Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What Value Does a Soldier Have When He No Longer Can Kill?

Jim Power attacks his work begs to be arrested
In the guidebooks to the East Village of New York, there are photographs of the mosaic lampposts, the mosaic bus bench made from a broken planter, mosaic restaurant walls.
Jim Power - the Mosaic Man - at work on Astor Place
They are made by Jim Power. Jim was born in Ireland, in Waterford. He gained his citizenship when, in his late teens, he joined the US army and manned a waist gun on a helicopter in Vietnam.
"They didn't know I was half blind. I don't think I ever shot anyone, I just couldn't see anyone out there... " Jim served in Vietnam, and came home... more or less. He lived on the margins, never far from the war which took his youth and took much of the rest of his life. For twenty years now, he has festooned the East Village with joyous art. "Very TIP TOP of the Morning!" he yells to folks on their way to the never ending grind of making a living in New York as he pastes broken glass and pottery to the gray lampposts.
Jessie and Jim on the mosaic bus bench...
He once had an apartment, then a squat, then a tent as it became harder and harder to live on the margins of New York's former Lower East Side. Jim was one of the artists who made this neighborhood the East Village, a name first used by Tony's Diner, the Village East on the corner of Saint Marks and Third Avenue.
Jim Power in heavy rain...
Now Jim is angry. His art has benefited the city in a way that cannot be measured. The property values reflect the artistic feel of the neighborhood, of which his mosaics are a very prominent part. Now, he does not even have a tent in which to sleep. So, he has grown angry at the being he loves more than anything on earth, his dog Jessie Jane. He feels the neighborhood cares more for Jessie than for him. He placed a for sale sign on her, as close to an act of suicide as he, in his still sane mind can do.
Good thing Jessie cannot read
He will not part with her however, it is simply a scream for recognition. It is unlikely that Jim can sell Jessie Jane, she is completely in love with Jim and will not stay with anyone else, even for short periods.
More, he has decided to remove his art from the streets with a hammer. Some looked on in curiosity or confusion as Jim railed at the lack of appreciation shown to him by the city, and threatened to run for Mayor in the next election. A passerby, Sweet Lew, a saxophone player, begged Jim to leave his work in place as chips of mosaic flew from the lamppost under his attack. Jim screamed that he was going to Philadelphia where "artists are respected."
Jim screams in anger
Two fire department ambulances and two police cars arrived. Many in the crowd were worried that he might be taken into custody. However, the police and fire department EMTs calmed him down.
Jim explains that for years his work has been included in tourist guides to New York, helping bring people to New York and to the East Village. He says that he does not expect charity, but rather the city owes him a roof over his head, without having to give up his dog -- a condition of most shelters. "I should get a paid job for two years of work repairing my 80 lampposts."
Jessie Jane takes a break
Jim often does workshops for the children, either in schools or out on the street where he works on public art. He just wants to be able to keep doing this without having to live on the street for another winter.
Comfort for Jessie after a bite

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What's wrong with this picture?

What is Wrong With this Picture?
Michael T in blackface during the HOWL festival

As part of the HOWL festival in Tompkins Square Park, a small troop of performers sought to present a little bit of infamous Bowery history. In the face of the juggernaut of featureless modern high-rises which have been destroying the quaint and gentle architecture of the Bowery, they sought to remind us of the stories being torn down and plowed under. They concentrated on one building which survived assaults of social reformers in its day, and stood for years in an often marginalized and neglected part of town. When the wrecker's ball struck McGurk's, the ghosts of many of our most colorfully lost New Yorkers were made homeless.
This show intended to honor their memories, but one act at least, brought other more modern specters forward for some spectators.

