Sunday, December 30, 2007

Iron Maidens, Subway Safety and a Good Cop

In an age when an emergency evacuation of a New York City subway station is a terrible possibility, the Transit Authority's decision to close token booths and install high entrance and exit turnstiles is a disaster waiting to happen. All of the ingredients were on display yesterday at the Herald Square Station--along with a commendable support for journalistic freedom on the part of a police officer that I'll get to later.

When I got off the uptown N at Herald Square just before 4 pm, rushing to get my friend on a 4:10 pm train out of Penn Station, it took us an unusually long time to exit. In our corner of the station the usual turnstiles were closed, leaving open only the high entrance and exit turnstiles (nicknamed "iron maidens" for their resemblance to a medieval torture device) that admit people with a swipe of a Metrocard and--in theory--also allow them to depart.

But with hordes racing in and out of the station, the congestion at the turnstiles was fierce. People couldn't enter and exit at the same time, so you got long lines (at least six people apiece) on either side of each iron maiden. There were people waiting to leave, people waiting to enter, and people brazenly striding through the "emergency exit" door--each one setting off an alarm on the way.

I got my friend on his train, then returned to Herald Square to photograph the crowds around 4:30 pm. They were as thick as ever, and I was sickened by the thought of all those people trying to get out in an emergency.

To compound the problem, the token booth was closed, depriving passengers of the advice and oversight that token clerks used to provide. (There were some police officers in sight on the far side of the iron maidens, but if there was a need for a quick evacuation they wouldn't have been able to do much.)

I took pictures of the lines outside the iron maidens, the empty token booth, and passengers walking out through the emergency exit.

One passenger, angry that I had photographed her as she walked out of the emergency exit, said I had invaded her privacy. She asked me to destroy my picture of her. I explained that the law on these matters says that you have a right to privacy in a place where you can reasonably expect privacy. A subway station isn't one of them.

Unsatisfied, she summoned a policeman. Police Officer Vargas listened to each of us, examined my identification, and then made it clear to her that she didn't really have a case. I thanked him and left quickly, but I'd like to take this opportunity to salute him.

I got away with my camera and my pictures intact (you can see a photo of the crowding above). Still, I have a nagging concern about the iron maidens and empty token booths. The turnstiles just don't let people out of the stations fast enough. And the roving "station agents" that have replaced the token clerks are no substitute for them.

When the Transit Authority proposed its current policies on token booths and turnstiles in 2001 (before 9/11), the Straphangers Campaign and Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union both recognized the foolishness of the plan. Today, in a dangerous world, it doesn't look any smarter.

Does anyone else have some thoughts on these problems? And ideas for what we might do about them?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More on the NYHS

Let me follow up Rob’s post on the NYHS with a few comments of my own, though let me state that I know nothing about the situation he described (or the people involved.)But I too am a former employee of the NYHS (during the time I worked on the Encyclopedia of New York City), but I left their employ in 1992, when my job was finished. This was also at the time of the financial nadir of the NYHS, when it seemed very likely that it would not be able to continue as an independent institution.

Since then it has had, what, four or five different chief executives? This is a common path for troubled institutions, both of the for-profit and non-profit varieties, with a revolving door for saviors, all of whom come in with their own business plans and strategies, a determination to sweep clean with a new broom, until all this innovation and constant reinvention becomes completely enervating. At least in the bad old days, when the NYHS gloried in its antiquarianism, and rarely deigned to notice anything that happened in New York City after the time of De Witt Clinton, it had the virtue, from the perspective of the staff, of a security born of somnolence. Now, if people don’t get with the program of the current genius they get the standard two hours to clear out their desks.

It is hard not to compare the NYHS with the current problems of the Center for Jewish History, which just underscores the difficulty of independent historical institutions have in a non-profit world in which they really have no business existing. (The price of failure for all non-profits in NYC is being incorporated into the Borg-like collective of NYU. In the end, resistance is probably futile.) It’s very hard to be a small non-profit museum these days in NYC. Either you take over a 10 acre lot, like the Metropolitan Museum, or the dinosaureum next door to the NYHS, or you tend to die and wither, and institutions with deeper pockets say the right things while lusting after your collections.

Perhaps this is too cynical, and as I said, living and working in Rochester, I am completely out of the loop, and I am ignorant of the particulars of the situation, or indeed, of how well, financially or otherwise, the NYHS is doing these days. (I liked the exhibitions on slavery, I should acknowledge.) But, writing as a so-called “independent scholar,” I think the episode Rob describes sheds light on the perpetually tenuous state of public history and public historians. Most people agree that history is too important to be left solely to the mercies and ministrations of the self-interested academic colossi that are our large universities like NYU. But outside its borders, in the world where real public historians work, job security is a rare commodity, and you are all too frequently subject to the changing whims of your employer. Tight budgets make for pink slips, especially in the privatized world of public history.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Unfortunate Departure

Rare is the museum educator so inspiring that you want to make a movie about her, but that's the case with Cynthia Copeland. In 1996, when "Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York" was at the New-York Historical Society, I found her work with young people so impressive that I made a documentary short about her. So it baffles me to learn that on Monday the Historical Society fired her.

Cynthia doesn't want to discuss the issue and Laura Washington, Vice President for Communications at the Society, says "We don't make any comments on our personnel matters." If that leaves the situation murky, it is still absolutely clear to me that Cynthia has extraordinary talent for working with museum exhibits to teach kids about the past.

Here's the backstory. As the co-curator of "Metropolitan Lives" with Rebecca Zurier, I was fascinated by the way some visitors to the show connected to it through their family history. People would pause in front of a painting of a tenement scene, pull themselves up a little taller, and say something like, "My mother lived on the Lower East Side" with all the pride that some Americans reserve for "My great-great grandfather was at Gettysburg."

I resolved to document this phenomenon and make a short movie about it. I hired the sharp-eyed cameraman Peter Pearse, identified a senior guide at the Society, and told him to spend the day shooting him. But when Peter spotted Cynthia at work, he knew she was the real story of the day.

Peter's camerawork captured Cynthia doing something extraordinary, something far more important than I'd ever imagined as the subject of the film: talking with Black and Hispanic kids from the Bronx of 1996 about the New York of the early 1900s in ways that spanned decades and ethnic differences.

Starting with what the kids know--the streets of New York--she got them thinking about the Ashcan artists, city life, and the interplay of past and present. Months later, one of the boys who met with her told me fondly, "She put the pictures in our heads." The resulting film, which would have been inconceivable without Cynthia's work as its centerpiece, was honored by the National Educational Media Network and went into distribution with Carousel Film and Video.

At the Society, Cynthia went on to work on projects involving Seneca Village, slavery, and the American Revolution. She became a noticeable presence at history conferences and was a co-curator of the Society's "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery."

When I visited "Legacies" with my wife and daughter, Cynthia showed us around the exhibit. I still count that trip as one of the best history lessons my daughter will ever receive.

Given the hush about Cynthia's exit, I can't say anything more about her departure and what it means. (Although if anyone else knows anything, I'd be interested to hear it.)

But this much I know: Cynthia Copeland set a great standard for museums and museum educators. I hope it's not too long before she's up and working again, showing us all what great teaching about history can be.

The *

After bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which proved a tough order even for him, former Sen. George Mitchell, has turned his talent for straightening things out to baseball’s steroid mess. The Mitchell Report tried to lay blame where it was deserved (everywhere) and named numerous names, of which the most prominent was the ex-Yankee Roger Clemens, and the current Yankee, Andy Pettite, along with a parcel of other Yankees, in part because a former Yankee trainer was one of the few people who spoke on the record about steroid abuse.

It’s a dispiriting report, because it is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real problem with steroid use, and it has already implicated the best hitter of the recent era of baseball (Barry Bonds) and the best pitcher (Clemens. ) During Bonds's recent pursuit of Henry Aaron’s home run record, it was widely suggested that his home run record deserved to be asterisked, that is to say, in some ways noted as not being the "real" record. And today a parcel of Mets fans are suggesting, given the 14 Yankees named in the Mitchell report, that the Yankee victory in the 2000 subway series be similarly asterisked. By this logic, it is a short step to one giant asterisk being placed on all baseball records and results from about 1990 to the present

The asterisk as a term of baseball art was coined in 1961, the year major league baseball went from a 154 to a 162 game season, and the year Roger Maris challenged and beat Babe Ruth’s old record of 60 home runs in a season. If, Frick, ruled, it took Maris more than 154 games to beat Ruth’s record, it would be in its own category. (It never officially had an asterisk.) Maris broke Ruth’s record in the 162nd game of the season, and the metaphorical asterisk was applied. It was a grossly unfair ruling—no one came close to Maris’s record in 30 years of 162-game seasons until the steroid cases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds broke Maris’s record in the late 1990s. (And of course Maris supporters now argue that he alone has the unasterisked record.)

Anyway, it’s an interesting historical devise, the asterisk, to be applied whenever a result is achieved through unfair or illegitimate means. To give one example of this might work, at least until 1968, the first presidential election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, all presidential elections systematically excluded a large percentage of Americans from voting. All the presidents from Washington to Johnson should be asterisked, and Richard Nixon becomes the first real president, the father of his country.

