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Monthly Archives: August 2013

"La Reina." The Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz.  Wall painting, low-100s between Lexington and Third, Manhattan, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

“La Reina.” The Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz. Wall painting, low-100s between Lexington and Third Avenues, Manhattan, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

The great Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz, one of the voices of Latin Music during the second half of the twentieth century.

The portrait above graces a tenement wall at the western edge of Spanish Harlem.  The tenements of Spanish Harlem were built more than a century ago to capitalize on flows of immigrants and their children attempting to escape the  congestion and degradation of the Lower East Side. (One of own grandmothers lived for a few years only a block away from the wall on which the portrait above is painted.)  Most of the first wave of East Siders to arrive in the neighborhood (Jews and Italians, mostly) soon moved northwards following the routes of new subway lines to housing that arose in the Bronx in the years after World War I.

By the 1940s, Spanish Harlem had become the main destination for migrants to New York City from Puerto Rico.  In the 1950s and 60s, some blocks of Spanish Harlem were amongst the poorest, most crowded and densely populated places on earth.  In recent years the population of the neighborhood has thinned out and, in places, gentrification has begun. Nevertheless, the voice of Celia Cruz still echos resonantly.

Gino Flea Market, New & Used, West 168th Street, Bronx, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Gino Flea Market, New & Used, West 168th Street, Bronx, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Retailing at the urban edge, beyond the rapacious locational analyses of chain and big-box stores.  Recycled goods, low-value inventories, uncertain provenance, low-rent locations, minimalist architecture, utilitarian displays, and clientele low on disposable cash.  (NB: Those who delight in the idiosyncratic orthography and grammar  of NYC signage will note the absence of a possessive apostrophy-s appended to Gino.)

Recommended in this context: Bronx Bodega by the inimitable gurus of urbanism, the “Internets Celebrities,” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kamm.

Courtyard, near Anderson Ave., West Bronx, 2012.  Note the traditional New York City fire escapes and the razor wire atop the original wrought iron fencing. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Rear courtyard, near Anderson Ave., West Bronx, 2012. Note the traditional New York City fire escapes mounted on the walls and the razor wire atop the original wrought iron fencing in the foreground. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

In the 1920s and 30s Art Deco facades came to define the face of the west Bronx but, for decades, it was the unadorned rear courtyards and fire escapes of the very same buildings embodied the raw life of the neighborhood. Fire escapes served as balconies, summer sleeping quarters, laundry racks, improvised gardens, and winter-time ice boxes.  Socially, they were settings for family dramas and neighborly dialogues from the mundane to  a theatricality worthy of Ben Hecht or Clifford Odets.

A half century ago, the construction of Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway cut a ghettoizing east-west slash across the Bronx, isolating the southern half of the borough. This and New York’s tough, dangerous, drug years of the 1970s turned Bronx courtyards from domains of life to domains of danger. Will the present decade see the removal of razor wire or its reinforcement and expansion?  Will it bring the integration of this magnificent neighborhood into citywide trends or its continued marginalization?  Will it fall victim to gentrification or the “cool” settlements of “hipsters” that have “ethnically-cleansed” darker skinned, lower income, and gray haired folks from large swaths of Brooklyn? Comments are welcome.

Art Deco west Bronx: Noonan Plaza, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, NY.  Constructed, 1931.  Architect, Horace Ginsbern. Photograph, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge,

Neo-Mayan Art Deco  Bronx: Noonan Plaza, W. 168th St. Highbridge Heights, Bronx, NY. Constructed, 1931. Architect, Horace Ginsbern. Photograph, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge,

Facades of the West Bronx, a modernist entree into America and into real and illusory dreams of social mobility for hundreds of thousands fleeing the oppression and degradation of the Lower East Side more than three-quarters of a century ago. Linear design, economy (or penury?) of materials, and just enough ornamentation to break monotony and enable fantasy.  For a new generation of inhabitants arriving in the 1970s, such facades comprised the grim face of a socioeconomic ghetto in decline.  As to the future: May this neighborhood remain a place for those who fight their way up, rather than of gentrifiers who usurp and flatten through economic privilege and disposable cash.

Detail, Service Entrance, Mayan-inspired terracotta tiles, Park Plaza Apartments, Jerome Avenue, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, New York.  Constructed: 1929-1931.  Architects: Horace Ginsbern, Marvin Fine. The six-pack of Heineken is fortuitous.  2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Detail, Service Entrance, Mayan-inspired terracotta tiles, Park Plaza Apartments, Jerome Avenue, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, New York. Constructed: 1929-1931. Architects: Horace Ginsbern, Marvin Fine. The six-pack of Heineken is fortuitous. 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

From: White, Norval; Willensky, Elliot; Leadon, Fran (2010-05-29). AIA Guide to New York City, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition:

Noonan Apartments

“These seven-story apartments, arranged to form a quadrangle, are entered diagonally through a highly decorative masonry arcade that leads to a central court, the original splendors of which can only be guessed at today. Art Deco-cumMayan was then the idiosyncratic style of the Ginsbern firm.”

Park Plaza Apartments

“One of the earliest (and best) Art Deco–inspired apartment buildings in the Bronx. Influenced both by the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, and motifs from Mayan architecture then fashionable. Note the elaborate polychromed terracotta ornament. The façade is Fine’s work, the body Ginsbern’s.”

