Bryan: September 2008 Archives

Walking to the neighborhood theater last week (to watch Man on Wire a second time, which was even better than the first) we noticed a glut of superselfconscious Williamsburgy hipsters crowded at the corner of Bowery and Houston for what turned out to be an opening. The gallery space is only temporary; it's eventually going to be a pizza joint. But for now it's dedicated to the kind of wheat-paste pop-ups you typically see on plywood-covered construction sites and abandoned buildings. The Modesto Kid (our lonesome commentor) had tipped me off to the work on the building's exterior a couple weeks ago:


The piece, by the French street artist known as "Jr," announces that much of the show inside -- dubbed "The Outsiders" -- deals in forms more at home on the street, plastered in the middle of the night when no one's looking, than in a high-art gallery space, though we shouldn't miss the fact that we're talking about a group of street artists here who, as the glitz last week would suggest, have serious gallery representation. (You'll find another Jr piece currently on 12th St. between 1st and A.)

The show is organized by London's Lazarides gallery, and it's a shame they're not staying longer. (This feels more exciting than anything that's turned up yet at the New Museum down the street.) For the time being, though, the buzz seems to have generated an outburst of pop ups in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Sun speculated that they may be the work of Lazarides artist Banksy, who's not in the show but who has done up NY corners before; bloggers have discounted the claim and attribute the work to Mr. BrainWash (MBW) instead, which makes sense, given that his website currently sports the Warhol spray-soupcans that also dot the neighborhood at the moment. My favorite, SuperObama, makes me want to go buy a cordless jigsaw and take one of these babies home:


(Top photo from Lazarides site; bottom one from

"The Outsiders" shows at 282 Bowery through 12 Oct.; the MBW pieces around the neighborhood are already starting to wear after last week's rain, so see them while you can.

Cutting Corners

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Now that WaMu's been seized by the government (before being sold off to JP Morgan) is it too much to ask that we get all our corner 99 cent stores and bodegas back?

Photo from an old 1000 Bars post, lamenting the Brooklyn Bank Virus.

Adaptations ahoy!

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Yglesias laments the recent announcement of a new Moby-Dick film adaptation -- directed by the guy with the unspellable last name who just directed Wanted, written by a team that has only teen comedies to their credit (including the Olsen twins vehicle New York Minute), and co-produced by the folks who're bring us the American history adventure series National Treasure. (Recall Nicolas Cage peering at the all-seeing eye on a dollar bill: "I think the Illuminati were trying to send us secret messages!")

Is it indulging in Ivory Tower elitism to join Matt in thinking: "Terrifying!" -- and not in a good, White-Whale-crushing-your-boat way?

Part of what's to be lamented, apparently, is that the writers are conceiving this as "an opportunity to take a timeless classic and capitalize on the advances in visual effects to tell what at its core is an action-adventure revenge story" -- something more akin to dramatizing a graphic novel.

Actually, Melville wrote that version of the story himself. And then he spent a year rewriting it into Moby-Dick. Biographer Delbanco draws on Melville's own words to set the scene as a vampire story:

Looking back at his labors on Moby-Dick, Melville saw "two books ... being writ ... the larger book, and the infinitely better, is for [his] own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink."  Moby-Dick was Melville's vampire book. It sapped him -- but not before he had invented a new kind of writing that, we can now see, anticipated the kind of modernist prose that expresses the author's stream of consciousness without conscious self-censorship.

So what's lost in reducing Melville's two-in-one grand-slam to a film adaptation of a graphic novel? Lots, I suspect, as is true with all other film versions of the book. This time they're jettisoning the first-person narration, for one -- something most of the graphic novel adaptations of the book don't even manage, as far as I can tell.

The news of the new adaptation -- and its conception in relation to graphic novels -- led me to do some poking around. I quickly realized the graphic adaptation of Melville's book had gone through many more versions than I was aware of. I grew up on the old Illustrated Classics rendition; my wife picked up one for our kids when she worked for Scholastic. We own the pop-up version, of course. What self-respecting Am Lit professor under age 50 doesn't?