The closest analogy to the baseball asterisk I know of is the Roman Catholic notion of the antipope, a pope who is deemed not to have been canonically elected, and is kept off the official list of popes. In the past 2000 years, there have been about 266 popes and about 30 antipopes. In recent years, since the ascension of Pope John XXIII in 1958 there have a number of conservative critics of Vatican II who have argued that there have been no real popes since the death of Pius XII, but on various technical grounds, only antipopes, while the See of Rome remains vacant. This is a doctrine known as sedevacantism, and like the baseball asterisk, it might have uses outside its original use. Whatever you say about American presidents through Nixon, there is no doubt that the person who claimed victory in the 2000 election was elected irregularly, and confirmed by a biased court. According to sedevacantist doctrine, once irregularly put in office,the illegitimacy continues throughout his tenure. George W. Bush has been an anti-president, and since Jan 20, 2001, the White House has been empty.

But of course the problem with the asterisk and sedevacantism is that history is not concerned with fairness, and that if human history were limited to contests and conflicts that were fairly decided, without bias or prejudice, historians would soon find themselves with nothing and no one to study. There is no record book that we can change to reflect our sense of what should have happened, but didn’t, no Hall of Fame from which to exclude cheaters. History is what it is, or what it was. We can’t change it, though I have long thought that studying history is a very poor substitute for what we really want to do, to change it, and be the assassin who gunned down Hitler, or to tell Julius Caesar to get out of Rome for a March vacation. As Santayana said, those who can’t change history are condemned to live it, or something like that, and the steroid scandal is history at its messiest and most complex, and no amount of burnishing the record book with asterisks will be able to change what actually happened.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Classical Music in North Korea

The Times reported yesterday that this coming February, the New York Philharmonic will become the first American orchestra to visit North Korea. Much of the coverage in the Times focused on the question of whether the NYPO will play the “Star Spangled Banner” before the concert, an event, that in my opinion, will have about as much to do with the actual concert as the playing of the national anthem before a baseball game has to do with hitting, pitching, and fielding.

The coverage of this event seems strikingly similar to the treatment of the first tentative American steps towards rapprochement with China in the early 1970s, an entrance into a dark and hidden land, and the presumption that we are bearing strange new gifts, and that North Koreans are utterly unfamiliar with classical music, bringing, as the Times writes, “the legacy of Beethoven, Bach, and Bernstein to one of the world’s most isolated nations.”

The Times should relax. North Korea is not a land without classical music. The excellent German label CPO has a recording of the Democratic People’s Republic Orchestra of Korea playing the music of the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917- 1995.) Yun is an interesting composer, who studied in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, from where in 1966, he was kidnapped by agents of the South Korean secret police, and returned to South Korea, where he was imprisoned and tortured for several years before West German pressure led to his release, from whence he returned to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life. His music is modernist in a post-war European style, maybe a cross between Henze and Nono, perhaps. I can’t say that I was overly impressed by the performance of the chorus in Yun’s cantata, “My Land! My People!,” but I found the orchestral playing excellent in Yun’s twenty minute “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” a tribute to the violent suppression of a student protest in South Korea in 1980, and as a piece of political music worthy of comparison to such composition as Husa “1968: Music From Prauge” or Pendereski’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and its sounds a bit like the latter as well.

The Times quotes a music critic to the effect that classical music will be challenge to North Korean culture, that in “a sense classical music is thoroughly at odds with the values of a closed, totalitarian society.” Would that it were so. But as Alex Ross has reminded us in his excellent recent book on the music of the 20th century The Rest is Noise, the history of classical music in the past century is in many ways a dialogue, for and against, the threat and reality of totalitarianism and unfreedom, and the need for music to be at once political and to be able to transcend politics. (After all, leaving aside the US, by 1940, the four greatest traditional centers of classical music, Germany, Italy, France, and Russia, were all ruled by totalitarian governments.) It proved far too easy for classical music to flourish under totalitarianism regimes, though admittedly not without a certain life-giving ambiguity.

According to Wikipedia the North Korean symphony orchestra has recently made a recording of that famously ambiguous work, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony “Leningrad” on which oceans of ink have been spilled on whether it was directed against Hitler, or Stalin, or both. Perhaps the North Korean musicians who recorded “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” played the music with other acts of repression in mind, those north of the 38th parallel.

All great music helps its listeners to transcend their limitations and surroundings and their own parochial concerns, and no form of music is more truly universal than classical music. I hope the visit of the NYPO to North Korea is an occasion for the realization of this shared humanity, and perhaps the music will remind those who hear its concerts that life is full of possibilities and alternatives, that change is inevitable, and the meaning of music, like the meaning of life, is to partake of it and to understand it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Human Face of Mass Transit

The weekend edition of the New York metro, a newspaper given away for free, offers the lead headline, "A 'human face' for subways" to describe an MTA plan to decentralize management of New York subway lines. Better service on the subways is a great idea, but the MTA will get better results from this plan if it affirms the work of the people who are already the human face of the transit system: transit workers.

As the grandson of a transit worker and the author of a book on transit workers (Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories), I've studied transit workers' reactions to their work. For decades, one word appears again and again in their demands for what they want on the job: dignity. That shouldn't get lost in the drive for passenger satisfaction.

As Greg Lombardi, line general manager for the L train puts it in the metro, "It's about pleasing the customer". Good point, but in our consumer society most settings for the pursuit of customer satisfaction are the stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues of a modern consumer society.

Transit workers, however, labor in a system that recalls the hard years of the industrial revolution. For many transit workers the job is dirty, dangerous, tedious, and physically demanding. For that, their labor deserves recognition and a proper reward.

In a consumer society, many consumers forget about the producers who make their comfortable lives possible. (When was the last time any of us inquired into the work conditions of the people who make our clothes or cook our food?)

As the MTA goes forward, it will get better results if its labor policies and public relations efforts recognize transit workers for what they are: the men and women whose labor makes New York a 24-hour city. And the human faces on the buses and subways that New Yorkers ride every day.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Bombay and New York

When the writer Sukhetu Mehta told people in Bombay, India that he was going to New York City, they told him that he would feel at home: Bombay, they said, is just like New York. After writing his brilliant Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and working on a forthcoming book about immigration in New York City, Mehta has concluded that they are right.

Both cities, he said at a reading Wednesday at Rutgers-Newark, have a certain contempt for their capital cities: New York for Washington, DC, Bombay for Delhi. Both are city-states--large enough and distinct enough that their inhabitants can imagine that their destiny is not entirely bound to their surrounding country. As Mehta put it, people in Bombay imagine India the way a famous cover of New York imagines the USA in relation to New York City: narrow, distant and inconsequential.

The sources of this mindset in Bombay, and much more, are conveyed in Maximum City. At once an exploration of a great city and Mehta's own relationship to the metropolis, the book covers everything from Hindu-Muslim conflicts to gangsters to dancing girls to Bollywood films. Mehta conveys the feel of Bombay without reducing it to a few simple traits. Bombay, in Mehta's view, is a city of multiple personalities--many of which resonate in him.

Mehta is now at work on a nonfiction book about immgrants in New York City. If he brings to it the same sense of people and place that shine in Maximum City, it will be a book well worth reading.

The Two Bailouts

I highly recommend William L. Silber’s excellent volume, When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America’s Monetary Supremacy (Princeton University Press, 2007), even those who aren’t financial history buffs. Those of you who are know that the New York Stock Exchange shut down in August 1914, not to fully reopen until 1915, by far the longest suspension of trading in the history of the NYSE. (Which first began trading in 1792, and not in 1817, and almost every book and newspaper on this subject has it wrong, but that is another story.)

Silber’s book lucidly explains why the exchange was shuttered, basically to prevent foreign investors from cashing in their securities and exchanging their cash for gold, how this worked, and how the US avoided a panic in the summer of 1914, and emerged, by early 1915, as the strongest financial power in the world, with the dollar starting to dislodge sterling as world’s premier currency.

What I hadn’t known before reading this book is that, because of the strains in the financial markets in August 1914, when New York City had to make payments in British pound-denominated bond issues to European capital markets, the city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and had to be bailed out by the Secretary of the Treasury, along with much tut-tutting on how the city had to learn to live within its means. Silber argues the bailout of NYC in 1914 was the beginning of the “too big to fail” doctrine in American finance, with Lockheed and Chrysler, being later examples of federal largess. The second bailout of the city in 1975 forms a partial exception to this principle, for while Ford did not allow the city to actually “drop dead,” it was hedged with so many controls and restrictions that (unlike the private companies the federal government aided) it would take many decades for the city to recover its financial independence, and in many ways it never really has.

The two bailouts of NYC, 1914 and 1975, make for an irresistible comparison, and the two dates perhaps mark the dates of what might be called “New York City’s short 20th century.” As Silber points out, even if the Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, had played his hand less expertly than he did, New York City would have eventually replaced London as the global financial center, but it would have taken much longer. The events of 1914 would have a profound effect on the city’s and state’s finances. In their aftermath, New York City would no longer go the European capital markets to raise funds, but would have their bond offerings underwritten by New York City bankers. Public authorities, the Port Authority, and later Robert Moses’s various creations like the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority would make use of friendly relations with underwriters. The expansion of New York State’s budget and services in the 1920s under Al Smith was likewise dependent on access to capital, and this would be a hallmark of “liberal” governments in NYC and NYS, Democratic and Republican, until the bailout of 1975.

