“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical.” – Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The concept of pure cinema has roots in silent film, when filmmakers had to tell a story visually without spoken dialogue. Red Moon Tide is indeed pure cinema for the 21st century: it was filmed on a digital camera and does have dialogue, sound, and music but employs it parsimoniously. It is a feast for the eyes. My lone regret is that I did not see it in a movie theater, but via the streaming service Mubi (but I am thankful for that).
The film is set in the Galicia region of Spain and revolves around the disappearance of Rubio, a fisherman who believed a sea monster was responsible for diminished fishing (as opposed to overfishing or pollution) and hunts it down. Rubio is a local legend in his own right, known for recovering the corpses of shipwrecked sailors. In his absence, the town literally comes to a standstill. Most people in this film essentially stand still (except for three witches), while life around them goes on: horses run, birds sing, water trickles and crashes. Rubio’s story is recounted poetically in voiceover by the residents of the Galician village.
Camille Paglia, in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, noted in the introduction how the modern eye is constantly exposed to flashing images everywhere via mass media (she wrote that even when one is pumping gasoline, there is often a television screen on top of the pump). Paglia states that we must relearn how to see and find focus: “…The only way to teach focus is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception—best supplied by the contemplation of art.” I want to applaud the director, Lois Patiño, for fostering pure cinema in a digital world ruled via smartphones by embracing and incorporating elements of still photography. In today’s movie market, too many films are made for those with short attention spans using cutting and camera work does not allow one to consider composition, scenery, and the actors. This film allows you to do all that and more. I feel fulfilled and will always remember this film as a masterpiece in my personal history of cinema. I hope that somehow, someway, this film is released in American theaters. We need less smartphones and more slow looking, focus and the grandeur of the movie screen.
* P.S. If you have previously read my blog, you know I also love all things comic books and superheroes, but that is not all I consume. I concurrently love popular culture and high art. They can and should co-exist in your world of entertainment and education.
A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:
“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”
“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”
“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”
“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”
“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”
“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”
You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.
Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”
Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.
During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:
If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.
In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.
James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.
Physicians in 17th-century Europe who cared for plague victims wore a mask with a long, bird-like beak that now has a menacing implication. The reason behind the beaked plague mask was to protect the doctor from miasma: before knowledge of germs, physicians believed that the plague spread through poisoned air. Sweet and pungent perfumes were thought to fumigate plague-stricken areas. Plague doctors filled masks with theriac, a compound of 55 plus herbs and other components like myrrh and honey. The beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be immersed by the protective herbs before it hit the doctor’s nostrils and lungs.
“Wear a mask.” In 2020, this was a really loaded declaration (and will likely continue to be in 2021 and beyond). As The Washington Post reported in July of that year, “at the heart of the dismal U.S. coronavirus response” is a “fraught relationship with masks” as well as “faulty guidance from health authorities, a cultural aversion to masks and a deeply polarized politics have all contributed.” National Geographic noted that humans are experts at interpreting faces and generally use the whole face to interpret emotion which is why wearing masks for health and safety can present some social and cultural obstacles.
Widespread use of masks is critical not just for health reasons but also for social ones. According to researcher Mitsutoshi Horii, when only sick or vulnerable people wear masks, it singles them out, making them targets for fear and stigma. By fostering a culture of mask-wearing, people are showing solidarity with each other and cooperating to ease the strain on their fellow humans. 
Today is July 10, 2020. The coronavirus continues to rage on in the United States while Republicans continue to politicize wearing a mask. Today,The New York Times noted that the United States was the biggest source of new coronavirus infections, reporting more than 59,880 cases as it set a single-day record for the sixth time in 10 days. Make no mistake and spin it all you want, this is because of Trump failed to coordinate a national effort.
The New York Times published another story today on how ICE helped spread the coronavirus:
“Even as lockdowns and other measures have been taken around the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ICE has continued to detain people, move them from state to state and deport them.”
Speaking of ICE, the United States is STILL caging the children of individuals seeking asylum—many of whom are from Latin America.
During this event, Unanue bizarrely said the United States was “blessed” to have Trump as its leader.
While I truly applaud the company’s humanitarian efforts, I have to wonder if Unanue has been living under a rock these last three years? Trump is enormously unpopular among Latinx Americans: according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, Latinx Americans favor Biden over Trump by a 36 percentage-point margin. The timing of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative is curious.
