No promises this time. No core idea that makes everything orderly and coherent. Like walking. Or transportation. Or both.
This time out, this fourth or fifth re-entry into bloggery, I'm treating this space as what it has always been, really --- a blank page to hurl words, and occasionally images, at.
A few things inspire my return.
First, the desire for a wider audience for my writing as a regular correspondent with long-time friends in Maine and Israel.
Second, a desire to think and write in a focused way --- as I did with walking as transportation --- about getting old and being old when all along you'd supposed the rules of the game didn't really apply to you; unaware that the ending wasn't happy or sad but simply was. ###
Walking is Transportation (WIT), which debuted in 2006, began life as a blog concerned with transportation issues --- primarily walking, but public transit and bicycling as well.
Eventually, WIT's scope broadened to include observations about Staten Island, the New York City borough I've called home since 1977; as well as architecture, art, city planning, public education and a great deal more.
During the 2008 Presidential election, I used this blog as a way to take the measure of the man who would become President Obama.
Now, four years later, with the Republican primary ended and the 2012 election season begun, I'm reviving WIT as a way to organize and express my thoughts about the candidates, the issues and the American political system, and share them with you. ###
Artist/designer EVERET's sunbrellas are available in three styles/colors, from left: "Bluebirds" (Light Blue/Turquoise); "Women Carrying Things On Their Heads" (Light Green); and "Poppies" (Lavender). Want an Everet-designed sunbrella of your very own? Contact email@example.com
CARRY YOUR SHADE WITH YOU
Guest contributor: Everet, Artist/Designer
Each year I dread the blazing sun; the only way I get through the summer is with my trusty travel companion, my sunbrella (parasol).
When I first started using it, I felt a bit odd. The few sunbrellas I saw were carried by Asian, African and Caribbean women, a way of life for them. These days I carry a beautiful light jade-green sunbrella comfortably and encourage everyone to add one to their rituals of sunscreen and sunglasses.
I create my own constant shade by facing the center of the sunbrella right at the sun and shifting it with the twists and turns of my walk. A regular small telescoping umbrella is handy to transport and easy for navigating busy city sidewalks. Dark colors block the light but absorb heat; light colors let more sun through but stay a bit cooler. There are also sunbrellas available with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) coating.
If you Google “parasol,” you’ll come across a fashionista’s approach to skin protection, how to be cool while staying cool and many images of wedding parties, the southern belle look. Talk about why carrying a parasol is not a guy thing also pops up, which is why I’m using the unisex term “sunbrella”.
On a walk during the last heat wave I noticed everyone carrying water bottles (not the scene ten years ago). I also saw at least ten sunbrellas, two carried by men. Perhaps if people see the relief it provides, in a few years we’ll be sharing this comfort, navigating a sea of colorful sunbrellas on hot city days. Scientists report the earth is becoming warmer, all the more reason to consider the sunbrella.
EVERET, who lives and works in New Brighton, Staten Island, describes herself as a self-taught artist/designer and craftsperson as well as a micro-entrepreneur. She writes, "I prefer walking to any other form of transportation. It keeps me connected to nature and the life of streets, and it helps me stay mentally, spiritually and physically fit."
It's summer, the venerable black locust next door is thick with hanging seed-pods, and the restoration work at 42 Westervelt Avenue proceeds.
At first, following a disastrous fire, with severe consequences for the owners of the house next door, we were glad simply to be rid of the crack house that had always been an eyesore until it became a nuisance and then a menace --- and a presence that defined the block.
Now, as the restoration becomes more and more visible on the exterior, we allow ourselves grander thoughts ––– of clean sidewalks, quiet tenants, routine maintenance performed, not deferred. An attractive streetscape on the opposite side of the street.
In the photos below, restoration carpenters are shown reconstructing the framework for the restored facade of this significantly altered 1872 French Second Empire-style building. The portion being reconstructed was originally an open porch. ###
In what he calls 'human landscapes,' the Brooklyn-born Staten Island painter Robert Civello, now in his late 60s, has created a collective statement he means to be broadly universal and representative. Yet he concedes he finds the finished paintings in this collective statement remote and mysterious.