In 1975 this access to capital started to dry up, and there were other, far reaching changes in America’s capital markets, starting with the end of fixed commission rates on the NYSE on May 1. 1975, the first stage in a process that would see a transformation of investment banks, and their supplanting of commercial banks as the dominant financial institutions of the United States. In the end the relatively cozy relation to home-grown capital than New York enjoyed from 1914 to 1975 would not be possible in the globalized marketplace that emerged thereafter. Today, the NYSE is a for-profit corporation, its trading floor steadily dwindling in size and importance, and the co-owner (and co-owned by) several European exchanges. What impact this and other changes will have on the finances of the city and state, only time will tell.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Moses Weinstein

About a month ago, as part of a book I am writing, I tried to find out something about the biography of Moses “Mo” Weinstein, the Queens County Democratic leader in the 1960s. I had never heard of him, and couldn’t find much about him. I looked for an obit in the Times, and there wasn’t one, and wondered whether the Times had neglected to give him one, or whether he was still alive. The answer was the latter, or it was the answer until earlier this week, when Moses Weinstein died at the age of 95, and the Times gave him a proper obituary.

In the course of my research, several people have spoken to me about Weinstein, how he skillfully but unobtrusively shaped the politics of Queens in the 1960s, and how he helped engineer the rise of black political power in southeastern Queens. He wasn’t flashy or controversial, like some of his successors as Queens Democratic leaders, such as Matt Troy or Donald Manes, but by all accounts he was an extremely effective leader. In some ways he was a model for a new type of Democratic leader that emerged in the 1960s, representing post-Tammany politics, liberal and relatively unobtrusive. At its best, party politics is a way of connecting otherwise disparate communities and constituencies in the pursuit of common goals, and as far as I know, Moses Weinstein helped to do this in challenging and difficult times, and one of the people who helped make Queens the remarkable experiment in racial and ethnic diversity that it has since become.

Dodger Blue

So Walter O’ Malley is in the baseball Hall of Fame. The article about it in the Times today spoke approvingly of the “the decline of anti-O’Malleyism in Brooklyn” and found two feckless yuppies, who, in the time honored language of thieves and swindlers defending their ill-gotten gains, told those who still bear a grudge against O’Malley to “get over it,” while another one-time Brooklyn Dodger fan called O’Malley a “genius”

The article’s author labeled those who begrudge O’Malley his induction “sore sports,” and the point seems to be that fifty years ago Brooklyn was a crumbling mess of a slum, and now it’s a really hip, happening place, and those who are still thinking about the Dodgers are just mossbacks too wrapped up their ancient grievances to realize the world around them has changed, or something like that. And the author also seems to support the theory that Robert Moses is the real villain in the Dodgers’ exodus, further muddying the waters around O’Malley.

What can I say? The revisionist theory is untenable. O’Malley made unreasonable demands of Moses and the city, wanting all sorts of public monies to be expended for the privilege of keeping the Dodgers in Brooklyn (as well as spurning Moses’s perfectly reasonable suggestion that the Dodgers play in a new stadium in Flushing Meadows, as the Mets eventually would.) The essence of O’Malley’s rapacity is less his screwing of Brooklyn, but his opening of a new era in which sports teams would shamelessly pilfer the public fisc for their private profits, and sell their services to the highest bidder, an era we are still iving in.

But the ultimate the point of the article seems to be the Brooklyn and Brooklynites have become wealthy enough not care about the past, with the sort of genial historical lobotomizing that is at the heart of Bloomberg’s New York. Look, not all causes are worth fighting for or remembering, and if it was up to me I would make a gigantic bonfire of every confederate flag in existence. But the Dodgers leaving was about more than baseball; it was about people trying in some small measure to control their collective destiny, with the moral being that O’Malley was a “genius” because he knew enough to kick the people who had supported him for all those years in the stomach, and sell out to the highest bidder. The Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for sunny Los Angeles was a parable of the deindustrialization of New York City.

And look at the other plug-uglies who were elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday, among them Bowie Kuhn, the utter nonentity of a commissioner from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, who is perhaps the least worthy person ever voted into the Hall. And who was again excluded, Marvin Miller, the peerless leader of the players union who defeated Kuhn again and again, destroyed the reserve clause, and was probably the most influential non-player in the 2nd half of the 20th century. It was Miller who finally started to get for the players some of the riches that owners, following O’Malley’s lead, had accumulated for themselves.

In the end, what can I say? If I may speak as a former Brooklynite; If Brooklyn thinks itself too trendy to care about the Dodgers and the implications of the fight to keep them in New York City, it has become a borough of whores.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The World's Greatest City?

I recently read the volume The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? , Jerilou and Kingsley Hammett ed, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) The book is a collection of essays decrying gentrification and what the authors describe as suburbanization, disneyfication, or malling (mauling?) of Manhattan, the rise of chain stores, Wal-Marts and Home Depots on the urban grid, and the hyper-capitalism of contemporary New York City.

I am in sympathy with the aims of the book, and there are some excellent essays, including a fascinating essay by my friend Suzanne Wasserman on the rise of generic street fairs in the city. But I must say my general feeling I took away from the volume was one of annoyance. It starts with the subtitle—the book as also dedicated to “New York, the Greatest City in the World.” I know it’s a silly superlative claim, but just how is New York City the greatest city in the world? Are the authors saying it is somehow “greater” (whatever that means) than London, Paris, Berlin or Beijing, that its history is richer than say, Rome, Istanbul, or Kyoto, or more beautiful than San Francisco or Sydney? I suspect that these all left-trending intellectuals would never associate themselves with a book that called the United States “the world’s greatest nation” and would rightly attack that as an act of jingoism and know nothingism; my country is better than your country. Why does it make for any better history to make this ridiculous claim for NYC?

But in fact this claim is central to the book’s aims. The essays traffic in New York City’s uniqueness. The argument seems to be in part that it’s okay if every other city in the United States has to deal with the depredations of big box stores like Wal-Mart and their ilk, and the decline of locally owned inner city commerce, but that somehow New York City should remain above the fray. These are complex problems—Wal Mart thrives in part because it provides reasonable quality products at reasonable prices, and attracts a vast numbers of poorer shoppers—but surely the effort to challenge the unquestioned hegemony of capital in America today calls for a national if not a global solution, and not simply worries about land use patterns in Manhattan.

The essays in the volume also to some extent fetishize the decades of the 1970s and the 1980s as edgy and uncommercialized, when the downtown arts scene flourished, and untrammeled individualism thrived. But surely this period in the exception, not the rule in New York City’s history, when bad economic prospects, high crime, and a declining population led large companies to shun investment in the city. The pattern since the 1990s, when capital and urban development in the city have a cozy relationship, is far more common.

In any event to speak of the suburbanization of New York City is to miss the point of Manhattan in the era of hyper-gentrification, when people in droves are moving to the suburbs precisely because NYC has become unaffordable. The need for affordable housing in New York City is acute, but neither it or the other problems that face the city can be addressed or solved from the assumption that NYC, being NYC, ought to be immune to the social forces that have transformed other American cities.

Hudson Highlands Hikes and Vistas

Some of the best Hudson River scenes are only a short train ride from New York City. Consider the view from the summit of Sugarloaf Hill: it looks down on the Hudson as it snakes through the Highlands in a montage of plunging hillsides, wind-whipped water and a vast sky.

New York's image as a place of subways and skyscrapers obscures one of its greatest charms: the city's proximity to great hiking via mass transit. Buses and trains can take you from Times Square to trailheads in 90 minutes or less, and Sugarloaf Hill is no exception.

I made the trip to Sugarloaf on the chilly Saturday of December 1, 2007. From Grand Central I took the 11:51 am Poughkeepsie train to the village of Garrison, arriving at 1:05 pm. I knew I was getting a late start, but that's the beauty of Sugarloaf: the hike and the vista are first rate, so you don't feel that you're being shortchanged if you haven't got the time for a full day's outing.

Like other hikes in this part of the Hudson Valley, where public and private properties are side by side, the route navigated a patchwork of lands. If that made for a few confusing moments on the trail, it also reminded me of the good work of preservationists who have saved the Highlands from development and opened trails to hikers.

The trail, marked with blue blazes, began from the southeast end of the parking lot at a sign marked Arden Point. It ran through the woods parallel to the Hudson River and railroad until it reached a bridge leading across the railroad to Arden Point. There I turned left, away from the river, onto a trail called "Marcia's Mile" in honor of the late Marcia Favrot, an artist and local environmental activist.

Marcia's Mile took me in a southerly direction, then turned east when it reached the Glenclyffe property. (I knew I had gone to far when I saw a sign that said private grounds, so I doubled back and found Marcia's trail, which took me east to Route 9 D.)

