Bryan: June 2009 Archives

Stonewall @ 40

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Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which most people cite as the starting point of the modern gay rights movement. Here's a terrific piece from Democracy Now! to mark the occasion. It includes comments from historians, as well as a terrific radio documentary that features several "Stonewall vets" who recall gay life in NYC before the riots and offer memories of the uprising itself.

As a bonus, here's the Bowery Boys' podcast on Stonewall; this year they added a profile on a pre-Stonewall gay bar called Julius'

From the Times' Arts Beat blog:

Reaction in New York | 7:51 p.m. Mr. Jackson first performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1969 at the age of 9. The Jackson 5 won Amateur Night. "We will always remember Michael in our hearts as a true Apollo legend, known for his professionalism and grace," said Jonelle Procope, the president of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "Our sympathy goes out to his entire family. He will be deeply missed."

mccann cover.jpgI've been eagerly awaiting the release of Colum McCann's new novel, Let the Great World Spin. It arrived in stores today; I picked up a copy this morning. I finish teaching this week and am looking forward to summer reading.

Last year I bought Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, also on the day it was released. I enjoyed it, certainly, but don't really think of it a year later as a classic New York novel. A very fine one, perhaps, and among the best post-9/11 novels, but not quite a permanent part of the canon. I also read Price's Lush Life last summer. It made its way onto New York Magazine's list of the best New York cultural artifacts of the last 40 years, though I suppose we'll have to wait and see whether it's still on the list 40 years from now. I ate it up, and think about it often (thought about it just last Sunday, in fact, sitting at brunch at Schiller's with my family for Father's Day). But it has something of the feel of TV in the end -- good TV, The Wire TV -- but maybe not classic literature.

Does that mean I'm setting my hopes a little too high for Let the Great World Spin? Lord knows I'm the target audience. Not only do I gravitate toward NYC hist and lit of all periods and styles, but I'm the right age (five years younger than McCann) to have a serious infatuation with the city circa 1974, which is when his novel's set. Like him, I'm too young to have lived here then, or even for it to have been a part of my consciousness (Sesame Street notwithstanding). To boot, I'm gearing up to write about the band that kicked off CBGB that very year, so I've already got '74 in particular on the brain.

New York's culture blog has an interview up with McCann today. Here's a highlight:

Did you go to those places -- like the South Bronx projects, where two of your main characters are hookers working under the Major Deegan?

Yeah, I hung around. To be totally honest I'd feel more at risk walking down O'Connell Street in Dublin at midnight than I did at any time in the South Bronx. But it's impossible to find a hooker who was around in the seventies, because she's either stuffed herself with so much heroin that she's six feet underground or she's 60 years old now and she's not going to talk about it.

It seems like the character most similar to you is also the most unlikable -- a selfish striver with Yuppie tendencies. Am I reading that correctly?

I would say yes; in fact I'm going to do a recorded-books version and I'm going to read that chapter. There's a scene in the book where the tightrope walker guesses everybody's birthday at a party -- he goes around and pickpockets their drivers' licenses. But the one person he doesn't get is this idiot who says, "Oh, I never carry my driver's license" -- like me. And then the walker goes out the door and says "28th of February" -- which is my birthday. You've got to be a little self-deprecating. I happen to be in New York, I'm middle-class, I live on the Upper East Side for my sins. But the thing I'm attracted to is the edges.
Rest of the interview here. I'm sure I'll post my reaction to the book sooner or later; it begins with Philippe Petit's walk on the wire between the Twin Towers, which is promising. If we can keep some frickin' sun out around here I'd love to spend some time outside reading in the grass, seeing as it's officially summer now and all.

Last night our old friends across the country at EOTAW posted a video of proto-Muppets, including an early version of Kermit, playing banjo and selling bacon (do you think Piggie knows about that dark past?). Just the other day, by coincidence, Flaming Pablum posted another proto-Muppet ad campaign, this one a rather violent enticement for consumers to purchase Wilkins Coffee.

After falling down a Muppet rabbit hole on YouTube and the Muppet Wiki, I came to learn that these early versions of familiar Muppet faces developed during the era of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson's first TV show -- a five-minute spot, really -- which ran on a DC-area local TV affiliate in the late 50s and early 60s. One of his early characters, I was pleased to discover, was a fellow named Harry the Hipster. To me he seems like an early version of both Rowlf the Dog and Zoot (the sax player from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem). Here's Harry with proto-Kermit in a 1959 sketch called "Visual Thinking":

Here's version #2, from a 1966 short on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Did you know Muppets had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show? I didn't.) This time Kermit's the hipster:

Finally, here's the sketch as it appeared on Sesame Street in 1971. Kermit's gone; the Muppets here are voiced by Frank Oz (doing his Sam the Eagle voice) and Northern Calloway, who played David on the show:

I'll leave it to readers to decide what to make of the hipster's reappropriation, here, by a decidedly urban Black voice. David was one of the coolest dudes on Sesame Street. How is it that John Leland left this magnificent material out of his history of hip?