Moby Dick - preview.jpgBut I hadn't realized until this morning that there's a Will Eisner version, along with two others that feature major figures from my experience as a teenage comic book collector in the 1980s: Dick Giordano and Bill Sienkiewicz. And just this year Marvel published a six-installment adaptation, due for single-volume hardcover release next month (see illustration to the left). I've just put in orders for all of the above -- of course there are many more -- but I have to say that list of names here heartens me. Certainly some of these adaptations are smart? Maybe this will turn out better than the 90s version of The Scarlet Letter, before filming which Demi Moore didn't even feel the need to read the novel.


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A rather remarkable drama unfolded last week over on Colin Beavan's No Impact Man blog:

no_impact_man.jpgAfter nearly being crushed by a black Mercedes driven by a recognizable state senator, Jeff Klein, who happens to have an autocentric voting record to say the least, not to mention a foul mouth and a general lack of civility, Beavan asked his readers to phone Klein's office to demand he meet with Beavan and others from Transportation Alternatives.

I'm impressed most of all by Beavan's call for his readers to exercise civility even as they engage in this little bit of political and environmental activism. When I get squeezed off the road by a suit in a black Mercedes, I often lose my temper and come out with the same kind of language Klein deals in. My bad.

In any case, after hundreds of phonecalls, Klein's office agreed to set up the meeting. Should be interesting.

Via Streetsblog. Photo credit: ABC News.

This One's for Cyrus

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Shea Stadium from Corona.jpg

Those of you who've heard Cyrus talk about growing up at the nexus of many cultures may also have heard me, on occasion, joke that Cyrus identifies, ethnically, as a Mets fan.

So I had to direct his (and your) attention today to the new Bowery Boys podcast on Shea Stadium.

Who are these Bowery Boys and how do they find the time to come up with such great material?

[/blog envy]

blackthursday.jpgOkay, I guess we're going to be a little political this fall. At least where New York history serves as a convenient backdrop.

Here's Eric Rauchway (EOTAW and UC-Davis) on McCain's uncanny channeling of Herbert Hoover:

Responding to the collapse of several major investment banks this week, John McCain reassured us, "I think still -- the fundamentals of our economy are strong." That move comes from an old playbook: On Oct. 25, 1929, Herbert Hoover declared, "The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis."

The day before Hoover insisted that the fundamentals were strong was the day that came to be known as Black Thursday, when in heavy trading the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost about 9 percent of its value. And while, in endless stock-footage documentaries showing images of dumbfounded traders over a soundtrack of mournful jazz clarinets, the crash is supposed to begin the Great Depression, it wasn't quite so. The real cause was the collapse of the banking system, which followed the crash in part because Hoover believed strong fundamentals would protect the economy from disaster.

More here.

Reich reigns

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Here's how Alex Ross, in his fantastic book The Rest Is Noise, describes Steve Reich's 1976 minimalist masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians:

The premiere took place at New York's Town Hall on April 24, 1976. Here the fascination of rhythm is joined to a comparably sophisticated drama of harmony: at the core of this piece is a cycle of eleven chords, each of which underpins a section of two to seven minutes in length. Early on, bass instruments touch repeatedly on a low D, giving the feeling that this is the work's fundamental level. But in Section V, the midpoint of the structure, the bass clarinets and cello lower the floor from D to C-sharp -- a crucial alteration in the physical space of the music. The harmony sinks toward F-sharp or C-sharp minor, and rugged six-note figures burrow in. A similar change in the weather darkens Section IX, which is almost expressionistic in its stabbing intensity. Only at the end do bright D and A-majorish chords clear the air.

Ross's writing here differs from his treatment of most other works in the book, which aims to allow his readers to imagine the sounds he's describing. Here the description is almost clinical, and I don't think it's an accident. This is Ross at his most minimal, perhaps to emphasize Reich's precision. But the minimalism he's describing is also incredibly lush, and it's strange that he doesn't spend more time conveying the feelings Reich's piece conveys or even the ways in which it was received.

[You can, however, in the web supplement Ross provides, listen to bits and pieces of Reich's influential repertoire if you're not already familiar with it.]

reich.jpgReich -- along with other downtown minimalists in the 1960s and 1970s: LaMonte Young, Phillip Glass, sometimes Terry Riley -- contributed to what was then a burgeoning neighborhood avant-garde art scene, one that blurred boundaries between media and forms and disciplines. A few paragraphs after Ross discusses Reich's piece, he quotes the critic John Rockwell describing a loft performance by Phillip Glass at the artist Donald Judd's loft, ending with a comparison of 70s SoHo with 50s Greenwich Village. "It was a good night to be in New York City," Rockwell remembered.

