I haven’t posted to this site since early summer. Since then, I’ve paused in New York and immersed myself into the concerns and demands of mundane daily life in the city of my birth. A friend refers to my prolonged stay here as a term of protracted participant research into the increasing bifurcation of a society, the hyper-gentrification of a city, massive demographic changes, the rendering of whole categories of people into superfluity and neglect, and the slow-grinding wheels of unresponsive bureaucracies. In the course of other investigations, I’ve gained two arcane municipal licenses: as a certified tourism guide and as a substitute teacher in New York’s Byzantine and overburdened public school system. Betwixt and between, as always: study, reading, work, and long urban wanderings. As often as not, my late-day pauses involve fast walks or slow strolls through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. And my pauses while traversing the Park include stops at number of seemingly random sites including those portrayed above and below: A tree fractured at its trunk, its halves bound together by iron rods below and by near-intertwined branches above, and at the Park’s boathouse, silent and deserted at dusk on late winter afternoons. There’s been pause in my photography as well: I do not have an analogue camera with me and my perpetually malfunctioning Fuji X-100 digital camera seemed to have given up the ghost during the chill of winter although, as evidenced by the two accompanying photos, every now and then it miraculously springs back to life, for the moment at least. (Note: Please click on the photos for larger images and richer tonality.)
My last post included a photograph of a 1940s military recruiting booth on the Fordham Road overpass at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Portrayed above, another wonderful oddity of Bronx architecture: Public School 11, originally Grammar School No.91, in the Highbridge section of the borough. The core structure of the school, designed by George W. Debevoise, was built in 1889. A portion of a 1905 addition, designed by C.B.J. Snyder.the most prolific of the New York City public school system’s superintendents of building, is visible at the far left of the photo.
New York City’s public schools — or their facades at least — were designed to conjure up ennobling palaces of education in which all pupils could feel equal, and as deliberate contrasts to the often substandard housing from which most pupils came. Public School 11 is a rare example of a New York City school with a facade inspired by Romanesque Revival, a style that, in the city’s massive school building program, was soon surpassed by Neo-Gothic and later, by Neo-Classicism, Art Deco, and Modernism.
For an introduction to the architecture of New York City’s public schools, click on the website of the NYC Department of Education. And, if you went to public school in New York in decades past, feel free to join me in singing a chorus or two of “East Side, West Side”!
Two images of non-monumental structures, each with monumental tales to tell…
Both photos were taken in the late-1980s on 6×4.5cm transparency film using a light-weight, fixed-lens, wide-angle (28mm-equivalent) Fuji roll-film camera which featured manual focusing by estimation of distance and depth-of-field and a very accurate built-in manual light meter, so accurate, that when using it, I almost never bracketed exposures, not even when the camera was loaded with low-dynamic-range, transparency film. I miss the camera and I miss the 3:4 format ratio of its output.
Above: The one-time Corfu Diner on 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in lower Manhattan, a stereotypical Greek-owned, railway-car inspired diner, and a hangover from a past age when the Hudson River docks still flourished and provided work and ample venues for heavy-eating and hard-drinking to stevedores, truckers, warehouse workers, and others. I haven’t walked down lower 10th Avenue for many years and have no idea if the Corfu Diner still stands, whether vacant or open in a new incarnation. Any updates are welcome, thus. (Note the slogan on the orange-painted truck parked to the background at the left side of the photo: “Schleppers, Moving Storage, Never a No Show.” The 1980s saw the rise of independent non-unionized moving companies in New York. Many, like Schleppers — Yiddish for “draggers” or “carriers” — and Moishe’s were owned by recently arrived Israelis, legal and illegal, and staffed by their compatriots, mostly young, strong, and well pumped-up for long hours of lifting and carrying with liberal rations of cocaine. Other independent movers provided women with entree into this formerly all-male domain. The memorable name of one of the first such company: Mother-Truckers!)
