Bryan: May 2009 Archives
Set partially in New York, Charlotte Temple tells the story of a young British schoolgirl's seduction by a British officer, who tricks her into sailing with him to America, where he's bound for the Revolutionary War. Once they arrive, he abandons her and marries another. Charlotte gives birth and then dies, after spending time wandering New York City's streets mid-winter, having been turned out of doors by a greedy landlady. Her father arrives too late, but does manage to rescue the baby, whom he takes with him back to England. We're told in the novel's closing pages that her seducer, Montraville, falls into a delirious fit out of guilt, "during which he raved incessantly for Charlotte: but a strong constitution, and the tender assiduities of [his wife] Julia, in time overcame the disorder. He recovered; but to the end of his life was subject to severe fits of melancholy, and while he remained at New-York frequently retired to the church-yard, where he would weep over the grave, and regret the untimely fate of the lovely Charlotte Temple."
Sorry for the spoiler! But, really, this is a late-eighteenth-century seduction novel, which means you know the poor girl's going to wind up dead in the end.
Like Montraville, plenty of New Yorkers and tourists visited the grave and wept -- all the way into the twentieth century. The Times piece I missed at the end of last year reports that a church historian, with the help of a construction crew, actually raised the headstone last year in an attempt to find out if there were a family vault beneath. No such luck: just hard-packed earth. (The church's blog has its own account.) Is there, as nineteenth-century legend attested, a single grave, then, if not a vault? Perhaps the grave of Charlotte Stanley, the supposed prototype for the story? We may never know. The church seems unlikely to undertake an actual dig.
As my guest editor's introduction to the current issue of Common-place would suggest, I'm a sucker for tourist-destination-literary-heroine graves. (The issue of c-p also includes Barnard Prof. Lisa Gordis's account of her pilrgimage with students to Charlotte's grave, as well as UT-Austin Prof. Michael Winship's take on the novel's "bestseller" status.) Have you ever visited Charlotte's grave? For those readers who don't live in the city, you can do it virtually -- and leave virtual flowers -- at findagrave.com.
Many thanks to Kristen H., a long-time expert on Charlotte's grave, who directed me to the Times piece and the Trinity blog during our discussion yesterday in my early American novel grad seminar. Thanks, too, to Pat B., who mentioned the findagrave site.
"I can lick any man in the House," thumped a braying John Morrissey, twice holder of the American bare-knuckles boxing championship, Dead Rabbits gang leader and the man who, after losing a humiliating fight to him, ordered Bill the Butcher murdered.Follow-up installments include his treatments of the Five Points and Bowery entertainment culture. As you'd expect if you're a regular reader, these historical nuggets are interspersed between the blog's more typical fare: jeremiads denouncing Bloomberg's anti-neighborhood development ethos and petitions to save the Bowery.
The "House" he mentions was not a local saloon. It was the United States House of Representatives, a gang to which Morrissey -- boxer, gangster, murderer -- had been elected, not once, but twice.
When he's not blogging to save the neighborhood, Rob (and friend Ferarra) are busy saving its history in other ways -- including the founding of the East Village History Project and its new East Village Visitors Center, where you can find information about taking Ferrara's Gangsters, Murderers, and Weirdos tour, among others.
*The tshirt above isn't affiliated with the blog; rather, it's produced by WORLD NYC, located at 187 Chrystie.
One of the most rewarding things I watched (next to The Smut Peddler, of course) was an early-1960s short called How to Live in a City -- a sort of Jane Jacobs-esque brief on behalf of well-designed urban public space. It's clearly coming from a moment when public space in the city is highly contested (though one could argue public space is always highly contested in a city like this). The filmmakers oppose new directions in public and private housing that favor individualism over community: the "private terrace" is a blight on traditional neighborhood life, while the stoop is idealized. There's great footage here of several sites -- Washington Square Park, Mulberry Street during San Gennaro, Seagram Plaza, the MoMA sculpture garden, and long-vanished bocce courts at Houston and Bowery, where old Italian men, we're told, were happily teaching their game to new Puerto Rican immigrants. Now their more fortunate descendants can buy grass-fed beef and dandelion greens at Whole Foods. Enjoy!