I crossed 9D, climbed over a low wall on a stile, followed a blue blaze to the south, and quickly came to Wing and Wing Road, which led me up a dirt road into the Castle Rock Unique Area. At a fork in the drive, I ignored a sign for parking and another trailhead. I turned right and soon came to a red blaze; I followed it to a trail that led uphill across a meadow, into the forest, and then toward Sugarloaf.

From this point, the route left behind accommodations to private property and climbed up through the forest toward Sugarloaf. Soon, the sound of traffic on Route 9D faded beneath the rustle of leaves beneath my feet.

At a high saddle on the side of Sugarloaf, my red trail met head-on with a blue trail. I turned right, following red blazes up the steep side of Sugarloaf to the ridgeline above.

After about ten minutes of climbing, I was atop Sugarloaf. I turned south, following red blazes along the ridgeline until it descended to an open, rocky spot that was my destination. The entire hike from Garrison had taken me about one hour and fifteen minutes. I ate lunch, gabbed with another party of hikers, and took some pictures.

From the south Sugarloaf looks like a cone---the shape in which sugar was once sold. When you hike it, you see that it is more a ridge that runs along the river. The lookout where I enjoyed lunch was below the summit of the ridge, and therefore protected from strong winds to the north. I comfortably ate and took pictures while a wintry wind roared around me.

Eventually I hiked back down, retracing my ascent. There was a skim of ice on a small pond that I passed, and the earth underneath my feet crunched as my steps broke the ice crystals forming in the soil. The sun cast long shadows as I crossed the meadow toward Marcia's Mile and the route home.

By 4:30 I was back in Garrison--with enough time for more photography and a pint of Guinness at Guinan's, a riverside pub at the back of a country grocery--before I caught the 5:04 train back to New York City.

When I got home I concluded that my photographs from Sugarloaf didn't do justice to the vista, so I posted a picture of the river and the Highlands taken from the dock in Garrison.

If you want to see the Hudson from Sugarloaf, you 'll have to hike there yourself. I hope make the trip: the view is worth it.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bravo, Stagehands

From all early reports, the stagehands' strike ended with a settlement that the union can live with happily. That's good news.

I've been critical of Local One's communication strategy, but a win is still a win (assuming that the membership approves the contract.)

Still, in coverage of the settlement in the Times, Post and Daily News, the dominant themes are how good it is for theatergoers that curtains will rise and how much the strike cost the city.

Such coverage inevitably puts unions in a bad light. It treats them as self-serving outfits that enrich their members while disdaining the interests of the rest of us.

All the more reason, then, for Local One and other unions to find more persuasive ways of making their case to the public.

In the meantime, if you want to understand the issues at stake in negotiations, turn to the Times. So far, it has provided the fullest coverage of the issues and done the best job of explaining the union's negotiating stance.

And good luck to the Writers Guild of America.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Friend Bruce

I read in the Times the other day that in an effort to right his somewhat wobbly tenure that Gov. Spitzer has hired as a senior advisor, “the lobbyist Bruce N. Gyory, an easygoing Albany hand who is friendly with both Republicans and Democrats.” I don’t want to intimate that I am in tight with the movers and the shakers, but I should let you know that Bruce and I go way back. Bruce and I met in 1959, in Miss Frackman’s kindergarten class, in PS 57 in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, and for the next five years, through Miss Jackson (who read to us from the Bible, the last year that was legal, but because there were Jewish students, only from the O.T), Miss Fanger, Mrs Greenstein, and Mrs Elman, we were best of friends.

In first grade we formed a history club, I guess my first involvement in history, which basically consisted of me, Bruce, Norman Chaleff, and Ronnie Gallo, running around each other’s house, playing historical figures like the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, the subject of a popular Disney series, and who is possibly the only figure in American history that I knew more about when I was six than I do now. We were close, so close that that when Norman and me went to the YMHA on Southern Blvd, Bruce came with us, one of the very few non-Jews in the afterschool program.

Brue is Catholic, with a Hungarian father and an Italian mother (who introduced me to opera, a lifelong passion.) He learned about politics from his father, a high-ranking official in the Milliner’s Union, who eventually succeeded Alex Rose as president. Nicholas Gyory was one of the very few non-Jews in that era who was an official in the needle trades union—he called himself a “shabbes goy––and had to learn Yiddish to follow arguments when they became heated.

As an associate of Alex Rose, Nicholas Gyory not too surprisingly became involved in Liberal Party politics, and I remember how excited Bruce was when his father (unsuccessfully) ran for office—I think for Congress— on the Liberal Party line, when we were in first or second grade. One of my strongest memories of Bruce is on that tragic Friday afternoon of November 22, 1963, walking home and back to his house after our teacher told us the news about President Kennedy, with the two of us, with all the accumulated wisdom of our nine years, trying to absorb its magnitude.

Well, after 4th grade we moved to Queens and Bruce and I lost touch. I read about him occasionally in the 1980s in connection with the affairs of the Liberal Party, then entering its terminal decline. And there things stood, until about five years ago, when I was doing was lobbying in Albany for the Encyclopedia of New York State with Beth Rougeux, the peerless chief lobbyist of Syracuse University. After spending a morning meeting with state representatives---I hadn’t realized that lobbyists actually spend most of their time walking around in lobbies--- we had repaired to the cafeteria, and Beth ran into Bruce, whom I did not recognize, and said, I’m here with Peter Eisenstadt from the Encyclopedia of New York State, to which Bruce replied, “Peter Eisenstadt, he was my best friend in first grade!” It was, perhaps, the most overwhelming moment of serendipity in my entire life. We talked and caught up. He had gone to law school , moved to Albany, become an influential lobbyist. I later interviewed him and his father in connection with the book I am writing. We exchanged a few emails, but it’s very hard to rekindle old friendships after a 40 year lapse.

I don’t know much about Bruce’s current politics or opinions. He is a registered independent, has excellent relations with both Democrats and Republicans, and clearly knows how to get things done in Albany. Articles describe his as an ardent student of New York State history and politics, befitting a fellow alumnus of our first grade history club, who every years pores through election data to produce a thick memorandum on demographic trends in New York elections. Spitzer had evidently had his eye on Bruce for a while evidently, and I know he has made an excellent choice. I can’t think of another quality that is more important in our elected officials and their advisors than a knowledge of New York State history, and I hope Bruce serves Gov. Spitzer and New York State well, and makes his fellow graduates of P.S. 57 (which a few years had the second lowest reading scores of any elementary school in New York City; Miss Jackson would have been so upset) proud to have known him back when.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Sound of a Strike

While walking across Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village today, I caught the notes of a fine band playing a mix of jazz and r and b. They were drawing a good pre-lunch crowd and a lot of television cameras, so I assumed it had to be for a political event--perhaps a Barack Obama rally. (With all due respect for Hillary Clinton, I just couldn't imagine her people hiring a band this cool.) But it wasn't a campaign event, it was a union rally for the Writers Guild of America. And that says a lot about the creativity gap between the two unions now on strike in New York City.

Local One of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, as I observed in my post Sunday, is conducting a very old-fashioned kind of strike, with tired-looking picket lines and a ban on talking specifics with the public. They may enjoy the advantage of being a workforce that can't be outsourced to another country, but they're not doing all they can to build public support.

In contrast, the Writers Guild of America has been staging events that inspire the membership and connect with the public. They're described in a great piece in the Times that contains an important statistic: according to a poll at Pepperdine University, 63 percent of American side with the WGA.

I have no idea of what percentage of Americans supports Local One, but my hunch is that it is not that high. For the sake of this strike, Local One--and other unions--should take a lesson from the WGA.

Advertisements for Myself (and my Collaborator)

One advantage in living in a small city like Rochester, for those of us who experience a frisson of thrill on seeing our names in print, is that the local paper, the one that everyone reads, will actually sometimes print something you submitted on the op-ed page. So it happened today, when the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle printed a little essay-ette I composed with my friend and Encyclopedia colleague James Darlington, a remarkable historical gepgrapher. (And unlike some other great metropolitan newspapers that I might mention, when the D & C publishes your op-ed, they include a photograph! Take that Fareed Zakaria!) To be sure, in the Procrustean way of newspaper editors, a few limbs of the argument were hacked off to fit the available space, but all the vital functions were perserved, and the op ed does serve as a precis of our basic argument, which I hope will reach a wider audience than my usual historical effusions. With the exception of a correction of a typo and a grave solecism, what is below is what the bleery eyed readers of the D & C espied this morning. We submitted it under the title of the "New York Diaspora" but the less high-falutin' title they used is probably better. For some reason the line breaks from the original piece are not reproducing well here. Please forgive some unusual enjambments.

Peter Eisenstadt and James Darlington
Guest essayists

Exodus From the State is Nothing New

(November 27, 2007) — In recent years, it has been difficult to pick up the Democratic and Chronicle or other upstate newspapers without reading about the high numbers of New Yorkers leaving the state. From 1990 to 2004, the number of 25- to 34-year-old residents in the 52 counties north of Rockland and Putnam declined by more than 25 percent; from 2000 through 2006, about 1.2 million left the state. In survey after survey, young people in the upstate area say they are uncertain about their future in the state, most do not expect to spend their lives in the state.

