Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shedding Light On Hidden History

Map of Little Syria
New York, New York
Hello Everyone:

Syrian migrants have been in the news a lot, for mostly bad reasons.  However, amid all the grim reports, what has gotten overlooked is the story of Syrian migrants who came to the United States as early as the 19th century and established thriving communities.  Today with the help of Ellen Brait and Mahita Gajanan, reporting from New York, from The Guardian we are going to spotlight the Syrian community in New York City.  Their article, "Little Syria: New York preservationists fight for remains of historic cultural hub," looks at the fight to save this onetime home for Middle Eastern immigrants from being taken over by a skyscraper development.  What remains of this once flourishing neighborhood are three buildings, testament to what was once the epicenter of Middle Eastern immigrants.

Todd Fine, the president of the Washington Street Historical Society (, is leading the efforts to preserve the community's history. Mses. Brait and Gajanan write, "At its height between the late 19th and early 20th century, Little Syria was home to a thriving community of immigrants from the Middle East who established the neighborhood as a cultural and mercantile have."  With a remnant of this once sprawling neighborhood remaining and a tiny number of its former residents still living, Mr. Fine, together with other preservation minded people, are trying to save whatever is left of Little Syria, "against a backdrop of fevered political debate over immigration and the acceptance of Syrian refugees."

"The Syrian Colony, Washington Street"
New York City, New York 
The birth of Little Syria

Little Syria sweeps across Washington and Rector streets on the west end of lower Manhattan.  For decades, it was the center of New York City's Middle Eastern community.  According to Mr. Fine,

the area became a destination for Arab immigrants in the 1880s, after German and Irish immigrants started to fill in this part of the city in the 1830s and 1840s.  They used the proximity to lower Manhattan's waterfront to establish import and export businesses.

The immigrant arrived from the former Ottoman Empire-controlled Greater Syria: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, thus giving the community its name.  Mses. Brait and Gajanan write "Between 1880 and 1924, 95,000 Arabs moved to the US, boosting the Arab-American population to 200,000, in cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland."

Map of Syrian migration throughout the United States
Todd Fine told the reporters that New York's Little Syria became a cultural hub, on par with Paris, Cairo, Beirut.  By the turn of the 20th century, Syrian Americans established 300 business in the city and developed community organizations.  Arab Americans contributed to a literary renaissance, revitalizing the Arabic in the Middle East, following the conversion of the linotype machine to Arabic characters by Naoum and Salloum Mokarzel of Al-Hoda newspaper.  Between 1890 and 1940, the community published over 50 Arabic language newspapers, beginning in 1892 with Kawkab Amirka, there first Arabic language journal in North America.  Mr. Fine told the reporters.

Everybody wanted to talk politics about the Ottoman Empire...Out of the journalism scene and this this literary inspiration, there was this major movement and innovation in Arabic writing in the United States.

Men gathered at cafe in Little Syria
New York City, New York
 Better of than when they began

Carl Antoun Hock, the collections director of the Washington Street Historical Society, told Ellen Brait and Marita Gahanna that

Little Syria was a vibrant working-class community...just like any other immigrant enclave at the time.

Mr. Houck, a descendent of the Sadallah family, who once operated a well known merchant business on Washington Streets, added the biggest misconception about the community was, it was very alien, this was especially acute during the early 20th century.  However, all the stories Mr. Houck read and heard about the community, from his family, suggest that It wasn't alien at despite the very different language and the different-looking people at the time.  He continues,

There were kids playing on the street.  There were families there that would call to each other out the window "Come home for dinner"...The people there, when Americans went there were very hospitable.  They gave them tours.

Baklava maker 1916
New York City, New York
Carl Antoun Houck's family were merchants, a trade they brought with them from present-day Lebanon.  They suppled the peddlers with the essentials such as furniture, dried goods, jewelry, and silks.  Linda Jacobs, the author of the book Strangers in the West, the story of Arab immigrants in lower Manhattan said "Little Syria was similar to that of other immigrant neighborhoods in the Lower East Side, the people who first settle there suffered from unfortunate conditions."  She said, It was horrible...Life was horrible there.

