Bryan: August 2008 Archives

While I was writing yesterday's post about the Women's Strike for Equality, I tried to find out more about what had actually gone on in Duffy Square, the site of the mock ceremony for a future statue of Susan B. Anthony.

The only thing I could come up with was this poem, posted on the website of a group called Veteran Feminists of America, which seemed to offer a few more concrete details about the event. (It's also the page where I found the photo I used in yesterday's post.)

Statues for Women
by Elayne Snyder

What we did, we did
at Duffy Square
on that island in the
middle of
between blinking porno
pictures -
a robber's run from
Forty-second Street.

We ...
we did a dastardly thing
a hundred of us -
maybe more than a hundred ...
having marched there -
burdened, but singing
with sparklers in our hands.

We came with purpose
and permit and police.
We walked there from
Seneca Falls
from suffrage
from out of the skin
of our private experience
to raise the statue of
a feminist
high above our heads,
A symbol.

We watched silently
as the sculptor,
her arms around the
paper mache skirt,
shimmied up over
old Duffy's bronze body
and gently ... breathlessly
the hollow statue
at the crossroads of
the world.

Triumphantly stepping down,
she was arrested.

Minutes later, the statue ...
Susan B. Anthony
was recklessly toppled to the ground
- stomped, kicked, crushed
completely destroyed
by chuckling pigs.

There are, however, four, perhaps five
statues of women
still standing in the city of New York:
Mother Goose
Joan of Arc
Mother Cabrini
Mary Poppins
and Alice in Wonderland.

February 12, 1972
This morning I found an item in the August VFA newsletter that suggests the papier-mâché statue wasn't part of the 1970 event but happened a couple years later in 1972. The article in the newsletter is in the first person but isn't by-lined. It's not individually linked, so I'll just give you the whole below. I'll try to track down the author's identity and report back later. The anecdote's a good one, though:

FrDUFFY1200B.jpg In 1972, as president of NYC NOW I was planning the Eastern Regional Conference to take place at the old Commodore Hotel near Grand Central. And I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have a march after the end of the conference? And we could place a statue of Susan B Anthony near Father Duffy's on Times Square!"

So I called artist Suzanne Benton and asked her to make us a papier maché of Susan B for the event, but Suzanne was in midst of planning an exhibition so couldn't do it. However, she was so inspired that she later sculpted a beautiful cast bronze statue of our foremother which she brought along to feminist events for years. Later, the original welded steel Susan B. from which the cast was made was sold to David Miskin, who later moved to Paris and recently donated it to the American Embassy there. Vivien Leone bought the second cast and it is now at the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, NY.

Meanwhile Kate Millett, whom I'd also asked to make us a statue, got young architect Lorna McNeur in on it. Lorna not only made a huge one of the great Susan B, but at the demonstration suddenly scuffled up Father Duffy and placed our statue on his head. The policemen who were "protecting" our demonstration watched her, and when she slid down they arrested her. JoAnn Evansgardner, in from Pittsburgh, rushed up. Stretching her 5-foot 2-inch frame, addressed the officers, "What's wrong here? I'm Dr JoAnn Evansgardner. May I help?" But they ordered her into the patrol car to take her to the station with Lorna. By this time JoAnn's husband Gerry rushed up to help her, and he too was carted along.

Among the witnesses to this brouhaha was 90-something Jeannette Rankin and our own Emily Goodman, a deceptively quiet young pioneer feminist lawyer.

A few weeks later we met at the courthouse downtown, Emily, JoAnn, Lorna (shaking with fear) and me. I'll always remember tiny Emily standing before the judge seated several feet above her. He listened to the story and talked to her in a gently patronizing manner. When he set a date. Emily said, "We want the hearing on August 26, your Honor." "OK, August 26," he agreed."And we'd like a woman judge, your Honor," Emily continued. "What!" came the thundered angry reply, "I'll tell you, young woman, you'd have a better chance with me!" (There was only one woman judge then, and a rather unsympathetic one, as were most successful women in the man's world as it was then). Quietly and firmly, Emily said, "You've just disqualified yourself, your honor." The judge rose in fury and stalked out and the case was dismissed. (In that wonderful era of feminist activism, our mayor John V. Lindsey and most New Yorkers were sympathetic to almost anything feminists did.)

