Tuesday, October 30, 2012

After the Storm

Along the East River at  78 Street last night, at abut 8:30 pm, water had crested over the riverside walkways.

 I returned about noon  today to find a much quieter scene. 

On the upper east  and west sides of Manhattan today, there was the amiable, outgoing atmosphere that I associate with a day after a snowstorm in New York City. People step out of their apartments, put on their friendliest faces, and enthusiastically become part of a scene that is much larger then themselves. Downtown and in New Jersey, things are much worse.

Fifty blocks south of me, my friend has no power. Classes at Rutgers-Newark, where I teach, have been cancelled through Friday. Power is out in Newark; one of my students there cut short an e-mail because she wanted to preserve the juice that remained on her computer.

It will be days sorting out this disaster and much longer learning its lessons. But here are two of then.

One, government makes a difference. Comparisons between hurricanes Sandy and Katrina are bound to be inexact, but here in New York we were blessed with effective municipal and state government and a more than competent president. The same cannot be said for the poor people of New Orleans. This is one more proof,  if any was needed, that we cannot leave health, safety and our collective welfare to the free market. Just and effective government is a necessity.

Two, we are in an era when global warming causes violent weather patterns that put us all at risk. In the recent past, natural disasters, activism and independent journalism pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. Since then, it has all but vanished. Neither the Obama nor the Romney campaigns has had much to say about it. We need to get back to it.

Global warming is not something to be ignored because it is politically inconvenient. Look no further than downtown Manhattan if you want to see its consequences.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hard TImes

The 1863 Draft Riots, an explosion of protest, race riot and street warfare, are the ugliest upheaval in the history of New York City. Explanations of the episode have changed over time, shifting from economics (Irish workers rioted because they feared competition for jobs from African Americans) to a greater emphasis on white racism. It is the genius of Hard Times, a musical about the riots written by Larry Kirwan, that it grasps both of these explanations in ways that illuminate the hardships suffered by African and Irish Americans in Civil War New York.

The play takes shape in the story of a group of New Yorkers--Protestant and Catholic, Irish and native born, black and white--who seek refuge from the Draft Riots by hiding out in a bar owned by an African American woman, the widow of an Irishman, in the Five Points. The intersections of their lives, rivalries, loves, and animosities illuminate both the characters' individuality and the wrenching conflicts of their time.

Kirwan, whose music with Black 47 has used traditional Irish music, rock and rap to convey the Irish past and present, uses dramatic scenes and the music of Stephen Foster and minstrel shows to tell his story. The choice of Foster, who appears as a character in the play, and the related theme of blackface minstrelsy, are inspired. Foster's story illuminates the blend of vigor and sentimentality that defined American popular music in the mid-nineteenth centry, while minstrelsy helps Kirwan address both the racism and nativism of the time. Kirwan also depicts Foster as tormented by a love affair with a man who turns up in the bar, but this sub theme does more to suggest a reason for Foster's melancholy that it helps to explain his times.

Over the course of Hard Times, Kirwan explores the hardships that scarred both Irish and African Americans----neighbors, rivals and lovers, trapped in a hellish situation. At the same time, he shows how the Irish and African American meeting in song and dance--in the Five Points--produced great American art forms such as tap dance and ragtime. The result is an ending that is sobering yet rousing.

Hard Times was performed at The Cell on 23rd Street in Manhattan as part of the 1stIrish theater festival. Its run is over, but Hard Times surely deserves a revival at another theater soon.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Woodie at 100

Concert for Woodie Guthrie at Brooklyn College
Gatherings to celebrate heroes of folk music and the old left sometimes feel like events for senior citizens.  Last night's concert at Brooklyn  College to celebrate the centennial of Woodie Guthrie's birth was an exception. Despite the abundance of gray hair,  there were enough young people and enough inspired renderings of Woodie's lyrics that the future of folk music and fights for social justice felt secure for another 100 years.

The key to this is the Woodie Guthrie Archive, run by Woodie's daughter Nora. In the archive, along with artwork and more, are almost 3,000 lyrics that Woodie wrote. Over the years, Nora has encouraged musicians to put them to new uses.

Two of the best products of this splendid idea could be heard last night.

Billy Bragg, a great interpreter of Woodie's songs, performed "God Down to the Water," which draws on Woodie's years as a merchant  seaman in World War II. The lyrics, which Bragg set to the haunting tune for he Irish song "She Moved Through the Fair," are a beautiful mediation on love, distance, and the danger of loss.