Like many immigrants of the late 19th, early 20th century, the people lived in tenements with unsanitary and unsafe facilities.  Ms, Jacobs, whose family came from Greater Syria, related that her family once lived in a neighborhood were illnesses like cholera and tuberculosis were epidemics and early childhood death was common.  She said,

For the Syrians of the 19th century, it was horrible...But they, like every other immigrant group, figured out how to make a living in this country.  All of those who stayed were better off than when they began.

Merchant window in Little Syria
New York City, New York
The streets of Little Syria were lined with restaurants and smoking parlors; the storefront signs were written in Arabic, Ms. Jacobs told the reporters.  Newspaper reporters would frequently describe the residents as dressed in exotic clothes, however, family photographs show people dressed in western attire.  Ms. Jacobs said,

I think they wore exotic clothes to attract people to come down and buy things from them...Occasionally you'd see people dressed up in native costume, but you know that they're dressed up.

Most of the immigrants were immigrants were farmers or came from villages and established the neighborhood that reflected their former homes, to a degree.  However, most assimilated to western life.  Ms. Jacobs continues, Most of them were not shopkeepers-they figured that out here...Most of them were not urban.

Syrian America food peddler
New York City, New York
In the early 20th century, those who saved enough money began to move out of the cramped tenements of Little Syria to the nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Atlantic Avenue.  Mr. Houck's family were among those who moved to Atlantic Avenue-"Little Syria Part Two," according to Mr. Houck.  The Houcks, like many others, still returned to Washington Street for work.

According to Todd Fine, the key development that led to Little Syria's demise was the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.  The Tunnel was built in 1940 and resulted in the displacement of many of the remaining residents.  Eviction notices were issued to the residents of Washington Street in 1946.  The construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s was final element of the community's demise.  Mr. Houck said,

That neighborhood has suffered more than any other neighborhood, I think, in the whole city...That just our biggest goal, to honor all that, since it's been so disrespected.

Saint George's Church
New York City, New York
"We're still fighting, and we're very afraid"

Today, there are very few reminders of the once flourishing neighborhood and the residents who used to live there are dwindling. The Washington Street Historical Society is fighting to save the three remaining buildings: Saint George's Syrian Catholic Church (left), the Downtown Community House, and the tenement located at 109 Washington Street.  The good news is the Church achieved local landmark status in 2009 but is nestled into Washington Street, next to the world's tallest Holiday Inn.  The identifying cornerstone is hidden from view by a pipe.  Sounding a sardonic note, Todd Fine said,

I hate to say it-I always find it a little fitting because the word 'Syrian', you know it's covered by the pipe...Kind of a metaphor.

The community house, the red brick building next to the church has yet to be designated a local landmark.  The Washington Street Tenement, standing five stories tall and once was home to about 50 people, is now a rent-controlled apartment but will soon give way to a new skyscraper.  Little Syria is known for its mostly Christian population, but an artifact discovered last December has shed some light on the Muslims who also lived in the area.

Rector Street today
New York City, New York
A mosque, discovered on Rector Street, around the corner from St. George's and a short walk from the World Trade Center, reveals the history of Muslims who lived and worked in the United States.  The mosque was during the community's period of historical significance.  Even though the building was razed in the mid-1950s, information about still exists in the archives of the New York Sun, which reported about it in 1912.  Mr. Fine said the mosque was probably not active for a long time and might have been part of the Ottoman Empire's foreign policy.  While the mosque may be a memory, the three remaining buildings are the bone of contention between the Washington Street Historical Society and the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  While the church is protected as designated landmark, the remaining building are in danger of being sold and demolished.

Todd Fine and the members of the historical society have been working for years to get the remaining buildings landmarked, but to no avail.  We're still fighting, and we're very afraid, Mr. Fine said.  Based on letters from 2014 from commission chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, the buildings, while physically located within the area formerly known as Little Syria, have a limited connection to the historic fabric of the neighborhood.  Ms. Srinivasan was specific about why the tenement and community house were not part of the historic fabric of the neighborhood.  However, Mr. Fine argues that they exhibit "architectural qualities that connect specifically to Syrian design."  He said The architecture is designed to communicate to the immigrants that they belong to the country.