And, by the way, this was just one of the cases young Emily, now Judge Emily Jane Goodman, handled so beautifully and so successfully for feminists.
According to the newsletter, which credits Bettye Lane with the photo, Lorna McNeur is now an affiliated lecturer on architecture at Cambridge University.

I'm kind of becoming obsessed by this Susan B. Anthony story. Wouldn't it be cool if an actual statue were placed there? Next time I'm near Times Square (who goes there on purpose? zoiks!) I want to try to find the statue of Father Duffy.


[Cross-posted to one of my favorite blogs, The Edge of the American West -- the folks from whom we stole the "This Day in History" idea in the first place.]


On August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the notorious feminist author and activist Betty Friedan, out-going president of the four-year-old National Organization of Women, led tens of thousands of women in a march down Fifth Avenue toward Bryant Park, where, packed on the lawns behind the New York Public Library, the crowd heard addresses from Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Kate Millett, among others.

The Women's Strike for Equality, as it was billed, called on women to withhold their labor for a day as a way to protest unequal pay--roughly 60 cents to every dollar a man made at the time--though the march itself didn't begin until after 5 pm in case potential marchers elected to stay on the job. Organizers also asked housewives to refuse work: "Don't Cook Dinner--Starve a Rat Tonight," a typical sign read. The Equality march even included some who were old enough to have paraded for women's suffrage over a half century earlier, and some marchers demanded complete constitutional equality under the Equal Rights Amendment, which, once it passed the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972, would spend the next decade being debated, ratified (and in some cases rescinded) by states, yet ultimately refused.

(August 26, 1970, also happens to have been the day I was born, across the continent in the rural Southwest, a world away from New York City and Women's Lib alike. A few years later I would ride with other children on a July 4th parade float, dressed as a tree holding a stop sign that read: "STOP THE ERA!" 

But I digress.)

The Times coverage seems by turns both excited by the prospect of the women's movement and bewildered by the day's spectacle, noting the support of state and national political figures for commemorative celebrations as well as the apparently surprising fact that the Bryant Park rally was uninterrupted by hecklers. The article also reports on oddball moments: for instance, a smaller crowd had gathered earlier in Duffy Square (Broadway between 46th and 47th), where one "Ms. Mary Ordovan, dressed in cassock and surplice as a 'symbolic priest,'" consecrated the spot for a statue of Susan B. Anthony, which would replace the one of Father Francis Duffy, a WWI chaplain and Hell's Kitchen reformer. Crossing herself, Ordovan called on the name of "The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Granddaughter. Ah-Women, Ah-Women." 

In a brief aside, the reporter then explains that "'Ms.' is used by women who object to the distinction between 'Miss' and 'Mrs.' to denote marital status." (Within a year Ms. magazine would be founded by Steinem.)

I first came across this Times article--which was itself my introduction to the history of the Women's Strike for Equality--a decade ago when, as a grad student in American Studies, I had the chance, by an odd set of circumstances, to teach several semesters of U.S. Women's History. The experience was rewarding and humbling for several reasons--not least because the classes often included one or two elderly women who spent their retirements as "evergreen" students, taking a class a semester in topics that interested them. Their presence initially made me somewhat uncomfortable once we'd reach the 1940s and I'd realize that from here on out some of my students had lived--as women--through the very history I had to lecture on, as a 28-year-old male.

But the courses were also made challenging by the advent of what was just then being called "post-feminism," a fact that made me somewhat uncomfortable when I'd inevitably realize that a lot of my younger students thought they had no need for feminism in their own lives. To them the world as all a hold-hands-and-sing Coca Cola Christmas commercial; they thought gender inequality belonged to the past or to distant cultures whose traditions, short of female circumcision and slavery, needed to be respected. When I asked them to recall Hillary Clinton's controversial "stay home and bake cookies" moment during the 1992 campaign--after all, it had happened only five or six years earlier--they reminded me that they had been in middle school at the time; such things were as remote to them as playground bullies and kickball. 