Taken by Pelham 123

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Very little time to post this week and next as I wrap up two summer courses.

I thought about heading to see the High Line over the weekend, but the coverage at Animal makes me glad I waited. David Byrne's lovely photo of an evening stroll makes me think I'll try it after dark once I eventually make it over there.

Instead, we went to see the new Pelham, probably against better judgment. The beginning was bad, the ending waaaayyy worse, but I tried to enjoy the middle as much as possible, which still wasn't a lot. Running Scared is spot on for a handful of the film's major problems, but for me the worst departure from the original was, in the end, the decision not to keep the contrived Noah's Ark casting of the original. In the new version, there are no New Yorkers. There are a few attempts at ethnic typing -- Travolta is a bit of a bigot who can't stop calling John Turturro a "greaseball," as if Italians remain at the top of the persecuted minority list in the 21st century city. Travolta himself, a Wall St. broker gone bad, seems more calculated to play to Main Street prejudice against Wall St. than to represent anything recognizably related to the city. Instead of city types, even bad movie stereotypes, there's just a bunch of vanilla on a subway train. The passengers have no personality at all. They're just there -- like the rest of us, I suppose -- to be terrorized or eventually stand up and be counted. Let's roll, you know.

It's like a movie version of a movie version of a movie version of New York, where New Yorkness can be signified only by jerky editing or rats in the subway, and where a runaway 6 train somehow gets to Coney Island only moments after crossing the Manhattan Bridge (did I miss something about rerouting?). Characters either love the city or hate it (the mayor starts off hating it -- especially the subway -- but comes to love it, I think); there's no nuanced way of inhabiting it. The low moment in this regard came when suburban-chubby Denzel is being spirited uptown in a helicopter and the pilot says, gesturing to the majestic skyline, something like: "Makes you realize just what it is we're fighting for." A skyline! A view from above! No sense of the value of life on street-level. There are no neighborhood streets in this city -- only towers and freeways and tunnels, and the lower you go the more rats you'll find.

When it ended, a smattering of people in the audience clapped. I imagine they were the same ones who laughed when Travolta said "greaseball" for the fourth time. I also imagine they haven't seen the original. Shame.

NYC Types and Voices

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123.jpgThe posters all over town for the upcoming Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (note the 2009 version uses the numerals rather than the orignal's spelled-out numbers) had Stephanie and me itching to watch the original, which we did the other night. Well worth returning to, though we hope it doesn't deflate the remake too much.

So much of the film seemed like a time capsule from the mid-70s, even though (as NYMag notes this week) the mayor's office mandated that the train used in the original be free of the era's ubiquitous subway graffiti. The contents of the time capsule, then? It would include the characters' obsessions with things like women joining the police force or transit union, the now-defunct names of transit companies, the assumption by Matthau's character that visiting Japanese transit officials wouldn't speak a word of English, and above all the array of New York accents.

Whatever happened to the New York accent -- or even to New York accents in the plural? It's possible to live in downtown Manhattan and go for days without talking to someone who speaks like a native New Yorker. You'll hear them in mom and pop shops, or in places like post offices or public schools. But it's not too much a stretch to imagine the old New York accents -- which began to be noticed by observers and represented in print in the late 19th century -- will soon be a thing of the past, thanks mostly to the homogenizing force of global capitalism.

Clearly, the filmmakers in 1974 aimed to make the train hostages a cross-section of New York types, one or two of each, almost like animals chosen for salvation on Noah's Ark. When the film ended and the credits rolled, we saw that the characters had, in fact, been named for the types they were supposed to represent. The list, in part, taken from IMDB:

Anna Berger ... The Mother
Gary Bolling ... The Homosexual
Carol Cole ... The Secretary
Alex Colon ... The Delivery Boy
Joe Fields ... The Salesman
Mari Gorman ... The Hooker
Michael Gorrin ... The Old Man
Thomas La Fleur ... The Older Son
María Landa ... The Spanish Woman (as Maria Landa)
Louise Larabee ... The Alcoholic
George Lee Miles ... The Pimp
Carolyn Nelson ... Coed #1
Eric O'Hanian ... The Younger Son
Lucy Saroyan ... Coed #2
William Snickowski ... The Hippie
Barry Snyder ... The W.A.S.P.

A collection of social types, professions, ethnic stereotypes. The old man was an old Jewish man, I think, though he's not listed this way. The Pimp, who was black, might have been listed as the Veteran, since he mentions his service record, and at one point one of the hijackers calls him by the N-word before cracking him across the face with a machine gun, but I suppose they didn't want to type him by the N-word in the credits. It took me a second to figure out what one of the passengers had been The Homosexual. I'll be interested to see what comparable types turn up in the new version. Will the 6 train in 2009 be similarly depicted as a cross-section of the city? If so, how will the writers and directors imagine our social divisions?