Below: The last of several World-War-II-era US military recruiting booths (this one, if I am correct, originally built for the Navy, per its streamlined art deco take on the bridge and stack of a ship, and later transferred to the Marines) that stood on the Fordham Road overpass spanning the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. (In the background, the Wagner Building, a 1930s office block, one of a piece with the many great art deco apartment and commercial buildings that line the Concourse from 161st St. northward). From the early-1940s on, generations of neighborhood young people — Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish, followed by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African-Americans — volunteered at this and the other booths to fight America’s wars, just and cynical, against enemies real and invented. Some volunteered out of idealism and others for adventure, to avoid prison, or to escape into the larger world and begin life anew. Many returned alive, be it unscathed or maimed; many others, however, had their lives cut short.
More Accidental Aesthetics of Insulation
Above and below: Further to my last post, three more images of the accidental aesthetics of the downward relegation of building-envelope maintenance and insulation of legacy structures — one of the major pressure points for achieving heat and energy conservation in the built environment worldwide — from national governments to regional authorities, to municipalities, to tenants’ councils and cooperatives, and, in the end, to (“the-buck-stops-here!”) those individual residents with the cash or credit to insulate the external walls of their apartments on their own. The serendipity of the visual outcomes belies the inefficiency and absurdity of apartment-by-apartment solutions to what is a serious energy conservation, environmental, and quality-of-life issue worldwide.
Murals: For Whom and Why?
In my last post, I asked any and all who happened to stumble onto this site to share with me whatever they might know about about who were responsible for the giant murals that have appeared on, among other large surfaces in Sofia, the formerly-bare lateral walls of Soviet-era concrete panel block apartment buildings in several neighborhoods. I received two responses:
The first was an email from Sofia green-architect, urban activist, and restorer of traditional wood-fired baking ovens, Martin Mikush. Martin pointed me to this 20-minute video on the work of one group of muralists. The video is beautifully shot and carefully tracks the entire mural-painting process — from initial sketches, to scaffold building, to the masterful painting itself — but all this becomes overwhelmed by repetitive interspersed vignettes interspersed portraying the self-styled “hipness” and narcissistic “campy” antics of the artists themselves. Only in a couple of cases of lovely murals portraying themes from nature, do the artists share and explain their intents and searches for subject matter. For the rest, the video seems a self-congratulatory celebration of the artists’ cultivated hipness. The film says nothing about the residents of the buildings and neighborhoods that provide them with their canvases — neither about residents’ approval of, participation in, nor reactions to the artists’ seemingly well-funded efforts. Indeed, much of the video appears to have been shot in off-hours when the streets are uncharacteristically empty and void of the usual streams of passersby. The only public reaction to the murals included in the video are a few enthusiastic words from a parked taxi driver. In the end, the video is more self-promotional than documentary.
Apparently the video, the website on which it appears, and the mural project itself were funded by an “NGO” (a so-called “non-governmental organization”) in this case one funded by Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, of all places. One of the ironies in Eastern Europe in the more than quarter-century the collapse of the old Soviet Union and its client governments is that many functions and responsibilities have devolved from governments to non-governmental organizations that are in no ways grass-roots but, rather, are funded by foreign governments with their own values and agendas, and conceived and run by locals having a sufficient strong witch’s-brew of competence, nerve, connections, personal agendas, and knack for self-promotion to apply for and win such grants.
Each time I walk past the murals that I’ve posted photos of on this site, I wonder whether provisions were made to insulate walls before murals were applied. I also try to imagine what the walls on which the murals are painted will look like next year or after five years or ten. Will the visual fields of neighborhood residents be confronted with expanses of sadly-peeling paint and the faded remains of images that were once novel but that long since have become tiresome? Have the donors and artists made provisions for maintaining the murals or periodically painting them, either with a fresh coat of paint to allow eyes to rest or with the works of other artists? Or, after all the fun, publicity, and self-congratulatory back-patting, will the artists have moved on to new opportunities for self-expression and career-building and the donors to larger budgets and new disbursements, thus leaving residents of buildings and neighborhoods involved with the tattered legacies of the no-longer-timely visions of others? I’ll write more about this if/when answers emerge. Again, any and all hints, links, and contrary opinions are welcome.
Internets Celebrities to the Rescue
It shouldn’t have surprised me that another part of the (to me) puzzle of the provenance of the Sofia murals was cleared-up in a flash by a comment posted from New York by Rafi Kam. Rafi pointed out three apartment block murals indeed had been vetted and approved by local authorities. He also sent links to sites that reveal the provenance of murals portrayed in each of the three photos I’ve posted. The girl holding the mystery gift is by the internationally active Polish street-art duo Etam Cru. The smoker and the urban creature are by a Bulgarian artist, Bozko.