Have you ever seen the site hispandex.com? It's a testament to the other-worldly experience of Brighton Beach, one of my favorite places in the city. To wit:
Deborah Berke & Partners Architects LLPIn her artist's statement she relates her craft, in a way, to the work of historic preservation:
Opening Thursday May 21, 6:30-8:30pm
220 5th Avenue, 7th floor
New York, NY
212 229 9211
Open all summer 2009 by appointment
It is this evidence of disappearance that I desire to record in my photographs. I look to create images that incite the imagination to ask the question what could have happened here? and who left these traces? The photograph itself becomes a trace as the scene continues to change in time, as many of the locations are demolished or redesigned.I'd like to think that she conceptualizes recorded sound in similar ways. Among other audio treasures, Maria introduced me to the bass player Henri Texier: I remember very clearly the first time I heard him on her show. (It was one of those moments you drop what you're doing and call the station to see what's playing.) I'll forever be grateful -- and can't wait to see what visual treasures she's captured in her exhibit. If you want to listen to her radio shows online, click here.
The 2001 photo shown above, left, is of the now-demolished Thunderbolt roller coaster at Coney Island. At the website linked you'll find historical nuggets like this: "In the "American Experience" documentary Coney Island: A Documentary Film, Mae Timpano described her years living under and working at the Thunderbolt, 'We used to find teeth in the yard. We used to find wigs, glasses, guns. Everything we found in the yard ... nobody came back for them, though.'"
This is just one of the great snapshots you'll find of the new, supposedly improved Washington Square Park if you hop on over to the WSP Blog, which has been a rallying place and an informational clearninghouse for opponents of the park's redesign. The project, a joint effort (heh heh, WSP ... joint!) betwen NYU and the city, took almost two years and cost somewhere between $15 and $20 million. The most controversial features were the removal of historical trees, a decrease in the number of conversation nooks or alcoves, and the shifting of the fountain itself in order to align it with Fifth Avenue and the arch.
Reactions, at least in comments on the WSP Blog, are mixed. Some welcome the face lift. Others have noted a renewed vigilance among park rangers, who've apparently been handing out tickets to kids playing football or dipping their feet in the fountain. Somebody's asking for a sit in!
WSP Blog also reminds readers that just because everything looks nice and pretty, that doesn't mean there weren't legitimate reasons to oppose redevelopment plans along the way:
Of course, there were things to oppose. There were serious issues of non-transparency, evasiveness, lies and minimal consideration to community concerns by the NYC Parks Department along the way. There did not have to be such acrimony. That could all have been avoided if the Parks Department had given true consideration to some of the changes a majority of the Community asked for. Yes, people will use the Park but there is a level of bitterness that will never go away. That didn't have to be. If the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, et al, would realize that in retrospect, and perhaps going forward, then there might be something gained from this.Have you been yet? What do you think?
Previously on AHNY.
Not to be confused with this:
I'm teaching two courses this summer. Oy. Blogging may be light, but I'll try to do my part to keep new content up on a regular basis.
One of my favorite descriptions -- and one of the most frequently quoted -- of the social transformations brought about by the elevated train comes from William Dean Howells's 1890 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes. Here's the bulk of the description, from the perspective of upper-middle-class voyeurs Mr. and Mrs. March, who think
the night transit was even more interesting than the day, and that the fleeting intimacy you formed with people in second and third floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose. [The train allows one] to see those people through the windows: a family part of work-folks at a late tea, some of the men in their shirt sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying her child in its cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a table; a girl and her lover leaning over the window sill together. What suggestion! what drama! what infinite interest!The couple thinks these views -- better than attending the theater -- offer ideal material for modern painters.