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River.  Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that underlies the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known.  Anderson Avenue, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River. Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that comprise the reality behind the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known. Anderson Avenue, Bronx, NY, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

In the headline above, I’ve intentionally left out Miss Gladys’s family name.  No matter.  Even if I’d included it, you wouldn’t find Miss Gladys on the internet or in books or newspaper archives.  You can, however,  find Miss Gladys deep in the hearts and memories of scores of people in the Bronx and in Harlem.  And, to search these, no last names are required.

Miss Gladys passed away two years ago yesterday.  As per the title of this post, her life was one of ascent through a world as stark and roughly surfaced as the stairways and alleyways of the Bronx.  In it bare-bones outline, Miss Gladys’s biography was paradigmatic of many African-American women of her generation: Born in the south, traumas at a young age, a move north, single motherhood, years of hard work while studying to become a nurse, disability from an on-the-job accident, and a final earthly rise into the rarefied world of Alzheimer’s.  Miss Gladys’s ascent through life was as steep, deliberate, and demanding as that of the stairways that slice through the west Bronx.  Miss Gladys climbed her way upwards with outspokenness, arch humor, and energy, and with love and devotion to her daughter, a magnificent, courageous woman in her own right.

I met Miss Gladys only a few months before her death, at a party celebrating her daughter’s 50th birthday.  From the rarefied heights of Alzheimer’s, Miss Gladys introduced herself to me over and again, each time explaining that it was actually her own birthday party and asking me to bring her her first slice of cake, since she hadn’t yet had one. Between a growing tally of first slices, she conversed with adult guests and passed life’s lessons and worthy admonishments to the children present.

Several weeks ago, a lengthy and extremely read-worthy article on the treatment of Alzheimer’s appeared in the New Yorker magazine.  The article framed Alzheimer’s, not as an aberration, but as a higher, possibly purer form of being, in which parts of the cognitive self peel away and allow personality to shine through in a manner closer to the origin of self and of human antecedents.  The article also documented a “new” and “novel” form of treatment: regarding of Alzheimer’s patients and their whims as normal and prescribing their full integration into social contexts.  It seems that the author, Rebecca Mead, never searched for Miss Gladys, her daughter, fellow church-goers, or myriad of friends and former co-workers.  If Ms. Mead had, she would have found to her surprise that what she called novel and innovative is simply the way life is lived within at least one tightly-knit circle of African-Americans and a sprinkling of “whites” in Harlem and the heights of the West Bronx.

What did I learn from Miss Gladys?  Something quite simple: That if I live life as if I am ascending the steep steps of the west Bronx, that if I protect those who I love, remain outspoken, truly believe in the worth of things beyond the boundaries of my own self, and continue against growing odds to try to “get ahead,” I might yet find that I still have a goodly number of slices of cake in my future.

Two members of an amateur folk dance troupe following a performance at an outdoor dance event for children, downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, 2013. (Fuji X100, vertical crop from horizontal frame) Click to enlarge.

Two traditionally-costumed members of an amateur folk dance troupe following a performance at an outdoor dance event for children, downtown Sofia, Bulgaria, 2013. (Fuji X100, vertical crop from horizontal frame) Click to enlarge.

For a quarter of a century, Sofia, Bulgaria has been my bench-scale urban laboratory of sorts, a city like any other but more compact and with an accelerated pace of change.  Sofia has served me as a lens through which to view dynamics of my native New York and other cities in which I spend time and  work —  cities  diverse in size, histories, and issues facing them, from sprawling, dense Istanbul to tiny, prosperous Luxembourg.

A Shift Away From the Urban Core

In the years since the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Sofia has passed through a century’s worth of change.  Migration from villages and towns led to a near trebling of its population. In the initial decade after “the changes,” former apartments and single-car garage spaces in Sofia’s downtown became  incubators of small businesses and even smaller shops, cafes and bars  Later, enterprises that grew migrated to new, purpose-built agglomerations outside of the urban core. Simultaneously,  a new middle class moved to villas, apartment buildings, and gated “communities” at the urban periphery. Sofia’s Soviet-era high-rise concrete panel residential neighborhoods took on new life and developed their own entertainment and retail functions. Giant shopping malls sucked retail activity and pedestrian flows off of downtown streets. Motor vehicle and public transportation traffic shifted from converging on the urban core to traversing it. Amongst the results: For a number of years, Sofia’s Jugendstil- and Bauhaus-inspired downtown took on a derelict and depopulated look, becoming the seeming province of the older and the less successful by day and exuberant lower-end bar goers by night.

Street Fairs and Smiles

This summer, I’ve noticed surprising hints of change.  Downtown parks are newly landscaped and planted.  Street events generic to European and American cities — concerts, street fairs, and dance — now occur.  Tourist guides lead groups of foreigner through streets whose history they have barely begun to scratch.  And, recent political protests have had the spill-over effect of attracting  evening strollers to downtown streets.

The photo above was taken in the garden of Sofia’s  “Ivan Vazov” National Theater, following a dance event for children.  I know neither the names of the two dancers nor of their ensemble, but their smiles and confidence seem to auger well for the future tone of downtown Sofia — but, then again, in Sofia, one is never quite sure!

Concrete apartment houses awaiting demolition, Haseki quarter, Istanbul, 2013. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Gerry-built concrete apartment houses awaiting demolition, Haseki quarter, Istanbul, 2013. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The unintentional geometry and textures of urban surfaces in a neighborhood under renovation.  No additional words needed.

Shadows cast by domes and chimneys of a 16th-century Imaret (hostel structure), Haseki quarter, Istanbul, 2013. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Shadows cast by domes and chimneys of a 16th-century Imaret (hostel), Haseki quarter, Istanbul, 2013. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.