At the moment, in a bit of longer-form writing plus photographic documentation I am trying to place such murals in the context of evolving concepts of public space and divisions of public and private realms in Sofia and elsewhere. I wonder if the towering projections of the subjective visions of Etam Cru and Bozko divorce residents from their surroundings or unite them in a sense of shared ownership. Another, power-related, issue lurks in the background: the neighborhood in which the murals are painted was for long one of Sofia’s lower income and poorly maintained quarters. Do the building murals add value to the lives of the residents or do they represent a sort of artistic colonialism and appropriation of space by the culturally empowered? I’m not yet sure which.
Rafi Kam, by the way, together with Dallas Penn, is the on-camera side of the urban culture gadfly team Internets Celebrities (slogan: “kicking truth to the online youth”). By the way, that’s indeed internets in the plural, this out of homage to a celebrated malapropism by a master of malapropism, George Bush. Among the Internets Celebrities’ many works is the short video Bronx Bodega, a hilarious but very much to the point tour of the once emblematic Puerto Rican and Domican bodega corner grocery stores of New York City’s poorer neighborhoods, neighborhoods under-served by food retailers and by everything else for that matter. I always recommend Bronx Bodega as an essential part of the canon of urbanism, and as a slyly humorous work of comic improvisation as well.
A Virtual Plate of Chicharron
The Internets Celebrities now ride through cyberspace and the NYC subways in their latest avatars as the Food Warriors. In addition to the coincidence of Rafi holding the answer to the provenance of murals in Sofia, here’s a second, culinary, coincidence proving that not only do great minds think alike but that great gourmands binge alike and great New Yorkers explore alike. My very first click on the Food Warriors’ website brought me to their recent account of a visit to La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights, a place that has many times caused me to salivate while walking past and that I regret never entered. Thanks, thus, Food Warriors, for the virtual dreamed-of but never tasted meal!
Further to my recent post on eye contact in photography, two photos taken two decades apart on opposite halves of the globe …
Java to Brooklyn
During the second half of the 1970s, while working from the Netherlands for a large international engineering company, I spent repeated months-long stretches in Indonesia documenting oil- and gas-related construction projects, organizing participation in technical conferences, liaising with government agencies, and using my seeming abilities to “go native” and step into the worlds of others to build mutual understanding and confidence and help to win project contracts without resorting to the flagrant corruption that was the calling-card of Western business at the time and that plagued Indonesia in the Suharto era. When I had weekends free, I joined Indonesian colleagues in escaping the noise and congestion of Jakarta. In those days, camera-bearing foreigners were few and far between in non-touristic locales in rural Indonesia and a word of a sincere smile and word of greeting and on the part of an outsider brought very hearty responses in return.
Two decades later, in the mid-1990s, I spent a few years based in my native New York. At the time, American clients and employers were underwhelmed, and even condescendingly contemptuous, towards work experience gained abroad, a reaction seemingly cut from the same cloth as present-day America’s counter-factual preoccupation with denigrating the economic, social, and technical achievements of the European Union. And so, between work assignments and research projects abroad, I temporarily stepped back into the world that had shaped me in the first place — the pre-service-sector, pre-financial-sector New York of small, low-overhead businesses and of heavy physical work, skilled and unskilled — a nostalgic retreat that would be impossible in the face of the high-rent, high-cost-of-living, low-chances-for-mobility economy of present-day New York.
The woman in the photo that follows had just arrived in America and was about to enter the bottom rungs of laboring New York and care full-time for an elderly couple lost in the fogs of Alzheimer’s. An unusually heavy blizzard provided her with her first view of and outing into snow. Indeed, the snow blanketing the great lawn of Prospect Park was so ample and so pristine as to even attract cross-country skiers, one of whom can be seen in the background just to the left of the subject.