Equally beautiful, and very different, was the Klezmatics' version of "Mermaid Avenue," Woodie's splendid tribute to that thoroughfare in Brooklyn.  The opening verse alone makes it one of the greatest New York City songs:

Mermaid Avenue that’s the street
Where the lox and bagels meet,
Where the sour meets the sweet;
Where the beer flows to the ocean
Where the wine runs to the sea;
Why they call it Mermaid Avenue
That’s more than I can see.

To get the sound of "Mermaid Avenue," check out this Klezmatics version on YouTube, recorded at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

Woodie's centennial will culminate soon in a concert in Washington, DC. But as far as I'm concerned, his spirit  lives in raised voices, honest struggles, and the sounds of Mermaid Avenue.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Along the Bronx River

The restoration of the Bronx River is one the great victories of New York environmentalism. Earlier this summer, I got a close look at all the good work the Bronx River Alliance has done to help this waterway when I paddled a 2-person kayak with my friend Jason Barr from Shoelace Park, at 219th Street, to the handsome Hunts Point Riverside Park. If you care at all about environmental justice and beautiful park design, or even if you just hanker to visit places that most people ignore, you owe it to yourself to make this trip. 

River levels were low but passable when we pushed off and we only ran aground a few times. (If you make this trip, bring a boat that can take some scratches.) There were a few falls and rapids that were too dangerous to run, but the portages for these are clearly marked (in English and Spanish) and we never lost our way.

The range of landscapes that you pass through varies from forests in the upper reaches of the river to industrial zones near its mouth. We saw plenty of birds, including egrets and herons. The river runs right through the Wild Asia exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and I thought I notices some kind of Asian antelope behind the discrete fencing of the zoo.

We stopped for lunch by this falls, which is in the vicinity of the Bronx Zoo. Gazing at the tumbling water, I thought I might have been in the Adirondacks. For folks who live in the Bronx, it's a great gift to have a landscape like this right in their backyard.

To learn more about the restoration of Bronx River, check out a recent piece in the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman, who as architecture critic does a great job of linking design, the urban ecosystem, and social justice.

To learn more about the good work of the Bronx River Alliance, and pick up some tips on paddling this splendid river, visit the homepage of the Alliance.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Inventing Our Life"

In my youthful travels in the 1970s and 1980s, I encountered three institutions that deeply impressed me as visions of a good and just way of life: the kibbutz, the British National Health Service, and the BBC. All of these have fallen on difficult times in recent decades, but it is the kibbutz that is the subject of an interesting documentary by Toby Perl Frelich, "Inventing our Lives," now playing at the Quad in Greenwich Village. "Inventing Our Lives" explores the history and current crisis of the kibbutz movement, which has fallen victim to a turn away from socialist ideals in Israel, the movement's own internal fights, the rightward turn in Israeli politics, and the passing of the generation that led kibbutzim from their founding into the 1960s.

The film is a friendly look at the kibbutz, but it doesn't ignore the kibbutz movement's contradictions. Communal child-rearing practices sometimes stifled "normal" family life but left women with the jobs of running childcare for everyone. One kibbutz that she looks at was built, to the distress of its American-born kibbutzniks, on abandoned Palestinian homes. And for all the movement's professed egalitarianism, it could be quite elitist in its own way. In the old Israel, kibbutzniks considered themselves part of the vanguard of Israeli society. One consequence of this was that they never embraced the Middle Eastern Jews who immigrated after 1948, thereby cutting themselves off from what would become a large and growing sector in of Israel's population. This failure, "Inventing Our Lives" notes, was one of many factors that undermined the kibbutzim in the long run.

For all the problems that have befallen the movement, and for all the agonizing that accompanies efforts to either revive or privatize the kibbutzim, Frelich's interviews with founders, their children and their grandchildren convey what was best and most compelling about kibbutz life: the freedom that children enjoyed on the kibbutz grounds, the strong sense of solidarity that could turn a campfire singalong into a a swelling chorus that strengthened the voice of the weakest singer, and the beauty of a life that was lived close to nature and close to the artistic and intellectual heritage that kibbutzniks drew from European humanism.

I encountered all of these at Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley in the 1980s, where I was a guest and worked briefly in a small workshop making parts for irrigation systems. I remember how a print of a classical painting hung outside one workroom. The painting, along with the shaded walkways between houses, the cultivated fields around, and the lives my friends there enjoyed as singers and musicians,  seemed to me like the perfect blend of the outdoors life, hard work, culture and learning.

