video montage with clips from Ric Burns’s New York: A Documentary Film (1999), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), On the Town (1949), Manhattan (1979), and the Naudet Brothers’ documentary 9/11 (2002). Plus references to Adam Gopnik, Anthony Appiah, David Hollinger, Tom Bender, Michel de Certeau, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, George Foster, and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Yes, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” (Ask Bryan.)

You can find a copy of this year’s syllabus over at patell.org.

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