The Community House in Little Syria
New York City, New York

Todd Fine went to say the Little Syria was overlooked during the construction of the 9/11 museum was built.  Mr. Fine said that when he approached the museum, a year and half before opening day, he was told that it was too late to add anything about the neighborhood.  He suspects that the denial may have more to do with erasure, saying

something that could've humanized Arab Americans in a delicate way.  It seems a little bit like a missed opportunity...I feel like there's a lot of confusion about Arab Americans.  There were some Muslims in Little Syria, and it would have been nice for the 9/11 museum to maybe have one sentence or one photography of that just to show people that Arabs and Muslims had been part of the country long before and they were actually in this historic neighborhood.

The 9/11 Museum did not respond to requests by The Guardian for comment.  However, in 2013 a museum official told Al Jazeera that it did offer to include an oral history of Little Syria as part of temporary exhibit.  Not enough for Mr. Fine.  Todd Fine has the last word,

People don't necessarily go out of their way to celebrate Arab American heritage...It takes a while to explain what you're talking about and why this is important.  There's not a lot...Today, you kind of have to have a lot of imagination.  The streets are there and if you know the geography, you can kind of imagine something.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Suburbs As Urbs

Walthamstow, a suburb northwest of London, England
Photograph by Andrew Reid Wildman/Flickr
Hello Everyone:

Today we go back to the suburbs to consider how they can be urban spaces.  There is the perception of suburbs as these bucolic places with nice houses, green lawns, happy people, and plenty of parking spaces.  Laura Vaughn reports, in her article "Suburbs Are Urban Places, Too" in CityLab, review of writer Peter Ackroyd's book, Suburban Urbanites: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street.  Mr. Ackroyd posits that "suburbs are as old as the city itself,"  He asks us to consider the suburbs from a different perspective, arguing that suburbs actually possess "complex urban qualities, but they are poorly understood."  Although the study of urban and rural places continue to thrive in academia, the study of suburbs is still a fairly new field.  Regardless, Suburban Urbanites: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street. gives the reader new perspectives on the suburbs from a historical perspective.

Relief of Madaktu with suburban villas outside the city walls
Project Gutenberg
  One example from history is the carved stone relief of the ancient city of Madaktu, in Iran, from the 600s BCE.  The relief presents an incredible demarkation between the city with its neatly organized buildings and the suburban villas arrayed outside the city walls.  Contrast this with the trope that continues that is regularly featured in urban studies.

Typical academic research into suburbs considers suburbs a separate undefined mass within the urban edges.  The recently published  Suburban Urbanites takes a different approach.  Rather than take the city out of the suburbs and vice versa, the book considers the two together-"the suburb as a continuum of the city's spatial-social complexity."  The book is intent on making the argument "...for suburban urbanity.  It counteracts the binary opposition between city and suburb and challenges the perception that urbanity only exists in the city."

The Surrey Street Market, Croydon south London, England
SouthEastern Star/Flickr

Taking into consideration the suburbs as part of the city's continuum, Mr. Ackroyd's book focuses attention on the "...metropolitan suburban centers-both in their relation to other centers, an in the role they play within their locality."  This strategy is born out of the desire to shed light on full scope of non-domestic activity: people with home businesses, start-up, internet businesses, weekly markets, casual labor, and so forth as well as a diverse range of leisure activities that happen outside the home.

Laura Vaugh writes, "For example, London like most urban spatial systems, consists of interdependent network of linked centers which, when studied in detail on the ground, reveal a level of detail and complexity more normally attributed to cities."  If we look at the suburban built environment as a stand alone subject and as distinct element of the "...spatial and temporal growth of cities,"  Suburban Urbanites reveals that Main Street is the core of non-domestic suburban activities.  A special type of space with real potential for creating the beating heart of the suburb.