Only a quarter-century after the Women's Strike for Equality, as we were routinely told in the late 1990s, the television series Ally McBeal had driven the last nails in the movement's coffin. Remember that Time Magazine cover? Looking back, it also seems like a watershed moment when feminist studies in the academy gave way to cultural studies of feminism; rather than argue about what women had or hadn't gained, how they'd done it, and when, we'd henceforth talk, for better or worse, about how feminists exploited or were exploited by celebrity culture and mass media. Was the Equality march really a landmark event in American women's history? Or had Friedan's media tactics simply ensured it would be remembered that way?

Either way, what those 50,000 women had done--their march spilling over from the police-approved single lane, filling the Avenue from curb to curb--seemed almost impossible to imagine, not so much because their feminism seemed outdated, but because so many younger women had become politically apathetic, appeased by a modest set of gains that masqueraded as equality. The media were full of stories about younger women who bought the line that feminism had done them wrong, powerful women who decided to quit their jobs, once they'd begun to reproduce, and give traditional stay-at-home motherhood a chance. And voila! We have contemporary Park Slope, Brooklyn, and its hordes of organic, free-range--but highly monitored--children. 

At 3pm on August 26, 1970, according to the Times,

Sixty women jammed into the reception area of the Katherine Gibbs School, on the third floor of the Pan Am building at 200 Park Avenue, to confront Alan L. Baker, president of the secretarial school, with their charges that the school was 'fortifying' and 'exploiting' a system that kept women in subservient roles in business. Mr. Baker said he would 'take a good look' at the question.
            About 10 members of NOW, starting at 9 A.M. and continuing on into the afternoon, visited six firms, business and advertising agencies, to present mocking awards for allegedly degrading images of women and for underemploying women.

Among the businesses they visited, the article concludes somewhat dryly, was the New York Times itself. Who knew that NOW anticipated Michael Moore by all those years? Too bad they hadn't taken more cameras with them.

Betty Friedan, the "mother of modern feminism," died in 2006 on her 85th birthday; her landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, reductively credited with jump-starting the movement, is now generally considered quaint--even offensive in places--if surprisingly compelling.

Gloria Steinem, on whom I developed a mad, Harold-and-Maude style crush on hearing her speak in the early 90s, is now in her 75th year; during the recent primary season she endorsed Clinton and wrote in a Times op-ed that gender, rather than race, remained the bigger obstacle to equality in American life.

Bella Abzug wore big hats and talked refreshingly brash talk until she died in 1998; I hope she was spared the debate about Ally McBeal's impact on the movement.

Kate Millett, who in 1970 had just published her excoriating if wooden Columbia Ph.D. dissertation as Sexual Politics (the only really exciting parts are the summaries and quotations from dirty, sexist books) survived years of troubled relations with media outlets and, more recently, Bowery developers; though her Christmas tree farm has gone the way of her downtown loft, she continues to run an upstate artist's colony for women at age 74.

Can anyone name four feminist leaders of their stature--or even their celebrity--today? If not, whose fault is it?

Sweets and Cheap Eats

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I blogged this elsewhere last year, but this afternoon I'm leading an annual Sweets and Cheap Eats on the LES walking tour for students returning to the Residential College where I live as faculty in residence.

If you were to add something to this tour, what would it be?

logo72dpi.jpgI've mentioned before my abiding affection for the folks who run the Metropolitan Playhouse. I feel extraordinarily lucky to teach earlier American lit (including 19c drama) and the literary cultures of NYC in a neighborhood -- one of the few in the world, I'm sure, if not the only one in existence -- where you can actually see earlier American plays regularly staged. From Mowatt's Fashion to Fitch's The City and Zangwill's The Melting Pot, the Playhouse is also its own virtual "City on Stage" archive; indeed, I'm pretty sure my idea for the chapter I'm currently writing on that topic gestated over several years of watching Met Playhouse productions.

Of course, our encounter with these plays in such an intimate space differs radically from how 19c and early 20c audiences encountered them -- often in enormous theaters. But I'll take it, and I'll take my students along as often as possible.