The following day, Unanue went on to Fox “news” to say he wasn’t going to apologize. He claimed a double standard in the reaction to his remarks about Trump, noting that he accepted an invitation from Michelle Obama in 2012 to an event that promoted the former first lady’s healthy-eating initiative. Unlike the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, the healthy-eating initiative had been in full swing by 2012 and President Obama was not trying foster divisiveness. In short, Unanue was simply acting as a cog in Trump’s publicity machine.
Predictably, conservatives belly-ached about freedom of expression. Unanue indeed has the right to express himself, but I also have the right to no longer buy Goya products (in spite of the fact that they employ many Puerto Ricans) and express it. Maybe the company needs a change of leadership, much like the United States does right now. My message to Unanue is to look at what Trump does, not what he says.
Looking into my pantry, it is FILLED with Goya products and I have to plan on how I am going replenish them once I have consumed them (and to anyone thinking about throwing out Goya products, don’t be foolish—eat it or donate it). I would like to present you with some possible alternatives.
Sazon: I have not tried these, but it seems that Iberia also produces this (with achiote).
Tomato paste and sauce: Again, we have Iberia as well as an assortment of other companies. I have tried the organic brand, Muir Glen, and it is very good, but more expensive.
Beans: Again, Iberia, like Goya, offers canned and dry varieties. I have tried the canned beans by Eden Foods and they are quite good (expensive, but organic). In a pinch, I once used Bush’s kidney beans and they were quite good.
Rice: If you can find Vitarroz (I feel their presence in stores has diminished in the last few years, and the company doesn’t appear to have a website); I actually prefer to use sushi rice (which is a lot like Valencia rice) when I make the classic rice and beans and having been using the one produced by RiceSelect for several years now.
Empanada dough: This was a tough one because I have been using the Goya discs for a very long time. Then I remembered that my Mother used La Fe.
Frozen banana leaves: These are often used for pasteles, but Asian markets also sell them.
Frozen yuca: Since I discovered Goya packaged these, I started using them for my pasteles as they save a ton of time. Thankfully, La Fe packages them as well.
I feel like Unanue is having his ‘shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing voters’ moment—I can shoot my mouth off and praise Trump and I won’t lose customers. Words matter and let’s show Unanue how much they do.
I grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Back then the neighborhood had a clear physical division: east of Broadway was primarily populated by Dominicans and other people of color, while the west of Broadway was primarily populated by whites. The neighborhood residents seemed to coexist and share public spaces such as Inwood Park without any strife I was cognizant of. I attended a Catholic grade school where I had friends of varied ethnic backgrounds. I was fortunate in that my first encounter with bigotry was not until I was 12 years old (though as I got older, I certainly experienced it).
In the summer of 1979, I entered Inwood Park and saw this boldly spray-painted on a wall: “Disco Suxs!” For some reason, it rattled me. What was so bad about disco? I was a fan. It had ENERGY and you could dance to it. It made me happy. Back then, and to this day, I never understood people who severely went out of their way to slam something that was not of their taste. If you don’t like something, ignore it and move on—why deface a wall? Why troll online?
I asked my parents about it and that became our first talk about bigotry. Because they knew I loved music so much, they used the history of Motown Records as a way to explain it to me. They noted how Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. After that talk, I never looked at or heard those records in the same way again.
Years later, on a VH1 Behind the Music episode on disco, virtuoso musician and producer, Niles Rodgers conveyed that the hate stemmed from the fact that it was the music of minorities that included people of color and the LGBTQ community. Music critic Robert Christgau noted that homophobia, and most likely racism, were the driving forces behind the anti-disco movement that resulted in a preposterous disco demolition night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The way the 1960s counterculture ended at Altamont, disco ended at this event (by the way, those in attendance trashed the stadium). The haters were also likely intimated by the liberating physicality of disco dancing and hastily labeled the music as vacuous.
Concurrently forceful and sensual, disco was the resurgence of Dionysian pagan culture in the 20th century. Disco is not vacuous and is indeed complex.
First and foremost, disco took significant effort to produce than say the four-piece bands found in other genres. Disco often contained an ample band, with chordal instruments, drums, percussions, horns, a string orchestra, and various classical solo instruments like the flute. The recording of complex arrangements with a large number of instruments required a team that included a conductor and mixing engineers. Disco also had extraordinary vocalists that included powerhouses such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand as well as Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Chic, France Joli, Michael Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester, A Taste of Honey, and Barry White.