The suburban idyll
Vintage car promotion
Laura Vaugh reports, "In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that the majority of people in English-speaking countries live in it, suburbia has remained 'the love that dares not speak its name.'"  Indeed, one must be careful about admitting a liking for suburbia.  Suburbia has long been the butt of academia, "...trapped by a historical legacy of aesthetic distaste from the cultural elite,..."  Let Blogger come right to the point, who among us has not looked at the suburbs with a certain amount disdain.  Maybe not quite the disdain like the 1933 Congress of Modern Architecture which declared the suburbs, "a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city" and "one of the greatest evils of the century."  You start to get the idea that suburbia has long been the frequent and favorite punching bag of critics who deride it as leading to alienation, homogeneity, and apathy.  Regardless of all this venom, suburbia still remains the aspirational destination for people-the proverbial nice house in the suburbs and a safe place to raise the kids.

Suburban development
Photograph © Dan Reed/Flickr
Creative Common license
Writer Robert Putnam's opinion that we all are "bowling alone," has been picked up wicked delight by critics and turned into a cudgel with which to mercilessly beat suburban life.  Despite the pervasive influence of the suburbs-as-incubators-of-alienation, a number of scholars have undertaken an initiative to refute Mr. Putnam's findings.  Ms. Vaughn reports, "Jan Bruekner and Ann Largey, for instance, have that social interaction is less related to the density of residential areas than to the life situation of the people living within them"  Yet, the myth of suburban malaise persists.

Will America be urban, suburban, or both?
Unfortunately, the studies of suburbs, its history and life often provide anecdotal information instead of "...appreciating the cumulative effect of small-scale changes over time or the influences of wider spatial change...on the locality itself."  Peter Ackroyd's book, Suburban Urbanites: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street, explains how spatial change and micro-anthropological phenomena intersect at the suburban scale of social life.  It demonstrates "...that to attribute a lack of social engagement is purely to a crude residential typology ignores the variability of suburban environments and the messiness of modern life..."

Suburbia with urban lights
Looking at the suburbs from an architectural perspective, there are good reasons why suburbia is considered a poor remedy to mass housing.  Excessive automobile use and low densities mean that suburbia represents an inefficient use of natural resources and unsustainable planning.  While these are valid criticisms, Mr. Ackroyd makes this point: "it offers an alternative conceptualization of suburbs and proposes that suburbs are shaped by a process that appears in many different contexts."

This is both a spatial and temporal process that present the way in which "the built environment adapts to changing socioeconomic conditions by maintaining a balance between stability of the street network over time with a degree of adaptability of the shape and pattern of buildings themselves.  This follows urban growth, based on the spatial logic go the successful existing network.  Ms. Vaughn posits, "Indeed, suburban growth as been a positive solution for inner-city crowding, albeit reinforcing social class divisions in some instances."

Marylebone, London, England
Railroads, historically speaking, have not only helped shape European cities such as London or Brussel (American cities as well) but also helped alleviate urban conditions such as: deprivation, overcrowding, and disease.  As transportation technology shape the lines, it also formed social change along said lines.  For example, in 1770 eight coaches departed from Central London to the suburbs.  By 1809, communities like Camberwell in south London was within easy reach.  The advent of the railways in the 19th century and the growth of private car ownership in the 20th century (and federally funded road construction) also had important spatial and social impact on the communities that fed of the railways and roads.

The Sir Richard Steele
Hempstead, London, England
 In the United Kingdom, existing communities like Hempstead, originally outside of London's core, helped ease the rawness of suburban development "so that main roads which formerly might contain linear developments...subsequently were in an ideal position to develop as London's network of high streets.  One example is the Sir Richard Steele Pub in Hempstead, London.

When the Sir Richard Steele was built in the 19th century, it was located on Haversack Hill and catered to travelers from London.  The continues to operate in this capacity to this day, despite the incorporation of Hempstead into the London urban-scape.  The continuous use of the pub building itself indicates a kind of "path dependency" that, in one respect, cities like London have been able to adapt to change.