The coming season has a lot to offer theater and Am Lit buffs: They'll be doing Nowadays by George Middleton (one of Emma Goldman's favorite American playwrights), a 1914 play that deals with gender issues; O'Neill's Anna Christie (woo-hoo!), and an adaptation of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I'm especially looking forward to the Middleton, since I'm working, when I get a chance between more immediate deadlines, on a chapter of our cultural history that situates Goldman and O'Neill in overlapping, but not identical, theater and intellectual circles.  I'd never heard of Middleton before I starting researching Goldman's lectures on modern drama.

And then there's Melvillapalooza! For each of the last several seasons, the Playhouse has hosted a festival of small pieces celebrating, roasting, or inspired by famous American authors, including Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne. This year our beloved HM holds pride of place. I can only hope someone dramatizes the death scene from Pierre, one of Melville's finest NYC scenes!

Yesterday, David Byrne and Brian Eno released Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their first full-length album together since 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Unlike that album, this one actually features Byrne's vocals. It holds its own against recent Byrne albums and other late Eno collaborations, with the exception of last year's release from Robert Wyatt, Comicopera, which contains what I think are the finest Eno co-writes in years.

3D-Logo.gifI'm almost more interested in the duo's demeanor and m.o. on this release than in the music itself, though I've enjoyed streaming it while puttering around the house catching up on work yesterday and this morning. I'm interested not just in the fact that the collaboration happened, this go around, via email (Eno writing tunes and hooks and laying down beats and Byrne composing songs and lyrics from these building blocks), but also in their decision to self-publish and -promote. "In the past, I might have undertaken all kinds of expensive marketing plans to prepare for a record release," Byrne wrote on his blog a couple weeks ago, announcing the early release of a free MP3 from the album. "[T]here would be a teaser, live shows, posters, magazine ads, interviews, and advance CDs sent to writers and reviewers. We've done a few interviews, but that's about it." For this record, though, the "Internet word-of-mouth" experiment seems to be part of the fun. According to the Times, the free download, "Strange Overtones," saw 40,000 downloads in the first three days it was posted. (If you've never read Byrne's online "journal," by the way, you should know that he's among the best contemporary NY bloggers.)

They've now made the entire album available for streaming, and even set up a nice little widget that allows you to stream from blogs like ours if you'd like:

Byrne and Eno met on May 14, 1977, the day Byrne's band, the seminal New York art-punks Talking Heads, headlined their first show in England, where they had traveled to support another New York punk band, the Ramones. Eno, an experimental musician who had played with the legendary glam outfit Roxy Music and was currently guiding David Bowie through one of his most fertile periods, was in the back of the club recording the gig illicitly; the band's management confiscated his recorder and sat him closer to the stage. In some versions of the story, former Velvet Underground member John Cale (who had worked with other downtown New York acts since) was at the same gig. David Bowman, in his biography of Talking Heads, says that Eno and others recall Cale saying something to Eno like "Get out of the way, Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, I want them, you bugger." Cale says he wasn't there.

Eno did wind up producing Talking Heads records; he spent more and more time in New York, which he thought of, according to Bowman, like a "medieval European city":

Eno liked shopping in Chinatown for weird odds and ends. The smell of burned meat was in the air from a shish kabob stand. He passed by windows hung full with dead red ducks. Windows full of water and huge fish with the faces of old men. An Asian dwarf writing calligraphy on the window of a bank.
Eno's 1978 pop album Before and After Science includes a Heads-style homage to the band called "King's Lead Hat," an anagram for the band's name. That same year, Eno also made downtown NYC music history by curating the album No New York, a compilation of four post-CBGB/post-punk minimalist bands: the Contortions, Mars, DNA, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (fronted by Lydia Lunch). In many ways, the No New York album is the bridge between the mid-70s downtown scene and 80s post-punk New York landmark bands like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo.

If Everything That Happens doesn't fully live up to expectations, recall just how much its creators have shaped the soundscape of our own contemporary NY scenes -- and how much better even their late efforts are than most of the crap rolled out and cut from corporate cookie-cutter music factories.

Saturday morning my friend Sacha called with a giddy edge to her voice. She was biking up Park Avenue, closed to car traffic for Summer Streets, and had just passed Grand Central Station.

"It's like nothing you've ever experienced," she shouted into her cell. "Miles of Park Avenue heading up to the Park, and nothing but bikes and pedestrians. Biking in New York with absolutely no fear!"


photo via doddnyc/Flickr and Streets Blog

Now, I generally don't mind the adrenaline rush of biking down Broadway, working my way between cabs and buses, but I wasn't prepared for the euphoria to come when I took Sacha's advice and started to bike uptown.