The upshot of Byrne's piece is that the collection of artists featured on the double CD, many of whom performed together earlier this month, represent a triumph of art rock over a more decadent, bratty, or trashy rock and roll aesthetic. Byrne, who appears on the album in one of its stand-out tracks, a collaboration with Dirty Projectors, also sees this set of artists -- many of whom are Brooklyn-based, part of what could loosely be termed a "scene" -- as representing something of a renaissance in American rock in which commercialism is losing ground to serious artistry:
Is the subtext here the long shadow of Talking Heads? Certainly he presides over the DWTN enterprise like a protective spirit. He links to a duet he performed with Bon Iver. Here's decent footage of "Knotty Pine," his song with Dirty Projectors. Byrne's the one center-stage in the red, white, and blue:
Besides their dedication to their art, most are successful -- but one senses that fame wasn't their primary engine for choosing a career in music. There was no hierarchy in this group -- everyone was treated as an equal, and participated with everyone else where they could. Many were already acquaintances or friends. Times have changed. No one was drunk, on drugs or two hours late for rehearsal. There was no "rock star" behavior. That could sound boring -- but such rebellious, clichéd behavior hasn't always guaranteed good music. When great music would surface from a personal or professional mess, it often seemed like a rare but happy accident, unlikely to be repeated.Maybe it's the headiness of being surrounded by so many creative folks, but it seems that popular music -- some of it anyway -- might be going through one of its periodic peaks. It also seems that rock music, or some sizable branch of it, has evolved from being a throwaway piece of merchandise for teens to a respectable art form. The transformation, made in fits and starts over many decades, seems more or less complete.
When I first saw Dirty Projectors -- maybe five years ago? -- it was just Dave Longstreth with a laptop and boombox, performing material he eventually released on his album The Getty Address, a song cycle in which he imagines Don Henley touring the Gettysburg battle site. As disarmingly good as he was then, I wouldn't have expected that he'd come to be such a major player in the indie world.
... and we're writing them! I'm sure I speak for the other guy when I say these projects will be dreams come true -- for us at least! We're honored, certainly, to have made it to the "chosen eleven." We'll be working on these volumes, which we've conceptualized as part of our larger engagements with NYC cultural history, with a tentative deadline of summer 2010. I'm sure we'll have some updates to post as we go.
The Bowery Boys take us on a tour of Roosevelt Island, past and present, with their latest podcast. [Bowery Boys]
My favorite band, considered by many to be Brooklyn's finest, is featured in both New York Magazine and The New Yorker this week. The latter article's the smarter one. [NYM, New Yorker]
New community TV show takes on Staten Island history. [SILive]
Bygone Lefty Utopians of the Bronx [Bronx Bohemian]
Cow escapes Queens slaughterhouse, earns permanent freedom. [City Room; Queens Crap]
Sunday some friends and I donned sensible shoes, grabbed flashlights, and headed to the Trader Joe's at Atlantic and Court in Brooklyn, where we stood in line in the rain waiting to climb down a manhole and enter the world's oldest subway tunnel, which remained hidden from New Yorkers for over a century.
Down we go!
The half-mile long tunnel was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1844 as part of the Long Island Railroad. The idea was to get the train off the downtown streets, where accidents were apparently too common as locomotives chugged to and from the waterfront. The tunnel remained in operation until 1861, when developers had the bright idea that sealing it off and removing train traffic from the area would raise property values, a plan that backfired when commerce shriveled up along with the thoroughfare.