Cities are routinely acknowledges as complex and organic environments, but this description is hardly used in reference to the suburbs, typically dismissed as the byproduct of the urbs, thus of little interest interest.  In his opening chapter, Peter Ackroyd presents a detail critique of this widely held belief by demonstrating "how the idea of 'the suburbs' as an essentially non-complex domain has been perpetuated by a range of discipline and perspectives."  He argues for a more substantive concept of the suburban built environment "as one in which socioeconomic processes and cultural identities can be contested and negotiated over time."

Nighttime aerial of Central London
The theory and methodology of "space syntax," combined with those of urban anthropology are helpful for understanding the complexities of suburbia and an integral part of Suburban Urbanites: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street.  Mr. Ackroyd's book also presents a broad range of empirical case studies in Europe and the Mediterranean, demonstrating how these theories play out in different locations.  For example, in the chapter on Gothenburg, Sweden, the analysis highlights the "importance of the spatial connections from the suburbs across the city, showing how the redesign of public spaces...can contribute to daily social interaction and help to overcome social exclusion by improving access both to people from elsewhere as well as to urban resources."

Suburbs and cities have co-existed throughout history.  While cities have been hailed as complex, organic entities, Peter Ackroyd gives use pause to consider that suburbs behave in a similar manner.  Cities continue to change and adapt.  The suburbs are part of the process.

This post is based on an edited except from Suburban Urbanites, published by UCL Press and available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial NonDerivative license ©2015.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Are Cities Part Of The Obesity Problem? between-cities-and-obesity--lausanne-switzerland/4235513/

Anonymous woman
Hello Everyone:

It seems that El Niño has taken a leave of absence from Southern California.  The sun is out, the sky is clear, and there is a light breeze. Sorry everyone in the Mid-Atlantic United States who are digging out from Storm Jonas.

Today we look at the complex relationship between cities and obesity.  Blogger does not need to tell you that obesity can lead to some very serious health issues: diabetes, heart disease, greater pregnancy and birth complications, and so forth.  There is ample scientific evidence that points to a myriad of causes of obesity: poverty, social and emotional, sleep deprivation, genetic.  So many causes, that it can be quite difficult to pin point a cause of obesity.  Aria Bendix reports in her CityLab article, "The Complicated Relationship Between Cities and Obesity," You may all be scratching your collective head thinking "cities cause obesity? How is this possible?"

Woman weighing herself
Aria Bendix writes, "The relationship between cities and obesity is perhaps even more complicated."  On one side of the equation, urban dwellers "...are frequently exposed to pollution and may lack access to public space like parks and recreational facilities."  On the opposite of the equation, "...cities tend to be more walkable than sprawling suburban areas and therefore encourage a more active lifestyle."  It sounds contradictory, cities maybe more walkable than the suburbs but urban dwellers are more exposed to pollution and may have trouble accessing reliable, affordable transportation.  A 2014 study in the Journal of Transportation and Health ( supported the argument walkability leads to health.  Ms. Bendix reports, "The study found that dense cities with more compact street networks and smaller major roads have lower levels of obesity."  However, Ms. Bendix adds this caveat, "But these findings alone are not enough to conclude that cities are healthier places to live."

"Getis Ord GI Clustering" I
Now, we have evidence to suggest that the exact opposite is true-at least when it comes to obesity and weight gain.  A recent study by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland ( and published in the British Medical Journal Open concluded that city living may be connect with higher Body Mass Indices (a typical measure of obesity).

Researchers began by calculation the BMIs of about 6,500 adult residents of Lausanne between 2003 and 2006.  They went back six years later to collect the same information but from a smaller study group-4,500 from the initial group.  In an aside, Ms. Bendix notes, "The fact that BMI was measured in person and not self-reported lends an added degree of credibility to their findings."

The researchers used demographic date to map out the BMIs.  The above map is based on the follow-up observations that took place between 2009 and 2012.  Ms. Bendix explains, "The red dots indicate areas with 'unfavorable' BMIs that were proportionally higher than the rest of the city.  In contrast, the blue dots show areas with 'favorable' or proportionally lower, BMIs."  Aria Bendix writes, "In both the initial study and the follow-up, the researchers noticed a stark divide between working-class, less-educated residents clustered in the city's western edge-who had the higher BMIs-wealthier, well-educated residents farther was, whose BMIs were lower."