After the ridiculousness of disco demolition night, disco found a second life in early rap, notably “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang which sampled Chic’s brilliant song, “Good Times.” Disco still lives on under the sapped title of dance music. Dance music is not as beautifully produced as disco but has had many remarkable moments over the last forty years.
If you hated disco in the 1970s, let me encourage you to put aside your prejudices and put on a pair of headphones and embrace the genius. Let the music take you away.
A Brief History of Community Organizing in the 20th Century
Community organizing seeks better responsiveness of institutions to the needs of the community by addressing and restructuring decision-making processes. Community organizers recruit residents to take on powerful institutions in their community through direct, public confrontation and action. Respected figures such as Saul Alinsky and noted organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have advanced community organizing.
Saul Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. The IAF is a grassroots organizing network involving people in over sixty cities in the U.S. that draws together coalitions of poor and middle class people to address poverty, housing, education, public infrastructure and many other issues. However, the IAF is not necessarily about issues: its aim is to build a culture of vibrant participatory democratic practices that gradually transform political and economic power. The IAF is an organization of organizations, drawing upon religious congregations, neighborhood associations, community centers, and unions. Issues tend to be chosen and negotiated with an eye to how they might strengthen and broaden grassroots democratic relationships. The IAF has been successful at drawing people into long-term democratic practices and bridging relationships that cross lines of complex difference, creating new political relationships that concurrently work with traditional and the emerging.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), like the IAF, is also a grassroots community organization of low and moderate-income people. Started in 1970 by Wade Rathke and Gary Delgado, the early version of ACORN helped people obtain clothing and furniture; it campaigned for schools to provide healthy, affordable lunches and promoted Vietnam Veterans’ rights. The organization then branched out into housing and workers’ rights advocacy and has helped thousands of working-class and poor citizens obtain home loans, register to vote and fight for better wages. ACORN differed from IAF in that it engaged in electoral politics as a way of gaining power and ddi not rely on support from organizations and churches, but on door-to-door solicitation and dues paying members. ACORN did not limit itself to local issues and campaigns; and was very particular about picking winnable issues. ACORN found that it could win on issues that are not just about welfare and the poor.
As the IAF expanded, Alinsky felt that the most essential element of organizing was relational organizing. To make IAF organizations more cohesive and assertive, especially when dealing with municipal government, Alinsky encouraged face-to-face meetings. He also believed in establishing local power through individual local leaders who organized and mobilized the poor. One of ACORN’s strengths is its combination of insider and outsider tactics and strategies: activists and leaders often work both inside the system (organizing the poor) and outside the system (protests and confrontation). ACORN did not shy away from using the in-your-face confrontational protest tactics. ACORN was unapologetic about its tactics because it helped draw attention to neglected issues and built membership.
One criticism of the IAF was the lack of diversity among the organizing staff. ACORN’s organizing staff was 90% white in the 1970s and 1980s, but the organization has made considerable progress hiring and retaining organizers of color. Regarding matters of membership and possible racial issues, both organizations approached it in somewhat similar ways: they essentially ignored it. IAF’s practice of multiracial equality presupposes that common religious values creates a basis for cooperation that over time could overcome longstanding prejudices and create a mutual understanding. IAF emphasized the economic and ignored the racial fearing that raising the issue of race could disrupt and divide their organization. ACORN rarely framed issues racially; therefore, it had difficulty forming alliances or coalitions with Black organizations. ACORN also did not organize around single issues such as desegregation, police brutality or the loss of needed public services.
Interestingly, The IAF and ACORN had chapters in some of the same cities that often work on similar issues, but they never work together. Because the IAF uses religious values as a unifying force, their local chapters usually had more members than ACORN’s, but it never sought to build an amalgamated organization that could have waged national policy campaigns. Interestingly, IAF’s Baltimore affiliate, BUILD, coordinated the first successful living wage campaign, but was not able to translate that into a national movement. ACORN, on the other hand, had used its amalgamated structure to build a national living wage movement, with victories in several cities.
While organizations such as unions have historically played an effective role in representing everyday citizens, those organizations now have weaker organizing power. What we have left are community-based organizations. The IAF and ACORN both sought broad-based constituencies that spanned race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and geography. But in this political atmosphere, can they survive?