Walking around Civello's studio in a converted waterfront warehouse building near the St. George Ferry Terminal, five miles across the upper bay from Manhattan, the visitor is struck by the sheer size of the paintings that make up what the artist calls his "Geography of Man" series. Civello says he's completed seven of a projected eleven multi-part canvases in this series.
The towering figures that comprise Civello's geography present themselves as pieces of the body --- heads; mid-sections; calves, ankles and toes. These pieces are meant to stack, positioned vertically so they add up to an entire person, though they never quite touch, never entirely re-assemble.
The most common joining-place is where necks broaden into clavicles and backs and shoulders --- so common, it occurred to this viewer to shuffle the head-and-shoulder sections of Civello's multi-part canvases, just to see the result.
The figures in these paintings are different from those in Civello's smaller paintings that I saw in 2008-09. The figures in those canvases often had flat, featureless faces without eyes, a lack that seemed to make the strong colors in those paintings especially compelling. Two or so years later, Civello's massive figures have eyes, but not just eyes; these eyes are hooded, clouded, averted, or piercingly present yet somehow remote.
Necks are bulkier than chests. The head of a penis protrudes from a kneecap. Some men have breasts like grapefruits; other chest-formations are merely suggested, more by the viewer's imagination than by the painter's hand. In one case, a flaccid penis hangs from its owner's breastbone.
Civello uses color not in a single surface application but through a building-up of successive layers of color underneath --- usually three layers, he says. The result is that colors, particularly colors of, on or in the flesh seem to move, combining and re-combining as the viewer looks at them. As the owner of a body long past its prime, I recognized immediately the exhausted folds and sags, the random lumps and bluish-purple discolorations that the artist catalogs on the surface of these tripartite canvases.
So Civello's is a human, or more particularly a male geography at a particular moment in time, when the body shows the cost of decades of staying alive. It is wrinkled and sagging, discolored and unlovely, un-sexy and straightforwardly sexual; even, in its unloveliness, erotic.
That makes the body as Civello renders it a purveyor of a particular human history, too, as well as a more generalized geography of gender; evidence of a particular life lived, recorded on and in the flesh.
Robert Bunkin: Touch #2, acrylic and marble meal on canvas, 10 x 12" (2003)
"YOU HAVE AN EYE," I've been told by artist friends. Not once, but many times.
But what 'having an eye' turns out to mean has nothing to do with my eye, or eyes. What the artist paying me the compliment is really saying is this:
I'm good at using language precisely, to describe not only in literal terms what I see; but also to express how what I see makes me feel and the associations that seeing a particular artwork or body of work prompts.
What has surprised me is how, often, what I describe is what the painter him/herself thinks or feels but has not found the words to convey. Though I have nothing concrete to support this view, I consider this facility of mine a kind of intuition.
That's how the short essay that is the next post came about. The need of the painter Robert Civello to see himself through an appraising eye he respected. To reveal himself to himself so as to present himself and his work to the world. To have his painter's work be the focus of a writer's work. To be, unabashedly, the subject. ###
The day before Thanksgiving last year, the landmark 1872 French Second Empire style building at 42 Westervelt Avenue, St. George (shown center left) was set on fire by a junkie who wanted revenge.
It seems the crackhead granddaughter of the landlord --- who served as the building's nominal resident manager --- shorted the junkie arsonist $4 in one of their transactions and was refusing to pay up. So for $4, the junkie headed for the back of the house, where he put a match to the clapboard and shingle structure, making a number of people homeless and disrupting the personal and professional lives of many others.
One of those others was Jay Montgomery, St. George actor and co-artistic director with his wife, actor Tamara Jenkins, of Snug Harbor's resident Harbor Lights Theater Company.
Montgomery and Jenkins and their toddler daughter, Emerson, had to flee their beautifully restored Civil War-era rowhouse next to the landmark crack house --- part of which is shown in the photo above --- eventually setting up temporary quarters in a condo in Travis.