Yesterday on The Great Whatsit my friend Tim mentioned a George Carlin record, Occupation: Foole!, which he picked up in a dollar bin. It was recorded in California in 1973, making it roughly the film's contemporary. One of the tracks is called "New York Voices." Who would have thought, at the time, that either it or the original Pelham would wind up serving a documentary function?

Bowery Boogie reports that the six-story DKNY mural that has dominated the corner of Broadway and Houston since 1992 is, as of yesterday, history:


I somehow missed that fact when I pedaled home after work at the end of the day.

Here, for archival purposes, is what had been there for almost two decades:


(Photo from Flaming Pablum's "Vanishing Downtown" pages)

Arriving close on the heels of Donna Karan's corporate founding in 1989, the mural must have been viewed by survivors of SoHo's transformation in the 80s as the coup de grâce of the fashion industry's takeover of an art neighborhood. (Anyone have documentation of the neighborhood's original reaction? I'm curious.) It's not the sort of landmark typically mourned by those who mourn the lost city. And yet, almost twenty years ain't a bad run, especially in this neighborhood, and I'm sure it will be missed by many.

As the Times reported a few years ago, the mural took on new meanings after 9/11, due to the prominence of the World Trade Center peeking through the sign's oversized letters:

No thought was given at Donna Karan International [after 9/11] to changing the DKNY mural that has overlooked Broadway and Houston Street since 1989 [sic]. Hand-painted from a Peter Arnell photograph taken out of a seaplane window, it shows a panorama of Manhattan Island as seen through four cutout letters. The World Trade Center, framed by a soft cloud bank, is unmistakable in the upper crook of the N.

"The critical thing is that you don't change history," said Mr. Arnell, the founder and chief executive of the Arnell Group, the advertising agency responsible for the DKNY campaign. "You don't see it differently. You understand it differently."

Racked reports on the design for what will come next: it's more than a little annoying that New York's unofficial colors -- black and white (what better typifies New York fashion, high and low?) -- are being replaced by a boring, if wholesome, California beige, the "NY" of Donna Karan's corporate logo replaced by Hollister's (and parent company A&F's) geocultural orientation: California.



Also: DKNY's Facebook memorial to the mural!


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Storied Buildings

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From the Department of Lost Literary Landmarks ...

Bowery Boogie continues to report on the dramatic demolition of the historic Provincetown Playhouse. The site looks like an ancient ruin, and as BB notes, it's hard to pick out what's left among the rubble:


It's hard to know what to think about this situation. Apparently the facade of the first floor and the four interior walls of the original theater are the only thing to remain in the new structure, which from the outside will look much like the old building, with the addition of lots of south-facing windows and a penthouse situated on a sizable set-back. You've got to admit that occupants of south-side rooms will be happy for a little sunlight, but then again, there's a clear pattern of disregard for community sentiment that's no secret to folks in or out of the institution I work for, and plenty of people inside and out are unhappy about that fact.

poe.jpgCB2 helped get the concession from NYU to scale back the size of the new building and keep parts of the original structure. Landmarks had determined that the building had been altered too significantly in the last half century or so for the building to warrant historic preservation. It's true that the post-1940s renovation of the building was pretty horrendous: I always found it kind of sad that Off-Broadway's birthplace looked like a cheaply erected post-War elementary school. But I'm also not sure that token gestures toward preservation -- keeping parts of a facade and a few lousy bricks here and there -- are much better than wholescale redevelopment. (Actually, I take it back: I think the Poe House [right] is probably better than no house.)

I'm less equivocal about the loss of Frank O'Hara's longtime residence at 791 Broadway and the apparent lack out outcry on its behalf. Jeremiah brought it to my attention, and I don't really know of anyone else who's even bothered to notice its imminent doom.    

Channel 13 has a new episode of The City Concealed online, this one taking viewers to Staten Island's Fresh Kills. Once the world's largest landfill, it's on its way to becoming NYC's second largest public park (after Pelham) and three times the size of Central Park. Take a look:

The City Concealed: Freshkills Park Project from on Vimeo.

The tourguide for the episode, Freshkills Park Administrator Eloise Hirsh, recently spoke to the Municipal Art Society about that organization's role in sponsoring the design competition for the site, which is now being put into effect. What's going on out there, part of a 30-year redevelopment plan, looks pretty magnificent. MAS produced a brief video of Hirsh's presentation, also worth watching:

I've been sitting here for 15 minutes trying to figure out whether it's Fresh Kills (two words) or Freshkills (one). It looks to me like the landfill used the two-word name, but the park will use the single-word form. If someone knows for certain, enlighten us!

For tours of the new Freshkills Park, visit the city's Parks and Recreation website, according to which there's an upcoming Staten Island Community Awareness Day on June 7.

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