Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgaria, 2004. Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, scan of 400ASA black/white negative.

The Last Generation of Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgarian Thrace, 2004. Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, digital scan of a 400ASA black/white negative.

In all likelihood, I’ll never stage nor capture a photographic moment as important or memorable as Art Kane’s  “Great Day in Harlem.”  On an afternoon in 1958, Kane assembled several score of the founding and emerging masters of jazz, plus a dozen or so young passersby, on the stoop and sidewalk fronting a tenement on East 126th Street in New York’s Harlem.  The photo was published in Esquire Magazine and became a legend in its own right.

A “Great Day” of My Own

The closest I’ve ever come to a “great day” shot was one cold winter afternoon in the small town of Meriçleri alongside the eponymous Meriç River (Maritsa in Bulgarian) in Bulgarian Thrace.  The subjects in my photo: The aging parishioners of the local Congregationalist Church.  The occasion: A misunderstanding.

A decade ago, I was working part-time, on behalf of an obscure commission of the US Congress, implementing a survey of religious and secular monuments associated with the histories of several minority groups within the boundaries of what is now Bulgaria, amongst them Protestant Christians.  As part thereof, I tracked down and visited every single Protestant church in Bulgaria built between the 1860’s and the late 1940’s — the church in Meriçleri included.

A Congregationalist pastor in Sofia had called in advance to Meriçleri to arrange to have the church open for me to inspect.  Due to a bad phone connection the request came through garbled. Instead, the local contact called fellow church members to announce that a visiting pastor from America was coming to deliver a sermon.  Elderly congregants took put down their work, donned their provincial Sunday best, and turned out in force to greet me, a quite secular non-Christian.  Amongst the outcomes was the group photo above, taken on the steps of the church building.

“Reading” the Photo

The church  and congregants portrayed in the photo point to a complex tale of nation-, identity-, and community-building during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of its successor states, Bulgaria and modern Turkey included. They also point to a more obscure but no less interesting story: the symbiosis of aims and actions between American Protestant missionaries and the schemings of US foreign policy more than a century ago. But I’ll save both of these tales for another time and another context.

For now, I’ll end with a cautionary photographic confession …

Step Forward First; Focus Second!

I took the photo above late in the afternoon on a dark, rainy day.  To maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, I set the aperture of the camera’s taking lens in the near-open range, thus compromising depth-of-field — a poor choice considering the multi-layered subject matter.  After focusing on the row of people closest to the camera, for some now forgotten reason I took a step or two forward to recompose but forgot to re-focus.  As a result, the plane of focus shifted rear-wards, leaving the front-most subjects slightly fuzzy.

Regardless, a decade after its taking, the photo still touches me and still seems to manifest the solid presence and stance of the final generation of guardians of a once-vibrant, now-forgotten Balkan community.  Perhaps, thus, there is more to photography than sharpness alone.

"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.

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.

An anchored boat converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy restaurant, Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013.  Note the kitchen topped with jaunty chimney  perched precariously in the after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100)  Click to enlarge.

An one-time small urban ferry converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy (hamsi) restaurant, moored on the shore of the Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013. Note the kitchen and its jaunty chimney perched precariously in an after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Further to a previous post on Gezi Park, Istanbul street vendors, etc.

One of the concepts that has stuck with me from my long-ago graduate training is in the form of a concisely worded dictum that continues to prove its veracity over and again in scores of cities worldwide.  I’ve forgotten the precise wording and source, but the  paraphrase that follows is faithful to original: “The economy of a city is dependent on a continuous supply of declining housing stock.”


The concept, it turns out, comes from the works of economist Albert 0. Hirschman.  There has been a recent revival of interests in Hirschman’s life, professional accomplishments, and thought.  The publication earlier this year of a biography of Hirschman brought in its wake articles and reviews in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.  The course of Hirschman’s life — childhood in Berlin, anti-Nazi activist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, smuggler of Jewish refugees out of Vichy France, victim of the McCarthy era in the US, specialist in international development, resident scholar at Princeton — is as fascinating as his economics, the latter a non-ideological pragmatism, literary rather than econometric in method, that side-steps master plans to find opportunities in seeming negativities and value in seeming dysfunctions.

The Power of Decline

Declining housing (and commercial) stock provides shelter for those on the way up and those on the way down.  It enables the solvency of those who do heavy-lifting and work at the edges of economies, those very people without whom neither industrial not service economies can function.  It provides affordable locales for cultural renewal and technological innovation.  It provides space for new sectors and enables older sectors — and the employment they provide and skills they preserve — to survive.  It contributes to the social interaction and proximity to others who are different than one’s self that is central to democracy. For generations, the agglomerations of flexible, high value-added, small enterprises that grew around the entrepot functions of cities such as New York had been dependent on re-purposed inexpensive physical plant.

Afterthoughts: From Istanbul to Harlem

  • Apropos of the recent protests in Istanbul, as treated in a number of past posts below, opportunities for incremental reuse contribute far more to social and political cohesion than do the seizing of public space and the razing of viable structures and neighborhoods to make way for massive development projects driven by political cronyism and the financial self-interests of investors and design-driven megalomania of architects.
  • As we see from the photo above, ample supplies of underutilized urban coastline also contribute to the mix of seeming negatives that Hirschman would encourage looking at afresh — likewise with ample supplies of declining boat stock!
  • Last, for a few words on the negative impact of sudden “upscaling” of a a viable and creative neighborhood many of the strengths of which was rooted in its state of perpetual decline, click here for a piece I wrote some years ago mourning the closing of the old Reliable’s Cafeteria and its upscale sister, Copeland’s Restaurant, on West 145th St. in New York City’s Harlem.