Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Broadway All Day

Yesterday, which was Monday, December 17th, I started my day in the Bronx at Broadway and 231st Street. The point of being there was to launch an investigation of Broadway in Manhattan. Hirofumi Minami, David Chapin and I have decided to explore this ultimate main street, working in chunks, starting at the northern end. We met at 231st Street, and wandered south on the western side. We made such brilliant observations as that the donut shops were on the west and the car repair and gas stations were on the east. This might have meaning -- you never know. We strolled through Marble Hill, a little bit of Manhattan that is north of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which joins the Harlem River to the Hudson River. We walked over the Broadway Bridge, one of three bridges over the Spuyten Duyvil. It was a long drop from the bridge to the water, and the water rushes by brown and fast. I crossed quickly, but David, who is quite intrepid, meandered and took pictures all the way across. When we got onto the island of Manhattan, we found ourselves in an arid stretch, populated by the Allen Hospital and then by the back side of a bleacher, apparently belonging to Columbia University, though no sign actually explained this fact. We stopped at Twin Donuts+, where we had Twinskies, much to David's delight. We then walked back to 231st Street, past the River Plaza Shopping Mall and the Marble Hill Houses, a large and well-tended public housing complex. We got our picture taken by a vendor, who was nice enough to pause from selling children's books and capture the beginning of our Broadway journey for posterity.
That was a pretty fabulous start to my Broadway day, but there was more. Lourdes Hernandez-Cordero, my friend and co-worker, decided that it would help us to mourn the events in Newtown, CT, if we held a vigil at a public park. I joined her for an hour of reflection and candlelight outside the Ring Garden at Dyckman and Broadway. A group from World Vision joined us.
The teens in that group had been part of a youth empowerment training which had lost one its members of street violence. They had organized a response to that tragedy, and it was good to learn what they had done. They discussed how to use their knowledge, and decided to make a better sign than the one we had. They went back today with this sign:
But even last night, we could tell that they had learned some important lessons about managing violence. I think this is what happens with violence -- people who have seen it before are like antibodies, reacting to an antigen -- they know it the next time they see it and they can react quickly to stop it. But back to my Broadway Day. Lourdes and I had a dinner date with our urbanism students, so we headed down to Manolo Restaurant, a tapas restaurant 25 blocks further south on Broadway at 175th Street. While the evening was mostly passed admiring the tapas, we also reflected on the good work the students had done, and the work that they will do after graduation. As the evening drew to a close, I crossed the street to get my car from the garage on Broadway, and drove up Broadway to drop Lourdes off at her house. It was a great day on a great American street.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Mom, Maggie Thompson

Maggie Thompson, my dear mom, passed away February 18th, after a battle with recurrent breast cancer. We had a memorial for her on March 10th at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County. Friends and relations came from all over to laugh, sing, recite poetry, watch a video, share memories, eat cookies and listen to some transcendent music. It was such a joyous occasion, in celebration of a life of service, lived humbly and as best she could. I am grateful for the words of a friend who said, "It was such a gift to be present at her memorial service...such a powerful reminder that God doesn't call us to live "Great Lives" but to do great things and give freely so that our footprint in the lives of others would lead to even greater things... for the good of humanity and the world we live in."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One brief glimpse of life

I visited Houston last week on a very quick trip. I usually am able to make time to visit the city, in addition to accomplishing whatever work has taken me there. That was not possible on this occasion. My view of Houston was limited to the view from my 12th floor hotel window and the sights from the taxi from there to Houston Community College. There was little that was inspiring in that downtown area, until we got to the college itself. All of a sudden, through the large bright windows in the college building on Main Street, I could see chefs at work, moving quickly around the teaching kitchens in their white jackets and white chef hats. I only caught what two were doing: one was whisking something in a stainless steel bowl, while another was pouring liquid from one bowl into another. What a great class to be taking first thing in the morning!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Orange Nostalgia illuminates Main Street

Yesterday I went to the Orange Nostalgia event at the YWCA on Main Street in Orange. I got my junior and senior life saving certificates at the Y when I was a teen, but I haven't been there in decades. It was delightful to enter the building, which has so many memories, and share an afternoon with Orange historians. Organized by Tony Monica, an avid chronicler of the Orange scene, it was a time to be surrounded with sights and sounds of a place, echoes from many eras that gave our small city a dimension of IMPORTANCE. Tony had brought an aerial photograph of Orange before the freeway was built. It allowed to see the streets I used to walk in their fullness and effectiveness. Donna Williams had brought her uncle's high school yearbook. His classmates included Councilman Ben Jones, for whom a street is named not a 100 yards from the Y. Another classmate was Monty Irvin, who went to become one of the town's very famous sons and for whom the park was named. I brought my Tremont Avenue School 7th grade cooking notebook, with all the Orange Public Schools recipes and instruction pages. Karen Wells brought maps, books, newspaper articles and artifacts from her magnificent collection. Edward Marable brought a flyer advertising home lots in Seven Oaks. "Look at that!" we all said to each other, startled by some face, or notation, or bit of information. Historian Sarah Kirshen wandered through and nodded sagely. "Archives. The raw stuff, the real stuff that helps us understand the past."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Radical Camera" and attention to the city

Molly waved me over to see a great photo. "Isn't that just like Ralph Fasanella?" she said, referring to the artist whose paintings of a dense and busy New York captured the city's motion and vivacity. And I replied, "And aren't those balconies packed with people like the balconies we saw in Marseille?" referring to a set of buildings we visited whose balconies were like living rooms with a great view of the Mediterranean.

