Two Coney Island boardwalk dance event denizens. In the absence of my Rolleiflex, the photos were composed and later edited to square format.
I haven’t gotten out to Coney Island this summer. So, offhand, I don’t know the state of the famed Coney Island-Brighton Beach seaside boardwalk post-Hurricane Sandy. What I do know is that I very much miss dancing on Coney Island boardwalk in the breeze and fading light of weekend summer afternoons.
For the last couple of decades, impromptu dances set to the blare of portable sound systems and music decks manned by proprietors and patrons of boardwalk bars attract a crowd of dancers representative of New Yorkers to whom Coney Island is the only affordable and accessible seaside respite from the thick air, stuffy apartments, and burning pavements of summer time New York. (This despite the efforts of former mayor Giuliani to expunge such offenses against “quality of life” and of soon-to-be-former mayor Bloomberg to sanitize, gentrify, and recycle neighborhoods and public space for the benefit of those with high incomes and volumes of disposal cash.)
Most Coney Island boardwalk dancers are urban survivors, people who’ve made it through the scourges of low-paying jobs or lives at the edge. The music is mostly Afro-Caribbean, Latin, and fusion. The price of a ticket is no more than a lack of pretension and a desire and ability to dance.
These last years, I’d gravitated more and more towards to weekend dances on the boardwalk. The grit of the edge of the city is more redolent of the New York that shaped me, and the boardwalk venue is far more familiar, accessible, and welcoming to me than are stylish clubs in upper income Manhattan or in the ethnically-purged, middle-American “hipster” neighborhoods that now sprawl across the north of Brooklyn. Not least, the subtle flexibility and responsiveness of the boardwalk’s wood plank surface add spring and an intoxicating feeling of (seeming) virtuosity to one’s every step.
On the X100, the optical imperfections (softness, flare, and color casts) of Fuji’s 28mm-equivalent screw-in wide angle adaptor helped rather than hinder portrayal of a Coney Island weekend afternoon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From: White, Norval; Willensky, Elliot; Leadon, Fran (2010-05-29). AIA Guide to New York City, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition:
“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.”
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.
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.