Nothing but bikes and pedestrians -- and everyone smiling, glad to be alive? Kids on trikes, roller bladers with boom boxes and neon spandex, whole families on tandems and bicycles built for three. "Did you rent that?" I asked about the latter. "Oh, no," the mother said with the deepest seriousness, her kid perched on the middle seat between her and her husband. "This one's ours." It felt like the morning after the apocalypse, venturing above ground and back into the streets with my fellow survivors.

under_helmsley.jpg Heading north, I wasn't sure where I would stop. At the bottom of the Park? No, 59th street came all too fast. At 72nd, where the ride up Park Ave. officially ended, I thought briefly about turning around and heading back downtown, but decided to ride over to the Park paths instead. Once there, I made the entire loop around the Park, something I've never done before, and exited again where I entered. The bikers in the Park seemed not to know that just off their hamster wheel was an open artery running straight downtown for miles, all the way to the Bridge.

The route is lined with volunteers warning you of the few upcoming required stoplights, or gently guiding bikes to one lane and runners and walkers to the other. Repair stands dot the blocks along with activities for kids, including helmet giveaways and bike care classes. The whole communal effort gives you something of the feel you get running or cheering for a marathon. But nothing quite matches the rush you'll feel biking up the taxi ramp in front of Grand Central, heading smack up to the facade, working your way around to the East, then coasting down the hill behind, through the tunnel and into city sunlight.

Summer streets has one final installment Saturday the 23rd. Details here. Do you hear me, Mike Bloomberg? This thing better happen again next year and happen bigger!

Bottom photo via yyoyoni/Flikr

Dream of Life (Reprise)

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Last night we planned to see the new Woody Allen film (though they never bill them as the new Woody Allen films these days). Turns out we had the dates wrong and it doesn't open until Friday, so we caught a quick cab down the street to Film Forum where the Patti Smith movie (mentioned here earlier by Cyrus) was already a few minutes in progress. From what I understand we missed some opening footage of horses, horses, horses, horses.

The audience was made up mostly of fans (like me), judging from the appreciative response.  If you plan to see it but don't know the basic outline of her career, I'd suggest reading Sharon Delano's New Yorker profile from several years ago, which isn't on the magazine's site but may be accessible here or via Lexis-Nexis if you have an institutional subscription.

patti smith dream of life.JPGPatti Smith: Dream of Life is an impressionistic film, dreamlike (as the title would suggest), alternating between candid moments and short, tightly composed sequences rather than offering a traditional documentary narrative. We get a sprinkling of early footage, lots of photos from the 1970s, some memories of CBGB and the Chelsea Hotel, but this isn't an account of her rise to stardom so much as a portrait of her return from retirement. She gets the important details out of the way fast via a sometimes stiff voiceover: Living in Michigan for 16 years with her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith and their kids, Jackson and Jesse, she'd been a homebody rather than  the punk rock icon she'd transformed herself into by 1975. When Sonic died in 1994, she decided to return to New York and to performing, her kids in tow, and she hasn't stopped since.

The movie, which involved over 10 years of filming,  has only the barest hint of chronology, and even then it relies on you to recognize her kids as teenagers and then as early 20-somethings, as it toggles back and forth through those ten years. She mentions musician friends who helped her return to the public -- Dylan, Michael Stipe -- but the comeback isn't really what anchors the narrative. Rather, the film grounds itself via two recurring sequences. First, she announces that she's sequestered herself in a corner of her bedroom until the film is finished. Sitting there, she unpacks boxes of mementos -- a guitar given to her by Sam Shepard, her favorite childhood dress, her son's baby shirt from the hospital, an antique Persian urn containing a portion of Robert Mapplethorpe's remains -- and uses them as touchstones for reflections on her life.