The Mid to Late 2000s
In 2007, ACORN had field offices in 100 cities and 260,000 members, mostly from minority communities. ACORN helped register more than 1.6 million voters nationally between 2004 and 2008. In 2004, it initiated a successful ballot measure raising Florida’s minimum wage. But by 2008, Republicans were accusing ACORN of voter fraud, even though prosecutors across the country failed to find any evidence. Let us be clear that ACORN was indeed contributory in getting Barack Obama elected.
In 2009, workers at ACORN were secretly recorded by conservative hacks Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe. The videos were heavily edited to create a misleading impression of their activities.
In September of 2009, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to ban the ACORN from receiving federal funding. Here’s how the Democratic leadership voted on the “De-fund ACORN” amendment (A “yes” is a vote to de-fund”):
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: did not vote.
Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen: Yes
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: Yes
Majority Whip Jim Clyburn: No
Senior Chief Deputy Majority Whip John Lewis: No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Maxine Waters: No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip John S. Tanner: did not vote
Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra: No
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair George Miller: Yes
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair Rosa DeLauro: Yes
Organization, Study, and Review Chairman Michael Capuano: No
In December of 2009, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on ACORN activities, commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee. It noted that ACORN has not been found to violate any federal regulations in the past five years. The report’s other findings included that there were no instances of voter fraud by people who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees, and no instances where ACORN violated terms of federal funding in the last 5 years. In fact, the CRS found that O’Keefe and Giles may have violated Maryland and California laws banning the recording of face-to-face conversations without consent of both parties.
I can’t help but wonder how could an organization that had become a force across the country, mobilizing low- wage minority workers and Democratic voters, be pushed to its downfall by its beneficiaries? Alinsky wrote, in the afterword of his Reveille for Radicals (on page 225), “A political idiot knows that most major issues are national, and in some areas international, in scope. They cannot be coped with on the local community level.” He also warned against jumping directly to a national organization while skipping “the organization of the parts” (page 226). Is this what happened to ACORN? Were they not firmly rooted in the communities they worked in? If they were, would politicians have been less inclined to throw them under the bus?
Speaking of politicians, I want to single out Debbie Wasserman Schultz as one glaring example of what is wrong with the Democratic Party.
In 2011, she missed 62 votes of Congress. In December 2015, Wasserman Schultz was one of 24 co-sponsors of H.R. 4018, authored by GOP Congressman Dennis A. Ross, which would delay the implementation of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations. Wasserman Schultz was among a dozen Florida representatives who cosponsored the legislation that would delay the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s payday lending rules by two years. The fees for these loans, over the course of a year, can add up as high as the equivalent of a 300% APR.
The following year, during the 2016 presidential primary, Wasserman Schultz only scheduled six debates, significantly fewer than in previous election cycles (and half as many as the Republicans counterparts). Some of Wasserman Schultz’s actions that the media covered during the primaries included:
halting the Sanders’ campaign’s access to DNC databases;
defending the superdelegate system used in the Democratic primaries;
rescinding a prior ban on corporate donations;
and accusing Sanders supporters of violence at the Nevada Convention.
The right wing’s efforts to demonize ACORN had made the organization a discomfiture to Democratic leadership, and it was far easier to throw ACORN under the bus than it would be to stand up for fundamental fair play and justice, and actually investigate the charges before deciding what the appropriate response might be. After the debacle of the 2016 election, as well as later this year, Democrats like Wasserman Schultz will wish they hadn’t been so cavalier especially if the GOP continues to prevent those who put them into office from voting.
Since the video became a ubiquitous part of popular music nearly forty years ago, it has sometimes struggled as an art form. The marriage has not always been harmonious: sometimes you have great songs with mediocre videos and vice versa. What I have always appreciated about it, when it does approach art, is that a story or message can be conveyed without the constraint of a script, spoken word, or even the lyrics of the song.
Madonna, who rose to prominence during the early years of the music video, has produced a stunning body of work in both video and song. However, in the last decade, this has not been case; she seemed more occupied with collaborating/cannibalizing younger recording artists and touring than producing thoughtful work. Thankfully, she has returned to form with “Dark Ballet.”