The current crisis is severe. In 2000, of the 19.6 million persons born in New York state, 12.4 million were living in their native state; 7.2 million were living elsewhere in America, or 36 percent, the highest absolute and relative numbers for any state. In some ways this is just the latest phase of a long and enduring trend.

The New York diaspora began early in the state's history. The first to leave were the state's Native Americans. Less than a fifth of the roughly 60,000 enrolled members of the six Iroquois nations now live in state. The end of the American Revolution also saw the forced migration of loyalists from New York state, 30,000 from New York City alone, many of whom went
to Canada.

The mid-19th century saw a great stream of both migrants and immigrants to New York state, and an almost as sizable stream leaving the state, moving mainly to the Midwest and later, the Pacific Coast. In the middle decades of the 19th century, no state produced as many westward migrants. In 1860, of the 3.4 million native-born New Yorkers, 25 percent resided outside the state.

The scope of the migration from New York state decreased after the end of the 19th century, not to rise until after 1950, when migration, often following the movement of business, went primarily to the South and West. California, a magnet for New Yorkers since the Gold Rush, was one destination, where New Yorkers, among other things, largely created Hollywood as the international center of the entertainment industry.

But the main thrust of the migration over the last half century has been to the South and the Sunbelt. This has been centered on Florida, which in 2000 was home to 1.5 million New Yorkers, by far the most natives of one state living in another.

During the 1970s, New York state's population declined by 650,000, by far the most any state has ever lost over a 10-year census period. While the demographic and economic catastrophe of the 1970s was statewide, for a variety of reasons, New York City recovered in the 1980s and thereafter; for the most part, upstate New York has not.

New Yorkers who have been forced to leave in the most recent and in many ways the most substantial phase of the New York diaspora have often done so with sorrow, and have carried with them many habits, cultures and pastimes acquired from their years in New York state, from a love of the Buffalo Bills to more liberal voting patterns, which helped make the 2000 presidential election in Florida a dead heat.

Why have so many people, over so many centuries, left New York state?

No single reason.

Some of the early streams of migrants, such as the Indians and loyalists, largely left under force and duress. Since the early 19th century, the primary motivations for the New York diaspora have been economic: a lack of opportunity at home, or the likelihood of better opportunities elsewhere. This remains so today.

The problems that created the current New York diaspora have no easy solutions, but studying them will help us to understand that we are not the first generation of New Yorkers to face these choices

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Gag Order on the Picket Line

When I noticed some picketing stagehands outside the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway today, I went over to the captain of the picket line and asked her what she thought of the coverage of the strike in the news media. I was surprised by her answer: according to the polices of her union, Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees she's not allowed to discuss the matter.

I tried my best to pry some comments out of her, but the best I got was a suggestion to visit Local One's website; one of her pickets suggested that I go to YouTube and find a video of a Local One press conference. I did. But if that's her union's way of building public support in a strike, Local One is sadly mistaken.

In an age when unions represent an ever-dwindling portion of the workforce, they have to be able to reach out to the public and win allies. But that's just what Local One doesn't know how to do.

The local Website doesn't do much to build support for the cause. It offers thanks to supporters, and daily announcements, but nothing as useful as ten talking points to use with the next person who opposes the strike. (The site of the League of American Theaters and Producers isn't much better, but they already have all the advantages that employers enjoy. And I want to see the union win.)

If you visit the YouTube video clip, you'll find television news footage of James J. Claffey, Local One President, insisting that he will not be "bargaining in the press"--even as he complains about attacks on the union in the press.

Local One's policy of banning pickets from talking to reporters hasn't won them much but an Andre Peyser column in the Post announcing that the rule turns Broadway into a "Soviet gulag."

The union, with all the creative people who work on Broadway, can and should do a better job of getting its message out.

If Local One doesn't trust its picket line captains to talk about something as basic as media coverage, it has a problem with its membership. If it doesn't trust the public enough to engage it in a conversation, it has even bigger problems. Both get in the way of a union victory.

Let the members of Local One, at very least the picket captains, speak to the public.

A picket line is no place for a gag order.

Ebbing Crime Tsunamis

A guest post by Daniel Soyer, professor of history at Fordham University, and an acute observer of the history of New York City. As one living in Rochester, NY, where the murder rate has been surging for the past year and a half, the questions raised by Dan's post and Monkkonen's book remain too all germaine in many American cities.
--Peter Eisenstadt

The New York Times (November 23) reports that the number of homicides in New York City is likely to fall once again in 2007. As the city’s population grows, this means that the murder rate is falling even faster. The tsunami of violent crime that crashed over the city from the 1960s to the early 1990s played a particularly damaging role in the city’s social, economic, and political crises of those decades. So it might be a good idea to think about whether a new wave might be approaching, as appears to be the case in some other American cities, and about how such a wave might be stopped before it reaches shore.

The late historian Eric Monkkonen traced the history of murder in New York City from the early nineteenth through the twentieth centuries and his findings may help us understand the rise and fall of violent crime in the city and to think of ways to forestall the next escalation of violence before it starts. The Times’s historical memory reaches as far back as the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and even the early 1960s, the last time there were fewer than 500 murders yearly in the city. But in his book, Murder in New York (University of California Press, 2000), Monkkonen describes three spikes in the local murder rate that peaked in the 1860s, in 1931, and in 1991. His data shows that the late-twentieth-century murder spree was far and away the worst of the three. One important factor that contributed to all three murder spikes was the presence in the city of large numbers of unattached single young men only marginally integrated into the fabric of society. Handguns, which only became the weapon of choice for murderous New Yorkers after 1968, do not cause spikes in the homicide rate, but may have contributed to the severity of the most recent upsurge.

Monkkonen warns that urban violence inevitably ebbs and flows and warns that complacency during peaceful times might contribute to the high crime periods that follow. When crime is rampant, citizens call for tough policing to bring crime rates down, but when police measures succeed, they start to seem too draconian. Society’s vigilance wanes, and violence begins to mount once more. But Monkkonen refuses to take sides in the polarized debate between those who argue for more and better policing and “root causers” who see the need to attack the underlying social problems that lead to crime. He argues instead that since the causes of violent crime are complex, any and all promising approaches to fighting it should be taken. Following his logic, Compstat, broken-windows policing, and midnight basketball all have a role to play.

Monkkonen’s position seems sensible: Better policing can help drive down violent crime, at least until we reach the point, as we apparently have, when most murderers attack their acquaintances, friends, relatives, and lovers, often in private. But ultimately, who can dispute that the best way to avoid violent crime is to have a citizenry that does not feel the urge to kill? When he ran for mayor, even Rudy Giuliani blamed high rates of violent crime on the crisis of authority caused by the decline of the traditional family and the church. Although he may targeted a different set of factors than his liberal critics, this would make Giuliani a root causer as well.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

African American Art in New York City

I was in New York City last weekend, and as often the case when I am down,I spent some time catching up on the latest exhibits. There are two extraordinary current exhibits by contemporary African American artists that are worth a visit.

At the MOMA, there is a retrospective of the sculptor Martin Puryear, who unlike most of his peers, or for that matter most of his predecessors, works in wood, rather than the more typical stone or metal. This gives his works an extraordinary texture and sense of fragility, and one is often aware that one is gazing at things that were formerly alive. Most of Puryear’s sculptures are formalist, and have their meaning in an expression of form. A few of his works however, do have external, programmatic meanings, and a real tour-de-force is his “Ladder for Booker T. Washington,” a wooden ladder that rises thirty feet in the air, twisting, weaving, and narrowing, so it appears to be foreshortened into the heavens, a ladder that no one could, or would want to climb. This is a perfect metaphor for the perils of uplift and the step by step upward approach to economic and social success championed by Booker T. Washington, one step upwards, one step sideways, and one step backwards. It is perhaps more broadly a commentary on the problem of striving for success in general, trying to clamber to the top of Disraeli’s greasy pole---the higher you get on the ladder, the less secure you are, the more you wobble, and the further the distance to fall. In the end, almost everyone’s career resembles a scene from a Laurel and Hardy short.

At the Whitney there is a retrospective of the controversial work of Kara Walker. Walker primarily works with beautifully constructed silhouettes of ante-bellum figures, black and white. They were heavily criticized by some black artists when they first appeared because many of the figures are heavily caricatured, with thick lips and big bottoms, simpering slave simpletons and stage darkies. Walker’s art is not easy to absorb. It is a riveting, disturbing, and difficult show, at once hilarious and utterly repulsive. It is quite beautiful as well, and one of the most successful attempts to use art to deal with historical subjects that I have seen.

I will confess that when I first saw reviews of Walker’s art I did not “get it.” Yes, I thought, Gone with the Wind did not get it right as an accurate depiction of the ante-bellum South, but simply attacking racist stereotypes was something of beating a dead horse. Who doesn’t know that slavery was a horror show and a slaughter bench? (Certainly no one who has written about it seriously in the past half-century.) The challenging question is how to try to accurately depict the world of slavery either as a locus of paternalism or resistance or what have you, that doesn’t fall into its own stereotypes.