The other pattern is weirder, and is what I think really makes the film: The woman loves graveyards. If Smith's self-conception as a Romantic poet isn't evident enough to her fans, the point is hammered home here. She sees herself as an Artist in a genealogy that stretches from Blake to Shelley to Whitman to Rimbaud to Picasso to Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs to Jackson Pollock and Bob Dylan to herself.  These folks provide her with sacred texts that govern her cosmology; they also structure her world travels. She references all of them over the course of the film; she also visits most of their graves -- and in the case of Rimbaud visits his outhouse for good measure.


There's little in this world that could be more Romantic (in the capital R sense) than visiting graves of the poets, unless you want to go the Gregory Corso route and actually have yourself buried at your master's feet (we find him, in the film, buried as close as he could get to Shelley). When I asked, during a Q&A with the director, the fashion photographer Steven Sebring, about the tension between the film's emphasis on "life" (as in her life after the death of her husband) and its preoccupation with death and cemeteries, he made the point that Smith very self-consciously shapes her living in relation to loved ones and heroes dead and long gone: when she travels to a city she often books her hotel in proximity to a graveyard she wants to visit. "She seems to know where everyone's buried," he said.

The subject of literary tourism (and "necrotourism" in particular) has its own minor publishing cottage industry in the academy, one which interests me professionally. But it's rarer to find someone who carries on the practice today to the extent Smith does. She defines herself in relation to the dead -- family and friends, but the writers who shaped her personal and artistic identities (which clearly can't be separated for her). In our jaded, 21c world, it seems a little ridiculous: identifying as a Poet (black hood and cloak and all), taking appreciative rubbings of headstones, scribbling in notebooks everywhere you go, never getting tired of William Blake. But Smith comes to figure, in the film, as an alternative not simply to contemporaries like George W. Bush (whom she indicts in high style late in the film) but to those members of her generation who gave birth to postmodernism as well. She comes off not simply as the last great Romantic but as someone who advocates Romanticism as a way of life -- as a way through life. As much as the film relies on graveyard scenes, we find these visits (and her reflections on fallen friends) giving her the strength to survive her husband.

None of this should suggest that the film lacks when it comes to music. It's not a concert film, and some of the music will be unfamiliar to those (again, like me) less familiar with her recent work than with her classic recordings. But from her punkrock reading of the Declaration of Independence to spittle-laden, vein-popping renditions of "Land" and "Rock n Roll Nigger," the film reminds you that, contemporary peace activist or no, this woman still earns every bit of her title as the Godmother of Punk.

Smith appears in person at select screenings this week and next; see Film Forum's website for more details.

Separated at Birth?

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Jane Kamensky's The Exchange Artist: A Tale ofHigh-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse may be a Boston book, but it contains a few fun nuggets relevant to what we do here, too.
Thumbnail image for exchange.jpg
First, Kamensky frames the story -- a microhistory of the Exchange Coffee House, Boston's tallest building for just over a decade in the early nineteenth century and one of America's first semi-skyscrapers -- in such a way that the disaster of its fiery collapse in 1819 resonates with images from our own time, particularly the WTC's fall. From the prologue:

After fire consumed the building's wooden vitals, its brick carcass imploded, wall by massive wall. The entire city -- some of it built on land only recently reclaimed from the harbor floor -- shook with the impact. By midnight, when the crowds began to disperse, only the Exchange's eastern elevation stood, an unsupported facade  more than one hundred square feet. The next day, the trembling curtain of warped brick and blackened marble came down, too. ... A week later, all that remained was a yawning rubble-choked pit that would smoke for months and linger in ruins for nearly three years. ... In a matter of hours the city looked different, as if a hole had opened in the skyline.
The book's larger morality tale -- about inflated paper money, crooked celebrity speculators, real estate bubbles and the banks that build them -- resonates with contemporary New York culture as well. But the best such nugget (and the one that really allows me to squeeze a post out of one of my favorite non-NYC summer reads) is a passing observation Kamensky makes while discussing contemporary comparisons between the Exchange and the biblical Tower of Babel. Noting the popularity of Babel imagery among medieval and Renaissance painters, Kamensky notes that Athanasius Kircher's 1679 Turris Babel, when scaled to the human figures in the scene, is roughly the height of the Empire State Building. And indeed, the similarities are striking:

esb.jpg Thumbnail image for babel.jpg

While digging around for other comparisons between the ESB and the ToB, I found a Christian stock analyst (I'll spare you the link) who claims that economic calamity has followed every modern announcement of "the world's tallest building," part of God's long pattern of punishing human presumption. That's right, the ESB caused the Great Depression.