[PHOTO: Tamara Jenkins and Jay Montgomery at the St. George Theater. Staten Island Advance photo by Irving Silverstein.]
Jay, Tamara and Emerson are now back in their landmark home as the structural and restoration work go on around them.
"It's been six months since the fire," Jay told me when I met him on the street the other day, adding how glad he and Tamara were to be home so they could focus on their next production, a "Music Man" revival to be staged at the Snug Harbor Music Hall in July. Anyone familiar with Jay and Tamara's work knows that, in their capable hands, this American musical chestnut will look and sound totally fresh, totally new.
Photo taken today Only a narrow alley separates Jay and Tamara's house from the ex-crack house next door. That narrow alley made fighting the fire (which was concentrated in that precise area on the top and middle floors) impossible.
Firefighters had no choice but to chop through the mansard roof on Jay and Tamara's house (since restored) to get access and leverage to the fire in the house next door.
After weeks of filling dumpsters, exterior restoration has begun on the cornice, top-floor, right, at 42 Westervelt. The scaffolding went up just this morning and an (obviously) expert restoration carpenter has already set about constructing the frame. A contractor who works full time for the company that owns the property tells me the building has a certificate of occupancy for 5 families. Four 2-bedroom units and one 4-bedroom unit, he says, are planned.
This is work that has been needed for more than 30 years. If not for the building's landmark status, it would simply have been torn down. Now, this building will be saved and made productive again, and Jay and Tamara will be able to stop worrying about the house next door and focus on their family and on the distinguished theater company they're building --- a gift to the Staten Island community. ###
Last night, an 1872 French Second Empire mini-mansion across the street from our house caught fire, the inevitable conclusion to a decades-long process of disinterest and disinvestment.
42 Westervelt Avenue in St. George was never as grand as the French Second Empire building pictured right, but its proportions suggest it was probably pretty impressive in its day.
Here's an incomplete record of its recent physical deterioration.
Like many larger residential properties in St. George, 42 Westervelt Avenue was chopped up into apartments some time before World War II. Under the right management, with proper maintenance and appropriate improvements, it could have continued to provide solid housing for six families.
But once the building fell into the hands of its current absentee owner, its fate was sealed. He promptly filled the building, and others he owned adjacent to this property, with friends and relatives and for a long time it was rundown but quiet and "respectable."
But that was only a temporary reprieve from this handsome building's continuing downward slide.
When these friends and relatives left, one by one, they were replaced by crack addicts and their friends. In short order, the building became a flop house whose occupants you see on the front stoop in the photo, above, dated 2008.
And so it continued through 2009, when the photo at left was taken, and well into 2010.
Until last night.
I took the photo on the left, below, through glass and a mesh screen, producing an eerie visual that perfectly represents last night's craziness,with hordes of firefighters responding to a four-alarm blaze that not only savaged 'The Crack House.' It also severely damaged the beautifully restored post-Civil War-era rowhouse to the right, separated by only a narrow alley.
I took the photo below, right, from my front porch this morning. I want to try and get the Landmarks Commission involved here, to make sure that whatever happens next, happens in a preservation context.
Just to get this on the record: Two fire marshals were here this morning and described the building as severely damaged but 'structurally sound'---their words. Just in case we need to repeat them for the benefit of those who'd rather raze it and replace it with 20 townhouses, built front to back. Landmarks protection has to mean more than that.
I stopped writing WALKING IS TRANSPORTATION (WIT) in October, 2009 because I wanted to do other things. It really was gratifying to hear from so many people that they looked forward to reading my work; that they liked the look of WIT as much as what it and I had to say. And that they were sorry to hear I wasn't writing it anymore.
If memory serves, as it often doesn't, this is WIT's fourth incarnation. I'm retaining the title WALKING IS TRANSPORTATION as a kind of platform or backdrop, in the same way I might make a comfortable home for myself in the words, JAZZ IS (everything).
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
Phase 1: WIT began life as a straightforward advocacy tool for, as the name suggests, walking as a practical, efficient and inexpensive means of transportation. It became clear to me, a few months into the game, that there was only so much I could say without repeating myself and boring others.
