Bryan: October 2007 Archives

The Color of a Great City

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I've been dipping in and out of Dreiser's 1923 book The Color of a Great City, a collection of local-color newspaper sketches he had written between 1900 and 1915. He frames himself as a city walker, a young explorer, an observer in the vein of Stephen Crane or Dreiser's contemporary Djuna Barnes -- precursors, all, of someone like Joseph Mitchell, who would push such sketches into longer, sustained essays.

Just as he framed Sister Carrie (1900) as something of a period novel -- though set just a decade earlier -- Dreiser frames the sketches collected in Color of a Great City
as memorials to the "phases" of the city that "most arrested and appealed" to him as a young man, but were "fast vanishing or are no more":

For, to begin with, the city, as I see it, was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic than than it is now. It offered, if I may venture the opinion, greater social and financial contrasts than it does now: the splendor of the purely social Fifth Avenue of the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this, for instance, as opposed to the purely commercial area that now bears that name; the sparkling, personality-dotted Wall Street of 1890-1910 as contrasted with the commonplace and almost bread and butter world that it is to-day. (There were argonauts then.) The astounding areas of poverty and of beggary even,--I refer to the east side and the Bowery of that period--unrelieved as they were by civic betterment and social service ventures of all kinds, as contrasted with the beschooled and beserviced east side of to-day.

I'm struck by a couple things, reading a passage like this one from his Foreword. Certainly the Lower East Side of the early twenty-first century would seem downright genteel when compared to the post-Five Points world he had encountered a hundred years ago. But this type of lamentation remains a familiar one. (Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul? a recent cover of Time Out NY asked, as if for the first time.) Is it simply that we're at the tail end of a long gentrification process that spanned the entire 20th century? Or, acknowledging that economic disparities still abound in New York, even in Manhattan, is there something about the persistence of poverty -- not to mention the durability of ethnic enclaves and even some old architecture --  that should cause us to question the tone of resignation in Dreiser's Foreward and the certainty with which so many observers from his time to the present declare that Manhattan just isn't as vital as it once was, say, ten or twenty years ago?

I find suprising things downtown every day.

UPDATE (later that day ...): A very recent example of the lamentation for a more interesting, gritty, vital, and affordable New York can be found in the publicity for the new Berman and Berger edited collection, New York Calling, just out from Chicago:

New York City in the 1970s was the setting for Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, and Saturday Night Fever, the nightmare playground for Son of Sam and The Warriors, the proving grounds for graffiti, punk, hip-hop, and all manner of other public spectacle. Musicians, artists, and writers could subsist even in Manhattan, while immigrants from the world over were reinventing the city in their own image. Others, fed up with crime, filth and frustration, simply split.

Fast-forward three decades and today New York can appear a glamorous metropolis, with real estate prices soaring higher than its skyscrapers. But is this fresh-scrubbed, affluent city really an improvement on its grittier––and more affordable––predecessor? Taking us back to the streets where eccentricity and anomie were pervasive, New York Calling unlocks life in the unpolished Apple, where, it seemed, anything could happen.

I wonder, is this lamentation constant through the last century (and perhaps even longer)? Or is it cyclical?

(Thanks to Sukhdev Sandhu for bringing New York Calling to my attention.)

Weekend Explorer

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I've been enjoying John Strausbaugh's new and (so far) monthly column in the weekend Arts section of the Times: Weekend Explorer.

To date, the author (a past editor of The New York Press and author of books on the aging Rolling Stones and blackface minstrelsy, among other topics) has explored Hell's Kitchen, the East Village, and Brooklyn Heights (specifically its role as a stop on the Underground Railroad). Each installment comes with several multimedia features, including mp3 walking tour downloads. I haven't test driven the walking tours yet but plan to at some point.

The first installment began with this observation --

NEW YORK is a walking city. People walk everywhere: to work, to school, to shop, to worship. And usually we’re in such a hurry, with the whole city rushing headlong around us, that we can miss what we’re walking past.

It’s the past itself — fragments and layers of New York’s history unceremoniously preserved in its streetscapes, in stories told on park benches and bar stools, in ghosts glimpsed in shadowed doorways.

-- which serves as a departure point for Strausbaugh's signature format: He's going to play the role of a meta-tour guide. That is, while he's offering his services as a tour guide for readers (and listeners) of his features, each installment will feature a long-time resident who plays Virgil to Strausbaugh's Dante, taking him through the neighborhood and allowing him to see the rings or layers of sediment by which he can mark that portion of the city's past.

I'll happily post links to future installments as they appear.

Republic of Intellect

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I'll be reading from my recent book about literary NYC in the 1790s next week at the mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL.

Date: Monday, October 15   Time: 6:30 PM

Audience: adults

At the end of the eighteenth century, decades before Hawthorne and Melville ushered in an "American Renaissance," a group of young writers in New York City who called themselves the Friendly Club set about a similar task. As founders of a literary magazine, a theater, and a medical journal, publishing novels and teaching law and science at Columbia College, members of this club laid the cornerstones for much to follow and aimed to define the city's intellectual culture. Many of them were famous in their own day. Why have they been largely forgotten?