Turns out at least one early critic made the Babel comparison in the Times, though, calling the building "soulless." (Sorry, the linked article is pay-only.) And there appears to be a history of comparing the confusion of languages one hears in the ESB elevators to post-Babel jibber-jabber as well. Such comparisons are particularly common in foreign guidebooks to the city.

Comparisons between Babel and the WTC were also abundant both before and after 9/11. Reading them can be, as you'd imagine, both annoying and poignant.

City Scenes

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What's up with the weather at home? I'm sitting in the airport in Portland waiting to head east, but my flight's been pushed back for several hours.

Hooray for an airport with free wi-fi!

Checking my email, I find this from the Tenement Museum (108 Orchard St.), about tomorrow night's installment in their outstanding Tenement Talks series:

tenement_ScenesfromtheCity_11.jpgScenes from the City: Filmmaking in New York with James Sanders

Tuesday, August 12 at 6:30 PM

From King Kong climbing the Empire State Building to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering through Columbus Circle, New York has been the setting for some of the most recognizable moments on film. Filmmaker and author James Sanders joins us for an illustrated lecture about how movies like 42nd Street, Taxi Driver, and Annie Hall made an already famous city into a mythic one.

Maybe if my jet-lag's worn off by then I'll be able to catch it myself.

More from the Fringe

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iiiposter.jpgOur friend (and colleague in NYU's Faculty Fellows in Residence Program) Joe Salvatore has a play up as part of the Fringe Fest, which Cyrus mentioned in an earlier post. Based on "real life, all-male ménage à trois (1927-1943) between the photographer George Platt Lynes and one of the great artistic couples of the 20th century: writer Glenway Wescott and MoMA curator Monroe Wheeler," Joe's play, III, has received terrific early press from  Time Out NY and Gay City News

"How did the relationship affect the creative output of the three individuals?" the press release asks. "How did these three men make this complex relationship 'work' for fifteen years?" I imagine you'll have to see it to find out. Click here for tickets and here for more info. 

City on Stage

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There's a famous anecdote about the first appearance of Mose the Bowery B'hoy on the New York stage. Played by neighborhood boy Frank Chanfrau, Mose, the fireman-butcher, makes his entrance in Benjamin Baker's 1848 farce A Glance at New York by vowing to break with his fire company: he ain't gonna run with his machine no more. As the story goes, Mose's opening line brought down the house.


The success of Baker's play is often attributed -- like that of an earlier, more genteel comedy, Royall Tyler's The Contrast (1787) -- to the audience's desire to see itself portrayed on stage. When haven't New Yorkers liked to watch themselves on stage or screen? Mose the Bowery B'hoy looked and sounded like his most important audience members, the Bowery working class, just as Tyler's target audience was expected to identify with his principals, especially the ones who gently parodied the new republican elite. But unlike many middle-class portraits of city life, there's no railing against fashion in Baker's play; instead, Mose crystallized a popular street style and probably reinforced it for years to come. (I'd like to know more than I've been able to find out about the popularity and endurance of Bowery B'hoy fashion.)

Both plays are too simplistically understood as a form of New York narcissism, though. For one thing, the half-century that intervenes between the plays allows Baker to write working-class characters who, though they still delight in fleecing naive rubes visiting from the country, win the play's sanction rather than its opprobrium.

But both plays should be taken more seriously still, as demonstrating how theater has, in different ways over time, informed controversies about social division and public space. I've been thinking through a half dozen or so such "City on Stage" plays for my contribution to our Cambridge Companion, and I taught an advanced undergrad seminar on the topic last spring. One thing I've noticed about the century or so following Tyler's first portrait of New Yorkers on the New York stage is how consistently these plays obsess about the city's public spaces. From the class-stratification encouraged by eighteenth-century theater architecture (when audiences were divided along class lines into different portions of the audience space) to the mid-nineteenth century, when increasingly pronounced class divisions had led to separate theaters altogether based on class, from anxieties about women's theater attendance to Barnum's innovation of separate "Negro" showtimes for black audiences, theaters served as a highly visible crystallization of urban anxieties and conflicts, which sometimes -- especially for upper class audiences -- masqueraded as a fear of "the city" itself. In what ways did "City on Stage" plays aim to quell such anxieties, and in what ways did they foster them?