A contributor to obesity?
The conclusions reached by the study seem to be consistent with other analysis "...that links obesity to poverty and low-income neighborhoods."  Strangely, when the authors adjusted the information for neighborhood-level median income, the results were not significantly different.  Even subtracting income from the equation, the population of western Lausanne was still in the red (see map above).  This infers that higher BMIs were not solely a product of neighborhood median income.  Nor were the higher BMI directly influenced by other factors, such as: age, race, love of education, tobacco and/or alcohol consumption-all adjusted for in the study.

"Getis Ord GI Clustering" II

The study argues "...that urbanism could be one of the missing links between obesity and this location-based divide."  According to lead researcher Stéphane Joost, "large roads, crowded highways, and metro lines have isolated working-class communities from places that could be very healthy for them-namely green spaces."  Mr. Joost also observes that this type of isolation can limit a person's mobility and impede access to healthy food.  In another aside, Ms. Bendix says, "It is worth noting, however, that making healthy food accessible does not always lead to a change in consumer behavior."  However, access is not the only road block to health.  Mr. Joost also believes that "something called 'spatial dependence'-or the idea that your behavior is influenced by your neighbors-could be partly responsible for the high BMIs in Lausanne's western region."

A better choice
Photograph by Eamonn Mccabe
According to a 2007 analysis in the Framingham Heart Study (, "obesity occurs in clusters, based largely on social ties."  Specifically and perhaps, shockingly, the analysis revealed "that a person's chance of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if his or her friend was obese."  This trend continued for up to three degrees of separation.  Stéphane Joost postulates "that a similar phenomenon is at work in Lausanne."  He speculates that since large numbers of working-class residents live in subsidized housing, it is entirely possible that these resident are promoting a less than optimally healthy lifestyle within their communities.

Bicycle riders

Naturally, people cluster in places where they can afford to live, and according to Ms. Bendix, "the fact still remains that the built environment of Lausanne has forced working-class communities into areas that lack the sort of green space and amenities that foster public health."  Mr. Joost adds,

It's not by chance that people with modest incomes liver where they live.

The conclusions of the study reflect a greater pattern of concentrated inequality that frequently characterizes urban areas.  For example, Mr. Joost's 2014 study of Geneva, Switzerland (, concluded a similar divide between the more affluent residents on one side of the Rhône River and the working-class residents on the opposite side.  Mr. told CityLab,

The fact that we observed the same kind of pattern in Geneva and now in Lausanne, a city which is only 100 kilometers from Geneva, [indicated that] there is probably something to discover related to urban planning.

In short, Blogger agrees with Aria Bendix's conclusion, "...the way our cities are designed could be the difference between a healthy and unhealthy population."  Going forward, urban planning strategies will have place more attention on dissipating inequality "...or connecting isolated neighborhoods."  If the study conclusions are any measure, dealing with obesity will require carefully considered improvements to the urban landscape.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Blogger's Day Out At The Broad

The Broad Museum
Los Angeles, California
Hello Everyone:

Yours truly had a splendid afternoon visiting The Broad Museum (, in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles.  Not even the gray damp weather and a rather rude passenger on the Metro ride home could diminish the good feeling Blogger came away during her communion with art.  Yours truly has to admit that she is not well versed in Contemporary Art but The Broad offers some fine examples of the best of post-World War II art through today.  Yours truly took plenty of pictures and plans to share them with in this photo blog post.  Sit back and enjoy. Unless otherwise noted, all images are by Blogger's typist Lenore Lowen.