That's what I was thinking last night at Le Poisson Rouge, the new Village club in the space formerly inhabited by the Village Gate. LPR has mounted an incredibly ambitious and eclectic roster of live shows  for the coming season, including several installments of the "Wordless Music Series," which aims to bring together contemporary composers and indie rock audiences (and vice versa). Last weekend, the new music ensemble Signal played Reich's most canonical piece as the second half of an evening of pulsing orchestral sounds. Reich himself was on hand on Saturday, becapped and (unless I was imagining it) glowing under the adulation he received from a diverse audience: indie kids, NYU percussion students, older folks more likely to attend performances at Lincoln Center than in a downtown basement venue, Sufjan Stevens (who was behind me in line to get in and whose music -- especially the Michigan album -- owes an enormous debt to Reich's work). Most of the crowd sat on the floor or packed in several pockets assigned for standing room only. It was a vibe much more akin to a rock show than a classical performance, though when the music got underway the audience was rapt.

When the Times reported on Reich's first recording of this piece in 1978, the critic opined that the record was better than the live show, which, in the critic's view, tended toward the mechanical and cultish. Sitting on the floor of Le Poisson Rouge, close enough to the principal clarinet player to be able to read the score on his stand, I would have begged to differ, at least on the first point. There's an extraordinary joy to go along with the piece's trance-like mechanical qualities, a secular energy that pushes you, in the interactions between the ensemble as much as in the pulses they are producing, toward something like religious ecstasy.

9/11 Double Feature

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I woke up yesterday morning hoping not to think too much, this year, about 9/11. The Internets put an end to that, though, in the form of emails from friends and family, blog posts, and the newspaper. Maybe it should be an unplugged day from here on out. Then again, the calls and emails from friends remind me that there's a lot to celebrate -- and to be grateful for.

So I stopped my whining about not wanting to remember (Emerson: "What opium is instilled in all disaster?") and left the office a couple hours early to catch a matinée showing of Man on Wire.

What a perfect thing to do on the afternoon of a 9/11 anniversary. I have to admit, it was tough at first to watch all the footage of the Twin Towers being assembled. Those big waffle-wafers dangling from cranes look in retrospect like so much gingerbread! And the idea of being perched that high can't help but bring the jumpers to mind. But something about Phillipe Petit's giddy storytelling, the relentless egotism that fueled his wire-walking caper, and perhaps most of all the fact that he survived to tell the tale, ultimately constitutes a joyful remembrance of the buildings, even if 9/11 is never overtly referenced.

Something I hadn't expected, though: The film is as much about memory -- about the 30 years that separate the event and the retelling we witness -- as it is about the original events.  It's also about art. And most surprising of all it's about the relationships among the people who plotted with Petit and helped him pull it off -- about the damage done by an ego large enough to think up such a spectacular stunt. I'm not sure the storytellers intended it to go that way, but the film making itself is masterful, and I think the director ultimately put together a much richer story than the adventure narrative he may have set out to recount.

Much later in the evening, SSW and I went to see a film one of her high school friends (from an exchange student experience in Germany) had a hand in making. Able Danger, showing for the next week or so at Two Boots Pioneer Theater, may be the only film in existence that can claim the generic designation as "9/11 action comedy/noir homage." Its central character is based on Sander Hicks, owner of Brooklyn coffee shop/publishing house Vox Pop, which features prominently in the film, along with other neighborhood landmarks.

Reimagining Hicks as a hipster/geek superhero/secret agent, the film asks what would happen if Hicks's self-published book,  The Big Wedding: 9/11, The Whistle Blowers, and the Cover Up, actually resulted in the FBI and neo-Nazi nutjobs chasing him through Brooklyn on his bike. The comedic referencing of Maltese Falcons, MacGuffin devices, Great Whatsits and other noir staples take the edge off what could have slipped too close to paranoid "truthie" earnestness, though there's enough of the latter to send you home from a fun night at an indie film and deep into Google's recesses.


Around my neighborhood, the fall sounds of buzz-saws and hammers on ply-wood herald the coming of the annual San Gennaro Festival. Deep-fried oreos and all-night repetitions of the Godfather theme by amateur brass bands are sure to follow shortly.