Mid-Manhattan Library
455 Fifth Avenue
(212) 340-0849

full handicapped access

The Rest Is Noise

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I'm lucky to make it to one New Yorker Festival event per year, so I try to make it a good one. This year I scrambled for a ticket to Alex Ross's audio-enhanced lecture on the history of music in the 20th century, drawn from his new book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Ross, the New Yorker's classical music critic (a position he's held for a decade or so, since he was in his late 20s), has written what promises to be a riveting dot-to-dot tour through 20c sound, from Strauss and Schoenberg to Stockhausen and Stevens (that would be Sufjan). It's partly biographical, partly critical, partly genealogical, partly descriptive, partly geopolitical: "Each chapter cuts a wide swath through a given period, but there is no attempt to be comprehensive: certain careers stand for entire scenes, certain key pieces stand in for entire careers, and much great music is left on the cutting-room floor," he writes in the preface. Sounds very much like our conceptualization for the cultural history we've embarked on writing.

I wondered, going into the lecture, how much of it would be New York centered. Was there a plot line to parallel the story of how New York stole the idea of modern art?

Turns out yes and no. New York seems to play some very important cameo roles, but the story begins in Vienna and ends all over planet earth, largely via the Internet. I was especially interested to take a sneak peak, though, at a couple paragraphs on the uptown/downtown divide in the 1950s and 60s and beyond, a topic I take great interest in for the purposes of our course and the book project alike. "Uptown," Ross writes, following the composer Kyle Gann, included Lincoln Center, Juilliard, Carnegie Hall, Columbia, and "other richly endowed institutions." Downtown was "anti-European, anti-symphonic, anti-operatic." He elaborates:

"Downtown" as a musical construct dates back to the pioneer days of Edgar Varèse, who took up residence in Greenwich Village and wandered the lower end of Manhattan in search of musical noise. But it really got going after the Second World War, when [John] Cage and [Morton] Feldman unleashed chance in a tenement by the East River. By the late fifties, young Cageans were converging on New York from around the country. One of them, James Tenney of Silver City, New Mexico, moved to New York in 1961, and paid tribute to the city in the pathbreaking computer piece Analog #1, an oceanic surge of sound inspired by the noise of traffic in the Holland Tunnel. When Cage taught a class in experimental composition at the New School, the likes of Jackson Mac Low, Al Hansen, George Brecht, and Dick Higgins, all conceptual troublemakers who went on to co-found the neo-Dada movement Fluxus, were taking notes. In the name of Fluxus, violins were smashed (Nam June Paik's One for Violin Solo, 1962), pianos were dismantled (Philip Corner's Piano Activities, 1962), and Stockhausen concerts were picketed (Henry Flynt employed the slogan "STOCKHAUSEN -- PATRICIAN 'THEORIST' OF WHITE SUPREMACY: GO TO HELL!" in 1964).

The Downtown story picks up a few pages later when the minimalist pioneer La Monte Young, a descendent of the Mormon pioneer prophet Brigham Young, was given a traveling fellowship by Berkeley, "according to legend, to get him out of town. Downtown New York welcomed him." In California, Young had introduced Terry Riley (in Riley's words) to "this concept of not having to press ahead to create interest." Young also (in Ross's words) "introduced Riley to the postserialist tendencies of marijuana and mescaline." Not long after his arrival in New York, Young was curating happenings in Yoko Ono's loft; in 1963 he started working with a Welsh viola player and composer named John Cale. The Downtown dot-to-dots are easy to follow from there to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth.

Ross's book clocks in at over 600 pages. It's hands-down going to be my fall bedtime reading. It may even inspire a long overdue trip to Young's Dream House, still in operation.

Ross's blog, The Rest Is Noise, is here. You can purchase the book at, or at a local independent seller.

You won't regret watching a video clip of John Cage performing here.

Last weekend, the DUMBO Arts Council sponsored its eleventh annual arts festival, which I've attended for several years running. I plan to write at length about a couple NY-related projects I came across, one of which really has me excited, but for now I wanted to post this photo a friend took:


god2.jpg This neon work, one half of an installation by the Canadian-born, New York-based artist Juozas Cernius, was mounted over one exit from the waterfront park between the bridges. The other half of the piece, mounted on the other side of the gate (that is, over the entrance), said "GOD IS GREAT."

I love this piece for a million reasons. Why hadn't anyone ever thought to say "God Was Great" before? It's such a funny sentiment: Sure, God was good back in the day, before he sold out. Or, God was great in bed last night. Or God was great, and then humans had to go and ruin it.

I'd seen this photo before I showed up there Saturday. In context I found the piece to be even more interesting. Unless you entered the park, you only ever saw the "GOD IS GREAT" side from the street. The sign looked a little like the entrance to a Christian theme park, with all the families with dogs and baby strollers milling around on the lawn inside.

But the other thing through that gate, of course, is the hole in the sky where the WTC used to be. (Why's it on my mind so much this week?) It's hard not to be in that park and spend some time looking across the river. What does it mean to situate your religious theme park across from Manhattan? (Of course the Jehovah's Witness HQ was in DUMBO long before the neighborhood picked up that acronym and became, as one friend put it, a paradise for yuppies.) Are you safe on Brooklyn's shores, protected from the evil metropolis beyond?

When you turn around to leave the park though, and get the "GOD WAS GREAT" side, it's hard -- at least it's hard for me -- not to associate the sentiment with 9/11 itself. God was great, and then he had to go and provide an excuse for religious fanatics to fly planes into towers full of people. It's a funny sign, but with a hell of a bitter bite.  

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