But the brilliance of Walker’s presentation, which not only relies on silhouettes but a whole panoply of 19th and early 20th century American forms and modes of representation she uses (the heroic mural, the cyclorama, silent films, and Uncle Remus type folk legends) to retell the story of slavery as America’s original sin through the stereotypes in engendered. Rape is one of her main metaphors; the rape of Africa and Africans, masters raping slave women and men, slaves raping one another. In one instance, a male slave is raped and impregnated by a cotton boll inserted into his rectum. The act of fellatio is seen as supreme act of submission, as American as apple pie, and once again every possible combination of blow job is imagined, children and adults, men and women, slaves and masters, all engaging in an elaborate ritual of degradation. All of this is accompanied by every possible bodily emission dripping from every orifice, an unholy Mississippi of blood, sweat, tears, semen, shit, menstrual flow and who knows what else. It is not an easy show to look at, but it is equally difficult to turn away.

What does it all mean? I am not sure, but some level it surely is a commentary on the complexity, the density, and inherent chaos and instability of American race relations. White power and black powerlessness creates a world is which everyone is damaged, where in the end you can’t tell if you are doing the screwing or being screwed, which no one, including the whites, could leave even if they wanted to, a crazy Dadaist version of Hegel’s master and slave dialectic. But the images are so over the top, what comes across from Walker’s exhibit in the end is, along with anger and the cries of the oppressed, a sense of transformative playfulness, of the gallows humor that makes America great. Or something. However you interpret it, don’t miss Kara Walker’s “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


It’s been a week since we lost our dog Heidi, a big friendly black Lab. My wife and I are inconsolable, shattered, heartbroken. Our house is empty; echoes hollowly resound.

She was a retriever’s retriever, and would never think of coming to the door without something in her mouth to greet us, a shoe, a stuffed animal, and on one memorable occasion when she was trying to rouse us for an early morning walk, a dollar bill.

She was a gentle soul, who unlike most dogs had no need to hear her own voice. She was generally happy in silent contemplation, and one could go months without hearing her bark.

But don’t get the wrong idea about Heidi. There was nothing effete about her. I suspect the greatest regret in her life is that, of the hundreds of squirrels she chased and frightened, we always held her leash and never let capture her prize. But she would have been a great hunting dog. She was fast, strong, and clever, and in her early days, could run like the wind.

The void she leaves is hard to fill. A dog organizes your life, from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed at night. She becomes the basis of your daily routine, your companion, sharing your meals, your music, your books, and your bed. For those of us who work at home, the loss is even greater. It was always a comfort to know that that while I was working away upstairs, there was always someone else downstairs, guarding the house, or taking a nap. A dog is like a child who never grows up, and never gets restless or seeks to make new friends outside of the house. Heidi became, in an unassuming way, a central part of my life.

Heidi’s last illness was swift, terrifying, and irreversible, as she rapidly lost the ability to use your legs, and she spent her last days in considerable pain and fear over the changes to her body. Jane compared it to the illness in Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Illich. She faced her last days with dignity and pride.

Our pets always show us how to die.

Heidi was deeply loved and will be profoundly missed. Our hearts are broken. I just want my doggie back.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Old Neighborhoods, New Histories

In an age when some New York City neighborhoods are changing out of all recognition, two projects are recording histories of communities with enduring significance: the Germans of the Lower East Side and the Black Americans of central Brooklyn. Both shared their findings at the recent Researching New York 2007 conference at the University at Abany.

The “New York Neighborhood Stories” panel featured David Favaloro of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center; it was moderated by Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at CUNY.

Favaloro offered a preliminary look at a forthcoming exhibit in his presentation, “Kleindeutschland in Schneider’s Saloon: Interpreting Orchard Street’s 19th Century German Immigrant Community in the Tenement Museum.” “Schneider’s Saloon” will recreate a bar once located in a basement storefront of the museum’s restored tenement at 97 Orchard Street.

John Schneider, a German immigrant and proprietor of the saloon, served in the Union Army as a musician. His establishment was much more than a place to get a glass of lager.

As Favaloro explained, “Schneider’s Saloon” was also the scene of fraternal and political meetings. This wasn’t unusual for nineteenth century saloons. What makes Schneider’s unique is that it opens a window on the lives of German immigrants—a comparatively under-studied group in New York City history.

After 150 years of German American assimilation, and the body blows to German American culture struck by World War I and World War II, it is easy to forget the importance of Germans in nineteenth century New York. Germans were prominent as Republicans and Democrats, socialists and labor unionists, journalists and musicians. Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, was anything but a small presence in Manhattan.

Yet aside from the works of such historians as Stanley Nadel, Dorothee Schneider and Hartmut Keil, their stories have not received the kind of attention devoted to, say, the Irish or the Jews. (Can this be explained by a shortage of American historians fluent in German? Or is their something unique about the German experience in New York?) “Schneider’s Saloon” will go a long way toward correcting that imbalance

The Black Americans of central Brooklyn are much more visible than the vanished Germans of the Lower East Side, but gentrification puts a question mark over some of their neighborhoods. That’s why Jennifer Scott’s presentation, “Weeksville Speaks: Oral History and the Stories of Brooklyn’s Forgotten 19th Century Free African American Community,” carried such contemporary importance.

The Weeksville Heritage Center, where Scott works, researches and preserves the Hunterfly Road Houses. These buildings are the remaining heart of a Black community established in Brooklyn before the Civil War. In 2006 the Weeksville Heritage Center joined with the oral history group Story Corps, to record memories of people who lived around the Hunterfly Road Houses.

The Weeksville Heritage Center, as Scott described it, has a strong appreciation for efforts to build sturdy Black communities. It also shares the values of Story Corps, which encourages people to tell their own stories of their lives.

Sometimes, that produces surprising results. Scott described contrasting stories told by two different people with memories of the community around the Hunterfly Road Houses. One person recalled her home as a friendly, welcoming place for the entire community. Another person recalled the same place as exclusive and not welcoming to less than proper members of the community.

What to make of this? As moderator Wasserman, an old friend of mine from graduate school, observed, these are the kinds of contradictions found in all sorts of historical sources. They’re well worth puzzling out. They’re also a testimony to the enduring value of historical research.

With “Schneider’s Saloon” set to open in 2009, and the Weeksville Heritage Center planning to open a new educational and cultural center in 2010, current research will find an enduring expression and a wider public. In ever-changing New York, these are projects to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Grading the Mayor

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's report card for public schools, and his plan to shrink gifted and talented programs, threaten to erode hard-won confidence in the school system. And that is a resource that he--or his successor--can't afford to squander.

The gifted and talented programs--which create special classes for students who demonstrate unusual ability on standardized tests--have always been vulnerable to the charge of elitism. In practice, though, they had one useful function: working class and middle class parents, black and white, could rely on them to provide a quality education in otherwise substandard neighborhood schools.

That made them lifesavers for black families whose children would otherwise suffer an inadequate education. It also kept in the system some white families that might otherwise have abandoned public schools for private or parochial eduction.

By raising the bar for admissions to gifted and talented programs, thereby reducing the number of students and programs both, Bloomberg hopes to make them preserves for the truly gifted. That's a laudable goal in the abstract. In practice his actions threaten to weaken an admittedly imperfect solution that helped parents with limited options and cemented the loyalty of even more.

Equally troubling is the mayor's report card system. Reducing the performance of whole schools to a letter grade is simplistic, capricious and incapable of grasping what makes a school great.

The grading program makes a laudable effort to recognize those schools that make real improvements in students' learning. However, it penalizes schools that show a modest slip in test scores out of proportion to what the numbers indicate. My own daughter's middle school, the excellent Salk School of Science, received a C because its test scores slipped from spectacular to merely stellar.

Accurate evaluation of schools is something everyone needs, but this kind of flawed grading shakes confidence in public schools unnecessarily. And that is something that any mayor must build if he or she is to win elections and strengthen our educational system.

Curiously, Blloombeg's actions show that he has not learned a lesson from New York's recent political history that any mayor ignores at his peril.

Since the Sixties, some historians have critiqued liberal mayors--particularly John Lindsay and David Dinkins--as men who ran administrations that were coalitions of the rich and poor against the vast middle.

There is much wrong with this analysis, but it does remind us that the strongest mayors are those who can plausibly represent a broad majority of the city's people. Similarly, the best and strongest public programs are those that serve all Americans and not just the poor. (Consider the difference between support for welfare and support for Social Security.)

New York's public schools need the broadest range of students and parents possible. They also need mayoral leadership that is firm, fair and confident. On all of these counts, Mayor Bloomberg has a lot to learn. For this marking period, he gets a C.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Reporting Newark's Riots

Great events can inspire great journalism, but the riots that shook Newark, NJ in the summer of 1967 long had the opposite effect: they were covered with baffling neglect, empty optimism or bleak despair.

Not until until July 2007, with appearance of Brad Parks' series in the Star-Ledger and online, did we have reporting that could grasp the origins, agonies and consequences of the violence that scarred New Jersey's largest city. On November 7, 2007, at a lecture organized by the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, Parks brought to Rutgers-Newark the lessons of his work. They should be engraved on the wall of every newsroom: explain the context, think before you write, write with authority, and get beyond tracing the past only as far back as yesterday.

