Saturday, July 23, 2011

Patti Smith at Castle Clinton, July 14, 2011

A week ago last Thursday my daughter and some friends went to a performance by Patti Smith at Castle Clinton, part of the River to River Festival. They arrived too late to get free tickets for seats inside the Castle, so stood near a door behind the stage, where they could at least hear the concert. As they stood there, a woman walked past and said "Hello!" before entering the Castle. It took a moment for them to realize this was Patti. One of those lucky enough to get a seat inside, tkfitz33, made the clip above of Patti singing "My Blakean Year", in which she seems to acknowledge those listening outside: "I can't see you, but I can feel you...."

Also in the audience at Castle Clinton was DelphiSibyl, who made the clip above of Patti and her band doing "Ghost Dance".

Addendum: In his review of Carolyn Burke's No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf, David Hadju recalls that, in his undergraduate days at NYU, "Holding my nose to Edith Piaf, I bowed to Patti Smith, without realizing that Smith was doing Piaf with a New York accent." I have but one quibble here: Patti does Piaf with a Philadelphia accent.

Suleiman Osman on authenticity and gentrification: The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn

Suleiman Osman's The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, has as its ponderous subtitle, Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York. "Authenticity" is a word that's long grated against my mind like steel wool on a rusty pot. What does it mean to be "authentic"? Osman doesn't give us a concise definition, but implies that, with respect to neighborhoods, it means having originated and evolved organically, in accordance with the desires and needs of its inhabitants, instead of as a result of some private or governmental developer's plan that seeks to impose a rational scheme.

Osman states that the "Brownstone Brooklyn" neighborhoods to which (mostly) young professionals and artists began to move in the late 1950s and after, as an "authentic" alternative to modernizing neighborhoods in Manhattan or to the alienating conformity of suburbia were, in their origin, the creations of speculative real estate developers of the nineteenth century. With the exception of a few purpose built for wealthy owners, the brownstone houses themselves were cookie-cutter creations for which the "artistic" details were mass-produced offsite. They were, in Osman's words, "in original design and intention no more or less authentic than a Levittown Cape Cod." (P.27)

Just as the physical neighborhoods were not the products of some bygone era of artisinal integrity, according to Osman the communities of people inhabiting them were not, on the whole, stable, traditional societies.
Brownstone Brooklyn before gentrification was not a premodern gemeinschaft with aging Brahmins and Old World ethnics shielded from mass consumer culture. No authentic communities or traditional neighborhoods sat ready to be discovered -- or, alternatively, destroyed -- by young urban professionals. Brownstone Brooklyn offered a rich sense of place and history. But it was a landscape that was perpetually changing, fluid, polycentric, and hybrid. (P.21)
This isn't to say that the newcomers were always welcomed, or that they were able to fit in easily. Nor did the lack of "authentic communities or traditional neighborhoods" mean that there were no territorial conflicts. As Osman also observes:
[I]n drawing borders around enclaves such as Boerum Hill, new middle-class residents also transgressed other indigenous places. In an industrial cityscape with a large working class, an assortment of machine politicians, unions, organized crime syndicates, and street gangs divided the area into fiercely defended "turfs" and "corners." Many of the later conflicts between the new middle-class and poorer residents over gentrification was rooted in these conflicting conceptions of urban place. (P.47)
"Gentrification" is another troublesome word. The earliest I can remember seeing it was in the early 1980s, when I saw a banner stretched across the front of a tenement building in Manhattan Valley with the words "GENTRIFICATION IS AMERICA'S APARTHEID." Critics of gentrification see it that way: the displacement of poor, mostly non-white people from housing they can afford by affluent, mostly white usurpers. Others, including the Brooklyn "brownstoners", saw it as the revitalization of historic neighborhoods that had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they became targets for government-sponsored slum clearance programs. According to Osman:
The relationship between young college-educated landlords and older tenants -- often poor or elderly -- was filled with ambiguous feelings of guilt and displeasure. Often the same settlers who evicted residents from their individual townhouse also celebrated the diversity of the neighborhood as a whole. But the desire both to remove the poor and to celebrate their authentic folkways was an inherent tension in the ideal of historic diversity. (P.124)
Osman does not cite a primary source for this statement, though he does, in respect of an earlier passage in which he quotes a brownstoner as worrying if her or his "home improvements" as well as "civic activities" and "walking tours" are making the neighborhood uniformly "middle class" and even "suburban" in nature (p.5), cite as a source for this statement an article titled "Responsible Approach to Saving Abandoned Brownstones: Save Social 'Mix' in Your Neighborhood", Today's Brooklyn, April 2, 1969. (For Hollywood's take on this conundrum, see Hal Ashby's 1970 movie The Landlord, starring Beau Bridges.)

In the event, Osman does not take a stand for or against gentrification. As he confesses in the introduction:
This book has tried to avoid the Scylla of lionizing a creative class and the Charybdis of yuppie-bashing. But in exploring the complexities of the question, this history of gentrification may seem to be a frustrating example of fence-sitting. (P.15)
The "complexities" to which he refers include the politics of the brownstoners as well as of the people who were living in the area before the brownstoners arrived.
Brownstone Brooklyn residents together in these decades [the 1960s and '70s] espoused a "new localism" that was anti-statist but neither exclusively right or left. African Americans calling for community control of schools, white ethnics resisting scattered-site housing and busing, middle-class whites fighting the demolition of townhouses, and mixed-race coalitions fighting hospital expansion and expressways all shared a deep distrust of mega-institutions, expertise, planning, executive power, and private-public consensus....All described Brooklyn as a diverse mosaic of independent neighborhoods rather than an integrated modern system. (P.238)
Here I think Osman's "all" over-generalizes. The various groups he mentions were not, I suspect, averse to invoking "executive power" or "expertise", or calling on "mega-institutions", when they believed it could advance their interests. Still, I think he is right in noting that, in general, their politics represented a break from the New Deal paradigm of central planning and rationalization, "championing instead voluntary service, self-determination, and do-it-yourself, bootstrap neighborhood rehabilitation." (Id.)

If Osman, by his own admission, doesn't reach any comprehensive conclusions about the desirability of the political, social, or economic effects of the brownstoners' project, his book still tells a fascinating story about the transformation of a storied place. One fact I learned was that there was once an attempt, perhaps inspired by the 1969 Norman Mailer/Jimmy Breslin campaign to have New York City secede from New York State, to make my own neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, a self-governing entity.
In 1972, about 150 Brooklyn heights activists belonging to the area's multiple block associations [and] civic groups...met for the first Brooklyn Heights Town Meeting....The participants hoped to form a "Brooklyn Heights Township" with a permanent neighborhood assembly free of city control, made up of local citizens, and dedicated to "democratic self-government." (P.253)
Needless to say, this was no more successful than Mailer's and Breslin's effort.

As for the "romantic" desire for authenticity:
In the 1960s, the new middle class looked to food cooperatives, farmers' markets, balcony gardens, independent bookshops, ethnic restaurants, and renovated brownstones as sites of authenticity in an increasingly technocratic society. In the 1980s, as former counter-cultural pottery shops and antique stores became high-end boutiques and ethnic restaurants became loci of gourmet cuisine, the same accoutrements had seemingly become symbols of a materialistic yuppie culture. Rather than subverting class privilege, Brownstone Brooklyn to some disappointed critics had simply reworked the standards of taste for a new white urban bourgeoisie. (P.279)
Did brownstone Brooklyn thus become inauthentic? Osman concludes, "perhaps the romantic question itself needed to be questioned." (P.280) Perhaps the pursuit of authenticity is, of necessity, the pursuit of a will-o-the-wisp.