17 Minutes of Summer

A summer day in Parkchester.

A summer day in Parkchester.

Summer arrived late this year and left in a big ol’hurry.
Why the rush?
How long did it stay?
Seventeen minutes?
All of us waited the entire month of June for the rains to stop.
Every weekend thereafter, I was sitting on either a plane or train or bus en route to another station or to wait in a customs line or to visit family.
Back home in the Bronx I was missing outdoor concerts and film screenings and biking to Orchard Beach and taking dips in the Castle Hill Y pool.
I’d been squeezing a normal June-to-August-summer into the 17 minute one we were dealt this year.

Though it warmed my heart, and ego, to read your emails and posts, I was sorry that some of you had to ask my whereabouts.  I hadn’t realized how much time had passed since my last update. I was certainly writing posts, very good ones in fact…in my head.

My hiatus has come to a close and I’m glad to be back.
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September 21, 2009 at 3:56 am 2 comments

Paddling the Bronx River

We saw these paddlers yesterday morning on our hike thru the New York Botanical Garden. The water was amazingly clear. But that doesn’t necessarily mean clean we were told. This was a private canoe tour but the Bronx River Alliance schedules public tours too.

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June 15, 2009 at 11:55 am 6 comments

Launching the S.S. Barracuda

One day last summer the Big Guy came home with a large box and two life preservers announcing we were now the proud owners of an inflatable kayak.

We took it out of the box and launched it only once last summer and then again a couple of weeks ago. I named it the SS Barracuda after the barracuda I caught in Jamaica last spring.

Orchard Beach has a lagoon with a kayak and canoe launch. Who knew? After passing the “toll booths” into the beach parking lot, make a left and head to the northwest corner. The launch is there.

The lagoon is actually quite calm and restful. We like to drift and watch the shadows on the trees cast by the airplanes on descent into LaGuardia.

The SS Barracuda is a two person kayak and we haven’t ventured out beyond this protected lagoon. It opens out into the mouth of the Long Island Sound after all and I’m a little chicken about mixing in with boat traffic and tides in an inflatable kayak. I can feel the current sloshing under my cheeks and that’s just enough for me for now.

Our paddling technique, though, is getting better, we spin around less. (Our paddle was too short, better once we extended it.) We met canoers who’d spent a couple of hours out. There are many small islands off the coast of the Bronx. One couple told us they went out to “the bridge”. I thought the Throgs Neck Bridge, but we think she was referring to the City Island Bridge, which would be a much safer trip.

The Orchard Beach Lagoon is one of five kayak and canoe launches in the Bronx on the New York City Water Trail.  A permit is required to put a canoe / kayak in the water (it’s accessible from the NYC Parks Department).
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June 15, 2009 at 2:07 am Leave a comment

Guitars and Buddha’s Moon over City Island

Two Guitars performing at the Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery on City Island.

Two Guitars performing at the Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery on City Island.

Saturday evening me and the Big Guy headed to City Island–not for overly battered deeply fried fruits de mer, but for acoustic jazz guitar at the Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery.

We saw the moon, full and hanging low as we crept onto the island in a long single file line of cars with everyone else.

The Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery is small, intimate, and family run, with a neighborhood coffeehouse vibe and charm that a corner Starbucks can never conjure up. Everyone seemed to know each other and the musicians, Brian Conigliaro and Gus Wieland of Two Guitars engaged the audience in a kind of name that tune. The musical selections weren’t quite what I’d call jazz (Come on people now smile on your brother and a song called “The Wind” by Circus Maximus), but their version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” filled that famous intro with fingerpicking and fret work that flowed very nicely on acoustic guitar.

Poet Ellen Ruth Topol at Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery on City Island.

Poet Ellen Ruth Topol at Starving Artist Cafe & Gallery on City Island.

We met Ellen Ruth Topol, a poet and City Island resident, who was painting to the music from a complete watercolor set splayed out all over her table. Ellen brought us up to speed on the happenings at the cafe (game nite, open mic, Japanese gypsy rock). She has recited poetry there (on the cafe’s 5th anniversary).

I’ve meet very few people in New York who call City Island home, maybe three.  I asked Ellen what do City Islanders do on summer weekends with all the traffic? How do you get around? She said you either stay at home, on the island, the entire weekend or leave on Friday and come back on Sunday, there’s no travelling back and forth anywhere.

We told her we’d come back to the cafe. The price is right, five bucks per person minimum and a “pay what you wish” music cover. But next time we will bike on to the island.

When we were leaving the cafe, Ellen told us that Sunday (June 7th) was Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, a day for prayer when the moon is full. It was a lovely send off as we stepped back onto City Island Avenue weaving in and around people queued up for shrimp and fish and others toting white plastic bags full of what they couldn’t eat.