Among the old timers who complained about the travesty being wrought by this would-be wave of gentrification was, believe it or not, Walt Whitman, who wrote about the tunnel in his "Brooklyniana" column for the Brooklyn Standard. Like most Brooklynites, he believed incorrectly that the tunnel had actually been filled in; he lamented the passing of the polyglot culture that had sprung up around the train tracks as engines plunged into the tunnel:
We were along there a few days since, and could not help stopping, and giving the reins for a few moments to an imagination of the period when the daily eastern train, with a long string of cars, filled with summer passengers, was about starting for Greenport, after touching at all the intermediate villages and depots. We are (or fancy will have it so) in that train of cars, ready to start. The bell rings, and winds off with that sort of a twirl or gulp (if you can imagine a bell gulping) which expresses the last call, and no more afterwards; then off we go. Every person attached to the road jumps on from the ground or some of the various platforms, after the train starts -- which (so imitative an animal is man) sets a fine example for greenhorns or careless people at some future time to fix themselves off with broken legs or perhaps mangled bodies. The orange women, the newsboys, and the limping young man with long-lived cakes, look in at the windows with an expression that says very plainly, "We'll run along-side, and risk all danger, while you find the change." The smoke with a greasy smell comes drifting along, and you whisk into the tunnel.
Our tour was led by Bob Diamond, the president of the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association, who discovered the tunnel's location around 1980, when he was not quite 20 years old. Between the 1860s and 1980, the tunnel had been a thing of legend: The Times printed a "romance" about pirates living in the tunnel in the 1890s; H.P. Lovecraft wrote about "Persian vampires" roosting there in his story "The Horrors of Red Hook"; German saboteurs were feared to be plotting enormous explosions there during WWI; bootleggers were supposed to be distilling there; and an old-fashioned engine was supposed to be sealed in somewhere, possibly containing the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth's diary. Authorities believed the tunnel no longer existed, but Diamond persisted, scouring maps in the public library and hounding city officials and local historians until he located a small crawl space under the Atlantic Ave manhole cover and convinced the gas company to help him check it out. The gas folks, seeing that the hole appeared to be filled, were ready to bag the effort, but Bob climbed inside and crawled on his stomach below the street for several feet until he hit a dead end. He removed enough dirt with his bare hands to realize he'd found a brick wall, which he eventually knocked a hole through big enough to poke his head inside and see that he'd finally found the tunnel. Here he is describing the tunnel's construction:
And here's another quick video produced, apparently, by tunnel enthusiasts:
Diamond gives tours a couple times a year; judging from the turnout Sunday they're fairly popular. According to his website, the next one's scheduled for June 28. He has a lively style, a pocket full of entertaining anecdotes, a thorough-going knowledge of the area's geology and history, and a sense of adventure that doesn't appear to have diminished in the last 30 years. Highly recommended for folks who like a taste of the underground now and again.
The tunnel's been thoroughly blogged elsewhere, including Forgotten NY. For a bunch of better photos than mine, check out these sites.
With reviews of every disco record worth knowing about, weekly reports from New York's club scene, classic magazine articles and 800 contemporary club charts, this is the definitive chronicle of disco. It's the personal memoir of Vince Aletti, the very first writer to cover the emerging scene, bringing to life the clubs, the characters, and above all the music. The first book from DJhistory.com
Plus, sample the text via a free download!
The link leads you to 98 Bowery, 1969-1989: View from the Top Floor, a website by Marc H. Miller that chronicles, mostly through photographs, his twenty years living on the Bowery between Hester and Grand (think Congee). Organized and in most cases originating as conceptual art projects (paparazzi self-portraits, for instance), the photos offer an intimate account of art and music scenes downtown, with a heavy emphasis on the dizzying decade of the 1970s. My favorite set is a series of photos Miller took of his partner, Bettie, with the stars of the fledgling NYC punk scene: "Bettie Visits CBGB." As a documentary tribute to the club and its cast of regulars, it's fantastic, but what really pushes it over the edge is Bettie's presence in each photo.
Here she is (in the dark blue) with Talking Heads:
I would have been profoundly grateful to Grieve simply for pointing me in the direction of this fantastic archive, but he went the extra mile and interviewed Miller. A highlight:
What do you want people who visit 98Bowery.com to take away from the site?The rest here.