Since the 1980s,  Gvat--like the kibbutzim portrayed in "Inventing Our Lives"--has gone through changes that I'm not in a good position to explain or understand. Whether the kibbutzim disappear or reinvent themselves is an open question left hanging at the end of "Inventing Our Lives." Something similar could be said for the BBC and the National Health Service in Britain. The social democratic ideals that animated all of these, and brought out some of the best in the 20th century, are beleaguered but still relevant. Here's hoping that the kibbutz movement  reinvents itself in a way that creates a more just and democratic Israel.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hiking in Harriman

The hiking paths of Harriman State Park crisscross rocky ridges, military routes of the Revolutionary War, and forty years of my own memories as a backpacker. I shared all of these on a recent three-day trip with my daughter Allison.

She's in the background of this photo, making camp at the William Brien Memorial Shelter. We camped here on a route that scribed a great if lopsided circle, from the Bear Mountain Inn to West Mountain Shelter to the Brien shelter and back to the Inn. Over three days I visited some places I haven't seen in decades and checked out some new ones as well.  

The view from West Mountain Shelter looking down the Hudson Valley to New York City remains one of my favorites. It's a great destination for a first-time backpacker: the route to the shelter on the Suffern-Bear Mountain Trail climbs enough to make things challenging without making things so hard that a novice will get discouraged.

Even more impressive, though, was the view from the summit of Black Mountain ascended from the east on the Appalachian Trail. I had never walked this stretch before, and it involved a sprint where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Once you cross the Parkway, the path climbs gradually and then steeply to a beautifully contoured stretch of trail that runs along the summit of Black Mountain. The view towards Bear Mountain to the east, and the great ridges of Harriman State Park to the west, is spectacular. If you stay on the Appalachian Trail from this point, you can then walk to the Brien shelter and camp for the night. 

From the Brien shelter, we returned to the Bear Mountain Inn via  Popolopen Gorge, a route that I can't recommend at this time because all sorts of earth moving efforts turn your walk into something like a hike through a construction site. Nevertheless, we eventually came back to Hessian Lake and the Bear Mountain Inn, which marked handsome end to our journey.
It was great to share old memories with Allison, a skilled backpacker in her own right, who at the age of 16 already has stories of outdoor adventures to pass on. Doubtless she will accumulate more.

In our crowded metropolitan region, Harriman remains an invaluable resource that makes the pleasures of the outdoors available to everyone. To learn more about the park, and hiking in our region, check out the NY/NJ Trail Conference. Their good work makes possible the great hiking opportunities of Greater New York.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bonticou Crag

My lifelong love of mountaintop vistas has one complication: I have an ambivalent relationship to heights. For years, I put off an ascent of Bonticou Crag (left) in the Shawangunks because it has a reputation of requiring a head for altitude. So it was with special joy that I climbed it and stood on its summit yesterday with my son Max.

We got up early, drove to Mohonk Preserve, and hiked an easy route of carriage roads and paths to the start of the ascent. Like other scrambles in the Shawangunks, Bonticou Crag is basically a succession of moves: scramble over big boulders, walk along a ledge, squirm up a rock slab, and repeat. 

The difference with Bonticou Crag is that the handholds are trickier, the footholds aren't obvious, and everything is steeper. Twice I recited to myself the joking motto of an American expedition to the base of Mount Everest in the 1950s, which adopted a phrase posted in a school in a Himalayan village: "Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow." (For more on this, read the fascinating, insightful and well-written Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver.)

Finally, with a few grunts, gasps and narrow squeezes, we stood atop Bonticou Crag. The view was spectacular, and the classic Shawangunk combination of barren rock and gnarled trees made us feel that we were in an alpine environment. We took a long and pleasantly winding route back to our car, then drove back to New Paltz with Bob Dylan blasting on our CD player.

I have been hiking and cross-country skiing in the Shawangunks for forty years. Going there yesterday with my teenage son Max (and his Bob Dylan CDs) was a great way to combine past and present, along with future prospects for more good hikes.

Of course, for real mountaineers Bonticou would be an easy scramble. For me, it was a strong challenge but an enjoyable one. That's the great thing about hiking: we can all find our Everests according to our abilities. (There is also an easy route up Bonticou that requires no scrambling.) 

And wherever you walk, if you find yourself in a tough ascent, remember the motto: "Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow." You'll reach your summit in good time.