Low Life HOWL festival

Luc Sante describes in the book, "Low Life" how McGurk's Suicide Hall was one of the most notorious houses of prostitution in New York in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It received its name from the number of suicides by young girls who worked the place. Often their method of self murder was to drink carbolic acid. If done properly, it is a horrifically painful but certain death. Blonde Mage Davenport was one of the girls who successfully killed herself in this manner. She and her partner Big Mame, undertook to kill themselves together. Big Mame spilled most of the acid on her face, disfiguring her self and resulting in her being barred from McGurk's. McGurk's closed over 90 years ago.
McGurks Remembered
The girls of McGurk's drink carbolic acid at the HOWL festival

Among the crowd who patronized McGurk's, and the other Bowery dives, one could find singers and comedians who roamed from saloon to saloon, playing music, dancing and singing for coins from the crowd. One such busker was Al Jolson. His act, in cork makeup, known as blackface, and familiar to most Americans from his acting in the early days of film with sound, was perfected on the Bowery in the last days of McGurk's.
Remembering the place of blackface in the Bowery's past, some present in the park during the festival were shocked to see Michael T, a White performer, lip sync to an Al Jolsen recording of "Mammy," flanked by two Black performers, also in blackface.

Michael T What's wrong with this picture

James Romberger, an artist and the husband of the festival's director describes the intent of the act as following: "The minstrel show was for years the only public persona of people of color. To reproduce an entertainment of that time without showing the racist aspects would have been a lie, like the racist America missing from such sanitized corporate entertainment as Martin Scorcese's 'Gangs of New York.'"

The intent of the performance was lost on some people. More, the reaction of the majority White middle class audience disturbed them, as did the MC's patter which praised Jolson in the present, breaking the illusion that this was a view of the past. As Scott Crary, the director of the film "Kill Your Idols" put it, referring to the performance and the audience reaction, "Al Jolson began his career on the Bowery. And I think they were beckoning a bit of post-modern awareness to mock that history. Still, the satisfied laughter and cheers from the crowd were uncomfortable to listen to. I can't admit to being entirely in on the joke."

Other's put it more simply. One reaction was described by Crary, " I saw Carl's friend, the black gentleman you photographed (under the title "evening light") in the crowd watching the girls that were on before Michael T. When the minstrels came out, he turned and pronounced it "bullshit" and walked away grumbling, clearly insulted." A similar reaction was that of James Bedford, a middle aged Black man, born in Georgia, who moved to New York after a time in Philadelphia. He has lived in New York since 1988 and is a building superintendent on Saint Marks Place. He had been talking to a friend in the crowd just before Michael T appeared on stage. I noticed he had left as soon as the performance began. I found him speaking to friends a few days afterwards and asked him about the performance.

"I didn't like it. They never miss a chance to make Black folks look bad. I looked at the crowd looking at it [Michael T's performance], they were laughing. I just walked off. There are just some racist-assed people. New York has gotten more racist than Georgia. Georgia has changed."
One of the friends he is speaking to is John Newsome, who moved to New York from Texas forty-two years ago. He speaks of his experience as a Black American and a Black New Yorker. In answer to a question, if a Gay activist in blackface is somehow expositive of some civil rights notion, some irony he replies that like all civil rights struggles, the Gay rights struggle has benefited from Black leadership on rights, and not returned the debt owed... "Blacks have been at the forefront of everybody else's' civil rights struggle and we're blamed for it, we don't benefit. The Gay struggle and the Black struggle are entirely different, unless you a Black and Gay. If I go into a place of business, I am a suspect, until they see my money and are sure I am going to spend it."

A White baby doll painted in blackface is presented, as Michael shouts, "Mah Baby! Mah baby!" A hooting laugh went up from the audience. For me, it was not a laugh at the racism of the times past ... it was a laugh with the racism of the times present. It was the release of the subconscious racism which accepts the different outcome of American promise in the segregation of our schools, the jailing of so many more of the targeted group by unspoken belief in difference of potential. For me, the idea of the baby in blackface was the infliction of racism on so much of White America at birth, and I could not join in the laughter.I just photographed the event. James Romberger responds, "As you say, you were unable to cheer for this part of the show; I consider that a valid response. Perhaps those cheering hailed the courage and skill of the notably multicultural performers rather than the image they projected; perhaps those not cheering were saddened and disgusted at facing America's racist past. Both responses are valid responses."

I remain unconvinced. While our schools in New York are still so separate and unequal, and Black New Yorkers remain permanent suspects, should we be laughing?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering Firefighter Gerarde Baptiste

In memory of Firefighter Baptiste
Box of dog biscuits at the door of Engine 33 Ladder 9's firehouse
Firefighter Gerarde Baptiste used to carry dog biscuits in his pockets for every dog he'd meet. He was lost on 9\11