Parks' lessons were conveyed in a lecture, delivered with modesty and good humor, titled "Enough About the Cab Driver, Already! 40 Years of Media 'Construction' of the Newark Disturbances." The quotes around the word construction are Parks' friendly dig at the language of the academy and the launching pad for his own analysis of the news media's treatment of the riots.

Parks sees little in the way of overt ideology in the media and even less of a group conspiracy. Deadline pressures, he argues, and the tendency for journalists to tell the story that society is ready to hear explain much of what winds up in the news.

These are familiar points, but what gives them new life and depth is Parks' own research into the coverage of the riots and the splendid example of his own reporting.

Incredibly, Newark's Star-Ledger newspaper provided no front-page coverage on the first anniversary of the riot, none on the fifth, and only recognized the anniversary story on page one ten years out.

A pattern emerged: local press tried to be positive about Newark, even though the city was in deep trouble. The national press, particularly the New York Times, treated the Newark upheaval as emblematic of all urban riots of the Sixties. Between these two perspectives and the gulf that yawned between them, an awful lot got lost.

When Parks was assigned to the anniversary story, he almost fell for the cab driver dodge. Like many reporters before him, he set out to find the cabbie, John Smith, whose beating at the hands of Newark police is believed to have started the riot.

But when Parks learned that Smith had already died in North Carolina, he pursued a more complex and important story: how wrenching social, political and economic forces combined to make Newark a tinderbox in the summer of 1967. Then, by interviewing the people who endured the upheaval from every sort of perspective, he produced a series that was attentive to shared experiences, painful differences, and the rough road to recovery.

I won't bore you with a description of Parks' series and the elegant multimedia presentation they they received on the Web. Anything I say would only pale against the original versions.

Parks modestly says that he is only telling the story that people are finally ready to hear. He also gives credit to Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers-Newark who pointed him towards a historical analysis of the riots.

All true, but I think Parks underplays the contributions of his own reporting, writing and analysis. He's broken a mold, and Newark is better off for it.

Read his stories, and look and listen at the video and graphics around them, to see what great urban journalism can be.

The Day I Voted For a Republican

Yesterday, as far as I know, in a history of voting in elections dating back to my first vote, in the fall of 1972, for George McGovern, I voted for a Republican instead of a Democrat. When the City Council voted in June to abolish the position of city historian I vowed to vote against my local council member, Adam McFadden, who participated in this murder of history, and though he’s a pretty good sort, he won anyway, with 75% of the vote, so take that McFadden.

I thought I would just give an update on the Monroe County elections, which I have posted on several times. As expected, the incumbent Republican county executive, Maggie Brooks, not facing a Democratic challenger, won handily, with 75% of the votes. It is interesting though that the other county wide race, for district attorney, registered 30,000 more votes than the race for county executive, so there were many who voted who chose the silent (and utterly useless) route of not voting in that race to protest Brooks’s fecklessness. The Democrats did manage to narrow the gap in the county legislature from 17 to 12 to 15 to 14, and just imagine how well the Democrats might have done if they had bothered to put a damn candidate in the race for county executive,

The turnout here was only about 35%, the lowest in several decades. I presume it was even lower in New York City, where, as usual, in the year before a presidential election there are almost no local candidates on the ballot. This has always struck me as a mistake. At least on the federal level, which is every day moving closer to a plebiscitary dictatorship, there are at least mid-term elections, that enable the voters to register a protest and effect a change,however ineffectual and useless that might turn out to be. In New York City, you really only have one day every four years to pull a lever. Anyway, those of you who live in New York City might start thinking about a campaign for local mid-term elections. Perhaps the city council (or half the city council) should be up for election two years after the mayor is elected, or the vestigial offices of borough presidents, and there should be some way for New Yorkers to be able to vote directly on educational issues.

But what I would really like to institute a quorum, a required percentage of the electorate voting to make it count, 40% or 45%, perhaps. Without it, incumbents are simply turned out of office, no one serves until there is a redo election that meets the minimum quorum requirements. Politicians would have an obligation not merely to get more votes than the other guy, but to help increase the turnout in general. One could imagine certain problems with this proposal, but it seems to me that it would greatly heighten the responsibilities of politicians for the public, and for the public for the politicians.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Monroe Doctrines

So in Monroe County (in which the city of Rochester is located) the Republicans have been distributing fliers with a man in middle eastern head garb, warning voters that if they vote for Democrats for the county legislature they will be voting to give terrorists drivers licenses.

Also on the ballot on election day will be the position of county executive, which is currently held by the Republicans, in the person of Maggie Brooks, a former newscaster, who is the puppet of the local Republican party boss Steve Minarik, one of the truly evil persons in New York State politics, who developed enough of a reputation as a local Karl Rove wannabe that Republicans made him state party leader in 2005, but his candidates were trounced last November, and he got to feudin’ with the easy to feud with Joe Bruno, so they booted him back to Monroe County.

Brooks is to Bloomberg, as her predecessor, Jack Doyle, is to Giuliani, a less offensive and obnoxious Republican replacing a more offensive and obnoxious Republican. It is certainly true that Brooks and Bloomberg are improvements over their predecessors, in speaking and dealing with opponents, and their rhetoric is less over the top and vicious. Nonetheles, if the language has changed, the basic political and economic goals have not. Steve Minarak is still directing his amiable chipmunk of a front woman.

But this post is really a blast against the Democrats, who first raised my fury when the Democratic-controlled city of Rochester (mayor and city council), destroyed a 84-year old tradition when they abolished this past June the office of City Historian, an act of cultural barbarianism of the worst order. (And over my eloquent protests at a meeting of the city council. ) I pledged then and there never to vote to anyone who destroyed the city historian’s post.

And they made me even more furious when they decided in September not to run an candidate against Brooks for the position of County Executive, arguing that there was not a viable candidate, and the race would be too expensive, and Brooks was going to win anyway. So there was no candidate, no race, no debate. Brooks will win in a landslide, and the Democrats have forgotten that the point of democracy is not to win elections but to have elections, contested elections that will educate the electorate, and shine light on county doings. (By the way, Democrats hold a slight edge in registration in Monroe County.)

And secure in the knowledge that she will serve another four years, last month Brooks and her cronies in the Country Legislature, passed, a half hour after Brooks announced the plan, a new tax measure that took about $25 million dollars from local school districts, and Brooks has been denounced ever since by as a tyrant, but since she is not going to be opposed next Tuesday, why should she care? (Although this plan, crucial to the county’s finances was passed with no preliminary debate, the Republicans did have full page ads and radio spots the next day touting the Brooks tax plan.)

Monroe Country is just a microcosm of the United States as a whole; the Republicans are generally the party of bigots and warmongers, while the Democrats are incompetent and lack all intensity; the Republicans are cunning, the Democrats can't get their act together; , democracy is honored in the breach, and the voters are stupid enough, self-interested enough, and unconcerned enough to go along with this charade, and they deserve whatever they get. A plague on both their houses.

Bromberg, Angel Band and American Traditions

In an age when much of American politics promotes our authoritarian, militaristic and xenophobic tendencies, it's great to be reminded of the endurance, affirmation and humor that are pillars of American culture, especially American music. And there's no better place to remember that than at a David Bromberg concert, with its gumbo of blues, country, folk and old-time music. Bromberg brought all of these to Town Hall in New York City last night, with the added treat of his wife's group, Angel Band.

I was late to the show, so I caught only the last three songs of Angel Band, but I was impressed. They're an eclectic group, as would be expected of any band associated with Bromberg. If their name recalls the country classic "Coal Tattoo," in which an aging miner says "I'm gonna pick coal where the blue heavens roll/ And sing with the angel band," their repertoire and singing style blend country, gospel, and pop. Angel Band (Nancy Josephson, who is Bromberg's wife, Kathleen Weber and Jen Schonwald) can be soulful, sexy, funny and mature all at once. Their version of "Angel in the Morning," a pop hit from my junior high school years, was fierce, passionate, and full-throated.

Bromberg and his band--horn section, drums, bass, violin and mandolin-- came out after a short break. It has been more than twenty years since I last saw him, but time has only strengthened his music. Bromberg has matured: his beard is grey, he's grown a bit stout, and he balances his electric guitar at the apex of his stomach in a way that recalls B.B. King. But the years haven't taken away anything from his playing. He's still a crisp, hard-working musician who joshes with his band, banters with his audience, and beautifully plays the electric guitar, acoustic guitar and fiddle. The crowded house cheered, called out requests, and basked in the show.

The blues has always been an important part of Bromberg's repertoire, and if anything the years have strengthened him as a bluesman. He's no longer the vulnerable young man who sang "Lucille" with pain and empathy, but a grown man who sings with a mixture of strength, anger, humor and ruefulness. As Albert Murray once observed, the greatness of the blues--and of the blues in American culture--lies in the affirmation of life in the face of adversity. In songs like "Will Not Be Your Fool" and "Who's Loving You Tonight?", Bromberg blended endurance and affirmation in the best American tradition. The high point of this came with their rendition, with Angel Band, of "Lost My Driving Wheel." Purists might quibble that "Driving Wheel" is more country than blues, but the key to Bromberg and company is that they bring to the song the aching exuberance of the blues.