Two ways to focus
The fastest way to focus? Well in advance! The photo of the woman in the park was taken with a camera that I miss tremendously: A Minox 35, a tiny 35mm camera, not much taller or thicker, but appropriately wider, than a film cassette and resembling a black plastic, small-scale reproduction of a Zeisss Ikonta, fold-out lens and all. The Minox had an excellent 35mm-focal-length optics and a very accurate aperture-priority metering system, but it offered absolutely no optical focusing aids of any sort, neither split-image nor matte-glass. One focused the Minox by estimate, setting the perceived camera-to-subject distance on the numeric scale on the lens barrel or using the depth-of-field scale to match aperture to hyper-focal distance. The benefits: An uncluttered viewfinder and absolutely no focusing or shutter lag, focus having been set prior to lifting the camera to one’s eye. As to the two ways to focus? One could chose to estimate and set the distance in feet … or in meters!
Two fallible cameras
The downside of the Minox 35 was its delicacy. I went through three in a decade and a half. The metering system failed in one, the shutter in another, and a light leak and faulty film advance mechanism crippled a third. Even less robust, however, was the camera with which I photographed the Javanese villagers, the first iteration of the Olympus OM-1, a camera that was not up to the rigors of the heat and humidity of Indonesia. Within weeks of purchase, the rubber focus grips on the barrels of the Olympus’s lenses (35, 50, and 100mm, as per the classic combination of the time) had come loose and the lens elements of each were obscured by a proliferation of fungus — this quite unlike the medium-format Mamiya and 35mm Canon and Nikon equipment that I’d before and after.
Two worthy links
In my recent post on eye contact (linked to above), I weighed the balance between eye contact drawing out subjects and prompting them to manifest themselves vs. manipulating and overwhelming them with the presence and persona of the photographer.
Last week, I witnessed the transcendence of this dichotomy in an exhibition at Gallery Photosynthesis in Sofia, Bulgaria of near-life-size prints of magnificent, technically-masterful, full-length portraits taken by Bulgarian (Plovdivian/”Filibelı“) photographer Sonya Stankove.
Sonya Stankova took the photos in the late-1980s/early-1990s. At the time, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Stankova was working in a photo studio in her native city of Plovdiv, where hundreds of queued each day to have their photos taken for passports required to leave Bulgaria in search of opportunities, real and fantasized, abroad. Every now and then, when a customer struck Stankova’s fancy, she asked if she could take a second photo for her own collection. She would then slide a fresh full-frame sheet of film into the large-format wooden view-camera the studio ordinarily used for passport-sized photos, engage the subject, and squeeze the shutter release bulb, keeping the lens open for an amount of time estimated by intuition. The resulting photos captured the individuality of the subjects and, displayed together, provide a documentary view into the place and time they were taken.
To close, I (figuratively) zoom-out further to consider the ultimate question underlying photography in the digital age, via a link to the eclectic weblog of “The Online Photographer,” master-printer Michael Johnston. The subject: “Why take more photographs at all?”
I’ve neglected this site since early February. Obligations and commitments in Istanbul and the Balkans — including an enjoyable half-day tour and presentation on the historical and present-day dynamics of the city of Sofia, Bulgaria, that gave to visiting students and faculty from New York University — took up most of February and March. In April, I left for a multi-month stay in New York, a city of immense parks street-side greenery — in this respect not unlike Sofia, where, as I write, the leaves of a tall birch tree brush against my window and the scent of the thousands of blossoming linden trees that line the city’s streets and shade it’s courtyards perfumes the air. Late in March, the weather in Sofia was spring-like. New York, to the contrary, was enduring a seemingly endless cold-spell following a near-arctic winter. Nevertheless, by May, trees and shrubbery came alive and blossoms burst forth. The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west. On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn. However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.
Additional photos follow; click in Read More below.
An infrastructural question: Will seaside boardwalks survive the 21st century?
A look at the New York region suggests that they might not. The resurgence of nature over urban artifice during last year’s Hurricane Sandy revealed anew the importance of regeneration and/or conservancy of natural coastlines. The flooding that devastated nearby Long Beach on the south shore of Long Island, for example, would have been avoided or minimized had natural sand dunes still been in place that were removed early in the twentieth century to clear the way for apartments with oceanside frontage and the construction of a magnificent miles-long boardwalk promenade. This year’s fire to the south of New York City on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore owed its rapid spread to the very materials that give boardwalks their name: wood-plank paving. And, yet, boardwalks remain urban necessities.