The site is my story and the story of people I knew and worked with. It's also unavoidably a small lens on the bigger downtown art and music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. During those years, I had no doubt that I was at the heart of the action, and I want people to see things as I experienced them. History can be very selective but it can also be nudged along by good story telling. That's what I try to do with the site. Some of the events and some of the people are fairly well-known. Others are less so. Hopefully the site will give people a bigger picture of those years.
As I've written elsewhere, when I was a kid I was a DC kid, and given that I came of age in the mid 80s, the two biggest comics events for me were TDK and Watchmen. Of course when I first encountered them I still lived in a small town in the mountains of northern Arizona and had never been to New York, which is, perhaps fitting: New York was, in my imagination, a city ripped right out of Detective Comics. I might have imagined its geography more like this, though:
The other night I watched a movie from the same era as the Miller novel -- Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys. (Schumacher would go on to make, among other things, the neo-camp be-nippled Batman movies of the mid-90s starring first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney.) It's been quite a while since I'd seen Lost Boys -- probably since I was 16 or 17. I noticed in the background of the comics shop where Corey Feldman and his brother work -- their cover for their real jobs as junior vampire slayers -- a Miller poster I had hanging in my bedroom and that I still have rolled up in a closet somewhere. Maybe it's worth something; I can't even seem to find a picture of it on google images.
When I was about that age I drove with some friends to the San Diego Comicon. (One of my friends had self-published a comic book and was looking for a distributor; didn't pan out as planned on that occasion, but he's since had a fair amount of success with his own publishing company and more recently sold a series of fantasy novels along with movie rights.) The highlight of the Comicon for me was a panel featuring Miller, who must have been around 30 years old at the time. He seemed to be very moody and mysterious. He signed my issues of Dark Knight Returns -- this was, of course, back when it was still only available in its four original installments, not as a single volume the way it's packaged today.
Anyhow, back then I vowed I'd someday teach both TDK and Watchmen in college classrooms. How nerdy was it that I already knew I wanted to be a professor? More nerdy than wanting to teach comic books?
Today's lecture didn't leave any time for discussion, which was a little anti-climactic since it was the last day of class and there're no discussion sections this week.
The particular point I'd hoped to discuss has to do with what some critics identified as Christopher Nolan's impulse, especially in The Dark Knight, to draw on what I take as Miller's ambivalence toward his hero's moral and mental outlook. Like Alan Moore in Watchmen, he seems to be asking what the world would be like if someone really dressed up in a funny costume and started to fight crime. In Miller's world, Superman gets coopted by Reagan, much as Moore's Dr. Manhattan becomes a tool of Nixon's military industrial complex. Batman would seem to be an antidote to such fascist impulses, and yet it's clear that Miller's also grappling with the mental trauma at the heart of the Batman origin myth. Batman is damaged goods. His heroism is likewise damaged. Is it necessary? Or only necessary to him, a sort of narcissistic wound? Moreover, Miller seems to link Batman not just to traditions of urban gothic, detective fiction, and gangster noir -- or to the then-recent media sensation of the Bernie Goetz case -- but also to the iconography of frontier violence and vigilante violence we tend to associate with cowboy politicians like Reagan and George W. (Hence the horseback splash above?)
In Nolan's hands, as I noted last summer, this sort of ambivalence -- what does it mean to make a mentally damaged hero a figure of American justice? -- led to all sorts of conflicting readings of the most recent film. Batman tortures the Joker to get information: therefore, Batman is Bush? And the Joker's Al Qaeda? Is the movie, as the original Wall St. Journal op-ed piece that started the firestorm in the blogosphere, a conservative defense of the War on Terror? Or is Nolan exposing the evils that flow from state sanction of a "world without rules"? I suggested in class that Miller was similarly ambivalent about Batman, but that his ambivalence constitutes a critique of the Bush/Cheney War on Terror, not a rationale for it.
Am I right that in questioning Batman, Miller and Nolan are getting at something foundational about American origins in violence? Or is there a more redemptive treatment of what Miller was trying to do with the character -- or the country? Or the city for that matter?