Single Elvis, 1963
Andy Warhol
Silkscreen ink and spray paint on linen

The Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater

The Walt Disney Concert Hall
Frank Gehry

Norm's La Cienega, On Fire, 1964
Ed Ruscha
Oil and pencil on canvas

Untitled (Your Body Is A Battleground), 1989
Barbar Kruger
Photographic silkscreen on vinyl

Michael Jackson And Bubbles, 1988
Jeff Koons

Tips For Artists Who Want To Sell, 1966-68
John Baldessari
Acrylic on canvas

Pershing Squre
Ocean Park #90, 1976
Richard Diebenkorn
Oil on canvas

Red Room, 1988
Keith Haring
Acrylic on Canvas

Horn Players, 1963
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Acrylic and oil still on three canvas panels mounted
Casual afternoon stroll through DTLA

African't, 1996
Kara Walker
Cut paper on wall
No Title, 1993
Robert Therrien
ceramic epoxy on fiberglass

Bateau De Guerre, 2011
Chris Burden
Mixed media

Dob In the Strange Forest (Blue Door), 1999
Takashi Murakami
fiber-reinforced plastic, resin, fiberglass, acrylic and iron

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, And Fountains, 2011
Takashi Murakami
acrylic on canvas stretched on wooden panel


Monday, January 18, 2016

Glamour And Decadence


Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, 1976
Hello Everyone:

We start the week of by noting a milestone.  We hit 60,000 page views.  Thank you so much for your continued support of this blog, it means a great a lot.  Now onward and upward.

The news of David Bowie's death from liver cancer has finally settled in.  For us fans, the shock still reverberates.  Within a span of less than three years, we lost two singer-songwriter-musicans: Lou Reed and David Bowie to an insidious disease.  The were preceded in death by Andy Warhol, one of the twentieth century's great masters.  Before you all get the idea that today's post is an obituary, according to Edward Helmond of The Guardian, David Bowie's death "...cut Manhattan's last link with its wild, creative past..."  He writes these words in in his article "First Lou Reed, now David Bowie.  that's it for New York.  It's over."  This was the New York long before gentrification,  Sex And The City, and countless Woody Allen movies made the city seem so glamorous, free of all its innate decadence.  They certainly warped Blogger's idea of New York City.  What was it about the wild, crazy creative past that still captures our imagination.

The Twin Tower, as seen from the New Jersey Shore, 1970s
 Lou Reed said best, New York City is the place where They said, 'Hey babe take a walk on the wild side.'"  This haunting song from his first solo album, Transformer (1972) produced by David Bowie, captured the very essence of the kind of place New York City had become: anything and everything could happen.  Five years later, Frank Sinatra would wax more sentimentally, If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere...Anywhere was beside the point.  At least not for Glenn Kenny's generation.

In his October 15, 2015 article for The Guardian, "Why we're still obsessed with the 1970s of Lou Reed and Patti Smith,"  he reports that recent books by Rachel Kushner, Garth Risk Hallberg, and Patti Smith's sterling follow up to Just Kids (2011), M Train evoke places that are "...both very scary and every exhilarating.  Not a place where some kind of arty misfit or wannabe arty necessarily wanted olive, but rather a place where one such creature could live."  A place where the arty misfit or wannabe "...had  to live." (; date accessed Jan. 18, 2016)

David Bowie and Lou Reed

One could suppose that the fascination with the New York is the a way of coping with increasing anxiety over Manhattan's gentrification.  Anxiety over gentrification is not news.  Edward Helmond writes, "But with the loss of each big figure associated with a past that many feel was and more creative-though that just mean sleazier and more dangerous-there is a deepening sense of disconnection from the city that shaped, and was shaped by, artistic figures from the Beat poets to Andy Warhol.  David Bowie was initially drawn to the free form environment of Andy Warhol's Factory with curious gender-fluid population, which as Mr. Helmond observes, "...turned out to be as much an example of the city's gentrification as he had been representative of its infamous wild side."

Affordable housing complex
Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York
Housing is still prohibitively expensive in Manhattan and beyond the grasp of the bohemian characters that populated David Bowie's musical landscape.  Mr. Helmond writes, "Despite efforts to redress the imbalance, ranging from potential restriction on undeclared foreign ownership of apartments in the so-called shadow-maker towers going up around the city, to public housing projects for the underclass..."  