Phase 2: Either I took a break or simply transitioned into a kind of community-observer journal focused un-self-consciously on Staten Island, with occasional forays into visual art, jazz and electoral politics.
Phase 3: For a brief and intense period, WIT became a daily journal. The subjects varied; what mattered was to produce an issue a day. An impossible standard that I stopped trying to meet in October, 2009.
As I begin WIT's third return-to-life, it seems important not to make any promises or projections. That said, what's certain is that WIT will reflect my current interests.
ANOTHER JOURNAL OF A SOLITUDE ? MAYBE.
I first read May Sarton's journal in the mid-70s, less because of the word 'solitude' in its title than because of its profile of a writer's retreat to the country, which I and my wife were then contemplating.
Reading it again today, as I plan to, 35 years or so later, it's the word 'solitude,' not the words 'country retreat,' that interests me. That's because, for some time now, I've been grappling with what many, perhaps most people would consider my withdrawal--if not from society, then from certain aspects of my former life.
I can't deny the accuracy of the word 'withdrawal' when applied to what I do and, just as often, don't. But lately, for the first time in about five years, it's occurring to me that perhaps the wish for solitude, for the solitary, is an impulse I don't have to resist or reform or moderate or deny. It's a wish that feels--to use a word not so much used these days--authentic; and one that, for now, I intend to fulfill.
NOTE: My sincere thanks to those who've encouraged me in my decision to
return to writing this blog. The following was written recently as a
contribution to a friend's project on the sounds of place.
THE WRITER AND THE WATER
I'm a writer. No, not that kind of writer--the kind who writes novels or short stories or syndicated columns or the sort of longer pieces published in The New York Review of Books. Rather, I'm the sort once described by a kind-hearted copy supervisor as A Journeyman Writer. Or as the late John Leonard might have put it, A Pen for Hire. Or, to say it plain, A Hack. Which means, as I prefer to think of it, You Got It, I Write It. Whether it's an ad, a speech, a brochure, a direct-mail fundraising letter, a marketing strategy document, a book review, a jacket blurb, or a research report detailing patient reactions to a new anti-high blood pressure medication.
But there's another kind of writer I am. The kind whose response to many, even most situations, is to write about them. As if the only way to consider them was as words captured on paper or screen [push the 'Save' button]. Not in the personal style of a diary, but in the form of a poem, a short essay, or a letter (yes, I still write them in the age of the e-mail). I write--like so many others who do what I do, no matter the particular form--to find out what I think, what I feel. So when the opportunity arose to write a blog, set down my thoughts, and reach an audience at little cost, I grabbed it. In the several years since it began, I have made WALKING IS TRANSPORTATION a kind of online receptacle for my enthusiasms of the moment.
Atlantic Salt facility, Kill van Kull, New Brighton, S.I., 2009
One of those enthusiasms was the ability to write about the waterfront--specifically, the Kill van Kull, the narrow waterway dividing Bayonne, New Jersey and Staten Island's north shore--only two short blocks from the office I'm working in right now. I imagined myself hanging out at the water's edge, tracing the shoreline, coming to understand the importance of the maritime industry to Staten Island's fortunes--getting my feet wet. But it never happened.
Yes, I walked on, wrote about and photographed the Bayonne Bridge and the as yet unprettified romance of the maritime industrial landscape on either side of the Kill. I reviewed a book on a local maritime business--the last of its kind on Staten Island. I began to feel I had taken a few additional baby steps toward understanding this place.
THE VIEW IN THE MIND IS A SOUND
But since that time, I've realized that my view of the nearby waterfront is not a view, not an image or a picture at all. It's a sound. The sound of dredging. The steady subterranean growl of a tanker. The whistle that sounds exactly like the one that announces the approach of a speeding train. The occasional staccato blast so passionate, it's the shofar on Yom Kippur.
And one night early in the summer, I find myself in the dining room, standing perfectly still and listening to an extended conversation of foghorns--I imagine them as sea animals in some noisy mating ritual--up and down the Kill.
The Kill van Kull is what Staten Island sounds like.