The song and video are essentially a pop version of the opera by Tchaikovsky, The Maid of Orleans, which tells the story of Joan of Arc. Interestingly, this is not Madonna’s first time exploring Joan of Arc in her work: in her last album, Rebel Heart, she had a song titled “Joan of Arc.” In my review, I noted it as the most irritating song because she was essentially complaining about being famous and I questioned what that had to do with Joan of Arc.
“Dark Ballet” is told from Joan of Arc’s point of view. In the brilliant bridge of the song, set to a pulsating electronic arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes” from The Nutcracker, Madonna speaks:
“I will not denounce the things that I have said I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord He has chosen me to fight against the English And I’m not afraid at all to die ’cause I believe him God is on my side and I’ll be his bride I am not afraid ’cause I have faith in him You can cut my hair and throw me in a jail cell Say that I’m a witch and burn me at the stake It’s all a big mistake Don’t you know to doubt him is a sin? I won’t give in”
The video is book ended by quotes, with one by Joan of Arc and another by queer poet and activist Mykki Blanco, who was cast as Joan of Arc in the video. Madonna is surprisingly absent except for a very brief cameo. Blanco gives us some incredible acting here. I also can’t heap enough praise on the cinematography, production, and direction by Emmanuel Adjei (he is one to watch).
And while the song and video is about Joan of Arc, it feels as if Madonna and Adjei are also addressing the toxic mix of bigotry and religion that pervades the world: too many people use religion to justify their prejudices and fears.
Madonna’s pop version of the opera The Maid of Orleans is “Dark Ballet.”
Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%.
How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?
Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.
On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.
Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.
“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”
When asked about future shows he responded:
“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”
This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:
“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”
Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:
“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”
Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.
In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”
What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.
Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.
Yesterday I attended a comic convention at pier 94 in Manhattan. I took the subway and disembarked at Columbus Circle, which was once a part of my daily life when I was a student at John Jay College. Because pier 94 is at 55th Street, I walked the long, cavernous part of the station that allows you to exit at 56th Street. It had been quite a few years since I walked through that part of the station and was appalled by what I discovered.
All of the thriving businesses that once operated there were gone.
Notably missing was a vintage style barbershop and a very busy newsstand. Also missing was a charming tiled mural created by grade school children titled, Hello Columbus. Instead, I found empty storefronts with homeless people camped out in front. The exception was an office called Turnstyle (a “clever” amalgamation of the words turnstile and style), where a business could rent out one of the storefronts.
Homelessness is all consuming.
The following day, I visited the Turnstyle website and discovered these nuggets of information: 30 shops, 22 million people. $135,000 average income.
Really? $135,00.00? I think the people who work at my alma mater, Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, Fordham University and the thousands of retail, hotel and restaurant workers that also use this station could contest this number.
What really burned me about the web site was how it implied that there was nothing there before. I have previously written about how the Giuliani / Bloomberg era created the current state of gross inequality in New York City while killing ethnic and local flavors. Turnstyle is congruent with this.
Once upon a time, the subway was the inexpensive way to get around. Lately it is catering to and fostering the wealthy. Did you know that the MTA is planning to do away with the MetroCard and implement some sort of bankcard? This means that in addition to the fare, you are going to have to pay fees to a bank. Cash is going out of “style”! Fare increases and stagnant salaries are already catastrophic to the working poor. This tactic reminds me of McDonald’s paying workers with debit cards loaded with fees. There is also a strong connection with gentrification and subway lines. Take out a subway map and circle any subway line with relatively easy access to Manhattan and you can almost predict where gentrification will happen next.
A recent article in The New Yorker about urban blight in the West Village notes:
“The fate of small businesses in the West Village may be a local issue, but it is one with large implications. For one thing, cities remain major drivers of economic growth, and small businesses continue to form a larger part of G.N.P. than their larger cousins. But there is a deeper issue as well. Since the nineteen-sixties, when Americans faced an extreme wave of urban blight, they have understood rising property values as a reliable measure of recovery. But everything can go too far, and at some point high property values may begin to destroy local economic activity.”
While I agree with this, I would like to SHAME The New Yorker for the accompanying photograph that further perpetuates the myth of urban blight as young men of color wearing hoodies.
As the Turnstyle website notes, there is no shortage of high-end stores in the Columbus Circle area. However, they failed to realize that the 1% who live in the neighborhood do not occupy as much space in the subway as the 99% who commute there. Turnstyle AND the MTA have likely created urban blight underground by forcing out the businesses that once offered an affordable haircut, shoeshine and local art.