Of course, it wasn't all blues. The band also broke into old-time fiddle tunes, "Dark Hollow," "The Holdup," and a great version of "Sharon." In "Sharon," the chronicle of a hoochie koochie girl, Bromberg broke into one of his characteristic speeches that are straight out of old-time vaudeville and medicine shows. When he confided that her gyrations shook him to his "oracular organs," you hear the cornball and laughter of generations of carnival barkers.

During the concert's encore number, "Will Not Be Your Fool," Bromberg barked that "you just cooked up this mess/to see how long you could keep me stuck in it." Inevitably, I thought of the Bush presidency. And perhaps that wasn't an accident. After the show, digging up background information for this post, I found a great protest song on Angel Band's Website, "We are Shepherds."

David Bromberg, Angel Band, and their supporting players made great music. They also recover the best of our past and still say important things for the present.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Fighting Words

In October 1929, at a meeting of the New York State Parks Council, Robert Moses, chairman of the state parks commission, was no doubt being his usual overbearing and obnoxious self . At one point in the meeting, one of the commissioners, a Long Island gentleman named Raymond H. Torrey, goaded by Moses, told him, “you big noisy kike, you can’t speak to me like that.”

At this point Moses (a big man, over 6 feet tall), assaulted Torrey, trying to strangle him, and according to Robert Caro in The Power Broker, another person in the meeting had to pry Moses’s fingers off Torrey’s neck (described by Caro as a “pudgy little man), at which point Moses tried to throw a heavy iron ashtray/spittoon in Torrey’s direction.

Caro, as he invariably does in The Power Broker, takes the side of whomever is against Moses, berating Moses for his uncontrolled temper and occasional penchant for physical violence, and calls him a coward and bully to boot, saying Moses never picked on anyone his own size, and never had fist fights “with a man to whom he had a chance of losing.” As for Mr. Torrey, he was mild-mannered and scholarly, a builder of lean-tos in the Adirondacks, a bird watcher and a hiker. Caro even throws in the old chestnut that some of “his closest friends were Jewish.”

I don’t know. It seems to me if you call someone a kike in a public meeting, you get what you deserve. The incident caused a minor stir, and Caro doesn’t quote Moses’s defense, as it appeared in the Times (the article didn’t use the k-word .) He said Torrey “used an epithet which has never been addressed to me in all my life and I think he deserved much more of a thrashing than he got, and I guess pretty nearly any one would agree with me as to this.” Indeed.

Moses lived at a time one word could still cut through all the polite assumptions about the place of Jews in society. Torrey’s comment raised the essential problem with all strategies of assimilation. If effect, he was saying, I don’t care how powerful you are or think you are, strip away the veneer, and you’re nothing but a dirty little Jew (or black, or woman) how dare you speak to your betters like that! One of the biggest problems in integrating the Armed Forces in WWII was that some generals thought there would be full scale race riots if a black sergeant during basic training barked orders at a white man. And it certainly isn’t silly to think that much of the anti-Hillary sentiment is still premised on the belief that a woman’s place shouldn’t be high as commander in chief, ordering around the still primarily male armed forces.

Robert Moses spent his life rejecting any public identification with Judaism, which is possibly one reason the anti-Semitic epithet stung as much as it did. Now we tend to favor more aggressive assertion of ethnic, racial, or group identity as a possible antidote to hostility. I suppose it is more effective, but nothing really prepares you for the moment when you cease being seen for your position and accomplishments, and start being judged by your religious, ethnic, racial or sexual background. I have never been called kike, and I can't imagine resorting to fisticuffs to defend my religious heritage. (I'm proud of my innate Jewish pusillanimity. ) Nonetheless, looking back at the events of 1929, I think it is fair to say that Moses overreacted, but if you ask me, Moses should have beaten Torrey’s gentile WASP ass to a pulp

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Flip Flop Play

If the pounding on Hillary Clinton in Tuesday's debate was a predictable effort by trailing candidates to bring down the front runner, a story and editorial in today's New York Post were part of another stratagem: the Republican attempt to paint Democrats as weak-kneed, dishonest and indecisive. Voters have every right to expect some clarity from Clinton, but they shouldn't fall for the Republican gambits published in the Post.

The focus of the Post's effort was Clinton's attempt to express sympathy for Governor Spitzer's license plan--a good idea that has been savaged by demagogues--without tying herself to him so closely that she goes down with him in flames as he fails. As would be expected, her waffle on this issue was less than impressive. Her husband pulled off such stunts with much better form.

In today's editorial, "License To Waffle?", the Post said it just wanted some straight talk: "Most of the other Democratic candidates didn't have a problem taking sides: Obama is for it, Chris Dodd is against it." What about Richardson, Kucinich, Edwards and Biden? The Post didn't ask, because that's not their real goal. What they care about most is painting Clinton as another Democratic flip flopper.

This is something Republicans have been doing since at least 1992. In the fine documentary The War Room, you can watch Mary Matalin do the same number on Bill Clinton. In 2000, Republicans tagged Al Gore as unreliable and prone to serial exaggeration. And we all know what happened to John Kerry.

One of the reasons Republicans succeed at this play is that for too long they have been a party on the offensive, offering ideas--divisive ones--that Democrats must respond to. Spitzer's licensing plan--a good idea that was badly presented--has offered New York Republicans a chance to make Democrats squirm again. But on this issue, which is of course related to immigration, the Republicans may be running out of opportunities.

Republican demagoguery on the driver's license issue will alienate immigrants in general and Hispanic voters in particular. In the long run that will only hurt the G.O.P. in states like New York, Texas, California and Arizona. It wasn't long ago that demonstrations of immigrants and their supporters on the Bush immigration policy heralded a new force in American politics. That force will appear again.

In the meantime, Clinton--and the rest of the Democrats--need to overcome the Republicans. flip flop play if they are to win the 2008 elections.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Social Contract

“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” So reads the famous opening of Rousseau’s The Social Contract. I’ve been reading a lot of the classics of political philosophy lately, Rousseau, Plato, and Hobbes, pondering the fate of American democracy. What is sovereignty? And why have humans so frequently designated one person to be the holder and wielder of executive power? Why do we create autocracies with one hand, and denounce them as tyrannies with the other? And why is American democracy so fucked-up? And why are our troops still in Iraq? Why do we seem unable to change the course of the war, despite a strong majority opinion that wants to do so? And why are we everywhere in chains?

These reflections are prompted by Rob’s post on the rather unimpressive turnout, in New York City and elsewhere, on the 5th anniversary of the authorization for war for by congress, a vote that will live in infamy along with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse! Thou shouldst be living at this hour; The US hath need of thee; she is a fen of stagnant waters.)

Why is the Iraq anti-war movement so unimpressive, particularly in comparison to the Vietnam anti-war movement, when, five years on, it had forced a sitting president, elected in the greatest landslide in American history, to not seek another term, when it could turn out hundreds of thousands for marches and “mobilizations”

One difference is that LBJ faced a revolt in his own party. Bush, contrary to (for what it is worth) my predictions and expectations, has not. Many hoped it would be the Republicans, under the countervailing pressures of supporting the president and supporting a bitterly unpopular war, would split, and weaken Republican control of congress. This hasn’t happened, and the Republicans have clung to each other for dear life, fully aware of the consequences of any weakness in the ranks. The Democrats haven’t split either, but a stalemate (which is the usual state in Congress, especially with the new requirement, which somehow has been added to the Constitution in the last quarter-century that all important legislation has to receive 60 votes to pass the Senate.) In this state of habitual inaction, all power flows to the presidency. Perhaps on some domestic issues, like social security, popular outrage is enough to scuttle the president, or perhaps it is simply is more difficult for the president to simply rule by fiat domestically.

But on foreign policy, our only real voice is one lever depressed every four years, and sometimes, as in 2000, it really doesn't matter anyway. The Democratic presidential candidates are being as bland and as noncommittal as they can be about Iraq and the looming crisis in Iran, and why not, they want to be elected. As usual all the important decisions will be made after next November, after Americans press the lever or touch the screen, and complete the ritual of legitimating the victor.

The Democrats were scared of a new anti-war movement over Iraq, fearful that, as happened with the Vietnam counter-culture, the war protests would become more unpopular than an unpopular war, and somehow Nixon was elected and re-elected during the midst of the largest mass political protests in the nation’s history.

The Democrats got their wish, the anti-Iraq movement has been small and insignificant. But the movement and the party, if necessarily in tension, at best can work together symbiotically to change the political climate, with the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside work of the abolitionists and the Republican Party being perhaps the most impressive example of this. In any event we have a weak anti-war movement, a stalemate in Congress, and a surprisingly strong president, who five years into this awful war, continues to have an utterly free hand to do whatever he wishes.

In terms of those political theorists mentioned above, I am afraid that Hobbes is the most relevant. Fear is the era’s primal and basic political emotion, we watch fear and talk fear and sleep fear. As Hobbes shows, fear creates executive power, and near absolute fear, as has reigned in this country since 9/11, has taken us far down the path to absolute power. I wish I had a prescription or a plan for change, but I don’t. But if the abolitionists have any message, it is, stay firm and resolute, and if the cause is right and just, the political system will eventually bend to your will. And sometimes, elections do matter.