In a September 10, 2015 essay  for T Magazine, in the New York Times titled Why Can't We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s," Edmund White writes,

...Then, there were only possibilities.  The cultural world-at least the cultural world that mattered-was much smaller then.  (; date accessed Jan. 18, 2016)

Everyone knew everyone else-writers knew painters knew musicians, they were all accessible.  while Mr. Kenny has no quarrel with Mr. White, he does point out that the phrase "the cultural world that mattered" is a pretty loaded phrase.  In particular he observes that the cultural world that mattered was "...overwhelmingly white..." and would love to read a cultural history of the period written by musician and critic Greg Tate, who co-founded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985.

42nd Street, mid-1970s
While it is true that it was the white arbiters and avatars of the seventies that dictated what culture mattered, it was the economic conditions of the period that drew the denizens of David Bowie's music to New York-Glenn Kenny writes, "...namely, cheap rent, which created the cultural ferment of New York City in the late 70s do not exist in New York any more."  He continues, "...what's also true is that when you reach a certain age, and you've achieved a certain position within the established culture, it's difficult to perceive whatever the ferment is, or not, happening away from where you are-not geographically, but hierarchically."

David Bowie out for a walk in New York City
Last week, as small shrine to the late singer-song-writer (hurts to write that) were going up, his fans were paying to not just David Bowie.  Unlike the late John Lennon and Lou Reed (still hurts to write that), David Bowie was not particularly associated with New York City.  In the 25 years he lived in the city, he made himself invisible.  Take a look at the picture on the left.  Do think the woman on the right hand side of the image knows she is walking next to David Bowie?  Maybe?  From the big smile on his face, you know that he knew he was being photographed.  Edward Helmond cites a 1991 article in New York magazine in which David Bowie told the writer:

When I first came to New York, I was in my early-20s, discovering a city I had fantasied over since my teens.  I saw it with multicoloured glasses...These days, my buzz can be obtained just by walking, preferably early in the morning...

Yet people forgot that he was a New Yorker through and through, going as far as to declare in a 2003 interview with SOMA, I'm a New Yorker! (  The really amazing thing was even in full Ziggy Stardust plumage, David Bowie could still walk the streets of Manhattan without notice.  He and his wife, model-entrepreneur Iman lived a quiet and comfortable with daughter.  Edward Helmond writes, "It was not so radically different to the life he lived in Geneva in the 1980s, or, minus the drug, the lifestyle he lived with Iggy Pop in the Turkish quarter of Berlin.  They were living anonymous, middle-class lives and enjoying their culture and money."

Final picture of David Bowie
Jimmy King
  Living an anonymous life, after a lifetime of being in the spotlight, was something that David Bowie valued for himself and his family.  Manhattan was the perfect place to live like a proper older "Englishman in New York."  In Manhattan, he could be anonymous, and anonymity was the ultimate disguise The Man Who Fell To Earth.  Mr. Helmond writes, "And where better to live a sensible, wealthy middle-class life than contemporary Manhattan, a city-like central London-awash with foreign money with swaths of property owned through foreign shell companies whose ownership-and source-is unknown?"

Manhattan has increasingly become an enclave for the absent extremely wealthy or dwell devoted to cultivating a well-paid corporate identity, not the "extreme transformations of personality, creativity, or decadent lifestyles that New York, and famous inhabitant from poets and abstract expressionists to Bob Dylan, Warhol, Johnny Thunders, the Ramones et al, exemplified over the years."  New York City inspired lifelong friends Lou Reed and David Bowi Tom Sarig, Lou Reed's manager told Mr. Helmond, 

He was drawn to the grittiness, the verité of it.  But while Lou was conspicuous in the city, a fixture, David blended in.  He was a ghost in it in a way. 

Like Lazarus, he will return
As the shock and numbness of David Bowie's death begins to ebb, we have to ask ourselves, who or what are we in mourning for?  We are grieving for that moment in time when anything was possible.  That anything was a wild and creative creature that had no boundaries.  it was the New York of Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, David Bowie.  Lovingly memorialized by Patti Smith and Rachel Kushner.  it was a romantic time, akin to the Belle Epoque period where creativity flourished or the interwar years in Europe.  We mourn our heroes and we mourn that piece of ourselves that got lost somewhere on our journey through life.  That wonderfully wild creative piece of ourselves that found expression in the music of Lou Reed and David Bowie.