If Clyde Fitch's 1909 Broadway play The City is any indication, the blame for vice had shifted from the city itself to the individuals who inhabit it -- regardless of class. In response to the play's grisly portrait of political corruption, sexual decadence, and drug use, the chastened protagonist, who will lose his bid for New York's governorship due to a series of family scandals, begs his audience not to blame the city: "It's not her fault! It's our own! What the City does is to bring out what's strongest in us. If at heart we're good, the good in us will win! If the bad is strongest, God help us!" The city is a stage, here, in other words, for proving one's self, in a way a country village will never allow you. A "big, and busy, and selfish, and self-centered" city is a virtue: "she comes to her gates" and welcomes the man coming from the country village, "and she stands him in the middle of her market place . . . and she paints his ambition on her fences, and lights up her skyscrapers with it! -- what he wants to be and what he thinks he is! -- and then she says to him, Make good if you can, or to Hell with you! And what is in him comes out to clothe his nakedness, and to the City he can't lie!" The emphasis here on advertising, clothing, ambition, and the market suggests that one function of the "City on Stage" trajectory over the course of the century was to naturalize what was still deeply problematic when Tyler wrote The Contrast. If, in Fitch's play, there's still very little distance between the stage and street, by the early twentieth century performance and artifice were taken to be the deepest expression of who a person is.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from the century-long pattern of New Yorkers putting themselves on stage, then, is the relationship between the institution of the theater and what would become modern consumer culture. What does the culture of consumption do to class divisions in the modern city? My hunch is that the answer has to do with the kinds of performance involved in high-fashion promenades -- the problematic starting point of Tyler's play, but something Mose and his G'hal take, as it were, in stride.

Tuesday morning, before the rest of the RV park is stirring, I'm sitting in front of our borrowed motor home with my laptop, even farther away from Gotham than the last time I posted. I haven't unpacked any cameras to illustrate, but if you were to upend the row of RVs parked along the shoreline it would, I suppose, approximate a line of skyscrapers.

We're starting the last week of our family vacation, having arrived last night at the campsite near the San Juan Islands in Washington State where we've spent several summers crabbing.

Last summer I wrote about this annual trip at length elsewhere; for now I'll elaborate on the topic of RVs and real estate. Or are they personalty? The legal definition isn't really what I'm after: I'm more curious about the culture.

When people in the RV parks find out we live in Manhattan, talk often turns on cost of living, apartment prices, renting vs owning, etc. Certain sentiments are bound to emerge. If our interlocutors have visited NY, they talk about not being able to imagine living surrounded by all those people. They also can't imagine a place where people pay several hundred thousand dollars for a studio apartment. (Hell, way more than that in our neighborhood.)

I want to remind them that several of our neighbors in the park appear to have paid several hundred thousand dollars for what amounts to a 1BR on wheels. Some of these are as long as 30 or 35 feet; they expand on the sides to allow for full-sized living rooms and dinettes. My inlaws are in a new fifth-wheel they bought from a family that inhabited it as their primary residence. But, unlike a piece of property in Manhattan, the RV declines in value the moment you move it off the seller's lot, whereas New York real estate is bound to increase in value the moment you sign. And the gas to move these things must be a bitch, especially this year.

None of this matters, though. We're dealing here with a sensibility that's not bound to rationalism as much as it's bound to culture. We're in the wide-open west, the end of the Lewis and Clark trail (well, sort of, since we're quite a bit north of Chinook). This is the land of elbow room, don't fence me in. When we try to explain the concept of a country house -- yes, we can sympathize with the need to get out of town -- they wonder why we'd settle for something stuck in one spot.

Once I get that damn home in the Berkshires we'll have to compare notes. For now, I'm more than happy to live someone else's lifestyle for a week or so out of every year. Isn't that what cosmopolitanism is about?

I was looking for YouTube videos of kids playing in NYC fire hydrants and discovered this, which may establish a new video genre: the pornography of gentrification.

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