Something new this year on Mulberry Street, though: The opening of a relocated and expanded Italian American Museum. The Times reported yesterday that the museum's new digs, at 151-155 Mulberry, corner of Grand, originally housed the Banca Stabile, a neighborhood bank that operated from 1882 to 1932. The museum purchased the buildings from Stabile family descendants for over $9 million. The history of the bank itself will form the core of the inaugural exhibition:

The vault's contents revealed that the neighborhood elite also banked with the Stabiles. A ledger card shows that Antonio Ferrara, who in 1892 founded the pastry shop that is still in business across the street, closed his account on Jan. 31, 1931, taking his $211,131 fortune with him. Before that, a telegraphic receipt from April 3, 1920, shows that Mr. Ferrara wired 75,000 lire from Banca Stabile to the Hotel Londres in Naples to reserve a vacation room there. Two years later, Mr. Ferrara bought two first-class steamship tickets from New York to Naples for a total of $110.

"It was very rare that people traveled first class in those days," said Maria T. Fosco, a member of the museum's board who has been researching the history of Little Italy. "Obviously, Mr. Ferrara was doing quite well."

Ms. Fosco said that at its peak, the neighborhood was a cluster of enclaves within an enclave, with various streets representing various regions of the old country.

"Most people who lived on Mulberry Street were from Naples," she explained. "Those who lived on Elizabeth Street were from Sicily, those from Mott Street were from Calabria, and anyone north of Broome Street was from Bari.

"So if a boy from Mulberry Street married a girl from Elizabeth Street," Ms. Fosco said with a grin, "that was considered a mixed marriage."

Two other additions to immigrant history in the neighborhood to keep an eye out for: The Tenement Museum has just launched a new module focusing on the Moores, an Irish family who occupied the museum's building at 97 Orchard in the 1860s.

Another much-awaited expansion comes in December, when Museum of Chinese in America reopens in its new location at 211-215 Centre Street.

RNC Hates NYC?

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We don't ordinarily aim to be a political blog here at AHNY, unless the discussion turns somehow to NYC history, culture, or politics.

Given Rudy Giuliani's special relationship to the city, then, I feel more than justified in saying something about his rabid-attack-doggery last night. In case you couldn't bring yourself to watch it or read the full transcript, here's the bit I'm interested in, which came close to the end. It's from his defense of that extraordinarily experienced executive, Palin. Rudy claims she's

already had more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket combined. (Cheers, applause.) She's been a mayor. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) I love that. (Cheers, applause.) I'm sorry -- I'm sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn't cosmopolitan enough. (Laughter.)

See, it's his use of "cosmopolitan" as a pejorative that jumped out at me, probably because one of the biggest arguments Cyrus and I make about NYC -- along with historians and commentators like Tom Bender and Marshall Berman -- is that NYC offers Americans a model for civil society that's unique and uniquely appealing precisely because of the possibilities it affords for cosmopolitanism.

For Bender, NYC's cosmopolitanism is an appealing alternative to national origin myths founded in Puritanism or Jeffersonian agrarianism, which both tend toward xenophobia. For the ever optimistic Berman, even in the face of Giuliani's Disneyfication of the city, all the corporations in the world won't be able to eliminate entirely the "complex practice of sharing space," which is what he believes "gives people ideas, new ideas about how to look and how to move, ideas about being free and being oneself and being with one another." This is, essentially, the force behind cosmopolitanism, and why such an idea and experience matter to the world we live in.

What it means for this anti-cosmopolitanism to come from a former mayor of New York, then, is that we (meaning Waterman and Patell, but you, too) need to remember to keep the city's countercosmopolitan moments in view as part of the histories we're creating. There are lessons to be learned from the history of petty tyrants like Giuliani, who often did seem like a small-town mayor, more concerned about banning ferrets than in taking care of the total citizenry of his cosmopolitan city.

Take a Deep, Deep Breath

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First day of school, and while I'd like to have something intelligent to say about the pluses or minuses of the mayor's plan to maintain his vice vise grip on public school curricula, all I can muster the energy to ask is this:

Am I really old enough to have a kid starting high school?

Here's a little beginning of the school year wish for NYC kids:

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