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June 8, 2009 at 2:36 am 3 comments

Finding Utopia in the Bronx

Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J".

Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J" in the Bronx.

Where are the bohemian communities in the Bronx?

This has been the enduring quest of this blog and is certainly not unfair to ask of the Bronx.  Many enormously accomplished artists took their first breaths here. To find the equivalent of the Left Bank or Greenwich Village seems natural to me, but has not proven readily apparent.

I recently learned about a group of people who could easily fit the idea of Bronx Bohemians.  What I didn’t expect though, was that at home they would speak Yiddish.

First Coops residents.

First Coops residents.

“At Home in Utopia”, a film by Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky, tells the story of Jewish garment workers who build their dream home — The Coops, a cooperative apartment complex — on the corner of Allerton Avenue across from Bronx Park East in 1925.

The garment workers, immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland, were members of the United Garment Workers Union and living in the squalor of the Lower East Side tenements.

The majority of them were Communist or some degree of very left leaning.

Most of the idea of The Coops took shape during getaways to Camp Nitgedeiget, Yiddish for, loosely, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, a kind of carefree and spirited camp that the workers owned in upstate Beacon, New York.

The workers would pool their life savings to buy shares ($250 per room) in the cooperative that would be their dream home.  They wanted light, lots of light, a window in every room and trees and gardens. An architect would design all of that for them, including a hammer, sickle and compass on the mantle above the doorway of building “J”.  (It is still there.)

The original founders of the Coops (rhymes with stoops) would come up to the Bronx by subway.  Land in the Bronx was cheap and wide open. The archival photo of the patch of land they bought made me gasp — so hard to visualize a busy street like Allerton Avenue so open and overgrown with weeds.

When the workers moved into the Coops it fulfilled their dreams of being in beautiful surroundings and they lived a very communal life there.

The basement was the hub of social activity with club rooms for youth gatherings, a library and reading room, day care center,  a communal cafeteria, rooms where the musicians could jam and  “shules” where lessons were taught in Yiddish after school.

And no matter what, they could never be kicked out. The Coops had a policy that no one would lose their apartment for not being able to meet rent payments.

All of their board meetings were held in Yiddish.
And they argued and fought bitterly all the time.
On politics.
Stalin’s pact with Hitler.
Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s mass murders.
They would find their communist ideologies continually challenged, creating chasms in the Coops that would never be resolved.

Coops building detail.

Coops building Tudor style detail.

But they were incredibly aware of injustices to people around them and jumped into protest and strike. When tenants in the building next door were being evicted, Coops residents joined in the efforts to block the police from pulling the tenants from their apartment with the women acting as human barricades.  This scene in the film uses actual footage of this event on Allerton Avenue.

Religion was not important to them.
May Day, International Workers’ Day was very important to them.
Jewish holidays were not.
And for some, neither was marriage.
Coops resident Amy Galstuck Swerdlow said that her parents never married, believing that a marriage certificate was meaningless. [She says this during an interview on the DVD.]

The strongest moments of the film, however, are about race.

The people in the Coops, including the children, were well aware of the injustices toward Black Americans. They knew of the lynchings of black men in the South and were in solidarity with the Scottsboro Boys, nine black boys accused of raping two white women while travelling on a freight train in 1931. In fact, William Patterson, an attorney who represented the boys was a member of the American Communist party and a frequent visitor to the Coops.  His daughter, MaryLouise Patterson, is interviewed in the film.

In the 1930s they encouraged a small number of Black families to move into the Coops.  This was quite revolutionary at the time, as Blacks and Whites did not live in the same building in New York, nor anywhere else in America in the 30s, 40s nor 50s.  (Parkchester, for example, would not become integrated until the 1970s.)  And few became very prominent in the Communist party including Angie Dickerson, a new name for me. And Queen Mother Moore, whose name was already familiar to me.

The film tells the story of an incident that occurs when Coops residents take buses up to Peekskill, New York to hear Paul Robeson sing. They are surprised to learn that the outdoor concert is met by the locals shouting anti-semitic and anti-black rants and stone throwing.  The footage of the riot that ensues and the retelling by the residents who were there is entirely compelling.

Boris and Libby Ourlicht.

Boris and Libby Ourlicht.

Perhaps the most moving scene of the film, is Coops resident Boris Ourlicht’s story of his first date with his girlfriend, Libby, who is black. He is in love and driving her down to, aptly enough, Greenwich Village when their date takes an unexpected turn.

I will not spoil the moment as this moment is better expressed in the film, but I’ll just note that the people in the Coops were awakened by these events and stunned to see that America had not moved further along on the issue of race. Even within the walls of the Coops, as much as they all seemed to “get along”, some of the founding residents were not equipped to accept the interracial dating that was happening among the younger set.