This conversation took place today at the Jewish Museum. As part of my study of Main Streets, I am a participant-observer with several organizations, including the University of Orange. Today I went on a UofO fieldtrip to see the exhibit, "The Radical Camera," about the New York City Photo League. This was an extraordinary group that promoted a new kind of photography, one that took the evidence of daily life seriously, and raised up the minute-to-minute existence of people. They created "documents," sets of photos focused on one or another neighborhood in the city, often their own neighborhoods, but also others that where people were to be found. Harlem was in the later category.

Paul Manning's showstopper photo depicted a mass of people filling the fire escapes of a building to watch the 1938 Elks Parade go by. That photo was used in an article in Look magazine exploring how Harlem produced Bigger Thomas, and 244,000 other "native sons." The ironies are too many to list, but it's useful to start with the fact that Harlem did not produce Bigger Thomas, he was a fictional character invented by Richard Wright. And, just for fun, let's remember that the 244,000 residents of Harlem weren't all sons. Some were daughters. It's important that that rich photograph of city life, as it is lived at its best moments, was used to depict pathology. It is that distorted thinking, that crowds of people are somehow in poor taste, that led to the desertification of the America's cities, not to mention the clearing of Zuccotti Park.

If we go back to Paul Manning's photo with eyes open to seeing the city on its own terms, we can learn to see the riches of city life, which include many shades of suffering and an equally complex amount of joy.

It is an extraordinary exhibit, and one all urbanists should see.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Frankie Is King

Tonight I had the privilege of seeing a special benefit reading of King Lear at Luna Stage, my neighborhood theater. At a new production of a well-known play, there's always the possibility that one will learn something new. In this production, starring Frankie Faison as King Lear, what I learned was how King Lear went mad. I have been thinking about madness a lot in recent weeks, as I am writing a chapter of my new book called "Crazy cities and mad plagues." But it was not just that I was thinking about madness. It was also that director Rob Clare and an incredibly able cast dissected the process with heart and attention. Each actor added a unique piece, from the fool's rap to the servant's calling Cordelia to wake her father. By the end, the toll of betrayal had worn us all down. "That was tragic," concluded my niece Jaden, and I was in complete accord.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Mitzvah on Main Street

Well, if you can find the Messiah on Main Street, you can surely find a mitzvah there, too. And we did! On December 31st, New Year's Eve, we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of my granddaughter, Lily Pearl Johnson, at Luna Stage on Valley Road, my own neighborhood Main Street. It was a touching and wonderful ceremony, followed by a big party, also in honor of her 16th birthday. It was delightful to see all the teens show up in their New Year's glam outfits.

As events go, it was a smash! But what made it great was the generosity of our neighborhood. Luna Stage was very generous in sharing their beautiful space with us. And no party can be great without great food! Our event was catered by Vinnie Mazzarisi, who's the owner/chef of Mazzi Dogz, the hot dog place right next door. Mazzi Dogz was the best decorated place on Valley Road, giving the whole area a shot of Christmas spirit. Vinnie even put a tree on the roof of the building. Its lights could be seen for blocks. But first and foremost, Vinnie is an outstanding chef. We had roast beef, chicken francaise, salmon, baked zitti and salad. Wonderful! We also had a midnight supper for the teens with hot dogs and sliders.

For the cake, we went just a little ways over to Main Street in West Orange, to Supreme Bakery. Wow! What a cake! Lil choose red velvet, and they recommended the icing and the filling -- it was so good. I highly recommend you just rush over and get one for yourself.

That's not all, of course. Rabbi Fred Dworkin and his wife Cheryl, who live over on South Orange Avenue -- Main Street, South Orange, that is -- prepared Lily for the ceremony and led the beautiful service.

Many friends and family members showed up to help us set up and then clean up. India Kaufman, my son Ken's wife, did a wonderful job decorating -- she has a genius for that.

Herb Way, my Orange High School classmate, did the photography for the event, capturing everyone at their best. He's a great photographer and pays close attention to get every moment.

A mitzvah is a good deed. And, in helping us celebrate Lily's Bat Mitzvah, many of our friends and neighbors pitched in. It takes a village to put on a celebration, and we are so grateful to be part of a village.