From fashion to survival
Boardwalks are products of the interstice of 19th-century romanticism and 19th-century urbanity, in which nature was a picturesque backdrop to be seen but not touched, to be witnessed — but with dry and unsoiled shoes — from the safety and elegance of seaside promenades and beach-front hotels and restaurants. In the context of the lives of millions of ordinary New Yorkers — this writer and two generations of his forebears included — the boardwalk at Coney Island was and remains central to urban survival. Like Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Coney Island boardwalk from Brighton Beach past Coney Island to Seagate gives New Yorkers who lack the means to vacation or to travel afar access to fresh air and a refuge from urban congestion and searing summer heat.
Outlets to the sea
The Coney Island boardwalk was built ninety years ago, a time when the farmlands of Brooklyn were being paved over en masse for the construction of seemingly endless expanses of working- and lower-middle-class apartments for immigrants and their children fleeing cramped, degrading housing conditions in lower Manhattan. Their flight followed the paths of newly built subways lines, trajectories that gave also gave shape to the schemes of real estate speculators. The continuation of subway lines to the seaside, and thus to Coney Island, afforded the urban working poor an easy outlet to the beach and to walks and leisurely socializing on surfaces less oppressive than urban concrete, and to sounds less intrusive than the ever-present rattling of horse carts and, later, the roar of automobiles.
Changing numbers, changing faces
Over the last century, usage of the Coney Island boardwalk has fluctuated in parallel with the fortunes and changing demographics of its immediate hinterland. (A lengthy subject that I will save for future posts.) The apogee of the boardwalk’s crowds and popularity was in the 1930s and early 1940s. A decline set in after the Second World War and continued through 1970s. A revival was sparked in the late-1970s, in part by the settlement in Brighton Beach of tens of thousands of mostly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. Over the past decades, the faces seen, and accents and languages heard, along the boardwalk have changed from those of Jews, Irish, and Italians — once amongst the dominant ethnic groups in New York — to those of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Russians, Central Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Chinese. What has remained constant is the precarious place of boardwalk denizens towards the lower rungs of New York City’s housing and economy.
From infrastructure to serendipity
During the 1930s and early-40s, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mayor-ship of Fiorello LaGuardia, investment in and maintenance of public infrastructure, both physical and social, was seen as a core task of government – – a means for collectively facilitating the lives and advancement of all individuals comprising our society and, not least, ensuring social peace in the process. Parks, beaches, and boardwalks included, were parts of the mix.
“Fast forward” to the years of New York as financial center and the Bloomberg years, the age of a real-estate-development-driven economy, increasing unequal distribution of wealth, and “Manhattanization” (a new phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of a economically and demographically variegated city or part thereof suddenly turning into a preserve of those at the upper income levels, this a la the fate of much of Manhattan since the start of the millennium).
Over the last decade, social and physical infrastructure and their maintenance are increasingly surrendered to private enterprises or left to the serendipitous voluntarism of “public private partnerships.” One of the results has been the filleting of the public funds for parks maintenance and the establishment in place thereof of “public-private partnerships” in the form of “conservancies” linked to individual properties. The outcome has been predictable. Manhattan’s Central Park, the city’s highest profile park facility, flanked by three of New York’s wealthiest district is governed and funded by a conservation with an immense endowment and budget. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Conservancy struggles to cover costs and many of the parks facilities still dependent on filleted public funds languish.
“Let them walk on concrete:”
Wood paved boardwalks splinter, warp, and rot, they are maintenance intensive and require periodic resurfacing. In the spirit of Marie Antoinette advising the bread-starved poor of pre-revolutionary Paris “… let them eat cake,” the Bloomberg era’s prescription for the patrons of the Brighton Beach-Coney Island boardwalk appeared to be: “… let them walk on concrete.” A couple of years ago, large sections of the boardwalk surface were stripped of their wood and replaced by prefabricated modular sections of light-colored concrete with surfaces crudely textured to give the impression of wood grain. The modular sections were poorly leveled and sloppily abutted.
The immediate reaction? Small crowds of boardwalk denizens gathered in amazement and Read More