But it would be the younger generation, Mr. Ourlicht and his contemporaries who would join the communist party, leave New York and challenge the “Negro question” head on, finding work in factories while waiting for the right time to bring up matters on race with their fellow factory workers.  As resident Pete Rosenblum said, “We were brave and stupid.”

At the end of the film, I envied what they had at the Coops. I respected what they were working to achieve.

In 1943, they were confronted with a critical decision about the future of the Coops.
They had taken out a $2 million mortgage and now found themselves unable to pay.
(As Ms. Goldman, the filmmaker points out, the Coops was greatly underfunded from the beginning.)
Each resident would be required to pay $1 more per room.
If they voted yes to the increase, they would maintain ownership of the Coops.
If they voted nay, then they would lose ownership forever.

This was a hotly debated issue — in Yiddish, of course.

The rationale for the decision they finally make is quite fascinating.
Perhaps they recognized the Coops as an experiment that had run its course.
Or maybe they felt they had seen their dream come to fruition, but recognized that it required a different level of cultivation than they were equipped to commit to.

The parallels between what they faced and what we today face couldn’t be more clear:
A nation in financial crises.
Home foreclosure.
An overstuffed mortgage that can no longer be carried.
A look toward FDR’s New Deal for answers and influence.
A shortage of affordable housing for the working poor.
Urban housing for low income families with trees, greenery and parks.

Sixty-six years later, all of these issues remain headlines in our nation’s papers.
And are critical issues right here in the Bronx.

Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.

Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.

The Coops were not the only cooperative housing complex founded by garment worker unions in the Bronx.  At one time the Bronx was home to four, each representing a unique faction of communist and socialist ideology.  The other three cooperatives were: The Amalgamated, largely Socialist, Sholem Aleichem Houses, founded by Yiddishists, was divided between Communists and Socialists, the Farband was Labor-Zionist.  Only The Amalgamated is still operating as a cooperative today.

“At Home in Utopia”, eight years in the making, will air across the nation on Tuesday evening, April 28th on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series.  In New York City,  the film will air at 10pm and again early Wednesday morning, April 29th at 3:20 am.

But I highly recommend the DVD.  The additional scenes round out this story even more.

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April 27, 2009 at 9:40 am 14 comments

Project Runway Casting for New Season

I love Project Runway.
I’m always interested to see how the designers sew their way through each challenge.
A new uniform for New York City mail carriers.
A gown made of real flowers, moss and leaves. Or Hershey’s candy bars or car parts.
A tailored ensemble for football player turned reporter Tiki Barber to wear on the “Today” show — one that would flatter and fit his thick neck, broad chest, big arms and “big butt.” (They all failed quite miserably–not a tailor in the bunch.)

Where is the next winner of Project Runway?
In Morris Park, Bedford Park, Throggs Neck, Norwood, Parkchester, Mott Haven or Williamsbridge?
Getting on the 4? or the 6 Express?

The producers of Project Runway are casting for Season 7.
I know we have here Bronxites oozing with creativity and attitude. Who can also drape and make patterns.

Whereever you are, would love to cheer you on!
Applications due April 30th.

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April 22, 2009 at 1:05 am Leave a comment

KRAZY! Cosplay

These days, My Favorite 15 Year Old is all about everything Japanese: mochi and daifuku, anime, J-pop delivered by pretty guy-liner eyed boys whose clothing dips deep into cross-dressing. She totes around the yellow and black Japanese for Dummies and by my untrained ear, her accent sounds quite impressive.

Thanks to her, we recently had our first Cosplay experience as part of Japan Society‘s current anime, manga and video games exhibit. I imagine that this is what a Star Trek Convention must be like but with more satin bows. We saw wigs in every hue and height, shiny intergalactic impenetrable fabrics, red contact lenses, seven foot swords, knee socks and samurai, hoop skirts and bustles, even a cascade of LED lights with a battery pack tucked away in a skirt bustle. (Very cool, literally, the tiny lightbulbs weren’t hot at all. I made a note for my next dress up moment.)

I was struck by the number of girls dressed as male characters and by the number of scullery maid get-ups with floppy caps and lacy aprons. “Lolitas” My FF15YO said, adding they’re usually licking giant lollipops or carrying palm sized plushy critters.  “Oh.” I replied.

The party was sold out. Reni, a Cosplay singer, in bunny ears and coquetteish dance moves sang to us in Japanese. I asked around if anyone hailed from the Bronx. Other than us three I didn’t find anyone else.

The costumes were great. The best were the original ones. A few were sewn by the Cosplayer themselves. The mood was upbeat and full of teen (and 20s something) spirit. We had a great time.

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April 21, 2009 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

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